Single in a Church of Families

It would be difficult to overstate the profound ways in which, as an unmarried man, I have been encouraged, matured, and cared for by families in the church.

As a relatively new Christian in college, I found my first church “home” — and, in it, remarkable families who generously and unremittingly shared their lives with me. We ate together, prayed together, worked together, read the Bible together, celebrated accomplishments together, and discussed what it looked like to follow Jesus together. We learned from each other, exhorted each other, and comforted each other. I experienced then, and innumerable times since, the extravagant richness of Jesus’s promise to bless his people through the gift of family in the church (Luke 18:28–30).

But, as almost any single Christian knows, there are challenges for the unmarried in a church of families. Unwanted singleness, in particular, can produce bitterness and envy that, paradoxically, can be heightened by observing flourishing marriages. The church’s countercultural commitment to building healthy marriages and families can sometimes reinforce an inaccurate picture of the nuclear family as the ultimate goal and final state for faithful Christians. Singleness can also be perceived as inferior and unenviable — or worse, disobedient or disqualifying.

Because of sin, misconceptions, and distortions, Christians — the married and unmarried alike — need to be reminded what the Scriptures teach about singleness in the new-covenant people of God.

Offspring and the Creation Mandate

Old Testament culture did not possess a category for adolescence. Because of the emphasis on procreation in the creation mandate (Genesis 1:28; 2:24), marriages were arranged around the time of sexual maturity.

“Singleness is a legitimate and honorable state for those who use their energies for serving the kingdom of Christ.”

Few Israelites, therefore, experienced a time that might meaningfully be called singleness. Any extended period of adult maturity outside of marriage was viewed as both undesirable and contrary to creation. Marriage was the norm, and Old Testament law made special provisions to ensure that remarriage was open to those who unexpectedly experienced singleness as adults (Deuteronomy 24:1–4; 25:5–6; Ruth 4). A divine call to singleness for the sake of ministry, like that of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 16:1–4), was exceedingly rare. And those, like the eunuchs, who experienced perpetual singleness, were generally viewed with disdain.

It is striking, then, that John the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostle Paul — all unmarried themselves — view singleness as a legitimate and positive vocation. Jesus and Paul argue that singleness, while uncommon (1 Corinthians 7:9; 1 Timothy 4:1–3), is a gift bestowed by God (Matthew 19:12; 1 Corinthians 7:7). While marriage remains the norm for most, the New Testament, in contrast with the Old, has an overwhelmingly positive view of singleness.

From Natural to Spiritual Offspring

In the Old Testament, procreation was a vital part of God’s covenant with Abraham and David. God’s blessing was extended to his people through the family inheritance structure. But, as Barry Danylak has shown, the promise of the new covenant is a new paradigm of fulfillment for Abrahamic blessing.

As Isaiah prophesies, new blessings will come not through the physical offspring of the suffering servant, but through offspring raised up by God himself (Isaiah 53:8–10). The barren woman will rejoice that her offspring are more numerous than the one who is married (Isaiah 54:1). Even the eunuch who was once a “dry tree” without children is now given “a name better than sons and daughters” (Isaiah 56:3, 5). The prophets looked forward to a day when those without children would have a legacy in God’s house far greater than the legacy physical sons and daughters could provide.

The New Testament expands this emphasis. Paul makes clear that the heirs of the promise, who inherit the blessings of the covenant, are spiritual rather than physical offspring (Galatians 3:22–29; see also Ephesians 1:14, 18; 5:5). These heirs are not required to be physical descendants of Abraham but to belong to God’s family by faith in Christ (Romans 9:6–8). The apostles build on what Jesus taught them — that the family of God is made up of those who follow Jesus, not of blood relations (Matthew 12:46–50; Luke 14:26; 18:28–30).

By his sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection, Jesus ushered in a new age in which all those who trust in him by faith became fellow heirs. While the blessing of God was advanced under the old covenant by means of the natural family, under the new covenant it is advanced by the body of Christ, the church. And Jesus commanded his people — men and women, single and married — to extend that family by making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18–20).

Reminders for the Family of God

Therefore, while marriage and family may be common for most Christians, singleness is both a legitimate and honorable state for those who use their energies for serving the kingdom of Christ. The gift of singleness enables the unmarried to pursue the interests of the gospel with single-minded focus (1 Corinthians 7:32–35). And as the New Testament richly displays, there is no greater joy than helping others find their joy in Christ (1 Thessalonians 3:8–9, 2:19; Philippians 2:17; 3 John 1:4).

So, how might the unmarried thrive in a church of families? By remembering at least three great truths.

The Church Is Our Family

While the basic unit of society might be the nuclear family, the basic unit of the kingdom of Christ is unquestionably the local church.

Jesus makes clear that the bonds of loyalty in the kingdom of God exceed what is expected of the natural family (Luke 14:26). He has promised that those who forsake natural family for his sake in the present world will not only receive an eternal family in the age to come but be rewarded many times over in the present age through his family, the church (Luke 18:28–30; Matthew 19:28–30; see also Matthew 12:46–50).

“The unmarried are not disqualified for or excused from service in any ministry in the church by their singleness.”

Therefore, the local church should be a place of refuge, encouragement, fulfillment, and gospel fellowship for the unmarried. Here single men and women can build lasting bonds of intimate friendship and partner with families in the joyful calling to make disciples of all nations. Married members should not presume that the unmarried are irresponsible, nor should single members assume that they have little to offer a church filled with families. The unmarried are not disqualified for or excused from service in any ministry in the church by their singleness, and ought to utilize their skills and experiences as any other member of Christ’s body (1 Peter 4:10–11; 1 Corinthians 12:11).

By God’s design, it is through the ministry of the local church that he fulfills the promise to make the barren rejoice and to give the unmarried a name that will not be cut off (Isaiah 56:3–5).

Marriage Is Momentary

We also need to remember that the married state is not our final destiny. Marriage is a picture invented by the triune God before the ages began to illustrate the relationship of Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:22–32; 1:7–10). Marriage is simply a present illustration of the future reality.

The church is betrothed to Christ and awaiting the great marriage celebration in the age to come (Ephesians 5:24–27; Revelation 19:6–9). And when that Day comes, we will be brought fully into the fellowship shared by the Father, Son, and Spirit to delight in and glorify God, forever (John 17:20–26). Like the angels before the throne of God in heaven, we will worship for all eternity outside the bonds of marriage (Matthew 22:30). Marriage is momentary.

According to Jesus, the unmarried who understand this glorious future are freed to live in profound fellowship with Christ now (Matthew 19:12), so don’t waste your singleness.

Contentment Is Critical

Whether through death, divorce, or other circumstances outside of their control, many people’s experience of singleness is unwanted. In fact, for most of us, singleness will be a reality more than once in our lives. This is why it is essential to keep the second truth in view. Losses are tempered and griefs are assuaged when we consider what is before us. Singleness, just as much as marriage (and, if Jesus is to be believed, perhaps even more), can prepare us for our final destiny.

Therefore, in light of all that Jesus is and all that he has done for us, we must each learn to be content no matter what our state (1 Timothy 6:6). By our contentment, we show others that Jesus knows our needs and can meet our desires (Philippians 4:11–13). And in a society where sexual fulfillment defines identity, singleness and celibacy (rather than marriage) may be the most radical display of the worth and reality of Jesus.

Being single in a church culture that lionizes marriage can be challenging. But it bears mentioning that Jesus — who was unmarried in his thirties — understands this too (Hebrews 4:14–16). He was not disturbed by the expectations of others, nor threatened by the marriages around him. He had remarkably deep and meaningful relationships with others, including families (Luke 8:1–3; John 11:5). And he was the most fully-human being who ever lived.

Whether married or not, we would do well to call on him for the grace to make our churches a brilliant display of the happy fellowship we share as members, together, of his eternal family.