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.