The Goodness of Singleness

The Goodness of Singleness May 15, 2012

Tim and Kathy Keller buck a trend that I have heard in the last decade, and that trend is that if you are single at 27 or 28 or 29, you are out of God’s will. Their contention is that since the Ultimate Marriage is our union with Christ, then marriage and singleness are both good.

What does your church do for singles? Are singles marginalized? What do you think of the Kellers’ proposals here? What do you think of “cross gender enrichment”?

The Kellers, in their exceptional book The Meaning of Marriage, begin by quoting some texts from Paul that not only buck the trend but prove that the trendy folks are not reading the Bible well. Here is the text:

25 Now about virgins [singles]: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26 Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. 27 Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. 28 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.

29 What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.

Paul’s eschatology, his conviction that the Lord’s return could be imminent, his conviction that we are in-between This Age and The Age to Come, his conviction that marriage reflects the union with Christ, his conviction that marriage is a school in which we learn to help one another reflect our glory-selves (their term) .. these and more mean that singleness is and can be a good.

“Single adults cannot be seen as somehow less fully formed or realized human beings than married persons because Jesus Christ, a single man, was the perfect man” (195). The early church, then, de-idolized marriage and traditional society and in its place put God. Singleness then is not Plan B. It is not a state of deprivation.

The church is the permanent society and brothers and sisters in Christ can enter into a fellowship that transcends time. The Kellers call this “cross gender enrichment,” though they are quick to point out that marriage “does and should somewhat limit the extent of friendships you have with others of the opposite sex” (201).

But marriage, too, is good. The problem today is that many have so idealized marriage they fear it. The Kellers demote marriage so that it need not be feared.

Some practical advice from the Kellers when dating and seeking a spouse.

1. Know that dating today is not what it always was. Marriage used to be more social and functional; dating was more arranged and supervised, if there was what we now call dating.

2. There are reasons for not seeking marriage.

3. Understand the gift of singleness

4. Get more serious about seeking marriage as you get older.

5. Do not allow yourself deep emotional involvement with a non-believing person.

6. Feel attraction in the most comprehensive sense.

7. Don’t let things get too passionate too quickly.

8. Don’t become a faux spouse for someone who won’t commit to you.

9. Get and submit to lots of community input.

Because of spammers and other undesirable things I won’t blog about the last chap (about s-x). I want to say this is one of the finest books on marriage I’ve ever read; it is theologically sound and pastorally sensitive. Even if I disagree with one or two elements here and there, their presentation of those topics remains pastorally useful and wise. I would give this book to anyone seeking advice on marriage and love.

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  • Dr. McKnight,
    Thanks for this encouraging highlight of such a fantastic book. One thing that is often over looked is the present distress in context. Paul, as well as Jesus in Luke 23, is not going against the created order of marriage in the same way Jesus is not saying it would be better if we were without children. The coming destruction of Jerusalem is the immanent back drop that explains both text without having to weave a new tapestry of singleness into our Theology. Great bog. Got the wheels turning this morning.

    Thanks, Joshua…

  • Steve Burdan

    Great point-out! Thanks for shining a light on this low-discussed issue. It would be great to see qualified singles as pastors and elders in church leadership – this is so under-developed and “immature” in the Evan. church. There is so much time, talent and treasure available for churches if singles can only be integrated to full member status. The church must not be segregated on the basis of marital status.

    Singles too must be reminded – there is no mandate to marry in Scripture – marriage is also a blessing and gift. Singleness is not a handicap to be overcome, nor is it to be feared or avoided at all costs. Singleness can be much more “fruitful” than marriage in the right mix of community, accountability and encouragement.

    Let’s pray for a restoration of balance and acceptance of godly singleness within our growing churches.

  • I know many single friends who have become trapped in that expectation that, if you’re not married, there’s something wrong. I fear that this is even more expressed towards young women than young men. I’m glad the Kellers spent some time addressing this gross misrepresentation.

  • AHH

    As one who was single in the church until age 37, I say “Amen”. Both single people and the church as a whole lose out when marriage is held up as necessary to a complete life.

    Does the book talk about having children (or not) in a similar context? As marginalized as single people are in many churches, I think that married couples who are childless (either by choice or otherwise) are often similarly looked down upon as falling short of the life God wants for them. My wife has used the phrase that our church “worships” children and parenting, and sometimes I think that’s not a bad characterization.

  • Pat Pope

    I’m still single at the age of 47 and fortunately I have never encountered an issue in any church because of it. I decided a long time ago to accept my singleness so as not to get waylaid by the thinking that I needed to have a mate. I have long believed that singles need to concentrate on the here and now and enjoy life NOW. If a mate is in the works for you, how much better to be prepared than to live your life fully and enjoy it becoming the best person possible, rather than dragging a lot of baggage into a marriage expecting someone else to be your all-in-all.

  • Robbie Gean Miller

    My experiences as a single woman in church drove me out of “institutional” churches. I want to be married, and that will happen according to God’s timing, it just hasn’t happened yet. Most churches ignore singles, or assume that unmarried women are “on the prowl” at the church, and they greet single women with horror and suspicion. Women who have had careers are looked down on as being “unnatural”. Women’s groups are focused on motherhood, so women like me have no place there. Also, as someone else mentioned, many churches “worship” parenting and children. I call these “fertility cult churches”, because the focus is extreme. It almost seems that it is a point of doctrine with some churches. Unfortunately, this seems to be mainstream thinking in a lot of evangelical churches, and there is no basis in Scripture for this. There needs to be some balance. I am glad somebody is trying to address this.

  • As a single woman of 42 who has never been married and who came to depth Christianity later in life, I find that the church does much to support younger singles but not as much for the older single. For young people growing up in the church culture, there is great tutelage on dating as friendship, going slow, sexual abstinence and honoring and respecting the other, but there are few clubs for older singles to join. I think it would be fabulous if couples from the “One Flesh” ministry occasionally mentored single folks.

    Some of us come from dysfunctional families where role models of marriage weren’t great. Likewise, some of us lived in the secular world when we “came of age”, so to speak. Thus, some of us older singles have experienced sexuality and relationships outside of the marriage bed which puts us in a weird category for the church. I would love to experience the sacrament of marriage but thus far, this has not been the case for me.

    There are many great things about being single. I have wonderful friends, family and activities. Being single affords me the time and energy to pursue a second masters (Mdiv), write a book, travel for work and surf. However, I tire of people automatically assuming this was my choice. Instead this is me making the best of the plans God has for me, choosing to be alone vs. in a destructive relationship and my way of coping with the loss of a dream I’ve had since childhood.

    I welcome the day when the church welcomes singles, and single women in particular, in their full dimensionality. We are not all virgins, mutants or unattractive. Instead we are living in a world where many people are choosing not to marry, where sexual promiscuity is everywhere and by the time one is in one’s forties, most of the solid Christians are married. This makes finding a mate a little difficult.

    As for couples not having children… A friend of mine was the oldest of ten children and raised her siblings. Then she became a social worker specializing in work with children. When she married she and her husband made a conscious decision not to have children for these reasons. Yet people routinely comment, “You must be selfish and want to do your own thing. Otherwise, you’d want to care for someone other than yourself.”

    Underneath the surface of our lives lie narratives that explain the hurts, losses, choices and circumstances. I welcome the day when we look at those in the pew next to ours with less assumptions.

    I would love to wear a badge that says, “Lise” vs. a label.

  • @AHH (4) and @Lisa (7), I know my wife and I are frequently told we are inappropriate for choosing to not have children. We are doing it intentionally and we frequently cite Paul’s comment about marriage and the divide in focus in support of our choice to not have children.

    We have been rejected (one time quite overtly) from being members of small group of married couples in our area because we don’t have children (so we started serving as mentors to newly married couples instead, which turned out to be a much better project.)

    We don’t hate children (I am a full time nanny for my two nieces and a part time consultant with after school programs) and my wife is a teacher. We just feel like we spend out lives serving children and could not do that as well if we had our own children.

  • DRT

    I hope that the Keller’s endorsement help build the trust congregations need with respect to singles. I also applaud this effort.

    In the church I went to singles were favored if they were relatives of the pastor and some of the strong members. It turns out that this rural church was/is a hotbed for nepotism.

  • DRT

    I realize that the following article is about same sex unions, and Catholic to boot, but the primary thrust is about the role of children in a relationship. If Scot thinks this is too far off topic then delete.

  • Patrick

    It may be in the book or review and I missed it, but, Jesus changed the normal and necessary command to “be fruitful and multiply” in His day by proclaiming it was great to be a “eunuch” for the kingdom .

    Seems to me Paul is just elaborating on that theme and including women in the thought.

    BTW, Paul’s use of the term “because of the present crisis” makes me wonder if he is either alluding to the looming 70 AD judgment on Jerusalem or the Neronian persecution of the Church as opposed to the concluding event in Biblical eschatology.

  • Luke

    LOL…I just realized there were probably people who took Paul’s advice and didn’t get married because they thought Christ was coming and then years later went “crap! I totally could have gotten married…”

    I 100% agree with this post, it was just a funny thought.

  • G.L.

    Great post. I’m very concerned that many churches will not hire a single pastor. Presumably this is because they are scared he’s gay, but I don’t know what the reasoning is.

  • Dianne

    It baffles me why we cling onto our status as married, single, married w/o children in the church. Are we afraid of losing something if we embrace others who don’t fit into our box? I actually had a parent ask me once, at the door as they picked up their child from “club” on Weds night, what I was doing working in children’s ministry (we don’t have kids). Sheesh.

    What if those who “have” started to to include those who “have not?” Let’s start valuing and including everyone instead of cloistering ourselves away with just our own family or others like us. Our lives will be much richer for it.

  • P.

    I recently left a large UMC church because they don’t know what to do with singles that don’t want to go to the singles ministry (now that’s another topic all together). So, I didn’t fit into their stages-of-life mold, and they couldn’t get out of that mindset, so there was no place for me there. So, I’m now in a non-demoninational church that not only stands up for true Christian teachings, it doesn’t pigeon-hole people. I don’t stand out just because I’m single with no kids. Marrieds, singles, young, old – no one stands out as the exception to the rule.

  • KC

    My church similarly “worships” marriage and children as noted in #4. Single people are viewed as incomplete and sometimes with a dose of suspicion. It’s really saddening and disappointing to someone like me who wants nothing more than to serve in my church, but I am continually passed over for opportunities to serve for one who is married with kids. I’m thankful for the handful who don’t look down on my singleness and give me opportunities to serve in various areas, but these folks are in the minority.
    As for being accepted in the fellowship of the church (being distinct from serving in various areas), I may as well go look for water in the desert. The relationships that are built among the members of my church are strictly along age/marriage/children/grandchildren, etc. lines. A single, never married individual like myself has absolutely no area of fellowship in the church or any prospect of being accepted even into my own age group. The “Singles” ministry at my church consists of divorcees that are mostly my parents age, so there is no “fit” there.
    I have to convince myself each Sunday and Wednesday to come back next time because I feel so incredibly out of place. I’ve considered going elsewhere, but for some reason, I really believe I’m where God wants me. I guess I’ll just trust Him to put my mind at ease.
    Thanks for the great article. Sorry to run on, but it’s rare to find an article of this caliber and so many like minded comments.