For the next few weeks, I want to post a series of posts on what I think is the meaning of singleness. I think it’s a good topic for single and married people alike to think about, because I don’t think many of us know how to view singleness beyond how useful or useless it can be. But where is our vision for singleness? What is the cosmic story that singleness points to? What metaphysical reality does singleness embody that can get single people excited about being single? That’s what I want to explore in these series of posts. First, I want to lay out the problem and give you a chance to chew and think creatively about how you should view singleness. Then later I’ll give you my own answer!
Note: I will primarily address the meaning of singleness in a not-yet-married-but-want-to-be sense, rather than the spiritual gift of singleness that is a lifelong desire to remain single. There seems to be confusion about what the gift of singleness is—is it a lifelong thing or does it just refer to a season in someone’s life? If you don’t have the gift of singleness but are single at the moment, does it mean you’re really stuck? More time has been spent in books discussing the gift of lifelong celibacy, and little has been spent truly diving into the theological significance of the not-yet-married-but-want-to-be side of singleness. So that is where I’d like to spend the majority of my post.
Due to the high divorce rate and the bastardization of the meaning of marriage in our hook up, shack up, break up culture, the Church over the last few decades has been scrambling to give marriage a cosmic vision again, one that will sanctify the once great union and give it a meaning and purpose beyond personal happiness and sexual gratification. Books like The Meaning of Marriage, Sacred Marriage, Real Marriage, and the like have flooded the market, all exploring the essence of marriage and how one can live out a godly marriage in this broken world.
Primarily, the Church has tried to reclaim and restore marriage to its proper place by giving married couples a bigger picture—a cosmic meaning to what has come to be seen as a private institution. The Church reminds the believer that marriage is not just an isolated union of two people who are committed to love and serve each other for life, through thick or thin. It is also the incarnational vision of Christ’s relationship with His church (Eph. 5:32). It’s the primary picture of how God views his people. It’s the fundamental human reenactment of God’s redemptive story. The Church has made marriage an elevated institution again, filled with cosmic and redemptive ramifications.
While this is a glorious revivification of marriage, one of the unfortunate byproducts of this is that it leaves the meaning of singleness in a pile of unattended ash. Singleness is generally left visionless and purposeless—aside for a few small recommendations for how one can spend his singleness before he eventually gets married. In general, single people don’t know what to do with their singleness, and the Church doesn’t know what to do with it, either. There seems to be a strange contradiction in the Church: whereas Paul seems to say that single people can be some of the most effective kingdom servants (1 Cor. 7), the Church seems to generally regard them as the least effective and important—as if there are certain things you just can’t do unless you’re married. Marriage is a mark of maturity, leadership ability, stewardship, and capability. Singleness is generally a black mark of indecision, immaturity, and lack of direction.
To make matters worse, the advice generally given to single people about their singleness fails to give singleness much of a purpose or meaning; while these pieces of advice contain truth and merit, left on their own, they leave the single person with little hope. Many married people talk about singleness as the last taste of freedom that will quickly fade into the ball-and-chain of marriage. So they tell single people to enjoy it while it lasts: “this is your time to be selfish without consequences. So soak in your ability to be free from responsibilities and burdens of family and enjoy those things while they last.” It’s almost like they’re saying, “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow you’ll get married and you’ll have to eat, drink, or be merry with someone else forever, and it won’t be very merry.” While encouraging singles to enjoy singleness is a good thing, done in this way, it encourages selfishness and paints a bad picture of marriage, leaving single people with little desire to ever get married and not giving them a reason to use their singleness in a way that is larger than themselves. And very soon, singles realize that this freedom isn’t very satisfying, anyway.
Others talk about singleness as if it’s just another type of marriage. Because many singles struggle with feeling unfulfilled and wish they could find their relational desires met in marriage, many people try to help single people pattern their life after marriage: “you can have spiritual children; you can be married to the church; you can act out the same things you’d find in a marriage (minus the sex): you can serve, love, have deep relationships, etc.” So many people think that healthy singleness is a type of celibate marriage. And while it’s true that single people don’t need to feel like they can’t experience any of the same things that married people experience, this mentality makes singleness second-class. Without intending to, it makes singleness only significant when it is patterning itself after marriage, rather than giving singleness its own unique significance apart from the marriage-pattern.
Sometimes the way articles and blogs discuss “making the most of your singleness” or “celebrating your singleness” or “don’t waste your singleness,” sounds just like the way we talk to people who are sick—“make the most of your life, savor the small things, build relationships and don’t dwell on your sickness.” Or it’s like encouraging someone to make the most of a bad family situation—“God didn’t promise to give you good parents, so learn to be content in the midst of a bad situation.” The Church tells singles to count their blessings and stop feeling bad for themselves, yet they don’t give singles any hope that their singleness actually matters, in the grand scheme of things. Singleness is seen as a handicap that can be overcome, rather than an asset or blessing in its own right.
The most thoughtful and sensitive Christians—and there are many—have a far more healthy way of talking about singleness. They emphasize that it truly is a blessing from the Lord, and they give good, practical ways that a Christian can enjoy and use singleness as a unique “talent.” Using 1 Corinthians 7 as a foundational Scripture, they discuss the ministry opportunities for single people, the flexibility of schedule that can be of great use to the Church, and the energy of youth that can encourage the older, married leaders. And if you look hard enough, you’ll see that there are single men and women in every major position of leadership within the Body: there are single pastors, single theologians, single missionaries (the majority, actually), single deacons and elders, single ministry leaders, single teachers. Some churches do realize the significance of their single demographic and are seeking to use them and celebrate them.
Yet even the most thoughtful discussions of singleness fall short because they fall into the same trap as all the other perspectives. All of these perspectives on marriage focus solely on the single person and how they can use their singleness: it is a small vision with a small hope, and so no matter how positively one paints singleness, without a larger vision of singleness, it doesn’t hold much weight. There is something inside of us that wants to be part of something larger than ourselves. When we talk about marriage, we emphasize the fact that through marriage, we are part of something larger than ourselves—part of the cosmic story of redemption. Singleness, too, is something larger than the single person; singleness, too, has a cosmic vision; singleness, too, embodies a glorious story.
Think about it for a bit. Chew on it. What gives singleness a cosmic vision and a glorious story? My thoughts next time…