I was recently invited to speak at my local church, Encounter Vineyard in Newport, Kentucky. I thought I’d share my notes here because I haven’t been able to write much else for the last week or so. I’ll be honest, I was more than a little stressed as this approached. I haven’t spoken in front of people for a while, and haven’t spoken in front of people for this length of time at any point in my life. The notes are slightly different than what I actually said, if you want to listen to the message, you can check it out here.
Hello! My name is James. For those of you who don’t know me, I usually sit in the back. Cliff asked me to share this morning about singleness in the family of God. I guess I’m uniquely qualified as I’m 37 years old and never married, so I can pretty much cover this and maybe a message on gluttony if needed.
I first moved to this area almost twenty years ago to attend Bible college. College is a rough time generally speaking, but among the many struggles I found that the single life in Bible college was especially fraught with worry.
I grew up in the church, attending a Vineyard in north central Ohio, and I can attest from a fair number of youth gatherings, Bible studies, and FCA morning huddles, that the church spends a lot of time talking to young people about dating. This does not change if you go to a Christian college. In fact, I think I’m safe in saying that a significant portion of Bible college culture was focused on what dating was supposed to look like for Christians. Young men and women in attendance there often felt pressure to be actively looking for their marriage partner, and engagements and weddings were a common occurrence among the student body. Sadly, divorces after leaving Bible college also became a common occurrence as these young marriages that were made in the desperation of youth failed to last.
I’ve actually been engaged twice in my life, but never married. I can freely attest to you that in both cases, I felt an urgency to get married because I believed, thanks to society and the church around me at the time, that marriage was the essential next step for every young person. That God “has someone out there for everyone.” Looking back today, I actually find myself thankful that neither of these relationships culminated in marriage, because I believe the heart of that pursuit of marriage for marriage’s sake is unhealthy. That is what we are going to be unpacking today.
When the Israelite were crossing the desert after leaving Egypt, there’s a fascinating story about when they stop for God to deliver the Law to Moses. While Moses was on the climb up Mt Sinai, the rest of the people waited at the foot of the mountain. They waited for Moses for forty days and forty nights, and after they became afraid, they pushed Moses’s brother Aaron, the high priest into making an idol for them. You may have seen this in movies, as the Israelites make the golden calf, and Moses shows up at just the right time to see it, and throws down the stone tablets God had given them in anger.
The Israelites were afraid, and couldn’t trust God, so they made an idol. An idol is anything that takes the place for us of worshipping God, something we turn to when we’re afraid or lose our trust that God will provide.
When I was chasing after marriage, what I was doing wasn’t so different than those Israelites building a golden calf in the wilderness. Marriage becomes an idol just like that golden calf because we are afraid of what life would look like if we don’t have someone. We’re told by too many messages around us that we alone are not enough. We forget that the same God that loves married couples, loves those of us who are single, and that God does not see one as more worthy of love than another.
It is absolutely true that marriage is lifted up in the Bible as a good thing, but singleness is lifted up just as much, if not more. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 7:7 Paul writes “I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” and again in verses 25-27 “Now about the unmarried: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife.”
Even Jesus points out that marriage is only a temporary state, when questioned by the Sadducees about life after death he answers ““You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”
Today we’re going to take some time to dig into what benefits we see when marriage and singleness are both given their appropriate places in our thoughts and lives. But first let’s pray.
God, I ask that you join with us today as we talk about what for some might be a painful topic. I ask that you help us see the gifts you have for us regardless of where we are in our lives. Open our hearts to your word, and allow us to sense what you have for us today. Amen.
I want to state at the beginning, marriage and dating are very different now in our culture than they were in the cultures of the original writers of scripture. Marriage did not have as its primary starting point romantic love, but often was driven more as a business agreement, often made as part of merging different family businesses together, or seen primarily through a lens of preparation for the future, a necessary part of your retirement plan, like we would a 401k. By getting married you were helping to ensure someone would take care of you if you needed it. Love was a secondary concern if at all.
Further, dating in these societies simply did not exist, certainly not in the format we see it now. A young couple might be engaged to be married or promised to each other, but these relationships looked very different than what we would expect to see with an engaged couple in our society today. Because of all of this, I’ll interchangeably refer to either marriage or romantic relationships, because from a biblical perspective the two often share the same place of idolatry in our lives. I should also note that over the years, I’ve gotten to know some brothers and sisters who are in the LGBTQ community, and they often come across some of these same struggles. Divorced singles also should know that what the Bible has to say to you is no different than for someone who’s never been married. You are just as loved and respected by God, and your present state still holds the same blessings for you.
As we’ve already referenced, in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul takes the time to highlight the importance of the single life for the Christian. In verses 25-35 he expands his thinking:
We reflect here that Paul is not saying that absolutely everyone should be unmarried, nor is he saying absolutely everyone should be married. He states that some people will be one, and some people will be another. We may struggle with this, thinking that we should expect one or the other to be preferable, but we can return to verse 7, where Paul says “I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.”
When Paul says “gift” the greek word here is
, which can also be translated as “grace.” This is one of the words used in the New Testament to refer to the Spiritual Gifts, that is, those gifts given by the grace of God for Christians in the life of the church. When we hear about spiritual gifts, we might think more commonly of things like healing, speaking in tongues, or prophecy, but Paul here is saying that the life of being single and the life of being married are also spiritual gifts.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I can say at several times in my life, I have certainly not felt like being single was a spiritual gift! And I certainly would not have felt like it was an equal gift to marriage.
But Paul goes at great pains later in the book of Corinthians to explain that no spiritual gift is more or less important than another. Rather, he explains that each serves an important part of the life of the church. In 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 he writes:
So we can say that Paul describes both married and single members of the church as necessary parts of the body of the church. But again, how do you know which gift you have?
The simple answer would seem to be – if you are single, you have the gift of being single, and should continue to pursue that gift. If you are married, you should pursue the spiritual gift of being married. At some point, you may change from one state to another, in which case you will pursue that gift. Paul mentions that widows who’s husband have passed away should then be able to take the place of single women in the church, serving and caring for others, but that they can remarry if the gift is given. This idea of the spiritual gift is not in and of itself something that should push you from one state to another. If you are single, you should not find yourself saying “I have the spiritual gift of being married” and then rush as quickly as possible into getting married. Rather, as someone who is single, we should press into the discernment and work of the spirit to find how God has equipped us for our present state. I love the way the CottonPatch translation gives verse 7, “Yet each has his own assignment from God, one this, another that.” Singleness or marriage can be viewed as the assignment we currently have from God. It may be long term or even lifetime assignment for some, and for others, it will be a short term assignment. After all, what sets singleness apart from some other spiritual gifts then is that EVERYONE in the church will the gift of singleness at some point in their lives. You may be married now, but at some point you were unmarried. Not everyone will be married, but everyone at some point is single. This cannot be said of many other spiritual gifts we find in the Bible.
But we sometimes can struggle with giving singleness this kind of consideration. If you look back through church history, there’s been a varied struggle on the topic. For a long time in the early period of the church, we had a special respect for those who were unmarried, often taking a celibate life, but failed to create places in the church for those who were married to participate in ministry. After the Protestant Reformation, we began to balance this, but over the past few generations, there’s been an overcorrection in the Western church, where we have begun to focus almost exclusively on marriage, tied up in the same mistaken beliefs of larger society. Presenting marriage as an expected end for everyone to achieve, rather than seeing it as the giftings or assignments that Paul teaches.
There are a number of benefits we can receive when we correct for a more balanced view of singleness. First, when we appropriately honor singleness we can more fully be blessed by other relationships in our lives. 1 Corinthians 13 is often referred to as the “love chapter” and is read frequently at weddings. But it’s worth remembering in the original text, Paul did not address this exclusively to married individuals. Rather, in context, Paul was describing how a love that is patient and kind, does not envy and does not boast, is the love all Christians should have for each other. But when we look at the single life, it’s often hard for single men and women in particular to socialize without the ulterior motive of dating to enter the picture. But when we place singleness and marriage in their appropriate places in our thoughts, Christian brothers and sisters can truly be brothers and sisters to each other. We can love and help each other, listen when it’s needed, and just generally be a part of each other’s lives.
I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to call out a dangerous and harmful meme that we see in our society. How many have heard the term “the friend zone”? If you aren’t familiar, this is a complaint you may occasionally hear from someone who feels like they’ve been mistreated by a potential romantic partner. They are friends with a person, who may hang out with them, share conversation with them, and just generally socialize. But when the idea of a romantic relationship is proposed, that person declines. Maybe the idea of “we’re too good of friends, I wouldn’t want to risk losing that.” The rebuffed person may then say, “ah, they friend zoned me.” As if being friends is somehow a second place? Or a punishment?
In my life, this has often been a struggle. When I was younger, I too often failed to find the joy in simply being friends with someone. This all consuming pressure of trying to find a partner, which only became worse as I got older, made it hard to simply stop and take joy in friendship. When we see our relationships in life as having a hierarchy, with Christian friendship rated as less desirable than dating, we may feel that we are disregarded when someone does not return the same interest. But if we can cling to the gift of singleness, we can hold these romantic intentions loosely, and respect and celebrate in friendships that do not carry a romantic component. The Spirit of God would tell us to see the other person is a brother or sister first, a potential romantic partner second if at all.
The next benefit we get from properly honoring the single life is that we get the opportunity to open our lives out to others more readily. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:32 and 34, the unmarried can be concerned first with the Lord’s affairs, devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. A family will have any number of other distractions placed on it. Sharing time devoted to each other, pursuing varied interests, and just generally getting about the business of life. But the single person has more flexibility. There is certainly a time and place to reserve in our lives for self care, but also opening ourselves up to taking some of the additional time we have as singles for serving others. Volunteering at community centers, helping out in church ministries, and looking for ways to share our lives with others in the community who may not have social bonds readily available to them.
This runs counter to our normal impuls. We might normally expect that singleness can equal selfishness. That not having a spouse or kids means we can be free to live the fun life, staying out late and going to fun parties. But scripture reminds us that the Christian life, whether married or single is meant to be a life of sacrifice. Our money, our possessions, and perhaps most importantly our time are not ours to spend as we please, but are a stewardship given to us by God for the service of other people. I have been guilty of failing to do this. In my life, I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve filled my grocery cart with items I didn’t need, looked at my bank balance and decided it was an excuse to go shopping, or looked at every single minute of my time as something that was mine to spend, and I was angry at anyone who took that time away from me, even for the best of reasons.
Perhaps the most blatant example of this is that for the past two summers, I have spent my time out on the Appalachian Trail. I initially left on this trip, I believe, at the direction of God. It was one of the clearest directions I’ve received in quite some time when I left in March of 2016. I had a six month journey, hiked a thousand miles from Georgia to West Virginia, and had some amazing God experiences. However, I returned home that winter, then decided to go out again the following summer. This second trip was not directed by God, but was taken purely because I could. I was unmarried, had no kids, and had simplified my life enough that I could drop everything and go away for a while.
But after a few months, I became deeply convicted that there was a better plan I needed to follow from God. Instead of selfishly disappearing into the woods, I felt a clear direction to come home instead. I left that life, and while I miss it every day, I know that God has more things to do with me here, interacting with people and working every day than if I were alone in the woods, checking in with everyone occasionally online. As singles, we have this responsibility to take the open time and resources God has granted us, that aren’t directed to a spouse or in some cases children, and use those for the service instead of the church and community around us.
I want to also stop and acknowledge here the responsibility of the larger church itself to singles as well. The single life for the Christian should not equal a lonely life. As members of the church body, a single person should readily expect opportunities to be welcomed into our homes, sharing meals, social outings, and deep friendships, not just with other singles in the church but with married folks in the church as well. When you plan a night out with friends, do you remember to invite singles along, or is it always couples nights? Certainly, there is a place for married couples to help hold each other up and share time, but this should not be the exclusive company we keep. I also will beg you, when you do invite singles into your life, don’t let it automatically include the mission of “setting them up with someone.” If you are going to play matchmaker, that needs to a separate conversation that has as its starting place a respect for the individual’s identity, and not simply seeing them as a single in need of a date.
I have been blessed at various points in my life to be welcomed by married friends from the church to share their life. I currently live with a family I met through church, sharing in chores, paying rent, but also sharing in life. As a single man, it’s been wonderful to have dinner together in the evenings, share chats about our day, and watching their daughter grow up. These blessings have made a tremendous difference in my life, and opened the door for significant spiritual growth I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
There should also be a special place for single parents in the church. Those who are raising children by themselves should be able to expect the church to help them in this endeavor. Consider the divided workload that married couples may have, then remember that single parents are doing that work by themselves. Some churches have had ministries such as offering a single mother’s free oil change, but I’d encourage us to not be locked into viewing this primarily through gender roles. I’ve known many single moms who are quite capable of changing their own oil thank you very much, but could use help with getting the kids from school to soccer practice, getting dinner together, or simply needing someone to vent to after a rough week. Let’s also not forget single dads in our midst, who may feel just as alone and need help with the daily stresses of life just as much.
The need for both positive male and female role models in a child’s life should also not be something that is a struggle for single parents in the church. A single mom or dad should be able to trust that men and women in the church are just as ready to be a loving part of their child’s life, willing to offer a hand when needed, and a safe person to reach out to. There should not be a pressure on single parents to remarry to have these roles filled, as the church as a loving community can and must help lift these burdens.
These certainly can be places where other singles in the church, either with or without children can step in to serve, (remembering to do so without an ulterior motive of seeking to date) but married couples in the church can be equipped to help as well. The church is meant to be a family, not merely a once a week social gathering, and we absolutely can do our part to lift these individuals up in more than simply prayer, but also offering active help in their lives in a loving way.
The final benefit I want to consider that we get from properly honoring singleness is we get healthier marriages this way. Remembering that being single is a complete and worthwhile life by itself removes the temptation to seek and run after a romantic relationship, perhaps before we’re ready or maybe with the wrong person. There’s been a great deal of discussion about the high divorce rate in our culture, and it affects Christians just as much if not more than non Christians. I would argue this is due in some small part to the fact that we exert pressure on people to get married, often too young, and often when they may otherwise be far more prepared for being single. I’ve been fascinated too to read about the unique experiences of asexual individuals in our society, that is people who would prefer to not have a sexual experience, but still pursue social relationships. These places of strife, I believe, exist at least in part because we’ve forgotten the lesson of scripture to respect and honor the place of being single.
Waiting for a relationship rather than charging in can be a struggle. We have so many sources in our lives that tell us the appropriate goal we should have is to end up with someone. Look even at children’s stories that often include the theme of a hero and a princess happily ever after with each other. If we remember that God loves us without needing a romantic partner, we can be far more willing to hold out, rather than simply accepting someone just because they are interested in us and we’re afraid to end up alone.
The Christian teacher Gwen Elliott refers to this as “Waiting for David.” The Old Testament tells us how the people of Israel initially decided they wanted a king, because they looked around and saw the nations neighboring them who also had kings. They went to the prophet Samuel and demanded a king be found. God gave Samuel permission to anoint the king, and in time Saul was found. God blessed him and raised him up, but Saul was a failure as a king. He gave himself more importance and eventually disobeyed the direction of God. The next king found was David. David was a “man after God’s own heart” who started out in the fields protecting sheep, and lived his life based on faith in God first rather than trust in himself. It’s echoing those stories that Mz Elliott writes:
“I refuse to beg, plead, and whine over my singleness and thus set myself up to be willing to settle for Saul
When he is not truly who was intended
Time after time Settling for Saul creates rather than solves problems… for nations, for individuals, …
Therefore while Waiting for David, my eyes are focused on the True King whether or not an earthly one appears.
I refuse to be told that I must marry to be complete
I refuse to buy into the lie that you should never settle unless you are running out of time
I refuse the lies that are told by unhappy people who believed the same lies
Instead, I actually observe and think and learn from others. I see the breakdowns. I see the identity loss. I see the consequences.
And so then I seek scripture, surely this is not what God intended for us.
And sure enough, it’s not.
So I continue to wait for David.”
The gifts that God has in store for us, whether that gift is a life as a single who is whole and blessed by God or if it is to be married to a partner who will spur us on and aide us in the mission we have, will always be greater than the life we might chase after ourselves.
In closing, I’d like to remember another Old Testament story. Abraham was once called by God to take his son Isaac to the summit of Mt Moriah and sacrifice him. But at the final moment, Abraham was stopped and God said he would be blessed because he did not hold back his son.
I think for many of us, our idea of what marriage is, or our hope for finding a partner, has become an idol in our lives. God asks us to sacrifice those idols. We have to recognize that the promise of God, the gifts we can find in the Holy Spirit, are more than anything we may find on our own initiative. We can find a richness and fullness of life that isn’t dependant on another person, but a wholeness we can and must find in ourselves. For others here, you may be in a place where you continue to feel alone, and the fear of having no one is still a regular pain for you. We’re going to pray together now, but I’d like to invite you to come to the back during worship to receive further prayer as well.