In this discussion about premarital relationships, it is essential to consider the Bible’s teaching on celibacy. In our individualized culture, singleness is seen as normative with marriage being the exception for the purpose of self interest.
In the Bible, marriage is seen as normative with singleness being the exception for the purpose of greater kingdom service. Debbie Maken is quick to point out that “scripture does not categorically authorize singleness.” Instead, the Bible draws a distinction between singleness and celibacy. Maken later adds:
Singleness is no gift. It is nowhere found in Scripture to be a gift. No other Christian culture considered it to be a gift. Celibacy or the removal of sexual desire in a minority of people is and was considered a gift (see 1 Corinthians 7 and Matthew 19). We have been taught that cultural or circumstantial singleness and celibacy are the same thing, but they are not!
If celibacy is different than singleness, then what is it? Celibacy is a gospel issue. Celibacy is defined as chastity in an unmarried state, and it is always for a kingdom purpose. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul makes it clear that, while most people will marry because it is normative and they need it because they burn with passion (7:9), God has given a gift of celibacy to others (7:7). This gift of singleness is given by God for the purpose of undivided devotion to the Lord (7:32-35).
Andreas Kostenberger states that celibacy is “a divine calling that is both limited to the select few and freely chosen rather than foisted upon the individual by his or her circumstances or condition.” So, even long-term singleness is a gospel issue because it is for undivided devotion to kingdom purposes.
Therefore, according to this passage, singleness is not normative but a qualified exception for kingdom purpose. The concept Paul advances in 1 Corinthians 7 is radically different than the way most people view singleness in America.
Jesus provides additional insight about celibacy in Matthew 19:4-12. After Jesus’ difficult teachings about marriage and divorce, the disciples quip in 19:10, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.” Many in our culture respond in the same way when they see the difficulties of marriage and the Bible’s resistance to divorce.
In 19:11-12, Jesus refutes their comment by arguing that there are only three exemptions to marriage for those who have (as some form of eunuch) been called to celibacy:
- There are those “who have been born that way from their mother’s womb” (19:12) and will remain celibate because of their physical incapacities.
- There are those “who were made eunuchs by men” (19:12) which (according to Luther) are “set apart from the natural ordinance to be fruitful and multiply, though only by an act of violence.”
- There are those “who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (19:12). As Luther describes them, members of this group “categorically consist of those spiritually rich and exalted persons, bridled by the grace of God…who beget spiritual children. Such persons are rare, not one in a thousand, for they are a special miracle of God. No one should venture on such a life unless he be specifically called by God, like Jeremiah.”
Since most Christian singles do not fit any of these categories, their protracted singleness defies biblical sanction.
But how does someone know if they are called to celibacy? As Alex Chediak describes, “From scripture, the primary indicator would be a level of contentment with celibacy. If instead there is an urgent longing for sexual satisfaction or emotional intimacy, marriage should be considered.”
Debbie Maken puts things a little more bluntly, “Biblical singleness is hard. It requires giving up dating, sex and marriage and committing to work for God in a sacrificial way. If you’re not called to this kind of singleness, you’re called to marriage. There’s no middle ground.”
The options presented in scripture do not include an extended time of singleness. Instead, the long term choice is either marriage or celibacy. As Lev Grossman notes, the category “single adult” was virtually unnecessary just thirty years ago.
There needs to be a paradigm shift among Christian singles so that they no longer view singleness as normative. When this occurs, celibacy will hold its proper place in the Christian community as something that is rare and kingdom driven. Only then will we see celibacy rightly lived out as a gospel issue.
There are few topics that ignite such major interest and fierce debate among Christian singles than premarital relationships. They contemplate them all the time. However, it is important that Christian singles not just think about premarital relationships but think about them biblically.
What we find in scripture is a comprehensive concept of marriage and singleness that presents both marriage and premarital relationships as gospel issues. The answer is not for Christian singles to kiss dating goodbye or to give dating a chance. The solution is for them to submit their view of Christian dating to the Bible’s teaching in a way that best magnifies the excellency of God in the union of Christ and the Church.