Once singles can understand and celebrate their special place as those incarnating the “already/not yet” reality of the Church and of her Savior, then they can move to embracing the practical outworking of this reality, now with a vision and a hope. Just as married people are called to act out in their marriage the ways Christ functions in His marriage to the Church (Eph. 5:25), so singles are called to act out in their singleness the ways that Christ functioned in His own singleness. And through this beautiful obedience, singles can be a unique picture of Christ to the world.
While there are many practical life applications to this glorious vision, I’d like to focus on three: celibacy, patience, and hopeful service. Invariably, there’s not enough space in a blog post to go in depth on any of these things, so it risks being trite or simplistic. I suppose the important thing is to explore in your own minds what the practical implications of a proper theology of singleness would be. These are merely starting points.
For the bulk of this post, however, I want to spend time exploring how living out singleness faithfully can be a unique ministry to married couples in Christ’s church. Just as married couples can be a great blessing and resource for single people, so too, singles can have a powerful ministry to married people in the very act of living out singleness well.
Patience (2 Peter 3:9)
Singles can struggle with the call to be patient in their singleness as they wait for a future marriage. But there is a glorious vision embodied within the patient single life, for in this, singles image the present condition of Christ who is patiently waiting for His own marriage. There is still more work to be done before the Bride is ready, and so Christ is patiently at work, wooing and drawing His bride from every tribe, nation, and tongue until at last the time will come when the marriage will be consummated. And so singles are called to be hard at work, preparing themselves and building relationships with others as they wait patiently for their future marriage. It is during this time of patience that some of the most beautiful pieces of someone’s life shines forth—if it were not so, then Christ himself would not be in this patient and waiting state. At this time, there is nothing that brings Christ more glory than patiently waiting for his future marriage; so too, there is nothing more glorious in the life of a single person than to live out this singleness in joyful and active patience.
Celibacy (Matt. 4:1-11)
One of the keenest and strongest realities of singleness is the struggle with one’s natural sexuality. Sexual desires aren’t wrong—they’re a good gift from God. Yet single people find themselves in a difficult spot, having no outlet for those good desires; rather, they’re told simply to abstain and told that if they do get married, they’ll be happy they stayed “pure.” But there is a larger hope and vision to celibacy beyond mere obedient abstinence. For as the single person deliberately remains celibate in anticipation for a future marriage, he incarnates the glorious restraint of our Lord during his temptations in the wilderness. Jesus was tempted to grab things that were his by right, things that he actually came to claim. He was offered the kingdoms of the earth and the glory of all people; and, indeed, they were good things. Yet it was not the right time to be glorified, and it was not the right time to reclaim the kingdoms of the earth. And if he had given into those temptations, he never would have made it possible for him to have rescued his Bride. **We must be careful not to take the parallel too far, however: plenty of single people make mistakes and don’t remain celibate. This is not a death-blow to a happy marriage. God can redeem anything. Rather than focusing on the negative consequences of not remaining celibate, let us emphasize the positive and glorious vision of celibacy as seen in the life of Christ** And so as singles live out their celibacy in faithfulness, they are living out the glorious image of their Savior who, for the sake of his bride, overcame the temptation to grasp at the wrong time something that was his by right. Additionally, being celibate in singleness is a manifestation of the faithful long-suffering that we are all called to as Christians, being willing to sacrifice the fleeting pleasures of this momentary life as we look forward to the glorious union with Christ and the fulfillment of the Kingdom.
Serving in Hope (Heb. 12:2)
And so as singles are called to be at work, denying themselves, and serving the church and using their gifts and their singleness, they are called to hope. Many singles find themselves tempted to despair that they will ever get married–it all seems too huge and out of their control. But it is a glorious and beautiful thing to see single people actively living out a hopeful life, hopeful for a future spouse, and hopeful for their ultimate marriage to Christ at the end of the age. And so, in this hopeful service, singles embody the hopeful service of their Savior who, “for the joy set before him, endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2). And what was the joy set before Christ? It was His future Bride—the Church. Christ suffered, endured, and served in hope that none of His work would be meaningless or purposeless, but that in his service, he was working toward a glorious future hope. So too, singles can be confident that their hopeful service has a purpose and that as they suffer, endure, and serve in hope, they will one day see their hope realized at the Consummation of the Age.
A Signpost for the Married
Along with the glorious embodiment of Christ, the glory of singleness is also found in its unique position in the Church. Rightly so, married people encourage singles to spend time with couples and families, for in these times the single person can see healthy marriages and learn so many things about how to do marriage and parenting well, whenever that time comes. But in the same vein, single people have unique wisdom to offer married couples, for more viscerally than married couples, single people daily live out the reality of waiting and hoping for the coming kingdom and the marriage of Christ and the Church. This, I think, is what Paul meant when discussing the differences between singles and married people in 1 Corinthians 7. He says:
“29 This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. 32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.”
Before the fall, within the perfect relationship between God and man, marriage made sense—it was the completion and perfect union of the fragmented man into one whole person. But this wholeness and fulfillment within the marriage covenant was only made possible because of the greater perfect union between God and his people. But when the relationship between God and man was fragmented, so too, marriage was fragmented: it cannot fulfill its ultimate purpose because man is separated from God. And so whether married or single, the goal is the same and the experience is the same—we are all seeking and anticipating the more perfect union with God once again.
Paul is seeking to remind the married that the time is short, that something greater is coming, that they have not reached their more perfect marriage. The temptation for some might be to think that with marriage comes the attainment of the goal. Married people can become distracted from diligently working toward and anticipating that more perfect union because they have attained union already. And this is why Paul can say that in some sense singleness is “better,” because the realization that things aren’t ideal and that the goal has yet to be attained is always present and real for the single person. The married person can be tempted to make a dichotomy between serving God and serving spouse, whereas the single person has no dichotomy to tempt him. Both married and single are called to “undivided devotion to the Lord,” but the married person is tempted to forget this and create a dichotomy, not realizing that even his present marriage is part of the broader single life he is still experiencing in anticipation of his greater marriage to Christ.
Thus, singles have a unique place in the church, for they serve as a tangible reminder and encouragement to the married that they, too, have not yet attained true marriage. And as singles faithfully live out their singleness in everyday life, wholly devoted to Christ, full of anticipation and hope for the future marriage, they provide a picture for married people of how they, too, should be working as fully devoted servants of Christ, not allowing their present marriage to distract them from working in light of their anticipation and hope for Christ’s return.
Singleness is hard. And even those who are single and wish to be married have no guarantee that living a faithful single life will result in a future marriage here on earth. But while hard, if singles embrace the glorious cosmic vision of singleness, they have a hope and a vision. The single life is not part of the curse, but it finds its glory and purpose within a cursed world. For as the single person embraces his calling to embody within his singleness the state of the Church in the “already/not yet” reality of this momentary life, he becomes a beacon and a light in a dark world, a piece of hope that there is joy and meaning and purpose in this broken world, in certainty that things will one day be made right, that the Bride will one day be made ready, and that Christ will certainly embrace His Bride in eternal matrimony at the Consummation of the Age.