A Biblical Critique of Debbie Maken's Book "Getting Serious about Getting Married" (part 3)
What does the Bible say about single people? In the second chapter of Getting Serious about Getting Married, Debbie Maken attempts to answer this question. However, as in Chapter One, we find that her exegesis misses the mark.
Jesus and Matthew 19:11-12
A key text Mrs. Maken cites for her claim that most people must get married is Matthew 19:11-12. Here, we have Jesus discussing a group of people who should not marry. Are we to assume that the people Jesus mentions are an exclusive class who alone have the right to be single? Is everyone else nonexempt from marriage? Debbie Maken apparently thinks so. Speaking of Matthew 19:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 7, she says, "People who don't meet the singleness requirements are under the general rule that God established in Genesis" (p. 29).
However, let's look closely at Matthew 19:11-12. Jesus did not say, "Not everyone can be single except for a select group." He said, "All cannot receive this saying, but only those to whom it was given ..." (v. 11, NKJV). What was the "saying" that not everyone could receive? The "saying" in question was the disciples statement in v. 10: "If such is the case of man with his wife, it is better not to marry" (NKJV). A more literal translation would be: "It is not good to marry."
There is an issue here that Mrs. Maken has overlooked (although to be fair to her, other commentators have probably overlooked it as well). If Jesus negates the statement that "it is not good to marry" with only a few exceptions in mind, are we to assume that everyone else is required to marry? The answer is No. Let us not commit the logical fallacy of posing a False Dilemma. Readers should take note: To deny that marriage is "not good" is not to deny that singleness is good. If neither marriage or singleness were good, then God would not recommend either state for anyone. As it is, the Bible affirms that both marriage and singleness, in principal, are good (1 Corinthians 7:38).
The people Jesus addresses in Matthew 19:12 are people for which the saying "it is not good to marry" holds true in a way that it does not hold true for others. They are eunuchs either in the literal sense or the figurative sense. Indeed, very few single people fall into the category considered here. For many other people, it is good to be either single or married. Granted, there are those of whom it can be said, "It is not good to be single." I refer, of course, to people who are already married, for matrimony definitely comes with obligations (1 Corinthians 7:2-7). But conceding this is not akin to embracing the kind of far-reaching claims that Mrs. Maken makes about the need to get married.
So, What Kind of Eunuch Am I, Mrs. Maken?
Having established that Jesus did not place restrictions on singleness, per se, in Matthew 19:11-12, let us therefore consider Mrs. Maken's statement on page 32:
"I once went on a date with a thirty-seven-year-old bachelor. Curious about why he was still single at that age, I asked him, 'So what kind of "eunuch" are you?' I know it's not your typical conversation starter on a first date, but I wasn't going to waste my time dating someone who wasn't looking for marriage ...Mrs. Maken's conduct in this account is regrettable. Her confrontational demeanor was needless, as it was clearly based on a misunderstanding of what Matthew 19:11-12 teaches. All the same, I want to make an additional point about Mrs. Maken's exegesis and Matthew 19:11-12. The passage mentions three types of "eunuchs":
"... We talked about singleness according to the Bible--that if he was legitimately single, he'd either been called to be single for full-time kingdom work that made family life impossible, as it was with Paul and Jeremiah, or he must have a medical file somewhere that proved he was exempt from marriage because he was unable to perform its duties. If either of those two things were true, he had no business dating me or anyone else."
"For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother's womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake ..." (v. 12, NKJV)The first two categories of "eunuchs" refer, of course, to people who are are biologically ill-suited to have conjugal relations. The third category refers to those who are unmarried because of their service to God. It is this last category that merits our attention.
Mrs. Maken claims those who are "eunuchs .. for the kingdom of heaven's sake" are those who have "received a clear direction from God to be single" (p. 32). However, a careful look at Matthew 19:12 reveals something rather interesting. It says the third category of eunuchs "have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake." In other words, the singles in question exercised choice about there status.
This exercise of free will flies squarely of the face of any assertion that people have to be "called to singleness" by God. It also indicates that Christians do not need a supernatural "gift" of diminished sexual desire in order to remain pure (although on p. 34, Mrs. Maken assumes a priori that single people who take on exceptional ministries must have such an endowment). Finally, one should note that the choice of becoming a figurative eunuch undercuts any assertion that people are to "be fruitful and multiply". For if God indeed still commanded people to have children, then there would clear directives on who could remain single and thereby exempt themselves from the command. Mrs. Maken would like us to believe there are clear directives, but we see that Matthew 19:12 shows otherwise. In essence, it is ironic that the very passage Mrs. Maken uses to support her position actually devastates it.
Singles in the Bible
On pages 34 to 36, Mrs. Maken calls attention to some figures in the Bible that were unmarried. She supposes that these individuals support her assertion that people must have a special calling from God in order to be single. What interests me, however, is her mention of the Apostle Paul and Barnabas. I agree with Mrs. Maken that their missionary work would have made married life a difficult proposition. Yet, notice what Paul claims about Barnabas and himself in 1 Corinthians 9:5: "Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas?" (NKJV). Apparently, Paul thought that he had the same right as any other red-blooded male Christian had. He must have not been familiar with the theology of some modern commentators who assume the he was mysteriously endowed with a low sex drive or that the Lord gave him no choice in the matter of marriage.
A "Present Distress" over 1 Corinthians 7
I suppose if there is one passage that causes no small amount of consternation for those who take Debbie Maken's position on marriage, it is 1 Corinthians, chapter 7. In this passage, the Bible commendation of the single lifestyle cannot be any clearer. How then do those who demand most people get married handle this passage? They may do like Mrs. Maken does: explain it away by assuming it only applies to the first century. Mrs. Maken writes:
"Paul had very different advice for different categories of singles. He began with widows and widowers (v. 8), moved on to those who were married but on the brink of separation or divorce (vv. 10, 15), and then addressed never-married singles (v. 25: 'now concerning virgins' [literal translation]). To this last subset, Paul said that 'in view of the present distress,' those who wished to temporarily delay marriage could do so. What was this 'present distress?' Historians uniformly believe that Paul was referencing famine and persecution. In light of such events, marriage and family--especially young children--would only add to the stress. It was only because of the highly unusual circumstances surrounding the Greek countryside that Paul gives this advice to this one group of Christians ..."Mrs. Maken's approach to 1 Corinthians 7 is not new to me, as I have run across other writers who take the same position. Needless to say, I am not convinced by the line of reasoning employed by Mrs. Maken and others. It seems that Mr. Maken and, by extension, the commentators she follows read too much into the phrase "present distress."
"... When Paul gave his answer to the question, he allowed that difficulties such as famine and persecution are justifications for postponing marriage, but he did not lend any support to ascetics looking for excuses to shun marriage ... Paul walked a fine line, but he did not say that singleness and marriage are equal options in the eyes of the Lord." (pp. 37-38)
Mrs. Maken may claim that "historians uniformly believe" that Paul was addressing famine and persecution in Corinth, but well-respected Biblical scholars do not "uniformly believe" this. Other commentators, such as C. K. Barrett and Richard Oster, believe the "present distress" points to a more generalized tribulation that Christians endure. If we were to concede a temporal understanding of the phrase "present distress," we are still left with the task of explaining Paul's words in vv. 29-31, which end with the statement: "For the form of this world is passing away" (NKJV). Paul's focus here is clearly eschatological. Even Simon Kistemaker, a commentator Mrs. Maken selectively cites in support of her position, states:
"Whether we are married, cast into sorrow, given to joy, or acquire possessions, Christians should not become absorbed by them. They should see the transient nature of these things and know that after having passed through this earthly vale, believers will enter eternity. In this life, then, they ought to prepare themselves for the life after death." (Simon Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1993), 244.) (emphasis mine)Perhaps Mrs. Maken's fans should examine their own personal feelings in light of the above statement. At any rate, if Paul's advice to single people in 1 Corinthians 7 stopped at verse 28, I could perhaps grant something to those of Mrs. Maken's persuasion, but vv. 29-31 exhibit a shift in subject matter, as do vv. 32-38.
The Married vs. the "Eunuchs"
When we come to 1 Corinthians 7:32, we see Paul commencing a general discussion of the differences between married people and single people. Consider the following language of v. 34:
"There is a difference between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be hold both in body and in spirit. But she who is married cares about the things of the world--how she may please her husband." (NKJV)Are we to believe this verse is only talking about times of exceptional distress? Paul's distinction is between the "unmarried" and "married," not between those who are persecuted and those who are not persecuted. Moreover, Paul says nothing about being anxious for the necessities of life here. Instead, we simply have a statement about "pleasing" one's spouse. The word "pleasing" does not connote times of dire distress, even in the original language of the text. Paul then goes on to say:
"And this I say for your own profit, not that I may put a leash on you, but for what is proper, and that you may serve the Lord without distraction" (v. 35, NKJV).Paul's application cannot be more clear: he is not proposing a set of statutes and case law for matrimony. He advice indicates that there is choice in the matter and that he simply desires that the Corinthians be able to "serve the Lord without distraction." If there is any doubt about whether or not Paul leaves the matter of marriage and singleness up to the Christians he addresses, consider the language of vv. 37-38:
"But if any man thinks he is behaving improperly toward his virgin, if she is past the flower of youth, and thus it must be, let him do what he wishes. He does not sin; let them marry. Nevertheless he who stands steadfast in his heart, having no necessity, but has power over his own will, and has so determined in his own heart that he will keep his virgin, does well. So then, he who gives her in marriage does well, but he who does not give her in marriage does better." (NKJV) (emphasis mine)I find it puzzling how Mrs. Maken and others could fail to acknowledge the very clear language of the above passage. Here, Paul indicates that the decision to marry is a matter of one's "own heart" and "own will." There is simply no hint of the matter of matrimony being predetermined by divine fiat. In short, God leaves the choice up to us, and by extension, the notion that we are commanded to "be fruitful and multiply" is again swept away in the wake of this passage.
Distresses That Really Are "Present"
Let the reader assume for the sake of argument that all of 1 Corinthians 7:25-40 pertained to an exceptional circumstance, namely persecution or famine. Was the situation that the Corinthians faced so unique and unparalleled in whole history of Christendom that they merited a special exemption from marriage? How dire did life's circumstances have to be before one could refuse matrimony? Mrs. Maken's suppositions to the contrary, the Bible does not give us any details. The text merely says that Paul wanted the Corinthians "to be without care." We cannot make God to be a respecter of persons (Acts 10:34). At the very least, we have to allow for a present-day application of 1 Corinthians 7:25-40, whether it is wholly couched in terms of a "distress" or not. Today's Christians, like the Corinthians, should be able to forego marriage in order "to be without care." Maybe we are not faced with famine and persecution in today's society, but those who want to start families today face many antagonistic forces in the legal, economic, and social realms.
The Battle of the Commentaries
We have already noted that one commentary Mrs. Maken cites (viz., by Simon Kistemaker) does not agree with her overall position on 1 Corinthians 7:25-40. Another work Mrs. Maken uses also does a disservice to the theology of those who share her beliefs. I refer, in particular, to Gordon Fee's commentary on 1 Corinthians. Contrary to what many believe about 1 Corinthians 7:1-9, Fee does not take this passage as an encouragement for single people to marry. He carefully considers the original Greek language of the text and comes to two striking, but correct, conclusions. The first is that 1 Corinthians 7:1-6 is addressed to Christians who are already married; the Apostle's exhortation is for husbands and wives to continue to have intimate relations with each other "in order to avoid fornication." The second conclusion worth noting is that 1 Corinthians 7:9 does not hold forth marriage as a solution for youthful desires, per se. The English translation "cannot contain" is inaccurate. The people under consideration are those who will not practice self-control and thereby are already caught up in the sin of fornication. Hence, the Apostle Paul indicates that marriage is better than being involved in sin, but he does not necessarily indicate it is better than being single (Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 278-290).
Granted, I will admit that I do not entirely agree with Fee's conclusions on 1 Corinthians, chapter 7. For instance, Fee, like Debbie Maken, assumes that the gift of which Paul speaks in v. 7 is some exceptional resistance to sexual desire (Ibid., 284). I have already noted that such a conclusion is strained in light of Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 9:5. For all one may know, Paul could be referring to the undivided devotion he had to the Lord as a single man (7:32, 35). Such a "gift" of undivided devotion would certainly fit the context of the preceding statements in vv. 5-6. Having said this, I agree with Fee when he states:
"The irony of our present situation is that Paul insisted that his own preference, including his reasons for it, were not to be taken as a noose around anyone's neck. Yet we have allowed that very thing to happen. Roman Catholicism has insisted on celibacy for its clergy even though not all are gifted to be so; on the other hand, many Protestant groups will not ordain the single because marriage is the norm, and the single are not quite trusted. The answer again lies in our becoming eschatological people who live in the present with such a clear vision of our certain future that we are free from such anxiety, and therefore also free from placing such strictures on others as well as on ourselves." (Ibid., 348-349) (emphasis mine)I cannot but wonder if Mrs. Maken actually read this portion of Fee's book. All in all, whether it be Bible passages or commentaries, I again note with irony how the very sources Mrs. Maken uses to support her position actually devastate it.
Debbie Maken's Book - The Rest of Chapter Two
When one moves the beyond the faulty exegesis of Mrs. Maken's book on pages 29-40, there is no much left to consider in Chapter Two. What is left is a series of assertions which are patently baseless. For instance, with respect to the so-called "biblical criteria for lifelong singleness," she tells us the "Bible requires voluntarily and permanently renouncing marriage and all that goes with it" (p. 41); this, of course, utterly contradicts the very "right" that Apostle Paul claimed for himself in 1 Corinthians 9:5.
Finally, Mrs. Maken closes the chapter with some comments about single men that I find, as a man, to be quite condescending. Such are unfortunately a foretaste of what we will encounter later in the book. Suffice it to say, by the end of Chapter Two, Debbie Maken's book is still-born. Devoid of any meaningful and sound exegesis of the Bible, the rest of Mrs. Maken's volume is little more than conglomeration of historical trivia, colorful suppositions, and diatribe. I shall, nonetheless, attempt to address the rest of Mrs. Maken's book in upcoming installments of my critique.