Christ has made all things new. The good news of the gospel transforms our understanding of power, and death, and love. So why does the church still, all too often, join with every pop song and romantic comedy the world has to offer to say, “Are you single? Then you’re missing out.”
Let me say, up front, that I’m not single. I got married in August, in fact, and couldn’t be happier about it. There was a decade, though—from when I was 14 and decided that I was ready to have a boyfriend, to when I was 24 and started dating my now-husband—when I was single. Thoroughly and unhappily single. And I found that all too often, despite the radically different view of relationships, sexuality, and marriage that the church presents to the world, it all too seldom presents an untransformed view of singleness. I could see this in the makeup of church leadership councils: married people, preferably with children, were asked to serve in disproportionate amounts. I could see this in the rhetoric of “waiting for marriage”—good in its insistence that sex should be cherished within the context of marriage, incomplete in that it presents a vision for Christian singleness predicated on eventual marriage. I can see this, in retrospect, in the jokes I made with my Christian roommates about switching churches to find more young (dateable) men. All of these things imply that to be single is to be less-than-complete. Christians need to present a vision of singleness as more than just lack or waiting. Christians need to insist, against all our culture says to the contrary, that romantic relationships are not the only path to community and personal worth.
Paul’s advice to the church at Corinth about marriage is a good place to start thinking about the value of singleness (1 Corinthians 7). He speaks to all sorts of people: the married, the unmarried, the widowed, the engaged. What is striking is that he isn’t prescriptive about marriage or singleness; he doesn’t give commands from God about whether or not the believers should marry. Instead, he gives advice based on his good judgment: “Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy” (1 Corinthians 7:25). This suggests marriage is not a matter of destiny or fate; instead, different relational statuses ought to be embraced by different Christians based on prayer, reason, and the exigencies of particular situations. Different circumstances will demand different things from believers—but all are good. The Corinthians were facing persecution, so Paul suggested they remain unmarried if they could; nevertheless, he insisted that neither marrying or remaining unmarried was a sin. And in our 21st-century context, we too should embrace this variety of experience that Paul lays out. There is not just one narrative for the Christian life. We are not all promised the perfect spouse, but neither is this a requirement for us to take our full place in the church. Singleness, dating, and marriage alike can all provide forums for us to serve God.
We should also think carefully about the ways in which Paul lauds singleness. There are particular virtues that can be easier to cultivate while single. Paul mentions the ability to bear up under persecution; there are others that might be more common now. It’s harder to show radical hospitality when you know you can fall back on your boyfriend when you’re lonely; it’s harder to take a risk on your vocation when you want to move to the same city as your girlfriend after graduation. Being single is a time to train yourself in these virtues. Even more importantly, however, a time of singleness is an opportunity to teach other Christians about the virtues that you are particularly well-suited to know. The church needs you! Because we all, married, dating, or single, need to practice hospitality, spontaneity, and the other virtues single people have to offer. We all need to learn what single people have to teach us.
To all of you who are single: I don’t know if you’re going to meet the right man or woman someday. I don’t know if what might feel like painful patience is going to end with marriage. I do know, however, that you are called to a mission. Because the basic unit of human relationship isn’t marriage, or even the family; it’s our place in the Body of Christ, the church. No matter what, we are bound together with the saints. We are given a community grown from the common bond of love that Christ has given us. And in this community, we are called to learn from each other and grow together, into an even fuller and more beautiful image of God.
Anne Goetz Boemler ’11, a former Managing Editor of the Ichthus, is currently pursuing her PhD in English at Northwestern University.