First Corinthians 7 is a difficult passage for many reasons, but one of those reasons has to do with how poorly the evangelical marriage machine (i.e., Christian romance novels, endless marriage conferences, Christian Mingle, etc.) has loved singles and thought about the subject of singleness. While the EMM projects marriage as the blissful goal of every Christian adult, singleness is often perceived as something to avoid. Yes, Paul calls it good, but . . .
Genesis 2:18 is the tell-tale verse: “It is not good for a man to be alone.” Period. End of story. From this verse, and the cultural statistics about men and women waiting for decades before married, the goodness of singleness is missed.
Then we read 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul makes odd statements about how the married should live as though they are not married (v. 29) and that those who marry do well, but those who do not marry do better (v. 38). To understand Paul’s point, we have to fight back images of monks punishing themselves for impure thoughts and stories of celibate priests abusing young boys. “Surely,” we say to our selves, “the inspired apostle is correct in what he says, but things have changed.” “Yes, there is a gift of singleness that God gives to some people, but that’s not me and should be avoided at all cost.”
Long story short, I think we still have a negative view towards singleness. To the married, there maybe suspicion of those who are not married. And to the single, there may be sorrow, anger, or frustration that Mr. Right has not yet arrived. In fact, this sadly is the promise most True Love Waits-type ministries offer—“If you save your virginity, you will be rewarded with a godly (gorgeous) spouse”. But is that so?
Some Needed Honesty About Celibacy and the Church
In her witty, winsome, and wise book Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity, Lauren Winner shares a great deal of her struggles with singleness and how God led her on a bumpy path toward understanding and embracing the call to chastity. Her book outlines Scripture’s teaching on sex, the communal nature of sex (i.e., “Why your neighbor has any business asking what you did last night”), lies our culture and the church tell about sex, and ways to practice chastity that flow from and follow the “arc of the gospel.” While I haven’t read all of her book, the portions I did read helped me think through the unique trials, needs, and opportunities singles have to glorify God with their bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19).
Most striking to me, however, was Winner’s discussion of the church. She writes in the opening that the church was a “key ingredient” in helping her walk chastely (23). Later, she devotes a full chapter to the intersection of chastity and the church. In fact, she argues the church has much to learn from singles.
In singleness we see not only where our true dependence lies, but also who and what our real family is. Singleness reminds Christians that the church is our primary family. In an era in which the church is know for promoting ‘family values’ but not social justice, in an era in which families are so exhausted from an endless round of after-school ballet lessons and late-night work-related e-mail sessions that they sleep through Sunday morning worship, in an era when middle-class Americans hurtle across exurban sprawl in our SUVs and then zip through subdivisions and into our garages without ever speaking to our neighbors, this is a very important lesson indeed.
Marriage, and family, can be sources of grace, but they are not the primary source of grace. The primary source of grace is the church.** (145)
The point Winner makes is that: The undivided devotion of singles to God witness to the church that “the kingdom of God unfolds not principally when we nurture our nuclear families” (145), but when we minister to one another in and through the local church. For while our families bring us great pleasure here and now (not to mention great pain), they are not eternal. The church is the eternal family of God, and thus Christian singles who find familial joy and communal existence in the church enjoy what Jesus promised in Mark 10:29–30:
“Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”
Three Ways Singles Witness to the Church
Winner argues that singles teach the church to maintain “vacancy for God” (145–47). In our technologically-rich, materialistic age we are not accustomed to “not having.” In the suburbs where I live, you can pass more than a dozen restaurants before making your dinner destination. Home Depot sits right across from Lowe’s. The state’s top tourist destination—a shopping mall so large it’s divided into five neighborhoods—is the axis around which our subdivisions sprawl. In short, there is nothing you cannot have, if you have the capital to buy it.
But what we have in retail, we lack in relationships. Marriages continue to crumble. Loneliness persists. And all this is true inside the church. So to those who have all they could want, marriage included, and still lack, there is something the Christian single teaches us—namely, that one day with the Lord is better than a 1000 years of marriage (Psalm 84:10 paraphrased).
Without denying the difficulties of a singleness, to find a single who is (1) daily depending on God, (2) pursuing relationships in the church, and (3) awaiting an eternal wedding and heavenly groom is to find someone who is living with another world in view. Even if their hope falters and their perspective is imperfect, their singular devotion to God teaches everyone in the church to live with greater dependence on God (not self), to pursue God’s family (not just our own), and to find ultimate happiness in our eternal life with God (not just the makeup of our present circumstance) .
In truth, singles are not just parts of the church who need special care. They are, in fact, gifted members of Christ’s body who can and should be commended as examples when they are walking faithfully with the Lord. I’m thankful Lauren Winner’s book helped me to see that, and I pray that God would raise up godly singles in our churches and that churches would see their need to learn from such devoted, godly servants.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
** I don’t believe she is saying the church saves people, but that saved people find in church fresh means of grace.