How would you define single people? People who don’t wear wedding rings? People who don’t have a marriage license? People who haven’t had a wedding? People who are not cohabitating? People not married but too old to be in a youth group? People who were once married but are now divorced? People who don’t file joint income taxes? People whose spouses have died? Actually, singles can be anybody today. “Single” is merely a legal status and social euphemism that means absolutely nothing from a biblical standpoint. It offers acceptance for the divorced and all those not holding marriage licenses because traditional teaching in the church says that when God forgives he forgets everything and so should we. It’s a word created for comfort to allow those with a sexual past to pretend it didn’t happen and be available on the singles social scene again. After all, the church says, there are secondary virgins and there are real virgins. What’s the difference? Well, in case you didn’t know, my blog defends virginity. I think it’s a special physical and spiritual state, and I happen to be one myself. Bella DePaulo in the 4/3/2011 edition of Psychology Today said there are three definitions of singles:
- You are legally single if you are not legally married.
- You are socially single if you are not in a romantic relationship that other people regard as serious.
- You are personally single if you think of yourself as single.
These are the world’s definitions. If it feels good, put on your hat and play the part. However, is a legal piece of paper going to matter to God? No. Is how other people regard us going to matter to God? No. Is how we think of ourselves going to matter to God? No. Our behavior matters to God. And as painful as it may be to our ears, our past matters to God. Not the legalities and formalities of current culture. Not the courthouses where we pick up marriage licenses. The Samaritan woman at the well found this out the hard way when she tried to cling to the legal definition of marriage. She probably lived an exciting life as a single woman, strutting down to the well a couple of times a day to flirt with available men. That is, until Jesus showed up for a drink. Then she found out that not having a marriage contract mattered very little to him and that she was in fact married to all the men she had had sex with. As Jesus told her, she had had five husbands and was not officially married to the man she was living with. I have a feeling that Christ would receive an even more startled reaction by the church today. I can already hear the front row of deacons mumbling, “But she’s not wearing a wedding ring!” It doesn’t matter, Jesus says. “She doesn’t have a marriage license!” It doesn’t matter, Jesus says. “She hasn’t had a wedding ceremony!” It doesn’t matter, Jesus says. If we think of the water at the bottom of Jacob’s well as representing the fruitfulness of the womb, including Jacob’s entire lineage, and the eternal life-giving water that Jesus offered the woman as representing the end of that lineage and the beginning of eternity in heaven, the story makes more sense. It is another classic story of the world we know juxtaposed with the world that is to come. Notice too that Jesus never took a drink from the woman. But what stands out is Jesus’s vocabulary lesson. He replaced the Samaritan woman’s social status of being single with the biblical status of being married. No marriage license was needed. It was done in the blink of an eye. This is why Christ repeated the words “say” and “said.” “You are right when you say” and “what you have just said is quite true.” John 4:17-18. He is contrasting her prior social identity and what she saith as a single woman to her current biblical reality and what she had done as a married woman. As she said, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did.” John 4:29. Even more important, he is contrasting her socially comfortable “singleness” with the biblical reality of her multiple marriages, which are one in the same as sexual relationships. Note too that her repentance and salvation did make her forget all her past lovers, cause her to be a “secondary virgin,” or require everybody in her neighborhood to forget her past mistakes. Nor did it erase the consequences of her sin. It was just the opposite. After she realized she was talking to Christ, she acknowledged that she had been married multiple times. Laws and traditions say many things and leave open a lot of back doors. In Christian sexual ethics, though, they take a backseat to what we do. Words will disappear like a vapor in the presence of Christ. What we do though will remain standing. Like the common practice today, the Samaritan woman’s social identity was miles apart from her biblical identity.
The majority of churchgoing people today are of the same mindset. As long as lovers “make it right,” who’s to say what is right and what is wrong? They think once they are forgiven, all consequences of their sins are erased. “Forgive and forget” is the new seeker friendly motto. Like the Samaritan woman, they hide behind legalities and social niceties. I think a lot of people read the story of the Samaritan woman and focus only on Jesus’s “mind reading” magic show and how he revealed her past sexual relationships. That’s half the story. It’s equally important to remember that he also revealed that she was not a single woman. In modern times, she could have been masquerading as a virgin, in charge of the local purity conferences and daddy-daughter dances. Whatever the case, she lived the life of a socially single woman up to that point. She couldn’t have been divorced or widowed because everybody would have known her past. There would have been no reason for Jesus to tell her all the things she had done. I wonder how many singles dating sites she had signed up with and how many men she had waiting in the wing. She misrepresented herself to everyone she was acquainted with. To put it simply, she lived a lie. An uncomfortable fact that churches don’t like to be reminded of is that Christianity allows us two lifestyle choices – marriage or virginity. Another uncomfortable fact is that God intended marriage to be between two virgins. But how many churches defend and affirm these truths? How many churches guard biblical language? How many married couples stand up in churches and tell how they were both virgins when they married? How many married couples tell about how they have been faithful their entire 50 or whatever years of marriage? How many celibate people have you heard in churches tell how God has given them the strength and grace to remain virgins for so many number of years? I don’t know of any churches that do that. Their main focus is on forgiving the fallen, not affirming the faithful. Single donut anyone? If you believe that God’s intention in marriage is for one virgin to marry another virgin, then the only people who are biblically single are virgins. Some of them are waiting on marriage on this earth and some have the charism of virginity and are waiting on marriage in heaven. The world doesn’t know that, though. All they know is a generic singleness. When we take the expectation of virginity out of singleness, whether it be waiting on a spouse or waiting on the return of Christ, we take the expectation of faithfulness out of marriage. As Justin Campbell and other writers have pointed out, there really is no such thing as the gift of singleness because singleness in our vocabulary today points to a temporary state. The gift of celibacy, however, is a permanent state and not related to singles waiting on marriage or even a marriage between husband and wife. A lot of people today still pretend to be single. Maybe if everybody had their own moment at the well with Christ, there would be no more pretending.
Jesus didn’t change the Samaritan woman’s marital status by telling her she had five husbands. He merely took away the courthouses and traditions and told her the biblical reality of her life. If her past mattered to Jesus, should it matter to us? I think so. But we live in a world where even the thought of a sexual past is considered judgmental and hateful. Just as with the Samaritan woman, it’s not going to matter what we say when we meet God face to face, but what we have done. Matthew 16:27 tells us, “For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.” It’s not about taking on labels and thinking certain people are better than others. It’s about relating to each other honestly and openly and coming to grips with our own moment at the well with Jesus.
Sadly, the only thing Protestants know about celibacy is in the context of what they hear in the media about the Catholic Church and pedophile priests. That’s why they cling to their comfortable “singleness.” Singleness doesn’t require a past, just a present circumstance. “Just be happy where you are,” they say. They have no clue of the celibacy Paul talked about in 1 Corinthians 7. If they go so far as to say there is a gift of singleness, most preachers still frame it as a circumstance, a period of time (or season) before you get married. Many church people today think the gift of celibacy is but a circumstance until one gets married, a season of waiting until the right one comes along. If marriage and celibacy are to be equally valued, as many churches claim, then we could assume that marriage is but a circumstance, and that husbands are married until they fall into different circumstances with different women. When you take commitment out of the picture, whether it is commitment in marriage or commitment in celibacy, the whole house of cards falls. However we slice the vocabulary, virginity for the sake of the kingdom of heaven is not the same thing as the “gift of singleness” we know today. Justin Campbell, on his blog “More Than Don’t Have Sex,” said this very well:
“Paul essentially says that there are those who should get married and those who shouldn’t. He says some have one gift and others another gift. But the gift he is talking about is not the gift of singleness, he is talking about the gift of celibacy. You are not called to “season” of celibacy. You may not be married yet, but that is not the same.”
The words we use are also going to be carried into the future by the young people today. I think the church does them a disservice by focusing on marriage and family, and not doing anything to affirm the celibate life. That’s why I’m not single. I’m not living out a temporary season of my life. I am the same unmarried John today as I will be in heaven. Any discomfort someone sees in my life should not be interpreted as bitterness over not having my sexual desires met. It should be seen as discomfort for still being on this earth and separated from Christ. That’s what I long for. And only a person with the charism of virginity can have that kind of longing. Am I saying that churches should ask everybody about their sexual history and attach appropriate lapel buttons on Sunday mornings, like Christ did with the woman at the well? No. We’re not Christ and can’t know what Christ knows. What I’m saying is that churches should be careful when they adopt the world’s language. I know many of them are teaching a theology of Calvinistic circumstances in which all men are assigned the same station in life. That is, they are all either married or want to get married. That is simply not biblical. Most churches make the mistake of trying to cure singles of their singleness. This is sort of like taking a group of young people to see a space shuttle liftoff and instead only seeing a remote controlled airplane whiz around a parking lot. Do you think they would feel let down? They should. They read about a God of risks and wild abandon in their Bibles, a God of unspeakable wrath and untold rewards, a God worthy of their faith and loyalty; only to have him replaced by one of feel good vagueness and comfortable velvet-backed pew inclusiveness. If we are going to continue using feel-good words like singleness, let’s at last make sure the young people know we are talking outside the principles of the Bible. When we take virginity out of singleness and faithfulness out of marriage, we take the spiritual significance of sex out of God’s hands and put it into the world’s hands. How would you respond if Christ asked you to go get your husband or wife? Could you honestly say you’ve never had one or would he have to remind you of things you did? How single are you?