Article by Gareth Clegg
Four years ago, I moved to Vancouver from the greens fields of Northern Ireland, in the UK. Over the years, as I travelled back to visit family and friends, I noticed a trend in many of my conversations. Soon after the introductory hugs and good-to-see-you’s, a common set of questions would surface awfully quick to awaken my semi-conscious, jet-lagged mind:
“so how’s the love life going?” “anyone you’ve got your eye on?” “any girls, Gareth?”
I was single at the time, so you would think it natural to for these questions to come up eventually. But why the urgency? Is this the first post-hello conversation we needed to have? Was there nothing more important to discuss? It was as though my state of singleness was simply a holding pattern for what would inevitably be the next stage of my life in marriage.
Marriage is indeed wonderful (speaking as a now married man to a quite magnificent woman!). Yet, lurking just beneath the surface of these questions is an unspoken assumption that could be roughly articulated like this: singleness isn’t wonderful at all, and the best way to flourish in life is to be in a romantic relationship. Is this belief right and good? Should we continue to imply to single friends and family that they need marry or never find the same joy as those who do? What about those who have lost a spouse in later life, or are divorced? In fact, over half the people that are currently married will, at some point, be single again.
And so, whether single or married, it is appropriate that we wrestle with this issue as best we can within the Church. In this article, I will argue that being single does not prohibit the flourishing life offered in Jesus. On the contrary, the church should pay close attention to the spiritual value and benefits of singleness.
Social attitudes towards human relationships are, perhaps, challenged more today than at any other point in human history; the meaning and utility of sex, sexual orientation, gender, marriage, family, and singleness are all up for grabs. At the core of this historic relationship experiment is a therapeutic fascination with the fulfilment of individual tastes. The contemporary assumption about human prosperity is that human beings flourish to the degree that they are free to satisfy their desires; particularly those which seem most instinctual to us. Our health and happiness demands the indulgence of all our appetites—sexual passions included.
In the City of Vancouver, 39% of all households are single occupancy dwellings.i Additionally, 9% of residents are separated or divorced; 4% are widowed; and 36% have never been married and are not living in a common-law relationship—49% in total who are, legally speaking, single.ii A significantly large proportion of the population. Nonetheless, since the sexual revolution, singleness (meaning, for the purposes of this article, unmarried and abstinent) has suffered a therapeutic re-definition as much as any other relationship status. As sexual liberties have been increasingly encouraged, the idea of remaining chaste when unmarried is anathema to our contemporary society, often thought of as a less fulfilling way to exist and projected as a loveless, lonely, and frankly unfortunate reality. For many, the sole way to flourish as part of present-day culture is to live within the bounds of romantic relationship, or as Jana Bennett refers to it, “sexual couple love.”iii The emphasis here is upon the fulfilment of sexual mores as the only mode for flourishing, or at least the method by which a thriving adulthood is most guaranteed. There is no longer any assumed virtue to an abstinent singleness, and pity is expressed for those who have to endure its condition. Such sentiments are fostered, Bennet continues, “by a continuous stream of cultural narratives (especially romantic comedies).”iv A environment in which a person can or should exist without being ‘loved’ romantically, or satisfied sexually, is undreamed of.
Most regrettably, the Church has implicitly embraced similar attitudes towards singleness. Rather than being seen as a counterpart, singleness in the modern church has become, at best, a backdrop to the wonder of marriage; as one former Pacific North West pastor bluntly summarized, “biblically, singleness is not ideal.”v Christians, however, must be careful not to take ethical cues from the surrounding culture. The Church at Corinth had experienced sweeping admonition from the Apostle Paul for their adoption of cultural attitudes towards human relationship and sexuality. And Paul, whose desire was that the Corinthians “be free from anxieties” (1 Cor. 7.32), aimed to direct their attitudes away from the social expectations upon marriage and relationships, first calling for the church to live as bondservants of Christ (1 Cor. 7.22). Given the implicit acceptance by many evangelicals that full human flourishing in a state of singleness is impossible, Paul’s words remain an energetic reminder for the Church today. What must be regained, and what we will consider here, is a robust theological rational for flourishing biblical relationships, including chastity and singleness. In doing so, it will be clear that Scripture envisions singleness not simply as a tolerated provisional state, nor as a second-rate existence to be lamented, but as a status biblically celebrated and enjoyed. To highlight the issue, we will address three misconceptions that have been reinforced in the Church.
The Gift of Singleness
Despite the lack of an explicit statement in Scripture, the primary myth that exists in the contemporary Christian theology of singleness is that it requires a unique calling. Most often this appears as a response to the particular felt hardships of singlehood. As Peter Wagner suggests, singleness is “the special ability that God gives to some members of the body of Christ to remain single and enjoy it; to be unmarried and not suffer undue sexual temptations.”vi This gift of singleness is envisaged as a special capacity to live as a single person, usually accompanied by the absence of sexual desire or the ease of ability to resist it. However, this interpretation introduces several tensions into God’s word that are not legitimately present.
Firstly, if a person currently in a single state does not have the gift of singleness, as it were, two incompatible assertions seem to be true: one is called to live a morally pure life that requires a special calling, and yet their lack of gift means they cannot.vii What is left but for the single person to succumb to their desires, supposedly ill-equipped for their situation? Scripture, however, consistently calls us to seemingly incredible values and principles without the special privilege of a unique gift. “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5.48); not exactly an easy task. But God calls us to a life of righteousness by first being dependent on Him through the gift of His Spirit (Matt 7.11; Luke 11.13), regardless of the experienced difficulty. We have all we need as God gifts himself to us in and for every circumstance; it is the person of Holy Spirit who is the unique gift we need and desire most, not a exceptional capacity to endure and enjoy singleness.
Secondly, other than the progressive jargon of “love is love,” mainline liberal churches often argue that those with same-sex attraction who do not have the gift of (or calling to) singleness must therefore be freed up to marry.viii Citing Paul, the argument goes, “if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry” (1 Cor. 7.9a). However, these sentiments—not least being straightforwardly contrary to Paul’s statements on their sinfulness (cf. 1 Cor. 6.9–10; 1 Tim, 1.10; Romans 1.26– 27)—assume that singleness and sexual renunciation are intrinsically bad. Again, the assumption is that a supernatural gift is required to sustain such a lifestyle.ix Paul, however, does not hold to the same assumptions, commending in certain situations “that it is good for them [the unmarried and widows] to remain single” (1 Cor. 7.8). Though the context and circumstances differ, Paul’s underlying postulation does not: singleness is not an inherently negative status. Yes, “each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another” (1 Cor. 7.7b), but what Paul establishes here is that those gifts are not a capacity, but a situation. The place or circumstance of singleness is a gifted one, God-given, just as is the place of being married. As Paul sees it, if you’re single you’re called to be single, if you’re married you’re called to be married. In either case, God expresses his goodness.
The Worship of Sexuality
For postmodern people like us, contemplation on sexual desire usually produces a clear suspicion of singleness (again, meaning unmarried and celibate).x The indulgence of such desires should be encouraged, not repressed. Long-term singleness is viewed, even by many churches, as inadvisable because of the unruly character of sexual desire and the need for sexual fulfillment; singleness, in this sense, is a waste of your sexuality. In this view, sexuality is a matter of identity, and the fullness of human experience requires a realization of our sexual desires.
Further, intimacy and sex have been so thoroughly dissolved into one another that culture has determined that there is no real intimacy without sexual intimacy. As a consequence, it is perceived that loneliness pervades singleness, for “we cannot imagine existing in our culture without the haven of an erotic partnership because our capacity to belong together in more chaste ways is so limited.”xi With this ideal of intimacy located only in sexual union, the place for intimacy within friendship, or family relationships, is increasingly marginalized.
According to Scripture, however, human flourishing is not contingent on being romantically or sexually fulfilled. The most fully human and complete person who ever lived was Jesus Christ; He never married, He was never in a romantic relationship, and He never had sex. If we say—adopting the cultural mindset—that sexual gratification is intrinsic to human fulfilment, we are calling Jesus, the Son of man, sub-human.xii The teaching and lifestyle of Jesus both restricts sex and relativizes its importance; for the Church, this is liberating, good news!
This does not mean, though, that Christians must try to erase or ignore their nature as sexual creatures. As Sarah Coakley notes, in some ways “celibacy generally involve[s] a greater consciousness of sexual desire and its frustration than a life lived with regular sexual satisfaction.”xiii In light of a heightened attention, Paul’s proposal that “it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Cor 7.9b; cf. Eph 5), is not a call to collapse marriage into a “mere channel for the sex drive.”xiv On the contrary, Paul wills to make sexual desire a means of worship rather than a means of sin.
Throughout Scripture, “the language and imagery of sexuality are the most graphic and most powerful that the Bible uses to describe the relationship between God and his people—both positively (when we are faithful) and negatively (when we are not).”xv In other words, the ultimate reason we are sexual beings is to make God, his righteousness, and our sin more deeply knowable. Singleness can be, therefore, embraced as a fulfilling existence for sexual human beings, whilst maintain that marriage be affirmed as the only godly context for sex.
The Temporality of Marriage
Indulge me in another theological point: churches (and individual Christians) often fail to comprehend the temporary nature of marriage over against the eternal and primary nature of the Church.xvi In other words, marriages will end, but Jesus’ Church remains forever. The failure to comprehend the Church as the chief institution, and not marriage, often leads to a weight of importance laid upon marriage that ultimately should be reserved for the Church. Certainly, when viewed this way the ultimacy given to marriage cannot be attained in singleness. Primacy is given to the married, and what follows is that the Church becomes unsure of its role towards its single congregants and fails to place them practically. Inevitably, post-adolescent singles become “the most overlooked social group in the contemporary Western church.”xvii Which means, more simply, there remains “no visible place in the life of the church”for the unmarried.xviii
Often churches aim for correction by producing singles ministries, young adult groups, and even, in the extreme, Christian speed dating events (yes, these are real things), without addressing the underlying misapprehension. By doing so, “they [the Church] imply that being single is the problem,” wherein “the solution… is marriage.”xix The goal remains fulfillment in marriage, not in relationship with Jesus; “Blessed are those who
hunger and thirst for r ighteousness marry, for they shall be satisfied” (cf. Matt 5.6). Consequently, we become fixated on the nuclear family, and instead of seeking to cultivate a culture in which the lives of church members are integrated, pulpit rhetoric, programs, and events separate singles from the broader life of the Church.xx The unfortunate result is that singles who hunger for more committed, honoured, and anchored relationships are to think that such relationships are only possible in marriage. Single people buy into the unspoken suggestion that their singleness needs resolved. They seek solutions in dating apps, the prioritising of secular friend groups, and sometimes in leaving the Church all together, looking elsewhere for the happy lives that only married people seem to be promised.
There is no doubt that many churches desire (and should desire) to uphold marriage as a worthy institution; it is a beautiful, lived portrayal of the gospel. Nonetheless, by underplaying the permanence of the Church, marriage is given a primary quality that is not inherent to it. Cultural attitudes that champion romantic relationships as key to human prosperity are, then, also embraced, downplaying the value of singleness. Such attitudes are evident in the increasing individualization of post-modernity. Friendship in Western society, for example, is ever-more increasingly characterized as a non-binding, non-committal, and free relationship form, which in the Church reinforces the autonomy of single believers and their lack of social integration into Christian communities.xxi
Still, what can reflection on the chief nature of the Church provide as an antidote to these cultural tides? First, given Jesus gentle instruction to the Sadducees that at the resurrection persons “neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matt. 22.30), we can conclude that marriage must always be weighed with its temporal context in mind. Second, consider the family bonds unveiled in Christ through the Church; the possibility of a spiritual kinship, for the single and married alike, that are embodied by resilience, intimacy, and commitment. Such bonds compel Paul to write to Timothy, encouraging him to treat his elder “as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, [and] younger women as sisters” (1 Tim 5.1-2). He goes on in his letter to Titus to name him as his “true child in common faith,” the force of which is better captured in the translation “genuine begotten” (Titus 1.4). What is true for Paul, and for us, is that the network of relationships in the Church are real, tangible, and significant. These relationships supersede and merge the voluntary love of friendship with the involuntary brother-to-brother, permanent family love.xxii Wives will no longer be wives, and husbands will no longer be husbands, but as brothers and sisters we will praise God together for all eternity.
What if the Church viewed singles through the same lens? What if we were to truly live as the eschatological (that is, eternal) family of Jesus? Those choosing singleness, or whose present situation requires it, would not be outsiders to family life, merely waiting for marriage and family of their own. Instead, their incorporation into the community life of the body would be an encouragement to live out in the present what we will be living for eternity. To “pursue relationships of spiritual kinship in which celibacy may become not an occasion for isolation, loneliness, and self-indulgence but rather a practice, alongside married friends, of the virtues of self-sacrifice and promise-keeping.”xxiii Single, in the context of the Church, does not have to mean alone.
The Face of Jesus
When we see our relationships in light of the gospel, we do not need to define singleness primarily in terms of what it isn’t—the absence of marriage—but in terms of what it is: a gift given by God for his glory and the joy of the one to whom it’s given. Does singleness carry unique challenges? Certainly, as does marriage. But the gift of singleness reminds us that Jesus is enough, and nothing else can truly satisfy. Whether married or unmarried the gospel compels us to seek the face of God in Jesus more than the face of a (potential) spouse.
The Christian community must work at undermining the myth that true intimacy, genuine commitment, and human flourishing are only available when one leaves the celibate state behind and turns to embrace marriage. In this way, we can be “free from anxieties,” as Paul so desired. Do we share his vision?
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily held by everyone at Christ City Church.
i https://vancouver.ca/files/cov/housing-characteristics-fact-sheet.pdf; Data for 2016.
ii https://vancouver.ca/files/cov/social-indicators-profile-city-of-vancouver.pdf; Data for 2020
iii Jana Marguerite Bennett, Singleness and the Church, 26.
v Mark Driscoll, Religion Saves: And Nine Other Misconceptions (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 186.
vi Albert Y Hsu, Singles at the Crossroads, 49.
vii Ibid., 52.
viii Sam Allbery, Is God Anti-Gay?, 76.
ix Albert Y Hsu, Singles at the Crossroads, 53.
x Ibid., 333.
xi Christopher C. Roberts, Creation and Covenant, 227.
xii Sam Allbery, Is God anti-gay?, 77.
xiii Wesley Hill, “Washed and Still Waiting” 330.
xiv John Piper, This Momentary Marriage, 121.
xv John Piper and Justin Taylor, Sex and the Supremacy of Christ, 27.
xvi John Piper, This Momentary Marriage, 111.
xvii Andreas J. Köstenberger, and David W. Jones, God, Marriage & Family, 173.
xviii Steve Mcleod, Assimilating Singles into a Family-Focused Church, 6.
xix Ibid., 4. Emphasis mine.
xx Peter Everard Coleman and Michael J Langford, Christian Attitudes to Marriage, 205.
xxi At 28.2%, single homeowners are Canada’s fasted growing social demographic. Government of Canada, “2016 Census topic: Families, households and marital status,” accessed 21 February 2018, available from http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/rt-td/fam-eng.cfm
xxii Wesley Hill, “Washed and Still Waiting,” 334.
xxiii Ibid., 336.