Is it really a gift to be single?

In 1 Corinthians 7:7, Paul seems to suggest that being single and celibate is a gift from God.  “I wish all people were like me,” he says, in the context of telling Christian spouses not to refuse sexual relations to each other.  “But,” he concedes, “each has a particular gift from God: one has this gift, and another has that one” (CEB).

My guess is that if I were to ask, many unmarried Christians would say, “Really?  Being single sure doesn’t feel like a gift.”

Let’s be honest.  In many churches, singleness is treated like a problem that needs to be fixed.  The subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) message is: Conform to the norm; if you get married, we’ll know how to relate to you.  That doesn’t feel like much of a gift. 

But maybe singleness is not the gift to which he’s referring.

True, later in the chapter, he makes it clear that he wants “to promote effective and consistent service to the Lord without distraction” (vs. 35, CEB).  Married life is legitimate and God-ordained–but to Paul, it’s a distraction nonetheless.  That’s why he can say that he wishes all Christians could be like him.

In verse 7, however, when he speaks of his own “gift,” he may not be referring to being unmarried per se.  In context (see, e.g., verses 5 and 9), he may be speaking of a gift of self-control (compare Gal 5:23) that makes his celibacy possible.  After all, as we’ve seen in previous posts, the married couples who were denying sex to each other, in the absence of self-control, were courting disaster.  So while Paul wishes that Christians could all be single and therefore celibate, he recognizes it’s not for everyone.

Most of us don’t live in religious communities in which celibacy rather than marriage is the norm, so what Paul says might sound a little odd.  In Corinth,  ascetically-oriented Christians were pushing for abstinence as a spiritual norm, even for married couples–making singleness and celibacy seem more virtuous.  Paul had to declare marriage (and sex within it) to be acceptable to God.  But today, Christians are more likely to assume marriage as the spiritual norm, leaving singles uncertain about their place and value. 

I say all this because I have begun to recognize how utterly tone-deaf it is for a man like myself, who has been happily married for over 30 years, to say “Singleness is a gift from God” to someone who is not married but wants to be.

The solution is neither to marry off the unmarried nor to convince them that their social status is a gift from God.  Yes, there can be a vocation–a calling from God–to live as Paul did.  But even then, there is still the need for fellowship in a body of believers, married and unmarried alike, who embrace what Paul’s gift-language implies: that there is a Giver who desires our service, and who therefore graciously and by design empowers us in different ways.