Paul said not. “I wish that all men were as I am” (I Corinthians 7:7). “It is good for them (unmarried) to stay unmarried, as I am” (8). Many are single, but not for Paul’s reason. They want marriage, and it isn’t happening. We have urged young men to get married—and for good cause. Many are passive and have over-estimated ministry and underestimated marriage.
We have not held out the good option of choosing the single life. Catholics, far more than Protestants, have offered that choice. It has brought great gain—and great loss. Celibacy is a gift, not a mandate. Some can, others can’t (or at least don’t). Paul presented the option for those who could, adding that “it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (9).
What do people do who want to be married and the fire threatens to get out of control? This is a tough one. Paul has just told married people not to deprive each other except by mutual consent, “so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (5). Singles do not have that privilege. No easy answer, but abstinence is the only alternative. Period.
I have yet to work with a young adult who speaks about having the gift of celibacy (Matthew 19:10-12). The church should help singles, whatever their age, to walk toward marriage and counsel them at every step. It can be extremely hard for some men to take the step and painfully difficult for women to wait, while the age of marriage in our culture continues to rise as well as the number who never marry. The distressing thought of single women with every passing day that they may never marry is both realistic and horrendous.
Paul, a stellar example that living singly can work well (or Jesus!), speaks about the advantage of singleness: “An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can pleased his wife—and his interests are divided” (32-34).
Likewise for the unmarried woman (34). Bottom line: “I am saying this…that you may live…in undivided devotion in the Lord” (35). And he gives that edge to the unmarried.
Then the church should value the unmarried, invite them over, acknowledge how much they have to contribute, receive it gratefully, never treat them as second stringers or less important, and challenge them to be exceptional rather than just waiting. Singles, please forgive us where we have failed.
I have told reluctant men who seem distracted by ministry that marriage is ministry and that they should not put off marriage for ministry. On the other hand, we need also to tell singles devoted to serving the Lord, like many single women have been champion missionaries, that their ministry may be their marriage. They have lived with that “undivided devotion.” We must honor them as heroes and set their example up as something to emulate if God or circumstances lead that way.
Where living singly is a choice and not an undesirable outcome, it can serve as a standard for others to consider. We don’t want to over-spiritualize marriage. While it is the norm, it is not God’s plan for everyone. As a young pastor I connected with young Catholic charismatic leaders who had chosen to live singly for the Lord. They were healthy and happy, and their example encouraged other young men to consider that option. May married couples preach the Gospel in their love for one another, and may singles, especially those called to the single life, teach us how to live with uncompromising passion for the Lord!