A Better Singleness

God provides two great pathways to serve him: we can serve him as a celibate single person, or; if he gives us the opportunity, we can be married. The Christian community should welcome, honour and support both these callings. Most of us are comfortable promoting marriage, and Paul has harsh words for those who would “forbid people to marry” (1 Timothy 4:3) but we may be more cautious about singleness. We know that Paul declares ‘Singleness is better’ in 1 Corinthians 7 and yet this often does not our match our experience of singleness. If we are married, we are thankful we were not given the gift of singleness, and if we are single it is often not by choice, and often not with joy. Paul’s claim that it is ‘better’ seems hollow. This dissonance is worth exploring.

Being single is the future of us all. Jesus said, “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage” (Matthew 22:30). Marriage (amongst other things) is a sign of the future marriage between Christ and the church. In the new creation, we’ll no longer need the signpost: the great marriage between Christ and the church will have taken place (Revelation 21:1–4). Jesus has instituted a new relational order where his “mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice” (Luke 8:21). At present, we now need to treat our Christian brothers and sisters as we treat our biological families; in the future, there will no longer be biological families. We’ll be part of a people from every tribe, language and nation. We’ll be able to relate deeply, meaningfully, but not sexually, with everyone. At its best celibate singleness in this creation is a witness to that future[1]. A single person may be free to relate more widely than married people and to cross more easily the boundaries of biological families. They can remind the whole Christian community where our destiny is, and that even now we are called to look beyond our own horizon and concerns to love our neighbour as ourselves, and to love our church family as our creation family.

But marriage is in our present design. Jesus has indeed ushered in a new world order, but he hasn’t yet ushered in a new creation. We live in a new age and an old creation, and this old creation was made for marriage (Genesis 2:18-25; cf. 1 Timothy 4:1–4). If our destiny is singleness, our created design is marriage. This doesn’t detract from the status of being single (as if single people were somehow ‘less human’); rather, it’s a comment on the experience of being single[2].In this creation, the ordinary pattern for humanity is marriage and family life. There’s no suggestion in the Old Testament that being single is a sin, but nor is there any suggestion that you’d choose it. Perhaps we could go so far as to say that, from the point of view of our creaturely design, singleness is not better, and so we should expect any long-term singleness to be accompanied by grief and temptation to a greater or lesser extent. (The intensity of grief and temptation changes not just from person to person but also according to age: it may be more difficult to be single at 32 than at 22.)

As well as our created design though, there are conditions in modern life (including modern church life) which add to the difficulty of being single. It can be difficult to find a partner: it’s hard to meet people; there are fewer explicit protocols around how to conduct relationships; and there is a gender imbalance in the Christian community. As a result, many people are single who haven’t chosen to be single. Modern life also has higher levels of mobility. This makes long term relationships harder to maintain. It affects all relationships, but particularly relationships which aren’t biological. As well nuclear families tend towards insularity; they are, in other words, unlikely to love those in their church family as their family. This is compounded by the design of churches, which may promote relationships around life stage at the expense of age. And no doubt single people may develop habits which contribute; freed from the constraint to have to relate, or wishing to avoid the difficulty of families in the short run, they may end up not keeping or making relationships they need in the long run. Added to all this, sexual temptation (and opportunity to act on it) is more available. Certainly no one has forbidden singleness, but perhaps the Christian community has allowed a culture to develop where it is forbidding.

Despite all this, it is impossible to avoid Paul’s positive view of singleness in 1 Corinthians 7. He wishes that “all…were as I am” (verse 7); he counsels the unmarried that “it is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do” (verse 8; cf. 17, 26, 40); and while he notes that those who marry “do well”, he insists that “he who refrains from marriage will do even better” (verses 37– 38, ESV). At the same time, Paul acknowledges the ongoing reality of the created order. Jesus may have risen, but marriage is still marriage. So those who are married need to stay married, even if they’re married to an unbeliever (verses 12–13); those who are married need to be married properly and not abstain from sex (verses 2–6). The innovation Paul contemplates isn’t rearranging the structure of marriage, but the possibility of choosing singleness. Even while he introduces this idea, Paul remains keenly aware of the reality of our design. He’s emphatic that those who marry “have not sinned” (verse 28), and he even articulates circumstances where it’s better to marry (verses 2, 9, 35–37).

Throughout the chapter, he provides us with a worked example of how to live now because “[T]he time is short” (verse 29); that is, Jesus will return soon. How the return of Christ affects decisions about singleness or marriage depends on what else needs to be considered. In other words, Paul looks at a number of considerations, much like we might look through lenses, and then depending on which ‘lenses’ he looks through, either marriage or singleness comes into focus. So, he holds up the shortness of time (one lens) and places it next to the practical realities of married life versus single life (a second lens). He notes that marriage is complicated, involving “many troubles in this life” (verse 28), whereas singleness leaves you “free from concern” (verse 32). He concludes that the opportunity to be single-mindedly devoted to “the Lord’s affairs” (verse 32) makes singleness a better option. But it’s only better when certain realities or lenses (that is, the shortness of time and the practicalities of marriage) are considered. As he looks through other lenses, a different recommendation comes into focus: the person who’s already married should stay married, and the person who yearns for love should get married (verses 1–7, 36–37). A somewhat surprising illustration (if we have 1 Corinthians 7 in mind) is found in Paul’s counsel to young widows in 1 Timothy 5:11–15. Here he recommends they get married. He doesn’t even entertain the possibility of them remaining single; he has considered their circumstances and formed the view that marriage would be better.

The point though is that all Christians, including those who are married, need to live as though Christ is returning soon. Paul uses the command that even the married should live as though they are not. This can’t mean that they should stop being married, or somehow pretend to be married and neglect their families, rather that they should not be so engrossed in their families that Christ’s return has no impact on their lives. Specifically, it will mean that they treat some people outside their family as part of their family. And along with a change in the habits of families, our churches need to provide a more supportive community for both marriage and singleness. If we fail to do so, then in a significant way the church will have failed to be the church. If the church can get better in this regard we will be better able to look after those with unwelcome circumstances, and perhaps we might find it more common for people to choose to remain single and serve in ways which are uniquely available to them; that we’ll once more welcome the possibility of voluntary singleness for the sake of the Lord’s affairs as “better” (1 Corinthians 7:32, 38).

[1] This insight was first brought to my attention by Andrew Cameron

[2] This helps differentiate between two ways of speaking of ‘the gift of singleness’. Firstly, it can be used to describe a status; the fact of being single. In this sense, everyone either has the gift (status) of being single, or being married. Secondly, it can describe a disposition or capacity; some people will find being single easier than other people will.