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And the Gold Medal of Singleness Goes To...
Recently, a friend directed me to a newly published article on singleness. He thought I might like it. He was right. Mostly.
Stephen Wellum begins his article, Singleness in the New Covenant, with this question:
“Where does a single person “fit” in the Bible amidst the abundant blessings of fruitfulness, fertility, and family? The answer is found by tracing the concepts of marriage and singleness throughout the covenants.”
Yes, yes, yes! This was going to be good! Then it got even better…
“However, given the significance of marriage in creation, it may seem surprising that Jesus teaches that human marriage comes to an end in the new creation. In fact, when asked about marriage in the resurrection, Jesus reminded his questioners that “at the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30). Thus, as central as marriage is to God’s creation purposes along with our human flourishing, ultimately marriage is created to function as a means to a larger end…”
Readers of my book would know that now Wellum was really speaking my language. He continues:
“Yet, in contrast to the Old Testament, intentional singleness for Christ’s sake now surfaces as a “gift from God” (1 Cor. 7:7), and one’s family is now prioritized in terms of the family of God.”
Preach it broth…
<insert screeching record scratch>
Hang on. Wait.
“Intentional singleness now surfaces as a gift from God?”. What just happened? Why did that adjective come into it?
I cast my eyes down and there it was—the next section’s heading, in big large letters: The Place of Intentional Singleness.
“As noted, this is where intentional singleness shows up in the New Testament in a different way than the Old… Instead of singleness being viewed as an anomaly, intentional singleness is now viewed as a gift given by God for service unto the Lord.”
It was then I realised that I had missed the early cue right up near the beginning of the article:
“In this article, I will briefly lay out where intentional singleness fits in to the new covenant age.”
I’ve already written (see for example, here, here and here) of the increasingly prevalent view which specifies that the type of singleness to be esteemed, affirmed, found meaningful and celebrated within the church is that which is variously described as ‘intentional’, ‘vocational’, or less often, ‘vowed’. It’s the unmarried situation that is increasingly referred to by the shorthand of ‘celibacy’ as distinct from ‘ordinary’ singleness.
And here we are. Again.
Back to handing out the gold medal award of singleness. Again.
Wellum provides a footnoted definition of what he means by intentional singleness:
“I use the language of “intentional singleness” to reflect the unconstrained deliberate choice made by a single person in 1 Corinthians 7:37 to remain single for the Lord’s sake, in contrast to those who would like to marry but never have the opportunity for a variety of reasons.”1
His definition correlates with what others alternatively call ‘vocational singleness’ or ‘celibacy’.2 What are the features which make this kind of singleness apparently more legitimate, meaningful and valuable? What makes only it a gift from God?
Well, typically there are three such features, and we see each of those in Wellum’s definition.
It is chosen by active decision or discernment of the individual. Wellum phrases it as an “unconstrained deliberate choice’’ to remain single, which is different to the singleness of one who would marry if the opportunity arose. The unconstrained nature of the choice hints at a willingness to forgo or sacrifice the alternative (i.e., marriage). To put it another way, intentional singleness is voluntarily adopted.
It is chosen for the sake of serving the Lord. As Wellum says, the intentional single chooses to remain unmarried “for the Lord’s sake”. That is to say, Christian service is the motivation behind the voluntary choice. The broader implication is that the type/extent of such service is unique to the singleness that has been intentionally chosen.
It is permanent singleness. While Wellum doesn’t use the same language of permanence that others do, he does speak of it being the choice to “remain single”. I think a good faith reading of him (and many others) understands that lifelong singleness is on view. That is, intentional singleness involves the permanent denouncement of marriage at any future point.
These three features are what separates the intentional/vocational single Christian (or, as the discourse now often prefers to call them, the ‘celibate Christian’) from those of us who are, shall I say, ‘incidentally’ single. To put it another way, these three features are what take ‘uncommitted singleness’ and make it into something theologically meaningful, a good gift from God and worthy of being celebrated.
What Strange Magic Is This?
Yet, what magic is responsible for such transformation?
What actually accounts for the so-called big difference between choosing/embracing lifelong singleness for the sake of Jesus and living for Jesus as a single Christian for as long as your singleness lasts?
And why is that difference so substantive, that only the former is considered truly meaningful and legitimate for the Christian person, while the latter is left out in theological no-mans-land?
Well, to attempt to answer that question, let’s look at each of the three features in turn:
Firstly, intentional singleness is about serving Jesus in a way that incidental singleness is not. At this point, 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 is often brought into the discussion.
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband.
1 Corinthians 7:32-34
To which I say, precisely.
Who is anxious about things of the Lord? Who is not divided in their devotions? The unmarried person.
Being unmarried provides the single man or woman with a unique freedom, liberty and undivided devotion to serve the Lord. Why? Not because they have chosen to be unmarried. But because they ARE unmarried.
Paul makes it clear that the comparison on view is between being married and not being married… not between being intentionally unmarried or incidentally unmarried. Because of their situation, the married person has distracted and divided interests (which raises the question of why evangelical churches are so darn insistent on only hiring married pastors. But hey, that’s a discussion for another time). The unmarried person’s situation means they do not have the same innate distractions and divided interests.
In other words, when it comes to being single ‘for Jesus’ sake’ what actually matters is not whether we choose our singleness, but how we use our singleness.
To summarise, there is no reason (nor any excuse) why all unmarried Christians shouldn’t be equally invested in serving Jesus in their singleness, regardless of whether they are incidentally or intentionally so.
A similar rationale applies to the lifelong feature of intentional/vocational singleness. On what basis does committing to singleness for life magically transform the unmarried person’s service of Jesus into something more meaningful or significant? Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.
Consider Lara. She’s a 25-year-old single Christian woman who teaches kid’s church each Sunday morning and serves on the music, bible reading and supper rosters of the evening congregation she attends. She’s also a generous financial giver to her church and a mission agency. In what sense would we be right in suggesting that Lara’s service of Jesus in all these ways would be more meaningful, serious, compelling and legitimate if only she were willing to commit to remaining single for life… rather than just living faithfully for Jesus in the present moment of her singleness?
You see, the heart of the issue lies not with the permanence or impermanence of Lara’s singleness, but with the willingness of Lara’s heart to live for him in any circumstance or situation.
When we argue that intentional/vocational singleness is the singleness that is truly for the Lord, that is the true gift from God, we are diminishing the faithful, sacrificial, Christ-like ministry of the vast majority of servant-hearted singles who are committed to serving their Saviour in the life situation he has currently placed them, for so long as he has placed them there.
To put it bluntly, neither the lifelong nor the for the service of the Lord features of vocational/intentional singleness live up to their hype.
Sure, choosing to be single can (often, not always) be a wise, faithful and fruitful decision to make. Sure there are descriptive differences and unique implications that come into effect if one anticipates being single for the rest of their life as opposed to the next little while. But the simple reality is that the unmarried Christian who is getting on with serving Jesus and loving others so long as they are single is just as good and faithful a servant in God’s eyes as the one who has decided to remain single for life. Committing to never marrying doesn’t magically transform someone into a ‘better’ single. Neither does it take an otherwise sad and tragic situation and magically transform it into a gift from God.
So, while these two features are seen to be central to the contemporary category of intentional/vocational singleness, neither of them actually accounts for why we should treat that category of singleness in the way Wellum and so many others suggest we ought.
Which leaves us with choice. And there’s the rub.
You See, Choice is King
The definitively significant feature which ultimately separates intentional singleness from incidental singleness is that the former is chosen, and the latter is not. You see, it’s the choice that makes all the difference. Or at least that is perceived to make all the difference.
When push comes to shove, it’s not so much about the actual reality of singleness (and the potential service of Jesus and his people that it might facilitate) as it is about the single person themselves and how they exercise agency in their singleness. Remember Wellum’s definition? The gold medal singleness goes to the one who exercises “… the unconstrained deliberate choice… to remain single”.
That is, it’s about the choosing. The decision. The voluntary embracing. The personal discernment. The ‘magic ingredient’ is individual, unconstrained agency.
We ought not to be surprised by this. I mean, this is the world we live in, right? It’s a world obsessed with the individual and his or her ‘right’ to live out his or her authentic self in the way he or she sees fit. It’s a world fixated on manifesting our desires, will and wants rather than seeking to live well within the context and circumstances we find ourselves. It’s a world that is resolutely set on choosing our destiny rather than accepting it, on opting into our self-determined identity, rather than responding to the identity which has been given to us.
Let’s not kid ourselves. We Christians have been thoroughly catechised by that same world. This hierarchical idealisation of intentional singleness is but one small demonstration of that truth. But a demonstration it is nonetheless.
The increasing contemporary fixation on chosen vs unchosen singleness is evidence of the way we embed far greater moral value and dignity into the exercise of individual agency than we do a willingness to accept what has been given to us by a good God and to live faithfully in that assignment. It’s evidence of the way we idealise our capacity to make unconstrained choice rather than to accept the reality that, often, things are simply given to us. That we are indeed, creatures of constraint.
Remain as You Are… Unless You Don’t
Of course, that is not to say that enacting change in the life situation which have been given to us is always an unwise, let alone sinful thing to do. In 1 Corinthians 7:17-40 Paul exhorts his readers on precisely that point. He urges these early Christians (many of whom would have been converted to Christianity from paganism in the throes of adulthood) to live for Jesus in whatever situation God had assigned to them when he called them to himself. Paul’s point in that passage is that the Corinthian Christians have been given all they need to live fruitful, godly lives in response to their salvation in whatever their situation—circumcised or uncircumcised, slave or free, married, betrothed or widowed.
And yet he also says to the slave, if you can gain your freedom, then “avail yourself of the opportunity” (v. 21). He says to the betrothed, “it is good for a person to remain as he is… Are you free from a wife, do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned ” (vv. 26-28). He says of the widow, “she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. Yet in my judgement she is happier if she remains as she is ” (vv. 39-40).
His point is that you don’t need to choose a life situation in order for that situation to be meaningful. You don’t need to have opted into something in order to be able to serve the Lord wonderfully in it. You’re free to make a wise and thoughtful choice towards something if you so wish. But don’t mistake that choice as some form of progression in the Christian life just because you’ve chosen it. Don’t think it gives you some greater sense of purpose, meaning or godliness. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can earn supererogatory brownie points because you’ve exercised your personal agency, rather than gladly accepting what has been given to you for as long as it has been given to you.
His point is that our Christian identity is far more about what we have been given rather than what we choose. God’s grace to us in Christ and his work in us through the Spirit is abundantly able to work for his glory, the good of others and our righteousness in whatever situation or circumstance he has given to us.
Whether incidental or intentional, singleness is his gift to us.
Whether lifelong or just for now, singleness provides us with immense opportunity to serve Jesus.
Whether actively chosen or passively received, Christian singleness has immense dignity, value, purpose, significance and meaning.
It’s time for us to start getting intentionally skeptical about all this intentional singleness exceptionalism.
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“Jesus institutes the vocation of singleness, explaining that those called to Christian marriage will be given the capacity to accept his high standard, but that some others will be called to permanently give up the prospect of romance, marriage, sex, and children to bring forth the kingdom with undivided attention” - Pieter Valk
“Singleness is circumstantial… Celibacy, on the other hand, is a vocation. It’s a rare gift that God grants only to a few special individuals” - Focus on the Family