Margaret Warne explores the Christian view of singleness
This article was published in the January to April 2021 issue of Rapport magazine.
What springs to mind when you hear the label ‘single’? Lonely? Freedom? Left behind? Time? Misfit? Unhindered? Unloved? Spontaneity? Incomplete? Possibilities? Disappointment? Uncomplicated? Misunderstood? Are your instinctive reactions mainly positive or negative? Why is that?
There is plenty of teaching in our churches on marriage, but very little, in my experience, on being single. Which is astonishing really, given that all of us are single at some point in our lives, whether because we have not married or through bereavement or divorce. Why then do we overlook such a significant area of our lives? I believe that without a well-thought through biblical understanding of singleness, we are missing out as the body of Christ and our mission to bring God’s love to a broken world is weakened. If you’re married, you may be thinking this article is of no interest to you, but please keep reading. For the health of the Church and for the effectiveness of the gospel, it’s something we all need to understand better. How can we live in a way that enables single and married people alike to flourish and that speaks of life in all its fullness to the world around us?
The first thing we need to note is how much the world’s view of singleness is at odds with the Christian understanding of what it means. As a Christian, being single means that I am not married and I am committed to a life of celibacy for as long as I’m single. But in our culture, the idea of celibacy is considered impossible, ridiculous and possibly downright harmful. The message that sexual intimacy is essential to be a whole person is rarely challenged, and being single is celebrated as an opportunity for sexual adventure without ties. At the same time, however, an idealised picture of a perfect marriage with a beautiful family is still held up as an aspiration, and long-term singleness is generally something to be pitied. So from the world’s point of view, it’s a double whammy for the single Christian: no sex and no ‘happy ever after’.
Freedom or challenge?
It’s also important that we are honest about the reality of life for Christian singles and that we do not minimise the challenges. Of course, there are both positives and negatives (as with marriage) and not everyone’s experience is the same. I am writing as someone who always dreamed of marriage with children, but who has never married, and along with many others I experience the disappointment of unfulfilled dreams and desires and the ache of unanswered prayers. On the one hand, I fully appreciate the freedom I have as a single woman: freedom to move to new areas more easily, freedom to invest in a wide range of relationships, freedom to choose what I want to do. On the other hand, I have experienced plenty of loneliness (especially when I lived alone): the loneliness of making decisions and managing the practicalities of life on my own, the loneliness of not having anyone to offload to at the end of the day, the loneliness of feeling the odd one out in a society that so often revolves around couples.
But I want to pose the question: how much do we unconsciously allow Western cultural perceptions of singleness to shape our thinking? Do we truly live according to Kingdom values with renewed minds? As Christians, are we able to offer a positive, life-affirming path for single people? Let’s see what the Bible has to say about this issue.
At first glance, it might seem that there is little about singleness. The Bible begins and ends with a wedding, and marriage is a thread running right through it. In the very beginning, the triune God created us in His image to live in community – to be in relationship with Him and with one another – and He brought Adam and Eve together, declaring that it is not good for people to be alone.
An ongoing theme with the Old Testament prophets is that of God as a husband wooing His people and longing to draw them back to Himself from their unfaithfulness. The narrative then culminates in Revelation with a picture of another wedding: the marriage between God’s people and Christ. God clearly didn’t create us to be alone, and in Old Testament times, singleness and childlessness were despised as a curse. Not having children was disobedience to the command given to humanity at creation to be fruitful and fill the earth, and it inevitably led to poverty and the wiping out of your name.
So where does singleness fit into all this? Enter Jesus, the unmarried Messiah, who came to fulfil the Law and the Prophets, and who ushered in a new era and opened up new possibilities. He didn’t in any way contradict the Bible’s teaching on marriage (in fact He upheld it with even higher standards), but He redeemed singleness, living a full life as a single man by choice. He honoured single people by counting married and single men and women among His followers, whom He called His family (Matthew 12:49). How striking that the first person to meet the Risen Jesus was a single woman! This was a new vision of God’s community, called to go into all the world and make disciples, filled with the hope of eternity with Him and inviting people everywhere into relationship with Him.
The Apostle Paul continued this radically counter-cultural teaching, elevating the status of single people and giving equal value to singleness and marriage. In 1 Corinthians 7, he wrote about the sanctity of marriage and also celebrated the advantages of a single life; both were valued, and both were seen as having benefits and challenges. He was keen that others should be able to embrace singleness as he did – ‘I wish that all of you were as I am’ (v7) – especially as it affords the opportunity to live in ‘undivided devotion to the Lord’ (v35), but he didn’t advocate one state as being higher than the other. He urged the church in Corinth to be wise and godly in their decisions about marriage, and he affirmed the option of singleness, something that ran counter to cultural norms.
Finding true identity
Paul saw both marriage and singleness as gifts and blessings from God, which God can use to His glory in the building of His kingdom: ‘But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that’ (v7). The Greek word used here is ‘charisma’, which comes from the root ‘charis’, meaning ‘grace’. This is important: the gift is God’s grace, empowering and enabling us to fully embrace our circumstances, whether that’s singleness or marriage with all the inevitable ups and downs. The gift of singleness doesn’t necessarily mean not wanting to get married; it’s the circumstance of life, which is a gift for as long as it lasts. Too often, though, we idealise marriage and live as if it were our greatest mission in life. But we will be disappointed if we expect a marriage partner to fulfil all our dreams, meet all our needs and solve all our problems. We need to keep things in true perspective, remembering that human marriage points to the ultimate reality of the eternal union between Christ and His people. Whether we are married or single, we can live in a way that bears witness to the fact that our identity is in Christ, that we are intimately loved and that we find our fullest meaning and satisfaction in Him. Singleness may be costly, but it is not second best.
For those of us who are single, are we able to receive our situation, regardless of whether we’ve chosen it, as a gift? Are we able to live it with gratitude, choosing to seek God’s grace in the tears as well as the joy? Even if it comes to us with pain, we don’t have to settle in our disappointment and mould our lives around it. Instead we can embrace the truth that nothing happens to us outside the loving presence of God, and that He can redeem and bring beauty out of everything.
We may not have chosen our situation in life, but we can choose how we live it. As single people, we can lean all our hopes and dreams on Jesus, making sure that our identity is anchored in Him. We can choose to live in the present and make the most of our circumstances to build God’s Kingdom. We can take the initiative to invest in good relationships with singles, married people and families, and we can find intimacy and accountability in friendship. We can choose to forgive the insensitivities of other people. We can endeavour to use our time and our freedom well, practising being selfless by caring for others and nurturing spiritual children. If we can find acceptance in our singleness without ignoring or minimising the pain, it can enable us to reach out to others with the gift of God’s love.
God created us to live in family. My hope and prayer is that our Christian communities can be places where singleness and marriage are equally valued, where we listen deeply to one another’s stories, where we are prepared to learn from one another and where we go out of our way to make everyone feel included. Together we can have fullness of life and bring the hope of Christ to a lonely, confused and hurting world.
Leader, Ford, Plymouth SMC