Singles have occupied a distinct place in the Body of Christ since the earliest days of Christianity. But in recent years, the percentage of singles in the church has risen dramatically to the point where singleness could fairly be said to be one of the cardinal phenomena of the modern church demographically. And therefore understanding the gift of singleness and the role of singles in the church is essential not merely for singles themselves but also for those who would minister to and beside them.
Redefining the “Gift of Singleness”
It is often rightly pointed out that both marriage and singleness are gifts from God. But in order to operate within these gifts with wisdom, we must understand what they are, which has proven especially difficult regarding the gift of singleness.
Is “the gift” self-control?
Some have taught or assumed that the gift of singleness is simply the God-given ability to resist sexual sin when unmarried. But this definition has at least three major problems.
First, while Scripture acknowledges that marriage can make one less susceptible to temptation (I Cor. 2:7), the problem is that sin is not merely temptation: sin is an idolatrous surrender to temptation—idolatrous because it declares in effect that the temptation is more worthy than the God who calls us away from it. Marriage cannot fix idolatry: if you’re an idolater when unmarried, you’ll be an idolater when married; if sexual sin is a pattern in your unmarried life, it will likely be a pattern in your married life as well.
Second, by defining the gift of singleness as the ability to resist sexual sin, the assumption is that one ought to remain single unless somehow overwhelmed beyond the ability to resist. The problem, of course, is that this idea of having all resistance overwhelmed is entirely farcical: the door to marriage can always be closed before it could open wide enough to give possibility a chance. There is no surer way to cease the formation of committed Christian unions than to equate a calling to singleness with the self-control that God commands.
Third, such a view of marriage vastly misrepresents and undersells God’s beautiful design. At the most basic level, the assumption that marriage is a concession to our lack of self-control simply cannot be squared with God’s instituting marriage before sin entered the world; nor can it accommodate the fact that marriage was part of the creation that God pronounced “very good.”
Is “the gift” necessarily a matter of inclination?
Probably in reaction against the first definition discussed above, others have defined “the gift of singleness” as a God-given disinclination or at least indifference toward finding a spouse and raising a family. The application typically made is that if you’re not indifferent or don’t have a clear call from God to remain single, you should assume that you have “the gift of marriage” rather than “the gift of singleness” and should therefore pursue marriage. But this, too, has both dangers and problems.
A danger is that such a view can easily be used to pressure single people into getting married—and a dutifully-minded single person can easily convince him/herself that this perceived obligation to marry overrides the issue of whether one can really put one’s heart into it—in other words, whether there is (or can be) any meaningful attraction between the parties. This can be toxic, especially if only one of the partners is approaching the relationship like a business contract.
But beyond this, defining the “gift of singleness” in terms of inclination is inherently problematic. I agree that those who are not indifferent to marriage or otherwise clearly called by God to singleness should at least be open to pursuing marriage. And certainly a natural indifference to getting married is a particularly clear manifestation of the gift of singleness. But is that the only state that legitimately represents the gift?
The problem is that, at least in my experience, the vast majority of Christians who end up living and dying single would never have chosen to script their lives in that way. One hears often about the countless single women around the world who have desired marriage all their lives but have never been asked by any of the few single Christian men that cross their paths. And it’s not just women. I know of men who have taken every reasonable step to pursue marriage but simply come up empty.
What do we say of such people who never find marital love? Are they just ungifted, having neither the gift of singleness nor the gift of marriage? Or do we need to rethink the “gift of singleness”? In other words, can involuntary singleness, for a season or a lifetime, be a gift despite or even because of a natural tendency to desire marriage? I’d like to briefly consider a few ways in which I believe it can:
- It is often said that singleness enables more ministry opportunities than a married person can generally undertake outside the family. This is certainly true, and I’d add that those who are single by circumstance rather than by choice may well find themselves impelled to pour themselves out in ministries uniquely suited to the single life—i.e. tasks that are too big, too demanding, or even too dangerous for most married people to undertake—in order to have a sense of Christ-centered purpose to their lives and to feel (yes, feeling is important, in its place) that their singleness has not been wasted. In other words, the unfulfilled desire for marriage can in fact compel the single person to more zealous service for Christ. And Jesus promises that “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” (Mark 10:29-30).
- “Singleness by circumstance” places us in a position of heightened awareness of our reliance upon God as our provider and the only One whom we ultimately enjoy. Without Him, nothing will satisfy, whether marriage or anything else.
- “Singleness by circumstance” points us vividly toward the new heavens and new earth. Spousal love must certainly be one of the highest and most mysterious beauties entrusted to this world, and so those who desire it but lack it must seek to satisfy the beauty-craving elsewhere. And such things as can begin to do this almost always point us beyond what is presently seen: great music; stirring poetry; the wonders of nature, whose groanings and fleeting beauties long for something as yet unseen; primarily, of course, the gospel story itself. All of these things refuse to let our senses rest on reality as we presently know it, but instead keep us searching for a beauty that will be fully realized only when the King returns.
- Though “singleness by circumstance” often feels as though something in us is being put to death, this offers a unique opportunity to identify with Christ, who was put to death for us. And it is precisely through identifying with Christ in His death that we have hope of being identified with Him in His resurrection (cf. Romans 6:5, Philippians 3:10-11, I Peter 4:13, etc).
- Someone who desires human love but chooses celibacy over worldly compromises is in a unique position to speak into the various issues of Biblical lifestyle that confront us today, while at the same time preempting the charge of hypocrisy. It is difficult for a Christian whose natural desires and inclinations are satisfied in the institutions God has provided to effectively communicate to someone else that the Bible requires him to leave certain of his professed desires unfulfilled. Such a person might reasonably say, “That’s all very nice! Look at you—you have what you want. What kind of hypocrite are you to tell me I can’t have what I want?” But this same person will be far more inclined to hear and respect a similar message coming from someone for whom belief in that message has (at least thus far) entailed undesirable celibacy. Such a person is clearly “putting her money where her mouth is,” and skeptics will notice.
- However fruitful one’s ministry, the single life can often lead to the feeling that one is missing out on something. But at those times we may remember the words of King David: “I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing” (2 Samuel 24:24). As God shows himself to be glorified in our single ministry, the very fact that it comes at a cost immediately provides an infinitely greater reward: the sweet knowledge that we are able to offer a meaningful sacrifice to our infinitely worthy Lord. And of course the only reason we are have anything meaningful to offer to Him is because He has first given it to us. And when we understand the “gift of singleness” as being something costly that God gives to us so that we may give it back to Him, we suddenly begin to discern in singleness the kind of loving communion that, like marriage, points forward to the ultimate communion between Christ and His bride.