‘You probably don’t have the gift of singleness.’ This is what a pastor said to me when I was about 19. We’d been talking about my struggles with loneliness and sexual temptation. These, he told me, were evidence that I didn’t have the gift. No doubt he didn’t see that as a big problem; I was bound to be married within a few years. But for me it was a huge problem. What he didn’t yet know was that I’m same-sex attracted, and so if I wanted to be faithful to Jesus, marriage didn’t look like it would be a realistic option. Was I destined to live my life as a single person who doesn’t have the gift of singleness? At that point I wasn’t sure what such a life might look like, but it didn’t sound good.
This pastor saw the gift of singleness as a superpower. The ability to be content in what would otherwise be an unbearable situation. This has been a really common understanding of the gift of singleness, but not only does it produce some serious problems (such as implying that there are singles without the gift of singleness), I think it also misreads the Bible.
In the Bible, the gift of singleness is the state of being single.
In the Bible, the gift of singleness is the state of being single. If you are currently single, you are experiencing the gift of singleness. Marriage is a gift in the same way. If you are currently married, you are experiencing the gift of marriage. Whatever gift we currently have, God will empower us to live it out, but this doesn’t make the gift of singleness a superpower.
Paul on the gift of singleness
The concept of the gift comes from 1 Corinthians 7. The Apostle Paul is writing to the Corinthians about the topics of marriage, singleness, and divorce. Writing as a single man he says: ‘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).
Paul’s personal preference is for Christians to be single – and he goes on to give some practical reasons for this – but he also acknowledges that God gives different gifts to different people. In fact, he seems to imply that there are only two gifts, and we each have one or the other: the gift of marriage or the gift of singleness. So, you can’t be single and not have the gift of singleness. Paul’s point is that at any moment, the state you find yourself in – married or single – is God’s gift to you.
Some people see the gift of singleness as a superpower because Paul uses the word ‘gift’ (charisma). Elsewhere this word is used for spiritual gifts given to Christians so that they can use them for the good of others (1 Corinthians 12:1-11). They are gifts that empower people to do something specific. But this is not the only way that the word can be used. Paul himself uses it for other types of gifts like the gifts of grace, eternal life and answered prayer (see Romans 5:15-16; 6:23; 11:29; 2 Corinthians 1:11). There is no reason to assume that the gift of singleness is a spiritual gift, especially since Paul doesn’t mention the Holy Spirit in this passage.
Another reason people think the gift is a superpower is because Paul encourages those who can’t control their sexual desires to marry, ‘for it is better to marry than to burn with passion’ (1 Corinthians 7:9). Supporters of the superpower understanding see this as evidence that the gift includes superior self-control in the area of sexual temptation. However, this is not what Paul says. He says that struggling to exercise self-control is a reason to consider marriage, but he never says that it is evidence that someone is not currently experiencing the gift of singleness. Paul’s advice here is perfectly compatible with the view that the state of being single is the gift of singleness, as he has implied in verse 7. His encouragement to those who struggle to be self-controlled in the area of sexual desire is to consider pursuing the gift of marriage when this is a sensible option within other parameters laid down in Scripture.
For Paul, the gift of singleness was the state of being single, not a supernatural empowerment to endure what would otherwise be an unbearable situation.
Jesus on the gift of singleness
People have also found the gift of singleness as a superpower in Jesus’ teaching. In Matthew 19, the Pharisees are trying to catch Jesus out with a tricky question about divorce. But Jesus knows that the way to answer the question is to look back to Creation, not just to the law. Looking back to Genesis 1-2, Jesus reminds the Pharisees that marriage is meant to be a lifelong one-flesh union. This being the case, to divorce and remarry is to commit adultery, except in cases of sexual immorality.
In the time of Jesus, this was a very strict view of marriage and divorce, so much so that Jesus’ disciples think he’s gone too far and needs to tone it down a little. They say to him ‘If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry’ (Matthew 19:10). They are expecting Jesus to realise he’s gone too far and to backtrack to make it all a little easier. But, to their surprise, he doesn’t. In fact, far from changing his position, he agrees with the disciples. But he makes an important clarification: ‘Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given’ (Matthew 19:11).
Jesus doesn’t use the language of ‘gift’, but he does talk about something being given. It is only those who have received what is given that can cope with singleness. Some people think this is the gift of singleness as a superpower. However, Jesus goes on to explain what he means, and it’s not what we might assume.
They are people who are single because of how things have worked out, and yet Jesus says that these people are some of those who have been given the ability to receive singleness as a good thing.
Jesus gives three types of eunuchs – in this context, each seem to be intended to represent single, celibate people. The figure of the eunuch – a biological male who is unable to father children – is used to emphasise that these people, for their various reasons, forgo what was the expected norm for those in the Jewish society of Jesus’ time – marriage and parenthood. Some are single and celibate because of something which is true of them from birth, some because of what has been done to them, and others because they have chosen to be single and celibate in order to be free to serve God. What’s important to notice is that the first two are involuntary. They aren’t people who have chosen to be single because they’ve received the superpower of singleness. They are people who are single because of how things have worked out, and yet Jesus says that these people are some of those who have been given the ability to receive singleness as a good thing. What they have received is singleness. The state of singleness is the gift.
The opportunity of singleness
Jesus ends his teaching on singleness by saying: ‘Let the one who is able to receive this [singleness] receive it’ (Matthew 19:12). He challenges those of us who are single to embrace and enjoy the gift. This doesn’t mean single people should never get married. It simply means that while we’ve got the gift of singleness, we should make good use of it.
Paul makes a similar point. He says that those who want to get married are free to do so (1 Corinthians 7:28, 36, 38), but he sees great opportunity in singleness, especially the opportunity for ‘undivided devotion to the Lord’ (1 Corinthians 7:34-35).
The gift of singleness isn’t a superpower, but it is an opportunity. For those of us who currently have the gift – whether we think we’ll have it for life or think at some point it will be exchanged for the gift of marriage – let’s receive what we’ve been given and embrace the opportunities it brings.