Singleness and the Sufficiency of Christ

by Ian McFadden

I’m not usually a big statistics guy, but some just make you sit up and think.  According to the US Census Bureau, the percentage of the American population that is married has fallen from over two-thirds in 1960 to under 55% in 2009.[1] That’s a pretty dramatic shift and it makes me think about a paradox I’ve noticed in TV shows.  People seem to be perpetually single.  Most TV characters are on a quest for some sort of long-term relationship, but if one ever crops up, the credits roll or the show goes off the air.  Of course, I’m hyperbolizing, but I think the basic point stands.  Marriage’s place in American culture is bending.  Its desirability and significance are relativized in mainstream media like never before.  And in evangelical sub-culture and a couple of narrow genres of movies and fiction (usually targeting people who still ride a school bus and have only recently stopped wearing silly bandz) marriage is being peddled with the wild-eyed zeal of Pampered Chef proselytes.

Singles in churches are left in a weird place.  Singleness is more and more the norm in America and yet sometimes it feels less and less normal, less acceptable in the church.  Historically, the issue of singleness and marriage is one the Western families of the church have polarized on.  The Roman Church, I think, has in the past placed an unhelpful premium upon the single life.  She was certainly helped, if not launched, on this trajectory by some of the giants of the patristic church.  More saturated in Greek culture than in the creation-affirming loam of the Bible, some of the Western Church’s most influential theologians had rather derogatory things to say about marriage.  The Protestant Church, as if the main concern were to differentiate herself from Rome, has rushed to the other pole affirming married family life with such fervor that undue expectations for fulfillment and significance are placed on our spouses and families and Christ-exalting singleness is virtually ignored as a viable, let alone desirable, path of discipleship.   It is high time for some balance.  High time to listen again, a little more carefully perhaps, to what the Bible actually says.

This morning I read Barry Danylak’s new book, “Redeeming Singleness:  How the Storyline of Scripture Affirms the Single Life.”  It’s a good book.  Note, I didn’t say a good read.  It doesn’t clip along with scintillating prose, witty insights or—my favorite—glossy illustrations.  But it sets out to do and, I think, accomplishes what no other book I’ve read on singleness does.  Walking carefully through the entire arc of the biblical corpus, it develops a case for why, particularly this side of Christ, a life of purposed, sexually continent, singleness is every bit as God-honoring and gospel-elucidating as is the Christian married life.  What’s refreshing is that Danylak doesn’t disparage marriage to promote singleness.  He goes out of his way to affirm the fulfillment, joy and gospel-drama, that a marriage can provide in Christ.  Helpfully, I think, he reminds us that in the sweep of eternity married life (for those who get married) is the blip on the radar, the momentary exception to the eternal rule.  In the new heaven and new earth we’ll be single and only married corporately to Christ (Matt.22:30).  As wonderful as marriage and family are meant to be and can be, we can idolize them and end up depending on them and serving them in a way we are meant to depend on and serve Christ.

Danylak’s first couple of chapters spends much more time dealing with marriage than with singleness.  He shows how marriage, as established in Genesis, was about companionship, partnership, procreation and posterity.  Having kids was the way to see that you were cared for in your retirement and that your name lived on after you died.  With detail, he demonstrates that marriage and particularly the procreation associated with marriage were bound up with God’s covenants with his people.  God covenanted with Abraham and with David that he would multiply their progeny.  God covenanted with Israel that if they obeyed him they and their flocks would have fruitful wombs.  Those who disobeyed and broke covenant, as Israel did, fell under the curse of barren wombs, of parents who would live to see the last of their children die before them and know their name was deleted from posterity.  To have a wife and to have kids was, then, to experience God’s blessing and to be without a wife and, therefore, without kids was to feel under God’s curse.  It wasn’t a particularly hospitable culture for singles.

Because of the strong association of procreation with God’s blessing in the Old Testament and because of God’s commandment in Gen. 1:28, Jewish tradition has maintained that married life is the only best option for followers of God.  Danylak goes further to point out that similar holds true for Islam and Mormonism.  Three out of the four major religions that have emerged from Abraham’s descendants are univocal in privileging marriage above singleness.  Christianity alone, according to Danylak, affirms singleness.

The third chapter, and perhaps the most interesting one, centers on the prophets of the Old Testament.  Where the law and history of Israel painted a fairly monolithic picture of the married-with-kids life as the picture of Yahweh’s blessing, the prophets painted in paradoxes.  Israel had broken covenant with God and therefore had forfeited the fecundity he had promised.  Instead, Israel had lived into God’s curses of exile, desolation, barrenness.  The loudest note sounded by the prophets, then, is one of judgment.  There is a faint and growing counterpoint, though.  A counterpoint of hope: the story of a suffering servant.  From the ashes, God will bring life.  From a burned stump, a shoot will spring up.  Isaiah imagines a barren woman who becomes mother to an offspring who possesses nations she never bore (Isaiah 54).  Two chapters later the image is one of a eunuch, who—because he is God’s—has all the security and significance of posterity usually denied to those who were single or childless.  Both of these individuals, cursed under Sinai’s covenant, are blessed and fulfilled and affirmed as a result of the Suffering Servant.  Both are emblematic of Yahweh’s new covenant, in which spiritual progeny are foregrounded over physical progeny, in which belonging is conditioned on faith not on ethnicity.

The final three chapters focus on building a biblical theology of singleness in the New Testament.  For Danylak, an important brick to lay is the affirmation that Abraham’s true progeny come, not physically, but spiritually through Christ alone and are representatives of many nations excluded from the initial covenant with Israel.   From there, Danylak is able to focus first on Jesus’ isolated teaching on marriage and singleness and then on Paul’s.

Some of Jesus’ statements seem to redefine family in ways that are shocking to us, but which would have been yet more shocking to his Jewish audience.  In Mark 3, for example, when Jesus’ biological family comes looking for him, ostensibly to rescue him from the embarrassment of his misguided self-conception (as they perceive it), Jesus ignores them saying that the disciples gathered around him, instead, are his “mother and brothers.”  Because bloodlines are no longer the primary pathways for building the new covenant community, spiritual offspring, which are at least as accessible to singles as to marrieds, take on fresh primacy.  Perhaps Jesus’ most startling statement on singleness, though, comes in Matthew 19:10-12.  Taken aback by Jesus’ high standards for marriage, his disciples conjecture that it might be better not to get married at all.  Their intent, it seems, it to get Jesus to soften his stance.  But Jesus takes their point and runs with it, saying that “there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” and that “the one who is able to receive it should receive it.”  Jesus’ point is surprising not only because his native Judaism universally prescribed marriage over singleness, but also because eunuchs were derided throughout the ancient Mediterranean world.  Just as much as eunuchs were derided, they were the parade examples of unwavering loyalty to and dependence upon the dignitary they served. Danylak argues, “Jesus is suggesting that there are some who will willingly give up the blessings of both marriage and offspring for the sake of the kingdom of God.  Conversely, to be blessed in the kingdom of God no longer requires marriage and offspring.”

The final chapter attempts to unravel a notoriously vexed passage on marriage and singleness in 1 Corinthians 7, which also happens to be the most extended treatment of the subject the New Testament offers us.  It seems likely that the Corinthians, being a largely gentile church, had an entirely different approach to marriage than Jews.  For them, the question of whether to marry or to remain single was a perennial philosophical debate in which the factors under consideration were less moral than pragmatic.   “Golly, girlfriends cost so much, with a wife I’d go broke.”  Or, “why bother “tying the knot” when I can use servants and other disposable humans to gratify my desires?”  Paul’s answer to them, Danylak contends, hinged entirely on the person of Christ.  Because Christ had come as the Suffering Servant, because he had taken on himself the curses and judgment of God that had our name on them, because he had channeled the unconditional promise of blessing to Abraham to his spiritual, not just physical, descendants, it didn’t matter in the way it used to.  Because Christ is sufficient, the Corinthians could stay single if they were single when he called them.  In fact, singleness would only increase their ability, their flexibility, to respond to his call, to serve him however he directed.  The married couples pre-figure our corporate wedding to Christ when he returns in glory.  The singles pre-figure our eternal state: individuals connected to other people through the overwhelming sufficiency of Christ.

I got excited thinking about that.  Hold on Jill—I’m not thinking about being single.  I got excited about preaching Matthew 19 with the same luster as Ephesians 5.  I got excited about validating the single life as a deliberately lived gospel-drama, enacting for a watching world that Christ is more than enough.  Because he is.

Whether you’re single or married, have you thought about the way the Bible affirms both modes of following Christ as means of pointing to his attributes and character?  I’d love to hear what you think.  Does Danylak’s book ring true for you; does it raise your hackles?

[1] U.S. Bureau of the Census, MS-1.  “Marital Status of the Population 15 years Old and Over, by Sex and Race: 1950 to Present.”  We can all be grateful that the study didn’t include marriages between elementary-aged children.

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