New Testament Teaching
In Matthew 19:7-9, Jesus argues against easy divorce, provoking the response of His disciples in verse 10. They believe that it might well be better to be without a wife than to be bound to her for life, without liberal divorce laws. In response Jesus teaches that there are those to whom it has been given to be better off without marrying. Jesus speaks of those who have ‘made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.’ Here Jesus teaches that there are some who abstain from marriage in a manner that is particularly connected with the coming kingdom of God. Wilfully abstaining from marriage is not seen to be a bad thing. Rather, it is regarded as something that is ‘given’ to certain people. Such a form of singleness is not to be regarded as a mere concession, or as a second-best option. Rather, such singleness is a positive vocation that God has given to particular people.
We see a similar thing taught by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7. Paul affirms singleness as a good gift from God. Not all have been given this gift, but those who have been given this gift should learn to rejoice in it.
Paul does not equate the gift of singleness with the positive preference of the state of singleness over that of marriage on the part of the single person. Many people who have been given the gift of singleness do not enjoy it. We should tie in Paul’s teaching about singleness to his teaching about spiritual gifts, as he himself describes singleness as a ‘gift’ (1 Corinthians 7:7). Gifts are things that God has given to the Church, through the ministry of individuals who have been entrusted with those gifts. We owe the Church our gifts, whether we personally enjoy living out the gifts that we entrusted with or not. Single people owe the Church their faithfulness in singleness; married people owe the Church fidelity in their marriages. Faithfulness in these different callings is something that we do because we belong to each other. By this very notion of gifting, singleness is placed within a deeper foundation of belonging.
This should also expose the error of those who claim that singleness is a place of non-commitment. For the Christian, singleness is lived out as a life of commitment to God and commitment to His people. Both marriage and singleness can become self-centred and selfish. For the Christian, they are both places where we learn to lay down our lives for other people. Those who lay down their lives in such a manner will one day take them up again.
The notion of gift can also help us in other ways. As Christians we are called to live the entirety of our lives as a continuing gift. We must accept both marriage and singleness as gifts. We should not continually try to grasp for marriage. When one grasps for marriage, the enjoyment of it as a gift is hampered. This does not mean that we need ignore opportunities that God may present us with, but it does mean that we should not desperately seek to force open doors that God has, in His gracious will, closed to us.
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul presents the goodness of the practice of singleness as something that is particularly connected with the fact of the ‘present distress’. The ‘time is short’ and the ‘form of this world is passing away’ (vv.29-31). What is Paul teaching?
Some have argued that Paul was teaching that Jesus was about to return and that it was better not to make any long term plans. They argue that history has proved Paul to be wrong and that we need not take his teaching in this passage seriously. I believe that Paul is in fact arguing for a far richer understanding of history.
Through Christ and His work the kingdom of God has broken into history. The end of history has, in a very real sense, arrived in the middle of history. For the Christian the age to come overlaps the present age. The presence of the end of history in the middle of history relativizes all of the relationships of this present age. This present age is passing away and so we must not invest ourselves too strongly in it. Whilst the structures of this world still exist, after the resurrection of Christ they no longer have the same weight to them; they have been eclipsed by the structures of the new creation in Christ, into which we grow within the Body of Christ. Like fleeting shadows they will pass away before the rising sun.
Christian singleness can be a prophetic and counter-cultural act. Christian singleness declares that the end has come in Christ. As the end has come in Christ, one’s hope for the future does not rely on structures of this present world, like marriage and the family. Stanley Hauerwas writes: “Singleness was legitimated, not because sex was thought to be a particularly questionable activity, but because the mission of the church was such that ‘between the times’ the church required those who were capable of complete service to the Kingdom. And we must remember that the ‘sacrifice’ made by the single is not that of ‘giving up sex,’ but the much more significant sacrifice of giving up heirs. There can be no more radical act that this, as it is the clearest institutional expression that one’s future is not guaranteed by the family, but by the church. The church, the harbinger of the Kingdom of God, is now the source of our primary loyalty.”
The early Church structured itself in such a way to encourage certain people not to marry. Whilst pagan widows were frequently pressurized to remarry (in some cases they were even fined if they did not do so within a particular time period), Christian widows were mildly discouraged from remarrying and a number of them were supported by the Church. Pagan society believed that its future was secured by the family. Christians attacked this idolatry by living in a way that proclaimed that their future as a community was secured by the risen Christ. The Church would grow, even apart from biological reproduction.
Marriage may be good and blessed by God (v.28, 38), but the single person is in a better position to live free from the passing structures of the world (v.32) and invest himself totally in the service of God.
Within our society, singleness can retain just such a prophetic and counter-cultural character. For Christians to manifest contentment without running after genital sex, marriage and family strikes people as strange. How can one attain personal fulfilment apart from these things?
Hauerwas writes again:—
I think that we cannot overlook the fact that one of the few clear differences between Christianity and Judaism is the former’s entertainment of the idea of singleness as the paradigm way of life for its followers. . . . I think it cannot be disputed that Paul and Jesus both tend to say that some people will choose not to get married because of a specific religious mission. Moreover, they seem to imply that this is a good thing.
I think the implications of this have seldom been appreciated. For in a certain sense it breaks the natural necessity of the family. The family is not just something we do because we are in the habit, nor is it something we must do to fulfill a moral purpose. Rather marriage and the family, like the life of singleness, becomes a vocation for the up-building of a particular kind of community. Christianity, in a certain sense, thus prepared the way for the romantic view of marriage and the family by setting the institutional form necessary to make marriage voluntary.
The romantic perversion should therefore remind us that if we are to sustain marriage as a Christian institution we will not do it by concentrating on marriage itself. Rather, it will require a community that has a clear sense of itself and its mission and the place of the family within that mission. … It is clear that the family, in order to be a viable moral enterprise, requires community beyond itself. We see, however, that the special commitments of Christians concerning marriage require an even more substantive community. Yet it is our conviction that the church is formed by a story that gives it the convictions necessary to sustain those called to marry and have children in a world that has been bent by sin and evil. We have the courage to call children into such a world because our hope is not in this world but in a God who has called us to his kingdom through the work of Christ.
Natural Families and the Church
As Hauerwas observes, giving up heirs is a very significant sacrifice to make. However, in the Church even single people can be parents. Baptism makes parents in the Church, not biology. As the Church is a family formed by adoption, not by natural birth, married people do not have a privileged parental role in the Church. No one is born into the Church. We enter the Church through the rebirth of Baptism. Baptism involves leaving our fathers and mothers. The identity and relationships given in Baptism are deeper than the identities and relationships given to us as part of the natural family. In the Church water is thicker than blood.
To pass into God’s presence you must pass through fire and knife (as James Jordan has observed). Christ came to bring flame and sword to the earth (Matthew 10:34f; Luke 12:49-53). The fire and knife that is applied to the individual baptizand threatens many natural relationships. Each baptized person is baptized in a manner that cuts them off from natural loyalties. It is quite possible that we will receive our natural parents back in a new way, but the claims of Baptism often prevent, rather than facilitate this. Oliver O’Donovan writes:—
Baptism is the sign that marks the gathering community. It was the sign that marked the community when Jesus himself accepted it; for he came to be baptized by John as the representative of God’s expectant people. In accepting baptism, each new believer accepts Jesus as his or her representative, and accepts Jesus’ people as his or her people. Identified with him in his baptism, the believer is identified with Israel present in him, and so with the church which is Israel baptised with the Holy Spirit. We say ‘each’ new believer because existing collective identities have to be set aside and replaced with this new collective identity. Even members of existing Israel had to come out to the wilderness to find God’s Israel there. In baptism each person makes vows singly, is addressed singly and (by tradition) given a new name. The prophets of the exile expected that the gathering to Jerusalem must take place one by one (Isa. 27:12, cf. Jer. 3:14).
We ought not to baptize the children of believers ‘because of the covenant’. The children of believers do not belong to the new covenant until after Baptism. The reasons for Baptism are far more subtle than the common Reformed argument generally present them to be. The infant children of believers are baptized as individual believers who have received a divine calling. Family solidarity is a reality, but Baptism was not designed to underwrite it.
The Christian family can only become a true solidarity once it has been consumed by the fire and sword of Baptism. The Christian family can become a ‘Church in miniature’. However, the family is not naturally a domestic church. It can only be formed into one through the waters of Baptism. The natural family is taken apart and the family is resurrected in a new form.
One of the key errors of John Calvin and other Reformers was the manner which they tended to present the ‘domestic church’ as a natural entity. By their teaching concerning the relationship between circumcision and baptism, the Reformers tended to place the emphasis on natural relationships underlying spiritual ones. The analogy between circumcision and Baptism should not be pressed very far. It began to look as if the NT Church grew out of the domestic church, rather than vice versa. Spiritual relationships gradually came to be seen as weak secondary constructions and not as real and powerful as biological relationships. Since the Reformation there has been a powerful familialization of the Church. The biological family (the domestic church) is seen by many to be more important and primary than the gathered Church. Blood is once again declared to be thicker than water. Part of this process has been caused by a sentimentalization of the family that has accompanied the feminization of the Church, but I believe that the Reformers’ theology of Baptism must also bear some of the responsibility.
The situation created by the Reformers was far better than that which existed before them. However, it still had its problems, problems which we must wrestle with today. The chief among these problems is the failure of the Church to relativize the family. In fact, the presupposition that blood is thicker than water has resulted in the family relativizing the Church in many instances.
There is a tendency to think of Baptism as something that happens to the baptizand alone, with everyone else witnessing. However, Baptism involves the entire Church community. Every time that a person is baptized the Church itself is remade, just as a family is remade when a child is born into it. Christian initiation is a glorious and multifaceted reality. A lifetime spent encountering the various Baptisms of different people will not exhaust what Christian initiation is. The fact that we tend to think merely in terms of infant or adult baptism can be deeply unhelpful. Each Baptism is different and glorious in its own particular way, just as every natural birth is. The baptism of an infant is a gracious remaking of the community in a manner that differs from the baptism of a grandparent, a teenager, a widow, a father, a single person, or a retarded person, each of which have their own particular grace to them and each of which serve to continue the Church’s initiation into the kingdom of God, which began at Pentecost.
Through Baptism the single person can be blessed with many children and enjoy a name that will never be cut off. A perfect example of this can be seen in the Ethiopian Eunuch, who, according to tradition, became the ‘father’ of the Ethiopian Church.
In the past I have argued in favour of godparents. Godparents should be selected by the Church, rather than by the family. They ought to represent the Church’s parental role and serve as helpers of the natural parents in their role in the spiritual training of their children. In the absence of godparents it is easy to forget the reality of adoption when it comes to the children of believing parents who are baptized in infancy. The Church is not merely some extension of the natural family. Being born in a Christian family does not of itself bring one into the Church. 1 Thessalonians 2:6-20 is a good illustration of the role of godparents. Faithful godchildren will be the ‘hope’, ‘joy’ and ‘crown’ in which their godparents will ‘glory’ on the last day. Paul also brings out principles relevant for godparents in 1 Corinthians 4:14-15 and Galatians 4:19.
Reformed people often argue that the task of godparenting is not one that is exclusive to particular people within the Church. In this they are perfectly correct. However, whilst the whole Church shares the task of godparenting, I believe that the practice of setting apart a couple of people to especially represent this role for each particular baptizand (of any age) is a healthy one, with much to recommend it. In the absence of particular godparents set apart to represent the general responsibility of the Church towards the baptizand the role of godparenting is often forgotten entirely. Furthermore, the role of the natural parents is often exalted to an unhelpful extreme to take its place. Whilst I am strongly in favour of the notion of the domestic church, I believe that there is an important place for godparents. Godparents can help natural parents in their tasks within the domestic church and ensure that the domestic church never exalts itself above or separates itself from the larger Church.
The selecting of godparents is a peculiarly Christian practice. Godparents would not make sense in the same way under the old covenant order. Many people were naturally born into the people of God in the old covenant. Women did not have to go through an initiation ceremony, although the woman who had given birth did need to be cleansed (Leviticus 12). Although there was a key place for adoption in the old covenant, the natural family still had the prominent role. The very organ on which circumcision was performed should remind us that natural generation was quite central within the old covenant order. We should also recognize that OT Israel was formed of collections of families within a number of tribes. Circumcision was formed by the head of a household. All of this differs sharply from the practice of NT Baptism.
Gentiles could become proselytes under the old covenant order. However, the old covenant order was one in which natural generation was still extremely important. Although the old covenant had a place for large scale adoption, there was never any doubt that it was a Jewish nation that one was being adopted into. The Jew-Gentile polarity that is done away with in the Church is only possible because the character of the covenant people has changed decisively in the resurrection. Although we must never forget our Jewish heritage, the Christian Church is a place where there is neither Jew nor Greek. Greeks do not have to become Jews to become part of the special people of God and vice versa. The implications of this for the relationship between circumcision and Baptism and the natural family and the Church are quite significant. The familial character of the old covenant order is not to be imposed onto the new covenant order.
Some Concluding Thoughts Concerning Singleness
I believe that the Christian story that I have outlined is more than able to support the practice of courageous Christian singleness, without risking relegating singles to the status of second-class citizens within the Church. I also believe that the position that I have outlined is not without its import for those who are married and for the manner in which they conceive their role within the Church. The following are some very brief thoughts and suggestions for the application of the position on singleness that I have presented.
The need for a community of character
It is important to recognize that this vision of singleness within the Church will never become a reality apart from its adoption by the Church as a whole. Such a vision cannot be implemented by one person alone. Within the Church we all support one another in our different vocations (or ‘gifts’). Single Christians need the support of married Christians and vice versa, if they are to fully live out their vocations as God intended.
Living as a community of character will change our focus from the question: ‘what ought we to do?’ to the question: ‘what sort of people ought we to be?’ Christian character is formed, not as we learn to obey a list of ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s, but as we learn to inhabit a particular governing story and reject the other myths that our society presents us with. The Church is the place where we need to learn to live out the particular story that was brought to its climax in Jesus Christ. Our values, our perceptions of our role in life, our understanding of our identity, are all formed by the story that we live in. Single and married people within the Church need to be presented with a strong narrative that can undergird and inform their particular vocations. All too often we have replaced a strong motivating narrative with negative commandments.
As a community of character, we seek to sustain certain ways of life that are rejected by the communities formed by the stories of the world. We are to provide a place where mothers need never contemplate aborting unborn infants, who are discovered to be severely disabled. We are to form a community where the stranger finds a home, where the naked is clothed, where the friendless is loved. We are to form a community where people can get married, despite the rampant divorce in our society. We are to form a community which gives married couples the hope in God necessary to bring children into a world as fallen as ours.
The idea that the Church’s teaching about singleness is merely for single people is ridiculous. It is the duty of the Church as a whole to sustain the practice of singleness in its midst. The fact that singles often feel unwelcome, marginalized and lonely stands as a serious indictment against our churches. The Christian practices of singleness and marriage are far from easy and we are not sufficient to enter into them alone. We all need to support each other in our various vocations. I thank God for many married friends who open up their homes for other single and married Christians to share. I also thank God for many dedicated single Christians who serve the church that I am a member of in ways that would not be so possible for most married Christians.
Such a community of Christian character is only possible when a cross and an empty tomb lie at the centre. As Christians we have the task of mediating God’s presence to others. The fact that Jesus was truly forsaken by God means that we need never be. We must convey this truth by not forsaking each other; by being God’s everlasting arms to our neighbours. Unfortunately, all too many churches minister only to winners. They want to be regarded as rich, successful, happy and healthy. They have no place for the lonely. They have no place for Christ Himself: when Christ comes to visit us, He almost invariably comes to us as the ostracized or lonely person (Matthew 25:34-40).
In particular, a community of Christian character must be a place of genuine friendship and intimacy. The world is a place where deep and intimate friendship is hard to find. The Church should model the power of friendship in all its forms.
As Marva Dawn observes in her book Sexual Character: Beyond Technique to Intimacy, the Church needs to be the place where intergenerational friendships, like that which existed between Paul and Timothy, are celebrated. The Church needs to celebrate interracial friendship. The Church needs to celebrate friendship with people across social classes, like the friendship that existed between Paul and Onesimus. The Church needs to celebrate non-genital friendships across the gender gap, like the friendship that existed between Jesus and Mary and Martha.
The Church needs to celebrate the richness of friendship that can exist between two people of the same sex, like that which existed between David and Jonathan. Special attention needs to be given to this, given the prejudice of our society against the possibility of such non-genital intimate friendships.
What people need more than anything else is not genital sex, but intimacy. So many people are rushing for sex because they do not know that one can find intimacy apart from it. The Church should provide a place where such intimacy and mutual vulnerability exists. The Bible teaches us that the Church is a place of physical and not merely mental intimacy. Unfortunately far too many churches believe that shared doctrines are all that really matter. The Church is to be a place where we eat together, and even kiss one another (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14). So many Christian singles are starved of such physical intimacy. No one hugs them, no one kisses them. The Church is to be a place where such intimacy occurs. Why ever not? — we are closer than family!
We need to think of concrete ways in which intimacy can be encouraged in our churches. How can we express intimacy and enable others to express intimacy in an edifying, wholesome and non-threatening manner. If the Church could just be a place of such deep and genuine friendship, it would grant considerably power to its mission to our chronically lonely society. Neglected needs often give birth to sin, as people grasp for the intimacy they so desire in manipulative, destructive and clumsy ways. People are trawling the trash to find intimacy; let us invite them to a banqueting table.
Sensitivity on the part of churches is crucially important when dealing with singles. Rather than treating singles with a patronizing pity — as those who have ‘drawn the short straw’ — let us grant faithful singles the honour and respect they deserve. Let us also think of ways in which we can support them and encourage them as they live out their ‘gift’. Let us recognize the powerful ways in which they can and do serve the Church. Let us examine the structures of the Church and think of ways in which we can avoid the marginalization of singles and assert the importance and necessity of the role that they play.
Following the Reformation the idea of a theology of celibacy was lost. Celibacy was associated with the corruptions of the Roman Catholic Church and was generally abandoned. I believe, however, that there are a number of things that we can learn from the practice of celibacy for the practice of Christian singleness.
As one author puts it: “Celibacy demonstrates the importance of having a purpose for the use of one’s sexuality that is greater than one’s own satisfaction and fulfillment. To say ‘no’ to something as powerfully magnetic as sex requires something even more powerful to which one is saying ‘yes.’” Many Christians today regard marriage as the ultimate purpose of human sexuality. Consequently, singles are encouraged to abstain in order that they can one day express their sexuality in marriage. The practice of celibacy teaches us that sexuality is primarily about the service of God. Celibacy teaches us that our sexuality must always be subordinated to that greater end. Celibacy teaches us that our spiritual and our sexual longings are deeply intertwined.
Far too many Christians have exalted the state of marriage (and adulthood) and have presented singleness (and childhood) as merely preparatory. Celibacy can teach us that singleness has value and significance in itself, even when one is not going to get married.
Celibacy teaches us that our sexuality is not private. Celibate Christians, as well as married Christians, make public vows about their sexuality in the presence of a community, which serves to hold them accountable. All of our sexual lives must be lived out in a manner that is accountable to others. Our sexuality is given to us for something greater than our personal fulfilment.
Successful celibacy is probably best viewed from a positive, rather than a negative perspective. The celibate person must see the glory beyond the cross of self-denial. He pursues this glory and subordinates his sexuality to this pursuit, seeking to live his life as a sexual being in a manner that focuses his attention upon the greater goal. If his focus is on the suffering and on what he is giving up and missing out on, he will not last long. Defining one’s singleness primarily in terms of the absence of marriage will likely produce the same effects.
In some ways celibacy is like martyrdom (just as marriage is, in other respects). Martyrdom teaches the world that some things are of greater value than the preservation of one’s life. Celibacy teaches the world that there are things that are more important than sex, marriage and family.
Celibacy opens up many opportunities. The celibate person is freer to enjoy wider relationships and deep intimacy with many people. The celibate person is able to more clearly focus on God.
Unfortunately, unhelpful teaching on the subject of celibacy has been a cause of problems in the Church to this day. As Mark Searle observes, the amount written on marriage in the patristic period is miniscule compared to the amount written in praise of virginity. The celibacy of the Roman Catholic clergy has also caused many problems. The Reformers reacted against these abuses and sought to reassert the place of marriage. Sadly, in many ways they overreacted and we live with their mixed legacy. In arguing for the legitimacy of marriage for clergy, they often denied the legitimate and important place of celibacy. I believe that Protestants should be prepared to welcome the practice of celibacy in their midst. I believe that we ought to encourage the establishment of groups of widows serving the Church. I also believe that there are benefits of the monastic way of life that Protestants may one day be won over to.
Singleness apart from celibacy
In conclusion, I believe that the Scripture opens ways for us to understand singleness in terms of blessing, rather than in terms of lack.
Singleness has been treated by surrounding it with prohibitions, or seeing it as the loser’s portion. The focus has been on avoiding sin, rather than living the single life as a positive life of worship. We should not be surprised that singles find themselves despairing, bitter and disappointed. Do we think of singleness primarily in terms of lack and deprivation, or in terms of what it frees us to do and be?
Both marriage and singleness involve death, sorrow and self-denial. Both Christian marriage and Christian singleness should also involve resurrection and joy. Unfortunately, Christian marriage is often portrayed as all resurrection and Christian singleness as all death. A more balanced approach will present both the death and the resurrection in both. The death of singleness and the death of marriage are entered into in hope of resurrection. Lose sight of the death and one will soon face serious problems; lose sight of the resurrection and one will soon despair.
Such life as a single Christian grants people the freedom to enjoy, but not be governed by, sexual pleasure. In this respect it nurtures qualities of character that can be crucially important in marriage as well.
Single Christians need to see themselves as sexual people, not denying their sexuality, but living holy lives, motivated by love for God, rather than fear of condemnation. Single people should be granted accountability and support in their lives by the Church. The single life can be a very lonely life, if it is not lived out in a community of belonging.