This last week someone raised an important question regarding singleness. In a past sermon on singleness, I called singleness a sort of spiritually elite category a couple time. Someone raised an important concern with such language to me. Given the history of the church, isn’t it problematic to elevate singleness as a spiritual category? After all, for much of church history the celibate priests, monks, and nuns were viewed as more spiritually significant than other people. Does calling singleness a spiritually elite state fall into the trap which the Reformation helped rescue us from?
This is a worthwhile question to consider. I’ll freely grant that spiritually elite may not be the best title to describe singleness. However, such a title does force a conversation for our time that is different than the historical concerns of the Reformation. Namely, the rise of singleness divorced from spiritual significance. Ponder with me this modern state of singleness.
Singleness in church history
It is always beneficial to be aware of the past. Up until the Reformation, it was self-evident to most people that the family of God consisted of two categories of unequal worth: the celibate clergy and the profane laity. The church taught—and people largely believed—that the single Christian clergy members had greater spiritual significance than the laity.
While it’s not completely clear how this situation developed, it started early in church history. Various strands of Greek philosophy and related religious expressions taught that material reality (i.e., bodies) was inherently bad and that spiritual reality was inherently good. Thus, avoiding certain aspects of creaturely reality—like sexual relations—was good. These very influential philosophies, combined with a few passages from Scripture, buttressed up the view that single church leaders and religious “professionals” were of greater value to God than the married laity.
Singleness in churches today
Spiritually elite may not be the best title for the singleness, but both Paul and Jesus do present singleness as a difficult state that has spiritual benefits. However, it is a pathway in life that won’t be easy or readily fit for most people. This teaching is most clear in 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul writes things like:
- 8 Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. 9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
- 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.
- 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.
There is a lot to chew through in 1 Corinthians 7. But this much is clear: Paul presents singleness as a spiritually advantageous state.
Note very carefully that I’m talking about spiritual advantages not spiritual worth. Nowhere does the text tell us that being single is of more value to God than being married, spiritually or otherwise. In fact, the Bible tends to assume that marriage is the default pattern for humanity. But there are (potentially) spiritual advantageous to singleness.
Which leads to the key point for today: when it comes to singleness, the modern world doesn’t seem to be much like the ancient world.
Single in Christ ≠ plain single
The modern phenomenon of high rates of singleness outside and inside the church has very little to do with this the picture painted by both Paul and Jesus. Instead of men and women foregoing sexual relations in order to further devote themselves to Jesus, we see marriage rates plummeting in society, and also plummeting amongst those who follow Jesus. We see widespread practice of (and increasing acceptance of) premarital and extramarital sexual relations and pornography use among followers of Jesus. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:9, “But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (NIV). The data, both largescale and personal, suggests that many young adult followers of Jesus do indeed burn with passion, but increasingly don’t turn to marriage.
There’s a wealth of reasons and sociological explanations for all of this. Our chief interest is to illustrate that for many followers of Jesus today, singleness is quite different from what Paul and Jesus envisioned. Their teaching was a challenge in their day when marriage was normal and sexual immorality ran rampant. And it is still a challenge today when marriage seems to be faltering and sexual immorality still runs rampant.
In addition to the change in single life, we should not miss another way that our time and place is different from the past life of the church.
Single as normal, not a vocation
There are many single followers of Jesus who talk and write about the vocation of singleness as a way to make sense of their position in life. That is well and good. But I have yet to see someone stand up and argue that the best move in the spiritual life for everyone is to reject marriage and any forms of sexual relations. But, if you must get married, make sure you keep sexual relations to a minimum to avoid the taint of lust. We tend to see this view as self-evidently wrong. But that is essentially what St. Augustine taught about sexual relations. And he was by no means unique on the topic among early church leaders.
In my view, the greater threat to the church at this point is not the re-emergence of the teaching (among Protestants) that God prefers you to be single over married. The greater threat is that we will simply adopt the cultural slide towards a casual singleness. A singleness that is not spiritually engaged. A singleness that has little regard for God’s intended patterns of sexual relations. The greater threat to the church is acquiescence to the cultural norms of today, rather than those of 2,000 years ago.
Most people today assume that sexual relations are necessary for a flourishing life, finding it comedic and/or sad for an adult to not be sexually active. The boundaries of marriage are deemed irrelevant for pursuing such sexual relations. And increasingly, people in the church are in agreement with that.
Single in Christ
While spiritually elite may be bad language, something is required to reassert a biblical picture of singleness. Followers of Jesus can learn to pursue spiritual devotion to Jesus within singleness. And don’t get me wrong, a great many singles in fact do this. But the social norms and behavioral patterns of modern singleness are very far removed from a pursuit of godliness. To the degree that our version of singleness within the church looks like the rampant social singleness around us, to that degree we have lost the vision of what single in Christ means.
And that is where I end. Single in Christ. That is a name better than sons and daughters. And that is a name that is better, but far harder, than single in contemporary America.