Paul the Apostle states that singleness is the preferred state for the Christian. He says in 1 Corinthians 7:38: He who wishes to marry does well, and he who wishes to remain single does better. (But let me clarify something for you secular and salacious singles: when Paul uses the term “single”, he means “single and celibate”. Just so we’re clear.)
Obviously, if all Christians remained celibate the Church might have a rather short future. Such was the case with the Shakers, a 19-century sect that had a community in Sonyea about 40 minutes from our church. The song “Tis A Gift To Be Simple” comes from them. These Shakers, led by a woman named “Mother Ann”, forbad sex, and surprisingly they gained quite a few adherents, including many married people. I’m not sure what that says about the sex lives of those couples, but it is interesting how periodically in the history of the Church singleness becomes an attractive lifestyle for quite a few people.
Paul’s preference for singleness arises not from any devaluing of sex; rather his concern is practical. This is different from some streams of Roman Catholic tradition (e.g. Augustine) which hold that celibacy is morally superior to marriage. Paul’s preference for singleness (and he does say it is his preference rather than a command from the Lord) arises rather from his belief that Christ’s return was imminent and the gospel must reach as many people as possible as fast as possible. His urgency, and that of countless celibate people throughout the history of the Church, has fueled bold advance of Christ’s mission. The truth is that single people – whether single for a season before marriage, single for a season after the death of a spouse, or single permanently, can devote themselves to God’s work in a way married people usually cannot.
I see an example in my own children. In high school and college they participated in high-impact ministries that required ten hours of commitment every week – and they loved it. I’ve seen even greater fruit born by single retirees. So much is possible through the single person who loves Christ and gives herself or himself to serving him!
I believe American culture in the next generation will see a resurgence of people choosing singleness as a way to advance God’s kingdom. Already obsession with sex and sexual identity have morphed into absurdities that are impotent to answer our deeper human longings. A new generation will discover the excitement of living wholly for God.
So if you are single, re-examine the belief that you must be married. Consider instead a different kind of intimacy: Christian community. My wife and I lived for three years with another married couple in Christian community, so the kind of spiritual intimacy I’m talking about is not just for single people. However, single people have a greater capacity and need for it. Much more could be said about the varieties of community single people can enjoy, but for now it’s enough to comment that just as desire for sexual intimacy can drive a wonderful unity between man and woman, so too can the hunger for spiritual intimacy can drive a wonderful unity between single people wholly devoted to God’s service. The American Church needs more examples of the latter.
Some people are called to life-long singleness. Some choose this out of a sense of broken-ness or futility concerning romance, but others choose it out of intimacy with Jesus and excitement for the work he calls them to. If you think you may be such a person, remember that singleness is not aloneness. You still need intimacy. But you will not be bothered by persisting desires for romance or sex.
If you are single and you know you want to be married eventually, let me offer advice on how to find a good spouse: seek first the kingdom of God (as Jesus says in Matthew 6:33). Develop your life in intimate relationship with your Savior and Lord first. This will make you a much more interesting person than the person who waits until they meet the man or woman who makes them feel alive. We tend to attract people when we are on the way to an exciting destination rather than waiting to board the train.