"What does this mean for our attitude toward marriage and family? Paul says it means that both being married and not being married are good conditions to be in. We should be neither overly elated by getting married nor overly disappointed by not being so - because Christ is the only spouse that can truly fulfil us and God’s family the only family that will truly embrace and satisfy us.
With this background, we can better understand how radical Paul’s statements are regarding singleness and marriage. Stanley Hauerwas argues that Christianity was the very first religion that held up single adulthood as a viable way of life. He writes, “One… clear difference between Christianity and Judaism [and all other traditional religions] is the former’s entertainment of the idea of singleness as the paradigm way of life for its followers.1 Nearly all ancient religions and cultures made an absolute value of the family and of the bearing of children. There was a no honor without family honor, and there was no real lasting significance or legacy without leaving heirs. Without children you essentially vanished - you had no future. The main hope for the future, then, was to have children. In ancient cultures, long-term single adults were considered to be living a human life that was less than fully realized.
But Christianity’s founder, Jesus Christ, and leading theologian, St. Paul, were both single their entire lives. Single adults cannot be seen as somehow less fully formed or realised human beings than married persons because Jesus Christ, a single man, was the perfect man (Hebrews 4:15, 1 Peter 2:22). Paul’s assessment in 1 Corinthians 7 is that singleness is a good condition blessed by God, and in many circumstances, it is actually better than marriage. As a result of this revolutionary attitude, the early church did not pressure people to marry (as we see in Paul’s letter) and institutionally supported poor widows so they did not have to remarry. A social historian described the practice:
Should they be widowed, Christian women enjoyed substantial advantages. Pagan widows faced great social pressure to remarry; Augustus even had widows fined if they failed to marry within two years. In contrast, among Christians, widowhood was highly respected and remarriage was, if anything, mildly discouraged. The church stood ready to sustain poor widows, allowing them a choice as to whether or not to remarry. [Single widows were active in care-giving and good deeds in the neighbourhood.]2
Why did the early church have this attitude? The Christian gospel and hope of the future kingdom de-idolized marriage. There was no more radical act in that day and time than to live a life that did not produce heirs. Having children was the main way to achieve significance for an adult, since children would remember you. They also gave you security, since they would care for you in old age. Christians who remained single, then, were making the statement that our future is not guaranteed by the family but by God.
Single adult Christians were bearing testimony that God, not family, was their hope. God would guarantee their future, first by giving them their truest family - the church - so they never lacked for brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, in Christ. But ultimately, Christians’ inheritance is nothing less than the fullness of the kingdom of God in the new heaven and new earth. Hauerwas goes on to point out that Christian hope not only made it possible for singles to live fulfilled lives without spouse and children, but it also was an impetus for people to marry and have children and not be afraid to bring them into this dark world. “For Christians do not place their hope in their children, but rather their children are a sign of their hope… that God has not abandoned this world…”3
The Christian church in the West, unfortunately, does not seem to have maintained its grasp on the goodness of singleness. Instead it has labeled it “Plan B for the Christian life.” Paige Benton Brown, in her classic article “Singled Out by God for Good,” lists a number of common ways that Christian churches try to “explain” singleness:
- “As soon as you’re satisfied with God alone, he’ll bring someone special into your life” - as though God’s blessings are ever earned by our contentment.
- “You’re too picky” - as though God is frustrated by our fickle whims and needs broader parameters in which to work.
- “As a single you can commit yourself wholeheartedly to the Lord’s work” - as though God requires emotional martyrs to do his work, of which marriage must be no part.
- “Before you can marry someone wonderful, the Lord has to make you someone wonderful” - as though God grants marriage as a second blessing to the satisfactorily sanctified.
Beneath these statements is the premise that single life is a state of deprivation for people who are not yet fully formed enough for marriage. Brown responds along the lines of Paul’s 1 Corinthians passage: “I am not single because I am too spiritually unstable to possibly deserve a husband, nor because I am too spiritually mature to possibly need one. I am single because God is so abundantly good to me, because this is his best for me.”4 That fits perfectly with the reasoning and attitude of St Paul. Christianity affirmed the goodness of single life as no other faith or worldview ever has."
1 Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991), 174
2 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 104
3 “We must remember that the ‘sacrifice’ made by singles was not [just in] ‘giving up sex’ but in giving up heirs. There could be no more radical act than that! This was a clear expression that one’s future is not guaranteed by the family, but by the [kingdom of God and the] church…” (Hauerwas, A Community of Character, 190). “[Now] both singleness and marriage are symbolic institutions for the constitution of the church’s witness of the kingdom. Neither can be valid without the other. If singleness is a symbol of the church’s confidence in God’s power to convert lives for the growth of the church, marriage, and procreation is the symbol of the church’s hope for the world.” (Hauerwas, 191)
4 Paige Benton Brown, “Singled Out by God for Good.” Available several places on the Internet, including www.pcpc.org/ministries/singles/singledout.php
An excerpt from The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy and Kathy Keller.