I Am Single (and so can you): Christianity and Singleness Part 3
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
I tried to be a truck driver once.
Notice I said “tried.”
It wasn’t even one of those ginormous big-rigs that run you off the highway. I was trying to get a job as a delivery driver for a major parcel corporation. Part of the process involved navigating a box truck through a series of obstacles to test one’s truck-wrangling abilities.
The first and most daunting of these was the serpentine course, wherein you had to slalom your truck through a series of closely-spaced orange cones – first forwards, then backwards.
Let’s be clear. My tiny Hyundai, composed mostly of Korean plastic, is the largest vehicle I’ve ever driven with any regularity. So strapping myself behind the wheel of the rumbling behemoth of a box truck was tantamount to trying to ride a wooly mammoth.
We were given the day to practice, so as the rain slicked the macadam, I painstaking turned the wheel, eased the gas, and repeatedly whomped my way over the cones in what was initially comical, though as the day wore on, became increasingly sad.
The other applicants were encouraging. No one there was an expert. So the open window let in the cold November rain as well as words of encouragement. But as the hours slid by, the ratio of rainwater to encouragement began to go in a very different direction.
The others had improved drastically. Me? Not so much. And the worst was I honestly didn’t understand what I was doing so very wrong. And by day’s end, my formerly encouraging co-applicants could only stand by and watch me snuff out the life of yet another traffic cone.
If you’re an aging single, this may seem a familiar experience. Friends marry and start families. You still find yourself struggling through bad dates and disappointment. Friends initially are helpful and supportive, offering encouragement and even offering fix-ups and blind dates.
But as time wears on, there seems to be an increasingly smaller pool to draw from, and folks shake their heads in bewilderment as to where your life went so “wrong.”
If you’ve been reading, then you may already identify this attitude as the by-product of what I’ve called “the idolatry of family,” which assigns a social stigma to singleness that is as unhealthy as it is unChristian.
So today, I thought we’d take a positive look at singleness, and what it can mean for both us and the church.
SOMETIMES MISSIONARIES SING SOPRANO
The road was dusty. The young man was traveling from Jerusalem to his home in the region presently known as Sudan.
When traveling with the queen, the man would ride in chariots of luxury and importance. But today he traveled alone, in a rugged flatbed wagon that could only be called the “jeep” of the first century world.
He had been to the temple in Jerusalem for worship. Returning home he reflected on his experience, though as always tinged with the haunting knowledge of being an outsider, relegated to the temple’s outer courts during the worship ceremonies.
As a servant of the queen, he was a eunuch – castrated at a young age to prepare for royal service, and ironically the feature that granted him access in the royal palace only offered isolation in the temple, where he was isolated for being both a eunuch as well as bearing the ebony face of an Ethiopian.
He traveled onward, unfurling a long scroll, and found his place. His lips moved as he read the words of Isaiah, who spoke with such poetry about a lamb who was slain. It was then that a man by the side of the road – had he been there the whole time – called out to him: “Do you understand what you are reading?”
The eunuch arrested his chariot. “How could I?” he replied. “Unless someone explains it to me?” The man by the side of the road – introduced as Philip – slid next to him on the chariot, and as the two men sojourned steadily on, Philip patiently detailed Christ’s immeasurable sacrifice.
The eunuch, eyes welled with tears of both sadness and joy, nodded to a nearby body of water. He had tasted and seen that the Lord is good. And when he rose from the water he found himself alone. Philip, the man who had just baptized him, had vanished.
But the eunuch journeyed on. And the man who found no place in the temple now became the first missionary to Ethiopia.
Sometimes, even missionaries sing soprano. God uses eunuchs just as easily as he uses married people, proving that sexuality is not a prerequisite to service in God’s kingdom.
EUNUCHS FOR THE KINGDOM
This is an important enough point that Jesus taught His disciples about it, saying that
“…there are some eunuchs who were that way from birth, and some who were made eunuchs by others, and some who became eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who is able to accept this should accept it.” (Matthew 19:12 )
Being a “eunuch for the sake of the kingdom” sounds…less than pleasant. And thankfully Jesus was not advocating any form of self-mutilation (though the church father Origen took Jesus’ advice to “cut off” any body part causing sin quite literally. My thoughts? Ouch.).
Being a “eunuch” means to embrace a lifestyle of singleness. Potentially this means a lifelong commitment to remaining single.
Let’s not understate the radical nature of this command to a Jewish audience, that confused family with blessing. Being a eunuch would have been jarring, if not insulting to his disciples. But according to Jesus, celibacy could be an asset to God’s kingdom program.
The church in Corinth existed in the heart of sin city. It was Vegas culture times ten. “What happens in Corinth…,” well, you get the idea.
So it’s little wonder that he tells his readers that he wishes everyone was single (1 Cor 7:7). Now, he makes clear that there is no specific teaching on this issue, but offers his free advice to the unmarried people in the city. There is an “impending crisis,” he says, meaning the difficult mission of reaching the city with the gospel message. And so he advises:
“Let each one remain in that situation in life in which he was called. … With regard to the question about people who have never married, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my opinion as one shown mercy by the Lord to be trustworthy. Because of the impending crisis I think it best for you to remain as you are.” (1 Corinthians 7:20,26)
He gives similar advice to the married, his overall point being that people should learn to serve God in their individual contexts rather than pursuing change. The only concession he makes is that singles avoid sexual temptation (an issue that I’ll address in the next post or so).
Why? His reasoning is an expansion of Jesus’ idea of being a “eunuch for the kingdom:” “I want you to be free from concern,” he writes. “An unmarried man is concerned with the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord” (1 Cor 7:32). The married, by contrast, have to spend time and attention on getting the kids to soccer practice and watching Mad About You reruns, potential distractions from the overall mission of God.
Now don’t get me wrong. Marriage is still God’s design. But there may be a time, whether for a season or for a lifetime, that you find yourself single.
But that could be a good thing. Don’t let the family-idolaters get you down. Singleness may have many practical benefits. It is wrongly assumed that singleness is a life of less. On the contrary, singleness may offer a life of more. Among these:
- More free time to accomplish educational and occupational goals. God needs good people of varying educational levels and in varying career fields. Grad school may be a wise reason to delay marriage.
- More time for service to others. Singles have more time to volunteer both in their church and in missional centers in their communities.
- More social interaction. Deny it all you want, but once you marry and have a couple kids, your social life takes a nose dive. Singles have more freedom to interact with others, potentially forming meaningful relationships and having an impact for the gospel.
The Bible presents singleness as not only an acceptable lifestyle, but – in some contexts – a recommended one.
Jesus was single. Paul was single. And so can you.
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Chris is a writer and speaker. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship and as a research writer for Docent Research Group.