This last week I was able to check out a couple of sermons on singleness. Let me say this before I challenge some stuff. I actually do feel like the church is starting to get a clue. One of the sermons a listened to talked about the fact that 66% of unchurched folks are single. The pastor basically said that we need to get a grip on this if we are going to go after them. We need to treat them as equals in Christ. Amen! I’m glad that people are trying to talk about it more.
In a separate deal I saw, they were teaching kids about dating and at least mentioned celibacy. So that’s something.
But here’s where we keep setting ourselves up for problems. We need a better theology of celibacy because if we keep getting it wrong, we end up hurting everyone.
The first thing we have to do is we have to quit using the word single as a catch all. As I’ve said before there are those who are not married (as in never married), those who are called, gifted, or in a position to not be married (this can happen several ways), the divorced, and the widowed. These are not the same thing. So when we say 50% of people in America are single, what we really need to say is that they are unmarried. This is important in the Church context because they each have different instructions from scripture. When we lump them together we create confusion for all the groups.
Here is the greatest example. Everyone wants to look at 1 Corinthians 7 as the go to for singleness. And there is a lot to learn from this chapter. Paul essentially says that there are those who should get married and those who shouldn’t. He says some have one gift and others another gift. But the gift he is talking about is not the gift of singleness, he is talking about the gift of celibacy.
You are not called to “season” of celibacy. You may not be married yet, but that is not the same. You could be called to not get married right now for some reason. God can ask us to do and pursue all sorts of things at different times. No doubt. But the call to celibacy is a call to live that way in a sort of vow with God, not a period of time. Now we are all called to Chastity, but that’s not the same thing.
Here’s why that matters. If we say that this gift is for a season, then we end up saying things that don’t make sense. In one of the sermons the pastor said, “Single people should live in a devoted way that married people can’t.” This is true of a person called to be celibate for the Kingdom. But if this is true for everyone, then no one should ever get married. What we end up saying is “serve the Lord now because when you get married that’s over.” That simply is not a good plan.
The ironic part about this in the Protestant church is that we don’t even honor, or lift up the people who really do have this gift. We don’t have celibate (or even single for a “season” people), as pastors or elders. Missionaries maybe, but not here at home. We typically have a sort of singleness glass ceiling when it comes to church leadership.
The pastor went on to say, “singles have the opportunity to be undistracted in their focus and can be completely loyal to their King.” Um, so when I get married then I’m not as loyal to God?
This seems to me to fly in the face of what Paul is saying. He basically says if you are “distracted” by the desire for sex – go get married. My point here is that part of the test for the gift of celibacy (not the only one mind you) is if you feel the pull to get married.
Now I get it, if you get married and have kids you have a different set of responsibilities. Your approach to many things change. But your loyalty to God? To me this sets up married people to be over focussed on themselves (family idol) and lumps the people with the actual gift of celibacy in with the people who are just not yet married.
It also creates a problem for single people not called to celibacy because at what point does actually trying to get married come into play. Chances are I’ll have to act to get married, not just sit around and hope it happens.
Using the word distracted is especially problematic. I was unmarried until I was 40. While it is true, I didn’t have family responsibilities, calling me undistracted would have been a huge mistake.
Having done ministry with married and unmarried people for the last 20 plus years I can assure you that someone looking to be married can be just as distracted from ministry as someone who is married. I can list many people who became better ministers once they got married. They had answered that question and were actually more free from distraction.
The bottom line here is, Paul is not equating a person who is not yet married to a person who is not called to be. Neither should we.
Excellent Justin. Singleness is merely a word of comfort that churches adopted to circumvent the truth in the word of God. Actually, I would say that at least 95% of Protestant churches do not think celibacy is even possible. A case in point is the Southern Baptists. Their President of Pubic Policy and Research, Andrew Walker, recently said: “Frankly, it is indeed our personal opinion that marrying earlier staves off the hormonal rush that comes with sexual temptation . . . It is impractical and unhelpful to advise and encourage young men and women who reach sexual maturity at the age of 12 or 13 to wait 15 years before marriage and still remain pure.” So the largest Protestant denomination in America with 16 million members has officially stated that self control is not possible, that character doesn’t matter, that pedophilia is better than fornication, and that the breeding methods employed by Hitler and the Nazis are preferable today because young men and women can’t control their “hormonal rushes.” I guess having more babies and boosting their declining membership is a good strategy to get more money in their coffers. But could these churches actually comprehend lives of faithful celibacy?
“Unmarried” literally means “no longer married.” When you put your shoes on in the morning, are your laces untied or not yet tied? It’s not until later in the day that your laces become untied. “Unsweetened” iced tea is silly because no one removes sugar from tea. I might be splitting hairs, but we need terms that help us mean what we say. I agree we should specify single, widowed, divorced, and celebate people in the church, as their needs are often different. If we are looking for a catch-all term, how about “not married,” which is neutral?
Erin, I don’t particularly think “not married” is neutral, because people would still look down at those who are not yet married. It doesn’t matter what term we use, to be honest. It will not change until we change the viewpoint of people without a partner. It will not change until we uphold celibacy as something blessed like marriage is. As long as we keep looking at singles as high-risk for fornication or potential husband/wife stealers, then we will never get through this. That is the problem.
Justin, I agree with you on this. I hope plenty more do as well. However, the problem may not lie in whatever term for singles. We have a problem with how we view singleness, celibacy, or people who are without a spouse. Most churches look at celibate people as either potential risks or unfinished products. Celibacy is basically pegged as some sort of covert repression of sexuality that could create sexual sinners. Celibates are basically looked at high-risk. Society doesn’t think it is possible that a person could be joyful without sex in their life, and churches have taken this mindset on. So, we have people trying to rush people into getting married to avoid premarital sex. That mindset has basically made celibacy an undesirable state, instead of a satiable option. As long as this continues, there will be no celibacy in the Protestant arena. I honestly don’t like that. I would like to think how this could change, but I really don’t know how it will. I wait for the day that celibacy is upheld in Christian communities everywhere, as a co-equal.
Justin, I always love reading what you have to write on these topics. Coming from a Catholic perspective myself, it’s always fascinating to see how my brethren on the other side of the Tiber are approaching the same sort of “identity” issues of chastity and celibacy as I am without some of the more complex theology on the matter that I thank God every day that we’ve continued to develop on our end. Just as openly comment that I wish the Catholic Church would learn from Evangelical example on Christian Fellowship, I think that Protestants need to take another look at Catholic teachings on celibacy and sexual theology: the first reformed volume exegesizing John Paul II’s Theology of the Body for those who’ve grown up under the ‘purity’ movement is practically guaranteed a bestseller.
There’s a sense where we try to convince our church communities, especially as we age past the standard “single years” into those more complex years where the unmarried are more often the divorced or widowed that we, who remain never-married and chaste aren’t something odd. On one side, you have many who, if they find out you’re an older virgin, simply think that you’re lying because they wouldn’t be able to do it (Paul’s logic in action – of course, how many of our correligionists weren’t virgins when marrying, even those who married very young?). The other concern is those who see those with discipline and refuse to believe that that discipline is NOT a Sign of Celibacy. I’ve faced the odd issue where recently any comments I make about wanted to seek marriage are dissuaded, because the assumption is that a 35-year old chaste man active in the parish, different lay ministries, and other diocesan apostolates is surely intended to become a priest – there’s an entire local order of nuns praying for me to enter seminary, I’ve been told, regardless of what I explain to them (please pardon the lewdness, but I feel that – regardless of my not going after sex – I’ve still now officially won at being ‘cock-blocked’).
When those of us without spouses are bunched so readily together by those with, we lose individual context. Not only do we fall from the main community into being basically tools instead of members of the family (it’s a sad fact that the one group NOT mentioned anywhere in the Catholic church Synod on the Family are those faithful singles seeking marriage and children – many an Elder Son discovering the Prodigal returning joke to be made…), but our desires and discipline of them are misconstrued in any given direction because our individual personhood is pretty much ignored on account of being individual. I always find it ironic that my singlehood is most basically predicated on being a caregiver to elderly parents – something given explicitly mention in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as an honorable reason why some “forego marriage (paragraph 2231)” – yet so few of my fellow church members understand enough of those teachings to realize that I’m living my faith and its practices of discipline turning this time of necessary trial; that our society’s sense of sexuality has fallen to the point where Occam’s Razor is that a Christian can’t keep it in his pants when his life’s circumstances based on choices of sacrifices mean that he can’t yet support a family of his own while supporting those that raised him, so must resort to supernatural causes is just odd…
From a Protestant perspective, what I find even more ironic is that churches are quick to setup special programs for those who are divorced, provide safe houses for prostitutes, provide recovery from porn addiction, meet the needs of unwed teenage mothers and provide nurseries for their babies, and on and on. But at the same time, they view celibate people who have led chaste lives worse than the Pharisees could have ever treated the woman at the well. We’re looked at with suspicion and disdain and readily disqualified from church leadership. They have taken hypocrisy to a whole new level. When we have to convince the church that we are not odd if unmarried and chaste after a certain age, then there is something deeply wrong with the church and its leadership – not with us.
Thank you for this wonderful blog. I’ve found it only yesterday so I haven’t read everything yet but Justin, I noticed in this post you write you were unmarried until you were 40. Just wondering, are you married now? (Haha like that was the only thing I want to know but no that’s not true lol.)
Thanks again for this blog!
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