Part 2: Singleness in its ungodly forms
In Part 1 of my letter, I talked about Paul’s teaching on the value of singleness. In order to understand how to live in our day and time, though, more needs to be said on the issue.
I’m told that one in seven people lives alone in the United States. That’s about 31 million today compared with four million in 1950. As your pastor, I need to say a number of things about this.
Not all singleness is equal.
First, while singleness can celebrated, much of this singleness is morally and spiritually wrong. In a 2010 Pew poll, four in ten Americans said marriage was becoming obsolete. It’s a hard reality that many Americans are not marrying sooner because they have completely ignored the biblical injunctions about sex. On an ideological level, many singles have also rejected the basic normativity of procreative marriage as a responsibility of human life, as part of the creation mandate.
In the book of Malachi for example, one of the reasons God gives for hating divorce is that he intended marriage to provide “godly offspring,” that is, more humans who love him and fulfill their role in creation. Further, God also declared that it isn’t good for man to be alone. In other words, complementary companionship from someone of the opposite sex is God’s normative means of creating a good situation for human beings, both in terms of companionship and in terms of fulfilling the creation mandate. Much of the present singleness among American adults stems from the sinful or ignorant rejection of their responsibility to be exploited for the good of others (mainly children), to fulfill their sexuality as God commanded and intended, and to provide companionship for someone of the opposite sex concerning whom it is not good that they should be alone.
Many single people are depriving another person of the companionship God intended them to have. Not only is that inopportune, but it is selfish. We are meant to take responsibility for other people. One of the most basic ways we are meant to embrace that responsibility is through the covenantal bond created by God in the institution of marriage. And it is within this institution that we fulfill the creation purpose of human beings, which is designed to produce godliness through the difficulties and benefits of complimentary covenantal companionship. When exercised properly, our sexual drives and our need for emotional human bonding encourage us to the altar in a timely fashion. However, in our culture, these drives are commonly demeaned as recreational, without reference to God’s commands about them. This disobedience reverses the intended effect of these drives, encouraging us to delay marriage and eschew childbearing.
Our Moral Struggle with Marriage
In Matthew 19, Jesus clarifies the teaching on marriage: “If you marry, you can’t get divorced, because God has made you one. To leave your spouse is to become an adulterer” (19:1-9, my paraphrase). The disciples’ response is the same as yours and mine: “If this is the situation, then it’s better not to get married!” Jesus’s response is basically: “Okay, fine. Then your other option is singleness, which means unmitigated chastity.”
He makes this clear by referring to singleness as being a eunuch. Some are born that way (physically sexually disabled), some are made that way by people (castrated slaves, or possibly some victims of abuse), and some “make themselves eunuchs,” that is, they choose to accept the chastity of singleness “for the kingdom of God.” The point is that singleness is a reality for some and a choice for others, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Monogamous marriage is hard, and so is proper singleness. As hard as marriage is, most will choose it when they are confronted with God’s command for singleness. And the fact that we want neither option exposes our real hearts—we don’t like either of the institutions that God designed to reveal the kingdom though lives selflessly lived.
Most of us need marriage and its effects.
In 1 Timothy 5:14, the apostle Paul says that he counsels younger widows “to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander.” (In this verse the “enemy” is both non-Christian persecutors and the devil.) He’s not commanding this because he believes women are too stupid to work outside the home or too wicked to be single. It is not a claim about the nature of women, but about the realities of human weakness. Many people simply do not have the personal moral discipline to rightly navigate singleness with all its potential idleness, loneliness, choices and temptations. Pride leads to many sins, but idleness creates a vacuum for sin to fill. By choosing to marry and to take responsibility for other people, our hands are put to hard work—and good work. And for most people, this way of life is morally, spiritually and personally best, and it is the most fulfilling option when accepted with the right attitude.
So before going on to other reasons, I actually believe that much singleness is both romantic idleness and practical worldliness that has made its way into the church. There is a huge difference between finding “the right person” and “a suitable person” to marry. As a pastor at High Point Church, I am constantly surrounded by young and suitable people who would make perfectly adequate spouses, and perhaps even fabulous ones. I believe that dating should be much more intentional than it usually is, but I also believe that there should be much more of it among single Christians. If you don’t have the “gift” of singleness, then you should seek a spouse.
Very few actually have the gift of singleness—the self-control not only to be chaste, but to be able to deal with the normal loneliness, possible idleness, and constant choice-making inherent in singleness. It actually takes quite a lot of character, self-discipline, and internal resources to live the single life maximally, to live in the way 1 Corinthians 7 commends.
Marriage principles are almost completely transferable.
Marriage is a covenantal friendship. So marriage has more properties than other covenantal friendships, but not fewer. Marriage and parenting principles should be fully transferable to single people with little mental effort. I remember them being so when I was single, and not just concerning my hopeful future. Further, half (or many more than half) of single people either may or should get married in the future, therefore many single people should be preparing for marriage. Marriage should be lionized among single people, especially in a society prone to despise the institution. And of course, let’s not forget that single people can counsel married friends, be part of households, and find themselves in many situations in which an understanding of marriage and covenantal friendship principles will be critical.
Singleness is special…and it isn’t.
One reason why I don’t preach specifically on singleness is that the single life isn’t special. Single life is made up of the exact same thing as married life, just in different proportions.
The single life has many other similar components of work, leisure, budgeting, exercise, media consumption, friendship, service, and so on. The main difference in the single life is proportion and responsibility. A single person can give higher proportions of their life to these other activities, and they may have fewer responsibilities outside of them. The fact that a single person may have more time for friendship or work or leisure does not fundamentally change the theological character of any of these things. In that sense, the single person’s life isn’t any different than the married person’s life in terms of the meaning of each element. In that sense, sermons on parenting (there are many single parents), friendship, leisure, and work are all sermons for single people, as was the one about marriage.
Further, virtually everything said about marriage, besides explicit things about sex, can very simply be applied to something in the single life. The way one deals with conflict with spouses utilizes the same theology and the same mechanisms as dealing with roommate conflicts. The only difference is that the bonds in the single person’s life are mostly voluntary, and a single person may have more options.
The main difference between the married and the single life, besides having responsibility for smaller humans, is the way we enjoy or adjudicate intimacy in its most holistic meaning. That is, how we prevent loneliness and enjoy other human beings within the scope of real friendship and neighborliness. There are quite a number of issues that can be discussed along these lines, and many of them come up in sermons from time to time. For example, I’ve heard many single people complain about struggling with loneliness, while I’ve heard many married people talk about never getting a moment alone. Although this is obviously a clear difference between the two life structures, it is also true that, in a properly functioning church where single and married people had friendships, the struggle of both of these groups could be easily ameliorated.
Another reason why I try not to speak in terms of “married people” and “single people” is because the difference tends to bring about a certain kind of segregation. Many churches are composed almost entirely of single people, and others are entirely families. I see no purpose or precedent for this in any biblical understanding of Christian community. The sense of profound distinction is real, but can also be profoundly overstated. Small groups that consist of both single and married people can have some difficult dynamics, but when embraced within a healthy gospel mindset, they mend isolation rather than contribute to it.
Mending: The last word
And really, that’s a piece in the mosaic of the kingdom of God on display in the Church on Earth. By the grace of God, the local church can be a place of mending, a place where fractured lives are welcomed into the healing that God offers, where isolated people find their belonging in Christ and his family. Christ offers home and purpose to the wanderer and mends the fissures that sink deep into every corner of our families, friendships, and selves.
No matter where you find yourself in response to what I’ve written, my prayer is that God will meet you in that place with his peculiar message of truth and grace.
If you’re married, be affirmed in the beauty and the challenge of your endeavor, as well as your inability to honor your commitment apart from the sustaining grace of God, a grace that, happily, never runs dry.
If you’re single (whether contentedly or miserably) for any reason that falls within the categories described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 (see Part 1 of my letter), then take courage. You, too, have a beautiful and challenging calling. Whether for a season or for the rest of your time on Earth, God has called you to a noble, valuable life. Use it well. Pursue the intimacy of relationship that the Triune God loves to offer you and be strengthened by his Spirit in you. Build up and be built up by your brothers and sisters of every age and station of life. You lack nothing in Christ.
If you’re single and you feel a check in your spirit that it’s not for the right reasons, I urge you not to stifle that warning alarm. There is a deep liberty and joy in obedience. By calling you to the covenant of marriage or to chastity, Jesus isn’t throwing on you a heavy burden. He’s inviting you into freedom and wholeness that you’ll never find apart from him.
If you have regrets about past choices in the area of relationships, sexual purity, etc., Jesus welcomes you to repentance, to an acknowledgment of your sin and a turning from it toward him. And remember that the God who extends that welcome to you is a God who loves to mend and restore. He can and will restore what is broken, if you invite him to do so in honesty, repentance, and humility. To you, too, I plead: don’t delay.
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