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Mythbusting Celibacy #2 | Let's Talk about That Gift (Part 1)

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Previous posts in this series:


OK. Let’s just get this one out of the way early in the series, shall we? Let’s talk about that gift. You know the one. But if we are going to talk about it, then let’s really talk about it. Let’s do the deep dive, ask the hard questions, and see where we land.

In the first post in this series (Pause. Click here. Read. Come back. Continue) we read this excerpt from the Focus on the Family website:

Singleness is circumstantial. […] Celibacy, on the other hand, is a vocation. It’s a rare gift that God grants only to a few special individuals (see Matt 19:10-12; 1 Cor 7:7) [1]

In our next topic we’ll return to the Matthean passage mentioned above, but for the moment let's focus our attention on that (in)famous verse from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

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. 1 Corinthians 7:7, ESV

The Focus on the Family quote above is just one example within a very broad contemporary consensus of interpretation of this verse.

We are told that Paul wishes everyone could be as he was (i.e., unmarried) while also knowing that isn’t possible because, after all, not everyone has been given “the gift”. What is this gift? Well, whatever sermon you listen to, book you read, commentary you consult and podcast you tune into to, you'll almost certainly be told that it is something along the lines of a:

  1. special spiritual gifting of supernatural empowerment

  2. for a select and called few

  3. to remain unmarried and sexually abstinent (for life)

Unwrapping the Gift

Let’s break that down a little.

Firstly the gift is seen to be “spiritual” in character. In one sense this seems obvious because it is “from God”. But in a secondary sense the gift’s spiritual nature is also often assumed in light of Paul’s subsequent discussion about “spiritual thing/gifts” in chapters 12-14. In any event, the consensus is that the gift is a spiritual one, and specifically a divinely given spiritual empowerment. The question of “empowered for what?” is one we’ll return to very shortly. But in essence, the idea is that through the gift, God bestows an ability or capability that the giftee wouldn’t have had on their own. The gift is something extra. More than that, it is something extraordinary. It’s almost like those who receive the gift are being given a spiritually injected booster shot that the rest of us don’t have.

Which leads into the second component—the gift is generally only for a select and called few. Notice the two aspects here. Firstly, it is usually asserted that the gift is bestowed only a (relatively) small number of people, those that Focus on the Family refers to as ‘a few special individuals’. Since Paul makes no mention of how many or few have one gift or another I’m not sure how we all ended thinking it is only for a very small number. Actually, that’s not true. I do know. But we’ll come back to that in a later post. For now, just note that it is generally held that whatever this gift actually is, it is rare.

As a result, the gift is usually framed as a “calling”. Now here we could digress into another blog post all of its own about the problematic way in which we evangelicals throw around the word “calling” pretty much willy-nilly. You’ll be relieved to know that we won’t do that (though we’ll touch on the subject again in a later post on “vocation”). For the moment, let’s just note the sense in which the bestowal of this rare gift (upon a select few) is received as a sense of personal “calling” from God. This unique “call” is to be uniquely “answered” by the giftee, and it sets them apart from others. It is what makes them, according to Focus on the Family, ‘special’.

And finally we get to the guts of the matter. If the gift is a supernatural empowerment given to only a few unique people who have been called by God... well, what does it actually do? Interestingly enough, this is where the consensus has started to break down a little. Until fairly recently most concluded that the “booster shot” that the gift provides is a supernatural ability to exercise extraordinary control over our sexual urges. For example one commentator writes:

Paul speaks of sexual urges […] and being able to exercise control over them. He attributes that to God’s grace […] The power to control oneself [sexually] comes from God, not from oneself. [2]

However, this grace-filled top-up of additional sexual self-control doesn’t simply allow the “called” person to remain unmarried without the otherwise inevitable tumble into sexual sin. Being freed from the worry of giving into such temptation also allows them to have:

A positive attitude which makes the most of the freedoms of celibacy without frustration. [3]

The capacity to concentrate on the work of the gospel without being distracted by sexual desire. [4]

So it is that a Reformed, evangelical take on the “gift of singleness” has long understood it to be:

An extraordinary spiritual bestowal, which gives a select few both supernatural sexual self-discipline and a related contentedness so that they are freed up to respond to the call of lifelong sexually abstinent singleness, which they would not otherwise have been able to obediently undertake.

I know. That was a long and convoluted sentence. Go back, read over it again, and let it sink it for a bit.

Ready? Ok. Let's move on. So, this has been the general consensus. Well, at least it has until recently.

Slightly Different Wrapping

In the last ten years or so (and certainly in the last five), a new perspective has slowly but surely begun to change up the conversation about “the gift”. It’s so new and so subtle (in the “still working itself out” rather than “sneaky” sense of the word) that you may not even have noticed the difference. But I think if you look around—and read as much social media discussions about on singleness/celibacy as I do!—you’ll start spotting it.

The reality is that there are plenty of unmarried Christian people who continue to grapple with (and sometimes give over to) sexual temptation. There are also plenty of unmarried Christian people who don’t enjoy this ever-present positive attitude which allows them to ‘make the most of the [gospel] freedoms of celibacy without frustration’. Of course, I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. This is old news. It is why authors like Peter Wagner advise:

If you are single and know down in your heart that you would get married in an instant if a reasonable opportunity presented itself, you probably don’t have the gift of celibacy. If you are single and find yourself terribly frustrated by unfulfilled sexual impulses, you probably don’t have the gift. [5]

Unfortunately, this leaves many, even most, single Christians today (especially those beyond the age of about 25) in a catch-22.

“Ok. I would really quite like to be married. So this means I probably don’t have the ‘gift of singleness’. I guess that means that God doesn’t want me to stay single. But… well, despite years of me trying to find someone to marry, I haven’t been able to. God has withheld marriage from me. But he’s also withheld a spouse from me. What am I meant to do with that?”
“OK. I struggle with sexual temptation. Sometimes I give over to that temptation. I’ve brought my sin to God. I’ve repented. I know that I stand forgiven in Christ. But I’m still struggling. I’ve earnestly prayed that God would bless me with marriage so that I am able to express my sexual desires faithfully. God hasn’t answered those prayers yet. But he also hasn’t given me the “gift” which would take those desires away, or at least let me be in control of them either. What am I meant to do with that?”.

Unfortunately, this kind of catch-22 is only amplified for the same-sex attracted Christian person who is committed to the biblical teaching that God has designed sex to serve a husband and a wife within the context of their marriage. At least the opposite-sex attracted Christian has the potential hope that marriage might yet be in the cards for them (despite how remote that possibility may or may not appear). But this isn’t generally the case for same-sex attracted single Christians who, just like their opposite-sex attracted peers, may not experience the supernatural sexual-mastery and positive attitude supposedly gifted to a special few. In the absence of a change in who they find sexually attractive (something which, anecdotally speaking, is possible, but perhaps unlikely), the “ungifted” single Christian who experiences same-sex attraction is seemingly left in an impossible and rather hopeless situation.

So it is that for a lot of opposite-sex, but particularly same-sex attracted single Christians, the old consensus of the “gift” (as a spiritual empowerment of self-control and contentedness) isn’t quite cutting the mustard anymore. It’s not that the problems with this understanding of the gift are new. It’s just that people are now speaking more frequently and loudly about them. And others are actually beginning to listen. As a result, the narrative about the “gift of singleness” is beginning to undergo some change. Let me explain what I mean.

This Christianity Today article by Pieter Valk (also referenced briefly in the first post in this series) gives us some helpful insights into this changing narrative. I’ll include a few excerpts below, but there is always benefit in reading it in full for yourself. In it Valk writes:

Every Christ-follower is invited to serve their neighbor, but God calls a small and mighty band of Christians to permanently leverage their singleness for kingdom work. [6]

On the face of it that doesn’t seem at odds with the existing consensus about the gift, does it? We’ve got a small few being selected by God, not so much to do something extraordinary (i.e., kingdom work), but to go about doing it in an extraordinary way. Valk’s desire is to see the significance of this invitation from God rehabilitated after centuries of it being diminished and even dismissed. But, in doing so he shares a somewhat different approach to identifying whether you have the gift. He advises people to:

First, seek God’s preference, even if it’s not our preference. Most of the celibate Protestants and Catholics I know still experienced a healthy desire for marriage, sex, and children before committing to singleness for the Lord, so those desires aren’t an indication of God’s preference. [7]

Did you pick up on the shift? The old consensus was that you can know if you’ve received the gift or not based on your own feelings, desires and longings towards marriage and sex. Remember Wagner’s quote above?

If you are single and know down in your heart that you would get married in an instant if a reasonable opportunity presented itself, you probably don’t have the gift of celibacy. If you are single and find yourself terribly frustrated by unfulfilled sexual impulses, you probably don’t have the gift. [8]

The new narrative, which Valk is representing here, says the opposite. Where the old consensus emphasised an experience of empowerment over sexual temptation and discontentment as the basis on which you can know if you are so gifted, the new angle de-emphasises these things.

According to this new approach, discerning whether we have the gift is not so much about what we feel spiritually empowered to do (i.e., if we feel we’ve been given that booster shot), but whether we determine we have been “called” to it or not. The process of discernment is still quite personally oriented (Valk goes on in the article to somewhat enigmatically suggest it has to do with our 'practical circumstances and personal mission'). However, it's not determined by whether we have a low sexual libido or are reasonably disinterested in getting married. This opens up the possibility that many more single Christians may have the gift than was generally the case under the old consensus.

Interestingly, though, even as he suggests that having a healthy desire for marriage, sex and children does not necessarily mean God isn’t calling you to lifelong singleness, Valk writes:

In light of the Fall, polyamory and sex without commitment come naturally to us. Celibacy and faithful monogamy do not. None of us inherently have what we need to do either vocation well. When we step fully into either vocational singleness or Christian marriage, we will receive God’s bountiful gift to thrive in our vocation. [9]

In other words, after accepting God’s call (by embracing the gift), then we will be empowered to thrive in our vocation (whether it is marriage or singleness), presumably through a supernatural capacity for additional sexual self-control and contentment than we would have otherwise had. (Side note: I know plenty of married people who are now scratching their heads wondering how they missed on out the special empowerment which has made faithful monogamy in their marriage a slam dunk. But… I digress). The point is that, according to the new perspective, these things aren’t indications of us being so-called. Rather they come after we’ve accepted the call, and perhaps even as a kind of reward for accepting the call (though that is unclear).

Once the Wrapping is Peeled Away...

The difference between the old and the new is subtle, but it’s there. And yet despite this difference, both approaches are united by what they share, more than they are divided by what they don’t.

Both emphasise the spiritual nature of the gift.

Both emphasise that it is a gift given to a select and special group (even as the new approach suggests that group could be more than just a numerical “few”).

Both emphasise the lifelong, permanent, committed nature of the gift (hence, "celibacy" as in our last post).

Both emphasis the orientation of the gift towards “kingdom work” or “the work of the gospel”.

Both emphasis that the experience of the gift is one of sexual self-control, contentment and flourishing.

And both result in a two-fold categorisation of single Christians—the authentic “celibate” who has been gifted with the booster shot and/or embraced the call and so is flourishing, and the rest who live in 'the limbo of uncommitted singleness' [10] (even if they find themselves in that limbo against their own desires and intentions).

Oh. And there is one other thing which both approaches typically agree on. They both generally maintain that this verse, 1 Cor 7:7, has always been read in basically this way. They both maintain that it was so from the earliest days of the Christian church.

On that count, both approaches are incorrect...

See you in Part 2. Subscribe now to be notified when it drops.


[1] "The Apostle Paul on Marriage and Singleness", Focus on the Family, [2] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians ed. Robert W. Yarbrough and Robert H. Stein, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 271 (Note 8) and 72. [3] Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A commentary on the Greek text, ed. I. Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner, vol. 7, The New International Greek Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2000), 513-14. [4] Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, ed. D.A. Carson, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010), 286. [5] C. Peter Wagner, Your Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow (Bloomington, Minnesota: Chosen Books, 2012), 54. [6] Pieter Valk, "The Case for Vocational Singleness" [7] Valk, "The Case for Vocational Singleness". [8] Wagner, Your Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow, 54. [9] Valk, "The Case for Vocational Singleness". Emphasis added

[10] Valk, "The Case for Vocational Singleness".

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