The Pursuit of Marriage: Part 3, Gift of Singleness
In my first of 2 previous posts in this series I presented the marriage mandate view, which is that marriage is mandated for all who are not enabled for singleness by the gift of celibacy, though there are various views on what that enablement involves. Then in the second post I described the views of 2 proponents of this view, Al Mohler and Debbie Maken. Here I want to summarise the competing views.
The Gift of Singleness
The marriage mandate and the gift of celibacy are closely tied together, and so while those who do not accept the marriage mandate may simply not mention it, if they are addressing the issue of singleness they will very likely turn to 1 Cor 7 and the gift of v7. As people who do not accept the marriage mandate view, they will necessarily hold a different interpretation of the gift to the gift of celibacy interpretation.
The main alternative view of the gift is that it is being single, which I will call the ‘gift of singleness’, as opposed to the ‘gift of celibacy’ described already. This interpretation is used to make the application that those who desire marriage should still view their singleness as a good gift from God to be used for his service, while also recognising marriage as another good gift, that God may later give.
Proponents of this view include John Stott and Al Hsu (see Singles at the Crossroads by Al Hsu for both their perspectives) and Vaughan Roberts (see his chapter Men and Singleness in the book Men of God: growing men’s ministry). They do not believe that there is a marriage mandate that obligates people to marry, though they would say that marriage is the right choice for most, and in particular, those who do not have a sufficient level of sexual control should marry in order to avoid sexual sin. Thus they do not interpret 1 Cor 7:8,9 as describing what the gift of v7 is, but still accept that a lack of sexual control can be reason for marriage. A lack of contentedness is also given as a reason to pursue marriage. Deliberate extended singleness is expected to be particularly used in service for God.
Others hold the gift of singleness view in addition to the gift of celibacy view, such as Carolyn McCulley who bases some of her comments to women who desire marriage on the idea of the gift of singleness, but who following the teaching of Mohler still believes that single men are generally obligated to pursue marriage and Rick Holland who in his talk titled Rethinking Singleness (Part 1) accepts both views under the term gift of singleness.
The Weaker Gift of Celibacy
In his book, God, Marriage and Family Köstenberger does not mention the idea of a marriage mandate, and it seems clear that he does not accept that position. He does however accept the idea of the gift of celibacy (which he also calls a calling), but he believes that while the gift is an enabling for singleness, people cannot easily tell if they have the gift, saying here that “it is impossible to know for certain whether or not one has the gift of singleness until one dies”, in contrast to the idea that the clear presence or absence of the gift indicates whether a person should remain single or marry. Thus his view is close to gift of singleness view in its implications, since by it, a person still needs to seek out the will of God through circumstances etc., rather than by easily identifying whether they have the gift of celibacy.
Maken attacks the gift of singleness in her books, and also the application sometimes made that because singleness is a gift, it is OK for men (and women) to be passive about remaining single, waiting until God brings about the gift of marriage. If applied to all single men, then I think most gift of singleness proponents would disagree, in particular because difficulty in sexual control may make pursuing marriage a more urgent move, and other factors could also make passivity the wrong course. Of course such passivity need not arise by such a view of the gift of singleness, it can also be the position by default for those who have not considered the issue.
Those who support the marriage mandate and gift of celibacy view believe that sexual control, contentedness (or whatever they think the gift is) determine if a person ought to marry. Those who reject that view argue that the choice to pursue marriage is based on sexual control, contentedness, circumstance and ministry. It becomes a decision like many others such as choosing to switch job, though it is generally much more important than such decisions. While they still believe that marriage is the norm, and that most people should marry, they would consider singleness to be a valid option in more cases than their opponents.