“Do you have a family?” the woman asks. She means to be friendly, but I never know how to answer this question. Of course I have a family! I have a dad and a stepmom, a stepdad, a twin brother, a sister-in-law, a niece, plus two stepsisters, and… (how much time do you have?). Not to mention the many people I count as family who aren’t biologically related to me – the couple who lived right across the street from me when I was growing up and who have known me for 40 years (hint: I’m 43 now), and a young man named Denis who shares my birthday and who therefore gets to be my little brother.
But what the woman wants to know is whether I have a husband and children. So I usually say “No, I don’t have a family,” and let it go at that.
I’m in good company. In 2006, according to the national census, 46% of American adults were single. For some Christians, that’s cause for alarm. And there are things to worry about here. But this isn’t about those things. Instead, I want to explore what the Bible says about being single – and what we mainly find is that single people, just like married people, are called (and able!) to live faithful, full, and flourishing lives of discipleship.
We also find a snapshot of first-century churches filled with people who are different from one another – some married and some single, some parents and some not, some rich and some poor, some Gentile and some Jewish. That created some tensions, but it also created some wonderful richness. The body of Christ, as Paul reminds us, would be pretty boring (and dysfunctional) if the whole thing were a toe, or an ear. It needs different parts to work right. So lets consider the role that single people have in the beautiful, messy difference-in-unity that is the body of Christ.
This isn’t primarily about unmarried people who are in relationships. Instead, it’s about people who aren’t, whether they live alone or with roommates. I try to recognize the wide range of singleness, from those who have never married to those who are single again after a divorce or the death of a spouse – but I focus only on the absence of a spouse, and not the challenges that arise after divorce or a spouse’s death. Because single parenting raises a lot of other issues, I haven’t addressed those here either, but I want to acknowledge that some single people do raise children, which creates its own complicated set of struggles and joys.
This is for you if you’re married, and it’s for you if you’re single. I hope that it might encourage and enrich both groups of people, and maybe even open up a mutual conversation in churches about what it means to be both, and how we can love each other better as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Being Human, Being Loved
Lets step back and look at the big picture: What does Scripture tell us about being human?
The love that moves the stars
I’ve occasionally been told—by well-meaning Christians—that I can’t possibly know what true or genuine love is because I don’t have a spouse or because I haven’t had children. Now, these comments come from a good place: from the experience of love so profound that it took their breath away. But it always makes me feel about an inch high. (How could anyone else know what quality of love I’ve experienced?) More importantly, it misses the deeper truth that those experiences are all pointing to an even more profound and breathtaking love.
Scripture tells us which love is the deepest, the highest, and the widest! It’s the unfathomable, infinite love that God has for us. This is the love that became flesh and died for us. It’s the love that was strong enough to break the bonds of death itself. All human loves, no matter how profound or deep or beautiful, whether they’re the love of a parent or a friend or a spouse – all these loves are only glimmers and glimpses of the overwhelming love that God has for us (Rom 8:31–39; Eph 3:16–19). Every Christian who has tasted this love has known the deepest and most powerful love in all creation.
All human loves, no matter how profound or deep or beautiful, whether they’re the love of a parent or a friend or a spouse – all these loves are only glimmers and glimpses of the overwhelming love that God has for us (Rom 8:31–39; Eph 3:16–19).
One of my favorite songs has a line that declares, “All of You is more than enough for all of me.” That’s true whether you’re single or married. But single people don’t have the love and support of a spouse, or the trusting love of a small child, to fill our hearts. Single people test out every day the theory that God is enough for all our longings, that God can satisfy all our desires. Without a husband, or a baby, can I affirm that God has been enough for me, that all my deepest desires have been met? I can. It hasn’t been easy (in fact, it’s often been very painful!) but for me one of the things that singleness has taught me is to put my trust in God alone, and to live into the truth that His grace is enough for me. It doesn’t mean I’ve stopped hoping or praying for a godly partner to walk through life with. But it does mean that I’ve stopped orienting my life around waiting for that to happen. In the church, single people can help bear witness to the truth that God is enough for all of us.
The image of God
Scripture teaches us that our ultimate worth doesn’t come from our achievements. It doesn’t come from our marriages or our friends, or from our bank accounts or our jobs or our reputations. It doesn’t come from our children. Instead, each human being is of infinite value and worth simply because each of us was created in the image of God (Gen 1:26–27). Every person you talk to today or pass on the street was made in God’s image. You bear God’s image.
Of course, we know this! We know that single people are full human beings. But single people sometimes struggle with feeling that they’re valued less than married people or parents. For one thing, marriage and children are often treated as markers of adulthood and maturity. Even the phrase “to settle down” usually means to get married and “start a family” (as if single people are permanently unsettled or restless beings, or somehow exist without family). Without marriage and parenthood, it’s harder to identify when single people pass the threshold from adolescence or young adulthood into mature adulthood. This is sometimes called the “kid’s table” problem, because single adults (especially women) are sometimes seated at the kid’s table at family events while their married peers are seated at the adult table.
When a person dies young, one of the first questions people often ask is whether they had children. This makes complete sense; it’s a heartbreaking tragedy for small children to lose a parent. What makes me wince is when people are relieved to discover that the person who died was single (“Well, that’s good, at least she didn’t leave behind a husband or children”). It makes me wonder if my death would be perceived as a smaller matter, if I were to die, and if this means that my life somehow has lesser value in comparison to a woman who is a mother. This is exactly what Scripture insists is not true, at least not in God’s eyes. Each person who dies is a loss that can’t be calculated, because it’s the death of a unique and irreplaceable divine-image-bearer.
Every day single people face a dozen tiny gestures and comments that suggest, without meaning to, that they aren’t as mature or as significant as married people or parents. For example, single people are sometimes told that we deserve to make less money than people who are married with children, that we should be last in line for raises, that we should get less vacation time, and that we should be required to work evenings or weekends so that married people don’t have to. I’ve been told all these things at one time or another. These small things can add up and be deeply damaging to single people. They can imply that single lives don’t have the same value that married lives do. Scripture says otherwise.
Every day single people face a dozen tiny gestures and comments that suggest, without meaning to, that they aren’t as mature or as significant as married people or parents.
You do not complete me
The teaching that God created male and female in His image and likeness is sometimes used to explain the complementary differences of men and women, and sometimes even to argue for their completeness in marriage.
It’s true that God creates humanity as male and female. But what this means in relation to individual people is that each man and each woman bears God’s image. Men and women do come alongside one another in marriage, as helpers and companions, and Scripture tells us that they unite to become one flesh. However, this doesn’t mean that men and women need each other to reflect God’s image, as if a man is only one-half of God’s image whereas a woman is the other half.
One of the reasons we know this to be false is because of Jesus. As a human being, Jesus was the perfect image-bearer, the one who reflected the fullness of God’s glory. He was the perfect human being, who was human in every way yet without sin. While he was fully God, he was also completely human. Jesus—the perfect human being—was single. This means that it must be possible to be perfectly, fully human without being married or having children. Jesus has shown us what a full, flourishing human life looks like – and it was a life without a spouse, without sexual relations, and without biological children.
One of the other persistent misunderstandings about singleness has to do with our modern cultural obsession with sexual fulfillment. When I was a teenager growing up in the church, the main thing I was taught about sex was that I shouldn’t have it until I was married, but that when I did get married, it was going to be great. This advice worked pretty well for me until I was single and in my 30s. It stopped working not because I was having sex (I wasn’t) but because nobody had ever told me that I might never get married (a possibility that hadn’t really occurred to me). More importantly, nobody had ever told me that it’s possible to be a happy, complete, full human being without getting married, having sex, and having kids. Nobody had ever told me, directly, that the abundant life God calls us to doesn’t depend on those things. Christians should remind each other of this truth more often, not only for the sake of single people, but also for the sake of married people and parents, who likewise, despite the genuine goodness of families, rest their ultimate hope and joy in God.
Vocation and Calling
Is it God’s will for everyone to be married? No! At least not according to the New Testament. To explain what I mean, I want to start by looking at two biblical mandates, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament.
In the OT, God commands all living creatures (humans included) to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth (Gen 1:22, 28). In the OT, children were always a blessing, and barrenness was a cause for distress and sorrow. Marriage wasn’t a choice but an obligation; for women it was usually an economic necessity. Women who lost their husbands were vulnerable and often ended up poor, which explains why God commands Israel to take special care of widows.
In the NT, Jesus gives a new set of instructions to his followers: he commands them to baptize and make disciples among all the nations (Matt 28:16–20). It’s the command to “be fruitful” in a whole new key. The followers of Jesus are called to be fruitful not by creating children but by making other disciples. It’s a new kind of multiplication, through conversion and baptism, not through child-bearing.
New kinship: brothers and sisters in Christ
It can be surprising, even shocking, to read what Jesus has to say about families in the NT. First of all, he says that your real family is any other person who also follows him. At one point in his ministry, Jesus was speaking to a crowd of people, and someone tells him that his mother and brothers were standing outside and wanted to talk to him. Instead of going out to see his family, Jesus replies, “‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Matt 12:48–50). Jesus reimagines who counts as family. It’s not the siblings he shared a home with; it’s not even the mother who raised him. Instead, it’s all those who do God’s will.
This story shows us why Christians have traditionally called each other “brother” and “sister.” In fact, one of Jesus’ final actions before he dies is to apply this principle to two of his followers: his mother and one of his disciples, the one John’s Gospel calls the “beloved disciple.” Although they’re not related, he tells them, “Here is your mother” and “Here is your son” (John 19:26–27). When you both follow Jesus, you’re already family. There’s an old saying that “blood is thicker than water.” Well, in the church, water is thicker than blood: the water of baptism is a stronger and more enduring bond than the one created by blood ties.
Jesus’ “family values” are surprisingly different from any culture
Jesus also teaches that you have to love him more than you love your biological family. At another time in his ministry, Jesus warns his followers that the demands of discipleship might cause divisions within families, because loyalty to him and to the way of the cross must be placed above all other loyalties: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). The passage makes us squirm. Of course we know that Jesus doesn’t really mean hate. Matthew softens the blow a little: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me…” (Matt 10:37, italics added). But both versions remind us that Jesus regards loyalty to him and to the gospel as more important than anything else.
It reminds us that Jesus’ “family values” are surprisingly different from any culture—even a Christian culture—that centers primarily around the family rather than around the way of the cross. Marriage and family are good things, but they are not the ultimate good; even they pale in light of the kingdom of God and the high calling of discipleship. The body of Christ is a community of disciples centered around Christ, its head, and not around biological loyalties. It transcends not only blood ties but national ones, too: the Lord’s house is a house of prayer for all the nations, united around their common love for Jesus Christ.
Paul: the priority of the gospel
When we turn to the apostle Paul, we see the very same theme. Paul recommends to the congregation in Corinth that it would be better to remain unmarried, as he himself was, in order to focus on “unhindered devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor 7:35). This was a countercultural move. For the most part, marriage was an expected part of both Greco-Roman and Jewish culture. For most Jews, marrying and having children was an obligation for all (Genesis 1:28). As a Jew, Paul was directly contradicting what many saw as a biblical command! But for Paul, service to the gospel and to Christ was so important that it undermined even that. In Paul’s view, those who remained single could devote themselves more wholeheartedly to the urgent mission to take the gospel to all the nations.
To be sure, Paul doesn’t command his fellow co-workers in the gospel to remain single. He just recommends it. There were many faithful married couples who spread the gospel in the early church, and Paul praises some of them as his valuable co-workers. For example, Priscilla and Aquila were married (REFS). Instead, what Paul did was reorient all their lives around a different center: in the Christian imagination, one did not need to be married to fulfill God’s created purpose. Devotion to the Lord was his center, not family life.
Of course, 2,000 years later, we’re living with a very different set of economic and cultural conditions than the ones faced by Paul and the Corinthian Christians. Married and single people alike have served as faithful missionaries and martyrs across the centuries. But Paul’s words about singleness should make it clear that God does not will for every Christian person to be married. Neither Jesus nor Paul thought so. Yet this view has sometimes morphed into a perception that one can only fulfill God’s will by entering into marriage.
So what is God’s will for us? It’s pretty simple: it’s for every person to come to know the love of God that surpasses knowledge (Eph 3:18–19; 2 Pet 3:9). It’s to love God with everything we have, and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt 22:36–40). The prophet Micah reminds us that God has already shown us what is good, and what the Lord requires from us: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God” (Micah 6:8). Everything else we do – get married, have kids, stay single, go to work, take out the trash – has the capacity to either help us love God and our neighbors better, or to make it harder for us to love God and our neighbors. What matters most is not what state of life we’re in (married, single, parenting) – what matters most is how we pursue the vocation of discipleship in whatever state of life we find ourselves.
There are a lot of reasons I’m still single, many of them practical, and some of which I can’t even figure out – who knows what mysterious factors go into why some people cross paths with a good match and some people never do! It’s just plain hard to find a suitable partner, especially once one’s not in their twenties anymore. (And statistics show that it’s even harder for Christian women, since they outnumber Christian men.) But one reason is because I haven’t wanted to marry someone whom I thought might keep me from loving God with my whole heart and loving my neighbors as myself. Putting too much pressure on people to get married can lead to people entering into unhealthy or even toxic relationships. We should never lead anyone to believe that it’s better to be in a relationship that harms them than it is to be single.
I’m sure there are particular people that the Holy Spirit nudges us to say Yes or No to. But I don’t believe that it’s God’s will for me in the abstract either to remain single or to get married. I believe that it’s God’s will for me to pursue justice and lovingkindness and to walk a humble journey with my Lord.
To say that it’s God’s will for a single person to get married, when there are no immediate prospects on the horizon, is to suggest that the single person simply needs to try harder – and that it might be their fault if they fail. That can be very hurtful to single people, especially if they’ve been trying for years to find a good and godly match and haven’t been able to do so.
Putting too much pressure on people to get married can lead to people entering into unhealthy or even toxic relationships. We should never lead anyone to believe that it’s better to be in a relationship that harms them than it is to be single.
Singleness can be a vocation and calling for a few, the way it was for Paul. We should honor people who feel that call. But for many others singleness is simply a state of life, and often an unwelcome one. Sometimes a single person might feel suited or well-equipped for the single life, but many times they don’t. The church can support and care for them, in part by not blaming them for their singleness. And, the church can assure them that discipleship is the fundamental and most important vocation for all Christians. What matters most is how you pursue the vocation of discipleship in whatever state of life you’re currently in.
I Have Called You Friends
Bearing one another’s burdens: the body of Christ
Being a faithful disciple of Christ looks different in different stages of life. It’s different at 20 and at 50 and at 90. It’s different when you have a newborn and when you have teenagers. Christians can walk alongside one another and support each other as brothers and sisters in Christ during these different stages. “Bear one another’s burdens,” urges the apostle Paul, “and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2).
Being married is hard and can even be lonely. Being a parent is not for the faint of heart. Being single is hard and can often be lonely. It’s hard to be human! It shouldn’t be a competition. The church is called to bear one another’s burdens, not to decide whose burden is the heaviest; and to do that we need to listen to one another, to share life and hear one another’s stories.
For some single people, loneliness is the biggest struggle they face. I sympathize with that; I went through stretches where all my friends were getting married left and right and I felt utterly left out – uncelebrated and home alone while everyone else seemed to be away on a honeymoon. Eating alone night after night can be demoralizing. It can be hard to build and sustain networks of deep friendships, both with other single people (who might move away or get married) or with people in other life stages (since, sensibly enough, parents often connect with other parents over play dates and school and soccer practice). I’ve worked hard to be a good friend, but I’ve also been blessed by people who have come alongside me as faithful friends and companions.
Another big challenge of being single is the constant battle not to feel minimized, diminished, and misunderstood in a culture that so highly values marriage and children. It’s common to assume that single people have lots of free time, that it must be easy for us to pick up and move at any time, and that it must be easier for us to do almost anything (get an advanced degree, succeed in a career, write a book). I’ve been told all these things, by friends and colleagues whom I respect. All of these assumptions can be deeply frustrating for single people.
It can be hard to build and sustain networks of deep friendships, both with other single people (who might move away or get married) or with people in other life stages (since, sensibly enough, parents often connect with other parents over play dates and school and soccer practice).
Look, I have more free time than my best friend, who has three children under the age of eight. I’m in awe of her abilities to juggle a thousand things in one day, including working as a very capable, caring nurse. But I also run my own household: I’m solely responsible for managing a budget, paying the bills, filing taxes, making travel plans for professional conferences and personal trips, meal-planning and grocery shopping, cleaning, cooking, and minor home repair. Single people often have to ask for help to get to and from doctor’s appointments, buy medicine when they’re too sick to leave the house, deal with broken-down cars, and get rides to and from the airport.
Anything that a spouse does for you, if you’re married, the single person has to do themselves or ask for help with. If you have ever struggled with who to put down on a form as your emergency medical contact, then you’ve tasted one of the small but not insignificant challenges of being single. More significantly, because people without spouses live on one income and have no real or potential income from a spouse to fall back on, they can have significant anxiety over what might happen to them if they lost their job or their hours were cut.
Just as importantly, single people must work to meet their social and emotional needs by connecting and building relationships with people who often don’t live with them, which can take time and effort. People who are single should be encouraged to invest just as deeply into relationships of mutual support as their married counterparts. Married people can even help with this by reaching out to and building friendships with single people. Holidays can be especially isolating times for single people; married people can welcome single people into their homes (or be guests in a single person’s home!) at Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter.
Churches should also pay attention to how they recruit and use of the time of volunteers. It’s a good thing that churches are often protective of the time that married people need to spend with their spouses and children, nurturing their family life. Sometimes, the result of this is that churches can assume that single people have more time to volunteer, don’t need to be home in the evenings, or can be called upon at a moment’s notice to fill in as needed. Single people should be given the space and the grace to keep their commitments, to be home in the evenings, and to devote the necessary time to building the relationships that sustain them. Social time for single people is not merely entertainment! It’s the network of life-giving friendships that sustain and support them.
This is also the reason that moving to a new place can be emotionally difficult for single people even if it’s logistically easier than moving with a spouse and children. Single people don’t get to take anyone with them, and they have to rebuild a whole new network of support wherever they go.
Single people should be given the space and the grace to keep their commitments, to be home in the evenings, and to devote the necessary time to building the relationships that sustain them.
So, if you’re married, I gently encourage you never to tell a single person that they’re lucky to be single, even if you’re envious of what looks to you like their greater freedoms. Your single friend might indeed feel lucky to be single! But he or she might be drowning in the anxiety, loneliness, or self-doubt of being single. It’s better to ask, and be willing to enter into the other person’s story. Same goes for us single people: we might be envious of the social support and safety nets that our married friends have that we lack, but we can also listen to and ask how we can help bear the particular burdens of being a spouse or a parent.
Rather than something to be ashamed of, learning to depend on one another and to serve one another joyfully highlights the nature of the church as a body of interconnected parts, who need each other to flourish and to fulfill the mission of the church (Gal 5:13; 1 Pet 4:9).
One of the great gifts of the church is that it forms a diverse group of people into a community who’s bonded together by the power of the Holy Spirit. There are good reasons to have small groups and Bible studies of people in the same state of life – groups specifically for singles and moms and retired adults. Yet too often the church reinforces social boundaries by only forming cohort groups of marrieds and singles. Churches that focus all their attention on being “family-friendly” can unintentionally make single people feel unwelcome or out of place. A church can be a very lonely place for a single person. But the New Testament shows us that the church has the potential to be a community in which people who are married and people who are single learn from and support each other in a way that rarely occurs in any other setting in society.
I want to go back to the well-meaning brothers and sisters who have told me that I haven’t loved as profoundly as they have because I’m single. What if they said, instead, “I never felt love like this until I had a daughter,” or “My capacity to love has deepened throughout my many years of marriage, especially the hard years.” I can affirm and celebrate those statements. They don’t diminish me or the quality of my loves. I might tell them in turn about how my heart has exploded with joy through loving my niece and my godchildren, or how my ability to love has matured through journeying for four decades of life with a twin.
Rejoicing and weeping together
When we share our stories and enter into our joys and pains together, we model what it means to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15).
For a few years, I stopped going to church on Mothers’ Day. I’ve never been a mother myself, and I lost my mother in 2008, when I was 32 years old. So Mothers’ Day in church was an opportunity for me to fight back tears while the mothers around me were awarded carnations and the pastors prayed for them. In the church I currently attend, I look forward to the Mothers’ Day service, where baskets of white and red ribbons with safety pins await the congregation at the front door. Men and women whose mothers are still alive take a red ribbon; anyone whose mother has died wears a white ribbon. Those of us who wear white ribbons catch each other’s eyes, and nod, and exchange hugs. The pastors pray for biological and spiritual mothers, for aunts and grandmothers and godmothers, for women who long to have children but don’t, for men and women who longed to have loving mothers but didn’t, for women who live with the guilt or grief of having an abortion, for women who have lost children to miscarriage or death. It is a beautiful service, where we rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, and it makes me love the church.
I have called you friends
In the Gospel of John, Jesus describes his disciples as his friends, and he says that the greatest love is a willingness to lay down one’s life – not for one’s family, but for one’s friends (John 15:12–15). Recently some Christian writers have called for a revival of this biblical tradition of friendship as a form of committed, enduring relationship, more like the bonds between siblings. Some have even appealed to the role of “spiritual friendship” as a form of committed relationships for people who are same-sex-attracted but who choose to remain celibate.
I’ve heard several sermons that talked about marriage as a metaphor for Christ’s relationship to the church (Eph 5:25–32). I’m happy to hear those sermons; after all, it’s one of the New Testament images for the church and for the depth of God’s love for His people. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon on friendship as a defining metaphor for Jesus’ love for us in John 15. I’ve heard sermons about how faithfulness in marriage models God’s own faithfulness for us, but never a sermon on how faithfulness in friendships can model the kind of deep love and forbearance that Jesus had for his disciples.
If marriage is the only metaphor we ever use for God’s faithfulness, then we’re left to wonder if singleness reflects anything about God at all, or if it’s simply a stage of waiting for something else (marriage) to happen. But faithful relationships between friends, siblings, and cousins can mirror God’s faithfulness and self-giving, too. If we have a hard time imagining what costly fidelity and self-giving relationship look like within a friendship, maybe it’s because we’ve reduced friendship to little more than a click on a web page.
I’ve heard sermons about how faithfulness in marriage models God’s own faithfulness for us, but never a sermon on how faithfulness in friendships can model the kind of deep love and forbearance that Jesus had for his disciples.
Of course, friendships are unlike marriage in some ways: they don’t unite two people into one flesh, and they’re often not permanent. On the other hand, friendship can be a relationship more like marriage than the casual form it often takes in the modern world. Friendship can, like marriage, teach its participants about forgiveness, patience, self-giving love, navigating difference, and so on.
My best friend and I have been friends for 40 years, and I consider our friendship a permanent commitment. I’m not getting out of it, and she’s stuck with me whether she likes it or not. Over the years we’ve laughed and cried and prayed and ached and rejoiced together. We’ve clashed and reconciled and cheered each other on through different stages of life. I’m a better person and a better Christian because of her, and that’s a joy and a benefit that can be found both in marriage and in friendship (Prov 27:17).
Friendship: Celibacy, sex, and intimacy
Single people who wish to remain celibate face enormous cultural pressures against the discipline of chastity. In a sexualized culture, sex becomes confused with intimacy, which implies that celibate single people have no intimate relationships. Or, this confusion can lead to concerns that any form of emotional intimacy outside of marriage is either emotional adultery or is in danger of leading to sex. Of course, Christians need to exercise wisdom in the close friendships they form with one another, and be on their guard to protect and honor the promises made in marriage.
But biblical portraits of intimate friendships (David with Jonathan, Jesus with the beloved disciple, Jesus with Mary and Martha of Bethany) reveal a different pattern: that people of the same gender or of the opposite gender are sometimes called into deep and abiding, intimate friendships with one another that don’t involve sexual relations. Of course, these friendships are not without risks: but treating intimacy as if it can only exist in a marriage not only isolates single people, it often puts more weight on a marriage than it can bear.
[T]reating intimacy as if it can only exist in a marriage not only isolates single people, it often puts more weight on a marriage than it can bear.
Like the Angels
Perhaps most surprisingly of all, the New Testament teaches that marriage is a feature of earth but not of heaven.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the Sadducees (who didn’t believe in a resurrection) go to Jesus with a trick question. If a woman’s husband dies, and she marries his brother, and he dies, and she marries the next brother, and then the next, until she’s been married to seven different brothers, then whose wife will she be in heaven? (Matt 22:23–33).
The Sadducees think they’ve discovered a scenario that shows how absurd the resurrection is. If Jesus says that the woman would be married in heaven only to her first husband, this would invalidate the other marriages, and that would invalidate the law of Moses, which requires those marriages in order to protect the widow. Then the Sadducees could accuse Jesus of tearing down God’s law. Or, if Jesus says she’s married to all seven, that could create some obvious problems in the afterlife.
But no: Jesus tells them they’ve simply missed the point. “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matt 22:30). No marriage in heaven!
This tests a lot of our usual ideas about the permanence of marriage. Jesus teaches his followers that marriage is meant to be permanent in this life – but that in the new age, in resurrection life, people are like the angels, and there simply is no marriage at all.
Jesus teaches his followers that marriage is meant to be permanent in this life – but that in the new age, in resurrection life, people are like the angels, and there simply is no marriage at all.
This also puts to the test some of our usual ideas about what heaven will be like. We sometimes imagine heaven as a family reunion, where we can be reunited with family who has passed on. On the one hand, there’s a powerful truth here: Scripture teaches us that God’s faithful servants are with God when they depart this world. Once, Jesus promises a dying and repentant criminal that he’ll see Jesus in Paradise that very day, as soon as he dies (Luke 23:43). So it’s not unreasonable to assume that life in heaven will include the joy of worshiping God together with our loved ones.
But life in the heavenly realm is ultimately about one thing: the unsurpassing joy of seeing our God face to face, and joining with the angels in the worship of our risen Lord in the world without end (1 Cor 13:12; Rev 7:9–11; 21:22–23). The bonds we had on earth must fade away in that powerful light.
The Christian writer C. S. Lewis put that very idea into dramatic form when he wrote a little book called The Great Divorce. He meant it to be an imaginative exploration of the total incompatibility between the things of hell and the things of heaven – and how we must leave every last bit of the one behind in order to enter the other. In his fantastical story, Hell is an insubstantial place inhabited by Ghosts, a group of whom take a bus trip to Heaven.
When they arrive, they see that Heaven (or what turns out to be the outermost part of the heavenly realm) is inhabited by Solid, Bright People—Resurrection People—some of whom are waiting in this outer valley to help the visiting Ghosts become solid enough (Real enough) to journey further into Heaven. But to become Real and substantial, they have to give up the things that keep them from journeying onward. One Ghost must give up the love she has for her son so that she can learn that “You cannot love a fellow-creature fully till you love God.” Another Ghost struggles (and fails) to grasp the painful lesson that his wife (one of the Risen People) is so full of the joy of Heaven that she no longer needs him. She invites him to join her in that joy, but he refuses.
Lewis never intended for his story to be an actual description of Hell or Heaven. Instead, he called The Great Divorce a “fantasy” with a moral. But as he pondered the all-encompassing joy and beauty of life in the world to come, he suggested that the divine Love would overflow and make all our earthly loves fall away in its glorious light.
It’s sometimes said that having children is a sign of hope in God’s continued providence over the world, a sign of hope that we continue to trust God enough to bring children into a troubled world. Surely that’s true. It’s also true that single people bear witness to the Christian hope in a different way.
As Rodney Clapp writes, “…the single Christian ultimately must trust in the resurrection. The married, after all, can fall back on the passage of the family name to children, and on being remembered by children. But singles mount the high wire of faith without the net of children and their memory. If singles live on, it will be because there is a resurrection. And if they are remembered, they will be remembered by the family called church” (Clapp, Families at the Crossroads, 101).
It’s sometimes said that having children is a sign of hope in God’s continued providence over the world, a sign of hope that we continue to trust God enough to bring children into a troubled world. Surely that’s true. It’s also true that single people bear witness to the Christian hope in a different way.
Let’s be the family called church. May we live into that beautiful call, as we strain forward to what lies ahead: the resurrection of the dead, our hope in glory (Phil 3:12–14).
Albert Hsu, Singles at the Crossroads
Clapp, Families at the Crossroads (Chapter 5, “The Superiority of Singleness”)
Christine A. Colón and Bonnie E. Field, Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must Be Reinvented in Today’s Church
Stanley Grenz, Sexual Ethics
Nilwona Nowlin’s Covenant Companion essay