In Sunday’s message I mentioned the “gift of singleness,” sometimes referred to as “the gift of celibacy.” This concept has its origins in 1 Corinthians 7:7: “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.” This verse clearly identifies singleness as a gift, and many have taken this to mean that Paul had a supernatural ability to be single or celibate. He wishes that others could have this same special ability, but if they don’t, then they should do what they can to get married.
As I said on Sunday, I don’t believe that this idea is Biblical. Here are several reasons why.
- Just like in English, the Greek word for gift (charisma) can mean special ability. For example, “he has a real gift for the piano.” In this sentence, the “gift” is the unique ability to play the piano well. But just like in English, charisma can have a wider range of meaning. For example, “he was given the gift of a piano.” In this sentence, the gift isn’t the ability to play the piano; the gift is the piano itself. We should pay careful attention to a passage before we assume “gift” means “special ability.”
- When Paul writes that “each has his own gift, one of one kind and one of another,” he is designating both marriage (“one of one kind”) and singleness (“one of another”) as gifts. The New Living Translation is accurate when it paraphrases this verse as follows: “God gives some the gift of marriage, and to others he gives the gift of singleness.” Nobody thinks that “the gift of marriage” is a special ability to be married: the “gift” of marriage itself is very clearly marriage itself. Thus, according to the plain grammar of this passage, singleness itself is also a gift.
- In the rest of the chapter (1 Corinthians 7:8, 25-40), Paul’s whole line of reasoning makes little sense if he thought of “the gift of singleness” as a special ability to be single. Instead, he gives the single Corinthians all sorts of reasons to help them see the benefit of singleness and consider it for themselves.
- It is true that verse 9 encourages people to marry “if they cannot exercise self-control” (1 Corinthians 7:9, c.f. vv. 2-6), and later on in the chapter, the ability to keep one’s desire under control is mentioned as a deciding factor in whether or not they should seek marriage (1 Corinthians 7:37). But this does not mean that a self-controlled person has a special ability to be single; they simply are experiencing more of a fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:23) which they are then able to apply to their particular situation.
- In verse 39, Paul addresses widows, and gives them permission to remarry. But then he says, “Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 7:40). Paul does not encourage these ladies to try and discern if they have a “special ability” to be celibate, and the very idea is a bit of a stretch given their previously married state. Instead, they’re simply given the freedom to make a decision—remarry or remain single. And we should not ignore Paul’s Spirit-filled, Apostolic advice that one of these options will bring greater happiness.
Taken together, we can understand that the gift of singleness isn’t a special ability to be single. The gift is being single. It is a gift because it gives one a certain measure of freedom from trouble (1 Corinthians 7:28) and distraction (1 Corinthians 7:32-34) and thus can help them be more undivided in their devotion to the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:35). In other words, singleness can allow someone to give themselves more fully to the good works for which they were created (Ephesians 2:10).
Two more things need to be said: first, if “the gift of singleness” is not itself a special ability, this doesn’t mean that God will not enable and empower single people to live their lives for His glory. God regularly enables us for what He calls us to do, and the single life—no less than the married life—is dependent upon God’s power (cf. 2 Corinthians 9:8).
Second, none of this means that marriage is bad. Marriage is a gift, too (1 Corinthians 7:7). It can function as a measure of protection against the distractions of sexual temptation (1 Corinthians 7:1-8), and therefore may help some find greater effectiveness in their life and ministry. And marriage to the right person can mean a fruitful life of ministry together (as was the case for at least some of the other Apostles—cf. 1 Corinthians 9:5).
The point of 1 Corinthians 7 is that at our place in the biggest story ever told, both marriage and singleness are gifts, and should be received as such—and esteemed as such by the church.