The UK, The Church & Singleness
Just under 50% of Britain’s adult population are unmarried.¹ Breaking that figure down, 8% of the population are divorced and single, 6.5% are widowed, and 34.5% have never been married. That last group – the never marrieds – is a growing category. As cohabitation increases, the percentage of never-married adults follows, rising 5% in the period between 2002-2016.
In many local churches, the ratio between single and married is comparable to wider society. Despite this, many churches emanate a ‘family focused’ persona.² In one survey of churchgoers, 4 out of 10 unmarried attenders said they “often felt ignored”, while 42% asserted that their church “did not know what to do with them.”³
What about the challenge of celibacy? Encouragingly, the vast majority of Christian singles still believe that sex should wait until marriage.4 Yet the challenge of remaining chaste is heightened by the average age of first-time marriage: presently 32.9 years for men and 31 years for women.5 As Christians follow the ‘marrying later’ trend, they are having to wait longer before becoming sexually active. The problem of pornography use is also significant. It is epidemic among younger men and a growing problem among younger women.6
A final interesting phenomenon relates to unmarried females on church staff teams. A recent study, featured in Evangelicals Now, estimated that over half of the UK’s female church workers are single.7
Listening To Paul
There is no more important passage on the relative values of marriage and celibacy than 1st Corinthians 7 v 1-9:
Now for the matters you wrote about: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ 2 But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. 3 The husband should fulfil his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7 I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.8 Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: it is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. 9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
There are at three things we can glean from Paul here:
1. The high value of sex within marriage
Paul’s opening argument is that sex within marriage is good (v 1-6). Why would he need to argue such a thing? Because of an ‘anti-sex brigade’ within Corinth! Some Corinthian believers were suggesting that sex was not permissible, or at least not beneficial.8 Paul most likely quotes this group in verse 1 when he writes: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”
How does Paul respond to the no-sex perspective? By employing a yes/but formula. Yes it is good to be celibate, but it may be best to marry and have sex (“since so much sexual immorality is occurring” v 2). Now Paul, we must understand, is not presenting us with the only reason why one would get married. This is not a biblical theology of marriage. Neither is it the ‘marriage explanation’ at the beginning of a wedding.
What Paul is making clear is that sexual expression is a legitimate reason for marriage. In the seedy city of Corinth Paul extols the virtues of marriage, and sex within it’s context. Indeed according to Paul, sex within marriage should be the norm rather than the exception (v 5). Any claim that Christianity is negative about sex can hardly by justified in light of what Paul writes here!
2. The high value of celibacy
But Paul’s defence of marital sex doesn’t imply he is negative about celibacy. To the contrary. “I wish that all of you [emphasis added] were as I am” (v 7). What a contrast to much of what is heard in Christian circles today! Paul would love it if there were more celibate people in the church.
The reason Paul is pro-celibacy is not because he is negative about marriage. Nor does he hold to the erroneous view that not having sex is somehow more pious, or intrinsically spiritual. So why is Paul such an advocate for celibacy? In short: because of the freedom it offers from domestic concerns, and the focus it gives for ministry. As Paul explains, to be married means to be taken up with a spouse’s interests (v 33,34). While it isn’t wrong to be married and have children, there comes with the territory a great many distractions.
Paul himself was a living illustration of the benefits of celibacy. The apostle’s travelling and preaching, church-planting and letter writing, would have surely been curtailed had he been married.
Other single Christians have known the same benefits. In a correspondence between friends, Billy Graham expressed to John Stott his amazement at how much Stott was accomplishing. Stott wrote back reminding Graham that he, unlike Billy, was single.
On the flip side of the coin, we can readily find illustrations of the distractions marriage brings. John Calvin, for example, was cajoled by his fellow reformers to find himself a wife. Calvin eventually succumbed, but his marriage proved to have a negative impact on his ministry. When Calvin’s wife died after a long period of ill health, he refused to marry again. Such a prospect, he said, would be wholly unfair on any wife.9
3. The challenge of celibacy for some single people
Having just declared (with a little hyperbole?) that Paul wishes “everyone could be like him”, he thirdly sounds a note of realism. Addressing two subsets of singleness – the unmarried and the widow – he writes: ”But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (v 9)
Now this might seem a strange verse as we hear it in our context! Paul writes about marriage as if it were ‘on tap’ – as though Paul is saying: “If you’re struggling with celibacy, just get yourself married.” It is likely then that Paul is addressing here a specific situation: someone who does have a viable prospect of getting married but is unsure what to do. Paul’s advice is to say that if passions are strong, it would absolutely be better to marry.
It is hard not to ask the imaginative question: what would Paul have said to singles in our day? What would he have written to churches where a sizeable group of singles want to be married but can’t? We do know for sure that Paul would utterly insist on celibacy (1 Thes 4:3). Beyond that, we can only imagine that Paul would have been pastorally sensitive. That he counsels some singles to marry, is enough to show his sensitivity to the frustrations that chasteness can bring.
The gift of singleness?
This brings us onto a tricky topic – the gift of singleness. A great deal of ink has been spilled over the meaning of verse 7: “…each one has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.”
Is Paul teaching here that there is a gift of marriage, and a gift of singleness? And if so, who has these gifts? Is it all married and single people, or just some of them?
There are two main views. One interpretation takes Paul as saying that all single people have the gift of singleness. This view makes a connection between our status and our gift. If your status is single, you have the gift of singleness. And if your status is married, you have the gift of marriage.
Against this first view is another quite different interpretation. This second view takes Paul to mean that only some single people have the gift of contentment with celibacy. The gift, in this understanding, is not equivalent to one’s status. It is a subjective, God-given capacity to cope with celibacy.
What makes this matter difficult is that respected evangelical voices come down on both sides.10 I will not try to resolve the debate, but suggest that perhaps our Christian communities have often gotten too hung up on this question. The danger is that we isolate verse 7 from the rest of chapter 7 – a passage that as a whole is quite clear in it’s teaching on singleness. And in chapter 7, the following two emphases are true.
Sovereign and sympathetic
One of the fundamental teachings of chapter 7 is that God is sovereign over life situations (1 Cor 7:17). This means that if I am single God does not want me to dwell on my singleness, but use it for his glory. As one single person put it to me recently: ‘I shouldn’t put the brakes on serving God until I get married.’
Yet it is equally clear from the passage that God (as reflected in Paul) is sympathetic to our struggles. And so we shouldn’t speak of God’s sovereignty in some cold, unfeeling manner. It is not just a case of: “God has allowed you to be single – so get on with it!” We must share the pastoral tone of Paul, who repeatedly recognises that remaining single can be difficult (1 Cor 7:9, 36, 39).
Both Marriage & Celibacy Reflect The Gospel
It seems to be well understood among Christians that marriage portrays the gospel. We Christians are generally familiar with Ephesians 5, with the truth the husband and wife are a living illustration of Christ’s relationship with his bride, the church.
What is probably less appreciated is how celibacy might point to the gospel. Let’s think about this along two lines.
First, Christ in his earthly life was celibate. This not only gave him freedom to minister, but in a very real sense his singleness was appropriate. Scripture is clear that there is only one bride Christ will ever be married to. Christ’s life of singular devotion ultimately led to his sacrifice for the church. And his sacrifice for the church has one day secured his marriage to the church.
Second, celibacy points to the gospel in the new creation. This fact is astonishing: both marriage and singleness will be present in the new heavens and new earth. In the new creation, the church will be married to Christ (Revelation 21:9), and on a human level believers will be single (Matthew 22: 30). Thus, both marriage and singleness say something important about the gospel. In the new creation we will be both ‘detached’ from other suitors, and ‘married’ to the Lord Jesus Christ.
First, the church should value singleness as highly as marriage. Let us admit that it is possible for Christians to be more negative about singleness than the bible is! Here are a few evidences that we (individuals and churches) might be undervaluing singleness:
- We don’t talk about it. Singleness is an unspoken subject. It only appears in special seminars that deal with the ‘problem of singleness.’ In sermons, the preacher’s applications are always aimed towards marriages and families. An implicit message is being sent that singleness is either a problem not to be talked about or inferior to marriage.
- When we do talk about singleness we talk it down rather than up. Every mention of singleness is utterly negative. Given what we’ve read in 1 Corinthians 7, I think Paul would be raising his eyebrow at us!
- We assume that every young believer should or will get married. But hasn’t Paul taught us in 1 Corinthians 7 that some Christians will remain unmarried – and that can be a good thing?! In sheer practical terms, let’s all stop asking the “have you found yourself a man/woman yet” questions.
- Single people are only allowed to serve in some areas of church life. You can serve in the music ministry, but not as an elder, or a Sunday school teacher (because these areas apparently require one to be married).
- Families in the church rarely welcome single people into their homes.
Second, make the most of your kingdom opportunities whether you are married or single. The key question for the unmarried person is not ‘how can I find myself a spouse’? but ‘how can I invest my life for the kingdom’? There is also a point of reflection here for married people. Are the husband and wife ensuring that family responsibilities don’t crowd out kingdom investment? The error of a previous generation was to sacrifice the family on the altar of the church. One wonders whether the danger for the present one is to sacrifice the church on the altar of the family?
Third, whether you are married or single, avoid the ‘grass is greener’ thinking. Unmarried Christians can wrongly imagine that marriage would solve all their problems. Paul has pointed out that marriage will actually create new problems! What married people gain in intimacy, they often trade for less flexibility. Equally, we must also a avoid a mythical view of singleness. Paul was realistic about the challenges of a chaste life – we need to be equally realistic. One wonders, for example, at the wisdom of Christians following the cultural trend of ‘marrying later.’ To delay (by choice) marriage into our 30’s may be opening ourselves up to a world of temptation. Even for those who choose to be celibate, there may still be intermittent struggles with sexual temptation. Above all, there will be an enormous need for friendship. We see something of that need, and blessing, in Paul’s second letter to Timothy. As Paul nears the end of his life, he is eager for Timothy’s presence. If an apostle – with a gift of celibacy – needed friendship, then surely so does every unmarried believer.
(This article is adapted from a seminar originally given at the West of Scotland Gospel Partnership Conference, ‘Sex and the Gospel’)
- These figures from the Office For National Statistics are actually for England and Wales; although it is reckoned that Scotland is comparable. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationestimates/bulletins/populationestimatesbymaritalstatusandlivingarrangements/2002to2016
- By this, I do not mean family-focused in the sense of God’s family – but rather focused upon the natural family. To illustrate this, consider the popularity of calling certain church services “family-services.”
- 84% according to one survey: https://www.premier.org.uk/News/UK/83-of-Christian-teenagers-think-sex-is-for-marriage
- There was also another group that promoted sexual immorality (see 1 Cor ch 5 and 6).
- You can read about this in the book “First Wives Club.”
- For a further exploration of the strengths and weaknesses of the two views, there is an appendix at the end of this article.
Appendix: The Gift of Singleness
The All Singles View
What is the view?
All single people have the gift of singleness. The gift is equivalent to a life situation. If you are single then you have the gift of singleness.
What are the arguments for this view?
- The whole passage is about life situations. Situations like being married, unmarried, widowed, or being a slave. Therefore it is more likely that the “gift” of verse 7 refers to a straightforward life situation.
- It is unfair to expect some single people to live a chaste life if only some of them have a special ‘gift’ for it.
- All married people presumably have the gift of marriage (imagine the chaos if some married people claimed they didn’t have the gift, and sought a divorce on that basis), therefore all single people must have the gift of marriage.
- To say that the gift is a capacity, not a status, suggests that single people need a special capacity to be single; and that presents singleness in a fundamentally negative light – as a problem.
What are the arguments against this view?
- People never speaks of the gift of singleness per se. He simply says that some people have one gift, another has that. We need to deduce from the context what the gift is.
- Paul says he wishes everyone was like him. But what does he mean by that? Paul is not simply saying that he is single, but that he is content with living a celibate life. Where this is not possible, he advises people to get married (v 9).
- All other spiritual gifts in Corinthians seem to be spiritually empowered abilities, not just a bland status.
- This view, arguably, downplays the challenges that do come with the single life.
Who holds this view?
It seems the majority of evangelical pastors and a good number of the commentators.
Christopher Ash summarises it like this: “I know which ‘gift’ I have by a simple test: if I am married, I have the gift of marriage; if I am not married, I have the gift of being unmarried.”
Alistair Begg: “When he says ‘each man has his own gift from God – one this, another that – he is not just looking forward to 1st Corinthians 12. He’s speaking expressly in terms of married or single. Singleness is a gift. Marriage is a gift. We should neither misuse the gift.”
Vaughan Roberts concurs: “As long as you have it [singleness], it’s a gift from God; just as marriage will be God’s gift to you if you ever receive it.”
John Stott: “So whether we are single or married, we need to receive our situation from God as his own special grace-gift to us.”
The Some Singles View
What is the view?
Some single people have the gift of contentment with celibacy. The gift is not equivalent to the life situation. If you are content with living a celibate, single life, then you have the gift.
What are the arguments for this view?
- Paul wishing that everyone were like him (ie. not just single but content with celibacy).
- If some argue it unfair that a single person without the gift of celibacy should have to live this way, it can be pointed out that there are other areas where Christians need to exercise a duty where they do not have a pronounced gift (eg. all Christians are commanded to be hospitable, but not every Christian has the gift of hospitality). And we must remember, the grace of God and Holy Spirit are sufficient in our weaknesses.
- The passage is not so much about marriage and singleness as such, but about flourishing within marriage vs contentment with celibacy.
- This view arguably agrees with Jesus teaching in Matthew 19:11,12 where Jesus insists that not every single person will be able to accept celibacy in the long term.
What are the arguments against this view?
- Does this view adequately account for the emphasis on life situations throughout the passage (see parallel with the situations of being uncircumcised or a slave; 7:18, 21)?
- It doesn’t seem fair for God to expect something (celibacy) from people whom he hasn’t gifted to be celibate.
Who holds this view?
Gordon Fee: “In light of the argument to this point…it is much more likely that he is referring to the actual gift of celibacy, which would mean celibacy in its true sense – not referring to singleness as such…, but to that singular gift of freedom from the desire or need of sexual fulfilment that made it possible for him to live without marriage in the first place.”
Craig Blomberg: “Paul is currently single and he likes it that way. He wishes all could share his enjoyment of singleness but realises that only some have that gift, while others are gifted for marriage.” However Blomberg also says that “the gift of singleness may only last for a time.”
David Garland: “Whether celibacy is advisable for those who are now unmarried depends on how they honestly answer the question: How has God formed their nature?”
Anthony Thiselton: “..the parallel is not celibacy verses marriage, but the gift of a positive attitude which makes the most of the freedoms of celibacy without frustration, and the positive attitude which caringly provides the responsibilities, intimacies, love and dues of marriage while equally living out the gospel”