A week ago I listened to two hours’ of Issues Etc’s most recent broadcast on singleness (from this summer). Now, for the most part I really love Issues Etc, and I am happy to have grown up in the Lutheran church, raised by people who have taught me to constantly check popularity and reality against God’s Word.
So, I was somewhat disappointed when the conversation (between a recently married woman who had great struggles being single) and a man (a pastor who has been married almost all of his adult life) about singleness.
Needless to say, the woman who left singleness to get married (which is not a sin) found singleness frequently painful and difficult. Her two hours’ of speech focused on the challenges, difficulties, and pains of singleness, and how even if God doesn’t rescue you with marriage, Jesus can be there for you to fill in all that painful loneliness and difficulty.
Me-centered, emotion-centered, and marriage-centered, the talk about singleness fell far short. Mostly because in two hours the speakers never used any of the passages in the New Testament that speak about singleness in a meaningful way. I don’t find it surprising, then, that a view of singleness that does not center around God’s Word on the topic leads to suffering and hardships, from which marriage was a good escape.
First is Jesus and the disciples discussing marriage, and divorce. Now, we know that at least several of the disciples were married. So the following conversation takes place (ESV quotes from BibleGateway used according to their policy)
19 Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. 2 And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”[a]
10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” -Matthew 19:1-12
So: Jesus’ take on the matter is this: If you are able to be single, be single for the kingdom. I take real notice of the wording here. He isn’t talking about singleness as pre-marriage, but uses the image of a eunuch, someone for whom marriage is not an option. There is also a purpose and focus attached: the Kingdom of God.
Jesus does not praise celibacy for its own sake, or singleness based on selfishness, but he speaks about a singleness focused on the Kingdom of God. This is another tie-in to the imagery used of being a eunuch. Eunuchs were not merely randomly castrated in the middle east (or in Asia, for that matter). They tend to be dedicated servants, entrusted with precious duties or goods. The guards of a king’s harem were eunuchs, trusted with preserving the king’s own extended family. The highest administrators and court advisers in several periods of China were eunuchs. Guards, advisers, administrators, and leaders, eunuchs served in critical ways.
This is a far cry from selfish singleness, the man or woman who refuses the burdens of family, the responsibility that marriage and children entail, only to spend the extra energy on their own glory, entertainment, and indulgence.
Jesus’ wording here seems to imply the same. If you can dedicate yourself to the service of the kingdom over and above having a family, you are to do so.
IF. That is a big if. It’s an important if. It’s clear from Jesus’ own teaching that not everyone could accept this station. He places no burden on us to live a dedicated singleness if we are not able to receive it. This is where the Catholic church got in wrong. In the 10th century, in response to rampant sexual immorality among the clergy, the Cluniac reforms swept through Europe and called for celibacy for all clergy. Similarly, monasteries filled the function of orphanages in those days, and while I thank and praise God that the monks served Christ by raising and sheltering orphaned and abandoned children, the children were simply made monks, placed in involuntary celibacy in the middle ages. (That didn’t work out very well, and there was more than one proverb in England around Chaucer’s time not to wander alone or some random monk might get you.)
Unfortunately, the family-worshiping modern American church ignores this passage with a vengeance. Marriage is to be the center and core of all society, and The Family is darn-near worthy of its place on the altar right next to the other persons of God. So, this passage could really throw a wrench in the popular culture’s agenda. When I asked my pastor in Bible Study about this, he hemmed, and hawed, atypically refused to read the passage out loud which he usually does when a proof text is brought up, and then said that Jesus was just saying that the two states were equal.
Sure, because that’s what “IF… then… otherwise…” implies: equality. Not. If you can… do… implies a first choice, and then goes on perhaps to outline a second choice, by the way. Also, if Marriage and The Family are the core of civilization and the beating heart of Christianity… why do neither of them continue in heaven?
But… how does this passage in Matthew compare to the next passage that speaks about singleness? IT IS EXACTLY THE SAME MESSAGE. St. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles (of whom I am one) was himself a Pharisee. Folks, I bet you didn’t know that it was not possible to become a Pharisee unless one was married. St. Paul had been married. We assume by context that he was probably widowed by the time he wrote the letter now called 1 Corinthians 7, in which he says the following (I’m not going to paste the entire chapter here, but you should really read 1 Corinthians 6-7 for yourself in one sitting for context.
7:1-2 Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.
7:8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
7:26-28 I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that.
7:32-34 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.
So, where does anxiety and trouble lie according to St. Paul, who had been both married and single? He indicates it is in marriage, not in singleness. Where is it easier to serve the Lord, in singleness or marriage? In singleness. Marriage is no sin, and elsewhere St. Paul commands that the marriage bed be regarded as holy by all, and that is good and true. But here for the second time God’s Word comes down 180-degrees opposite of our current culture that holds singleness as self-indulgent or worldly and marriage as the holy and admirable goal. Instead, Paul paints a picture of singleness as a Christ-centered path of service, and marriage as a concession against lust, no sin, but full of its own troubles and divided loyalties.
Finally, and frankly, least applicable of the passages on singleness because it does not apply to all singles, or even most, we see in Revelation 14:1-5 that one of the aspects of the 144,000 in heaven that were praised and considered first-fruits for God and the Lamb was their virginity. (Isn’t it strange how the Jehovah’s Witnesses use this text and sort of skip that part?!?!) Their virginity is praised along with, and by no means more important than, their faith, their honesty, and their blamelessness (which can only be obtained by the saving faith in Christ who makes us blameless through his innocent suffering and death though we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.)
So, there are three principle passages about singleness in the New Testament. ALL OF THESE PASSAGES view it as a perk, a plus, a bonus, a particularly good thing that should be embraced by those who can embrace it.
There is no shame cast on those who marry, and no provision to require another person to marry or to be single (disqualifying both Orthodoxy’s requirements to marry and Catholicism’s command for celibacy). It is to be embraced by those who can embrace it, and those of us who can have the great comfort in God’s Word, where singleness of devotion and service to God is praised, repeatedly recommended, and Jesus commands those of us who can embrace it to do so.
I’m disappointed that these messages of encouragement, support, and praise for a lifestyle that is clearly God-pleasing and endorsed have fallen by the wayside.
Maybe we don’t want to seem Catholic. (ew, yuck, blerg), but that is simply unacceptable, because we must not form our theology from our emotions, and a disgust at Catholic appearances is just an appeal to emotion, no more valid than the homosexual couple’s appeal to their own love over God’s Word.
Perhaps the news-media feeding frenzy about Catholic priest child-abuse challenges (though in fact the sexual abuse rates are higher among married and single non-Catholic clergy) lends celibacy a bad vibe, and we just don’t want to pick an extra fight while we’re duking it out over abortion and gay marriage.
But really, I don’t care. God’s Word has great, positive, and repeated points to offer to those who can live a single life dedicated unto the Lord. We owe our heavenly master’s Word enough faithfulness to preach it completely, and we owe the single brothers and sisters in Christ enough love to offer them all the blessings and respect inherent in God’s church.
Let’s beak the silence about singleness today.