Biblical Theology of Singleness

27/02/2012

Singleness is a crucial element in the witness of God’s church to the Kingdom of Heaven. It flows from the whole Bible’s teaching on singleness, marriage, and the coming age. This biblical theology of singleness is rarely if ever preached: but it should be. Here are notes from what I said yesterday. I mention sources at the end.

Singleness and the Bible (2012)

Readings: Genesis1.26-28, Matt 28.16-20; Luke 20. 27-40

‘Gotcha!’ questions

You might have caught the exchange a few days ago between Dr Giles Fraser, former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, and Professor Richard Dawkins, atheist-in-residence and evolutionist. The debate was about what counts as a ‘proper’ Christian. Giles Fraser countered that, presumably, a ‘proper’ atheist would know the full title of Charles Darwin’s famous book. Dawkins agreed, but was then unable to give the full title, and was left red-faced. My point is not to gloat at Dawkins’ embarrassment (which is not right), nor to idolise Dr Fraser (with whom I don’t agree on many things), but to illustrate the kind of position that the Sadducees were hoping to put Jesus into when they asked him this question:

Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and have children for his brother.  (Luke 20:27–28)

They are right. The OT indeed teaches that if a man dies without leaving children, it is his brother’s duty to provide him with some. It is called Levirate marriage. We’ll come back to it later.

The non-magnificent Seven

Sadducees did not believe in life after death (that is why they were sad, you see!). They wanted to make Jesus look ridiculous because he not only taught that there is a resurrection, but also that taking part in it depended on being his disciple!

So they pose this tricky scenario:

Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. The second and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. Finally, the woman died too. Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”  (Luke 20:29–33)

Poor woman! How will Jesus get out of that one? Here is his answer:

Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels.  (Luke 20:34–36)

In other words, there won’t be marriage in the resurrection life! Those of us who are married may find this a bit sad (I will try to come back to this later). Jews who were steeped in the worldview of the Old Testament would have been devastated!

Singleness in biblical perspective

We need to see the shock of Jesus teaching so that we can make biblical sense of singleness.

Too often Christians assume that because marriage is important, singleness is either a plan B, or it’s a transitional state. When we listen to Jesus’ teaching, we find that it is neither a plan B, nor a transitional state. Indeed it is marriage that is temporary and transitory. Marriage is still good – but crucially, singleness is also good. Jesus neither married nor had children, yet he was fully human and greatly blessed by God. Paul was either unmarried or widowed, and he too was fulfilled and blessed. Both taught that it is good to marry, and it is good not to marry. That is unusual.

The Shock of Singleness: it proclaims the impermanence of this world

Jesus’ shocking teaching on singleness comes because there is another world to come.

Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels.  (Luke 20:34–36)

We learn about the birth of this age in the early chapters of Genesis. As the pinnacle of his creation, God made man and woman. He made in his image, and gave us this command:

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.  (Genesis 1:28)

Three reasons to marry and multiply

There’s the very first commandment: go and multiply! It is a duty to marry and to have children so that the earth may be filled as God commands. That duty is now made difficult because of the effects of sin: we are alienated from God, distanced from each other, and at war with the natural world. But the duty remains: to marry and multiply.

There is a glimmer of hope given to Eve in Genesis 3.15, where God promises that one her descendants, a son of Eve, will finally overcome the serpent, satan, and thus conquer sin. So there is now a double reason: to fill the earth, and to find the saviour.

God makes a covenant with Abraham that through his descendants there will be great blessing. We know that this blessing will come from his most famous descendant, Jesus. Here then is third reason to marry and multiply: filling, saving, blessing.

If the covenant blessings are passed on through the family line, then it is vital that no line should die out. We see something similar with aristocratic families: the blessed Downton Abbey is about ensuring that the Earl of Grantham has a male heir, otherwise the line and the title will die out.

This explains some features we find in the OT:

  • Zelophehad was a man with five daughters but no sons. When he died the daughters ask Moses:

Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.”  (Numbers 27:4)

Moses allows the family name and line to continue through the daughters, so that the line would not die out.

  • second, there is Levirate marriage that the Sadducees posed to Jesus: if a man dies without leaving children, his brothers must rally round so that his wife produces a son for her first husband’s line:

The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.  (Deuteronomy 25:6)

  • third, one of the most serious sanctions against an individual in OT Israel is that the whole family should be ‘cut off’ from their people: if a man leaves no descendants and the line dies out, he is cut off from the people. It’s a very serious sanction.

All this must have made life uncomfortable for both the unmarried and the childless in Israel. Not only did you have the mother asking ‘no boyfriend yet?’, and the mother-in-law ‘no children yet?’ but for your spiritual welfare the Rabbi was also on the case of getting you married and multiplied! For couples who could not have a family this loaded guilt on top of pain! The clear OT teaching is that there is a duty to marry and multiply.

The shock of singleness

It is therefore a very great shock when Jesus says that there isn’t marriage in heaven, and you don’t have to marry and multiply in this life either. It overturns everything the Jews have been taught to cherish.

Jesus says it because something better is coming along:

Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels.  (Luke 20:34–36)

Life in this world is fading and failing. We will all die, and most of us will decay on the way there. When Jesus died, he was raised to new life beyond death, never to die again. Nor indeed to decay.

Mission rather than marriage

We enter this life her by being born of a mother: by water and blood. We enter the new life, the life of the age to come, by second birth, by the Holy Spirit. It is what we call conversion.

In this age, the earth is filled and subdued when Adam and Eve’s descendants marry and multiply. But in the age to come, the new earth is filled with disciples added by mission:

… go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19–20)

This changes everything. What matters is not children, but disciples. And therefore mission is a priority over marriage and multiplication. Which means that in this life, there is no longer any need to be married or have children in order to be obedient and blessed.

Of course marriage still matters, as I hope I made clear recently. And Christian marriage is the setting in which children may be born and nurtured in the fear of  the Lord, in other words, to be brought up as disciples of Christ, and to make the gospel promises their own. Nevertheless, marriage is not ultimate. It is passing: it is transitory; it is impermanent.

There is no marriage in the age to come. Those of us who are married  will see our marriage give way to a far greater relationship – the marriage between Christ and his bride the church. I daresay we will see each other, but if there is a spouse, it will be Christ.

The message of singleness: it proclaims the Kingdom of God

Let’s take a moment to see how this makes sense of the Bible’s teaching elsewhere. I can only touch on a couple of areas, but I hope they will help persuade you.

OT Eunuchs and Barren women

We saw that under the Old Covenant, it was a duty to marry and multiply. But what if you could not? As we saw, there is both pain and guilt for women and men who were in this position.

The prophets hold out hope for those who cannot have children:

Sing, O barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the LORD.  (Isaiah 54:1)

And

Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.”  And let not any eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant— to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.  (Isaiah 56:3–5)

Isaiah is not saying that Christians will have less difficulty having a family that OT Jews would. Not at all. He says that barrenness is replaced with the possibility for all of bearing spiritual children. The woman who can’t have physical children can have many, many, spiritual children: and the man (eunuch) who cannot father a line of descendants will have a line that will never end. Those spiritual children are disciples.

There is a scene in C S Lewis’ book the Great Divorce in which the narrator visits Heaven for a day trip. He sees a great procession. Who’s that?, he asks. ‘No-one you would know. She was unknown in her previous life, but here she is a great figure. And following this little old lady is a long line of those she cared for.

That’s a small picture of how, in heaven’s eyes, spiritual children that will follow our procession, whether we were their physical parents or not.

Tim Keller writes:

There was no more radical act in that day and time than to live a life that did not produce heirs. (meaning of marriage 195)

Now we see why the single and the childless disciples must be valued alongside the married and the parent disciple. Singleness is not a plan B; and it is not a transitory phase. It is in fact a picture of what we will one day all be if we are in Christ Jesus.

How does all this help us with the practice of singleness and with godliness within singleness?

The Practice of Singleness: it proclaims the adequacy of Christ

1. Singleness is not Plan B. If this church has ever said that, I want to repent of it as clearly as I can. If the church idolises marriage, it will encourage singles to believe their life is on hold until they marry. That is not the case.

2. Contented singleness, like contented marriage, finds its adequacy in Christ. Married people – we must not rely on our spouse to fulfil our hopes, which on Christ can fulfil. And singles who might marry, you must not rely on your dream of marriage to fulfil your hopes: only Christ can do that. Living this way will exalt Christ! Here’s Tim Keller again:

Without a deeply fulfilling love relationship with Christ now, and hope in a perfect love relationship with him in the future, married Christians will put too much pressure on their marriage to fulfill them, and that always creates pathology in their lives. But singles, too, must see the penultimate [impermanent] nature of marriage. If single Christians don’t develop a deeply fulfilling love relationship with Jesus, they will put too much pressure on their dream of marriage, and that will create pathology in their lives.(Keller Meaning 198)

3. The church needs both marrieds and singles if we are to understand the glory of God’s gospel:

Marriage has its unique potential for magnifying Christ that singleness does not have. Singleness has its unique potential for magnifying Christ that marriage does not have. To God be glory in the Christ-exalting drama of marriage and in the Christ-exalting drama of the single life. (John Piper This momentary marriage 114 – reviewed here)

4. Single people as well as married people will have struggles over purity – although the struggles are different. If the whole church needs the witness of holy singles and holy marrieds, then we must struggle for holiness for the sake of the church. One way we blend holiness with family is to greet one another as brothers and sisters, and to make sure that the relationships are indeed holy. Paul’s advice to Timothy was Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity. In other words, don’t do anything you wouldn’t do with your sister!

May Christ be exalted in your life – whether you are single or married.

A note on books about singleness

The main, and wonderful, resource is Barry Danylak’s Redeeming Singleness reviewed here. At the end of the review I mention a couple of other books on singleness.

I should also add that the books on marriage by Christopher Ash (Married for God) and Tim & Kathy Keller (The meaning of marriage) both have excellent chapters on singleness.


Redeeming Singleness by Barry Danylak – a Review

01/10/2011

I think this is a really important book because Barry Danylak makes a persuasive case for the importance of the single Christian life: it is a sign of the Kingdom of God.

Christianity is unique among the major faiths in speaking positively about singleness.Jesus’ teaching in this area is in one sense a new departure from Israelite concentration on marriage and family. In a greater sense it is a fulfilment of the whole Bible’s storyline. Danylak follows the themes of marriage, progeny and singleness as they develop through the Bible. These themes are surprisingly central to the theme of the whole Bible and open up a central vein of the Covenants, the Seed.

The Covenants with Adam and Noah contain clear commands to multiply and fill the earth. The Covenant with Abraham promised him a great name, and great people, and an inheritance, which seem to me to be a fresh way to multiply and fill the earth. Having children is vital to inheriting these blessings.

  • Children will continue the family name, and there is an incident where a father with four daughters obtains special dispensation for them to bear his name so it will not die out (Zelophehad in Numbers 27)
  • Children allow the people to multiply.
  • Children are then able to take on the inheritance, the portion of land that is allotted to that family.

It follows that the worst thing that can happen to an Israelite to be refused these blessings: to have his family line ended by being killed with all his descendants; to have his Name wiped out and forgotten; and to have no heirs because the family line has come to an end. This is what it means for someone to be ‘cut off’ from his people.

Eunuchs and women who cannot bear children are unable to receive the blessing inherent in the Abrahamic covenant because they have no-one to bear their name, to carry their line or to inherit their portion. Childlessness is a calamity under the old covenant.

The Prophets, and especially Isaiah, therefore raise an interesting hope: that the Eunuch will be blessed and the barren woman rejoice (Isaiah 54 & 56). How can this be? It is because under the new covenant, the blessing is received not through one’s own (physical) seed, but through the Seed himself, the Suffering Servant. Under the new covenant, blessing comes by spiritual birth and eunuchs and barren women are able to bear spiritual children and be blessed.

Jesus bears this vision out in his sayings about new birth (John 3); about eunuchs (Matt 19); in his answer to the Sadducees’ question about marriage at the resurrection (Matt 22.23-33 par), and in his redefinition of the family (Mark 10.28-30 par).

All of which makes sense of two difficult passages in Paul: the allegory in Galatians 3-4, and 1 Corinthians 7, which each receive a chapter to themselves. I must say I was persuaded by his argument in both cases. Danylak argues that the problem in Corinth was not a mixture of asceticism and licence (the common interpretation) but that  in common with their home culture, the Corinthians Christians were wrestling with whether or not it was good to marry. And for their culture, marriage and sex were not related – there was sex without marriage. Paul needs therefore to teach them that sex is for marriage, and then to discuss whether it is good to marry (and be continent) or not (and be abstinent). He also discusses the ‘gift’ of singleness, and distinguishes chosen singleness from imposed singleness.

All of which builds a solid biblical-theological case for singleness in the Kingdom. We are all born single; most of us will die in that state. And in the light of eternity, those of us who marry, will be married only for a few decades, a drop in the ocean of eternity. This is no side-show: this theme takes us to the heart of the covenant blessings. A great work.

Further details from 10ofthose or Crossway

Other books on singleness

I have only come across two other books on singleness (actually a book and a chapter).

The first is Al Hsu’s The Single Issue. In order to make a positive case for singleness, Hsu needs to defeat the wrong emphasis on marriage and family in Christian circles. (I have even been to a wedding where the preacher – not me! – congratulated the bride and groom on being ‘about to enter into what it means to be truly human’. I died a thousand deaths inside on behalf of every unmarried person in the church – the preacher had just told them they were not fully human!). Hsu’s task is to say ‘singleness is OK’.In order to do so he needs to take a very pro-family Christian culture down a peg or two. And he does it well, but it is a shame to have to be ‘down’ on marriage in order to be ‘up’ on singleness.

The second, more theological, resource is a chapter in John Piper’s This Momentary Marriage (reviewed here). Piper writes a foreword for Danylak’s Redeeming Singleness and apparently it was a conversation between the two which prompted the chapter in Piper’s book (which was published first). Marriage matters because it is a parable of the Gospel (Ephesians 5). Singleness also matters because it is a parable of the Kingdom, where we will be single. This was the first positive theological statement I had come across for the value of singleness. At the time I thought it a shame that one has to read a book on marriage to find this great chapter on singleness’. Danylak’s thesis now has a book of its own. It is written for theologically aware readers: I hope that once Barry Danylak has completed his PhD in 1 Corinthians 7, he will be able to write a popular level version of Redeeming Singleness.


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