When I lived in Hungary, we used to take our church to a summer conference every year in Vajta, where the group of churches we belonged to ran a Bible college and conference center in an old castle. Every year various pastors from our churches would speak at the conference; I spoke several times.
One of the sessions I remember most vividly, I remember not for good reasons: one year a particular pastor was asked to speak on the topic of singleness for an afternoon session. When he stood up to the platform, he said something to the effect of: “I don’t know why they asked me to teach on singleness. I’m not single and I haven’t been single for a long time. So I decided that I’m not going to speak about singleness, I’m just going to teach a Bible study about something else, since this is the only chance they gave me to speak.” You probably won’t be surprised to hear that this person was never asked to speak at a conference again.
But that wasn’t the only memorable part of his session. Half-way through his session, the speaker got annoyed at some people who were whispering to each other while he was speaking, and he stopped everything and proceeded to call them out, and kick them out of the session, making them take the walk of shame past over 100 people who were gathered in the hall for the study. I admit, I was kind of jealous that they got to leave…
This session should be contrasted with the one on singleness which had been held at the previous year’s conference, at which a younger pastor had spoken about singleness in a message that was so well presented and so encouraging to me (I was single at that time), that I still remember his opening lines: “You are in a race!” He then went on to teach about the biblical perspective on the goodness of singleness from 1 Corinthians.
It was a hugely different perspective: the first man I mentioned had disdained the thought of teaching about singleness – he clearly saw it as unimportant. The second man taught in a way that was encouraging and edifying to the single person.
The other day I posted some thoughts about the topic of gender roles in marriage and how the biblical view on this is based on theological views about the relationship between the persons of the Trinity. I got several comments on it from a single person who expressed feelings that Christianity tends to over-emphasize marriage over singleness. There is some validity to this point – however, statistically most people will be married at some point in their lifetime – and, just because some people are not married does not mean we should not talk about marriage, just like the fact that some people are not airplane pilots doesn’t mean that we should never talk about airplane pilots.
However, these comments did lead me to look into some things about Christian teachings about singleness, and what I found was significant.
Stanley Hauerwas, one of the great theologians of our age, argues that Christianity was the very first religion to hold up single adulthood as a viable way of life. This was a clear difference between Christianity and all other traditional religions, including Judaism, all of which made family and the bearing of children an absolute value, without which there was no honor.1
In ancient culture, long-term single adults were considered to be living a human life that was less than fully realized. But along came Christianity – whose founder was an adult single man and whose great theologian (the Apostle Paul) was also single and advocated for the value and goodness of singleness.
Timothy Keller points out that in Christianity, “single adults cannot be seen as somehow less fully formed or realized human beings than married persons because Jesus Christ, a single man, was the perfect man (Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22).”
He goes on to say that, “Paul’s assessment in 1 Corinthians 7 is that singleness is a good condition blessed by God, and in many circumstances is actually better than marriage. As a result of this revolutionary attitude, the early church did not pressure people to marry and institutionally supported poor widows so they did not have to remarry.”2
Keller points to Rodney Stark, a social historian, who states, “Pagan widows faced great social pressure to remarry; Augustus even had widows fined if they failed to marry within two years. In contrast, among Christians, widowhood was highly respected. The church stood ready to sustain widows, allowing them a choice as to whether or not to remarry, and single widows were active in care-giving and good deeds.3
As opposed to societies which idolized family as the only means of giving a person significance, the Christian gospel offers a greater hope and a greater source of significance.
Singleness, according to Christianity, is not Plan B – it is a viable option for those who choose it.
In our modern pop culture, it is not family which is idolized so much as romance. Think about Hollywood and even Disney narratives: they begin telling the story of a person seeking true love, and once two people do come together, the story ends! The message is that what matters in life is finding romance, everything else is only leading up to that, and what happens after that is not worth spending too much time on. This is also reflected in the huge amount of focus which is given to weddings in our culture.
The Christian church provides the space for single people of different genders to worship, serve and study together, to know and be known by each other, without the pressures of our romance-driven culture.
Churches don’t always do a great job at making single people feel that they belong and not pressuring them to get married and treating them as if until they are married, they are incomplete – however, it is in the design. At our church, we have purposefully sought to change the language we use away from always speaking of “you and your family” – so that we don’t communicate the wrong thing to single people who call our church their home.
Interestingly, Timothy Keller, who pastors a church in NYC which is majority single people, points out that single people and married people alike need good teaching about marriage and relationships, so that marriage is held to its biblical place of honor (Hebrews 13:4), without idolizing it as the end-all be-all of human existence.