“Why is such a nice person like you still single?”
“Once you learn to be content, God will bring you a spouse.”
“She’s so pretty, I wonder why she’s not dating?”
“There’s no question why he’s not married!”
Have you heard some of these comments before, or perhaps even made them yourself? A subtle but clear message runs through them: marriage is for the worthy and deserving, and those who don’t make the cut will end up single. Behind such thinking is the assumption that marriage is better than singleness.
Much of the inner struggle for singles comes from these and other assumptions about marriage and singleness, which is why it’s important to discover if they are based on truth. If they’re not, perhaps the elevation of marriage and family over singleness is not biblical, and the stigma singles carry is needless. Let’s take a look at what the Bible really does have to say.
Is Marriage Better?
If we dig into the whole of Scripture, we discover that both marriage and singleness are equally good. One is not a blessing, and the other a curse. One is not a reward, and the other a punishment. And one is not more honorable than the other. Both are ordained of God for His purposes, and He chooses who He will for both roles.
The idea that marriage trumps singleness can be gleaned from the Bible, but only by cherry-picking here and there from the whole of Scripture, or by focusing mainly on the Old Testament which does support the belief that marriage is better than singleness. If we don’t step back and see the whole picture, and the transition that takes place from the Old Covenant to the New through Jesus, we are bound to make wrong conclusions.
At the very beginning of creation God made a man and a woman and told them to “be fruitful and multiply.” God proceeded to build His earthly Kingdom through marriage and procreation. In His covenant with His people, God said He would bless them through prolific offspring, and would bring judgment through barrenness and childlessness. He also made it clear that the greatest of all His promises – a Messiah – would come through the marrying and procreating of couples, and would be a descendant of Adam, Abraham, and David.
God did indeed fulfill His promise of a Messiah and Jesus came, born of a woman, to live, die, and rise to life again. And here is where a radical shift takes place.
Jesus Shakes Things Up
Instead of following in His ancestors’ steps and marrying and having children, Jesus remained single and childless. He also spoke strange things to His followers, like, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, and even his own life—he cannot be My disciple.” [i]
Jesus also redefined familial terms. When someone told Him His mother and brothers wanted to see Him, He asked, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” Gesturing to His disciples, He said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven, that person is My brother and sister and mother.” [ii]
And, just before He went back to heaven, Jesus gave a new mandate as the focus and purpose of our lives as Christians. Instead of “Be fruitful and multiply,” He said, “Go and make disciples of all nations,” [iii] indicating a shift in priority from reproducing physically to reproducing spiritually.
Why Such a Major Shift?
Throughout the Old Testament, God made promises and covenants with His people. Among them were His promises to Adam, Abraham, and David:
To Adam and Eve, God promised a descendent who would defeat the serpent Satan who had deceived them. That descendent was Jesus.
To Abraham, God promised that through his offspring all the world would be blessed, hinting that Gentiles would be included in the promise. That offspring was Jesus.
To David, God promised to raise up offspring after him who would establish an eternal kingdom. That offspring was Jesus.
It wasn’t that Jesus shook things up; to be accurate, He fulfilled them. Through Jesus’ coming to earth and His death and resurrection, God fulfilled His promises to Adam, Abraham, and David, as well as His mandate to marry and procreate, as Jesus ushered in a heavenly kingdom in place of the earthly one. This heavenly kingdom is not dependent on physical procreation, but rather on spiritual procreation.
As we continue to read through the New Testament, however, we see that although Jesus removed the mandate to marry and have children, He did not eradicate them. Marriage and family continue to be ordained and blessed by God, and the New Testament mandate to “go and make disciples” includes parents who teach their children to follow Jesus. We also see in Ephesians 5 that marriage as God designed it is an example to the world of the faithful love Christ has for His bride, the church, in a covenant relationship.
But Jesus also made it clear that marriage and family relationships are temporary – for this world only. He said, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like angels in heaven.” [iv] The fact that Jesus did not need marriage to complete Him, and that in Heaven neither will we, indicate that marriage is not the essential or even ultimate experience God has for us. There is something greater awaiting us.
Those Who Can, Should
As we dig even deeper into New Testament texts, we notice that both Jesus and the Apostle Paul, who also remained single and childless, indicate there is rich benefit and purpose in singleness. Jesus in Matthew 19, and Paul in 1 Corinthains 7, both encourage those who are not married to remain single for the sake of being fully devoted without distraction to God and the work of His Kingdom. Both point to the concerns and troubles inherent in human and family relationships and the divided focus they cause. We tend to dance around the fact that both Jesus and Paul indicate that, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, singleness is better.
But neither Jesus nor Paul make singleness a mandate. They both acknowledge that singleness is not for everyone, only to whom it is given, and that marriage is God’s provision for maintaining sexual purity (among other things). They both also allude that singleness is a spiritual gift, given by God to whom He chooses.
Of course, the follow-up question to such a statement is, how do we know if we’ve been given the gift of singleness?
There is no clear answer to this in Scripture. My personal belief is that if you are single this moment, singleness is God’s gift and plan for you for today. It may be lifelong, but it may not. But for however long He gives you the gift of singleness, He will also give you the gift of grace to live without the physical intimacies and other benefits of marriage. Some teach that along with the gift of singleness God removes all desire for marriage and raising a family, and that if you still desire them, you don’t have the gift of singleness. I don’t see any support for this teaching in Scripture, or evidence of it in any single Christian I know. These desires are inherent in all normal, healthy human beings to some degree or another. But to the single Christian God gives grace to live a fulfilled life for Him even in the presence of those unfulfilled desires.
The Gif t of Singleness
If singleness is a gift, why doesn’t it seem like one? Probably because we haven’t yet learned to recognize the benefit and blessings in singleness, and because the stigma that surrounds singleness casts shadows on the benefits and blessings we do see and experience.
In his excellent book, Redeeming Singleness: How the Storyline of Scripture Affirms the Single Life, Barry Danylak describes the gift of singleness as having three characteristics:
- A life of simplicity free from the stresses of spouse and family
- A life that finds sufficiency in the blessings of Christ alone apart from the experiences of sexual intimacy, marital companionship, and physical family
- A life ready and free for service to the King in whatever way he should call [v]
It is easy to see from this description that the gift of singleness truly is a gift, and not only an asset and blessing to the unmarried follower of Jesus, but ultimately to the church, both locally and globally. A person who does not need the roles of spouse and parent to feel complete, but rather finds that completeness in Christ alone, is free to serve God within and beyond the walls of the local church in ways those tied down with a family can’t. These blessings apply not only to the never-married single, but also to the widowed and divorced, especially those whose children are grown and on their own.
A Witness to the World
Marriage and family are often touted as the means for providing fulfillment and meaning in life, and for meeting one’s needs for significance, love, affection, and admiration, as well as the more practical needs for physical and domestic support. This is all true to the limited extent imperfect humans can provide them.
But the only relationship that can completely satisfy is a relationship with Jesus, and as singles, we play an important role in exemplifying this to the world.
A single who finds his or her completeness in God alone in the absence of all that marriage provides, exemplifies how all-sufficient and all-satisfying is a relationship with Jesus Christ. A single who trusts God to provide all his or her needs also exemplifies that He is trustworthy and a loving and faithful Provider.
Both marriage and singleness exemplify a greater spiritual concept beyond their earthly roles, and both are needed to form a complete testimony of Christ and His relationship with His people. Earthly marriage points us to a time when Jesus will be fully united with His Bride, the church. In that day earthly marriage will no longer be necessary as we, His bride, find our completeness in Him. And it is to that completeness in Christ that singleness points as we live as faithful witnesses to the all-sufficiency of Jesus!
A number of years ago I had done a study on the shift between the Old and New Testaments from reproducing physically to reproducing spiritually. The results of that you can read in the article I wrote then, Better Than Sons and Daughters.
More recently, a good friend gave me the book Redeeming Singleness: How the Storyline of Scripture Affirms the Single Life by Barry Danylak, which takes this study much further in depth and which I relied on heavily for writing this blog post. If you, too, would like to dig deeper, I highly recommend getting a copy and reading it.
[v] Danylak, Barry (2010-09-01). Redeeming Singleness (Foreword by John Piper): How the Storyline of Scripture Affirms the Single Life (p. 212). Crossway. Kindle Edition.