Singles in the New Testament Church
We all live at least part of our lives as singles. This is how we are born into God's world. Many of us will continue to live as singles through choice or through events along life's pathway. God loves and cares for all of us whatever our marital status and whatever the health, or lack of health, of our families of origin. While God has clearly defined the covenant of marriage from the beginning of human history, He has also found special places and avenues of service in His kingdom for singles. This valid option receives more specific attention and validation in the New Testament than the Old. Our goal in this article is to better understand and make room for the gifts and opportunities for singles in God's New Testament church.
While our Saviour Jesus grew up in a family, did His first miracle at a wedding and upheld the permanency of marriage for those who commit to this covenant with God, He lived His entire life as a single man despite what popular media say about Him. He is the preeminent example of one living the single life. Though He lived "one solitary life," His life was incredibly full, eternally rewarding and thoroughly connected to people of every walk of life. Singleness was God's will for Him and He fulfilled this will in a way that set an inspiring example for us and benefited humanity for all time.
In a way that was new to God's people, in the New Testament Jesus and the Apostle Paul introduced singleness and its opportunities for single-minded devotion to God as a gift equal to the way that God's people had considered marriage and children to be gifts under the Old Covenant (Psalm 127:3-128:6). Singleness or marriage are not miraculous spiritual gifts or powers per se as described in 1 Corinthians 12-14, but rather different avenues of living and enjoying the larger gift of life in God's presence as He has given each one grace to do so. While He was teaching on God's will for the permanency of marriage the disciples asked Jesus, "'If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.'" Jesus answered, "'Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother's womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it'" (Matthew 19:10-12). While Jesus speaks metaphorically of those making themselves eunuchs in the physical sense, one legitimate understanding of the word eunuch in the ancient world is one who abstains by choice. There are those who have the ability to accept this kind of sacrifice with contentment for the greater good of God's kingdom. Jesus' main point is that a life of dedicated devotion and service to God as a single Christian can be a conscious and valid choice that Christians make and that God accepts as pleasing in His sight.
Paul reveals that, like Jesus, He served God as a single man. He upholds the idea that singleness is also a gift when he writes, "Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that" (1 Corinthians 7:7). Clearly in Paul's mind, living a wholesome and dedicated single life is a gift from God. Whereas Peter was an elder (1 Peter 5:21) and took a believing wife with him on his missionary travels (1 Corinthians 9:5), Paul remained single and references to him as an elder are absent. Paul used the time and focus afforded by his singleness to great advantage for the church in his day and ours. His output of preaching and writing are prodigious and have had profound effects not only in the history of the church but also on the history of the world. He had more to say than any New Testament writer on the nature of Christ's church and as much as any on the eternal cosmic nature of Christ.
Jesus and Paul also bring new dimensions to our understanding of what God Himself said in Genesis 2:18b, "'It is not good for the man to be alone.'" In its original context, Adam, whose name means "man," was literally alone. From Adam and Eve on God ordained marriage yet if marriage were always necessary in God's mind as the human race grew from a couple to multitudes, then as singles Jesus and Paul were not in a good state. This surely cannot be so. In their singleness, they surely were not alone. Both were highly connected and heavily invested in others as part of the family of God and in their interests in and sacrifices for the unbelieving world as well. God's family is a fellowship where all people, married and single, find they are not alone but connected to others in ways that fulfil God's desire for people to thrive in wholeness and unity (cf. Psalm 133:1-3).
Paul's main interest for Christians, married or single, is freedom from concern, contentment in one's relationship with God and single-minded devotion to Him: "But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and his interests are divided. The woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. This I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is appropriate and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord" (1 Corinthians 7:32-35). Paul had earlier said that those who marry "will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you" (1 Corinthians 7:28). It is a fact of New Testament teachings borne out by Christian living, as Jesus, Paul and others promise, that Christians will have trouble in this life. These outweigh promises of peace and prosperity popular today. Singleness is a valid and worthy status that can take advantage of time and open doors for service. Paul clearly validates the single life as one with potential to limit distractions and secure undivided loyalty to God.
Paul is also clear that married and single Christians do not occupy separate camps. They live, worship and serve together. This is evident in his commendations of Christian servants which contain both couples and singles. While we lack information to confirm their precise marital status, Paul commends many Christians individually for their service and value to the church and cause of the gospel, for example from Romans 16, "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea; that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well" (16:1-2); "Greet Epaenetus, my beloved, who is the first convert to Christ from Asia....Mary, who has worked hard for you....Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord....Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and Stachys my beloved....Apelles, the approved in Christ....Herodion, my kinsman....Persis the beloved, who has worked hard in the Lord....Rufus, a choice man in the Lord, also his mother and mine....Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the brethren with them....Nereus and his sister, and Olympas" (16:5-15). And not least of all is Timothy, Paul's "beloved and faithful child in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 4:17) who served in many trying circumstances as a single young adult as far as we know. Though he had no title of office, it was through him that Paul gave many important teachings for church leadership, families, old and young men and women, widows, children and single young adults.
Paul commended these individual servants for their faith and valuable contributions of service without attaching any formal titles to them. They are celebrated for who they are in Christ. They are equally members of the kingdom and valuable to God as those who are married and have titles. There is nothing to divide them from Christ's body as a whole. They are part of the world-wide family of God, sharing in His mission. As Jesus said, "'Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel's sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life'" (Mark 10:29-30).
In the New Testament church, singleness was considered as valid an option as marriage since each had their gifts from God, including self-control. Though marriage was honoured in the New Testament church, Scripture gives no record of elaborate wedding ceremonies, showers or wedding anniversary celebrations. The church today, however, honours married Christians in various ways without parallel for singles. Singles, especially women, may often feel like fifth rate citizens of the kingdom after elders and deacons and their families, married couples with children and married couples without. Yet, singles form an often surprisingly large percentage of our congregations and our culture. Research indicates this percentage is growing. Surely, the church is a place where all people, married or single, need to feel that they are a valuable part of God's kingdom. Plans for ministry, evangelism and missions need to include singles both as servants and as recipients of service. Singles need to be, and feel that they are in fact, equally important in the community of God's church today as they did in the church of the New Testament.
Single Christians bring many gifts and strengths with them to the church. They often have flexibility and freedom of time and energy that parents of young children find hard to come by. Singles are often freer to engage in short and long-term missions. Singles have expertise in their careers that can contribute significantly to the various ministries of the church. Evangelism is one paramount responsibility of the body of Christ together for which marriage is not a prerequisite. Singles are best suited and equipped to reach other singles. Churches need to make opportunities for singles, take advantage of their gifts, and fully integrate them into their communities, making them feel a part of their church families who make vibrant contributions. Preaching, classes and special events should consider singles' contributions, perspectives, sensitivities and potential in light of God's Word. Not the least of these considerations is the congregation's outreach to single visitors who are new to the church. Singleness is not a sentence or a missed opportunity. According to Jesus and Paul it is gift, a state in which one fully enjoys God's presence, and a doorway to many opportunities of service in God's world-wide kingdom.
Further reading for Biblical backgrounds and suggestions for churches: Steve McLeod, Assimilating Singles into Family Churches.