Singleness - an overview

There are not many Christian dictionaries that cover singleness.  One exception is the Intervarsity Press’s New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology published in 1995. Described as presenting ‘the fruit of conservative New Testament scholarship at the end of the twentieth century’, as well as Singleness, there are entries on Single parents, widowhood, childlessness, loneliness and some other related matters.


Most people have a period in their lives when they live as single adults, increasingly independent of their parents but not covenanted to a marriage partner. Marriages* which end with the death of one partner leave the other partner with a period of singleness again at the end of life. In many countries the steadily increasing divorce ”` rate means there is a growing body of people of all ages who are no longer married, and many of these are caring for children (see Single Parents“`). In most modern societies it is feasible for single people to live in their own home or to share with other singles. Households that do not contain a married couple are a sizeable minority within the community and are well represented in most churches.

The term ‘single person’ is often narrowed down to mean someone who possibly or probably will never marry. Some are conscious that, within the limits of their circumstances,they have made a choice and prefer to be single rather than to be married or actively searching for a partner. Others feel that they have had no scope for choice. There may be physical or emotional factors, or unpromising social or economic circumstances which are constraining them to be single. The way people view their single state is likely to change at various stages in life. A person who at one time feels that singleness is a frustrating handicap may at another stage be glad of the opportunities of the single lifestyle and positively aware of choices which have contributed to it. There are relatively few situations in which some form of marriage is completely ruled out as a future possibility for a single person.

Singleness as pathology or privilege?

A key issue for Christian theology is what emphasis to give to singleness in relation to the state of marriage. Is it to be treated the pathological: something abnormal that requires either a cure or at least the alleviation of pain? Or should we emphasize it as a privilege: the special vocation* of the truly devoted follower of Christ? The middle way is to view

singleness and marriage as parallel states each having their own particular joys and sorrows. Single people are a minority, but not an abnormal, group. Most churches pay lip-service to the third view but find it a difficult emphasis to maintain in practice.

Biblical themes

Creation and fall.

Genesis 1 and 2 affirm that sexuality is a fundamental aspect of humanity, created by God and very good. It is not good for the man to be alone’ (Gn. 2:18). This statement from the mouth of God introduces the story which climaxes in the description of marriage as a one-flesh union (Gn. 2:24). Although the primary focus here is on the marriage of Adam and Eve, they also represent the start of the human community with family,  and friendship, communication and co-operation. Where marriage is a secure institution in society, single people can have support and loving relationships within the extended family and the community. They are not alone in an absolute sense.

With the entry of sin comes death and the disruption of relationships between the sexes. Widowhood,” divorce and much painful singleness can be related back to the effects of the Fall.

The Old Testament covenant.

In the OT covenant* there is no clear revelation about an afterlife. A sense of continuity and the concept of God’s future blessing are linked to one’s children. To be barren was therefore a great tragedy. In Israel’s patriarchal structure, single people would remain in the extended family for protection and their livelihood. Two examples of singleness are Jeremiah, who has no wife (Jer. 16 :2), and Ezekiel, whose wife died (Ezk. 24:18). These painful experiences are used by God to help the prophets communicate how much God suffers because of his burning love for his people (Jer..18:13-15; Ezk. 24.13, 24) The overall OT view, still prominent in Judaism, is that to marry and bear children is a sacred duty. To refuse to do so is irresponsible. To be unable to do so is tragic (1 Sa. 1;5-8, Prov 30:16, Is. 49:21).

The incarnation and resurrection

It becomes even more notable, therefore, that the central figure of the NT is a single man. Jesus is the model of perfect humanity. He is complete and whole as a single person. The Gospels give concrete examples of the way he relates to his family, to his friends, and to individuals both male and female.

Two passages in Matthew indicate Jesus’ thinking about singleness and marriage. Mt.22:30 gives the future perspective. The marriage is limited in significance to this life.It does not carry on into the resurrection.

In Mt. 19:1-11 Jesus endorses marital permanence on the basis of Gn. 2:24. The disciples protest that it might be better to be unmarried, and the passage is rounded off with a statement about three categories of eunuch (Mt. 19:12). Commentators usually see this as a vivid way of referring to celibate singleness. One can be single for congenital reasons or as a result of social circumstances, but there is a category of those who choose or accept it because of the kingdom of heaven.

Life in the redeemed community.

Strikingly similar themes emerge in Paul’s discussion of singleness versus marriage in 1 Cor. 7. Some Corinthian Christians seem to have held the view that sexual intercourse hindered spiritual growth and should be avoided by Christians. Paul’s response is long and careful. He affirms that marriage is a good gift and partners should not deny each other sexually. But he also states that singleness is a charismatic gift; it comes from God’s grace (1 Cor. 7:7). It is his preferred gift and he would like all his readers to have lt, but in so far as they have scope for choice, they should be realistic about their sexual needs (7:9). Later in the chapter he makes it plain that it is not freedom from sexual intervourse which makes singleness attractive to him, but freedom from anxiety and freedom for undivided devotion to, and service for, the Lord (7:32-35)

So the Christian perspective on the biblical material is that while the first created human beings, Adam and Eve, were a married couple, in the new creation the second Adam, Jesus Christ was a single man. Singleness and marriage are parallel routes for loving and serving in the world and preparing us for life in the resurrection community. They are gifts fro God to one accepted or to be chosen with the scope he gives us for choice. 

There is no essential problem about being single but a variety of difficulties typically occur.

Pastoral considerations

Identity and self-worth.

Low self-worth (see Self-esteem) is a frequent problem of single  people..  The causes may be external. In many cultures the colloquial terms for single people convey disrespect. Customs which require balanced numbers at dinner parties, anxious comments of parents and friends, and clumsy attempts at match-making all serve to make single people feel second rate. The celibate single person may be labelled immature or abnormal (see Discrimination"').

Modem Western society has seen such attitudes rapidly changing. The single lifestyle is given a new positive value. It stands for freedom to pursue a career, to be mobile and financially successful. But it is also seen as the freedom to pursue a variety of sexual relationships, unencumbered by commitment and child-rearing.

As well as the external pressures, singles often have a low self-image because of emotional deprivation. They may be conscious that they lack a special person in their life, who would give them top priority in a time of need; friends or relatives who affirm, admire and encourage; anyone who touches them in a loving way; the presence of a familiar person in their home; someone to laugh with and help them relax from the pressures of work; and contact with children.

None of these is exclusively a problem for single people; all may occur at times in marriage. Also, once any one of these needs is identified, there are many ways in which it can be alleviated or not. If singleness is accepted as a  parallel way towards the goal of maturity and love in the kingdom of God, then its particular gift is for a wider number of relationships. Singles need to take time to cultivate a range of friendships with other singles, with couples and with children. They need, like Jesus, to have a smaller circle of close friends with whom they can share intimacy and feel accepted as they really are (see Acceptance).

it is helpful if pastors and preachers use language and examples which affirm the lifestyles of single people and build their confidence. The concern to strengthen Christian marriages has sometimes led to an unnecessary neglect of single people. Structures .should be examined to see if they are preventing singles from exercising their spiritual gifts. For some individuals, low self-worth may be linked with  a measure of depression* which makes it hard for them to take initiatives in friendship. Specific care or counselling may be needed to integrate them into the fellowship.

Solitude or loneliness.

There has been a tendency this century to assume that intimate relationships are the chief source of human happiness. Recently the psychiatrist Anthony Storr (1920- ) has argued that much human pleasure and fulfilment come from solitude. Scientific discovery and artistic creativity thrive in it. A deep prayer life needs space and time alone with God. Jesus regularly withdrew from crowded places to pray. The single life holds greater potential for solitude.

Solitude becomes loneliness if it is experienced as distressing. When someone feels lonely, prayer becomes difficult and creativity declines. In pastoral oversight it is presumptuous to assume that solitary people are lonely. Nevertheless, when a relationship of warmth is established, underlying feelings of loneliness, perhaps deeply buried, may emerge into consciousness and be acknowledged.

Sexuality and celibacy.

It is hard to reconcile a theology of singleness as a gift from God with an experience of singleness as the lack or loss of a genital sexual relationship. In the early and medieval church there was a tendency to see celibacy as a higher, more spiritual calling than marriage. This was thoroughly intertwined with the idea that in a fallen world, sexual intercourse inevitably involves a measure of sinful lust, drawing a person away from communion with God. The celibate was someone set free for pure, undivided devotion to the Lord.

The Reformers argued vigorously against marriage as a second-class gift and tried to root out the pressure which was being exerted in favour of celibacy. But they still tended to view sexuality with some suspicion, retaining the emphasis on marriage as a remedy against incontinence. John Calvin* urges ‘dignity, measure, modesty not wantonness’ in the mutual behaviour of husband and wife (Institutes II.viii.44).

Today we have become very sensitive to the dangers of dualistic thinking in the area of sexuality. Spiritual maturity involves an integration of thought and emotion, and of bodily impulses. We worship and pray bodily. Psychology has shown the importance physical touch* and eye contact in the growth of our ability to love, and it has warned of the dangers to the personality when sexual are denied.

Some therefore question whether, in an age of effective contraception, celibacy should be required for single Christians. Jesus and his apostles spoke of the sinfulness of sexual immorality (Gk. porneia). But would they have applied the term to loving, responsible relationships today?

It is relevant to observe how Paul’s teaching on singleness and marriage in 1 Cor. 7 follows the most detailed NT discussion of porneia in 1 Cor. 6:9-20. The context is that of married men visiting prostitutes, but his arguments have more universal application. He looks back to creation to establish that sexuality is so intimately established in the personality that even the most casual act of intercourse establishes the one-flesh bond which God intended to be permanent. He looks forward to the resurrection to emphasize that the body is of eternal significance. Then he stresses the incongruity of someone who is redeemed by Christ, lived in by the Holy Spirit and a member of Christ’s church using his or her own body for sexual gratification outside the covenant of marriage (see Chastity*).

For those who follow a Christian path of celibacy, maturity involves accepting, not denying, sexual feelings and needs. Fantasies and acts of comfort or self-gratification should not be regarded with excessive guilt or fear (see Masturbation’*). They often provide clues towards needs which can be met in other ways. A wise and gentle self-discipline is needed to avoid unhelpful habits.

The Catholic writer Donald Goergen (1943- ) distinguishes genital sexuality, unfulfilled in the celibate, from affective sexuality which can be fully expressed through compassion, tenderness and affection in relationships. His description perhaps needs to be augmented with the aspect of sexuality as a source of energy and fun. Accepting and celebrating the existence of this potential is part of the process of becoming a channel for God’s love in the world.

In the process there will be times when the pain of unfulfilled genitality becomes particularly acute for the single person. A woman in mid-life may suddenly realize that the opportunities for motherhood have passed, and she may find she needs to grieve that loss. Often the pain is magnified rather than comforted by the feelings of family members and married friends. Such sympathetic feelings have led to the current trend to encourage full genital  activity among the mentally handicapped in residential care. jean Vanier (1928—), in his L’Arche communities, however, seeks to demonstrate that compassion is compatible with the celibate way.


Glib sermons from married people on the gift of singleness nearly always stir painful wounds and produce angry reactions.  A variety of testimonies and role models can  be more effective in helpful the whole community understand the way of singleness with its supreme model, Christ the unique and single Son of God.



M Evening Who Walk Alone (London, 1974)0

D Gillett et al A Place in the Family (Bramcote, Nottingham, 1981)

D Goergen The Sexual Celibate (New York, 1974; London, 1976)

M Israel Living Alone (London, 1982)

A Storr Solitude (New York, 1988; London 1989)

P Tovey ‘An unwanted gift?’ Theology 759, 1990

J Vanier Man and Woman He Made Them (Paris and Montreal, 1984; London, 1985)

I J Yoder ‘Where is My Family?’ and B Yoder ‘Holy Loneliness’ in B and IJ Yoder (eds) Single Voices (Scottdale,PA and Kitchener, Ontario, 1982)