Most of his boyhood friends married, but not Him. He had many friends, and aging parents, though not married or a parent Himself. He knew who He was, and where He was going, but also understood being considered different. He could laugh and play with children, but also cried and experienced loneliness. Usually we don’t think of Him in this way, but Jesus was a single adult” (adapted from Vetter and Vetter as cited in Collins, Christian Counseling, p. 361).
Despite its founder’s singleness, the Christian church has frequently devalued singles. The not-so-subtle message is often that “Marriage is the norm, singleness is abnormal.” This messaging is especially horrible, when we consider that external life situations such as bereavement or marital breakups might also make people single again (think of Naomi and Ruth). Similarly, a debilitating handicap or illness may prevent someone from pursuing relationships.
Where did this bias come from? The Protestant Reformation emphasized the family, a pendulum swing away from centuries of celebrating singleness within the Roman Catholic church. The Catholic tradition had been significantly influenced by Saint Augustine’s unfortunate disdain for the body, women and sexuality. Christ and Paul, however, had also honoured singleness within a Jewish historical context that emphasized marriage. In Jesus, “without demeaning marriage, the New Testament gave a new dignity to singleness” (Hsu, Singles at the Crossroads, pp. 35-37, 41-42). We will trace singles’ unique contributions through three lenses.
Relationships – The Church Our Primary Family
Family can be a great blessing from God. One of the married state’s dangers, however, is to become so absorbed in natural family that we forget that the church is our primary family, as Christ referenced in Matthew 12:50 (ESV). “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Single Christians can more easily affirm this reality and marrieds can learn this from singles. Human beings are relational, made in the image of a relational God. Without relationships, loneliness is a real danger.
Many biblical examples of intimate friendships include Daniel, who lived together with his friends in exile (1:6, 8, 12; 2:15-18); Ruth and Naomi; and David and Jonathan. For singles, this implies the need to seek out healthy, life-giving relationships within God’s family. Be adventurous – develop patience, forgiveness, joy, and authenticity in relationships. For married couples, this implies a paradigm shift – of not merely socializing with family or other couples, but with the full range of Christ’s body.
Service – Radical Commitment To God
Christ also highlighted in His Word that people can serve God uniquely as singles: “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” (Matt 19:12, ESV). Paul says the same in 1 Cor 7:32-4, yet assemblies curiously sometimes consider marriage to be an important qualification for ministry.
I have served God full time since 2001, first as a single person, and now as a married man. A confidante and partner in service is an inestimable blessing; however, I recognize that my frenetic pace of ministry while single would be unsuitable for family life. Think of Elijah’s outrageously stressful ministry, camping out at Cherith, of his itinerant travels to Zarephath (1Kings 17), of his fierce contest with Jezebel on Carmel (ch18), and of his desert pilgrimage (ch19)!
What will you do with your life? Don’t wait for marriage, assuming God’s plan commences then. Live in the present! Singles can take initiative to do, and be, for the Lord, perhaps in full-time service; perhaps pursuing a vocation allowing you to be generous to missions or in your own local assembly ministry; perhaps purchasing a home to enable hospitality to strangers and saints; perhaps organizing holidays together with Christian friends; perhaps taking special time for meditation, solitude and prayer. Who am I, if not married? I am exactly who God made me to be, fulfilling my special calling from God for this time.
If one asks about physical intimacy, Christian values of purity are clear and must be chosen. For some people, singleness without physical intimacy may be difficult or impossible, so that Christ only advises it if one is able to receive it. As described earlier, living with healthy relationships and having a channel for service can be helpful.
Eternity – We’ll All Be Single One Day
Lastly, Christ’s words “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matt 22:30) imply earthly marriage’s temporality. The eternal resurrection state involves permanent relationship with God in Christ as opposed to marriage. Singleness, then, directly reflects that coming reality. Marriage shows this same reality of relationship to Christ in picture form, but there is a biblically honourable place for singleness. We should challenge our notions about marriage’s primacy, and find ways to celebrate the beauty of remaining single as well.
If you are single, I hope these three points will help you accept your current situation. Your life story is significant and valuable, different from that of a married person, but just as valuable. If you are married, I hope you can appreciate the experience of singles as being equally valid and valuable. Don’t describe single people as “on the shelf,” or tell them you are praying for them, without considering whether your prayers are appreciated.
Consider the following single lady’s statement: “Everyone is single at least once and often single again. Only the duration and quality of singleness differ. … Single or married, we all live in the same world. We are all part of a family, whether present or removed, and shouldn’t we have common interests and concerns? Though I may not have my own children, shouldn’t I be concerned with the success my friends have in raising theirs? … Singles as well as married couples can be very narrow in their perspectives – all wrapped up in their own concerns and with little interest in the world around them. … To want others to ‘do things’ for me is a waste of my thinking and abilities. I can ‘do’ for other people” (Collins, p. 361).