Is singleness better? I know what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7, and I know Jesus, the ultimate human, was single, but I can’t help noticing that, however much this ought to be the case, it just isn’t the experience of many long-term single people. Singleness was thrust upon them because of social barriers to getting married (e.g. it’s hard to meet people and there are no protocols for proceeding) and demographic barriers (e.g. there are more Christian women than Christian men). In addition, long-term singleness brings with it extreme loneliness and dislocation; it often not only means not being married, but also not having any friends who are married. Singles did not choose singleness for the sake of the gospel; it was chosen for them. And they are unhappy.1
How should Christians respond? Many (who are usually married with children, and therefore no longer single) look in 1 Corinthians 7 and note that “the appointed time has grown very short” (v. 29), that marriage can be really difficult, that singleness offers lots of advantages and that singles should rejoice in the opportunities God has given them. Then they say to singles, “Singleness is better, so get on with your life and deal with it”.
I must confess I partly conform to this scenario: I am married (to the wonderful Ally), I have four children and I have something to say to singles. However, I regard the above response as being only partial: it locates struggles with singleness solely with the single person, not within the entire Christian community; its consideration of the depth and causes of those struggles is cursory; and it does not reflect adequately on either 1 Corinthians 7 or the wider biblical witness. This article is directed not so much to single people in particular, but to all Christians generally; I’d like to invite us all to think about singleness and work together to resolve the issues.
Singleness and Paul
Further reflection on singleness will not enable us to escape Paul’s positive view of it in 1 Corinthians 7. He wishes that “all were as I myself am” (v. 7); he counsels the unmarried that “it is good for them to remain single as I am” (v. 8; cf. vv. 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” (vv. 37-38).
We might pause at this point and notice that singleness is our future: “[I]n the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matt 22:30) for the great marriage between Christ and the church will have taken place, and there will no longer be any need for its signpost. The new world order ushered in with the death and resurrection of Jesus will have reached its fulfilment—an order where Jesus’ “mother and … brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21), and where “[h]umanity in the presence of God will know a community in which the fidelity of love which marriage makes possible will be extended beyond the limits of marriage”.2 In heaven, I won’t be restricted to knowing my wife, my children and perhaps a few others really well; I will be able to know all those who belong to Christ really well.
However, we must not run ahead and get ourselves tangled in an over-realized eschatological stupor. While Jesus has indeed ushered in a new world order, he has not yet ushered in a new creation. We live in a new age and an old creation, and this old creation was made for marriage (cf. Gen 2:18-25). If our destiny is singleness, our created design is marriage. This does not detract from the status of being single; rather, it is a comment on its experience. In this creation, the ordinary pattern for humanity is marriage and family life, and while there is no suggestion in the Old Testament that being single is a sin, neither is there any suggestion that you would choose it. Perhaps we could go so far as to say that, from the point of view of our creaturely design, singleness isn’t better, and so we should expect any long-term singleness to be accompanied by grief and temptation to a greater or lesser extent.
We see Paul’s acknowledgement of the ongoing reality of the created order at play in 1 Corinthians 7. Jesus may have risen, but marriage is still marriage. Therefore, those who are married need to stay married, even if they’re married to an unbeliever (vv. 12-13), and those who are married need to be married properly by remaining sexually active (vv. 2-6). The novelty Paul contemplates is the possibility of choosing singleness, not of rearranging the structure of marriage. Even while he contemplates this novelty, Paul remains keenly aware of the reality of our design, articulating circumstances where it is better to marry (e.g. vv. 2, 9), all the while conceding that those who marry “have not sinned” (v. 28).
Throughout the chapter, he provides us with a worked example of how to think eschatologically. “[T]he appointed time has grown very short” (v. 29), and all of us are called to live in light of that reality. Even married people must live as though they are not. How this eschatological reality affects decisions about singleness or marriage depends on what else needs to be considered along with the return of Christ. That is, Paul holds up a number of realities like lenses, and looks through them. In particular, he holds up the shortness of time and places it next to an appraisal of the practical realities of marriage as opposed to singleness. Thus he notes that marriage is complicated, involving “worldly troubles” (v. 28), whereas singleness leaves one “free from anxieties” (v. 32). He concludes that the opportunity to be single-mindedly devoted to “the things of the Lord” (v. 32) renders singleness a better option. But it is only better when certain realities or ‘lenses’ (i.e. the shortness of time and the practicalities of marriage) are considered; as he looks through both lenses together, his overall recommendation changes, which is why the person who is already married should stay married and the person who yearns for love should get married.
A more striking illustration of this can be found in 1 Timothy 5:11-15. Here, Paul recommends that younger widows be left off the widow’s list. Somewhat surprisingly, if we have 1 Corinthians 7 in mind, he doesn’t counsel or entertain the possibility of them remaining single. Instead, he recommends marriage—firstly, because they will want to marry anyway (v. 11), and secondly because, while they are single, their time is unlikely to be spent well (v. 13). In other words, Paul holds up additional ‘lenses’ or ‘considerations’ (i.e. the fact that they want to get married and the fact that they wouldn’t be using their time productively anyway if they remained single), and concludes that marriage is the better option.
Paul and the involuntary single
This opens up the possibility of taking Paul’s cue, making some temporal observations and considering them alongside more permanent realities. We can add further ‘lenses’ or considerations, and enter into imaginary dialogue with Paul (and the other Bible writers) by asking what he would have thought if this or that ‘lens’ were in place. For example, what would Paul have said in response to these questions?
- What if most long-term singleness was involuntary because of aforementioned social and demographic barriers?
- What if most voluntary singleness in our Christian culture was chosen by younger people who are keen to be free from the concerns of marriage and children, but who aren’t too concerned with “the things of the Lord”, preferring instead the things of, say, Xbox?
- What if long-term singleness brought with it much loneliness and dislocation?
How would Paul respond? It does not take a great deal of imagination to guess that Paul would not be content with our circumstances. I cannot imagine him being thrilled with a generation of young men who are struggling with sexual temptation, all the while avoiding the responsibilities of marriage and children. Like the young widows of 1 Timothy 5, he would simply counsel them to grow up and get married.3 Similarly, I suspect Paul would encourage us to find ways through the social barriers to marriage; I’m almost certain he would want us to become ‘men to the men, in order to win some’ (cf. 1 Cor 9:19-22).
But perhaps his strongest response would be to the extreme loneliness many single people experience. I do not think that, in commending singleness, Paul was also commending a life without quality long-term relationships. The thought would have distressed him. A quick tour through his letters gives us every indication that he knew a lot of people, and that he knew them well; in some sense, Paul experienced our future—a multitude of great relationships with his brothers and sisters in Christ from every nation, people and tribe. Paul was not married, but neither was he lonely. I think he would see this epidemic of loneliness as a major moral failure of the church to be the church, and, perhaps, more particularly, a moral failure of families to treat those not in their family as family. The church is a family, and we are to treat those in the church as family—not by lowering the standard with which we treat our family, but by raising the standard with which we treat others. For this ideal to become a reality, I suggest that our thinking and action proceed along two lines—firstly, in the habits of families and secondly, in the structure and design of our churches.
The church and singles
1. The habits of families
The purpose of family is not only to be a blessing to its members, but also to be a blessing beyond itself. One of the major ways a family can bless beyond itself is by treating those who are outside as though they were inside. This, more likely than not, will require initiative (i.e. it won’t happen accidentally), and that initiative needs to come from the families, not the singles. Families in our culture generally don’t feel strong, but socially we are in a position where we can invite others. Our invitations need to be extensive and habitual. For example,
- We could invite people into our homes—not just occasionally, but regularly. I’m sure there are many who would love to share a weekly meal with a family.
- We could invite others to come on holidays with us.
- Perhaps we could consider whether we could have others live with us. If we can’t do that where we live now, perhaps we could consider moving somewhere else where we could.
In addition, couples need to give each other space to build quality relationships with single people. At this point, it is worth taking a small detour to talk about how to relate to single people of the opposite gender. Paul counsels Timothy to treat “younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Tim 5:2). Most Christian men have a predisposition to read just half this verse—that is, as either “treat younger women as sisters” or “treat younger women in all purity”. Men who do the former imagine that the distinctions of gender are no longer significant, and so relate to women as though they aren’t married, or as though the women are actually their biological sisters. Men who do the latter (which is more common in Christian culture) imagine that they can completely ignore women in the name of purity.
But both are wrong. Paul deftly avoids allowing me to deceive myself into thinking that there is no difference between my sisters in Christ and my biological sisters. But at the same time, he tells me where to get my cue for how to relate to my sisters in Christ. So I would not, in the ordinary course of events, hang out with my sisters in Christ without either my wife or their husbands, even though I would happily do this with my biological sisters. But I will offer lifts, I will have conversations, I will exchange the (occasional) email or text, I will give the (also occasional) hug, I won’t leave the house immediately if I come home and find that my wife has ducked out to the shops while a female friend minds my children, and if I could fix cars, I’d happily go over to a single friend’s place to spend an hour or two having a go. I think I can do these things without running the risk of unfaithfulness and creating a ‘hint’ of sexual immorality (Eph 5:3 NIV).
2. The structure and design of our churches
Families need to develop good habits to encourage singles. However, it is also necessary for the Christian community to interrogate and change some of our church structures. In many churches, we classically separate the younger from the older. We start out our adult lives going to night church, then some of us get married, a little later the marrieds have children and then they move off to a morning service. This presents an unwelcome dilemma for the single person: do they go to the morning service and stay with their age peers, thus losing contact with those in their life stage, or do they stay at night church and remain in contact with single people, thus losing contact with their age peers?
A better strategy would be for our churches to find ways for different generations and life stages to stay in genuine contact with each other. This could be a subject of a whole other article, but let me confine my remarks to two possible solutions.
Firstly, the time of our services could be adjusted to accommodate everyone. At a previous church, we held small-ish twilight Sunday services with a meal. The time of day enabled both those with kids and those without to attend, and the meal gave us a chance to speak to each other.
Secondly, structures outside the main church meeting could be adjusted. At the church I currently belong to, we are seeing whether we can achieve a similar result through small groups. Members are welcome regardless of which Sunday service they attend. Groups go beyond the average 12-month period and even beyond the recommended number of 12. We regard kids as being part of the group, and try to include them in age-appropriate ways. We eat together each week, we read the Bible and pray, we aim to catch up with each other at different times during the week, and we are currently attempting to undertake some projects together. All this means I see the group I belong to as a small community instead of just an event.
Singles and singleness
So far in this article, I have primarily sought to encourage Christians to rethink how we welcome single people. However, it may be some time before we foster the necessary social conditions, and if you are single, you are single now. To this end, I would like to offer singles two brief encouragements that, at first glance, might seem contradictory.
Firstly, don’t take advantage of all the freedoms of being single. In Paul’s day, everyone was embedded in a community. These days, no-one is. Marriages and children force this kind of settling upon us to some extent. So if you are single, I think your life will be more rich and joyful relationally if you can manage to welcome some of this settling—for example, by finding long-term accommodation, by making long-term financial plans, by committing to a few relationships (including relationships with families), by committing to a community group, by finding a few ways to serve, and so on. Such measures won’t be forced on you, and even though, in your 20s, they may seem restrictive and redundant, by your 30s, they may be lifesaving.
Secondly, do take advantage of the freedoms of being single. Certainly get more done if you can, but don’t just get more done; get stuff done that couldn’t be done if you were married with children. For example, one of my friends works in Australia, but has family in the US, so every Christmas, she relocates to New York for a couple of months and works from there. However painful singleness may be, it still has its discrete advantages. Utilize them. If a friend in another city needs help, get on a plane and visit them. If you have a passion for serving the poor, run and live in a boarding house. If you don’t like cooking and can afford it, don’t cook; catch up with a different friend each night for dinner. And married people: please don’t be jealous.
The Christian community needs to be one where the separate callings of marriage and singleness are both welcomed and honoured. Paul had a positive view of singleness, yet he also had harsh words for those who would “forbid marriage” (1 Tim 4:3). While we haven’t ‘forbidden’ singleness, Christians have allowed a culture to grow where it is ‘forbidding’. My hope is that, as a community, we can change to better look after those who are struggling with unwelcome circumstances, and that, once more, we will welcome the possibility of voluntary singleness for the sake of “the things of the Lord” as indeed “better” (1 Cor 7:32, 38).
- You can read some accounts from single people at http://creative2567.blogspot.com/2009/02/older-single-women.html and http://www.sydneyanglicans.net/life/daytoday/single_christian_female_30/. ↩
- Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and the Moral Order, Apollos, Leicester/Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1994, p. 70. ↩
- For some brief thoughts on our attitudes to marrying young, see http://www.thefathersbusiness.com.au/articles/menandmarriage/. ↩