This study brings us to the end of our series in which we have addressed the issue of gender, specifically as it relates to present-day cultural confusion regarding this issue.
We have examined several practical issues regarding this so-called gender confusion and we have done so in the context of what the Bible says regarding this. Our conclusion is basically that whatever gender confusion exists, it is clearly the result of failed male headship. Passive husbands and fathers have created the gender chaos in which we find ourselves today.
As we have studied this issue, much reference has been made to marriage and to childrearing. This is understandable as well as legitimate, for the home is where the gender confusion both originates and morphs. The fact of the matter is that most people tend towards marriage (although, sadly increasingly, many are simply cohabiting) and thus the Word of God assumes marriage as the norm. And yet, Scripture itself recognises singleness as a legitimate calling–yea, gift–from God. To be honest, singleness is often labelled as “the gift that no one wants” and the emotional pain being this slogan is very real. Singleness can indeed, at times, be a heavy burden to bear.
I recently read a book titled Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye? by a 40-something single woman named Carolyn McCulley. At one point, I found myself reading with tear-filled eyes as I became aware of some of the very deep pain that is often felt by single people in a couple’s world.
Miss McCulley wrote of her experience at her 20th high school reunion as she wore her nametag, which bore the same surname as when she was in high school. She told of the insensitive comments that wounded her, as well as the unintentional offence caused by people simply recognising the obvious: that she had never married.
She also told of the mascara that would sometimes run down her cheeks as she would attend weddings of friends and family. She would alternate between emotions of gladness and sadness. She also shared her sorrow, mixed with joy, at the birth of nieces and nephews, whom she deeply loved. The pain, she explained, was often acute as she contemplated the increasing reality that she might never have the experience of childbirth and motherhood.
My literary encounter with this woman gave me a much-needed appreciation for those who are single. My desire in this study is to help us understand gender issues as they relate to singleness. Let us not be confused about the value of those who are not married. Let us not be guilty of minimising their significant contribution to the health of the body. Let us not minimise the unique circumstances that they face. May we come away from this study more sensitive toward those who are single and thus more united as a family than ever before.
The Calling of the Single
[I am indebted to John Piper for much of the study that follows.]
From the outset we should realise that singleness, like marriage, is a gift from God. Paul said earlier in this chapter, “For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that” (7:7). Paul, we know, was not married when he wrote 1 Corinthians. We cannot say for sure that he was never married. Indeed, some have proposed that he may have been married but that his wife left him when he was saved. Others suggest that he had been widowed. Regardless, we know that he was unmarried when he wrote to the Corinthians. Paul later asked the question, “Have we not power to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles, and as the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas?” (9:7). This indicates that he, unlike Peter (Matthew 8:14) and certain of the Jesus’ own brothers, was single.
Thus, Paul makes it clear in 7:7 that he was quite happy being single. In fact, in many ways he considered singleness to be an advantage. Nevertheless, he recognised that “every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that.” Importantly, Paul speaks throughout the context of 1 Corinthians 7 of marriage. Thus, we might paraphrase his words in 7:7 like this, “I would be quite happy if everyone was single like I am. However, I recognise that God has gifted some with singleness and others with marriage.” Yes, Paul speaks of singleness here as a gift from God.
Singleness may be a gift that few want; nevertheless, singleness is God’s gift to those who are in such a state. God is sovereign, and He determines who gets married and who does not. And He has His good purpose behind our marriage or singleness.
Importantly, we must realise that Paul always deals with the believer’s circumstances in life with specific reference to the church. That is, whatever circumstance God has placed you in, He has done so for the good of the church. Thus, your singleness or marriage is God’s gift, not only to you, but also to your church. God has placed you as a single person, or a married person, within your local church as a gift to that church.
An important caution needs to be given at this point: we must never despise the gifts of God. All of God’s gifts are good and perfect (James 1:17). Thus, the calling to be single and its attendant responsibilities are good gifts from God. This is vital to understand because the biblical calling to singleness includes the call to celibacy.
Celibacy has unfortunately become a disparaging concept in our culture. This is in large part due to the enforced celibacy of the Roman Catholic Church upon its priests, an expectation which is nowhere sanctioned in Scripture. It is interesting to note Paul’s assumption throughout 1 Corinthians 7 that the unmarried are virgins. He assumes that those who are single have exercised and continue to exercise the practice of celibacy (7:25, 28, 34, 36, 37).
I have a great appreciation for the English Standard Version of the Bible (esv). It seems to me, however, that the translators completely missed the boat when it comes to 1 Corinthians 7. The kjv speaks of “virgins,” by which Paul means the unmarried daughter of a Christian father. Paul’s argument–particularly in 7:36-40–is that the father has authority to give his daughter in marriage or to withhold her from marriage. Thus, the “man” in 7:36 is the father and the “virgin” is his unmarried daughter. (Again, the assumption is that the unmarried daughter is a virgin.) The esv, however, has taken another interpretation.
It is said that, in biblical culture, the groom of a betrothed couple had the authority to decide when the marriage should take place. Thus, the betrothal lasted until he was ready to be married, at which point he came to get his bride. The esv translators assumed (wrongly, I believe) that this was the thrust of Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 7. The esv thus speaks of the “betrothed” rather than the “virgin.” Thus, the “man” of 7:36 is the betrothed groom and the “betrothed” is the betrothed bride. This, I believe, is the incorrect interpretation of this passage; the translators would have been safer to maintain the kjv’s “virgin” than interpret the passage for the reader. Whilst both interpretations are technically possible, the kjv translators were wise in keeping the language generic so as to leave the interpretation of the passage to the reader or preacher. It is nevertheless interesting that whether you take the “virgin” to be an unmarried daughter or an unmarried fiancée, the assumption either way is that the unmarried man or woman is a virgin.
In short, the calling of God to be single is also a call to be celibate. This, of course, is greatly unpopular in today’s western culture. I recently noticed a billboard on the side of the highway which read, “No until you know.” It was an advertisement for an organisation called “Love Life” which seeks to promote safe sex. The point of the billboard was, “No to sex until you know your partner’s hiv status.” This, of course, is entirely unbiblical. The biblical attitude is, “No to sex until you are married.”
This, of course, raises the issue of the unique temptation that single people have. There is nothing wrong with the sexual intimacy between a man and his wife but such intimacy is to be reserved for a man and his wife alone. “Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge” (Hebrews 13:4). Single people face a great deal of temptation in a very sex-obsessed world. Thus, single people need to be on guard against sexual temptation in the world and the church must do all she can to guard single members against this temptation.
Again, singleness and its attendant responsibility to celibacy is a gift from God. And it is a gift that must not be despised. It is also a gift that can be embraced for, as Margaret Clarkson said, “His commands are His enablings.” One author has made the point well:
Single people do not always discover singleness as a gift at the beginning of their journey. Ada Lum admits that it was a process for her to come to this place:
For a long time I did not consider that my single status was a gift from the Lord. I did not resent it–to be frank, in my earlier idealistic period I thought that because I had chosen singleness I was doing God a favor! But in later years I was severely tested again and again on that choice. Then, through Paul’s words and life and my subsequent experiences, it gently dawned on me that God had given me a superb gift!
But single people are not generally treated as the bearers of a superb and special gift from God. They are sometimes treated as abnormal in the church. Perhaps the only text people can think of is Genesis 2:18, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Conclusion: singleness is not good.
This, of course, raises an interesting question: what about Genesis 2:18? Which is it? Is singleness a good gift from God, or is it “not good for the man to be alone”? John Piper offered a possible solution to this seeming contradiction:
Well, is it good or not good to be alone? If it is not good–not God’s will–how can it be called a “gift from God”? How could Jesus, who never sinned, have chosen it for Himself? How could Paul say it was a great asset for his ministry?
Two answers: First, Genesis 2:18 was a statement about man before the fall. Perhaps, if there had been no fall, there would have been no singleness. Everyone would have had a perfectly compatible personality type for someone; people and situations would have matched up perfectly; no sin would have made us blind or gullible or hasty; and no great commission–no lostness, no famine, no sickness, no misery–would call for extraordinary measures of sacrifice in marriage and singleness. But that is not our world. So sometimes–many times–it is good for a person to be alone.
But second, almost no one has to be really alone. That’s the…insight from another single person…:
I believe that Genesis 2:18 extends beyond the principle of marriage. As a general rule, it is definitely not good for man (or woman) to be alone. God created us to function within relationships. Most of the time, it will not be necessary for the single person to be alone, even though the marriage relationship does not exist. Many married people are very much alone emotionally. Sometimes marriage keeps one from being alone, but not always.
However you reconcile 1 Corinthians 7:7 and Genesis 2:18 one thing is clear: singleness is God’s gift to those who are single and God’s gifts are always good and perfect. Thus, it is not always bad for someone to be alone. Jesus Himself recognised that some would be married and some would not be married (Matthew 19:1-12).
All of God’s gifts are good. Thus, give thanks for the situation in which God has placed you: whatever that may be. Are you single? Embrace it! Are you married? Embrace them who are single! Whatever your status in life, beg for God’s grace to exercise your responsibilities to Him and to others.
The Completeness of the Single
Consider that Jesus Christ, the most fully human Person who ever lived, was not married. Would He have sinned if He got married? Certainly not, for marriage is also a good gift from God. But He chose to remain single throughout His life on this earth.
John Piper tells of an intense debate in the 1980s in the city in which he pastors concerning the value of handing out condoms in public schools. Piper publicly expressed his conviction that the proposed move was entirely wrongheaded, for the gift of sexual intimacy is designed by God for marriage alone. You can imagine that he was not the most popular man in the city! One young man made the following response to Piper:
My girlfriend and I…think your ideas are repressive leftovers from the Victorian era that make people neurotic and miserable. We think our sexuality is part of our personhood and not to enjoy it is to be incomplete people. We have no intention of getting married to meet the expectations of any Puritans. And we think a life of slavery to virginity would mean being only half human.
Piper’s reply was brilliant, “The most fully human person who has ever lived, or ever will live, is Jesus Christ, and he never once had sexual intercourse.” Consider: Jesus Christ remained a virgin throughout His life. Was He “only half human”? Of course not! As a virgin, He was “the most fully human person who has ever lived, or ever will live.” How can we then suggest that to be single is to be incomplete? If you think you must be married to be complete, think again!
Lucy Swindoll, sister of Bible teacher Chuck Swindoll, authored a book entitled Wide My World; Narrow My Bed. She was 49 years old and single at the time. Her point? Her life was full–her world “wide”–but her bed remained narrow. Though she was unmarried, she nevertheless enjoyed life. Her life was complete in Christ despite her singleness.
The Lord Jesus Christ is Exhibit A of a complete, fulfilled single life. The apostle Paul is another great example of such a life, as are men and women such as Margaret Clarkson, John Stott, William Stihl, Amy Carmichael, Mary Slessor and Carolyn McCulley. I can point to people I know personally who live fulfilled single lives, both inside and outside our own assembly. Indeed, marriage is not essential to be a complete person.
Let us then not treat people who are single as if they are somehow broken and need to be fixed. Let us treat them as those who help complete our church families. Vivian Saavedra, friend of Carolyn McCulley, has compiled a list of “ten things never to say to a single woman at a wedding.” They are:
- You’re next.
- Why aren’t you married?
- Maybe you should lose some weight.
- What about (insert name here)? He’s a nice boy.
- You’re next.
- Maybe you’re called to singleness.
- Can you baby-sit tonight?
- Did you ever consider being a missionary?
- Just don’t think about marriage, and it will happen.
- You’re next.
Let us remember that those who are single are not broken. They have a particular gift from God that you and I do not, but it is a good gift nonetheless.
Let us also remember that being single gives a person extraordinary opportunity for ministry. This is precisely Paul’s point in our passage:
32But I would have you without carefulness. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: 33But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife. 34There is difference also between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit: but she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband. 35And this I speak for your own profit; not that I may cast a snare upon you, but for that which is comely, and that ye may attend upon the Lord without distraction.
(1 Corinthians 7:32-35)
If you are married, you are concerned about pleasing and caring for your spouse. This is a concern that single people do not have. Those who are single can thus devote time and energy to ministry where married people would be concerned about their spouse. Rhena Taylor, single missionary in Kenya, stated it well:
Being single has meant that I am free to take risks that I might not take were I a mother of a family dependent upon me. Being single has given me freedom to move around the world without having to pack up a household first. And this freedom has brought to me moments that I would not trade for anything else this side of eternity.
Trevor Douglas, another single missionary, agrees:
The first advantage [of being single] is that it’s best adapted to perilous situations… In rugged life among primitive tribes, in guerrilla-infested areas, or in disease and famine, the single man has only himself to worry about… Paul claims that being single and male best fits the “shortness” of the time. Doing God’s work is a momentary thing. Advantages and opportunities come and go very quickly. The single lifestyle enables one to get the most out of the time God gives for his work… One of my chief delights is that I don’t have to fit my ministry around a family schedule. I don’t have to be home at a certain time each night. My time is the Filipinos’ time.
David Brainerd, yet another single missionary, stated it this way, “I cared not where or how I lived, or what hardships I went through, so that I could but gain souls for Christ. While I was asleep I dreamed of these things, and when I awoke the first thing I thought of was this great work. All my desire was for the conversion of the heathen, and all my hope was in God.”
This is why Paul wished that all men could be like himself (7:7): so that all could experience the fulfilment that comes from devoting one’s time to the work of God alone. He was in no way disparaging marriage, but he was making the point that even single people are complete in Christ.
Singleness is sometimes a Christ-centred choice. Mary Slessor, one time missionary to modern-day Nigeria, once had the opportunity and the desire to marry a man elsewhere. His mission, however, would not allow him to go to her: she had to leave her post and travel to where he was if they would be wed. Her decision? Convinced that Christ had called her to Nigeria, she chose to forsake the proposed marriage and to continue her work for the Lord. She made the Christ-centred choice to be single.
Let us respect the choices of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Let us realise that those who are single have no need to be fixed. They are simply living the complete life that God–at least for now–has planned for them.
The Contentedness of Singleness
God is sovereign over who gets married and who remains single, and He can be trusted to do what is good for those who trust in Him: “no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11). God rules in these affairs and we will be happiest when we bow to His inscrutable ways. I am sure that it was not always easy for Paul to be single but, as he himself wrote, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content” (Philippians 4:11).
I cannot stress this point enough: if there is contentedness in being single then we must not look at single people as being broken. God has His plan, will and way for each of us.
The Certainty of Singleness
It is certain that every believer will one day be single. That may sound strange to the biblically uninstructed but it is precisely what our Lord taught:
23The same day came to him the Sadducees, which say that there is no resurrection, and asked him, 24Saying, Master, Moses said, If a man die, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother. 25Now there were with us seven brethren: and the first, when he had married a wife, deceased, and, having no issue, left his wife unto his brother: 26Likewise the second also, and the third, unto the seventh. 27And last of all the woman died also. 28Therefore in the resurrection whose wife shall she be of the seven? for they all had her. 29Jesus answered and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God. 30For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.
Suppose you met a Christian couple who recently celebrated their 80th wedding anniversary. That would certainly seem to you to be a long marriage. And yet that is but a drop in the ocean compared to how that same couple will spend eternity. Our years one earth are nothing compared to eternity; since we will evidently all be unmarried in heaven, do we understand that the greatest part of our existence will be spent as single? If marriage was so essential for our happiness, do you not suppose that we would remain married for all eternity? The fact that we will not be married forever is a clear indication that there is completion and contentedness outside of the marriage bond.
Marriage, as we know it in this age, is not the final destiny of any human. “There is some warrant for thinking,” wrote Piper, “that the kinds of self-denial involved in singleness could make one a candidate for greater capacities for love in the age to come.” Our ultimate goal in this life must be to know Christ, for that is the picture portrayed in passing human marriages (Ephesians 5:32). Marriage is a shadow of a greater reality and thus our most intimate relationship must be with Christ–whether we are married or not! Allow me to quite Trevor Douglas again:
In the end, however, Christians know that Jesus will more than make up for every cost incurred by being a single male missionary. As I have applied his promises in Matthew 19:27-30 to myself, I see a tremendous exchange taking place in eternity. The social cost of not fitting in a couple’s world will be exchanged for socializing with Jesus around his throne. I’ll trade the emotional cost of loneliness and the family hurt for companionship with new fathers, mothers, and families. I’ll exchange the physical cost for spiritual children. And when I’m snubbed, I love to think of eternity and the privilege of going from the last of the gospel preachers to the head of the line. The rewards are worth everything.
Miss McCulley summarises the point well, “So, then, isn’t it tragic to waste years of our lives being more concerned about marriage–a temporary state–than investing ourselves into what will outlast even that?” From a personal standpoint, I must admit that I often marvel at the devotion of single people. I often feel that I lack the intimacy they manifest in their relationship with Christ. What a joy it must be, as a single person, to focus solely and wholeheartedly on pleasing Christ.
The Community of the Single
Once again, I must stress that single people are a vital part of the body of Christ. Therefore, the church must include the singles, as must the singles include the church. There must be mutual fellowship. Margaret Clarkson, hymn writer and single woman, wrote a book called So, You’re Single. She dedicated the work to “my married friends, whose love and friendship have so enriched my life.” She did not cut herself off from those who were married just because she was single; and obviously in her church, married people did not cut themselves off from her because she was single. That is the way it ought to be in our local churches: mutual fellowship between the married and the unmarried.
Miss McCulley offers these words to single women and married women without children, “Part of our femininity is fulfilled in nurturing life, whether or not we ever actually bring life into this world through out own pregnancies and labor.” How true that is! Is it not true that women–even women without children–have a God-given ability to nurture children? Are you a woman without children? Then seek to nurture the children in your church. Seek to nurture the children in your extended family (nephews and nieces). Again, McCulley writes, “I believe the Lord wants childless single women to soberly consider how to make an investment in the children that are already in our lives.” Indeed, do not let that aspect of femininity atrophy due to singleness!
Many of the best school teachers have been single women. Despite their singleness and childlessness, they still had a nurturing sense about them and they put that aspect of their femininity to work. Let this be true of your life, single woman!
The church must care for the single. We need to be considerate of them for, indeed, singleness can be difficult. Hear these words of Miss McCulley toward the end of her book:
While I was working on this chapter, I traveled to a conference where I was working independently of the rest of the group. I ate all but two meals alone in restaurants. I made the best of it, but it feels much more forlorn to eat alone in a public place than it does to eat alone while standing at your own kitchen counter. As I ate dinner one evening in an upscale Mexican restaurant, I noticed that I was an island in a sea of humanity that flowed and swirled around me, but didn’t interact with me.
Picking at a burrito, I thought to myself: This is the difference between twenty and forty. At twenty I would have been mortified, sure that everyone was staring at me and pitying me for having no friends. At forty I’m sure that everyone is too absorbed with themselves to notice or care about the woman dining alone.
How true! In western culture we are so absorbed with ourselves that we do not notice those who are alone. God forbid that the church of Jesus Christ should ever become like that! How does the church care for its single members? Let me suggest some practical ways.
First, have compassion for the single. Understand the loneliness that they must often feel and reach out to them. Do whatever you can to involve them in your fellowship. Invite them to your home for a meal. Do these things, not out of a sense of obligation or pity, but because you love them as brothers and sisters in Christ. They are complete in Christ but they have very real human emotions. Reach out to them. Understand their struggles in securing a financially secure future. Do not abuse their “availability.” These things will make them feel less than loved by the church.
Second, be careful of how you speak to and of them. In the United States where I grew up, we often referred to single women as “old maids.” South African terminology–even legal terminology–calls them “spinsters,” a word borrowed from a bygone era when single women were most often employed in factories spinning wool. We need to be careful of insensitive comments made to them. We need to think before we speak. Let us be committed to communicating to them, but let us be very careful how we communicate to them.
Third, we need to watch out for them. We need to care for single women living on their own. What can you do to practically make their lives easier? What about single mothers? Do you care for them in the church? God cares for them: He is “a father of the fatherless, and a judge of widows” (Psalm 68:5). Do you care for them?
R.C. Sproul, Jr. pastors a small Presbyterian Church in Southeastern United States. Some years ago, a church member’s husband left her and her two children. State law allowed her to receive a grant from the government as a single mother, but there was also the possibility that she would have to work. The church, however, which struggled to make ends meet, told her that they did not want her working or receiving money from the government. Instead, they committed to caring for her and her family. The entire church got together and pitched in each month to make sure that this woman’s needs were met, that she was able to stay home with her children, who struggled to understand why their father had just left them.
The church came under great criticism. The community, and even other churches, rebuked the assembly for encouraging this woman to forego the state grant. When Sproul was asked by the media whether the move was irresponsible, he simply replied, “No, we’re a family. We take care of our own.” Indeed, we have a responsibility to our own and we must care for them. Andy Farmer wrote these encouraging words to single parents:
The overarching hope of the single parent is the Fatherhood of God. The psalmist expresses it this way:
Sing to God, sing praise to his name,
extol him who rides on the clouds–
his name is the Lord–
and rejoice before him.
A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
is God in his holy dwelling. (Ps. 68:4-5 NIV)
Notice two things. God the Father has a special place in his heart for the widows and the fatherless. His great heart beats with compassion for those who are his and are going it alone. But he is the Father “in his holy dwelling.” He is not only willing, but fully able in his sovereignty to meet the needs of his loved ones. How does he do it?
- He gives every one of his children a family large enough to fit in–the church.
- He answers prayer–every promise given to parents is available to the single mom or dad.
- He restores and protects. I have met so many single parents whose lives are a chaotic mess because of financial stress, poor choices, and isolation. And I have seen order and faith come to these seemingly hopeless situations as God’s ways and means are embraced through faith.
Miss McCulley closes her book with these words:
May we esteem the gift of singleness that’s been given to us now so that we will be called wise stewards of that gift and invited to share in our Master’s happiness. Let’s cultivate noble characters and not let bitterness, jealousy, or disappointment steal from us the rewards for trusting God. May we guard our hearts and affections for the Lord and not be concerned with whether or not a fellow creature pursues us for the temporary state of marriage.
May we freely love and serve others, especially those members of Christ’s body who are in our local churches. Let’s show hospitality to others and use our homes as mission fields and places to refresh others. May we earn, spend, and invest wisely–storing our treasures in heaven. By God’s grace, let’s not worry whether or not we will bear children, but let us love, encourage, and disciple the children we encounter now. May we never put our trust in physical beauty that decays, but always cultivate the inner beauty that will likely be part of our femininity for all time. Let’s resolve to use our words to build up and edify others so that when we give an account of every careless word, it will be short rather than long. And may we never be known as “needy” women who require lots of emotional support because of our disappointment over being single, but may we be known as women who read out to the needy and generously give to the poor.
In a youth-oriented world, may we never lose sight of heaven. By following in the footsteps of the Proverbs 31 woman, I pray that we also will receive her blessing of the closing verses:
A woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Give her the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the gates.
McCulley correctly notes, “The strength and witness of your church is in large measure a result of strong relationships–relationships across all ages and seasons of life.” A church is indeed made up of people of different ages and seasons in life. Nevertheless, we are all drawn to the same centre: to the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, as we look to Christ we will surely build Christ-centred relationships–even with those who are not of our season of life. I think that it’s wise for a church to have ministries geared toward specific seasons of life: children, teenagers, young adults, young marrieds, seniors, widows, etc. But we should also be sure that we cross pollinate in our relationships. We must all strengthen each other so that the whole can be strengthened together.
All of this has direct bearing on the gender issues. Piper has noted, “Mature manhood and womanhood are not dependent on being married.” Masculinity and femininity are rooted in who we are by nature. They are not simply reflects of a marriage relationship. Man does not become man by getting married. Woman does not become woman by getting married. Your gender is a gift from God. Don’t be confused; rather, use it for the glory of God.