Those who know me may well be tempted to raise their eyebrows and ask, ‘What right does a believer who has been married for thirty-five years and blessed with two sons, a daughter-in-law and four grandchildren have to contribute to a consideration of singleness?’ I trust therefore that you will forgive me for being anecdotal for a moment in order to establish my credentials.
A matter of having been there
Firstly, I was not married until I was twenty-eight years of age, and my days of singleness left an indelible mark upon me. Although I was comfortable with my singleness, others, particularly fellow-believers, were not. During the last ten of those twenty-eight years I cannot recall many positive comments about my position, and no one gave me any practical help or advice as to how I might approach it. I have deliberately avoided using the words ‘how I might cope with it’, because they encapsulate the only way in which many believers viewed my singleness. As far as they were concerned singleness was a problem that could only be solved by marriage, and I became more acutely aware of this view as I reached the latter half of my twenties. I was taught from the scriptures that marriage is God’s ideal, but I was never encouraged to understand that singleness is the will of God for some of His people. The clear message to me was that marriage was the natural progression for my life, and that if I were to remain unmarried I would be incomplete and unfulfilled. Wellintentioned statements, such as, ‘God has the right person in mind for you’, abounded.
A matter of concern for elders in a local church
Secondly, as an elder in a local assembly, it is my exercise, through this article, to exhort fellow spiritual leaders to be more aware of, and sensitive to, the needs of those who are single among ‘the flock of God’, 1 Pet. 5. 2. They are a valuable spiritual resource, but we will lose many of them if we expect them to thrive in a largely negative spiritual vacuum. It is right that we should stress to them that all sexual relationships outside of marriage are contrary to the word of God and therefore must be shunned. It is also vital to warn them that they must not be ‘unequally yoked together with unbelievers’, 2 Cor. 6. 14, and, furthermore, that they are only free to marry ‘in the Lord’, 1 Cor. 7. 39. However, it is equally important that they should be nurtured to discover the positive role that they can play in the life of a local assembly or more widely in Christian service. There are also, of course, many believers who are not committed to the single life and long to be married; therefore, they too need to be immersed in a supportive atmosphere that is conducive to them finding the right partner for life. Spiritual leaders have a particular responsibility in these matters; however, all believers have a role to play, particularly those who are married. Some may read the title of the article and reach the conclusion that because it is not about them, it is not for them; they could not be more wrong!
Keeping the balance
The only ‘imbalance’ presented in the scriptures is a numerical one. As has already been stated, marriage is presented as God’s ideal and therefore it is envisaged that most Christians will marry. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to deduce from this that singleness is an inferior kind of existence that can only be improved upon by marriage. Both the single and married states are viewed positively; indeed, they are presented as gifts of God. Paul writes, ‘For I would that all men were even as I myself (unmarried). But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that’, 1 Cor. 7. 7. A believer, therefore, who moves from the single to the married state does not exchange something that is inferior in the eyes of God for something that is vastly superior. Conversely, neither should the single state be regarded as higher and holier than the married state.
Paul, who wrote so positively about singleness in 1 Corinthians chapter 7, also wrote in another context, ‘I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house’, 1 Tim 5. 14. He also instructed husbands to ‘love your wives, even as Christ loved the church, and gave himself for it’, Eph. 5. 25. The scriptures portray single and married men and women of God; both were equally able to serve Him well. Among the married were Enoch, Moses, Job, Isaiah, Hosea, Peter and Philip. Those who were single included Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, John Baptist, Philip’s daughters and Paul. It would be indefensible to assert that one group was more spiritually mature than the other.
Clearly, there are pitfalls for single believers to avoid and it is important that they are made aware of these. Singleness can promote a self-centred approach towards life that leads to a lack of sensitivity, self-control and self-discipline. Short-term relationships can become the pattern for their lives and the impression is created, often unwittingly, that they ‘play the field’ as far as relationships with the opposite sex are concerned. They need to guard against giving the impression that they are accountable to no one but themselves. There is also the possibility that through fear of loneliness and rejection they will fill their lives with so much activity that they will fail to give time to personal devotions and attendance at meetings of the local assembly. In addition, of course, they have to come to terms with their physical sexual desires within the context of the pressures of an increasingly permissive society and the clear biblical prohibition of pre-marital sexual relationships, either with the same or the opposite sex.
If these pitfalls are to be avoided, and the undoubted pressures overcome, single people need to be in a positive spiritual atmosphere where others are comfortable with and supportive of their needs. If they are not, we will be guilty of eroding their self-confidence and self-esteem to the extent that they will turn back to a world of forbidden activities and relationships. Sadly, many of us have seen too many tragic examples of this. There are a variety of reasons why believers are single; therefore, it is unwise to categorize them. Indeed, each one should be viewed as an individual. It may be clear to some of them through personal conviction, or for some other reason, why they are unmarried, Matt. 19. 12. Others may be exploring whether it is God’s will for them or not. However, whatever the reason, the message to them is to view their singleness positively and to promise them the support and understanding that enables them to do so.
Note the ‘liberty’ of singleness
In 1 Corinthians chapter 7 Paul desires others to ‘abide even as I’, v. 8, particularly in view of the pressured situation through which they were passing, v. 26. Clearly, a single person is in the advantageous position of having only one person to consider when faced with times of persecution. However, Paul concedes that ‘if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn’, v. 9. Marriage is better than continuous lust. He points out that, generally speaking, singleness provides an opportunity for the man to give undivided attention to ‘the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord’, v. 32. It also allows the woman to concentrate on ‘the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in the body and in the spirit’, v. 34. Both of them are free from having to think or to act as a husband, wife or parent; therefore, their condition allows greater unhindered movement in the Lord’s service than is open to married couples. There cannot be a more positive message to single believers than this, but it must be both said, and also responded to, with conviction.
Pleasing the Lord is the ultimate issue
If single believers are ready to explore before the Lord the unique opportunities for study of the scriptures, prayer and service that their singleness opens up to them, they will become a positive influence for good among the Lord’s people. It is incumbent upon spiritual leaders to encourage and support this exploration by providing opportunities for them to develop their God-given gift(s) within the local assembly or, for some, in a wider sphere of Christian service. Sadly, all too often, only lip service is given to the single believer’s freedom to serve the Lord unhindered by family ties. We acknowledge it when we believe that God has called them to serve Him in another country, but it is not always fostered within the context of the local assembly. There is no reason either why they should not be involved in assembly life in practical ways; for example, in fellowship with other singles and married couples, they could be involved in providing hospitality. Opportunities should also be provided for them to meet both formally and also informally in safe and caring settings. The desire of both single believers, and also those who are concerned for their spiritual welfare should be that they ‘may please the Lord’, 1 Cor. 7. 32.
There will, no doubt, be single believers who subscribe to the thoughts expressed in this article; nevertheless, they confess to an increasing sense of anxiety about their single status and to a fear of being ‘left on the shelf’. They are therefore tempted to lower their high spiritual standards and accept the first person who expresses an interest in them. There are predatory unbelievers, and, sadly, believers too, who will be only too ready to exploit them for their own selfish desires. We are rarely more vulnerable than when we allow our perplexing circumstances to come between the Lord and us, instead of using them to draw us closer to Him. It is on such occasions that we accept short-term gains at the expense of long-term contentment. An overpreoccupation with the future will rob us of what God has given us to enjoy in the present. It is a tragedy if any believers have to look back with regret in later life on God’s gift of singleness that they brought to a premature end through anxiety and impatience. If we truly believe that God’s way is best, we must trust that His planning and timing, even with respect to our relationships, are absolutely precise. The words of the psalmist are apposite, ‘Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him’, Ps. 37. 7.