The Evangelical Singleness-Celibacy Paradigm Is Wrong
Posted on November 20, 2018
Evangelicals tend to be mimics. The surrounding apostate culture invents a trend, and evangelicals eventually adopt it, usually decorating it with a pious veneer. This is the case with the current widespread marginalization of and assault on marriage. Some moderns argue that ours is the best of times (or at least an improving time) for marriage. The recent click-bait headline “Are Millennials Saving Marriage? Divorce Rates Plummet” captures this optimism, but it misleads. Yes, there is good news: millennials are staying married longer than their parents’ generation. Staying married rather than divorcing is obviously favorable for institutional marriage. The bad news is that fewer millennials are getting married. Many fewer. This, in fact, is the prime explanation for fewer divorces — many fewer people are getting married. If there’s a single worst way to reduce the divorce rate, short of international genocide or nuclear holocaust, this is probably it. A study from the Pew Research Center discovered:
[M]illennials are three times as likely to never have married as their grandparents were…. Compared to previous generations, millennials are marrying — if they do choose marriage at all — at a much older age. In 1965, the average marrying age for women was 21, and for men, it was 23. Today, the average age for marriage is 29.2 for women and 30.9 for men ….
The study offers these as chief reasons for the dramatic shift in marriage: “Millennials place personal needs and values first,” “Millennials question the institution of marriage,” and “Millennials have a strong sense of identity.” Deep-seated secularization and the related lust for individual autonomy are obviously at work in this trend:
For some millennial couples, they’d rather avoid the term “spouse” as well as “marriage” altogether. Instead, they are perfectly happy to be lifelong partners without the marriage license. Because marriage historically has been a legal, economic, religious, and social institution — marry to combine assets and taxes, to benefit from the support of each other’s families, to fit the mold of societal attitudes, or even to fulfill a type of religious or cultural “requirement” to hold a lifelong relationship and have kids — younger couples may not want to give in to those kinds of pressures. Instead, they claim their relationship as entirely their own, based on love and commitment, and not in need of external validation.
The bonds of covenant-keeping are the furthest thing from these young minds suckled on radical autonomy (“their relationship [is] entirely their own”), especially sexual autonomy. A no less enticing and more accurate headline is “How Millennials Are Killing Off the Concept of Marriage.” If you are under the impression that millennials are “saving” marriage, this chilling article will rudely disabuse you.
Many evangelicals have accommodated this momentous cultural shift, as they do most cultural shifts, by offering alleged biblical reasons for delaying marriage or simply remaining single, committed to a life of devout celibacy. This rationale provides cover and comfort for delayed marriage or lifelong celibacy among evangelicals. (There’s also the emergence of celibacy for “same-sex attracted” evangelicals, but that topic awaits another post. It’s unfortunately necessary to state here that the Bible does not condone same-sex “marriage” and, in fact, the practice would simply be unthinkable in biblical times, or any other times before our own.)
This emerging evangelical rationale creates roadblocks to Christian singles who creditably want to get married but can find no suitable spouse, since so many are content to remain single, having been granted warrant by their pastors and other leaders. A striking (and particularly flagrant) example is Preston Sprinkle’s article in Relevant magazine, “What the Church Gets Wrong About Singleness and Marriage.” One of many such arguments from what we might term the Evangelical Singleness-Celibacy Paradigm (ESCP), Sprinkle ticks off most of the usual evangelical reasons for staying single, and in fact argues, as many in the ESCP do, that singleness is spiritually superior to marriage. Single people simply make more devout Christians. Several of these reasons seem impressive on first sight, but wilt under more extensive scrutiny. This post offers brief, but more intense, scrutiny.
Paul in 1 Corinthians 7
We should start with 1 Corinthians 7. This is the seeming silver-bullet text of the ESCP. The apostle Paul is answering the Corinthians’ questions about marriage. The statements to which the ESCP draws special attention are located in vv. 7–9, 32–33:
I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that. But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion…. But I want you to be without care. He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord — how he may please the Lord. But he who is married cares about the things of the world — how he may please his wife.
This excerpt without context would seem to settle the matter once and for all: Paul wishes every Christian were celibate because celibates are more devoted to the Lord, but since some people can’t live without sex, they’re permitted to marry, living within a non-sinful but spiritually inferior state.
But this reading misses some key points that mitigate the sweeping verdict of the ESCP. First, this passage is the only one in the Bible in which the writer expressly declares that God did not command the writer’s words but merely permitted him to write them:
But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment …. But to the rest [Christians with unbelieving spouses who are content to remain with them] I, not the Lord, say …. Now concerning virgins: I have no commandment from the Lord … But she [an unmarried widow] is happier if she remains as she is, according to my judgment (vv. 6, 12, 25, 40).
In short, Paul makes clear that in much of this chapter he is offering sound counsel, not communicating God’s norms. This fact does not imply that Paul’s advice is less inspired or infallible than his other writings or than the rest of the Bible. It simply means that his revelation in this chapter is not as widely applicable. Nor does it justify our playing “buffet application”: picking and choosing which biblical revelation to obey and bypassing the rest. The text itself must indicate the parameters of applicability. This text, however, discloses that the much of the chapter is (like the Jews’ wars of extermination in Canaan) not universally applicable. It is ad hoc advice, calculated for a specific situation. The reason for this limited applicability is likely found in vv. 26–27:
I suppose therefore that this is good because of the present distress — that it is good for a man to remain as he is: Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife.
No one knows precisely what this “present distress” was. Some NT theologians like Richard B. Hays believe it was the impending Second Advent (pp. 126–129): Paul believed it would occur in the Corinthians’ lifetimes, perhaps even very soon (“the time is short,” v. 29). Yet to the Thessalonians Paul had written that the “day of Christ” was not impending (2 Thes. 2:1f.). 1 Corinthians was likely written just 2–5 years after 2 Thessalonians, so it’s unlikely that Paul would have reversed himself in such a short time. The Corinthian church was influenced by classical philosophy and its pagan Greek assumptions (ch. 1–2), including, as Gordon Fee notes, a spiritualized asceticism and dualism, which degraded the body and sex (p. 269) and lent credence to the singleness-celibacy viewpoint. Perhaps this contra-Christian influence was disrupting the church. Whatever the “present distress” was, it contributed to Paul’s counsel, which he pointedly distinguished from God’s command. In fact, as Fee writes, “[A]part from the command in v. 10, the whole [chapter] is filled with what is acknowledged by the apostle as his personal opinion” (p. 270). It is sound counsel for the “present distress,” but it is not normative. Celibacy is a special gift (v. 7), but it is an exception. Leon Morris summarizes:
Though he [Paul] himself prefers celibacy, his advocacy of that state is very moderate. He does not command a celibate life for all who can sustain it. He never says that celibacy is morally superior to marriage. He regards marriage as the norm, but recognizes that there are some, to whom God has given a special gift, who should remain unmarried. (p. 105)
Paul believed that celibacy was a valid, but non-normative and exceptional, calling. It is not “morally superior to marriage.” This is likely why in all his canonical writings, he didn’t communicate its requirements. After all, he was clear about marital requirements (Rom. 7:1–3; 1 Cor. 11:9–12; Eph. 5:22–33; Col. 3:18–19; 1 Tim. 4:1–4; 5:14; see also 1 Pet. 3:–7). If celibacy were spiritually superior to marriage, it’s hard to imagine why Paul (or another biblical writer) wouldn’t have outlined its specific stipulations as he did for marriage. But if gifted celibacy is rare and exceptional, this paucity of evidence makes sense.
In addition, the fact that Paul requires church elders to be the “husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:6) indicates he could not have believed that celibacy necessarily creates superior piety. Who of all people should be more devout than church leaders? Yet Paul did not require that they be celibate. In fact, it’s possible his words might plausibly be construed that celibates are not qualified for church eldership, though this is not an irrefutable conclusion.
In any case, the prime biblical text for the ESCP that, in Sprinkle’s words, “almost downplays marriage in light of the beautiful prospect of singleness” (1 Cor. 7) does nothing of the kind. It offers apostolic advice, not divine command, during a “present distress” that should not be universalized to apply in all possible situations.
Celibacy in the Resurrection
Another biblical argument from the ESCP stems from Jesus’ response to the Sadducees’ question about levirate marriage and the resurrection (Mt. 22:23–30; Mk. 12:18–25; Lk. 20:27–36). They referred to the Mosaic law found in Deuteronomy 25:5–6 that if a man dies childless, his brother is required to marry his wife and to father for his deceased sibling an heir. The Sadducees inquired whose wife the woman would be in the resurrection (a reality they denied) if she married a series of men, all of whom died leaving her childless. Jesus subverted their question and pinpointed their ignorance by asserting that that there is no marriage in the resurrected state. Christina Hitchcock, who has written a book extolling the virtues of singleness, argues that
[S]ingleness signifies …the reality of the Resurrection and the priority of the church. Singleness is a sign of God’s future breaking into our present, a future characterized by radical, total dependence on God. Within this reality, we’re not related to anyone or anything in and of themselves, but all our relationships go through Jesus and outward. That is the vision of the future we see in the Resurrection, and I think that’s the reason Jesus promised a future in which people will neither marry nor be given in marriage (Matt. 22:30).
Hitchcock is not on shaky ground in suggesting that what Hebrews terms “the powers of the age to come” (6:5) retroactively invade the present. This is what theologians call the Already/Not Yet. While we cannot enjoy all the benefits of the glorified eternal state now, we can enjoy some of them (see Rom. 8:10–11; 2Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:11–15). In fact, there is a tendency among some evangelicals to underestimate the eternal powers that have invaded our preconsummate world. They’re plagued by an under-realized soteriology. But the eternal state is not our present state, and some aspects of it are so unlike our present state that they are simply not pertinent in this age. Celibacy is one of them. The reason for this is that Christians will be a different order of being in the eternal state than we are now. We will be enfleshed humans (the only kind there are), but ours will be resurrected, glorified flesh.
One feature of the eternal order is that there will be no need for procreation, and this is Jesus’ underlying point. The reason there is no marriage in the resurrection is that there’s no procreation, just as there isn’t among the angels. The issue is not the abolition of marriage per se, as though it were inferior, but that since one of the chief reasons for marriage is procreation, and since it will be unnecessary in the eternal state, marriage itself is unnecessary. “In this new deathless life,” declares R.T. France in his commentary on the passage, “there will be no place for procreation…. It is this aspect of marriage which Jesus’ argument excludes from the resurrection life, rather than any suggestion that loving relationships have no place there” (p. 317). It is entirely possible that spouses will be even more closely linked and intimate in the eternal state, simply not married and therefore not procreating. The issue is that, in France’s words, there will be “a wholly new kind of life.”
This life cannot be experienced in the preconsummate age. One way to understand the situation is to borrow the theological language of God’s communicable and incommunicable attributes. The former he can communicate to man in a relative sense (love, kindness, holiness) but the latter he cannot communicate to man (omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence). Similarly, some features of eternity are communicable to the present age (the kingdom of God, resurrection righteousness in the Spirit, consistent victory over present evil powers), but others are incommunicable (immortality, sinlessness, inherent celibacy). Celibacy and childlessness are not examples of the retroactive in-breaking of the eternal kingdom, simply because that order of existence is not designed for the present world. It is suitable only to the eternal state.
C. R. Wiley pointed out to me after kindly being willing to read a pre-posting version of this essay that Paul in Ephesians 5:27 links the one-flesh union of marriage to the eternal state in detailing Christ’s preparation of his bride, the church, for her formal, spotless, presentation to him. Though this picture is, of course, metaphorical, it is hard to square with the ESCP thesis that marriage has no place in the consummation and that celibacy is an inherently higher spiritual state. If it were, it is perplexing that God would use marriage as precisely the metaphor for his eternal, and not merely temporal, union with his bride, the church.
It is therefore incorrect to suggest that celibacy is an eschatological sign of the eternal kingdom. There is nothing inherently superior about celibacy in the present world.
Jesus Reconfigured the Old Testament Family
Moreover, Preston Sprinkle writes that “Jesus reconfigured the Old Testament’s emphasis on family when he recognized all Christians as brothers and sisters.” In this telling, the OT was family-centered while the NT is Christian-centered. This distinction is wrong on two counts. First, Jehovah in the OT demanded loyalty of individuals even if it meant breaking with their family (remember God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac to him?), and the NT recognizes the holy solidarity of the family. The Gospel promises apply to children no less than to their parents (Ac. 2:38–39). Families as families were baptized (Ac. 16:15; 18:8). Both parents and children are an integral part of the church (Eph. 5:22–6:4). The centrality of the family in God’s creational (and not merely redemptive) purposes is a theme of the both testaments.
It bears mentioning that in Matthew 19 we read Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ retort that if, as Jesus taught, divorce is permitted only in carefully circumscribed cases, it is preferable not to marry:
But He said to them, “All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given: For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it.” (vv.11–12)
Here Jesus is saying much the same thing Paul did later in 1 Corinthians 7. Celibacy is a gift, but there is no hint it is preferable to marriage. Jesus did not shift his Father’s emphasis from the family to the individual, and he never suggested that celibacy or singleness is spiritually superior to marriage.
The Examples of Jesus and Paul
In a related argument, Sprinkle draws attention to the fact that both Jesus and Paul were unmarried. But this fact has little relevance to his overarching thesis. Jesus does have a metaphorical bride, the church, and had he taken a literal bride (a nearly unthinkable scenario), he would have been obliged to abandon her to untold grief at his agonizing death and subsequent departure to heaven. He knew he could not (and should not) fulfill earthly husbandly obligations.
Paul was possibly a widower, but as a unique itinerant (“apostle of the Gentiles,” Rom. 11:13), he no less than his Lord could fulfill biblical marital obligations. He was happy in his celibate state and wished that all the Corinthians could benefit from it; but this was his own opinion, and he never once implied that celibacy should be normative.
The biblical texts that the ESCP routinely enlist to support their viewpoint fail, in fact, to support it.
Marriage as a Creational Norm
However, one biblical text conspicuously absent from almost all arguments for the superiority of singleness or celibacy is the Genesis creation account, and this omission is the Achilles’ heel of their entire case. It’s therefore understandable why the ESCP might wish to bypass Genesis 1-2. What gives it particular weight is our Lord’s statement that the creation account is universally normative (Mt. 19:8; Mk. 10:6). His answer was in response to the Pharisees’ question whether divorce was permissible under any circumstances. Jesus flatly told them it is not, and grounded his answer in the creation order. The Mosaic law permitted divorce because of the Jews’ hard hearts, but the creation order, which establishes marriage as a universal norm, trumps Mosaic law. This is a remarkable assertion, because the Bible holds the Mosaic law in the highest regard. Jesus’ statement indicates that what we may call creational norms take precedence over divine law established in the post-Fall world. Such a law is a concession, in some cases, to human sinfulness. Creational norms are, by contrast, the original design for the “operating system.” For this reason, Genesis 1–2 conveys the most universally normative expression of God’s will for his creatures anywhere in the Bible.
One of those norms is marriage. God created man for woman and woman for man. He created them so that they themselves would procreate and exercise dominion in the earth (Gen. 1:26–28). This is sometimes called the cultural mandate. A direct inference is that apart from marriage and children, it is not possible (with the exception of gifted celibacy) for humanity to fulfill its God-given role the world. Because evangelicals have tended to maximize redemption and minimize creation, they don’t allow creational norms to govern their views of marriage and celibacy, despite the fact that Jesus believed these norms reflect his Father’s universal will. Marriage is God’s norm. Anything else, even when legitimate, is an exception.
Marriage is the Holy Default
A man alone or a woman alone can’t fully display the image of God. In marriage, humanity most spectacularly images God. Adam must have Eve; Eve must have Adam. Together they embody and exhibit the divine image as fully as a creature can. The Trinity — God the Father, Son and Spirit, God as one nature in three persons — enjoyed infinite, eternal, blissful communion. Their communion was so indescribably joyous, that they decided to share it (read John 17). God is not stingy. That’s why he created man and woman. The eternal communion of the triune God expands outward to man in time and history. Man and woman now share in the communal life of the triune God (though, of course, in no sense becoming God).
A single individual wouldn’t have fully reflected that triune image. Man and woman both, in complement, comprehensively reflect God’s image. But a man alone or a woman alone can’t fully display the image of God. In marriage, humanity most spectacularly images God. In the words of James B. DeYoung:
… God could have made a thousand males for Adam, yet He would not have fully achieved His own image and its internal diversity. Without that full-orbed picture, His own being would have gone unknown and unknowable. Only a woman, not another man, could complete the divine design for humankind (31).
Adam must have Eve; Eve must have Adam. Together — and only together — they embody and exhibit the divine image as fully as a creature can. This is why John Calvin can write in his commentary at 1 Corinthians 7:1, “[T]he man without the woman was, as it were, but half a man.” Yet Preston Sprinkle exudes:
Much of this anti-singleness message saturates the air of our churches, sometimes with words, other times with actions. The message is usually … subtle and unintended. But single people hear it loud and clear: You’re incomplete until you get married and have at least two kids. (But if you have more than four, then people think you’re weird again.)
But to be pro-marriage is not to be anti-single. It is a creational truth that you are incomplete until you get married, and the Bible requires the fruitful blessedness of children (Ps. 127:3–5) and does not exalt childlessness. “The Childfree Life,” if a conscious choice, is sin, violating the creational norm of a fruitfulness-designed marriage (Gen. 1:27–28).
If the ESCP were correct, we can imagine God’s saying at creation, “Adam, I’m going to create from your own body a woman, one like you, yet different. Whatever you do, however, don’t marry her. The unmarried state is spiritually superior. The woman will draw you away from me.” Such a sentiment is outrageous. On the contrary, and as hard as it might be to accept the verdict, God alone was not sufficient for the man. The man needed someone like him, and though he was created in God’s image, he needed someone more like him than God is. God intentionally created man good, but relationally incomplete, and every male without a wife, and female without a husband, is relationally incomplete, even though at times it is God’s will for them to be that way (as widowers, for example, or as gifted celibates). To be married is alone to be complete.
This profound meaning of marriage rooted in the creation order demolishes the ESCP thesis that marriage is optional and that it and celibacy are not much more different from one another than right-and left-handedness are. The ESCP suffers from deep anticreational roots whose accelerated growth in the last few years threatens to choke the gospel. This is an irony, because evangelicalism is putatively all about the evangel, the good news, the gospel. But by its anticreational direction it strikes out at humanity as the image of God, and at marriage, procreation, and the cultural mandate as creational norms in terms of which the gospel is even possible at all. No creation, no gospel. Misunderstood creation, misunderstood gospel.
God privileges marriage because it is an underlying rationale for creating humanity in the first place. Man and woman in marital union most fully reflect the image of God and, with rare exception, produce children as God’s plan to oversee and cultivate the rest of his creation.
This is what man and woman are on earth to do, and this is the exalted condition that the gospel of Jesus Christ restores man and woman to.
UPDATE: Though I implied it in my essay on singleness, I wish to state now explicitly and emphatically (to avoid misunderstanding) that my criticisms are not directed at godly single Christians who desire to get married but who are waiting on a faithful spouse. Rather, my criticisms are directed at those singles who have marginalized or devalued marriage or even cast it aside, and for parents and, in particular, church leaders who encourage them in their disobedience.