It is an honor to pastor a church with a growing and vibrant community of college students, young adults and single adults. I have discovered that nothing is more besetting to this demographic than the sting of loneliness and certainly days like Valentine’s Day only reinforce that sting. While much of our culture celebrates love in an endearingly tacky way, singles are tempted to view the whole spectacle as at best nauseating, at worst depressing. So I have prayed for you and I would like to offer as well some words of encouragement.
A little over 100 years ago, approximately 90 percent of the adult population in the United States of America was married. Most people were marrying young, and divorce was very uncommon. Adulthood and marriage were basically synonymous and singleness was very rare. Now fast forward to present day and you have a much different picture. Nearly half of the adult population today is unmarried. Many have never been married and are waiting longer to get married, while others are separated, divorced, or have lost a spouse through death. In the U.S. today the number of adults who are single and the number of adults who are married almost parallel one another.
Even in our culture today, singleness in the church is sometimes viewed in a negative way. In 1 Corinthians 7:7-8 the apostle Paul makes a bold statement about his singlenss. He points out that he is single and it isn’t a negative thing; he is single not because something is wrong, but because something is very right in his life.
Three Foundations for Biblical Singleness…
There are a few foundations that undergird the picture of singleness we see in 1 Corinthians 7. They are so simple, yet so profound for our understanding of the gospel and singleness.
Both Singleness and Marriage are Good
Corinth was a pagan city filled with rampant immorality, particularly sexual immorality, and in 1 Corinthians 7 we find Paul responding to questions and situations that were going on in this young church, a church of new believers. He begins, “For the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry” (1 Cor. 7:1). That statement doesn’t really surprise us now in the twenty-first century, but what we need to realize is that on the pages of Scripture, this verse is an astounding statement from Paul.
To understand why that was such an astounding statement we need to look at how singleness was viewed in the context of the Old Testament. The Old Testament had painted a very different picture about singleness. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). God created man, and in the next verse we see that God ordained men and women for multiplication: “God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). The first command that God gives man and woman is to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. He blesses them so that they might fill the earth and subdue it, and they do that through coming together in marriage.
In Genesis 12, God tells Abraham that He’s going to bless him so that his name would be great. “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:1-3).
Throughout the Old Testament, the blessing of God is synonymous with offspring. If you are single, then there are no children coming from you. That means your name will be cut off from Israel. As a result, you don’t have a place. You’re considered cursed by God. We don’t see a positive picture of singleness in the Old Testament.
Now, fast forward to the New Testament and in Matthew Jesus gives a surprising answer to some of the questions the disciples had concerning whether someone should marry in light of how serious God is about divorce. Jesus says, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it” (Matt. 19:11-12). Jesus essentially says, “It’s good to be a eunuch (single) for the sake of the kingdom.” Because of the coming of Christ, because of the gospel, Jesus has completely turned this whole picture of singleness upside down. Entrance into the kingdom of God is a spiritual entrance; it’s a spiritual birth, not a physical birth.
As a result, both marriage and singleness are very, very good things.
The gospel radically changes everything. So now, in light of the gospel, marriage is really good and singleness is also really good. The gospel makes it that way.
Both Singleness and Marriage are God’s Gifts
Paul goes on to say, “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another” (1 Cor 7:7).
There is some debate about what kind of gift Paul is referring to. Is he talking about a subjective gift, like the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthinans 12, or is he referring to the gift of singleness and the gift of marriage?
I remember in college talking with other guys, and this was often the topic of conversation. We would wonder, “How do you know if you’ve got the gift of singleness?” And if a guy couldn’t get a date, he might begin to think, “Well, maybe I’ve got the gift.” But the reality is they were talking about it like they certainly didn’t want it, like the Christmas gift you didn’t want, that you would immediately return after you received it.
As a college student I began wondering, “How do you know if you have the gift? And if it’s a gift, then why does nobody want it?” There are many different thoughts about this passage, but in studying this text I don’t believe Paul is referrring to a gift of singlenss or a gift of marriage but rather a description of objective status, much like Romans 6:23 and the “gift of eternal life.” I don’t think Paul is saying, “You’ve got to figure out whether or not you’ve got the gift,” because whether or not a single person thinks they have the gift or not, the reality is they are still single. How many people with the gift of marriage sit around and wonder, “Well, do I have the gift of marriage?” Obviously God has given you a gift called marriage, and He’s commanded you to work in the context of that gift.
What if the same picture is applicable when it comes to the gift of singleness? Each of us has one of those two gifts. Some of us have the gift of marriage at this moment, and some of us have the gift of singleness, though not necessarily a gift of singleness that will last 60 years. That may be a possibility, but maybe there’s a day that comes when God exchanges the gift of singleness in your life for the gift of marriage, and it’s not exchanging one inferior gift for a superior gift. Instead, both gifts are good gifts. They’re both given to you by God.
The other danger in looking at this in a subjective way is that it creates a two-tiered system of singles; singles who have the gift and singles who don’t have the gift. On one side you have singles that God has spiritually enabled for their singleness. On the other side you have singles that are frustrated by God with their singleness. What if the issue in 1 Corinthians 7 is not whether or not you are single or married at all? What if the issue is whether or not you are content with the good gift of God in your life? What if the primary issue Paul is getting at here is that God has designed us to be content with His good gifts?
“Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life the Lord has assigned to him and to which God has called him” (1 Cor. 7:17). “Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him” (1 Cor. 7:20).
“Brothers, each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to” (1 Cor. 7:24).
“Are you married? Don’t seek a divorce. Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife” (1 Cor. 7:27).
Amidst all the frenzy that was going on in Corinth, all the questions around whether one should get married or not, divorced or not, remarried or not Paul says, “Stop. Stop. Just rest for a second and trust in the fact that God is still in control in your life. He has not forgotten about you, and He has not lost one ounce of wisdom. He is still the Father who knows what is best in your life.” This is the sovereignty of God. It’s a contentment that says, “I can trust that if I have been given a gift of singleness now, it is because I have a Father in Heaven who is all-wise and who gives me what is best for me.” There is a deep contentment in that.
Be careful that your contentment is not based on a destination that lies out there in the future – “I’ll be content when I get married. I’ll be content when I have kids. I’ll be content when I get there” – when the reality is that when we get there, we’ll be looking in the future for another destination. Our contentment was never designed to be fulfilled in external circumstances. Instead, it was designed to be fulfilled in the internal reality of Jesus Christ in our lives, and this is the point of 1 Corinthians 7 – trust in God. Trust in His gifts.
Contentment is a deep enjoyment of the grace of God. God has shown His grace in our lives with the gift of singleness, with the gift of marriage, with what He’s entrusted to us. It is evidence of His grace in our lives, and it’s a good thing.
Both Singleness and Marriage are for God’s Glory
Singleness and marriage are for God’s glory. What matters ultimately in 1 Corinthians 7 is not whether or not you’re single or married. What matters ultimately is whether or not your life is identified with Jesus Christ. Our identity is not found in marital status. It is found in Christ.
God gives us gifts, and He doesn’t give us gifts haphazardly. He gives us gifts purposefully. Singleness has a purpose that we must be careful not to waste. The challenge for every follower of Christ is this: if you are married, then make the most of the gift that’s been entrusted to you by the grace of God. If you are single, then by the grace of God make the most of the gift that’s been entrusted to you. In other words, don’t squander your singleness and don’t squander the gift of marriage.