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William Gouge and the Scourge of Singleness
or, "Why references, quotations, and facts are so very important"
A few weeks ago I came across a “discussion” on Twitter between a Pastor and a Theologian. The Pastor in question had taken offence at the Theologian’s position on the gift of singleness, and in particular her new book “The Meaning of Singleness.” Though I haven’t yet read that book, I do intend to, and having read a good deal of Treweek’s work, I found the attacks aimed at her quite baseless. What stuck with me, however, were the “allies” the Pastor had brought with him to assist him in fighting his cause. These allies were not fellow Twitter users, but Puritan theologians he claimed would have agreed with his position. One such Theologian he mentioned—without quotation or reference—was William Gouge, a puritan and a pastor who was active in ministry from the early to mid 1600s, and most notably wrote a work called “Of Domestical Duties” which was influential in his day, and has been a blessing to Christians in the centuries since. Having read Gouge a fair bit a few years ago, I tried to recall where Gouge had mentioned singleness at all, and furthermore whether any writings of his had survived pertaining to the particular verses being discussed, 1 Corinthians 7:6-91. Though I’m not usually one to respond to these kinds of discourses, either on Twitter or here on Substack, I felt this particular issue deserved some further research, as I guess that many well-meaning Christians will have read that Tweet and taken it at face value. This would be a mistake.
Secondly, this Tweet is symbolic of a more general view which persists among certain circles that the Puritans did not tolerate singleness under any circumstances. It isn’t always said quite as starkly as that, but that is the inference. Whilst it is true that the Puritan’s were on the whole vehemently against a form of singleness—which we will look at shortly—we must look at this with regard to the context in which they were writing, teaching, and preaching.
Finally, it must be said that whilst I am not single—I’ve been happily married for a few years now—everyone reading this will either have been single before, is single presently, or has a high chance of being single again. Whether one has received “the gift of singleness,” is single by circumstance, or has been widowed, it must be recognised that there is a place in the body of Christ for those who are not married, and the Bible gives us hope in those times. I cannot state clearly enough how important it is to remember that singleness is not a punishment, a lesser state of spiritual maturity, or a “scourge” on the Church.
Gouge, it seems, would agree.
Gouge’s Principal of Singleness
Though I’ve mentioned above that “Of Domestically Duties” is widely applicable still today, it must be understood in the original context in which it was written. The book is an exposition of Ephesians 5:25-6:9, which you can read in full in the footnotes2, but concludes:
“Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.”
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Eph 6:5–9
In the West in 2023, servants are the furthest thing from our minds. We might have watched Upstairs, Downstairs or Downton Abbey back in the day, but beyond biographies and period dramas, the Global West’s common thoughts around servanthood are negative. Around the world and throughout history, however, servanthood has been a regular profession, and a normative part of the household. This was true of Gouge’s day also, and so whilst we might preach on this passage comparing “Servanthood” to “How to act in the workplace,” for instance, Gouge wrote a thoughtful and pastoral exegesis of this passage for the servants who might be reading.
It was in this section of the book that I found, as far as I can tell, the only references to singleness in all of Gouge’s writings. What’s more, each of these references are in the context of explaining an instance in which singleness might, at least for a season, be the right decision!
“Servants ought not to marry, during the time of their covenant for service, unless their Master gives consent there-to. The Law of God sets forth the lawful marriages of servants; If his Master has given him a wife, whereby is implied, that if a servant marry, it must be with his Masters consent.
Objection: The Apostle, without exception of servants, says, “To avoid fornication let every man have his wife.”
Answer: Paul shows here by what means the Lord has sanctified for every one to avoid fornication, but he does not thereby give liberty to marry, to throwing oneself headlong into marriage, against that order which God has set down.
That precept is given to such as are in their own power: for children of the faith, that parents must see what is good or not good for them.
Modernised by the Writer of the Article from “Of Domestically Duties” (Original in footnotes3)
Gouge goes on to explain that to marry without consent of the master would be ill-advised not least because the servant lives not by his own means, but his master’s means, and therefore would be marrying with the intent that the master should provide for his wife also, this is dishonouring of the master, and therefore does not honour Christ.
Now, this is by no means a puritan proof text for the gift of singleness, but it does give us some indicators about what Gouge thought about singleness.
This quote shows that Gouge believed:
That there was a natural order to finding a wife which was to be outworked in the context of a household, whether traditional or as a result of service.
That wisdom was to be exercised with regard:
Being able to provide personally for a wife.
Being in a state of personal freedom which would allow one to marry.
Honouring either parents or a master with one’s choice of a wife
That whilst all christians are:
Called to chastity
To abstain from fornication
Given freedom by God to marry
That this does not necessarily mean that all should marry. Whilst marriage is a sanctified way of avoiding fornication, it is not an available option or wise for all.
Though this was stated in the context of servanthood, this could be easily applied to a number of other situations. Gouge is absolutely pro-marriage, as is, I should add, Dani Treweek. However, both recognise, to greater or lesser extents the place and necessity of singleness, either practically or as a condition of gifting.
Is Gouge alone though? As I mentioned previously, there seems to be a pervading thought that the Puritans were anti-singleness, and this is for good reason, because singleness of a kind was an issue in that period, and like the circumcision party in the early church, this needed to be faced, and called out.
Puritans vs the Popish Doctrine
Thomas Vincent, was a prominent English minister who preached during the Great Plague of London and pastored a large congregation at Hoxton in the East End. He was eventually also imprisoned for his nonconformity (puritanism) until his death in 1678. A major issue during this time was the long-held Catholic (Popish/Papist) belief in the necessity of celibacy amongst the priesthood even if that meant allowing those priests indiscretions such as concubines, or the visiting of “women of easy virtue.” This flew in the face of biblical teaching, particularly when considering passages about Elders/Bishops/Priests being “a man of one wife.” Though it is generally accepted that this includes celibate/widowed men, it is nonetheless clear that it specifically speaks of married church leaders. In a sermon on 1 Timothy 4:1-3, Vincent rejects this doctrine of celibacy under no uncertain terms. So, that’s that right, no celibacy. Well, not quite. Vincent says:
“When the apostle says, “Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife [as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?4] (1 Co 9:5.)” two things are implied:
First. That he did not “take along a believing wife” that is, that he did not marry; for he had sisters to be his helpers, as has been shown. Secondly. That he had the “right to take along a believing wife” i.e. that it was lawful for him to marry; implying by his question the affirmative principal. And this right which he had, he proved by the marriage of other apostles, and expressly of Peter: for if the great apostle of the Jews (who was Peter) was married, then the great apostle of the Gentiles (who was Paul) might marry too; and if the apostles themselves, the most eminent ministers, might marry, then it is lawful for any other ministers to do it, who are their successors in the ministerial work.”
Thomas Vincent, Puritan Sermons, (Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, Publishers, 1981), 6:345 (Modernised by the writer of the article and Bible verses taken from the ESV)
Vincent doesn’t shy away from using a passage from the perspective of single ministers5 here but doesn’t go into great detail about the virtue of singleness here either. This is because the Paul's singlness doesn't detract from Paul's point about marriage, and singleness is not the point of the sermon or the passage. Even so, Vincent makes two important points about singleness. Firstly, that Paul and Barnabus were both single and this was not a hindrance to them, which leads to the second point, that Paul was able to exercise his gift of singleness because of the spiritual fraternity of his “sisters…his helpers.” This is remarkably close to the view those who talk about the “Gift of Singleness” tell us today , that friends are a necessary part of Christ’s body working together, for sanctification, and also for mutual love and care, whether we are married or single.
A Scourge vs a Gift
To compare the false teachings of Rome on the mass celibacy of the priesthood to a select few seeking to disciple those who have not been called to marriage is madness. I have met celibate Christians who are immensely faithful, generous with their time, and embody Pauls words from 1 Corinthians 7:32, “…The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord.” What each of them also had in common was a high-view of marriage. I’m am sure that there are those out there who are an exception to this rule, but they are not the majority. Gouge was not anti-singleness, the Puritans on the whole were not anti-singleness, and we should not be anti-singleness, or indeed anti-“singles” today.
We ought to be incredibly careful not to call evil good and good evil6, especially seeing as that seems to be the modus operandum of the culture around us. It is also vital that we don't pretend others have said something that they have not. In the "discussion" on Twitter I mentioned at the start of this article, many false claims were levied against Treweek, and to back them up a false claim was made about Gouge. When we speak falsehoods about both our friends and our "adversaries", we fly in the face of commands to love our neighbours (Matt 19:19, Lev 19:18), our spiritual siblings (1 Pet 1:22, 1 John 3:14), and our enemies (Luke 6:35, Matt 5:44). As Christians we are meant to be known by our love for one another (John 13:357), we ought to do so by bearing with one another well, listening to each other, caring for each other, and not seeking to tear down the gift of another member of the body because we can't understand its use. Whenever I stub my little toe, I wonder what it could possibly be good for! If I were to cut it off, however, that would be ludicrous, just because I don't understand, doesn't mean it isn't there for a reason. I have two slipped discs in my spine, believe me when I say, that has an effect on the whole of my body. I recently dropped a beautiful glass mug simply because I lost the feeling in my hands for a moment. Don't risk dropping the fragile beauty that exists in the church because you're willing to damage a member of the body you don't see the use of yet.
Grace and Peace,
Adsum Try Ravenhill
Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 7:6–9.
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honour your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.”
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Eph 5:25-6:9
“They ought not to marry, while the time of their covenant for service lasteth, unless their Master gives consent there-to. The Law of God thus setteth forth the lawful marriages of servants, If his Master have give him a wife: whereby is implied, that if a servant marry, it must be which his Maters consent.
The Apostle, without exception of servants, faith, “To avoid fornication let every man have his wife,”
He there sheweth what meanes the Lord hath sanctified to every one to avoid fornication, but he doth not thereby give liberty to marry one, headily to use that meanes, against that order which God hath set down.
That precept is given te such as are min their own power: for of children hee faith, that parents must see what is meet or not meet for them.”
The second half of the verse is implied, but not directly quoted in the original, but for clarity I have included it here.
Paul and Barnabas are both mentioned in this passage.
Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter!
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Jn 13:34–35.