Since the beginning of humanity, single people have struggled with a predicament. From those who never marry to widows and widowers to those who are divorced or were abandoned by their spouse—singleness is an issue that most people will likely grapple with at one point or another in their lives.
While some choose to remain unmarried on purpose—whether their lives are devoted to the call of ministry or family caretaking—the majority of single people seem to have the longing for relationship through marriage, whether they’ve found it or not. Singles, especially in the church, struggle with a variety of issues related to loneliness and feeling “lesser” than their married sisters and brothers in Christ, yet God continues to sanctify those who seek Him.
Jesus and Paul
As we look to the Scriptures for understanding on singleness, we have to recognize our Lord Himself was single. The apostle Paul also remained single and felt that he was called to do so. In 1 Cor. 7:27-29, Paul writes: “Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you have not sinned. And if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. Nevertheless they will have trouble in this life, but I would spare you that. But this I say, brothers, the time is short.”
With heaven on the horizon, Paul felt that the most important work of his life needed to be unhindered by married life; he urged others called to ministry to follow his lead.
Mary Lyon, a single woman in her 50s, recently retired from her engineering career to take care of her dying cousin. She described her dilemma.
“Christ paid the cost for me, and when I walked away from being asked to get married, the cost I paid was not having kids and grandkids,” Lyon says. “When God asked me to give up the hope of family life, I realized there’s a greater joy in sacrificing my own desires to follow God’s call on my life. Sometimes God asks us to give up things we really love and want for a greater thing that brings Him more glory.”
In his book The Meaning of Marriage, Tim Keller devotes a chapter to singleness and talks about how his church, Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan, was initially comprised of more than 80 percent singles. He thought that he wouldn’t need to preach much on marriage, but discovered that he was wrong.
“So what motivated me to preach about marriage to the unmarried?” Keller asked rhetorically. “The answer is that single people cannot live their lives well as singles without a balanced, informed view of marriage. If they do not have that, they will either over-desire or under-desire marriage and either of those ways of thinking will distort their lives.”
Keller also notes that Jesus and Paul were single their entire lives and that single adults “cannot be seen as somehow less fully formed or realized human beings than married persons because Jesus Christ, a single man, was the perfect man.”
Challenges of Singleness
There is no shortage of challenges for those who have not felt a divine call to singleness and are hopeful that they will find a marriage partner.
“For a lot of singles, there are waves,” remarks Fabienne Harford, a single woman in her 30s from Austin, Texas. “First, there’s the out-of-college wave, then the 20s wave, then the 30s wave. It’s like you’re out in the water paddling around on the surfboard wondering, ‘Did I miss that last wave?’ The older you get, the harder it becomes to fight the enemy’s lies. People ask, ‘Do you want to be single?'”
Harford has been tempted to feel like an outsider within church culture.
“Some singles can feel like they get pigeonholed or excluded, as though they don’t have authority to speak into certain things as an unmarried person,” Harford says. “We feel as a culture that singleness is the worst thing that could happen to a person. The Bible doesn’t seem to speak about singleness as a ‘cross to bear.’ The church has room to grow in order to color in the lines of what singleness looks like.”
Harford attends Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, Texas. Rex Hamilton, also single, serves as the church’s director of equipping. He leads a development class for singles called “Undivided.”
“I started having lots of conversations with singles about loneliness, struggles and difficulty in dating,” Hamilton says. “We don’t want to pull people away from the body of Christ, but we do want to be able to pull away to talk about specific struggles and issues related to the needs of singles.”
Refocusing and looking deeper into what divides the heart and causes pain helps singles gain perspective regardless of their stage of life. In a sense, singles can be undivided in their devotion to the Lord.
“We have more opportunity to be undivided than perhaps married folks,” Hamilton says.
Affirming Blessing in the Single Life
In his book Redeeming Singleness, Barry Danylak takes a theological journey through the Old and New Testaments to view singleness through the lens of Christianity in a unique way.
He argues that while Judaism, Islam and Mormonism idealize and emphasize the role of marriage and negate the single life, New Testament Christianity differs.
“This difference is more than simply an enlightened relegation of the marriage decision to the realm of individual choice, but relates to something fundamentally distinct within Christianity itself—namely, the atoning work of Jesus Christ,” he says.
Danylak points out the differences between the Abrahamic Covenant’s emphasis on marriage, progeny and land as the conduit for God’s blessings and the New Covenant in Christ’s blessings of all who believe regardless of marital status and offspring.
“Whereas marriage and physical procreation were necessary for maintaining one’s physical inheritance for the next generation, they are not necessary for preserving one’s spiritual inheritance within the eternal kingdom of God,” Danylak says.
While our salvation and subsequent blessings are not dependent on marital status, we must acknowledge that God has created us for relationship with Him and with each other. It cannot be denied that churches need to support all groups of people, whether single, married, divorced, abandoned or widowed, to help them draw closer in relationship to Christ and to others.
Many Stages, Many Needs
After 30 years in singles and marriage ministry, Bob and Lenora DeLemos, pastors at Destiny Church in Rocklin, California, have found that equipping singles, divorcees and married people with key relationship tools is one of the foundational aspects of their ministry.
“We started out helping counsel divorced people and found that when people are broken, they will come to church for help,” says Lenora DeLemos.
Singles often feel overwhelming loneliness that can thwart growth in their relationship with Christ. While some churches offer ministry focused on this target group, not every church does.
The DeLemoses have found that empowering people with good interpersonal relationship tools is key to real discipleship and positive change in their lives.
“Equipping and teaching singles to have healthy relationships with good limits and boundaries is key,” Lenora DeLemos says.
For the most part, they have encountered people who come to church struggling with aloneness after a lost marriage or the death of a spouse and are asking the big questions of life. Lenora DeLemos notes that women tend to seek out help sooner after a broken relationship. She often walks women through the process of grief following a divorce.
“One of the biggest needs is to educate people and give them tools to use for discernment,” Bob DeLemos says.
They have taught life skills through premarital counseling, divorce recovery and singles ministry, and have seen God perform complete life changes. Often, their counseling encourages people to become more selfless and to take responsibility for their lives in order to be successful in a relationship.
In the last six decades, the percentage of married adults has dropped from 67 percent to 54 percent. The statistics reveal that about 30 percent of the population is single. In light of the fact that people today wait much longer to marry and many never marry, churches must take a closer look at how to disciple and minister to people at all stages of relationships.
“In evangelical Christianity, it seems (as though) not a lot of thought is given to singles,” comments Stacey, a single woman in her late 40s who has served in education and ministry throughout her career. “We’re the body of Christ—marital status shouldn’t be as much of an issue in church life,” she says.
Relationship for All
If there’s one thing that everyone can agree on, it’s that God created us to be in relationship with one another. Whether through friendship, marriage or ministry, we all pretty much share the same needs—regardless of age or stage.
“Is singleness a legitimate way of living? You don’t hear a lot of preaching on this topic,” Harford says. “The one thing I wish more churches had is cross-stage ministry. I’m constantly reminded that my struggles are unique and not unique at the same time. You realize this when you’re in community with people of all different stages of life. But more than advice on life experience, we need advice based on the gospel truth.
No matter where a person is in their relationship with Christ, faith is the foundational underpinning that girds all relationships.
“For some, God’s going to use singleness to help ‘put off the old self,’ and for others, he uses marriage,” Hamilton says. “We have to trust that God’s story is better than (ours).”
At the end of the day, those seeking Christ and moving toward Him in every state of relationship are being sanctified daily. As Oswald Chambers so eloquently wrote: “When I pray, ‘Lord, show me what sanctification means for me,’ He will show me. It means being made one with Jesus. Sanctification is not something Jesus puts in me—it is Himself in me.”
Lauren Hunter is a wife, mom of four, writer, blogger, worship leader and lover of the “big picture” of God’s journey we are all on together. She blogs at laurenhunter.net and is the founder and editor of churchtechtoday.com.
If you’re a single mom, Angela Thomas has some words of encouragement and counsel for you at singlemom.charismamag.com.