Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this (1 Corinthians 7 verses 27 and 28).
How do you make sense of this passage from the Bible? This is one of the verses that most people find very difficult to accept. Was Paul just having a bad day when he wrote this passage?
Consider the unique fact that Christianity's founder, Jesus Christ, and leading theologian, St. Paul, were both singles. Yet they taught the greatest lessons on marriage and life for all Christians. We cannot therefore presume that single adults are all somewhat less fully formed human beings than married people. Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 is that singleness is a good condition blessed by God, and in some circumstances, even better than marriage. This is such a counter-cultural statement.
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas distinguished Christianity from all other traditional religions and cultures in that the former's view of singleness is a viable way of life for its followers. But this does not call for every Christian to be single. Marriage is also a wonderful gift from God. The point is that Jesus is more inclusive than the boundaries of human institutions. Jesus said: Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother (Mark 3 verses 35).
The hope of God's Kingdom found in the Gospel de-idolizes marriage. Christians who remain single to serve God are making the statement that their identity and security are not guaranteed by their family but by God. Marriage is a great blessing from God, but even it will cease in heaven. Jesus said: At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven (Matthew 22 verse 30).
Who are the singles?
In Matthew 19, Jesus outlines three types of single people. They are as follows:
1. Some people are single because they were born that way.
2. Others are single because other people made them be.
3. Still others have decided to be celibate for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus then added: Let anyone accept this who can (Matthew 19 verse 12).
Wait a minute! Fair enough about the first two types. But who on earth can accept the third? Imagine you are a healthy, attractive, successful and popular person (I am sure you all are!). Can you imagine choosing to be single for the sake of God's Kingdom?
The truth is that some people can, but only those whom God helps. History teaches us many great saints and missionaries who served God this way. I know people who graciously accepted this 'gift' of singleness and are wholly devoted to the Lord in both body and in spirit.
Unfortunately, the modern church does not seem to have maintained its grasp on the goodness of singleness. Many singles are inadvertently marginalized in a church. For many church leaders, the goodness of marriage has somewhat elevated to the absolute necessity to live life to the fullest, simply because it was the God's gift for them.
In her article "Singled Out by God for Good", Paige Benton summarises some of the advice Christian churches typically give to singles.
1. "When you're satisfied with God, He will bring someone special" – as though God's blessings are ever earned by our contentment.
2. "Before you can marry someone wonderful, God will make you someone special" – as though God grants marriage as a second blessing to the satisfactorily sanctified.
3. You're too picky" – as though we dismiss God's blessing and need broader parameters in which to work.
Beneath these statements is the premise that single life is a state of deprivation for people who are not yet fully formed enough for marriage. Is this true for all singles? How is this view compared to the teaching of Jesus above?
Unearthing the truth
The strong emphasis on marriage in Protestant churches in fact came out of a desire to correct the Catholic mandate that to lead one had to be single, and ended up overshooting to the other end of the spectrum. By contrast, Catholics have the opposite problem. Those who are not married by the time they should be married are often pressured to become nuns or priests, as if holy orders and the priesthood are the only options left, rather than being a genuine calling from God.
When Paul described singleness as a 'gift', it does not mean a complete lack of interest in or desire for marriage. In other words, there is no suggestion that any lack of romantic desire is a gift from God. The gift is neither a struggle-free state nor an experience of misery. Rather, it is fruitfulness in life and ministry through the single state. Paul's life testifies that this unique life style indeed has many blessings and struggles, but in the end God is glorified through them.
Singleness, like marriage, is complex. The challenges and joys of singleness are just as complex but different to those of marriages. People who got married at a young age need to acknowledge that they have minimal experience as a single adult. In other words, they don't know a lot about singleness. This calls for humility.
Both singleness and marriage are not the fruit of the Spirit. They are unique gifts through which God works in our lives. Marital status is not an indicator of godliness or maturity. We can only bear lasting fruit when we abide in God and God in us, for without God we can do nothing (John 15 verse 5).
A gift of singleness is not just for a selected few, and it is not necessarily lifelong, though it may be for some. A purposeful season of singleness gives Christians the opportunity to draw nearer to God and reflect on Jesus, who represents the ideal single person wholly committed to God. Let anyone accept this who can.
Daniel Jang is a senior advisor with Ministry of Health New Zealand. He is an experienced writer, speaker and mentor to Press Service International (PSI) community. Daniel holds an MA in Applied Biblical Studies from Moody Bible Institute and GradDip in Theology from Laidlaw College.
Daniel Jang's previous articles may be viewed at https://www.pressserviceinternational.org/daniel-jang.html