What is imperative is to determine one’s present calling. If one is called – and duly prepared – for marriage, the partner will be provided in the course of ordinary relations and prayer. If otherwise the calling is to present singleness, one should pray for self-control, and use the opportunity for undivided attention to serve the Lord. Singleness is a unique condition of opportune service without the encumbrance and pre-occupation of family concerns. It will be, for most, a temporary period; for a few, the choice of a lifetime. But for them, singleness does not mean singular.
“Although many women complain about the lack of single men, did you know that there are 4 million more males who have never been married than there are never-been-married females?” So asks George Barna of the Barna Research Group.[i] He is describing the American situation.
Barna’s query reveals that remaining single is still slanted on fear. Perhaps more on the part of women than of men. As age increases, fear of lifetime singleness rises. To avoid it, many resort to desperate mode – anybody there? When there is no taker, there ensues a resignation to the inevitable, while desperately hoping for a reversal; almost akin to a terminal patient. Others opt for rationalization – a defensiveness to prove that being single is superior to being married.
Single is Better?
Defending singleness as the better choice can employ many resourceful contentions. The TIME website posted in 2014, “7 Ways Being Single Affects your Health.” It noted among others, “You’re less likely to gain weight… You’re more likely to exercise regularly; etc.”[ii] Then, there are witty quotations everywhere: “I like being single. I am always there when I need me.” Or, “I think, therefore, I am single!”
But this defensiveness about singleness is many generations late. There was a time when singleness (known as celibacy) was really considered the better choice. This was when prudery was mistaken for virtue, sex was defiling, and priesthood (or nunnery) was the supreme vocation. But the choice of the convent did not escape the temptation of lust. The fornication that went on turned many of these convents no better than brothels. Singleness, even for a religious calling, did not prove an advantage. John Calvin reserved sharp rebuke against this presumption:
“The first place of insane audacity belongs to celibacy. Priests, monks, and nuns, forgetful of their infirmity, are confident of their fitness for celibacy. But by what oracle have they been instructed, that the chastity which they vow to the end of life, they will be able through life to maintain? They hear the voice of God concerning the universal condition of mankind, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone,’ (Gen. 2:18.) They understand, and I wish they did not feel that the sin remaining in us is armed with the sharpest stings. How can they presume to shake off the common feelings of their nature for a whole lifetime, seeing the gift of continence is often granted for a certain time as occasion requires? In such perverse conduct they must not expect God to be their helper.”[iii]
Anyone but Single?
Fear of remaining single in agedness makes the search for a partner a frantic occupation for some. This leads women to an unpleasant style of flirtation. Men pursue frivolous relationships of easy sex and no commitment. This is excused as #YOLO (You only live once!).
This is not acceptable for the Christian. Biblical standards define relationships and sexual intimacy. At its most straightforward, Elizabeth Eliot says, “For the Christian there is one rule and one rule only: total abstention from sexual activity outside of marriage and total faithfulness inside of marriage. Period.”[iv]
As to the choice of partner, that too is mandated. What Paul says of widows applies to marriageable singles “she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:39 ESV). The choice is free, but within the boundary of the choice being a Christian. To insist on a choice outside that boundary is the sin of unequal yoking – an expression taken from the prohibition of 2 Corinthians 6:14: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?” Charles Hodge gives this commentary:
“It is taken for granted that faith changes the whole character; that it makes a man move in an entirely different sphere, having different feelings, objects and principles from those of unbelievers; so that intimate union, communion or sympathy between believers and unbelievers is as impossible as fellowship between light and darkness, Christ and Belial… They may indeed have many things in common; a common country, common kindred, common avocations, common natural affections, but the interior life is entirely different; essentially opposed the one to the other.”[v]
A Matter of Calling
Jesus has given an explicit teaching about singleness by choice. It was in response to a question on divorce. His answer to a question posed by the Pharisees struck the disciples by its high standard. They suggested that it was therefore better not to marry. To this, Jesus replied: “But he said to them, ‘Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.’ (Matt. 19:11-12).
Eunuchs were male servants of a royal household. When they served the wives or harem of royalty, they were usually castrated as a precaution. Jesus’ statement uses eunuchs in the figurative sense of not marrying. In Jesus’ teaching, this unmarried state is a matter of divine providence. This may be by birth, such as genetic disability for marriage. Man-made restrictions may forbid marriage, which may happen due to accident. More importantly, Jesus refers to those who choose the unmarried state for the kingdom of heaven (God). The kingdom refers to the rule of Christ as Lord and Saviour. His kingdom rule became formal as a result of His death and resurrection. One may choose the unmarried state, or lifetime singleness, to serve the interests of the kingdom of Christ. There is an element of self-decision and dependence on the Lord’s equipping for such a state.
Paul adds what is probably the most succinct statement of the opportunity attached to the unmarried state: “An unmarried man can spend his time doing the Lord’s work and thinking how to please him” (1 Cor. 7:32 NLT). This is explained simply:
“He offers realistic pastoral counsel, noting that those with the calling to singleness are spared divided interests that require husbands and wives to attend to their spouses desires and needs.”[vi]
Neither defending singleness as superior, nor escaping from it by any means, is the option for the Christian man or woman. What is imperative is to determine one’s present calling. If one is called – and duly prepared – for marriage, the partner will be provided in the course of ordinary relations and prayer. If otherwise the calling is to present singleness, one should pray for self-control, and use the opportunity for undivided attention to serve the Lord. Singleness is a unique condition of opportune service without the encumbrance and pre-occupation of family concerns. It will be, for most, a temporary period; for a few, the choice of a lifetime. But for them, singleness does not mean singular.
The story of Rebekah becoming the wife of Isaac may provide a rather loose illustration (Gen 24). Abraham commissioned his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac. The servant offered to the Lord some pre-arranged signs as confirmation of his choice. But from the perspective of Rebekah, she was just doing the same routine of fetching water from the well. On that particular day, she was not looking for a husband; rather, she was found by the one looking for his master’s wife.
What may constitute here as a pattern for the Christian single – especially for the woman – is to live one’s life as a day-to-day responsibility to discharge, without a paralyzing concern when to find a partner. “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, And obtains favor from the LORD” (Prov. 18:22). The partner is both a personal discovery, as well as, a divine delivery. We only get to identify someone in a row of people when pinpointing a crime suspect in a police line-up! For a partner in life, it is usually a find, like a miner’s gold. Indeed, the Wise Man compares: “An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.” (Prov. 31:10)
Meanwhile, make friends; pursue some choice close ones – same gender, or opposite – without first presuming a developing romance. Who knows, you may yet be called to serve the Lord in the capacity that others were called to serve, as unmarried – Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680) among the Puritans; John R. W. Stott (1921-2011), in our lifetime. Or, it may be that a partner has already been prepared for you. Just keep fetching your water…
[i] George Barna, Single Focus: Understanding Single Adults (Regal Books of Gospel Light; 2003) p. 7
[iii] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion IV. 13. 3
[iv] Elizabeth Eliot, Passion and Purity (1984)
[v] Commentary by Charles Hodge
[vi] The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015): p. 2026