All single persons may take heart in knowing that the totality of their life circumstances are not a mistake on God’s part, but a divinely orchestrated “gift” of sorts, and may thusly be embraced with contentment no matter what those circumstances might be (Phil 4:11–12). This general notion of a “gift” is one that gives hope and moral direction, and is one that may be firmly endorsed. But making this concession is not an endorsement of the categorical idea of a “gift of singleness” broadly possessed in the modern church.
The tendency among young men and women to delay marriage (or even to abandon it entirely) in contemporary Western society has given birth to a curiously parallel increase of interest in Paul’s passing comment in 1 Corinthians 7:6–9 about his own marital state and implication that there is a “gift of singleness” to be had and even sought in the modern church. Note the full pericope in question:
Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. 3The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 5Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
8Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. 9But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
Paul offers very little commentary on his own statements, and peppers them with odd concessions that are uncharacteristic of the ordinarily straightforward Apostle. And since this passage has few parallels in the NT, the witness of the analogia scriptura is limited. All this means that these verses are difficult to interpret. Not surprisingly, there are several options about the “gift” Paul mentions in verse 7. Among a litany of options, three stand out:
Paul’s gift is a gift of singleness, a gift that he shares automatically with all single people.
Paul’s gift is a gift of singleness, a gift that he shares with many single people, namely, those who have, by God’s grace, become content with their singleness (and perhaps also those with a same-sex attraction, but that’s an outlying situation for another day).
Paul’s gift is a gift of continence—extraordinary control over his sexual drive—that allows him carry out uncommon tasks for the Christ Church without the burden of unfulfilled passions or the need to provide for a spouse. He shares this gift with very few single people.
The simple lack of data makes the decision a difficult one, but a careful look at Paul’s context and words offer more light than might be seen at first blush. Note the following:
The General Context: Paul is writing to a group of believers experiencing several forms of marital dysfunction who have approached Paul with questions. Some are faithfully married and concerned about sinning by having sex with their own spouses. Others had apparently been abandoned by their spouses when they embraced Christ. Some were apparently widowed. Others may never have married at all.
Paul’s lead statement in v. 1 has been debated for centuries—on two accounts: the meaning of the statement and the speaker. Does the statement mean that (1) Christian men and women should literally not touch each other (KJV/NASB)? Does it mean that (2) it is good for Christian men and women not to marry (NIV84), often with the corresponding idea that singleness is an equal option or even a superior option to marriage? Does it mean that (3) Christian men and women should never engage in any sexual activity and pursue celibacy as a more spiritual path (ESV, NIV2011, CSV)? And secondly, is this statement Paul’s own statement or is he summarizing for his readers the “matter they wrote about”? These decisions are crucial to our discussion, and the lack of unanimity here will lead to lack of unanimity later.
While reading verse 1 as a prohibition of all physical contact between men and women (option 1) has been a popular one within select purity codes, it proves too much (one must beg the question by inserting the qualifier “before marriage”); further, most have recognized the clause as idiomatic. The question thus migrates to the meaning of the idiom. The NIV84 reading that “it is good for a man not to marry” (option 2) has been thoroughly repudiated by Gordon Fee, and has been almost universally abandoned. This leaves option 3, that it is good for men and women—even married men and women—not to have sexual relations. The suggestion here is that celibacy sets the abstaining believer apart as more than usually spiritual (a Platonic idea adopted by many monastics/ascetics or those who pursue the priesthood within the Romanist model).