“The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.” (1 Cor 7:32-34)

“There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matt 19:11-12)

Next week I will get married. I am 33 years old. Therefore I have been a single adult for 15 years.

I do not see marriage as an “advancement” or “progression” from an inferior state to a superior one. Nor do I see it as a final success after a long period of failure.  Of course, there were times during my single years when I longed to be in a relationship. But there were other times when I was exuberantly glad and grateful for the freedom and opportunity provided by singleness. I was able to go places I might not otherwise have gone, and time and energy to devote to projects that would have been harder with a family to provide for.

I believe the virtue of singleness has been forgotten in parts of the Church due to the influence of Western culture. What follows is a challenge to the Church to rethink how it understands marriage and singleness.

The Idol of Romance

“Romance is part of what it means to be a whole human being in our culture’s stories.” – Kevin Greenlee

Our culture teaches that you cannot be happy without romance. If you are single then you must be trying (& failing) to find a relationship; therefore there must be something wrong with you. Unfortunately, some parts of the Church have been influenced by culture without realising it. Many young Christians feel pressure to find a spouse to be seen as successful or even considered normal. If they remain single after their friends are married, they feel like out-of-date misfits. I know this because I have struggled with some of these feelings. Some churches even restrict aspects of ministry from singles, seeing married couples as more mature and responsible. Overall it is expected that everyone who can marry will do so, and many matchmaking games are played to the amusement of those playing.

Effects of Bowing to the Idol

This worldly pollution (or stain – cf. Jas 1:27) has had many damaging knock-on effects in the Church. We can’t help but be influenced by the message of our culture, but we have not been critical enough of its message or fought against it.

It has prompted people to leap into marriage too quickly, from fear of being left on the shelf, which in turn has led to unhappy marriages and higher divorce rates.

It has confused the categories of romance and marriage. “The cultural ideal of romance,” says Rachel, “and the reality of marriage are not the same thing.” The cultural ideal has put undue pressure on spouses to be each other’s ultimate fulfilment and satisfaction. When they inevitably fail to live up to this ideal, disappointment ensues.

It has made life harder for single people, who long for something that doesn’t really exist. But they can’t discover that it doesn’t exist except by marrying.

It has warped the debate around homosexual unions, because those who take a traditional stance have been seen as condemning people to the horrible state of singleness. For example, Steve Chalke writes that, “When we refuse to make room for gay people to live in loving, stable relationships, we consign them to lives of loneliness, secrecy, fear and even of deceit.” This post isn’t about that debate and I won’t take sides here. I only note that Chalke’s argument has emotional weight because he and his readers unconsciously share our culture’s sentiments about romance and relationships. This forms an invisible backdrop to the whole debate, casting it in an unnatural light.

The Beauty and Virtue of Singleness

“Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc.” – G.K. Chesterton

We need to recover the Biblical view of singleness taught by both Jesus and Paul: singleness as a vocation, a “special source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world.”[1] Single people are not like tadpoles whose only purpose is to become frogs. Granted, for many it is a temporary state which they will leave, but even for these, their time of singleness should not be seen as a waiting-room. Quite the opposite: it is a great opportunity.

Loneliness: The Deeper Problem

But even without worldly influence, it is difficult to perceive the beauty of singleness. What I have said so far doesn’t get to the heart of the problem, which is this: Everyone struggles with loneliness and the need for affirmation. Loneliness is not an invention of our culture; it is the first thing called “not good” by God (Gen 2:18). Everyone wants to feel loved and to know they belong. The comfort and joy of having a life-partner really does fulfil something deep inside human beings that was put there by God. We were created for community.

But this is the thing our society has forgotten: marriage is not the only form of community. Our society isn’t unique in struggling with loneliness, but it is unique in seeing marriage as the only cure for it.[2]

Unfortunately, the Reformation is partly to blame for making marriage seem like the only way of avoiding loneliness. Before the Reformation every church had a celibate priest, i.e. a single adult whose spiritual maturity was unquestioned and who was an integral part of the community. The Reformers rejected celibacy for ministers, insisting that everyone can marry. But by now this has turned into the feeling that everyone should marry, which the Reformers never meant to suggest. This has led to a devaluing of singleness, now seen as the spiritually less mature option.

Before the Reformation any single person could enter a monastery or a convent, i.e. a permanent, stable, committed community which provided companionship and security. But the Reformers abolished monasteries and convents, saying they were not a legitimate Christian vocation. After that single men and women had no clear way of finding community except by marrying. Those who could not marry were simply alone.

We can still fight back against this trend of our culture if we prioritise committed community living. For many years I was part of a church in London that sought to combat the loneliness and isolation that London life can often impose on people. By living communally singles had constant, stable companionship from both other singles and other families.

Restless Hearts

“You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” – St. Augustine

But the truth is that no human being can fully take away our loneliness and satisfy our longing for connection. No marriage or community, however wonderful, can give our hearts rest. The deepest place in us can be fulfilled only by God. Only by offering our whole selves unreservedly to his service, only by casting aside all restraints and pursuing him tirelessly can we reach the true peace for which our souls were made.

Singles can perhaps find this truth more easily, because they have less opportunity to make an idol out of another human being. As it is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven, because it is harder for them not to put their trust in financial security, in the same way marriage can make it harder to reach the higher level of spiritual maturity, and discover that God is the only one who can truly satisfy. And in the same way poverty is a calling for some and a necessity for others – the same way God cares in a special way for the poor – so perhaps God will raise up single people as his special treasures, especially in this time when being single is harder than ever.

Further reading

Photo taken from this post.

[1] From the Catholic litany for ordination of deacons.

[2] As I pointed out in another post.

The following two tabs change content below.
Barney is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at St. Mary's Seminary and University. He hosts a podcast called Faith at the Frontiers which confronts challenges to the Christian faith with hope. He also has a column on Seen and Unseen, a magazine that offers Christian perspectives on life and society for a non-Christian audience.