Thinking Theologically About Singleness

by Derek Brown

Singleness was rare in Israel. While you can still find an unmarried Israelite here and there in the biblical narrative, on the whole, marriage was the normal state for God’s people. But the ubiquity of marriage in Israel wasn’t some arbitrary cultural development: God had created marriage at the very beginning of creation (Gen 2:18-25), and he had specific purposes for promoting and protecting marriage among the Jews. At this stage in redemptive history, God’s plans revolved around the establishment of a nation and the multiplication of physical offspring with the aim of producing the final offspring, the Messiah. Marriage, by necessity, was the vehicle through which God would accomplish these goals.

Marriage was also the primary means through which God would bless his nation’s covenant faithfulness. Obedience to God’s law would result in great blessing for Jewish families.

And because you listen to these rules and keep and do them, the LORD your God will keep with you the covenant and the steadfast love that he swore to your fathers. He will love you, bless you, and multiply you. He will also bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock, in the land that he swore to your fathers to give you.       

Deuteronomy 7:12-13

If Israel was faithful to their God, he would bless married couples with children and material abundance. Beyond the blessing of children, this material abundance—the fruit of the ground, grain, wine, herds and flocks—were goods that would be enjoyed mainly in and through family.

Family was also the way a man would preserve his name after his death. Land inheritances were tied to individual families so that it was essential to maintain an unbroken genealogical line from one generation to the next to maintain possession of one’s land.  A eunuch, therefore—someone who was unable to marry due to genital malformation or removal—would have been left out of these blessings precisely because he was unable to engage in marriage. 

The Arrival of the Final Offspring
But something changed two-thousand years ago. In the fulness of time, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Son of David, the offspring of Abraham—the final offspring—came into the world to die for the sins of God’s people and fulfill God’s redemptive purposes. Christ is now building his church—a community of redeemed sinners who worship the true God and serve and love one another. The church, unlike Israel, is not a nation-state whose existence must be perpetuated through the multiplication of physical offspring, nor is there a need to produce the final offspring, for he has already come.  

The church, unlike Israel, is not a nation-state whose existence must be perpetuated through the multiplication of physical offspring, nor is there a need to produce the final offspring, for he has already come.  

Marriage, therefore, is no longer central to God’s redemptive plan in the same way it was in Israel. Marriage is still a good gift from God that many believers will receive for their joy and sanctification (1 Tim 4:1-5; Heb 13:4; 1 Cor 7:2). Marriage serves as an earthly picture of a grand spiritual reality: Christ’s relationship with his church (Eph 5:22-33). Christians are therefore responsible to live with their spouses and raise their children in a way that exalts Christ and honors his Word (1 Pet 3:1-7; Col 3:18-21).

Something Better Than Marriage and Family
But marriage no longer has a central place in God’s redemptive plan in the same way it did in Israel because God’s redemptive plan is no longer focused on the establishment of a nation, the multiplication of physical offspring, and the production of the final offspring. God’s redemptive plan is now focused on the multiplication of spiritual offspring (see Col 3:10). We see this shift in the way the New Testament talks about salvation. We are “born again,” (John 3:3 cf. 1 Pet 1:3, 23) and “born of God” (1 John 4:7; 5:1). When we are regenerated, God’s seed resides in us (1 John 3:9). Paul spoke of begetting spiritual children and being a father to new believers (1 Cor 4:15). Infinitely more important than being married and having earthly children is being saved from eternal judgment. Massively more important than bearing physical offspring is being one of God’s spiritual offspring.

Infinitely more important than being married and having earthly children is being saved from eternal judgment.

But even before Christ appeared on the scene the prophets hinted at this shift in God’s redemptive plan regarding marriage, family, and singleness. Isaiah, for example, told the eunuch to no longer consider himself a “dry tree” or to feel excluded from the sphere of God’s redemptive blessings. The eunuch will have an inheritance that is better than physical sons and daughters, a concept that would have been nearly incomprehensible in Israel given the centrality of marriage and family (see Isa 56:3-5). 

These promises to the eunuch are now fulfilled in the New Covenant. The single believer in Jesus Christ has the same access to the same redemptive blessings as the married believer (Eph 1:3-10). During his earthly ministry, Jesus taught that marriage is only temporary (there will be no marriage in the age to come, Matt 22:30) and even indicated that there will be some who deliberately refrain from marriage in order to serve God more intentionally (Matt 19:12). 

The Gift of Singleness
Paul follows this redemptive trajectory regarding marriage and singleness when he states that there are spiritual advantages to remaining single, and that God will even give some of his people the spiritual gift (charisma) of singleness for the sake of kingdom focus (1 Cor 7:6). Rather than grieving over the unmarried believers in the Corinthian congregation, Paul wished that they could all be single like him (1 Cor 7:7). Paul doesn’t compel anyone to remain single—he recognizes that many will get married and it is good for their sexual purity that they do (1 Cor 7:2; 8-9)—but he does acknowledge the many benefits of refraining from marriage, particularly freedom from the anxieties related to caring for a spouse and children (1 Cor 7:32-35).

Far from a second-tier Christian existence, now that the Messiah has come and we sit on the precipice of the eternal kingdom, singleness not only bears unique redemptive advantages; it is a precursor of our final state. Though it may be hard to fathom now, there is coming a day when all believers will be single. Considered in light of eternity, earthly marriage is a brief, momentary reality.

Those who struggle with singleness on this side of heaven, therefore, will someday find that they didn’t miss out on anything. You will be satisfied fully in Christ and delighting in your brothers and sisters (Ps 16:3). Earthly marriage will have given way to the grandest of all spiritual realities: Christ is now married to his bride—his people—forever (Rev 21:2-3).

Singleness, therefore, does not bar you from God’s redemptive blessings. Every blessing is yours in Christ. Nor does singleness classify you as a subpar servant of Christ, for that would undermine even the apostle Paul’s ministry. No, now that the Messiah has come, singleness bears unique advantages for ministry focus. If God has given you that gift, make the most of it as you await the kingdom.  

Related Articles