Yesterday one of our lectures at College directed us to this article from The Briefing.
The author, Tim Adeney, is thinking about singleness and the church, focusing on 1 Corinthians 7. In his introduction he notes that the response of many married people to single Christian – “Singleness is better, so get on with your life and deal with it”* – is inadequate because
it locates struggles with singleness solely with the single person, not within the entire Christian community; its consideration of the depth and causes of those struggles is cursory; and it does not reflect adequately on either 1 Corinthians 7 or the wider biblical witness.
I think his observation that this struggle is within the Christian community is a helpful one. For the single person there is an element of personal struggle but there is a bigger issue that needs to be addressed, which is a lack of biblical understanding of singleness in the Christian community. This lack of understand manifests in a failure to adequately love the single people within the community.
Adeney recognises the eschatological reality that singleness reflects and then adds
However, we must not run ahead and get ourselves tangled in an over-realized eschatological stupor. While Jesus has indeed ushered in a new world order, he has not yet ushered in a new creation. We live in a new age and an old creation, and this old creation was made for marriage (cf. Gen 2:18-25). If our destiny is singleness, our created design is marriage. This does not detract from the status of being single; rather, it is a comment on its experience. In this creation, the ordinary pattern for humanity is marriage and family life, and while there is no suggestion in the Old Testament that being single is a sin, neither is there any suggestion that you would choose it. Perhaps we could go so far as to say that, from the point of view of our creaturely design, singleness isn’t better, and so we should expect any long-term singleness to be accompanied by grief and temptation to a greater or lesser extent.
Our created design was for marriage and the mandate to the first married couple was to fill the earth, but something substantial has changed since then. Jesus has come, and ascended and we await his return. A return that brings judgment upon those who do not follow him. We are living in the last days – surely this is the present crisis (vs 26), this is why the time is short (vs 29). Surely then the mandate changes from filling the earth to converting it (Matt 28:19ff).
Throughout the chapter, he provides us with a worked example of how to think eschatologically. “[T]he appointed time has grown very short” (v. 29), and all of us are called to live in light of that reality. Even married people must live as though they are not. How this eschatological reality affects decisions about singleness or marriage depends on what else needs to be considered along with the return of Christ. That is, Paul holds up a number of realities like lenses, and looks through them. In particular, he holds up the shortness of time and places it next to an appraisal of the practical realities of marriage as opposed to singleness. Thus he notes that marriage is complicated, involving “worldly troubles” (v. 28), whereas singleness leaves one “free from anxieties” (v. 32). He concludes that the opportunity to be single-mindedly devoted to “the things of the Lord” (v. 32) renders singleness a better option. But it is only better when certain realities or ‘lenses’ (i.e. the shortness of time and the practicalities of marriage) are considered; as he looks through both lenses together, his overall recommendation changes, which is why the person who is already married should stay married and the person who yearns for love should get married.
The problem with this is that the person who ‘yearns for love’ cannot simple decide to get married. Because, as you may have noticed, a marriage requires 2 people. So here we have (I suspect) the biggest group of single people in our churches – those who do yearn for love, but there’s nothing they can do about it. So how do we love them well? The section of his article titled The Church and Singles is, I think, very helpful (ignoring the fact that he constantly refers to single people as ‘singles’ which I hate).
THE CHURCH AND SINGLES
1. THE HABITS OF FAMILIES
The purpose of family is not only to be a blessing to its members, but also to be a blessing beyond itself. One of the major ways a family can bless beyond itself is by treating those who are outside as though they were inside. This, more likely than not, will require initiative (i.e. it won’t happen accidentally), and that initiative needs to come from the families, not the singles. Families in our culture generally don’t feel strong, but socially we are in a position where we can invite others. Our invitations need to be extensive and habitual. For example,
- We could invite people into our homes—not just occasionally, but regularly. I’m sure there are many who would love to share a weekly meal with a family.
- We could invite others to come on holidays with us.
- Perhaps we could consider whether we could have others live with us. If we can’t do that where we live now, perhaps we could consider moving somewhere else where we could.
In addition, couples need to give each other space to build quality relationships with single people. At this point, it is worth taking a small detour to talk about how to relate to single people of the opposite gender. Paul counsels Timothy to treat “younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Tim 5:2). Most Christian men have a predisposition to read just half this verse—that is, as either “treat younger women as sisters” or “treat younger women in all purity”. Men who do the former imagine that the distinctions of gender are no longer significant, and so relate to women as though they aren’t married, or as though the women are actually their biological sisters. Men who do the latter (which is more common in Christian culture) imagine that they can completely ignore women in the name of purity.
But both are wrong. Paul deftly avoids allowing me to deceive myself into thinking that there is no difference between my sisters in Christ and my biological sisters. But at the same time, he tells me where to get my cue for how to relate to my sisters in Christ. So I would not, in the ordinary course of events, hang out with my sisters in Christ without either my wife or their husbands, even though I would happily do this with my biological sisters. But I will offer lifts, I will have conversations, I will exchange the (occasional) email or text, I will give the (also occasional) hug, I won’t leave the house immediately if I come home and find that my wife has ducked out to the shops while a female friend minds my children, and if I could fix cars, I’d happily go over to a single friend’s place to spend an hour or two having a go. I think I can do these things without running the risk of unfaithfulness and creating a ‘hint’ of sexual immorality (Eph 5:3 NIV).
There’s 2 things I want to say from this. First: To my married friends – it is easier than you think to be a ‘blessing beyond [your]self’. Your house doesn’t need to be tidy, your cooking doesn’t need to restaurant quality, and your kids don’t need to be perfectly behaved. Being surrounded by the chaos of family life is something I love.
The second thing is that even though it sounds quite ridiculous that men would ignore women in the name of purity, it’s something I’ve been on the receiving end of. The comment from a married man that ‘I don’t know how to relate to single women’ was one of the most hurtful things I’ve ever heard. So I hope that men would make every effort to treat women as sisters and in all purity.
Adeney ends his article with a good aim for all our churches.
The Christian community needs to be one where the separate callings of marriage and singleness are both welcomed and honoured. Paul had a positive view of singleness, yet he also had harsh words for those who would “forbid marriage” (1 Tim 4:3). While we haven’t ‘forbidden’ singleness, Christians have allowed a culture to grow where it is ‘forbidding’. My hope is that, as a community, we can change to better look after those who are struggling with unwelcome circumstances, and that, once more, we will welcome the possibility of voluntary singleness for the sake of “the things of the Lord” as indeed “better” (1 Cor 7:32, 38).
If you are someone who struggles with singleness you can read more from me on the subject here including some links to helpful books and sermons.
I’d love to hear your thought on Adeney’s article too.
*No-one has ever said anything this harsh to me, but I get the point he is trying to make