We should be a community that … stops acting like heterosexual marriage and sex itself are absolutely essential for a fulfilling Christian life. We should elevate celibacy/singleness as a vocation, testifying that sexual drive and all desire needs to be sub-ordered to God’s purpose and mission for anything remotely fulfilling to take place in our lives.
This one doesn’t surprise me at all, because I’ve spent some time trying to start a singles ministry at my church. And one of the biggest problems churches anywhere have dealing with singles is the implicit assumption that being single is spiritually inferior to being married. Do you doubt me? Consider —
* Most churches will not hire an unmarried minister. Look at the “job description” put together by any search committee, and right at the top of list is a description of the wife of the minister (who must be so saintly that dirt won’t even stick to her feet).
* Those single people who attend church are constantly being asked about plans for marriage and “set up” with someone’s niece or nephew.
* Churches routinely speak of themselves as made up of “families,” which most singles figure lets them out. Churches have “family nights.” Invitations are for “you and your family” and never “you and your boyfriend.”
* Churches have classes on marriage and child rearing but no classes on how to live as a single man or woman.
You see, folks my age grew up at a time when people married in their young 20s. Most were engaged or married within a year after college. This is no longer true. In fact, if our churches were to reflect the general population, 30% to 40% would be single because they are —
* Widowed or widowered
* Single but looking to marry
* Single and not interested in marrying
* Gay and celibate for the cause of Jesus
Interestingly, the scriptures treat singleness as an honored estate —
(1 Cor 7:7-9) I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. 8 Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. 9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. …
(1 Cor 7:32-34) I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs–how he can please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world–how he can please his wife– 34 and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world–how she can please her husband.
Paul plainly prefers that Christian be single rather than married. Being single is “a gift” that not everyone has. And it’s a gift that results in undivided devotion to Jesus.
Paul speaks with the heart of a missionary who has suffered persecution, torture, and shipwreck for his faith. It’s easier to suffer imprisonment for Jesus if you have no wife or children depending on you for support.
Indeed, if the church took this teaching seriously, we’d see in our many single young people a pool of talented, gifted people to encourage to join the mission field. Of course, not everyone is gifted for missions. But we tend to think in such secular terms that we never, ever encourage our young people to pursue a career in ministry or missions or church planting. Those who do so often do so despite their church’s and parents’ teaching.
All of which brings us to —
(Mat 19:11-12) Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
Jesus had just finished a lesson about divorce and remarriage, making it clear that God hates divorce. The disciples protested the severity of Jesus’ teaching, saying “It’s better not to marry!” and Jesus agreed. If you aren’t willing to be the spouse God wants you to be, there’s nothing wrong with being single, Jesus says. In fact, some “have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven.” It can be very Godly to remain single.
That is, unless you’re single because you’re self-centered and selfish. In that case, it’s good you’re not married, but the solution is to let God change your heart, not to wallow in unmarried self-indulgence. Get involved in God’s mission in a serious way and let God lead you to the life he wants for you.
You see, to a modern American, life is about self-indulgence. If we want sex, the solution is to find a way to get sex. For a Christian, that means finding a spouse. But it’s still all about me. We never stop to ask whether marriage is God’s plan for me.
Perhaps God wants me to remain single so I can be a missionary to Iran or Afghanistan or North Korea. Maybe the first question I should ask is: what does God want with me? And then whether I marry comes from that answer. And if my marriage comes from God’s desires for me and my life, then surely I’ll see my marriage as part of my ministry for God.
If my marriage is part of my ministry, then I’ll invite my wife and children to co-minister with me. And I’ll see making a good marriage as service to God first, my wife second, my children third, and myself last. Marriage therefore won’t be about getting what I want, but giving Jesus what he wants.
And if I approach life this way, then my decision to be single — whether for now or forever — becomes a decision I lay on the altar of Jesus. I let Jesus tell me whether that’s his choice, and whatever choice is given me, I give to Jesus in his service. And this way, my life of singleness becomes a life of devotion, rather than of extended adolescence.