Friday, November 20, 2009


This is sermon #17 from First Corinthians. I am acutely aware of the different context in which this was written compared to my current awareness. There is a huge contrast between Catholic options for singleness compared to narrower traditions. Yet the practical issues I dealt with two decades ago are very much with us today, and the issues of chastity and healthy friendship among singles is more crucial than ever.

1 Corinthians 7:7-9; 25-28


It has hit me all over again just how different the world we live in is compared to the world of almost 2000 years ago. Paul was trying to correct a church that devalued marriage, a church that thought sexuality stood in the way of spirituality, and a church that was trying to make a moral virtue out of a priority of singleness.

Today, the opposite is true in many if not most churches. Many Evangelical churches will not consider hiring a pastor who is not married, and even apart from the pastorate, singles have a hard time finding their place in churches that are so geared toward couples and families.

Singles are viewed with skepticism: how do they fit in? They create an odd number, and so present a problem socially (after all, a biblical church follows the Noah's Ark Syndrome –– two by two). They are also seen as freer, and so more available, than a married person, which means they can be presumed upon –– "Oh, Sue can do that," with the understanding that because she is single she doesn't have anything to do in the evenings or on weekends. Then, too, there is the "yet" focus: "oh, he's not married yet," which means that he hasn't arrived, that he will only be "whole" after he marries.

Singleness was handled differently back in the Bible's time. There were social conventions we can hardly imagine today in our culture: dowries, marriages arranged by parents or other guardians, polygamy.... There was no "dating" as we know it today. Women had little or no choice as to whether they would marry or even who they would marry. Singleness was the exception, and most often occurred because of being widowed.

In this chapter, Paul is trying to correct a warped view of marriage and sex that the Corinthian Christians had. He starts by saying that marriage is normal, and in marriage there is to be full and mutual sexuality (vs1-5). He says he wishes everyone had his gift, which was singleness (v7). Then he addresses several particular situations.

The first is the issue of being widowed (vs8,9). Should widowers and widows remarry? Next he looks at the subject of divorce (vs10-16), which we will come back to later. Then (vs25-28) he considers younger people who are likely bethrothed (i.e., formal arrangements have been made, but the marriage has not yet been consummated). Should they go ahead and marry? Would that be "unspiritual?"

Now I mention all of that to make the point that the issue of singleness is in a far different context for us than it was for Paul as he wrote to the Corinthians. That does not mean there is nothing here for us, but it does mean we have to make some transferences and applications; we cannot merely pull a few phrases out of 1 Corinthians 7 and think we have “the” Christian position on singleness.

I want us to consider three things about singleness. The first two are specifically connected to what Paul has written here; the third is a practical question that naturally rises out of this issue.

The first thing, then, is a principle that Paul asks the Corinthians to consider: "Stay as you are." He says that explicitly in vs 17, 20, 24, and 26. I'll come back to this in another sermon, but it affects singleness.

One practical application is that people who are not married should not rush out to find the first seemingly appropriate person they can marry. God wants to guide those who belong to him, and that includes working in the lives of Christian young people to lead them to the right spouse –– if marriage is part of what God has for a person.

If I could, I would have every teen read Shadow of the Almighty, part of the journal of the martyred missionary Jim Elliot, edited by his wife, Elisabeth. He once wrote:

No one warns young people to follow Adam's example. He waited till God saw his need. Then God made Adam sleep, prepared for his mate, and brought her to him. We need more of this "being asleep" in the will of God. Then we can receive what He brings us in His own time, if at all. Instead we are set as bloodhounds after a partner, considering everyone we see until our minds are so concerned with the sex problem that we can talk of nothing else when bull session time comes around. It is true that a fellow cannot ignore women –– but he can think of them as he ought –– as sisters, not as sparring partners.

I do not think we teach our young people as strongly as we should the principle of waiting on God and trusting him to lead us to the right things so clearly that we know it is from him. And that should be especially so of marriage; nothing else in this world changes and affects us the way the person we marry does. Paul says: stay as you are until God changes the situation.

A second thing that is here is the gift of singleness. We do not lift that up in the Evangelical tradition very often (in contrast to the Catholic Church). It could more easily be inferred that we believe there is a curse of singleness instead of a gift.

How often in the church do single people feel as though something must be wrong with them? To go back to some of the opening thoughts, we in the church do much of our thinking and planning with couples as the common denominator of our thinking. We think in terms of twos. It is only in recent years that churches have begun to realize that when you hire a pastor, you do not get the spouse to double the work for free.

Of course no one would say it so crudely, but can it be we think something must be "wrong" with an adult who is not married, or a least making tracks to be married? Can a single person really be happy living alone, or at least not knowing the intimacy of the marriage relationship?

Without belaboring the point, the Bible is clear that there is a gift of singleness. Paul at least refers to it in v7: I wish that all people were as I am. But each one has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. Jesus also spoke of the gift of celibacy (Mtt. 19:11,12).

Yes, it is hard for some of us to imagine life apart from a marriage partner. I would not function too well outside of marriage unless God changed me, but not everyone is like that. And while differences are hard for us humans, can we in the church not accept the fact that not everyone needs a marriage relationship? And for those who do not need it, can we not see them as gifted in ways we who are married are not, so that they have a conscious contribution to make to the church instead of being a deprived class of people who are problems at banquet times?

Now I know I am generalizing a lot. I am spreading a lot of paint with a broad brush, and I do not do that to incriminate any one person. I say all of this to exaggerate what singles can so easily feel in any church. It is so easy to gravitate toward a couple perspective without thinking about it.

We need to think intentionally about the gift of singleness. We in the church need to lift it up as a wonderful option for those whom God calls to singleness –– without making them feel as if they are incomplete or have missed out on a major part of life. The truth is that singles are just different in some ways.

Singles can be free to serve in ways that couples and families are not. A single can pick up and move for a year of voluntary or missions service in a way that others cannot. Singles are free not to be distracted as often as people who are committed to marriage and parental relationships. Singles can have a financial freedom others of us do not have; they can spend their money taking only God into account, while a husband or wife needs to consider the other, and perhaps children.

Singles can have an understanding of friendship that alludes one who is married. Sometimes sex gets in the way of friendship, and singles have the freedom of avoiding that (if they can escape the sex-craze of our culture). Singles can be free to develop personally in ways that a married person could envy; the time the married person puts into sustaining a relationship is time the single can put into reading or traveling or taking educational classes. And all of that can contribute to a greater opportunity for service in the kingdom of God. The church should be saying that such an option is a good one.

On the other hand, singles are no different than anyone else. They are people who need to be loved. They need to be seen as important. They need to be hugged. They need to be included in things –– not because they are single, but because they are each individual people who have something to contribute. (If you think about it, no one would want to be included or excluded on the basis of their marital status. I hope people include me because of who I am, and not because I am married. And likewise, the single person's singleness should be no big deal; it is the person he or she is.) The freedoms that singles have do them no good if other people do not freely affirm the good things those freedoms give –– the freedoms that come from the gift of singleness.

A third thing we need to consider is the people who are single, but do not have the “gift of singleness.” This is not a category the Bible explicitly deals with. Our culture is different, and without arranged marriages and without polygamy and other common things of 2000 years ago, we have people who are single who desperately want to be married. They are lonely. They ache for physical affection. Almost everything they see becomes a reminder of what they are personally missing. What does 1 Corinthians 7 say to them?

I'm not sure it says anything explicitly to them. It is another problem, but it invariably rises to the surface when the issue of singleness comes up. I would say, though, the problem is not just theirs; in the church, it is ours. We need to be teaching the proper context for sexuality and to be helping singles live chaste lives in healthy friendships.

It is hard to imagine what singleness means for someone who craves marriage, but we in the church need to try to understand –– and to help ease the pain. But even as I say that, I need to say one thing to the single who is unhappy: you need to be vulnerable to someone you trust. You see, it is almost impossible for people to help if they do not know. At the same time, we in the church who are married –– or those who have the gift of singleness –– need to know all we can so those who are struggling do not have to spell out every detail. As I have thought about it, I see four areas where we can have sensitivity toward the single who doesn't want to be.

First is the realization that there is a big difference between loneliness and being alone. People who are lonely can be dysfunctional. They are unable to take advantage of some of the benefits of being alone. Loneliness is crippling. Loneliness is a state of mind, and a single can feel horribly lonely in the middle of a crowd. It has to do with a sense of not belonging, of deprived intimacy. Lonely people need love.

A second thing is vulnerability. Single people without the gift of singleness keenly feel the need for others. They do not have an immediate advisor when the car breaks down or the plumbing goes crazy. They do not have corporate wisdom for financial decisions where major spending or investing is necessary. They are aware when they are sick that no one special may be there to pamper them or provide crucial care. Each thing that happens is a reminder of what they want but do not have, and it can be self-depreciating.

A third thing is awkwardness. Social functions are more of a threat than a pleasant escape from aloneness. How do you act if you are one single with three couples, especially when being with happily married couples only reminds you of what you so badly want for yourself? And then there is the opposite sex. Can the single be friendly with a married person of the opposite sex, or might something be taken wrongly? And how about a person of the opposite sex who isn't married? Is it a set up? Is he or she thinking what you are thinking? Could this be something? Should I even be thinking this? How can you help but think of it if that is what you desire? It is awkward.

A fourth thing is the danger of bitterness that comes when what the single wants so much does not come for him or her when it is happening to those all around. Bitterness can come when it seems that no one is sensitive to the needs and feelings of the non-choice single –– when events and conversation always revolve around couple-type things. Bitterness is a danger when the single is always thought of when a job needs to be done (since they have so much more free time, you know), but once the job is done it is back to usual.

Now the reason I say all of this is not to depress singles who do not have the gift, but to impress on the rest of us some of what is at stake for us to be caring and loving to everyone in the church community. It is one thing to blithely say, "Be content; trust God for your life." It is something else to feel lonely and frustrated and think no one in the church understands or cares.

Of course we can trust God, but he has put us in the church to trust together –– to help each other and encourage each other. I know these words about singles will not answer all questions, but I hope they they help us be more sensitive.... more sensitive to promote the gift of singleness and recognize those who have it, and more sensitive toward those who struggle with their singleness. When all is said and done, we all are fellow strugglers on this journey of faith.

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