Singleness as Identity, Context or Vocation

In our culture we are constantly talking about how we identify.  Not only that, but we know that whatever our answer is to that question, we will be judged by it.  It has of course to do with who we are, what we do, or even what we believe.  We are republican, democrat, conservative, liberal, American, black, white, male, female, gay, straight, feminist and on and on.  In the Church identify ourselves and judge others as Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, fundamentalist, charismatic, Baptist, Calvinist, Lutheran and on and on.  Heck in my town we identify people by their zip code, whether we live north or south of a street and what high school that someone went to.  We can also identify ourselves and others by things that have happened to us, or that we’ve participated in or even what teams we root for.

Some of these are things that we are born into and others are things we choose or believe.  But if we are in Christ none of these things are supposed to be our core identity. Meaning that they are not to be the first thing that defines us.  This includes whether or not we are single or married.

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The Protestant Celibacy Problem

A couple of years ago I was asked by a campus pastor at a local Catholic University if I would be willing to sit on a panel about vocation and represent the unmarried people who don’t feel called to celibacy.  I said yes and was excited by the opportunity.

Now this is sort of funny but I was the only protestant in the room and perhaps the least educated.  Ha!  I was for sure the least educated person on the panel which included: the president of the university and his wife (married vocation – and they had been married for decades), a nun, a Jesuit Priest and a priest whose job it was to help students who felt they might be called to celibate ministry (becoming a priest or nun) discern that.

We went around and shared about our vocation/place in life.  A lot of questions from the audience were centered around how you can figure out what you are supposed to do. Everyone on the panel was great – I was in very solid company and would gladly share a stage with any of them, any time.

But the person who stood out the most (and not just because we kept agreeing with each other) was the priest.  This guy was unbelievably smart.  He also had ways of explaining the call to full time celibate ministry that I had never really heard articulated before.

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Singleness Is Not A Spiritual Gift

Many different times I’ve been asked if I had the “gift” of singleness.  It’s always bothered me.  I think it’s because there is basically only one scripture that uses anything close to that term, and even then it isn’t singled out (ha – how about that pun).

The scripture of course is in 1 Corinthians 7.  I’ve talked about this section of scripture more in depth but basically Paul is talking about marriage, singleness, divorce etc. In the very first paragraph, Paul says that he wishes all were like him (single) but that each person has their own gift from God.

That’s it.  That is the only place in the entire Bible where you could make the case for the “gift” of singleness.

Notice that we don’t go around asking people if they have the gift of marriage.  I guess if you are married you’ve got it and if not it could go either way?

I think either marriage or singleness could be a gift in a sense.  But it’s not a spiritual gift.  It’s not tongues, prophesy, teaching, mercy, healing, exhortation, singleness. . .

The big problem I have with the gift idea is what is often implied.  It’s the idea that if you have this gift then you will know it and you will be able to handle singleness no problem. Flip this around – if you have the gift of marriage then you will not have any problems in marriage, because you will desire all the right things etc.  Um yeah, not so much.

A president of a seminary has said that to determine if I have the gift of singleness I should ask myself, “Can I go the rest of my life without sex, without the companionship of marriage, without having children and without being bitter about it?”  He says if I answer yes, then I probably have the gift of singleness.

Maybe, but the problem is that I could probably answer that yes at this point in my life.  But I’m engaged and I’m pretty sure God is in that.  My point is that I could go without sex (I’ve done it for 40 years) and I’m not bitter.

This whole area is a complete mess in our culture because we have so many people not married.  There are A LOT of reasons for this, some good, most bad.  But we have the chance here as the Church to begin to help people figure this out.  It starts with recognizing what marriage really is and what celibacy for life really is, and then helping people walk in both.  We need some different questions.

Jesus doesn’t talk about it being a gift.  In one of the most misused “singleness” scriptures of all time Jesus actually says something way more interesting.  In Matthew 19 Jesus is asked about divorce.  He says it’s not good and goes beyond what they were expecting to say that anyone who divorces his wife for any reason other than sexual immorality and marries another, commits adultery.

The disciples are shocked.  They say, “If this is the situation between man and wife, it’s better not to marry.”  Then Jesus says this not every one can accept this word (what he just shared about marriage), but only those to whom it is given.

But then Jesus goes on to say that some are eunuchs at birth, some are made that way by others and, “there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”  Big word there.  Do you see it.  CHOOSE.  Look Out!

Is Jesus saying we have a choice?

This is so critical.  We have over spiritualized/romanticized the whole dang thing.  No where in the Bible does it say that there is THE ONE.  No where does it talk about a soul mate.  No where does it say that married or single that I won’t struggle with sexual sin or have no unmet desires.  We’ve made up this perfect scenario and it messes up the whole thing – singleness and marriage.

Marriage is a choice.  So is celibacy.  I can choose to make a vow with God to another person in holy matrimony.  I can also make a vow with God, to celibate ministry.  Both are good.  Neither has anything to do with being single as we know it today.  It’s not about whether one is easier or harder for me.

We all make choices.  We pass on dating/marrying certain people and we make choices to date/marry certain people.  Other people make choices about us.  We make vocational choices, geographical choices.  We have more choices than any culture at any point in history.

This is why it is so critical that we walk with God and others – so that we can make more good choices.  God may well call you toward one or the other.  We choose whether or not to listen and obey – just like every other aspect of life.