A few friends of mine, who grew up in solid Christian environments as children of pastors, mentioned to me they didn’t think the Bible said anything about singleness. No doubt exists in my mind that these friends knew, and could easily find, the passages in the Bible that dealt with marriage but the lack of knowledge that the Bible spoke into their lives of singleness seemed a significant issue.
A basic understanding of hermeneutics tells us that one comes to any text with preconceived notions of what it should or does say. The best exegete tries to compensate for this issue but cultural understandings may so influence their thinking that they can’t see out of that paradigm.
I propose we do this with marriage when we read the Bible. We put our cultural views–our views that come from our current Christian culture– into what the Bible actually teaches on marriage and singleness. We tend to believe it is a Biblical mandate to be married except, of course, for those few people who are called to singleness. So we read the Bible accordingly, only seeing those parts that talk of marriage and how it plays a role in our lives and represents our future with Christ. We do not see the parts that talk about singleness.
So, let’s take a look starting in Genesis and look at creation with an eye towards singleness. In Genesis 2:18-22 it says:
The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a companion for him who corresponds to him.’ The Lord God formed out of the ground every living animal of the field and every bird of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them, and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man named all the animals, the birds of the air, and the living creatures of the field, but for Adam no companion who corresponded to him was found. So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep, and while he was asleep, he took part of the man’s side and closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the part he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
Many foundational insights exist in these passages of Genesis that tell us who we are as humans and who God created us to be. Most people look to these chapters to tell us about God’s mandate for marriage. But take a moment to look at this passage from the perspective of God creating us also to be single–at least for a time.
The passage starts with God stating that it is not good for man to be alone. Of course, God knows that none of the animals are going to be the match for Adam but he still has Adam go through the naming process. Why would God do this? This question persists to be an interesting one with many commentators weighing in but I’d like to look at it from the perspective of singleness for some answers.
During this time of naming the animals Adam was going through a God-ordained period of singleness. Adam was waiting and hoping and expecting a companion to come along. At the very beginning God created this process of singleness in humans. It seems God wanted Adam to go through this. It seems that God wanted Adam to learn and grow during this time.
Singleness then, in some sense, seems to be our natural state. Marriage is something that God created for us while in this life—it doesn’t exist in our eternal state. He created marriage as a teaching tool and as a way for us to experience a healthy way to feed our need for real relationships in this world. But, we need not act like being single is wrong. God creates us as singles (everyone is born single), as individuals, and even, as with Adam, requires us to be single for a time period in our lives.
Moving into the New Testament now, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:7-9:
I wish that everyone was as I am. But each has his own gift from God, one this way, another that. To the unmarried and widows I say that it is best for them to remain as I am. But if they do not have self-control, let them get married. For it is better to marry than to burn with sexual desire.
Again, in this oft quoted passage on singleness and marriage we tend to put on our ‘marriage goggles’ and look at it assuming that we should get married, often as quickly as possible. In the context Paul is addressing a question that the church in Corinth asked regarding abstaining from sex altogether. Paul is talking about when it is appropriate and not appropriate to have sex. If you read the previous verses this is clear, but we often just pull out a few verses making it easy to misinterpret the meaning. In 1 Corinthians 7:1-7 the verses right before the verses I quoted above it says:
Now with regard to the issues you wroteabout: “It is goodfor a mannotto have sexual relationswith a woman.”But because of immoralities, each man should have relations with his own wife and each woman with her own husband.…Do not deprive each other, except by mutual agreement for a specified time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then resume your relationship, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.I say this as a concession, not as a command.I wish that everyone was as I am. But each has his own gift from God, one this way, another that.
Paul says both engaging in sex and abstinence are appropriate but in the correct contexts. It also seems we may fool ourselves into thinking that when Paul says that those who do not have ‘self-control’ should get married that he is speaking to anyone who has thoughts about sex and/or desires to have it. Most likely this was not his intent. The culture of that time was rampant with ways to express yourself sexually from temple prostitutes to brothels. If you are participating in those options, it is better to get married and have sexual relations in a marital context but he’d prefer if everyone stayed single as he was.
Obviously the Bible does address singleness through the passages I talked about as well as several others I’ve not looked at here. I’ll continue to look at more Biblical passages on the topic and develop the theology of singleness and marriage more fully in upcoming posts.
Read more in the intro piece to this series:
Valentine’s Day, Singleness, & The Church: Part I
(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)