Rethinking the Gift of Singleness

Jan 19, 2006 |Debbie Maken

Those few who are gifted to forgo marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven are to be commended. But maybe we should stop calling singleness itself a gift.

Is singleness really a "gift"?

Singles live in a time when their church leaders and friends have told them that their state of singleness should be considered a "gift" from the Lord, a special time to devote themselves to spiritual work. Bumper sticker flattery is routinely used to justify prolonging the single years. Perhaps it's time to ask whether singleness in general — specifically protracted singleness (apart from "celibate service") — has much historical or biblical legitimacy.

A Historical Take on Singleness

On the whole of history, past generations of Christians saw singles under a divine obligation — one might say a duty — to marry. The marriage mandate was considered universal in its application, and the purposes of marriage were uniformly understood to be three-fold:

  • for society (companionship)
  • for love (physical affection), and
  • for the production of the next generation of the church (children)

It was not only the duty to marry that was held sacrosanct, but also the proper and timely execution thereof. With I Corinthians 7 intact in their Bibles, Christians used to believe that extended singleness had no biblical warrant. The Westminster Confession, for example, lists the "undue delay of marriage" as sin (Q. 139). Even Scripture five times hearkens to the phrase "wife/bridegroom of your youth," not your middle ages, youth being the only season that allows one to enjoy the full bundle of rights and privileges of marriage, and to accomplish its generational purposes.

The laws and practices of these former cultures likewise conveyed to all what was normative and what behavior was expected. Throughout the ages, for example, women enjoyed an infrastructure (their family or clan) to see them into the safe harbor of marriage. From arranged marriages to courtship/calling, all conspired to protect and guide women from squandering their best, most fertile years in futility.

In these earlier systems, those who were beholden to the bride through either blood or other ties were given the responsibility to guide her into marriage. This was primarily done by conditioning access of any prospective suitor on demonstrable showings of worthiness. Men were kept on a tight leash in these earlier systems. Today, we are stuck in a system that is the exact opposite — the balance of power has shifted to some random young man who, though he has virtually unfettered access to the woman, has no binding to her to initiate and bring about a marriage.

Also in these former cultures, there were consequences when behavior fell below the expected societal standard. The Puritans, for example, actually maintained laws that executed fines and imprisonment for single living. In one case where a single man John Littleale was found living by himself, where he was "subject to many sins, which are ordinarily the companions of a solitary life," he was ordered to move in with a family, or be placed in the house of corrections in the Hamptons.

I suspect that there was nothing as off-putting to a grown man as being treated like a child in the home of another. However, the shame alone in such measures would have caused John and others like him to grow up and meet the demands of true biblical masculinity as defined by those around him.

Even as late as the 1950s, the bachelor was considered a freak for he had avoided the mantle of adulthood in taking on the responsibilities of a wife and family. He was considered "eccentric," a "late bloomer," a man who never really could prove he was a man. An unwed woman was pitied in terms such as "old maid," for she had been the victim of poor opportunities in the unrelenting passage of time. And a few women were rightly considered "spinsters," for their actions had frustrated any potential suitors.

Now, compare those beliefs to what singles are told today. "God is your husband." "Bloom where you are planted." "There are plenty of ministries you can help with during this time." "Be content." "Make the desire of your heart Jesus, not marriage." The desire for marriage has been placed on a collision course with the desire for God, the One Who made marriage in the first place. With this kind of pitting, singles are often reduced to extolling singleness, much like a witch having the grace to drown to prove innocence. In the same vein, these messages dissuade young men from seeking marriage because of the false validation they receive for embarking on the less taxing challenges of mere service activities.

Chronological Snobbery

Why are Christians today so apt to validate a lifestyle that in the past would have been considered wayward and askew? To borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis, our own "chronological snobbery" may make us believe that somehow we know more today than those who preceded us. However, our contemporary belief that Scripture validates singleness en masse is a modern invention that has sprouted only in this generation.

The ease of flattery and our alliance with pop culture has produced a language of holy doublespeak where adult singleness is thought of as acceptable, even biblical. Instead of placing this modern phenomenon of protracted singleness under Scripture for scrutiny, we have done the exact opposite — we have made Scripture the handmaiden to the phenomenon. I Corinthians 7, anyone? Instead of viewing Scripture as a whole and acknowledging that out of the thousands of characters, only a handful were single, we like to take parts out of context and argue that it gives us cover.

Past Christians also read I Corinthians 7, and they understood that Paul was writing at a time of "great distress," referring to the famine in the Greek countryside and the percolating persecutions taking place at the time. Because of these threatening circumstances, Paul advised that marriage could temporarily be placed on the back-burner. They understood that letter to convey expediency, nothing more.

Paul never held marriage and singleness to be on equal planes, and neither did past Christians. Paul acknowledged celibacy (i.e., the supernatural removal of sexual desire) as a God-given gift. He acknowledged that the celibate could be single, but that the single could not necessarily be celibate and therefore prescribed marriage.

Contemporary Christian teaching on this subject blurs the line between celibacy and singleness and leaves singles mistakenly believing that the two are the same. God is often painted as capriciously willing singleness for some and not others. Consequently and sadly, many Christian singles resign themselves to this less-than-ideal state. A more thoughtful and critical examination reveals that today's singleness is not some sort of divinely ordained, interminable state for a quarter of the population, but the result of a string of systematic impediments to marriage:

  • a male-friendly mating structure that is not geared toward marriage, but toward low-commitment, short term, shallow cyclical relationships
  • a low view of marriage, with the process to achieve it reflecting its value: the casual nature of dating ultimately reflects the casual nature with which we treat our marriages
  • lack of male leadership in the home, with parents bringing up boys to remain boys
  • a protracted education system that doesn't really educate
  • the removal of shame for indulging in the Indian Summer of one's adolescence or for being a perennial bachelor
  • a privatized version of the meaning of marriage
  • a diminished expectation of marriage from the divorce culture, and
  • a redefinition or a defining downward of healthy biblical adulthood

In the church, instead of acknowledging that singles are operating in the most dysfunctional mating scheme known to world history, we simply presume on the Lord and his sovereignty to override our collective recklessness. Instead of recognizing that many single women are victims because of the deficits in the present construct, we dismiss their unwanted status as simply "God's will."

Today's singleness is not celibacy-induced kingdom work unaccommodating to family life. No, it's the result of choices and mistakes by both the individual and society. Today's singleness is either a lifestyle option or purely circumstantial; therefore, it is largely unbiblical.

Because past Christian thinkers rightly understood that biblically excused singleness was a rare exception, they also correctly believed that the rest of us were under the creation mandate to marry in a timely manner. This duty is hard to appreciate in a generation where the very permanency of marriage is in doubt. If marriage can be unilaterally modified by the reneging spouse, and the costs of stakeholders in the union (such as children) be overlooked, then is there any room for discussion of whether one fails to marry in the first place?

But this goes to the heart of the argument — accountability. John Calvin intimated that any man who, without the gift of continence, failed to marry was guilty of stealing a husband from a wife. He thought that if the two sexes be separated they were like "mutilated members of a mangled body." Martin Luther agreed, and believed that the male and female ordering of Genesis mandated marriage for mankind. Marriage was not thought of as optional.

We are a generation that blinds itself to the notion that the failure to marry timely (i.e., in the Spring of our adult lives) can be as costly as a divorce. It costs someone a spouse, it robs someone of legitimate sexual relations, it deprives grandparents of their grandchildren, it fails to replenish the nursery of the church.

In Defense of Women

I know this proposition stings modern ears. I can think of many women, myself included at one time, who might argue, "But it's not my fault I'm single." True, most women are not to blame here as they are not the ones to bend down on one knee and propose. But being blameless cannot serve to validate an unintended outcome.

Single women may take the conclusion offered in this article as a personal affront. They may insist upon validation and affirmation for a state they readily admit resembles a cruel joke as opposed to a gift. However, the answer to our dilemma is not to accelerate our cultural acceptance of protracted singleness or make it look more glorified than it really is. Validating singleness categorically only guarantees more singleness. Perhaps it's time to challenge the ideas that are now in play, especially those in the church.

Women will have no relief from the present holding cell of unwanted singleness until we recapture a world life view that exalts marriage as both a blessing and an obligation. That worldview restrains men's baser instincts and desire to live unconstrained, immature lives. That worldview assists women and pities them when their desire to be a homemaker is snuffed out. That worldview has checks and balances. That worldview holds real promise for women to achieve their maximum biblical potential, instead of the momentary comfort of flattery. That worldview believes adult singleness, in the vast number of cases, to be unbiblical.

Please understand that I'm not proposing a return to the past, but a recapturing of these older, irrefutable, wiser truths. Because ideas have consequences, what we believe about singleness and marriage will shape how we will live, and ultimately whether we will realize marriage during the most desirable season.

Copyright 2006 Debbie Maken. All rights reserved.

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