Marriage and the Family – Gains and Pains of the Single Life

The vast majority of servants of God through the years since the first century have been married. Paul indicates to us that in his time, “other apostles and the brethren of the Lord” (1 Cor 9:5) were married. In fact, according to the RV, the text reads “the rest of the apostles” implying that all the apostles were married as also the brethren of the Lord. Since then, it has been no different. Some of the best known servants of the Lord in these later centuries have all been married. William Carey, George Whitfield, John and Charles Wesley, Hudson Taylor, David Livingstone, George Muller, Anthony Norris Groves, Adoniram Judson, D.L. Moody, Charles Spurgeon, and Harry Ironside are some examples. Martin Luther remained single until he was 42 and then married an ex-nun, Katie von Bora.

However a few names stand out as remaining single in their service for the Lord. The most notable was the apostle Paul in the first century. Others of more recent times include John Nelson Darby, Henry Martyn of India and Persia, and in this century the Australian brother Dr. John Olley of Chad in Africa and W. J. McClure of California, both of whom were linked with assemblies. These served the Lord devotedly until death.

We come now to look at some of the distinct advantages of serving the Lord while remaining single.

The Gains of being Single

The first gain is the total liberty to serve the Lord without distraction. The single person is free to live continually with his heart and soul occupied in spiritual business. He can devote his time from early morning to evening in the tasks relating directly or indirectly to his service for the Lord. He will find himself in the position mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, a part of which is most relevant to our theme. This chapter concerns marriage. It is divided into 2 major parts by the words “Now concerning.” In the first part, verses 1 to 24, he speaks to those who are married and of their need to remain in the state in which God called them by the Gospel. In the second part he speaks to the unmarried, verses 25 to 40. We can see a sub-division here in that he has words for virgins, those never married before, from verses 25 to 38; to the widowed who have not yet remarried, from verses 39 to 40. In the subsection, he describes the lifestyle of the unmarried male first in verse 32 and of the unmarried female in verse 34. In both cases he contrasts the unmarried with the married. The virgin brother cares for the Lord’s interests, “how he may please the Lord;” the virgin sister how “how she may be holy in body and spirit.” In contrast he says the married brother cares for “how he may please his wife” (v 33) and the married sister “how she may please her husband” (v 34b). His motive, Paul says, is so “that ye may attend (literally, sitting constantly by, and so applying oneself diligently to -Vine’s NT Words) the Lord without distraction” (v 35).

We wish to make it clear that Paul is speaking to all Christians here, not just to those devoting themselves full-time to the Lord’s service. How much more then does what he speaks here apply to those in so-called ‘full-time service’. As we all know, Paul in fact recommends all to be single that they may so serve the Lord. He does of course make it clear that not all have this gift (see v 7). Further he adds, in the section addressed to virgins, that if “thou (a brother) marry, thou hast not sinned; and if a virgin marries she has not sinned” (v 28). But so as to serve the Lord devotedly and sacrificially, Paul by the Spirit urges the single life.

From Paul’s teaching we discern that not everyone needs to be married. The single state opens the prospect of serving the Lord in places and in conditions where it would be difficult, even dangerous to bring a wife and children. A single brother maybe willing to penetrate places, for Christ and the Gospel, where he couldn’t bear to see a wife with a more tender spirit suffer. She could be brought to places where she would be living in constant terror for her husband and also for the children. Paul says in the context of “the present distress” or persecution, “Nevertheless such (i.e. the married) shall have trouble in the flesh,” and, Paul adds as the RV translates “and I would spare you” (v 28b). We wonder if young brethren who could live the single life ever consider this way of serving the Lord. Unevangelized fields over the globe are awaiting wholly consecrated workers, ready to forego every tie for Christ’s sake.

Another gain, already implied, of service while single is the flexibility of movement in serving the Lord. A single brother can move to where the Lord directs without having to consider the demands of home. He may move to other parts of the vineyard without ever coming home. He considers only the good of the Lord’s work. He has no need to limit his activities because of the legitimate calls of his home. He is free to uproot himself and enter fresh fields if the Lord so directs. If the Lord fits him for that service then it is normal for him to be prepared to face any hardship, any suffering for the Gospel’s sake. It has happened that married couples have been in these situations too and endured all for the message they carried. A single brother would necessarily carry a lighter burden, as he would brace himself to suffer.

The Pains of being Single

We must also realize that, while ideally we may serve the Lord with all our time and all our attention, in fact the single brother has to engage in at least some of the normal duties of life, some of which belong to the sphere of the wife. In other words he will be forced to give up time for household duties and may find his plans to devote himself to the Master’s blessed service curtailed. He must live somewhere, and that residence has to be a testimony to the Lord. He cannot leave the place dirty outside or neglected. The inside must be cared for too. He must have some order in his home. He may employ others to assist him, but he may not always find a suitable person. He must do the shopping and many other outside chores. He will have to spend time making food, washing clothes, and a host of other little tasks. His time in the Lord’s things may not turn out to be as full as he expected. This aspect can become a pain he must face.

He may confront also a more serious pain in that his unmarried state may not be understood in some cultures. In some areas of the world the married state is regarded as normal for everyone. Anyone not fitting this category comes under suspicion. The people he works among may not understand the reason why he has no wife. They may consider him to be living a secret life of sin. They will identify him with those elements in society that live a morally corrupt or perverted life. They will see evidence of this in his absences from home and his irregular arrivals and departures. As a consequence, his testimony may not be accepted. On the other hand he may not labor under this difficulty, but he may find himself the object of attention on the part of corrupt folks, especially some women. They may try to maneuver him into compromising positions. He may then find himself accused of misbehavior. Such harrowing experiences can be detrimental, indeed fatal, to his work for the Lord.

Finally a single brother may be spared such horrors in his service, but he may find himself lonely as he labors devotedly for the Lord. Yes, he knows sweet times of fellowship with God. He tells the Lord all his trials and sorrows. He finds solace there. He may even have the company of believers in the immediate field of his labors. He will be able to enjoy fellowship with them. However he may find that he has trials, problems, and heartbreaks of which he cannot speak to others. He may miss the companionship of a partner who shares an understanding of the field where he labors, the strains he is under and the griefs and burdens pressing his spirit. He may commit them to the Lord, but he may also long to know the relief of bearing them together with an empathizing human. A wife can fill such a role. In Genesis 2 Adam had perfect communion with God, yet the Lord saw his need of a companion. That is why Eve was created.

Clearly, single service for the Lord can have impressive gains. On the other hand the unmarried servant may face some decided pains. Each must weigh them up and act as the Lord gives direction.