So, we left our last post in the early AD 400s with St Augustine (probably the most prominent of all early church writes on matters of sexuality, sin and godliness) saying that, in 1 Cor 7:7 Paul teaches that godly sexual living in both marriage and (what we today call) “singleness” is a gift from God. Furthermore, it’s a gift because he graciously works in those who desire to live in godly sexual obedience (in either situation) so that they are able to do just that.
And here we are about 1600 years later, broadly convinced, (as in our first post on this topic) that the only way an unmarried Christian will not eventually end up sinning sexually is if God gives them a special gift of extraordinary and supernaturally empowered sexual self-control, above and beyond the “ordinary” work of the Spirit.
Why did this shift happen? How did it happen?
Well given that 1600 years is a long time, and the world is a big place, those are very complicated questions! And I’ve already promised that this will be the last post on this topic of the gift. So what we are going to do is zoom in on just one of the most significant answers of that why and how— the Reformation.
Singleness Before the Reformation
Here is an extremely potted history of the place of singleness/celibacy/not-being married in the first 1500 years or so of the church’s history.
In the early church (roughly the first 6 centuries), there were some ebbs and flows on the topic, especially in the early centuries. But during the 3rd Century, the virginal, unmarried, continent life came to be elevated as the ideal form of life of the Christian person. As the years unfolded there were a range of different contexts in which unmarried Christians might choose to live out that life. However, the reality is that the vast, vast (did I mention, vast?), majority of ordinary, everyday Christians did not have the luxury of choosing to either delay marriage or remain unmarried. (See the first post in this series for more on that). Not only that, but many, even most, early church clergy of the time tended to be married.
The early church eventually transitioned into the church of the Middle Ages. It was during this time that the monastic tradition really became established and communities of monks and nuns began to settle themselves throughout medieval Europe. It was also during this era that various church councils eventually mandated that all priests must remain unmarried and sexually abstinent. However, this wasn’t absolutely finalised till the 12th Century (that is, much later than many people think). During the Middle Ages, the celibate monk, nun and priest were increasingly established as these kind of set-apart mystical heroes of the faith who were deemed to be “closer” to God. This meant that there was a growing chasm between them and your run-of-the-mill, ordinary, everyday Christians (the vast majority of whom still had little choice but to marry). But not only was that chasm expected, it was even celebrated. You see, in being “closer” to God, these celibate heroes - and especially priests - were perceived to be in the perfect position to act as mediators between God and everyone else.
Which brings us to the beginning of the 16th Century and the dawn of a new era. An era characterised by massive theological, social, political and institutional upheaval. An era we call The Reformation.
Now, I’m not going to even attempt to do a potted history of the Reformation. However, if you don't have much of a working knowledge of this era, you might like to pause and watch this video. Click to watch it. (Top tip: it’s only 7 mins long if you play it at 1.5 speed ;) )
(Keep in mind that this is just a potted history and not one which is particularly interested in exploring all the theological nuances of the Reformation! ).
However, there is one aspect of the Reformation which we do need to explore at more depth, and that is the changing attitudes towards marriage and celibacy which it brought about.
Rehabilitating Marriage & Reforming Celibacy
By the time Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the cathedral door in Wittenberg (in 1517) compulsory celibacy had already been mandated for all priests for almost 400 years. Not surprisingly, there were some priests (and monks and nuns) who weren’t as committed to the whole celibacy thing as they were technically meant to be. And so we find sordid stories of concubines and mistresses and illegitimate children and so on.
The Reformers were (quite rightly) pretty upset about this kind of corruption amongst the very people whose role was supposedly to mediate between ordinary Christians and God. (Of course, they were also pretty upset that anyone thought there was even a need for such mediators beyond Jesus, but that’s another story). In reality, their perception that the priesthood was basically a cesspool of sexual sinners was probably a bit of an exaggeration of reality. There is no doubt that it was happening to some degree (and, let’s face it, any degree was despicable), but probably not to the extent that Reformation writings suggested. In any case, in the minds of the Reformers:
clerical celibacy and its apparent fruits were […] a symptom of a disordered church which stood in need of radical reform’.
And so reform they did – both in what they wrote and spoke about, but also in how they lived. By the time the Reformation was in full swing, most of its previously unmarried and celibate leaders had themselves married.
Writing about (and against) clerical celibacy involved the Reformers engaging in theological discussions about marriage, “singleness” and sexuality more broadly. In essence, they argued that the Catholic Church’s mandating of clerical celibacy and monastic practices were an outright rejection of God’s primary orientation of men and women towards marriage. With the sexual sin of a supposedly celibate priesthood in the background, the Reformers cried out:
“See! Look what the result has been! A bunch of people who have had celibacy mandated upon them but who aren’t able to live it out. A bunch of people who have demonstrated that it’s basically impossible for the average Christian person to live a sexually godly life unless they are married”.
But don’t just take my word for it:
[Because our flesh is] corrupted in Adam and Eve and filled with evil desires, therefore because of this very disease,
marriage is a necessity for him and it is not in his power to get along without it
. For his flesh rages, burns, and fructifies just like that of any other man, unless he helps and controls it with the proper medicine, which is marriage.
[Unless you are specifically exempted from marriage by God, nobody should] consider anything except the estate of marriage. Otherwise it is simply impossible for you to remain righteous. For the Word of God which created you and said, “Be fruitful and multiply,” abides and rules within you; you can by no means ignore it,
or you will be bound to commit heinous sins without end.
[The] companionship of marriage has been ordained as a
necessary remedy to keep us from plunging into unbridled lust
Of course, it’s not hard to work out what all that meant for unmarried Christians, right?
[No Christian person should voluntarily choose to remain unmarried] unless
he be especially called by God,
like Jeremiah [16:2], or unless he finds God's grace to be so powerful within him that the divine injunction, “Be fruitful and multiply”, has no place in him.5
Such persons are rare, not one in a thousand, for
they are a special miracle of God.6
[Virginity] is denied to some and granted to others only for a time. Hence, those who are troubled with incontinence and cannot prevail in the struggle should turn to matrimony to help them preserve chastity in the degree of their calling […] Let no man cry out against men—as many do today—that with God’s help he can do all things[…]
The Lord affirms that continence is a special gift of God, one of a kind that is bestowed not indiscriminately, not upon the body of the church as a whole, but upon a few of its members
[…] Paul declares it even more clearly when he writes: “Each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another” [1 Cor 7:7].7
Let me ask you a question. Does any of that sound familiar?
Yep. Our present day interpretation of the “gift” in 1 Cor 7:7 is a direct inheritance of the Reformation. It doesn’t go back to how those original Corinthians would have understood Paul’s words. It doesn’t go back to the first few centuries of the early church. It doesn’t go back to the pivotal arguments of fathers such as Jerome and Augustine and others as they defended the superiority of virginity. It was a “novel” interpretation belonging to the Reformers. And it is something we have inherited directly from them.
Discerning a Legacy
Now, please don’t get me wrong. We’ve inherited a lot of important, life-giving, exceptional theological truths from the Reformation. As an evangelical, Protestant Christian woman I stand firmly and so, so, thankfully in the Reformation legacy of salvation by faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone, revealed in Scripture alone and to the glory of God alone.
But the first people to tell you that the words of the Reformers should not to be taken as infallible and authoritative would be the Reformers themselves.
As with all teachings and interpretations of men, we need to read them carefully and discerningly. We need to dig underneath them so we can better understand the context in which they were written, why they were written, what the goal was in writing them. And we need to evaluate them against what is infallible and authoritative—Scripture itself.
It’s precisely on this point that I find the Reformers’, and our present day interpretation of the so-called “gift of singleness” (discussed at length here) so problematic.
You see, both their and our interpretation relies on the belief that as a single Christian, the temptation to misuse and abuse our sexual nature, is the one temptation that we are destined to eventually be overtaken by. But God’s word says:
No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
- 1 Corinthians 10:13
Both their and our interpretation relies on the belief that the one aspect of my fallen humanity which I am not going to be able to ultimately renounce is my worldly sexual passions. But God’s word says:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age
- Titus 2:11
Both their and our interpretation relies on the belief that the one thing in my life which I am destined to not be able to exercise self-control over, that I’ll eventually end up needing to gratify, are my sexual desires. But God’s word says:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. […] the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
- Galatians 5:16, 22-24
Can you see why the present-day interpretation of the “gift of singleness” has just never really made sense to me?
God has sent his son to die for me and to redeem me from my sin. God has promised that his Spirit—his very self—is dwelling within me and sanctifying me. How on earth could I presume that is not sufficient enough for me to live a godly life as a single disciple? How on earth could I think I need something more, something extra to be able to live without gratifying my sinful desires? How on earth could I even imagine that I need a “booster shot” to top up the sanctifying Spirit of God at work within me?
Friends, how does this make any sense at all? How??
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m a sinner. I. Am. A. Sinner.
But the reason I sin is not because God hasn’t given me everything I need to overcome it. To say no to it. To turn away from it. The reason I sin is because wretched creature that I am, I choose to give in to it. I choose to say yes to it. I choose to turn towards it.
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
- 1 John 2:1-2
My dear single Christian brother and sister (and in fact, my dear married Christian brother and sister too!), we should not sin. It grieves our loving heavenly Father. It deeply hurts others. It devastates us. We should not sin. But if we do sin (sexually or otherwise), may we also cling to the extraordinary, wonderful, life-giving truth of those words in 1 John 2!
Yet here too are some other words for us to cling:
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence
- 2 Peter 1:3
God has already given us everything we need for life and godliness. If we choose not to be godly then that is on us, not him. It’s because we have willingly said yes to sin, even as he has already graciously gifted us with everything we need to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives. What height of presumption to think we need something more, something extra, a booster shot!
We have forgiveness in Christ. We have sanctification in the Spirit. We have the grace of the Father. Single Christian, what greater “gift” could we be waiting for?
I tell you, none.
A Conclusion... of Sorts.
So then, if that is what the “gift” of 1 Cor 7:7 isn't, then what is it?
Many years ago I remember having a brain explosion when I read these words in Al Hsu’s book The Single Issue (republished later as Singles at the Crossroads).
The ‘gift of singleness’ is not something that must be spiritually discerned or subjectively felt […] It is not some supernatural empowerment for some function of ministry.
Rather, the gift is a description of an objective status.
If you are single, then you have the gift of singleness. If you are married, you don’t. If you marry, you exchange the gift of singleness for the gift of marriedness. Both are good. Simple as that.8
Yes! Finally an alternative understanding to the one that I had grown up with but had made no sense to me at all. Ever since I first read Hsu's book, I’ve held to this understanding of the gift. And I still do. Mostly. (Read on). But in the back of my mind was always this niggling doubt.
“If this really is what it means, how come this is the first time you’re hearing it? Smart people are saying that it goes against 2000 years of how Christians have always understood this verse. I know it seems to make more sense to you. But Dani, are you really, really sure?”
Together we’ve discovered that no, this interpretation does not go against 2000 years of how Christians have always understood this verse. In fact, we could perhaps conclude that it even finds active support from a couple of early church fathers such as Origen and Jerome! We’ve also discovered that the contemporary interpretation is a direct inheritance from the Reformation, and specifically their conviction that Christians need either the remedy of marriage or the “gift” of celibacy in order to avoid an inevitable life of sexual immorality. I hope I’ve been able to explain why that interpretation simply doesn’t stack up for me, either biblically or theologically.
But our investigation has left me pondering something new.
After spending time considering Augustine’s discussion on the gift, I am now left wondering whether Paul might not just be saying that the situation of being either single or married is a gift from God. But… that by his grace God also always equips us to live as obedient and holy children within whatever situation he gives us as a gift. Not by means of a special booster shot. But means of his indwelling Spirit who works to make us more and more like Jesus.
Perhaps this too is essential to the character of the gift?
I shall keep pondering. I hope you will too.
In our next post we'll begin to explore the other biblical passage which often features in present day discussions of "celibacy". Subscribe below to meet the eunuchs of Matthew 19:10-12.
Helen Parish, Clerical Celibacy in the West: c.1100-1700, Catholic Christendom, 1300-1700, (New York, NY: Routledge 2016), 135.
Martin Luther, "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7," in Luther's Works: Commentaries on 1 Corinthians 7, 1 Corinthians 15; Lectures on 1 Timothy, ed. Hilton C. Oswald (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1973), 25.
Martin Luther, "The Estate of Marriage," in Luthers Works, ed. W.I. Brandt, Christian in Society (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1962), 21.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John Baillie, John T. McNeill, and Henry P. Van Dusen, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, ed. John T. McNeill, The Library of Christian Classics, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 405, §2.8.41.
Luther, "The Estate of Marriage," 21.
Luther, "The Estate of Marriage," 21.
Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1, 406, §2.8.42.
Albert Y. Hsu, The Single Issue (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1998), 61.