There is No Such Thing as a Gift of Singleness or Gift of Celibacy or Being Called to Either One
The following reader response (by gortexgrrl) appeared on a blog by a guy named Jeremy, who read a blog post about singleness by another guy named Kostenberger and blogged about it.
Gortexgrrl references Debbie Maken in passing in one of her posts below. I do not agree with all of author Debbie Maken’s views.
Maken pushes for something called “marriage mandate,” and despite what goretexgrrl states below, Maken does go a little “blame the victim” on women who desire marriage, yet who still find themselves unmarried into their 30s and older.
Yes, Maken seems to most heavily blame men for women being single, but I’ve read comments by Maken on other blogs and excerpts of her books, and she does blame women a little bit – she assumes if you are a woman who is still single at 35 or 40, it’s because you didn’t do enough to get a spouse when you were 25, or there was something more you could have done.
The Makens of the world refuse to acknowledge that marriage is often beyond a person’s control: you can join every dating site on the planet and go to every singles church function known to mankind and still find yourself single at 40.
Here are the posts where “Gift of Singleness/ Celibacy” was discussed:
The confusion created by the three different meanings of the “gift of singleness” that you’ve aptly described in your first post would seem to be good enough reason for everyone to just abandon the term altogether.
The “gift of singleness” is a term that appears nowhere in the Bible. Nor does “the gift of celibacy”.
When I posted my concerns about the problems created by the “GOS” [Gift Of Singleness] on Kostenberger’s blog, they were removed (along with others, particularly those that questioned whether or not he had actually read Maken’s book, since he seemed to suggest that it was about blaming women, when the blame was really more heavily directed towards men).
Free speech. Academic freedom. Do any of those things have any meaning in the minds of theologians? Here’s one of my posts, you can critique my thoughts on “the gift of singleness” as well as the question of censorship while you’re at it:
Unfortunately, I must vehemently disagree with the glowing reviews in the posts above and object to this mischaracterization of Maken’s book. She does NOT say “women who are in their late 20s or in their 30s and still unmarried have got only themselves to blame for lack of effort”.
If anything, she lets the women off the hook and blames single men and faulty church teachings for the current epidemic of protracted singleness among Christians.
Maken’s critique of the man situation would have been better if she had not indulged in an imbalanced “man bashing” and if she had acknowledged the severe shortage of men in our churches (which is indeed the greatest cause of protracted singleness among the female faithful). However, her indictment of problematic church teachings was ABSOLUTELY GROUNDBREAKING, especially in “rethinking the ‘gift of singleness’”.
With all due respect, there’s no such thing as “The Gift of Singleness”. The original biblical texts use no such term.
“GOS” first appeared in the Living Bibles of the 70’s, and later in The Message, perhaps to mitigate or update the Catholic notion of “the gift of celibacy” (also not biblical). 1 Cor 7:7 in the NRSV reads
“I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.”
Paul states his own preference regarding singleness/celibacy (scholars have debated for years which one) and makes a aside about the uniqueness (“IDIOS”) in how God gifts us (“CHARISMA”: grace gift, not ’spiritual gift’ per se) using a phrase common to Greek speakers to this day “HOS MEN HOUTO DE HOS HOUTO”, which has an INDEFINITE meaning: “like this and like this (and like this, etc.) It’s meaning is NOT either/or, as in “gift of marriage” or “GOS”, it’s less specific than that!
In light of “the present distress” (v.26) the option of singleness/celibacy is presented by Paul as a RECOMMENDATION, not a “gift”.
Likewise, in Matthew 19:12, Christ makes no mention of gifting or calling, but puts singleness/celibacy in the context of PERSONAL CHOICE by saying “some MAKE THEMSELVES eunuchs” for the kingdom… so allow or make space for them (“choreos”) if they are so inclined.
According to 1 Cor 7:8, it is KALOS, meaning “good” (NOT “better”, as it has sometimes been translated) to be single/celibate (and essential to be celibate for as long as you are single). But we don’t need to call singleness a gift to keep it from being deemed a second-class or undesirable status.
If anything, the proliferation of the vaunted “gift of singleness” teachings since the born again boom of the 70’s has had the effect of treating the ones who desire marriage as inferior Christians! See my Amazon book reviews for examples of the worst offenders.
Maken’s book and “The Freedom to Marry” by Ellen Varughese give numerous examples of singles who, as a result of these teachings, feel they have to cover up their anxiety or grief as time slips away. They have been given so many contentment messages that create the impression that being intentional about mate-finding effort is somehow sinfully “getting ahead of God’s will” …despite the fact that previous generations of Christians who enjoyed the ordinariness and universality of marriage would have thought these inhibitions to be preposterous!
…. singleness can be “self-inflicted” and apart from God’s plan for an individual’s life. But it can also be corporate and “other-inflicted” as well, which is the real story in Maken’s book (where she discusses the epidemic of protracted singleness in the church in terms of generational sin as we have absorbed the world’s way of postponing marriage) and Varughese’s book as well (where she discusses the “eunuch making effect” of these teachings).
But these larger societal factors GET MISSED, when everyone’s singleness is interpreted only in individual terms, as if it’s God’s will or plan for each of them that all these women end up single! Instead, we need to step back and repent that we have gone off course as a result of this extra-biblical rogue doctrine if we are to find solutions.
The guy who runs that blog accused the poster, gortexgrrl, of misrepresenting the other guy she was writing about. Here was gortexgrrl’s response to Jeremey Blog Owner:
Thank you for honoring the spirit of free discussion and posting my comment. It is indeed relevant to here because, after all, you are encouraging people to link over to Kostenberger’s article that he wrote in response to Maken’s book.
First of all, where do I draw the “conclusion that he is minimizing the value of marriage”? Read through my post again. I correct his misunderstanding of Maken’s position, refute the biblical grounds for “the gift of singleness” (a term he uses), AND THEN alerted him to the cumulative effect of many “gift of singleness” teachings since the born again boom of the 70’s (that “it has had the effect of treating the ones who desire marriage as inferior Christians”), NOT singling him out as an instigator of those effects, but providing other examples instead.
Despite the conflicting definitions of “the gift of singleness”, it just seems like there is no room for discussing the consequences of any of these teachings. Even a merely academic questioning of whether or not singleness is biblically considered a gift seems to be taken as a threat to the sovereignty of God, or a lack of trust in Him.
Sure, something caused by sin (possibly protracted singleness) is within the sovereignty of God, and so it “does not mean that it’s not God’s plan for the person”, but who’s to say that it is? Would you really go to that widow and say “it’s God’s will” or gift?
I think you’d want to just respect the mystery of God’s sovereignty, having faith that He will work all things to the good, etc., without glossing over the reality of the role sin and its consequences. Ditto for those dealing with the spectre of unwanted protracted singleness (and the losses that inevitably go along with it).
Faith in God and the mystery of His purposes is one thing, but requiring people to call every misfortune in their lives “a gift” is quite another. I know some people find comfort in that, others do not. The word “gift” can be applied too broadly and then it loses it’s meaning because familiarity breeds contempt. The “gift of singleness” has become a cliche of sorts, and has now become the butt of parody. This is what happens when the warning signs are ignored.
Another response by her to Jermey Blog Owner:
In regards to that quotation, I really don’t know how you could have misread me here. I was clearly affirming Kostenberger’s efforts to portray singleness as good, not second class, not undesirable. Despite his best intentions, he’s most likely unaware of a lot of the baggage comes along with a lot of those “gift of singleness” teachings. They mean well, but they know not what they do!
I do agree with you that nothing surprises God and that His sovereign plans are not frustrated by anything. But there is also the possibility of presuming too much on God, particularly in areas of our lives that require our participation. M. Blaine Smith has an excellent article on his website (Link): “Should I Get Married” that warns how Christians can get “sidetracked by speculative notions”.
And I do think that Maken has some excellent points about how calling singleness a gift keeps us from look at how we got to this place where so many Christians are struggling to find spouses.
In this regard, do you really think the epidemic of protracted singleness that we’re currently seeing right now is “a gift” in the NT sense, something that “God is using to build the church”? Or is it something that is eating at the fabric of the church as marriages and birthrates decline and people fall back into sin in their discouragement? Fortunately, reformers asked these same questions about the gift of celibacy 500 years ago.
The teachings that stem from “the gift of singleness” aren’t the only contributing factor, but they certainly have had their impact on people.
And again, we need to ask if how we are asking people to rejoice in their sufferings is compassionate.
Here’s another one: would you consider things like barrenness or war to be gifts? The Bible doesn’t seem to. Certainly those things fall under God’s sovereignty and good may come out of them. But just as we have to be careful not to presume too little about the sovereignty of God, we must also not presume too much about what He considers “gifts”.
Another response by her to Jermey Blog Owner:
“There are sinful things that do not serve to build the church immediately but undermine the purpose of the church to some extent”.
Yes, God can work all things (even the bad stuff) to His glory. And indeed, consequences can serve as an example of what not to do, and we can look back and be glad that things unfolded in the way that they did.
Something good may come out of this season of widespread protracted singleness, or the obesity epidemic, or global warming, etc., etc.
Or would requiring everyone to call those things “gifts” result not only in lack of compassion towards those who suffer? Or lack of responsibility and repentance? There has been this complacency around looking at the situation of protracted singleness because we can sit back and say, oh well, “it’s a gift”.
“War is a gift in several biblical descriptions of it”
Actually, no. The Bible does NOT call war a gift. God may convict people to go to war, have certain purposes in allowing war to happen, choose sides/gifting people with whatever is needed to fight, rewarding or judging accordingly, etc.
Again, trust and gratitude is are His due because indeed some of these things may be in God’s will– that doesn’t make them necessarily “God’s gift”. There’s a difference. Just as there is no such thing as “the gift of singleness”, there’s no “gift of war” (even saying the phrase sounds ludicrous!)
“What is presumptuous is to think we can know what the purpose is all the tme.”
Exactly. But that’s the rut we’ve gotten into with “the gift of singleness”. It presumes far too much, and projects causality too specifically into the life of the individual (it’s his ‘gift’ to you) without dealing with the larger (often knowable) reasons of why things happen.
It doesn’t lead to trusting more in God, if anything, it leads to too much time spent on tail-chasing “why God? musings, at the expense of true wisdom and discernment.
Another response by her to Jermey Blog Owner:[Jeremy wrote]:
“the Bible is a gift, which means the things that make something a gift are true of it”
Interesting that you should say this. God gave us the Bible and there’s a lot of wonderful things you could say about it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s “a gift”. There’s a thought: not everything that God gives us is necessarily “a gift”.
For one, the Bible doesn’t refer to itself as such, I mean, when was the last time you heard the ten commandments referred to as “a gift”? The are COMMANDMENTS, not gifts, that God has given us. (tho’ as Christians, we’d be glad that He did!). Likewise, marriage is not a gift from God, it’s a covenant, a vow, a promise, made with God.
You run into all kinds of hermeneutical problems when you start calling everything a gift. The word loses its meaning. And this is what has happened with “the gift of singleness”. People have caught on that it’s not from the Bible, and they are finally realizing that all kinds of stupid notions have flowed from this term…
…stuff like [quoting Christian book authors]:
“Before you can determine whom to marry, you must first answer an preliminary question: Does God want you to marry anyone, ever?” (Don Raunikar)
or Tim Stafford’s suggestion to young people that
“God might want you to be single” and if you think this is the case, you should swear off dating for six months to see if you’re “called to singleness”!
I mean, how are they to know? You’re not supposed to “lean on your own understanding” or base anything on human feelings (despite the fact that God obviously designed them to be important signals that tell us with some accuracy if something’s right or wrong).
What you want doesn’t matter, it’s what God wants that counts, right? And then Kostenberger, the great friend of singles, says “it is impossible to know for certain whether or not one has the gift of singleness until one dies”. This is ridiculous. It’s impossible to know if you have this gift because it’s does not exist: it’s a figment of modern singles writer’s imaginations!
People are realizing, after having been sent on these kinds of errands of frustration, that this stuff doesn’t even exist in the scriptures, which almost always speaks of marriage and singleness as a practical matter of personal volition (i.e. a man “finds a wife” in Proverbs 18:22, or “takes a wife” in 1 Cor 9:5 and 1 Thess 4:4, or “if you cannot contain then get married” in 1 Cor7:8, and “made themselves eunuchs” in Matt 19:12).
God willing something to happen (or not happen) and God allowing something to happen are two completely different things. And you know, another thing the Bible doesn’t say is “everything happens for a reason”.
The verses in Romans 8 that you’ve mentioned speak more along the lines of God working things to the good of those who love him and for his purposes, and I would agree with you that nothing can frustrate those purposes.
So within the dynamic tension between God’s work and whatever we have in the way of free will, He has His reasons and purposes (and reasons and purposes within those reasons and purposes), some we know about, some we don’t– and that seems like quite enough. Isn’t that what trusting God is about?
Even if you do declare that at some level, everything that happens is “God’s will”, the term “gift” does imply a reason (that God is “gifting” you with something), when His reasons on certain things might not have anything to do with you.
Her reply to someone named Ilona on the same blog page (Regarding: Supposedly Being “Called” To Celibacy and/or Singleness):
Thank you for bringing up the eunuchs piece! What a coincidence, I was just talking with someone about that this morning!
Kostenberger’s “called to singleness” interpretation of Matthew 19 in his book is one that I challenge, because “to whom it is given” is such a vague reference as far as “a gift” or a calling is concerned, it barely even signifies God as the giver or caller. We could safely assume that God is the giver here, but perhaps Christ was not wanting to emphasize God’s role in this passage, but rather put the onus on personal choice.
For example, the verse 11 preamble to the saying (“logos”) in verse 12 reads: “but he said unto them, all cannot CHOREOS (meaning “yield to”, “make room/space for” or “receive”, NOT “hear”, as claimed by those who make this verse out to be about “hearing a calling”) this saying, except those to whom it is given”.
Verse 12 goes on to say” “For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from [their] mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have MADE THEMSELVES eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. DUNAMAI CHOREOS CHOREOS which the online Blue Letter Bible translates as “He that is able to receive [it], let him receive [it]”.
In other words, make space for those who make space for this saying. Again, there is no identification of any specific “gift” or “calling” from God, but rather the identification of an OPTION available to those who are inclined (but not under compulsion, let alone from any direct calling from God in this case).
But there is no suggestion from this passage that undertaking this option will automatically mean that you will be granted the grace to be celibate. I think that it where the Catholic church has made a mistake, in assuming that all of their priests have “the gift of celibacy”, just because they are celibate. History has proven otherwise.
But people do manage to cope with celibacy, voluntary and involuntary, whether part of a vocation or not. And that, I think, is the wonder and mystery of God’s grace.
Related posts, this blog:
(Link): Singleness Is Not a Gift
(Link): Seven Truths About Marriage You Won’t Hear in Church by F. Powell
(Link): Christian ‘Married People’ Privilege – Most Marrieds Remain Amazingly Blinded to Christian Discrimination Against Singles Or Write Unmarrieds’ Concerns Off, As Though They Are Nothing Compared to Marriage/ Parenting.