In our day, we marry later and delay starting a family. Through selfishness, some North Americans have written off the institution of marriage altogether. In light of these realities, Christians rightly underscore the goodness of marriage and the family.
But, on occasion, we emphasize marriage so much that we give the impression that singleness represents a lesser state. It does not. It is not just okay to be single, but for those so gifted with singleness, it also represents a much better state of living than does marriage.
The goodness of singleness
Singleness is the good gift of God for the sake of the kingdom of God which, through the lack of marriage, creates an intense hope in us for our spiritual union with God that many married persons cannot otherwise experience (Matt 19:12; 1 Cor 7:7; Eph 5:32).
In this sense, singleness forms a sort of spiritual discipline that creates in us an appetite for God; likewise, for those so gifted, marriage can give us a foretaste of our union with God in Christ. Both manners of life produce effects of virtue, of goodness in us. Yet we must affirm in our context the goodness of singleness since we usually (and rightly) laud the goodness of marriage.
Since marriage points to union with God in Christ (Eph 5:32), then spiritual union is the purpose of marriage. Yet some single people God uniquely gifts so that they can pursue spiritual union with God apart from earthly marriage. For those so gifted, this condition surpasses marriage. And depending on circumstances, those granted the gift of singleness for the kingdom’s sake should abide in the gift to be like Mary (and so have the better portion) rather than search for a marriage partner like Martha (and so have the worse portion).
The gift of singleness
Singleness sometimes better equips one for Christian ministry as a particular gift of God (1 Cor 7:7). In such cases (and there are many), we should laud the gift of singleness, seeing it as a unique contribution in the kingdom of God—one which married persons are deprived of.
The reasons why are practical. Paul explains:
32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. (1 Cor 7:32–35)
Single people worry about God, while married people often worry about their family. In this sense, it simply is a matter of priorities. If we are devoted to God, singleness can and does provide us the means to pursue that singular devotion. Hence, Paul advises, “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am.” So what is Paul’s advice to single people? Stay single, and pursue God since marital relationships can create anxiety (1 Cor 7:32–35).
So marriage is good and singleness is good. God overwhelmingly gifts us with the desire for marriage, whereas he less often calls us to celibacy. Both gifts, however, must exist in the kingdom of God, acted out in local churches, to ensure that the body of Christ uses each part of the body for the sake of edification and maturity.
To deny a role to the singles is to cut off part of the body. And that is something we must never do. Does the hand say to the eye, “I have no need of you?” Likewise, the marrieds must never say (or think), “I have no need of single people.”