In our last post we explored the contemporary (near) consensus that in 1 Cor 7:7 ("I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another") Paul is speaking of God bestowing:
A spiritual gift on a select number of unmarried Christians which supernaturally empowers them with extraordinary sexual self-control and a settled positive attitude/contentment, both of which free them up to be devoted to gospel work in a special way. This is thought to be a life-long, set apart calling.
Those who teach this interpretation are usually quick to admit that “the gift of singleness/celibacy” is just a modern shorthand way of referring to this interpretation of 1 Cor 7:7. However, they are also just as quick to suggest that the interpretation itself is not new. In fact they typically claim that this understanding is a direct continuation of how the church has always understood 1 Cor 7:7. Not only that, but it is often suggested that this verse played an absolutely foundational role in informing the early church’s veneration of the unmarried life, and played a pivotal role in the establishing of monasticism and the celibate priesthood.
But here is the thing folks. It’s just not true.
Don’t get me wrong. I think that those who say it genuinely believe it to be true. But an examination of the evidence just doesn’t bear it out.
A warning— we’re about to get rather historical, but please bear with me, because this is important. After all, the very reason we need to have this discussion is because there has been a whole lot of assuming going on, and not enough looking at the actual evidence. If early church history is not really your thing, don't worry! My advice is to not get too hung up on dates and names, but instead just follow the general vibe.
Let’s Get Historical
Here's the starting headline. The entire chapter of 1 Corinthians 7 seems to have played no significant real role in discussions about marriage and (what we today call) "singleness" for the first 200 years of the church's existence. What is more, there is no specific reference to or quotation of 1 Cor 7:7 in any of the surviving manuscripts dated within those first two centuries. It isn't until the early 3rd Century (i.e., the AD 200s) that we begin to see significant discussions about virginity and continence (the ancient's preferred theological terms of reference when speaking about “singleness”). During that century, 1 Corinthians 7 started to become of greater interest to the early church fathers. 1 But even then, verse 7 itself played only a minimal part in their discussions.
[Pssst. If you’re content to just take me at my word on that, then permission is granted to just skip the next couple of paragraphs. If you are a 'show me the evidence' kind of person, then read on]
Towards the end of the 1st Century, Clement of Rome speaks briefly of "continence" being a gift from God. 2 Though he doesn't quote or directly refer to 1 Cor 7:7 (either in part or whole) it is quite possible that Paul's words may have been in the back of his mind. However, even if that was the case, he doesn't say anything about the character, nature or content of that gift itself. He just mentions it, alongside the other examples of wisdom and humility, in order to emphasise his broader point that because all gifts are from God there is no excuse for any kind of personal pride, boasting or self-exaltation.
Our earliest specific reference to 1 Cor 7:7 comes from Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 150-215). But neither of the two places he seemingly mentions the verse have anything to do with the nature of the gift.3 Around the same time, Tertullian mentions the “grace of continence” in what seems to be an allusion to 1 Cor 7:7.4 But again, there is no further discussion about the character of that gift. In a short treatise dated around the middle of the 3rd Century (which focuses on the benefits of virginity and sexual continence), Cyprian lists a whole lot of relevant verses, including 1 Cor 7:7.5 But the verse is just quoted and again no commentary is given about what he thinks the gift is or means.
In other words, until the middle of the 3rd Century we find some passing references to the "gift" of 1 Cor 7:7, but no real dialogue which seeks to unpack the meaning or significance of the gift/s which Paul speaks about it in.
But then things start to get a bit more interesting.
[Psssst. Time to tune back in now folks]
Sometime around AD. 250, Origen gives us our first real discussion of the gift of 1 Cor 7:7, and guess what? He was far more interested in talking about the “gift of marriage” than the “gift of singleness/continence/virginity/celibacy/whatever we want to call it”
And, since God has joined them together, [in marriage] on this account in the case of those who are joined together by God, there is a “gift”; and Paul knowing this,
that marriage according to the Word of God was a “gift,” like as holy celibacy was a gift,
But I would that all men were like myself; howbeit, each man hath his own gift from God, one after this manner, and another after that.
So there we have it. Our earliest specific insight into how the nature of the “gift” was understood in the ancient church and it says absolutely nothing about spiritual empowerment, special calling, booster shots of sexual self-control and contentment or anything like that. Instead, Origen just says that both marriage and celibacy (i.e., “singleness") are both gifts that God gives his people. But maybe Origen is just an outlier?
Well, we need to jump ahead about 100 years because there doesn’t seem to be any other surviving writings which reference 1 Cor 7:7 until the middle of the fourth century. Living around AD 347-407, John Chrysostom (the archbishop of Constantinople) had quite a bit to say about how awesome virginity was, but (surprise, surprise) very little—in fact, it seems pretty much nothing—to say about the gift in 1 Cor 7:7. Despite his lack of interest in the gift itself, there is one thing he says that is relevant to our discussion. In one of his homilies he talks about the importance of the Christian person’s “will” in living virtuously for God. He writes:
How is it then (some one says) that many are not able? How is it then that many are not willing? For, if they be willing, all will be able. Therefore also Paul says, “
I would that all men were even as I myself
” (1 Cor 7:7),
since he knew that all were able to be as himself.
For he would not have said this, if it had been impossible. Dost thou wish to become [such]? only lay hold on the beginning.
Did you catch it? “Since [Paul] knew that all were able to be as himself...”. Though Chrysostom doesn’t specifically mention the “gift” here, his comment stands in direct opposition to our contemporary interpretation of it being a necessary special booster without which the unmarried Christian would be unable to live virtuously. To his mind, such a thing was not needed because “if they be willing, all will be able”. Now, it doesn’t actually matter whether we agree with him on this or not. The point is that it’s now almost AD 400 and we still haven’t found an early church father who supports our modern interpretation of the gift… the same interpretation which is generally considered to be a direct inheritance from them.
So, maybe the big guns of Jerome and Augustine will turn things around for us? Spoiler alert: #nope.
Jerome (c. AD 347 – 420) is a bit of a controversial figure. In the interests of not making this post any longer than it already is, let me just say he was such a big fan of Christians not getting married that he ended up giving husbands and wives a pretty bad rap. Which is why it’s interesting that when he does specifically mention 1 Cor 7:7 he says this:
This, says [Paul], I wish, this I desire that ye be imitators of me, […]
“Howbeit each man hath his own gift from God, one after this manner, and another after that.”
[…] At the same time consider, that the gift of virginity is one, that of marriage, another […] I grant that even marriage is a gift of God, but between gift and gift there is great diversity.
So here we have the early church’s loudest and proudest proponent of virginity/celibacy/continence, writing specifically about 1 Cor 7:7, and instead of talking about how God has given a special gift which calls and/or supernaturally empowers a few people to that life, Jerome simply echoes what Origen said over 100 years earlier—marriage is a gift from God, and so is remaining unmarried (i.e., virginity).
While Augustine (AD 354-430) was to also become a big fan of Christians remaining unmarried and sexually continent, he didn’t agree with Jerome on everything. However, one thing he did see eye to eye with him on was the inclusion of marriage amongst the gifts of 1 Cor 7:7. Augustine writes:
That chastity in the married state is God’s gift, is shown by the most blessed Paul, when, speaking on this very subject, he says:
“But I would that all men were even as I myself: but every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that.”
. Observe, he tells us that this gift is from God; and although he classes it below that continence in which he would have all men to be like himself, he still describes it as a gift of God.
Here we have another confirmation of the ancient view that 1 Cor 7:7 spoke about both marriage and “singleness” being gifts from God. Ah! But Augustine says that it is “chastity in the married state” (i.e. virtuous sexuality in marriage) which is God’s gift. So perhaps this does hint at some special spiritual empowerment as needed for godly (sexual) living in marriage? And if it does, then wouldn’t that imply that a special spiritual empowerment is also needed for virtuous sexual living (i.e., “continence”) in singleness too?
Well, yes, But also no. We need to take some additional time to sort through this.
Getting gifted with Augustine
Elsewhere, Augustine has this to say about 1 Cor 7:7:
And when the apostle would exhort married people to conjugal chastity, he says,
“I would that all men were even as I myself; but every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, another after that;”
where he plainly shows not only that continence is a gift of God, but even the chastity of those who are married.
So, yes, Augustine sees both sexual chastity in marriage and sexual continence in celibacy as being grace gifts from God. But no, not in the way we think about it today.
Here's the thing. Augustine wrote lots about marriage, continence and virginity. But interestingly enough, we don't find this above discussion on 1 Cor 7:7 in those treatises. Instead, this bit on 1 Cor 7:7, marital chastity and virginal continence is found within... are you ready for it?... his discussions about the relationship between human free will and God’s grace. Why?! Well, read on.
Augustine sets the scene for his discussion by holding together two huge truths at the very same time:
Therefore, my dearly beloved, as we have now proved by our former testimonies from Holy Scripture that
there is in man a free determination of will for living rightly and acting rightly
; so now let us see what are the divine testimonies
concerning the grace of God, without which we are not able to do any good thing.
That is, Scripture shows that we humans have the freedom of will to determine to live rightly before God (which also makes us responsible for our actions before him). But Scripture also says that because of our fallen state, it is only by the grace of God that we are able to actually do that which is good and godly. In order to illustrate this point, Augustine turns to the topic of virtuous sexual living in both marriage and “singleness”. He writes:
Writing to the Corinthians […Paul] added:
“But I could wish that all men were even as I am myself,”
—meaning, of course, that he abstained from all cohabitation; and then proceeded to say:
“But every man hath his own gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that.”
Now, do the many precepts which are written in the law of God, forbidding all fornication and adultery, indicate anything else than free will? Surely such precepts would not be given
unless a man had a will of his own, wherewith to obey the divine commandments.
In other words, the very fact that God has defined how we might use our sexuality for the sake of righteousness (i.e., chastity in marriage, continence in singleness) versus how we might abuse our sexuality for the sake of unrighteousness (i.e., adultery within marriage, fornication outside of it) is based on the fact that we have the freedom of will to choose either of these things. The "law of God" presupposes free human will to action. But then Augustine goes on immediately afterwards to say:
yet it is God’s gift which is indispensable
for the observance of the precepts of chastity. [...] If he should say in respect of these commandments, “I wish to keep them, but am mastered by my concupiscence,” then the Scripture responds to his free will, as I have already said:
“Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” [Romans 12:21].
In order, however, that this victory may be gained,
grace renders its help.
That is, even though we have freedom of will to choose righteousness, because of sin it is only by the gift of God's grace than any of us are actually able to do that.
OK. Sure. But what does all of this mean in relation to the gift/s of 1 Cor 7:7?! Well, it means that if I, as an unmarried Christian, was to say to Augustine:
"My sexual desire is just too strong for me resist. I can’t do this whole continence/celibacy thing as a single Christian”,
Augustine would respond by saying:
“Dear sister, you and I both know a cop out when we hear one. You have a will which you are responsible to use for righteousness' sake. Don’t allow yourself to be overcome by your sinful sexual desires. Instead, overcome evil with good. But, beloved, you and I also both know that we are fallen and that the only way in which any of us can truly overcome evil with good is by the grace of God, given to us as a gift”.
So, in summary, yes, Augustine sees the “gift” of 1 Cor 7:7 as being the spiritual empowerment of God for us to overcome our sinful desires and so remain sexually self-controlled (in either marriage or singleness). But this is not a special booster shot of extraordinary sexual mastery and contentment for just some – it’s the gracious gift of God to all of us, so that we might not be overcome by evil in any area of our lives. Augustine uses the example of 1 Cor 7:7 to show how God’s grace is given (as a gift) to every married person who desires to live in faithful sexual monogamy, just as it is given to every unmarried person who desires to live in faithful sexual continence/abstinence.
According to Augustine, the gift language of 1 Cor 7:7 refers to the grace of God in our lives, at work in us by the Spirit, enabling any and all of us to righteously choose to use our sexuality to glorify him, love others, and dignify ourselves. In this sense, his understanding of the “gift of singleness” is markedly different from the contemporary understanding which sees it as something extraordinary, above and beyond the "ordinary" grace of God (what an oxymoron!), already at work in the lives of all believers.
As Augustine says elsewhere:
It is difficult to treat of the virtue of the soul, which is called continence, in a manner fully suitable and worthy;
but He, whose great gift this virtue is, will help our littleness under the burden of so great a weight.
Getting even more gifted with Augustine
However, we're not done yet. Because there is another way in which Augustine's understanding of this verse differs significantly from the commonly accepted one today.
In our previous post we saw that one of the key components of the modern interpretation of 1 Cor 7:7 is that it is only for a small, select, special, set-apart group of people who are willing to embrace it. It is only for those who have “the ears to hear it”. Or, to jump ahead to the Matthean passage that we’ll return to in a later post:
[Jesus said] 'Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given' - Matthew 19:11
In that same post we also saw that the way you discern whether you are amongst the special few recipients of the gift is (according to the old consensus) because you don’t struggle with sexual temptation and discontentment in singleness, or (according to the new perspective) if you discern God has called you to this special and distinctive vocation based on your circumstances and personal sense of calling. This is what we are told it means to have ears to hear, to be able to receive the gift.
But Augustine disagrees. Here is what he says about who the gift of God’s grace for obedience (sexual or otherwise) is for:
And yet “all men do not receive this saying, except those to whom the power is given.”
Now they to whom this is not given either are unwilling or do not fulfil what they will; whereas they to whom it is given so will as to accomplish what they will.
What Augustine is saying here is that the ones who “receive” the grace gift that allows them to embrace sexual obedience are the ones who, through their free will, desire to actually live that way. The gift is given to all those who are willing to accomplish what they wish to accomplish. The ones who don’t actually set their will towards godliness don’t receive the gift. In other words, the one who has “ears to hear” is the one who is willing to hear... and obey. This quote from elsewhere makes it a little bit clearer:
Although, therefore, we say that obedience is the gift of God, we still exhort men to it.
But to those who obediently hear the exhortation of truth is given the gift of God itself
that is, to hear obediently;
while to those who do not thus hear it is not given
(Side note: It's important to know that Augustine also says the only reason any of us have any inclination to be obedient to God at all is because of God’s graciousness to us. He writes ‘our turning to God were itself God’s gift’.)
So, in summary, if I were to go to Augustine today and say:
“I’m trying to work out if I have been given the “gift of singleness” in 1 Cor 7:7. How do I know if it is my gift? How do I know if it has been given to me to receive it?”
He would say something like this to me:
“Beloved, let’s read Titus 2:11-13 together.
'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, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself up for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works’.
Sister, has your Saviour redeemed you from all lawlessness?
Have you been purified by Jesus to be his own?
Are you zealous for good works in your singleness?
Are you set on renouncing ungodliness and worldly passions in your singleness?
Do you desire to live a self-controlled, upright and godly in your singleness?
Yes? Then, dear one you have the ears to hear. You are able to receive the gift. Rejoice! It has been given to you”
The Two Long, Didn’t Read Summary
Phew. Ok. That was hard work, right? But it was important work. Because here is the thing friends...
You or I may disagree with Origen or John Chrysostom, or Jerome or Augustine when it comes to any aspect of their interpretations of 1 Cor 7:7. But that is beside the point. What matters here is that they don’t’ agree with our interpretation of it. Our understanding of the “gift of singleness/celibacy/continence/whatever you want to call it” is not a continuation of an age-old tradition that stretches back to the earliest Christians. It simply isn’t.
None of the early church fathers thought that in 1 Cor 7:7 Paul was saying that God bestows a special spiritual gift and calling on a select number of unmarried Christians which supernaturally empowers them with extraordinary sexual self-control and a settled positive attitude/contentment (not available to all other Christians), which frees them up to be devoted to gospel work in a set apart way for life.
Not only do they not say any of this, but what they do say counters significant elements of it. Our understanding of the “gift” was simply not their understanding of it.
So I guess the outstanding question is, if we didn’t inherit it from our earliest Christian ancestors—if it hasn’t been a continuous thread which has run through the entire history of the church—then how and why did we end up with this interpretation?
That’s what we’ll explore in our next, and (I promise) final, post on the gift.
For those interested in following up a little more specific detail about the use of 1 Corinthians 7 in the earliest centuries of Christian history, you might like to read this article, paying special attention to the table of references to 1 Corinthians 7 in extant early church writings towards its end. Ford, J. Massingberd. "St Paul, the Philogamist (I Cor. vii in Early Patristic Exegesis) 1." New Testament Studies 11, no. 4 (1965): 326-348.
John Chrysostom, The Homilies of St John Chyrsostom on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Homily XVI.