Saturday, February 03, 2007

Matzko McCarthy on Singleness I

I hope, in the coming weeks and months, to regularly share excerpts from different Christian writers and thinkers concerning singleness and it's value in the church. In many Christian churches single people seem to be implicitly viewed as fifth wheels, and in others they are viewed with outright hostility and suspicion. My desire is to provide encouragement for single Christians, and theologically and intellectually substantial material for reflection on singleness. Rather than debating pro-singleness vs. anti-singleness or pitting singleness against marriage, my hope here is to present a vision of singleness in the church that allows Christian singles (and anyone else interested) to re-imagine the meaning of their singleness and to see themselves as having an important and valid place in the Christian community.

I'd like to begin this series of reflections with an excerpt from David Matzko McCarthy's book "The Good Life: Genuine Christianity for the Middle Class." This particular excerpt offers an alternative perspective on a couple of issues that I have seen discussed and debated in discussions of Christianity and singleness.

Singleness, for Paul, represents an ideal, not for the sake of sexual opportunities, but because sex is excluded as a concern. This idea seems unreasonable to many of us. It reverses the way that Christians now typically think of singleness and marriage. Christians today tend to think that singleness ought to serve marriage. We ought to endure a sexless life of singleness in order to save ourselves for marriage. Marriage is the goal. Paul, on the other hand, assumes that marriage ought to look as much like singleness as possible. In 1 Corinthians 7, singleness is the goal. Singleness, for Paul, is an elevation of our natures that depends upon life within the family of God. Singleness is a sign. In our world, it can be a sign of loneliness and a lack of love. However, in the history of Christianity (until very recently), singleness is a sign of the riches of common life. It is the opportunity to give ourselves more fully to others in love of God and neighbor. It is freedom, not for loose commitments and sexual opportunity, but for deeper bonds to people whom we can love and serve, such as our neighbors, brothers and sisters, the sick, the poor, and the imprisoned. (pg. 61)


Anonymous said...

"Paul, on the other hand, assumes that marriage ought to look as much like singleness as possible. In 1 Corinthians 7, singleness is the goal. Singleness, for Paul, is an elevation of our natures that depends upon life within the family of God. Singleness is a sign."

I'm all for empowering people to make their own choices about singleness and marriage, Gordon, but this gushy quote from McCarthy's book is exactly what I hate about so much of what is taught to singles in the church these days. And he's really embellishing a lot into the text of 1 Cor 7, if you ask me.

Gordon Hackman said...


Thanks for the push-back on this comment and for being my first responder after making my blog more publicly known over at Anakin's blog.

I confess that the portion of McCarthy's quote that you have singled out, may have some weaknesses. Nonetheless, I wanted to include the quote as a whole (in the interest of both continuity and honesty) rather than selectively quote bits from the passage that I could simply use to make my own point. I wanted to present the whole quote and let people take from it what they may. If there is any part of the quote that I would take umbrage with it would be the part about singleness being "an elevation of our natures. I'm not saying I flat out disagree with it, but since McCarthy doesn't unpack it, I'm not sure I agree with it.

I tend to lean towards the notion that singleness and marriage are both valid and affirmed options in scripture, neither higher than the other, but I try to be open to different perspectives than mine on all sides (including those I strongly disagree with, like Debbie Maken's.)

As for the claim that he's embellishing the text, I'm not as certain as you are on that one. Though he doesn't specify in the book, my guess is he is thinking of 1 Cor 7:29 where Paul says "From now on, those who have wives should live as if they had none . . ." That won't necessarily support the notion that singleness is an "elevation of our natures," but it does, I think, help explain the part about marriage looking as much like singleness as possible.

I also agree with him that singlenes is a sign. I also think marriage is a sign. But more on that will come later. . .

Again, thanks for stopping by.


Anonymous said...

1 Cor 7:29, "From now on, those who have wives should live as if they had none . . ."

I doubt that this is advice that Paul would have given to all peoples at all times in history. He is speaking entirely within the context of "the present distress" mentioned in verse 26 and elsewhere throughout the chapter. This is one of the tragedies of how this passage has been misused over the centuries: Paul does seem to be recommending singleness over marriage, during that time of distress. I doubt he'd be giving the same message today, in light of how sinful sexual substitutions (ie. casual sex, porn) are undermining marriage.

Gordon Hackman said...


I don't really want to get into a big debate about it, but I don't accept that everything about singleness in 1 Cor. 7 can simply be dismissed based on the "present distress" phrase.

Also, I don't think the issue is what we think Paul might have said, but rather what he did say and how, if we take it seriously, it could open up new possibilities for us. That's the reason I'm making these postings.

I realize that not everyone is going to agree with my slant on things and that's fine. I'm just putting this material out there and people can get from it what they will (or not).

Thanks for chatting,

Anonymous said...

Have I suggesting anything so black and white as "dismiss" 1 Cor 7 due to "the present distress"? No. I am saying that the historically relevant context of "the present distress" of that time must be considered, especially since it is mentioned not only in verse 26, but 28, 29 and 30 as well. All of this must be given due consideration to put these teachings in proper perspective.

thekid said...

I don't want to be provocative, but bistory tells us that Corinth was a city rampant with sexual immorality - they were pleasure seekers! Sounds all too familiar to me...

Gordon Hackman said...


I agree wholeheartedly. The situation we face today in terms of rampant immorality is not all that different from the way things have been throughout most of human history. Actually, in the ancient world the phrase "to Corinithianize" basically meant "to practice sexual immorality."

While we've probably gotten more technically efficient at promoting it, the sinful human condition hasn't changed all that much, nor has the power of the gospel and the scriptures as given to speak to that condition.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you're on this topic. I think it's important to talk about and I'm enjoying the conversation.

Jessica (of 808)

(Had to go the Anonymous route b/c I forgot my password...)

Gordon Hackman said...


Thanks for dropping by and leaving an encouraging comment. Good to hear from you.