Stop Denigrating Singleness—It’s a Gift from God
A number of years ago I was speaking on sexual purity at a good-sized church in the Midwest. When my talk was over, a young man approached me and asked what advice I had for singles. To be honest, I was somewhat dumbfounded. I remember thinking: Why would anyone want to be single? Why wouldn’t he just get married? What’s wrong with him?
Looking back, I can see how naïve and misguided my thinking was about marriage. I had bought the idea that marriage is the highest human calling and, without realizing it, was failing to affirm the dignity and honor of singles. It simply didn’t occur to me that my narrow-minded focus on marriage might bring unintended harm to single Christians who are bringing equal honor to God through their lives.
Singleness Is An Honorable State
In the first century A.D., many of the Hellenistic, Roman, and Jewish philosophies—viewed men as under obligation to get married and raise children. Masculinity and femininity were often defined in relation to one’s spouse and children. And yet amidst these cultural expectations, Jesus chose to practice singleness and even commend it to others as a sign of the eschatological state (Matt 22:23-33).
The Apostle Paul also chose singleness, and saw it as an honorable state alongside marriage. He writes:
Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that (1 Cor. 7:27-28).
Despite how it appears on the surface, Paul is not denigrating marriage. In the larger context, he is showing how both married people and singles, in their own unique ways, can fully participate in the church and honor God through their lives.[i]
Lessons For The Church
Wesley Hill draws an important conclusion for the church:
In light of all this, evangelicals must commit themselves not merely to the toleration of celibacy but to its active promotion. Celibacy is not merely a temporary state to be lamented and endured as people make their inevitable passage toward marriage. Nor is celibacy to be understood as an inferior calling in which same-sex attracted Christians fail to live out a truly healed or transformed life. On the contrary, celibate gay Christians precisely in and through their celibacy may be imitators of the life of Christ, signs of the coming kingdom, witnesses to the gracious calling of God for themselves and for their married friends and neighbors.[ii]
I certainly don’t intend to imply that all singles are same-sex attracted. Many people are single for a variety of reasons. But the idea that marriage is the highest good can often be denigrating in particular to Christians with same-sex attraction, because it can unwittingly send the message that, if they choose singleness, they are somehow inferior to their married brethren. And when they can’t find the meaningful relationships they need within the church, it’s not a big surprise that many seek those relationships elsewhere.
By developing relationships with single Christians, and through the study of Scripture, I have learned how important it is to not propagate the myth that true intimacy and genuine commitment are only found in marriage. God uses both singles and married people to advance his kingdom. After all, Jesus didn’t say that they would know us by the quality of our marriages, but by our love (John 13:35), which includes both the relationships of married people and singles.
After a number of years, I met the single young man again and apologized that I didn’t have a deeper theological or pastoral answer for his question about singleness. I certainly don’t claim to have it all figured out now. Since I have been married to my high school sweetheart for sixteen years, I don’t pretend to understand the unique challenges of singleness. But I have come to realize the unbelievable gift singleness can be for the church and how important it is to emphasize how no one in the body of Christ—whether Greek or Jew, male or female, slave or free, single or married—is a second-class citizen.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 15 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.
[i] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (The New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 329-334.
[ii] Wesley Hill, “Washed and Still Waiting” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (June 2016): 329.