by Johnathan Arnold
In the Conservative Holiness Movement, we hear countless exhortations about worldliness — and rightly so. James 4:4 warns, “…know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God?” However, Romans 12:2 suggests that the fight against worldliness is just as much about how we think as it is about what we wear or how we entertain ourselves. When it comes to the question, “How do we view people who are single and celibate?” we may be much more worldly that we would like to admit.
Perhaps you have heard this kind of chatter in the vestibule of your church or on Facebook messenger:
“She’s still single? How old is she now?”
“At some point, he is going to have to stop being so picky.”
“I feel so bad for her. She is 30 and still hasn’t found anyone.”
“I’ll never understand why he didn’t marry. Poor guy — must be lonely.”
Like most people who fall outside our cookie cutters, celibate people do not want special attention. They want to be recognized for who they are: brothers and sisters in the Lord.
While we may attribute these statements to “sympathy,” they constitute gossip. Very few unmarried people appreciate our pity. Most destructively, they reflect underlying attitudes that do not align with gospel values.
When we compare the world’s view on singleness and celibacy to that of Scripture, we must ask ourselves: are we conformed to this world, or have we been transformed by the renewing of our minds?
The World Views Singleness as a Curse; Scripture Views Singleness as a Gift
In 1 Corinthians 7:6-9, Paul writes, “I speak this by permission, and not of commandment. For 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. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn [with passion].”
We should not think for a moment that this is just Paul’s opinion, or that it is in any way less divinely inspired because Paul says, “I speak this by permission.” He is taking precautions to ensure that the Corinthians do not perceive this point of wisdom as a command to be celibate. The key phrase that reveals Paul’s attitude towards singleness is in verse 7: “But every man hath his proper gift of God.”
Marriage is not a right. We are not entitled to a spouse. Marriage is not even something that we deserve or can earn. It is a gift from God. This is not a hard truth; however, when is the last time that we have thought about singleness as a gift? In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul says that both married life and celibate life are gifts from God’s good hand.
Worldliness is just as much about how we think as it is about what we wear or how we entertain ourselves.
God gives special grace to those whom He has called to be celibate or to those who have chosen to be celibate for the sake of the Kingdom. While this lifestyle has its challenges, so does married life — and we don’t usually pity married people! Likewise, we should not view unmarried people as having a tough lot or as being somehow less than married people. We should view them as having a unique gift and affirm them as individuals apart from their relationship status.
The World Views Singleness as a Problem; Scripture Views Singleness as an Opportunity
In 1 Corinthians 7:32–34, Paul writes, “But I would have you without [anxieties]. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife. There is difference also between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit: but she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband.”
Christ’s impressive single-mindedness for accomplishing the Father’s will on earth did not allow him to be entangled in a romantic relationship.
For traveling apostles such as Paul, a wife and children were a huge liability as he was “in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren” (2 Cor. 11:26). When dragged to the stone for his beheading, Paul needed to be able to concentrate on the Christ for whom he was suffering rather than the family which he was leaving behind.
Singleness is an opportunity for a special level of single-mindedness. Singleness is not a problem to be solved. While it is possible to be absorbed — even obsessed — with the glory of God and still be a good husband and father, it is not without its challenges. It is no coincidence that many of our spiritual heroes in the great cloud of witnesses, upon closer inspection, advanced the kingdom at the cost of strained marriages.
Of course, marriage also presents unique opportunities. The ministry of many men has been enhanced and supplemented by the presence of a godly spouse and gospel-partner. Nevertheless, an unmarried minister (or Christian in general, as we have all been assigned the ministry of reconciliation) should not overlook the blessings of his portion.
Young people should take advantage of their unmarried years to drive deep stakes, spend a considerable amount of time in God’s Word, and delve into the things of God before being encumbered with the cares of life. Fear of being alone is a huge motivator for seeking a spouse; this fear is impossible to overcome unless we are absorbed with the Person of Jesus and the glory of God in the gospel.
The World Views Celibacy as Laughable; Scripture Views Celibacy as Honorable
The world is vicious in the way it deals with celibate people. Some best-selling comedies center around the idea that someone could be in his or her thirties and forties and still be a virgin.
In Matthew 19:12, Jesus shatters these ideas from fallen minds: “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”
“There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” You won’t find that on a greeting card. Nevertheless, these words are just as true as all of the other words in red.
The most whole person to ever live never had sex and was never in a romantic relationship. That person is Jesus.
Celibacy was a central virtue in the monastic communities that helped to preserve the gospel during one of the darkest periods in church history. Monks were convinced that even in celibacy and simplicity of life, “my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:9).
The world does not think that a person can be whole without sexual intimacy. Even sincere Christians easily buy into this lie, overlooking that the most whole person to ever live never had sex and was never in a romantic relationship. That person is Jesus.
This is especially key for engaging a culture that is preoccupied with LGBT issues. We have failed to speak grace into the lives of men and women who are confused about their sexual tendencies and, thus, many have wholeheartedly embraced the demonic doctrines of our day. God’s Word is a good word on every subject. If we really believed that singleness and celibacy were good — indeed, very good and from the Father’s hand — we would not feel so bound up in our discussions with people who do not feel attracted to the opposite gender and live in fear of loneliness.
The World Views Marriage as Supreme; Scripture Views Christ as Supreme
In Mark 12:25, Jesus said, “When they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven.”
Marriage is a good thing, but marriage is not eternal. We are not ready for marriage until we are ready for heaven. We are not ready to treasure a spouse until we treasure the Lamb. Matthew 6:33 is a key verse for those seeking a mate: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
When we respect celibacy, we share in showing Christ’s supremacy because we refuse to worship marriage as supreme.
As Christians, we draw our identity from being in Christ, not from our marriage status. If a celibate brother or sister in Christ is conscious of the fact that God has called them to that life, it may be helpful to simply say, “I respect and admire your decision to stay single. That is very admirable.” Or, it may be best to say nothing and simply extend your friendship to them as you would anyone else. Like most people who fall outside our cookie cutters, celibate people do not want special attention. They want to be recognized for who they are: brothers and sisters in the Lord. When we respect these wishes, we share in showing Christ’s supremacy because we refuse to worship marriage as supreme.
Romans 12:2 tells us to "be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds.” Have we been transformed in the way we think about singleness and celibacy? Or are we worldly?
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