Friday, September 3, 2010

The Spiritual Gift of Celibacy

To the world, singleness is at best a problem easily remedied by personal ads and online dating sites, and at worst a time to party, sleep around, and avoid commitment. Even the church can sometimes adopt this kind of attitude, exerting subconscious pressure on singles to "settle down" and get married. The worst that can happen (which, thankfully, I haven't seen anything of in churches I've attended) is the church treating singles as second-class citizens. Is this a biblical attitude? Paul has this to say in 1 Corinthians 7:8: "Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am." This verse (and really, the entire chapter) is a bucket of cold water on the head for anyone who thinks marriage is the ultimate earthly goal for the Christian life. It's one of the few times the New Testament goes into much depth on the subject of marriage, and a subject of frequent study for me.

In the chapter, Paul is addressing those in the Corinthian church who held an opposite view to the pro-marriage one seen today. Influenced by the Greek philosophy of asceticism, which shunned all worldly pleasures, including marriage and sex, some in the Corinthian church were forbidding others to marry as part of "Christian holiness". Paul speaks out against this additional restriction on the church and qualifies it. Paul looks favorably upon the state of singleness, but advises the Corinthians to marry "because these is so much immorality." he says this "as a concession, not a command" (v. 6)--a concession to the sexual drive God has given most people, which would lead to sexual immorality if not given the Godly outlet of sex within marriage. He expresses a personal preference for staying single, but stresses that it isn't a sin to get married.

But Paul emphasizes that whether you're married or unmarried isn't the point--"keeping God's commands is what counts." (v. 19) His basic point in verses 17-31 is that we shouldn't let concerns about our position in the world--like being a slave, or free, or married, or single--become more important than our commitment to God, which is the same for all situations. We should be faithful to the place in life where God has called us. If making some change in our life doesn't interfere with our service to God, we are free as believers to do something about it. As Paul writes in Philippians 3:8, he considers all things rubbish--including his singleness--compared to knowing Jesus. Likewise, we are to put out relatioship with Jesus first and let that being the overriding influence on life decisions like marriage.

Statistically speaking, God will call most of us to a marriage that will hopefully be another way to glorify Him--a sermon series I listened to said that about 90% of us can expect to get married at some point, though I wonder if this might be an underestimate. But Paul clearly says that not everyone has this calling. In verse 7 he says "I wish all men were as I am [single]. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that." What he is getting at here is that being able to glorify God through a marriage is itself a (likely spiritual) gift from God. And, on the flipside, being able to abstain from marriage and not "burn with passion" and fall into sexual immorality is another. This is the spiritual gift of celibacy (or singleness).

What good is this gift? Why not get married? Paul explains in verses 32-35.
I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord's affairs--how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world--how he can please his wife--and his interests are divided.
When you think about it, the value of the gift of celibacy is obvious: it gives a person undivided time, resources, and thoughts for God. Though marriage can be a very good thing, it occupies a huge chunk of one's life, which a single person can give unreservedly to God. For examples of what this can look like, the Bible has three shining examples: Paul, John the Baptist, and Jesus Himself. I can only speculate as to how their ministries would have been different had they been married, but they would have had to devote time and effort to providing for and protecting a family. Paul seemed to be happier being able to devote himself completely to serving God and thought that others could be as well.

It's important to distinguish between the spiritual gift of celibacy and the temporary state of singleness that God gives as a gift to everyone before they get married. Everyone is called to see their singleness as more than just a waiting period before marriage and make the most of it to the glory of God. Some people only learn they have the spiritual gift in hindsight as they realize all the kingdom work they did wouldn't have been feasible if they'd been married. What a shame it would have been if they'd spent their time looking for a spouse instead of serving God right where He put them?

But though Paul says that being single is better than being married, the spiritual gift of celibacy has some downsides he doesn't touch on. The biggest one for me is the loss of perspective I would have gained from marriage. The church-as-Christ's-bride metaphor doesn't come alive for me like it does for a married couple, and I imagine that being a dad would help in understanding God's role as our heavenly Father. Additionally, without the unknown variables of who I'll marry and how many kids I'll have to worry about, I sometimes find myself planning out my entire life in broad swaths, even though I still have no idea whatGod's plans might be. But despite these, I agree with Paul in thinking that the gift of celibacy is pure awesome. I'm excited to see the exciting things God has in store for me!

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