A brief history of Christian Singleness

Marriage is being thrust under the spotlight once again. But where does that leave singles? Any media coverage that is targeted towards single men and women is almost always… ‘Meet Mr. Right’ or ‘How to move on from Mr. Wrong’.

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Our culture shouts at us, teaching us that singleness is a time of transition. You’re either preparing for, or moving away from a relationship. This toxic understanding of singleness suggests that the ideal is always to be in a relationship. In fact, if your single for too long, there’s likely something wrong with you, or so social media tells us. If we have a brief look at the history of singleness we will see where this unhealthy understanding has stemmed from.

The Jewish Perspective

In the Old Testament there was no real place for singles. Everyone, including priests, were encouraged to marry. This was because their was very little teaching on an ‘afterlife’. Unlike today where spiritual people focus on moving toward a heaven or nirvana like experience, the ancient Hebrew culture thought that the hereditary line was most valuable. This is why there is so much emphasis on genealogy in the Old Testament. A man or woman without a family had no means of continuing their family line.

Even in the New Testament period we can see that Jewish teaching were just as strict, if not more so. In the Mishnah suggests that ‘a man without a family is not a man at all.’

The New Testament Perspective

Then, as if we were watching a wrecking ball sweep through the flimsy veil of a Jewish understanding of relationships, along comes Jesus. He entered into the first century culture and broke down the negative stigma of singleness. Jesus taught that marriage and family are not an eternal reality, that it is not supposed to be the centre of one’s life. He taught counter to the Jewish teachings, there is no eternity in bloodlines, but only in the resurrection. Therefore, Christ should be more central than even family. Jesus clearly teaches that people can choose to remain single for the purpose of serving the kingdom of heaven.

Paul then continues this message by saying he wishes ‘people could remain single as he does’ but also understands that it’s not always possible. Alongside Paul it appears that Luke, Silas, Barnabas, Timothy, Titus, Epaphroditus, Apollos, Lydia, Dorcas and Pheobe all remained single throughout their ministry.

It was obvious that single men and women had much to contribute to growing the kingdom of God.

The Early Church Perspective

After the wrecking ball shatters the Jewish context it bursts through the debris and swings like a pendulum out the other side. All of a sudden singleness becomes the ‘best practice’ for the ‘most holy’. Examples of spiritual devotion laid out by the apostle Paul inspired his successors to remain celibate in their service to the Lord. Ignatius, Justin Martyr and Origen in the second and third centuries all commended the celibate lifestyle. The ascetic Gnostic influence pushed common religious practice to the extreme, the body was evil and humanity must resist it’s urges at every point in order to remain pure and holy.

Later, people such as Augustine taught that sin was transmitted from generation to generation through sexual intercourse. The best practice was that one would abstain from building families. There were certainly enough heathens to convert in order to grow the kingdom. He taught that while marriage was good, celibacy was even better.

The Reformers Perspective

The 16th century reformation came at a time where the dominate catholic church was rife with not-so-celibate priests. It was common knowledge that Renaissance priests had mistresses and children. Protestant Reformers sought to renew the corrupt church. German reformer, Martin Luther, who had begun his ministry as a monk, new the dangers of forced clerical celibacy. He rooted his argument against the doctrine in the natural order. If men and women are being forced to go against their created natural instincts they are preventing nature from being nature. (I wouldn’t use this argument today).

Likewise, John Calvin the Swiss reformer taught that God not only permitted but commended marriage. He taught that there was still a place for singleness but it is only for those who had been ‘singled out by the divine will of God’.

Where does that leave us today?

With the benefit of hindsight, teaching on singleness has started to find some balance, though emphasis still clearly lays on the family unit. Our churches try and emphasise with single Christians but the feedback is that they have a tendency to come across as condescending. Statements like: ‘It’s alright, your time will come…’ or ‘I know how you feel, I really struggled as a single before I got married at 22…’ or even ‘God has given you the gift of singleness…’. (I think singleness is a gift [1Cor 7:7] but when spoken about as a place of empathy it’s like a gift of bad cologne. ‘Thanks, but I really don’t want it’.

As our culture continues to water down the concept of marriage, sexuality and morals it is obvious that there will be an increasing number of singles within our communities. With a divorce rate of roughly 50%, a homosexual rate of roughly 10%, an aging population increasing the number of widows and widowers, we need to be increasingly aware of the singles within our communities.

Singleness is not always a time of transition. We pray, under God’s sovereignty, that men and women would continue to unite in marriage, however it is unrealistic to expect this to be a reality for all singles. By making this the goal, we marginalise people who haven’t yet obtained it. What if the goal was something else?

The church needs to be clear that one’s relationship status does not primarily define their identity. One’s value does not come from their circumstances. Both singles and marrieds should be actively seeking to place Christ at the centre of their lives.

A truly Christian view of both singleness and marriage will honour both equally without disparaging one or the other. Recovering such a balance is the first step toward a church where singles are valued equally with marrieds.

Keeping Christ at the centre means that regardless of our relationship circumstances Christ gives us value, meaning and purpose. If our relationship circumstances change, and Christ is still centre, then the value, meaning and purpose of our lives in still intact.

[Edit: Thoughts stemmed from chapters 2 and 3 of The Single Issue by Al Hsu.]