We are all called to be single for a season – and we don’t know how long. How do we celebrate it?
Andrew Thomas // February 10, 2021, 4:02 pm
In a Christian sense, we are all called to be single before we are called to be married – and sometimes after it. How can we value singleness more, asks the author, who is single and celibate. Photo by Guillaume de Germain on Unsplash.
When was the last time you heard any talk that promoted singleness as a positive thing?
Singleness is usually spoken of as a temporary “problem” happily solved by marriage. You’re taught how to survive till your wedding day – not how to thrive as a single person. Celibacy may be seen as a bad thing by many, to be avoided at all costs. The implicit assumption is that we are incomplete until we’ve met our “other half”.
It’s important we’re aware of how our secular culture influences this negative view of singleness. Because our culture – and attitudes that come along with it – is simply the water we swim in. We absorb it invisibly from our family and friends, from social media, from the internet, from movies and so on.
As fruitful as marriage
We don’t want to be single because it’s seen as a reflection of our identity, or rather our lack of identity. Being single is seen as a kind of defeat – like a signal that says: “Oh look, I’m less than I’m supposed to be. I haven’t fully matured. Something’s wrong with me because I haven’t been able to find my romantic other.”
And then the whole culture we live in reinforces this mindset, because both the secular culture and the church culture are geared towards marriage and towards couples. If you’re single, the unspoken assumption seems to be: “There’s something wrong with you – you need to fix that.”
Which is why well-meaning friends were always trying to marry me off … until I reached a certain age. They meant well, but they rarely encouraged me to think that celibacy is a noble calling and a God-honoured way of living – that in God’s kingdom is every bit as honoured and positive and fruitful as marriage.
And the plain fact is that all of us are single anyway, for a significant portion of our lives. And not only when we’re young. So in a Christian sense, we are all called to be single, before we are called to be married, and sometimes after it.
A reality check
We are born single.
We grow up single.
We get married.
Our spouse dies, or we get divorced.
We are single again.
We die single.
We spend eternity single.
So if we marry at age 30, lose a spouse at 70, then live to 90, then spend eternity single … what should we prepare ourselves for?
Accepting the calling
Singleness or celibacy in a Christian context means accepting a calling to remain single for life, or for a period of time, to serve God and His kingdom with our total attention. Which means abstaining from marriage and therefore sex, for this purpose.
This calling and its obligations remain on all of us who are single – even if one day we plan to get married.
And when a spouse dies, or regrettably we find ourselves divorced, that calling is returned to us again. We are called to remain celibate and to serve God, either until we die, or until God may call us to marriage again.
That sounds very daunting.
But the good sermon we’ve never heard preached on it before is from Paul the Apostle, who was single. He commends singleness as the preferred way of life: “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do”. (1 Corinthians 7:8)
In other words, if we follow Paul’s lead, he says it’s good to be alone all your life, not to have a spouse, not to have sex, and never to have kids. That doesn’t sound very “good” to our modern ears, does it? But we first need to understand why he thought like that.
Paul, the single Jew
Paul’s views, and the Christian attitude to singleness, was very radical in his time. In the Jewish world of 65AD, singleness was almost unheard of. As far as the Jews were concerned, and the Greeks and Romans, it was the duty of every adult man and woman to be married and have children. There were virtually no singles in society, unless you were either a prostitute or a widow.
The Old Testament Jewish community was based on family clans. To be without a spouse and children was not only to be without guardians in old age. It was also to be without heirs and descendants to carry on the family name. Marriage, children and heirs were an important part of God’s plan for the Jews in the Old Testament.
But here’s Paul, a single Jew, encouraging Christians to choose singleness as an equally valid calling to marriage. And within the first century of the church, many Christians were single and celibate like Paul. Having chosen to serve God as singles all their lives, not just against the disapproval of their families, but also in the face of persecution from the Romans. The Roman state wanted babies!
So what happened? Why did Paul and the Christians honour singleness?
It’s all about the coming of Jesus, and the implications of the Gospel.
The most complete single
Although Jesus honours and elevates God’s gift of marriage in His teaching, in sharp contrast to conventional Jewish thinking, Jesus taught that salvation is found not in earthly marriage and having children to carry on the family name.
Rather, salvation is found in being born again into the family of God, through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. And our essential personhood and fulfilment comes not from being married, but from the identity we’re given by Jesus, in God’s family.
As if to underline this, Jesus taught that earthly marriage while blessed by God, is not an eternal state – it’s not going to exist in heaven. In Matthew 22.30, He said: “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”
Jesus was the most complete and fully human person who ever lived, and yet He was single.
And while Jesus reveals that the biological family is only temporary in nature, Jesus created in His disciples a new family – the church – that will endure for eternity. A family in which we have spiritual fathers and mothers and children and siblings, and aunts and uncles and grandparents.
In Matthew 12.49, when Jesus’ mother and brothers came looking for Him, He said: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, He said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
And then there’s the example of Jesus Himself. Like Paul, He was a single man. Even though He would’ve been expected to marry, Jesus chose to remain single for us.
So Jesus isn’t calling us to a lifestyle he wasn’t willing to embrace himself. He was the most complete and fully human person who ever lived, and yet He was single. So Jesus shows us that none of these things — marriage, romantic fulfilment … while being good in themselves — is intrinsic to being fully human.
So not only can we see how Jesus elevates singleness in Himself, but also how he used his singleness for the sake of others. And this is why so many early Christians were willing to embrace singleness as such an honoured calling, alongside marriage. Because they were following Jesus’ example.
A foretaste of heaven
Just as earthly marriage points beyond itself to the marriage of Christ and the church, so our earthly singleness points beyond itself to a heavenly reality, which has three aspects to it.
1. Christian singleness points us towards the church as our true family, a family that outlasts and transcends the biological families we were born into. So our family in the Kingdom of God is first and foremost our brothers and sisters in Christ. And our singles are a living reminder that in Jesus we are all part of a new heavenly family, that will outlast our human family.
2. Christian singleness points us towards God’s future. Singleness is a sign of God’s future, breaking into the present. In Matthew 22.30, Jesus reveals that in heaven, marriage as we know it will no longer exist. Because marriage is just a foreshadowing of a much greater, deeper community that our single brothers and sisters are modelling now. A future community that we will all one day belong to.
3. Christian singleness reminds us that our hope and trust is in Jesus, and He is our ultimate husband, lover and validator. Marriage and children are wonderful, but we can be tempted to put all our hope and trust in these things and take our focus off Jesus. Our hope is in Jesus and He is the only one who loves us, no matter what we have done. He’s the only one we can ultimately depend on, and entrust our lives to.
So these three strands show us that Christian singleness is something glorious and wonderful, as glorious and wonderful as Christian marriage.
It’s a breaking of our future into the present.
Singleness embodies the Christian hope that God’s kingdom has come now. Marriage embodies the Christian hope that we will be “married” to Christ in heaven. Both gifts are a foretaste of heaven.
Why does Paul say singleness as a vocation is such a good thing? As Eve Tushnet, the Catholic writer put it: “You can’t have a vocation that is just about not-marrying and not-having-sex. You can’t have a vocation of ‘No’.”
But with God, all vocations, all callings, are a big YES, including singleness. In Jesus we can see that singleness is a calling to serve God, the church and the world with our love, our time and our gifts. But also it’s to give birth to spiritual children, form spiritual families, develop spiritual friendships and build God’s kingdom … on earth as it is in heaven.
Singleness is a calling to serve God, the church and the world with our love, our time and our gifts.
Paul is actually very practical – he says there are two advantages to singleness over marriage: Hardships we are spared and freedoms that are unique.
“Those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that … a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world — how he can please his wife — and his interests are divided.” (1 Corinthians 7:28-34)
While Paul honours marriage as much as Jesus, he points out that married life will include certain “worldly troubles”. This is by no means a criticism of marriage. It’s just that Paul is realistic. He points out that marriage, while being a wonderful gift, is also very demanding.
It’s important for us singles to know this. Because we all tend to idealise marriage and think it’s about living “happily ever after”. While most of us realise that life isn’t that simple, I know plenty of couples for whom married life turned out to be dramatically harder than they expected. Which is why Paul says marriage can be tough.
In contrast, as a single person, even if I’m lonely, I can so easily just go out with a friend, or buy myself a new gadget, or go on a weekend jaunt, or take a holiday. The kind of things married people can’t do, without getting permission from their “other half”, or getting babysitters for their kids.
Paul also talks about the presence of certain advantages. Singleness isn’t just about what we’re spared, but about what we’re given.
For the single person, there is greater freedom. Our focus is less divided. Life is less complicated. We’re able to give of ourselves in a way that married people are not.
Paul was able to travel widely and spend long periods of time planting churches in far-flung places.
Paul said: “I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs — how he can please the Lord”, and he goes on to talk about how singles can be more “devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit”. (1 Corinthians 7:32)
Paul is no doubt thinking about the freedom he experienced in his own ministry. He was able to travel widely, take long sea journeys and spend long periods of time planting churches in far-flung places. Routinely risking his life while doing so. None of this would have been possible, if he was married.
And singleness for Paul also didn’t mean renouncing emotional intimacy and family. Because in God’s kingdom, intimacy and family bonds aren’t dependent on sex and marriage. We are all called into the family of God, and should build the kind of relationships and warmth and intimacy we see in families. Brothers and sisters yes, but also spiritual fathers and mothers and children, too.
Valuing singleness better
The trouble is, the church as a whole and the larger culture are set up to favour married people and couples. So what would it look like practically, for our church to value singleness as well as marriage?
The very first thing we can do is to raise the profile of Christian singleness, and the value of it. It should always be part of the teaching programme. We should hear singleness honoured from the pulpit as well as in the congregation. We should show that we’re proud of our singles, and not try to get them all married off. We should make it clear that we don’t think there’s anything wrong with being single. We should also be very thankful for them, in that they’re giving things to the church as a whole that married people can’t give.
We can’t expect anyone to be moral heroes on their own.
As a church, we need to practise much greater hospitality and inclusive community.
Too often, I think, the church calls singles to radical discipleship, and say no to their bodily desires, without doing much to support them in that difficult calling. We can’t expect anyone to be moral heroes on their own. The church community needs to take decisive steps to walk with singles in their calling.
I know that I wouldn’t have been able to remain single and celibate, if it were not for the support of my Christian brothers and sisters. So we need to practise the kind of rich friendships and community hospitality that binds us together, so that Christ-like obedience is possible.
So as a church we need to try and think creatively about the difficulties single people face and how can we as a church step in and make life easier for them – whether it’s emotionally, spiritually or socially.
One of the biggest fears of being single – I know it was for me – was just the idea of being alone all the time. So how do we help with that?
We as singles need to build deeper, richer friendships of greater openness and accountability.
We as singles need to build deeper, richer friendships of greater openness and accountability. And then for our married brothers and sisters, perhaps we need to open our homes to one another and involve singles more intentionally in our activities and social lives.
We need to be creative about this and I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all solution.
We really need to think biblically about what the Christian view of family and community is, and go about building that in our church. That’s what we can do to affirm our single brothers and sisters and make them feel more valued and honoured in our fellowship.
But for singles who are still terrified by the idea of being called by God to be single for any length of time, like I was when I was younger: The fact is that not many of us are called to be celibate for life, as Jesus or Paul were. Most of us will eventually be called to be married.
The best way to prepare for marriage
All of us are called to be single and celibate before we are called to be married. And many of us will become single again, when we lose a spouse or go through a divorce. So we are all called to be single and celibate for a season, and we don’t know how long that season will be, or when it will come round again. So we must prepare ourselves for it.
We’ll be a much better spouse for having discovered who we are in Christ.
The irony is, the best way to prepare for God’s gift of marriage, is to prepare for singleness. Because then we arrive at marriage in much better shape. And consequently, we’ll be a much better spouse for having discovered who we are as a single person and who we are in Christ. And having learned what it means to serve God and others in the church and the world.
God’s design for marriage and singleness points to the marriage of Jesus with us now and into eternity, and through Him, our membership of God’s heavenly family.
It’s my prayer that we will model God’s beautiful design for human happiness and flourishing, in the way we work out our callings in the church community, either to marriage or singleness. Because this is what Jesus said: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35)
This article was adapted with permission from a sermon by Andrew Thomas, who would like to credit input from Sam Alberry, Wesley Hill, Ed Shaw, Christina Hitchcock and Eve Tushnet. It was part of a sermon series on Marriage, Divorce, Singleness and Remarriage at St George’s Church in October 2020.
Thanksgiving for marriage and singleness
Dear Lord Jesus, thank you for these two beautiful pictures you’ve given us in Scripture – of the gifts of marriage and singleness. Thank you that the gift of marriage reminds us that we are your bride, and points to the way you laid down your life for us, and the self-giving way you want us to love one another, both in our marriages and in our church.
We thank you also for the gift of singleness – how it points to the way you were single and celibate for our sakes, and as a result of your sacrifice, how we became members of your heavenly family. Teach us how to model that heavenly family, in the way we honour and love our single brothers and sisters. And give those of us who are single, the love and joy you had in serving the church and the world, with your gift of singleness. In your name, Amen.