Christian teaching about singleness

Because life was very different in Jesus’ time – most people married in their late teens and lived and worked as part of a self-supporting extended family – there’s little in the way of ready resources in the Bible for today’s single Christians to draw on. Therefore we have to determine how to live as single people from the overall story.  

At New Wine 2016 Dr David Pullinger gave two very insightful talks on singleness, speaking both to church leaders and to single Christians. Many listeners asked him to make his notes available to them.  Below is his talk for single Christians on the blessing of singleness.  Also on this page you will find some suggested reading on singleness, which you may find helpful.

The Blessing of Singleness (?)

Dr David Pullinger gave two talks on singleness at New Wine 2016, speaking both to church leaders and to single Christians. He was asked by many listeners to make his notes available to them. This is the talk for single Christians.

I’ve been asked to speak on the topic of the “blessing of singleness”. However, I’ve added a question mark at the end to indicate that although there are blessings to be found, there is also great pain. What I want to speak about is how you might find that blessing while you are single.

The Roman law about being married

Single people tell us they want to hear sermons and talks about singleness, or at least for the sermons they do hear to be relevant to them. One reason singleness is often overlooked in teaching is that there isn’t a lot directly about singleness in the Bible. That is because most people were married in Jesus’ time.

Indeed, there was a law in place – the Lex Julia – that every female citizen aged between 20 and 50 (except for Vestal Virgins), and every man between 25 and 60, had to be married – and if widowed, they had two to three years to remarry. You were fined if not. Why? Both the Roman and Jewish authorities wanted to ensure that the population was being renewed and the birth rate remained high. The law was only revoked in AD 320 by emperor Constantine, as part of the Roman Empire becoming the Holy Roman Empire.

Good Biblical patterns

We can nevertheless get a good picture from the Bible about those who are single. I’m going to go through three Bible passages and:

  • reflect on what they mean for us today
  • tell you about the actual experiences of single Christians
  • make some suggestions for those who are single

SINGLE BY CHOICE OR CIRCUMSTANCE? Matthew 19 v 10-12 (NIV):

'10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife [only to divorce on the basis of sexual immorality, not for falling out or childlessness], it is better not to marry.” 11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”'

Eunuch in this context means remaining childless. Having children was largely synonymous with marriage in those cultures, and childlessness was one reason Jewish law gave for permitting divorce (until Jesus’ teaching). Jesus introduces the idea of being single/childless for the sake of the Kingdom of God. The idea is that their interest becomes one of forming spiritual heirs not biological ones – heirs to the Kingdom of God.

But this is an offer that is not forced long-term on anyone. It is:

  • offered as a gift for
  • those who want to receive it
  • for the purpose of furthering the Kingdom of God.

It is not for everyone. Just because you happen to be single, doesn’t mean it is a gift that you have chosen to receive.

Single by circumstance not by choice

In fact, most single people who go to church want to marry. How do we know? We’ve conducted the largest survey of single Christians ever done. You can find all the results here. Most single Christians don’t want to be single. They feel single not by choice but by circumstance. How does this come about?

The cultural mood

First, as members of our Western democratic society, we are encouraged to marry later than ever before (on average around the age of 30) – to have the opportunity to advance careers, to travel and to pursue hobbies before so-called “settling down”. We, as members of the church, are not immune to this cultural mood in a society that enables us to survive as singletons and for many (by no means all) to have sufficient disposable income to have a good time before “settling down”.

Single people leave the church

Then when they (perhaps this is you?) turn around to look for someone to marry, there’s no one there! Single people start leaving the church from their 20s onwards.

Where are the men?

Then there is the gender imbalance. According to another piece of research I’ve done (conducted by YouGov), there are twice as many ABC1 (educated middle-class) single women as men going to places of Christian worship for the purposes of worship. And they can prefer different types of church, with more men going to traditional-type churches than women, who prefer family-based or lively-worship churches.

Love and relationships are hard if the people are thinly scattered across churches and to be found in different places.

So if you are looking to marry…

Be active!

Waiting on the Lord means active looking – watching, pacing, scanning the horizon to see if anyone is there, looking down immediately close to us to see if anyone is there, peering into the middle distance to see if anyone is approaching. Look. This is what the word ‘waiting’ means in the Bible. Not being passive, but highly active.

And it’s no good looking if you don’t act on it. Many Christians on Christian dating sites who get asked out suddenly get cold feet and vanish. Go for a coffee, chat. A date is not marriage! Go unless there’s a very good reason not to.

Are all the men really passive and hopeless?

Many women think the men in their churches are passive and feeble (this is what they say in the surveys!). Just remember that men are required to be that in the context of a church service. They’re not encouraged to stand up and debate with the preacher – a very typical male thing to do in normal life. They are not encouraged to be physically active during a service. It’s not natural for many men to sit passively listening, so it’s not the real man you are seeing. They might be like that in real life outside a service, or they might be a ‘real man’, as many of survey respondents said they wanted. You won’t know until you meet out of a church service context.

Look beyond your type

I used to have a strong idea of the kind of the person I’d marry, and that they’d be a doctor or a lawyer. But with help, I came to see that this was shorthand for something else:

  • someone willing to work hard and develop
  • someone who was held in esteem by their peers
  • someone people-facing

At the Christian level, I was tempted to find someone who liked the same Matt Redman songs as I did, someone who understood my spiritual world, someone with whom I could pray exactly as I did in my own Bible study group. Again, I was helped to see that what was really needed was someone who believed in and trusted God at the deepest levels.

I found it in a dance teacher – not what I was expecting at all. And she is Greek Orthodox in her Christian religion. But I can’t tell you how often she says to me, “Trust God,” and I find her advice to be solid and in line with what God is doing, when my educated evangelical mind is being distracted by peripheral matters.

When every book on dating says “look beyond your type”, they mean a number of things:

  • look for good character (the sorts of things I wanted)
  • someone complementary to yourself. Psychologists have discovered that 70% of people who marry choose someone of complementary personality traits. Why? Because (they think) if you are going to have children, you need different skill sets. If not, then it’s okay to be similar
  • as a Christian, someone displaying the fruit of the Holy Spirit, including self-control!

Resources

If you want some good material on dating, you can start with the Engage website, a group of organisations dedicated to making Christian marriage possible, which not only has good content but also points you towards other resources.

Also the blogs on the Christian online dating service Christian Connection

Finally, Aukelien van Abbema’s book 'Dare To Date' will be published by SPCK in January 2017. Look out for it – it’s practical and inspiring.

HOSPITALITY AND INCLUSION Psalm 68 v 4-6 (NIV):

4 Sing to God, sing in praise of his name, extol him who rides on the clouds; rejoice before him—his name is the Lord. 5 A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. 6 God sets the lonely in families

A recurrent Biblical theme and practice is that the single/lonely/destitute were to be welcomed into multigenerational families and cared for as if part of that family. This was practical, remembering that families were economic units where all worked for the sake of the survival of the family. (Indeed, this is where the word “spinster” comes from in our own culture – the single woman who span the yarn as part of a household).

By and large, most people in the UK are not desolate (another translation of the word used for lonely), although some are, especially those from poorer backgrounds. But each person needs the human presence of good friends to make our bodies work well physiologically, and we need social connections that are deep and fulfilling for mental wellbeing. We still need to be placed in families, maybe not to survive, but certainly to thrive.

Yet this is the very thing that over half our 3,000 survey respondents said they did not experience. In particular, they said that offers of hospitality to family homes were rare, and often only forthcoming once they were in a relationship. You might be in the fortunate minority, but the common experience of single people is that they are not invited.

Getting a true view of marriage

Being present in a family is not just about being included, which is critical for wellbeing. It also helps single people dispose of false images of marriage, especially the prevailing romantic myths we see in films. This has several components.

Over-expectation of marriage benefits

The first is the belief that there is a level of happiness and fulfilment in marriage that is just not possible outside of it. This is clearly blatantly untrue, illustrated by the number of divorces and the long-term impact they have on families and individual wellbeing. Yet we continue to believe it and, in many churches, it is implied through many church acts promoting family. Marriages are grown as much as found.

Finding “the One”

The second is that there is a long and difficult adventure to finding the right person, “the One”, after which one settles down happily and contentedly. It is possible to form good marriages without looking for the imaginary One. If you are looking for someone perfect, they would probably reject your approach because I can assure you that you are not! We are all fallen, all struggle and all have to learn relationships skills with a partner.

Having a realistic view of marriage is important, even when we approach it with hope and joy. The physical “falling in love” period lasts on average around 18 months, after which we need different skills to maintain it.

Inclusion in a support network

Groups are so much better than individuals at assessing people and situations. Groups are very good at telling what someone is like. Groups of friends can accurately predict how long one of them will live (they’ve tested this over decades). Large groups unknown to each other can assess personality from photos, but individuals do not do nearly as well. You need groups of friends to help you assess relationships.

Handling rejection

This is one of the most important aspects of dating. You may be fortunate and marry the very first person you date, but that is extremely unusual. You develop skills in building relationships and identifying the sort of person you want to be with over time. Men handle rejection far less well than women. After someone didn’t want to marry me, I didn’t go out with anyone for seven years. What a waste!

And of course, when you’re dating, always have someone with whom you share where you are at what time etc. Safety and prayer support at the time is sensible.

Build and use your support network!

THE NEW FAMILY OF GOD Matthew 12 v 46-50 (NIV):

'46 While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” 48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”'

Jesus introduced the idea of a new family – one built not on biology, but on following Jesus and doing his words; a new family in which what matters are spiritual heirs, those left behind when we pass on, who are practising the faith, showing what our God looks like to others, and transforming the world towards his Kingdom. I don’t believe he meant that families were unimportant, but that seeking the Kingdom of God takes precedence.

I want to say this very clearly: without thriving single people, the organisation of the church could look like a club for families. You, who are single, are one of the most visible signs of something extraordinary going on, the formation of the Kingdom of God; of making spiritual heirs, not just biological offspring.

A family-based church

However, the church in Britain is more family-based than general society. It is a church of families. Single people are under-represented as a proportion of the population. Therefore they are thinner on the ground, although they still number around a third of all practising Christians. This makes single Christians the minority in their churches (on average), and they say they feel invisible in their own churches.

IF YOU ARE SINGLE…

Until you are engaged, you are single – whether you find yourself regretfully single, prefer being single, or slowly realise, like John Stott, that it’s what you are called to.

Get on with life – don’t sit there moping and waiting (as I did internally)

Know who God made you to be

Take the time to learn about who you are and what you’re looking for… There are a variety of means of doing this, from the Original Design prayer found in Jesus Ministry, through the Christian 7 Life Languages, to secular analyses such as StrengthsFinder and the Big Five personality traits (each of which I’ve found invaluable at work and church).

Get involved in a church that is truly a community of faith

Single Christians are most unhappy about their singleness in Evangelical churches. If you are not finding yourself part of a family of God, transform the situation or move (as one GP recommended to someone who answered our survey).

Choose an amazing ministry and pursue it

In our surveys, we read some of the things that people did because they could when they were single:

  • Prayer door-knocking in the early evening, when parents are busy with children
  • Post-work gym meet-ups
  • Setting up local groups for single people
  • Babysitting and childminding to allow married couples a rare date out or single parents to attend a house group

Be imaginative in your listening to God. And to you men: women are particularly attracted to men who get on and DO things.

IN SUMMARY...

...singleness is not, in and of itself, a blessing – but it certainly CAN be. In fact, most experience it as anything but in our church culture. However, it can be a blessing both to the church (in the way that Jesus and later Paul in 2 Corinthians meant it) and to yourself, if you grab hold of it WHILE you are single and see what God will do. To grab hold of it doesn’t mean you will always be single, but while you are, you are – so use it well!

 

Resources

Listed here are books on singleness that we or our friends have found helpful at one time or another. Many different tastes and church traditions are represented. Please let us know your favourites.

The link takes you to Goodreads, where customer reviews are available, or to other online records of the publication.

Singleness – general

Beyond Singleness: How to Make Better Relationships, by Helena Wilkinson
True Friendship: Walking Through Life with Your Christian Friends, by Vaughan Roberts
Single Minded: Being Single, Whole and Living Life to the Full, by Kate Wharton
Singles at the Crossroads: a Fresh Perspective on Christian Singleness, by Albert Y. Hsu
Singlehood Redefined, Ed. by Adam and Bethany Smith
Reaching Single Adults by Dennis Franck, a Single Adults Minister in the USA for over 25 years.

Dating and relationships

Boundaries for Dating: Making Dating Work, by Dr Henry Cloud and Dr John Townsend
The Five Love Languages: the Secret to Love that Lasts, by Gary Chapman
Dating Dilemma: a Romance Revolution, by Rachel Gardner & Andre Adefope

Theology

Transforming the Struggles of Tamars: Single Women and Baptistic Communities by Lina Andronoviene (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2014) This is the best overview of the issues, summary of a way forward and references to work already published that we've found, particularly for single women. Ignore the title of the book and treat it as an in-depth study of singleness and the church. It's available both as Kindle and hard-copy.

A Biblical Theology of Singleness, by Barry Danylak (Grove booklet B 45)
God's kingdom grows by creating spiritual children instead of physical children. Substantive version of this PhD study has since been written.

Singleness and the Early Church: Encouragement for Living the Single Life in Christ Today, by Kathryn Wehr (Grove booklet S 123)
Helping Single Christians think through their Calling, Prayer and Sexuality.

Water is Thicker than blood: An Augustinian Theology of Marriage and Singleness, by Jana Marguerite Bennett
Academic theological study of St Augustine's writing on marital status and how faith in local church communities can be built whether single or married.

Divorce and Remarriage in the 1st and 21st Century, by David Instone-Brewer (Grove Booklet B 19)
How First Century Jews and First Century Christians understood the prohibitions and allowances for divorce. Followed by an application for 21st Century.

Research

Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, by Eric Klinenberg
A USA secular approach to the rise of singleness, their attitudes and fears, plus historical factors giving rise to this phenomenon in Western societies. Useful background as no equivalent for the UK.