A THEOLOGY OF SINGLENESS: WHAT THE BIBLE DOESN’T SAY
Unfortunately, one label that many unmarried people struggle to accept is “single”. As a leader of ministry to single adults, I have had my share of conversations where people express a strong distain for being called single even though they are in fact unmarried. Some would say it is because of the stereotypes that are attached to the word – desperate, lonely, broken, or unattractive. Yet I believe the root is in something deeper. I believe it rests in what the church fundamentally believes Scripture says about singleness. Simply put, the church idolizes marriage and has interpreted Scripture to support marriage as the ultimate goal for maturity in Christ. It is the lens through which we value people, prioritize ministry, and make disciples.
For many years marriage was a cultural norm for the church. At the turn of the century the majority of the general population was married, in the seventies this dropped to 70 % and by 2014 marriage rates had dropped to 50%. The culture has changed and the church has yet to catch up. The reality is that a good number of our congregations are made up of singles of all ages. The church needs to learn how to love their singles better and the first step is to repair their broken theology.
While this list is not at all exhaustive, I want to step through some of the major fallacies I believe undergird the church’s unbalanced theology of singleness. By correcting some of these misguided interpretations I hope to normalize and elevate a season of life whose current influence in the church has been relatively silent and invisible.
Fallacy #1: Alone = Single
Adam was the first man on earth, so outside the companionship of animals and God he was functionally alone. By default he was also single. God decided that him being alone was a problem so he gave him a wife. We tend to approach Genesis 2:18 as a prescriptive text, interpreting that God’s solution for a lack of companionship is marriage. Yet if this is true, what does it imply about being single? It would mean that singleness is something that God does not think is good. But if that was true, why were some of the major voices in Scripture single, including Jesus, Paul, and John the Baptist?
Scripture does not contradict itself, so maybe we need to widen the lens we use to view this text. I believe Genesis 2:18 is a descriptive text from which we can extract the prescriptive truth that living outside of community is not good. God created us to live in the context of relationships, but those relationships look different for different people. For some of us it will take the form of a spouse and children. For others that community will look like a good network of friends and extended family members. The issue is in Genesis 2:18 is one of community, not a specific type of community. God choose to provide Adam with a wife, not to devalue his singleness, but to help populate the world.
Fallacy #2: Your Value Is Found In A Role
I am particularly sensitive about the messages we send single women in terms of their value and significance in God’s kingdom. One phrase I have heard consistently is that a woman’s greatest fulfillment comes from being a wife and a mother. Be honest, what passage comes to mind when you think about what it means to be the epitome of a godly woman?- Proverbs 31. True, the Proverbs 31 woman is an example of spiritual maturity, but not because she was managing her home and providing for her family. It was because she embodied godly character. We should focus more on the character and less on roles.
As women we attach our value to who God says we should be. If the message is that God says women were created to be mothers and wives we begin to veer into dangerous territory, because we are equating value with duty. When the messages from the pulpit tell me to point my eyes to a role I don’t have they simultaneously communicate information about the role I do have – it’s not enough. Our words and actions tell singles they will be valuable when they have a spouse and subsequently become parents. We will provide them with a dedicated ministry, pastoral/elder/leadership roles, mentors, a surplus of Christian resources, and essentially celebrate them for having finally “arrived”.
Preferential treatment and hierarchy communicate value. Please stop elevating temporary life roles and emphasize the godly character that will help believers glorify God in any season of life. There is nothing special you need to be successful in marriage that you don’t need in singleness. The one anothers still apply, we still need to confess and forgive, communicate well, and die to self every day. Marriage is not better than singleness and singleness is not better than marriage. They are both equal before the Lord. Therefore, we should treat them as such.
Fallacy # 3: Marriage Is A Guarantee
Context is crucial. When we don’t read Scripture in context we can make God responsible for promises he never made. David wrote Psalm 37 to encourage a group of people who saw the wicked prospering. He wanted to remind them that God would bring vengeance upon the wicked and bless their faithfulness. David wasn’t giving them a blanket guarantee that whatever they desired God would grant simply because the desire was good. Yet, this is the truth we teach about marriage. A truth that has been found wanting, leaving many singles angry and bitter towards a God who never made them that promise in the first place.
The truth is that everyone isn’t getting married. We need to embrace it, preach it, and celebrate it! God’s best for many people will include a life without a spouse and biological children. Let me repeat, God’s best! It will be a season in which we will know Him deeper, serve Him more powerfully, and have more joy then we ever could as a married person. Not because singleness is better, but because marriage wasn’t a part of God’s divine will for our life.
One of the hardest questions to answer is, “Do you think I’ll ever get married?” Our empathetic hearts want to give singles hope, even if it is false hope. While we mean well, we need to stop pacifying singles with bad theology. Scripture does not teach that marriage is a guarantee, no matter how deeply we desire it. But it does teach us to, “…not be anxious for anything, but with pray, supplication, and with thanksgiving [to] make our requests known to God and the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”(Phil 4:6-7) AND that God’s ways are higher than our ways and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9). This means we can ask God for whatever we desire, but he reserves the right to decide what’s best for our lives. A “best” that’s not a consolation prize, but a better quality of life then we could every provide for ourselves.
Ultimately, we need to address the deeper question that is critical for all believers – how do we live without the things we desperately desire?. For singles it could be marriage, for married people it could be children, health, or financial stability. Instead of dishing out false hope, our discipleship methods should help all believers wrestle with the reality of what it truly means to find fulfillment in Christ as we live without the things our hearts yearn for.
Fallacy #4: Marriage = Happiness
People’s perception is their reality, and the perception about marriage is that it is perfect bliss. Social media, movies, tv shows, and books paint a picture that all our single problems will be solved when prince charming comes in on his white horse and rescues us! But in reality there is no prince charming and no white horse. There are only two imperfect people who will do their best to selflessly love one another as they join lives to become one. But singles only hear one side of the story and its not the 1 Corinthians 7:28 side. When our stories never tell the bad with the good we create a fantasy. True, there are experiences in marriage we cannot or should not experience as singles. However, the fantasy does its damage when singles start to believe that marriage will bring them more joy, more fulfillment, more healing, and more _______ (fill in the blank) than they could experience as a single.
Our joy in this life is found in Christ. If singles have difficulty grasping this truth marriage won’t make it any easier. Single and married people need to live in community. A transparent and authentic community where we realize we are more alike then we differ. We need to show our struggles and victories, both of which are grounded not in upgrading our marital status, but in our contentment in Christ. The grass is only greener on the other side because our neighbors water their grass. Community show us we don’t need new grass, we just need to water our own.
Our current theology of singleness relegates singles to junior varsity while their married counterparts supposedly enjoy all the joys of life on the varsity squad. The worship of this marriage idol has caused us to devalue the blessing of singleness, and has slightly tainted the word “single” altogether. Truth be told, we’ve created a bit of a mess and we need to clean it up.
So if this is what the Bible doesn’t say about singleness, what does it say and how do we live in light of that truth?! Stayed tuned for Part II…its going to be good!