Marriage might be scorned in mainstream culture, but thankfully in the church, marriage is usually highly valued. We recognize that marriage is a gift of God and so we encourage people, especially young people, to enter the vocation or calling of marriage. However, in our zeal to uphold God’s gift we forget that God does not call everyone to married life. Certainly, we understand that there will be some single people in our churches, especially if they are young, or perhaps if they are widowed. But we do not consider singleness to be a gift, like marriage. At best we consider singleness to be a temporary, transitional phase of life, a period of waiting to find ‘the one.’ At worst we consider singleness to be a curse or a proof that the single person is probably just strange, that there is something wrong with them.
Being Single in the Church
It’s easy for married people to be unaware of what it’s like to be a single person in the church. You sit alone in worship. You might even avoid church functions because you don’t want to deal with the awkwardness of being there by yourself. You get used to people asking if you’re dating someone and when you’re going to get married. Granted for some people or for some churches this might not be as much of a problem, but in general, it’s still a big issue in most places. That’s because in the contemporary church there is essentially one way of living: married. Being unmarried is not seen as a real option.
I went to undergrad at a small Lutheran university and ‘ring by spring’ is no joke. My junior year I started going to my friends’ weddings and as time went on I watched more and more of my friends get engaged, then married, and even start to have kids. It’s hard for married people to realize how much pressure there is to get married, especially in the church. You see all your friends start to get married or prepare to get married. You constantly receive comments from your parents, from teachers, from friends, from pastors, from others in the church about your status as a single person and when you’re going to get married. As if any of us know. As if any of us don’t want to get married. We believe that marriage is a gift. We want to get married; we want to have a family, but it’s something that is ultimately outside of our control. We could theoretically choose to stay single, but we can’t just decide to be married. That’s not how it works.
And as for myself, it’s only more difficult because I want to be a pastor. Many churches have a cookie cutter mentality when it comes to pastors. And part of that is being married and having a family. I’ve known of pastors who had to leave churches because they were single. The congregation felt like they weren’t getting the full package because there was no ‘pastor’s wife.’ I knew a pastor who was even accused of being gay, simply because he wasn’t married. Never mind the fact that both Paul and Jesus were single.
A Different Way: Singleness as a Gift (but really)
This is all because we forget what the Bible teaches about singleness. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul corrects the Corinthian congregation about marriage. He says that it is good for husbands and wives to have sexual relations with each other. Then regarding the unmarried Paul says that “it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” Interestingly, Paul’s ideal for the believer is not married life, but single life:
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.
In the church, we encourage our young people to get married, which is, of course, good, but we never encourage them to stay single. Yet that is what Paul does. He recognizes that singleness is not a burden. It is not a curse. Singleness is a gift. Now, at this point, all the single people roll their eyes because singleness sure as hell doesn’t feel like a gift. Just look at the Babylon Bee’s article, Local Woman Looking to Return Gift of Singleness, in which the woman prays:
“Lord, I know you meant well with this gift, but this is not really something I’m into,” she prayed. “And I know my time as a single woman is to be spent dedicating myself to you, but, well, what I really wanted was a dreamy guy.”
However, if we really believe what Paul is saying, then we can understand singleness to be a gift even though it doesn’t feel like it, even though that feels absurd. We must allow the Scriptures to confront and shape what we believe and how we see the world.
For Paul, singleness is a gift of God because the single person is freer from worldly concerns and therefore better equipped to serve their neighbor and the church. The world teaches us that singleness is our shining moment of hedonistic freedom, when we have to live it up as much as we can while we are still able. Rather, God teaches us that singleness is about a freedom to serve. Singles are free to serve so much more than a married person, because there are fewer distractions and other commitments. Churches should be excited to have single people for this very reason. In fact, dare I say, if we take Paul seriously, we might also encourage our young people to consider a life of singleness. But normally there is no place for single people.
Everything is a Gift
So it is a gift to be called to singleness. It is a gift to be called to married life. It’s all gift either way. Of course, we still might prefer one gift over another (usually marriage), but that doesn’t mean that both are not still gifts. We too easily forget that God is our good Father who only gives good gifts to his children. He only has in mind the best for us. We are his baptized children who have been redeemed by Christ. Our future is secure no matter what happens. Whether we stay single, whether we have a blessed and happy marriage, whether we are hurt and abandoned by our spouse, whether we have kids, whether we have none, God is in control. Nothing that can happen to us that can change or take away the fact that our identity is as God’s baptized child. We might not have a family, but we are part of God’s family forever. And nothing is better than that.