This blog post is the second in a series. You can read the first post in the series here
In my last post I outlined the argument of a well-known Christian theologian, pastor and teacher who teaches that singleness within the Church is a direct attack on God’s created order and purpose for marriage. In the next couple of posts, I want to take a closer look at the various reasons he gives for casting singleness in the role of the antagonist, and then hold those reasons up against Scripture. This post will focus on the first of those reasons…
The assault on family and on marriage is coming in a very subtle way from a direction you might not assume […] Let me tell you that the most devastating attack on marriage is coming today from singleness. Singleness is an assault on marriage. Marriage is the grace of life. As a pastor I just, I tell my people 'Look, if it keeps going this way, I'm going to line all the girls on one side, all the guys on the other, we're going to just match you up and have a huge wedding". This escalating self-preoccupation, personal ambition, personal development, personal promotion that creates a kind of terminal singleness is devastating on obviously the family. It leads to sexual sin, at a rampant level in a world where pornography is available all the time and you've got all these people with these pent-up desires that can't be normally met and they are about the explode and you bring them together even in a church and at the age they are at they can't conduct a normal relationship. I just see singleness as a disaster. You know, I'm not saying it is wrong to be single, but it better be a gift. Because otherwise you are going to burn, and then when you're going to burn you are going to have a very difficult time having a meaningful relationship with somebody else. You are going to frighten more people than you're going to win. And you're … you’re dangerous. You reach a place where you … you can't be trusted. So, we face some very difficult challenges…
Source video available here.
Let’s briefly trace back through the line of his argument:
1. Humans were created as sexual beings which means most of us have desires related to our sexuality… desires we’d quite like to be able to fulfill.
2. Given the Bible says that sexual activity belongs to marriage, as a matter of godly obedience those who are not married (and in fact, also those who are married) are going to face some pretty serious temptation, especially in our sex-saturated culture.
I'm with him to this point. But then…
3. If those sexual desires aren’t fulfilled, then the individual ends up with a whole lot of pent-up desires which simmer and bubble away until finally… KABOOM! It is inevitable that single people (or at least those who do not have the ‘gift’ that takes away all their sexual desires) will fall into sexual immorality
4. The major problem for all those exploding single Christians (at least as he expresses it in this talk) is not primarily that their sin grieves their Heavenly Father and hurts others. No, the ultimate problem is that by giving into temptation they ruin their chance at a having a normal, meaningful marriage… which is VERY problematic since getting married is the Christian moral imperative. (We’ll come back to this point in the next post.)
So in essence, as he has said elsewhere:
You can’t have people with sexual desires running around without spouses. […] Singleness is a big problem. You don’t have marriage. You don’t have children. What you have is immorality.
It would be a disservice to single Christians to pretend that sexual temptation is not a very real concern and challenge for many, even almost all, of them. It is. And, it is made infinitely worse by the sex-saturated and sex-idolising world in which we live. And yes, the apostle Paul does say:
To the unmarried and the widows, I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:8-9)
So, point proven then?
Not so fast. We need to pay close attention to what the Apostle Paul is saying in these verses.
First of all - the person Paul is exhorting to marry is not just any Christian who experiences some degree of sexual desire and even sexual temptation. He is specifically referring to those who are burning with passion. Those who are aflame with lust. It is very possible to have sexual desires and impulses, even strong sexual desires and impulses, whilst at the same time not burning up with those desires and impulses. In other words, having sexual desires does not a burning wo/man make.
Which brings us to the second point - who are those unmarried people who are burning with passion? They are the ones who cannot exercise self-control over their sexual desires and impulses. Paul clearly recognises that there are some individuals who are unable to control themselves when faced with sexual temptation (at least at a certain point, stage or season of their life). Those individuals need to take his exhortation to marriage seriously. However, doesn't the very fact that Paul knows there are some who cannot exercise self-control also directly imply that there are at least some who can? That, after all, is the flipside of the equation.
The word Paul uses for 'self-control' is verse 9 is the same word he uses a few chapters later in 1 Corinthians 9:25 where he employs the metaphor of an athlete who subjects himself to strict training and discipline as he runs the race (of the Christian life). When faced with sexual temptation, the initial task of the Christian is to seek to respond faithfully by disciplining his body and exercising self-control. Theologically speaking, it is possible for the Christian to say "NO" to sexual temptation because...
... the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
(Galatians 5:22-24 ESV)
Just as we are called to exercise self-control over our greed, our gluttony, our consumption of alcohol, the way we spend our time and so on, when faced with sexual temptation, our first port of call ought to be to seek to exercise spiritual self-control and thus say "NO" to sexual immorality. The individual who gave that talk basically writes this off as a long term option, claiming that ongoing sexual self-control for the single Christian is ultimately impossible. (Remember... KABOOM!). Sadly, that assertion concedes far too much to 21st Century western culture which sees fulfillment of our sexual desires as being fundamental to our self-identification and self-realisation. Even more tragically it is ultimately a denial of the —
... washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior. (Titus 3:4-6 ESV)
Burning with passion is a real possibility for the unmarried Christian. But it is not an inevitability. Yes, there will be some who find themselves, in that moment, in that circumstance, in that season, unable to exercise self-control. Paul says those people ought to (strongly) consider marriage. But that is some, not all. Furthermore, his words are not a 'get out of jail free' card for the single Christian who just can't be bothered trying to cultivate self-control because it seems too hard.
One final thing - the reason Paul urges those individuals who are burning to marry is not so they can finally do away with sexual self-control — "Hey, now I'm married my burning with passion is totally legitimated. Woohoo!'. Marriage does not serve sex... sex serves marriage. Paul calls the individual who is burning with passion to marry so that he might take —
... his sexual desire, and [do] the same thing with it that we must all do with all our physical desires if we would make them means of worship, [... bring] it into conformity to God’s word; [...and subordinate] it to a higher pattern of love and care. (John Piper)
So, in summary:
1) Burning with passion is a possibility for the unmarried Christian person... but it is not an inevitability. Single Christians are not all destined to go KABOOM!
2) Marriage is not the channel that legitimates burning with passion. For the sake of a life of worship of God and love of others, sexual self-control is as necessary in marriage as it is in singleness,
3) The good news for both single and married Christians is that self-control is a fruit of the same Spirit who dwells within each of us.
(Oh, and a sneaky 4) This all brings to mind the whole 'gift' thing in 1 Corinthians 7:7... but I'm going to leave THAT hot topic for another post!)
In Romans 6 Paul writes these words —
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. […] But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Romans 6:6-7, 17-18 ESV)
Single Christians are not destined to be enslaved to lust, because in Christ they have been set free from their slavery to sin and have become slaves of righteousness. In Christ, the body of sin has been brought to nothing. Indeed, as we read in Galatians 5:24 above,"those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires."
Yes, sexual temptation is a very real challenge that many single (and married) Christians face. It is real and it can be very dangerous. But to teach that temptation will inevitably give way to immorality is to deny the efficiency of Christ’s death on our behalf. It’s to take that yoke of slavery – that unbearable weight that Christ himself liberated us from – and place it right back on our shoulders. It’s to take the body of sin that has been brought to nothing, and make it everything again.
How awful! How terrible! How tragic!
Single Christian, do not underestimate Satan’s ploys to tempt you to sin. He prowls around like a roaring lion. Be prayerful in the Spirit and courageous in Christ. Be wise and practical and committed to your purity. And if you truly are burning with passion, be honest about that. Confess your sins in repentance before God. Speak to to trusted others and ask them to help you be accountable. Consider how you might prayerfully pursue marriage, not so you finally get to lose sexual control, but so you might subordinate your desires to conformity with God's will for them and your love of others.
But Single Christian, do not presume from the outset that you cannot exercise self-control. Do not presume that you are unable to say no to the desires of the flesh. Do not presume that the flesh with its passions and desires is still your ultimate master. Those kind of presumptions negate the power of the cross and the sanctifying work of the Spirit. In Christ you have been set free from sin and are now a slave to righteousness. You have been washed and regenerated and renewed by the Holy Spirit. God Himself, lives inside you and he promises to sanctify you and produce spiritual fruit in your life. Self-control is one of those fruits. So prayerfully seek it's cultivation.
The individual who delivered that sermon is wrong. You can have people with sexual desires running around without spouses. Sexual immorality is not a foregone conclusion of singleness. If you have any lingering doubt about that, consider the unmarried man Jesus Christ, the one who was tempted in every respect - just as we are (Hebrews 4:15) - but who never sinned.