In this second excerpt of the interview we conducted with Scott Croft and Michael Lawrence, we explore celibacy and the normalcy of marriage.
PART 1: Sex and the Single Guy »
Boundless: Is getting married a mandate? Is it a Christian responsibility?
Michael Lawrence: I think what Genesis 1 and 2 teach, as well as Paul's teaching in Ephesians — what he says in 1 Corinthians 7 not withstanding — is that marriage is the norm. Marriage is understood to be the norm for Christian men and women. I think it's understood to be the norm for all men and women — marriage is not just a Christian institution; marriage is a common grace institution. Marriage is something that God created for all men and women, and it continues to apply after the fall in much the same way that it applied before the fall so that the norm for us as human beings is marriage.
Boundless: And that is to say that some are called rarely to celibate service.
ML: Yes, and I would say our basis for rare — using that word rare there — isn't just because of our own experience. I think Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 makes it clear that he too understands that this is unusual. He says, "I wish that all men were as I am." But he recognizes that they are not, that each has been given their particular gift. So I do think it's rare.
Scott Croft: If I could just expand on one thing, having dealt with the practical side on this.... A number of guys have talked to me and to Michael, bringing 1 Corinthians 7 as a justification for what they would like to do right now as single men and want to parse deeply whether singleness is as good or right a gift as marriage. But I think whatever Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 7 — and we can have the discussion about parsing the exegesis there — whatever Paul is saying, he is not giving the green light to 25-, 26-, 27-, 28-year-old men who are doing well in their jobs and who enjoy having more time on the weekends and the evenings to spend with their male friends or female friends — who are not interested in the commitment and work that come with marriage — he is not giving those guys the green light to pursue that course. There is at the very least, by most orthodox and reasonable interpretations of 1 Corinthians 7, a ministerial purpose for extended singleness on the part of a Christian man. What Paul is certainly not saying there is, "Feel free to spend all your time doing as you wish as a single guy with no thought with these sort of things."
Boundless: Maybe there would be value if there was a new letter from Paul to single men where he would give them the additional context of the life he was called to. Because when you look in Timothy, he is saying that the life that I am called to is about sacrifice and about persecution and all these other things. We need to remind these guys that you can't just grab that one passage in isolation and think that you can use it as a cover for any kind of single life.
ML: That's right.
Boundless: If we really hold up a higher standard of what celibacy is all about, I don't know many guys who would be compelled and drawn toward it unless they actually had a gift and a calling for it versus seeing it as the thing that most gives spiritual cover for the lifestyle that they have chosen.
SC: I think that's exactly right. I think a more biblical definition of purity on the part of single men would lead to a dramatic decrease in the number of single men who are "called to celibacy."
Boundless: Is this why some of you were laughing when he said "called to celibacy right now"?
ML: Yes, I think because it's a cover, it's a fig leaf.
SC: And that's the temptation in every area of life. We prooftext and use the language of Scripture to justify things that we would like to do anyway — things that may or may not have any biblical motivation and in fact may be counter-Scriptural.
ML: Right, we really don't need another letter from Paul because I think Paul is clear enough there in 1 Corinthians 7. It begins with him picking up their statement, "It's good for a man not to marry."
ML: And he says to them, over the course of that chapter, "Yes, it is good not to marry when these conditions are met: when you are able to exercise self control." And that doesn't mean, "Well, I am struggling, but most of time I am doing all right." No, he means you are not failing here; you are not being controlled by your passions.
Boundless: Isn't it possible that these guys were not only defrauding women by taking advantage of them physically and emotionally but also by not marrying them? They are, in a sense, relegating women who may be called to marriage to perpetual singleness.
ML: I'm certain that's the case. And in that sense, while I want to be careful here in talking about singleness and the curse, God is certainly able to redeem and use singleness; our Lord's example is surely the prime example of that. Nevertheless, there is surely the case that many women are having to bear the burden of this aspect of the curse of the fall. Not just because of their own sin but because of others' sin, of them being sinned against.
Boundless: We've noticed 1 Corinthians 7 being used by a lot of single women who are trying to go back and find consolation for where they are in their life. And there are a lot of Christian writers who are now encouraging them saying, "Don't be anxious. Actually singleness is better, and look at all the stuff Paul talks about. Maybe singleness is even superior, and maybe you shouldn't be thinking and praying about marriage." I think it's created a lot of confusion.
ML: To single women who find themselves single but don't particularly feel called to be single and don't particularly want to remain single: I would send them not to 1 Corinthians 7 — because I think Paul really is talking about a unique gift and calling there — I would send them to 1 Peter 4, where I think the word gift is being used in a slightly different way. Peter says in 1 Peter Chapter 4 beginning verse 8, "Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ." I think some women may have been given a gift that we should not understand as this particular calling of celibacy, but rather simply the gift of the circumstance that they are in. And it may not be a gift that they particularly wanted, and I don't know that we should think of it as necessarily something they are going to have for the whole of their lives. But 1 Peter 4 and that sense of whatever circumstance you are in, whatever situation, whatever opportunities you have, whatever gifts you have at that particular moment — don't grumble about them, use them.
Boundless: He is saying that the circumstances themselves are the gift.
ML: I think that is a legitimate extension of 1 Peter 4.
Boundless: And that while they are exercising that gift they can still be hopeful.
ML: Yeah, absolutely.
Boundless: About marriage.
Boundless: Emerson Eggerichs, who wrote the book Love and Respect, talked about encouraging those women who find themselves single, beyond their expectation and their desires, that they are entering into the sufferings for Christ and that it's a burden to bear.
ML: Yes, and I think we should understand Christ's singleness as a burden that He bore. I think it's part of the curse that He undertook for us.
Boundless: That, and even Paul said "I can take a wife, I could be experiencing these things, but it's a sacrifice."
ML: That's right.
Boundless: You spoke of men who are not failing and being led into sexual sin as a sign that they have been given the gift of celibacy. Is that the only criteria? How would a single man know whether or not he is called to celibate service?
ML: Well, I think there are two things, and they are the two things that Paul speaks about in 1 Corinthians 7. I kind of limit myself there because this is where Paul talks about it. One is the ability to control one's passions, and I think there we want to be really clear. What Paul is talking about is a continuing, ongoing state of self-control. Not most of the time, but actually something that characterizes you, that you are characterized by by not struggling with this.
SC: To the extent that one would almost talk about it as having a peace with it and a facility toward it. If you want to talk about celibacy as a gift, there should be some naturalness about it.
ML: In the same way I think almost everybody experiences this with particular sins. Some people just don't struggle with some sins. God has so gifted them and maybe even in a particular way sanctified them. Maybe it's anger or maybe it's greed. It's not where they struggle. They struggle elsewhere. Well, I think someone who is called to celibacy, that's the way they talk about sex, "This is just not where I struggle. My struggle is somewhere else." I think that's really the force of what Paul's getting at there in 1 Corinthians 7. I think the other piece is that Paul certainly understands that celibacy is given for a reason, and that reason is to be able to devote oneself to ministry in a focused way because marriage itself is ministry. It's to devote oneself to the task of spreading the Gospel in a way that the responsibilities of marriage and family would limit you.
Boundless: There are some who have argued that the New Testament brought about a new context for singleness. Much of the New Testament is focused on people who are single, like Jesus and Paul. So from the Old Testament to the New Testament you move from a Bible that talks so much about families, marriage and kids, and all of a sudden you are talking so much about what's being done in singleness. And then some people look at 1 Corinthians 7 where Paul says if you are not married don't get married because of the present. There are interpretations that say we are still in those present times, and there are others who say, "No, he was talking about a set period of time." And I guess I'm just curious, is there a difference in a New Testament perspective of the world of singleness, or was there some disproportionality in the fact that New Testament is written by so many singles that makes us see it in a wrong context there?
SC: I would still want to talk about singleness as an exception, and I think there are some very powerful arguments based on silence in the Bible that marriage and family is a natural part of maturity and a natural part of becoming a man or woman. In Matthew 24, Jesus, in talking about normal life, says people eat, drink, men marry, women are given in marriage. Here He is talking about the norm to make a point about something else. That is a strong argument from silence that this is the way things are. Paul, in a number of different books, either unspoken or subtly refers to points or premises that marriage is the norm.
ML: I think that is exactly right. Marriage continues to be the norm in a Christian worldview. And not just marriage, but family ... and that's another discussion.
Boundless: It's good though.
ML: Should we even be conceiving of voluntary childlessness within marriage? No, I don't think so. The norm is marriage and children in the Christian worldview. That said, it is certainly the case that singleness and the corollary barrenness, childlessness are redeemed in the Christian worldview. Why is that? It is not just the example of Jesus and Paul. It is because fundamentally the place of the natural nuclear physical family changes from the Old Testament to the New Testament. In the Old Testament, the nuclear family, the biological family is the channel of God's redemptive grace. It is the stream along which God's covenant of redemption is flowing, beginning with Abraham and falling through this large extended family. In the New Covenant, while the family is not in any way denigrated, it turns out that that biological family was all along pointing to something else. And that is a spiritual family of God, into which you still have to be born, but now not because of a husband's will but as John's prologue puts in John chapter 1 "because of the supernatural work of God." So it is possible to be a single person in the kingdom of God and to be fruitful, which is the opposite of barren, right? To be fruitful, to be a member of a family. So barrenness and singleness were very visual pictures of what it meant to be cursed in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, in this revelation of the redeeming grace of God, even singleness, even barrenness find ways of being redeemed and a means of being now used to be fruitful —
Boundless: In the right circumstances —
ML: In the right circumstances. In the right circumstances. So marriage and family is the norm in the Christian worldview. But God's grace is enormous, right? So enormous that these two primary pictures of the curse that we see in the Old Testament — even they are redeemed and put to fruitful, spiritually useful purposes in the New Covenant context.
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