What Does Paul Have to Say about Singleness in the New Testament?
By Stephanie M. Kozick, Crosswalk.com
If you have read the New Testament, you are probably familiar with one of its major contributors, an Apostle named Paul. He was highly educated, knew many languages and cultures, and forged his way to the heights of the religious society of his day. Then the Lord stopped him in the middle of the road and changed his life completely. The Lord raised Paul up as a leader in the early Church and, through the Holy Spirit, gave him wisdom beyond his years, his education, and even his personal experience. God used Paul to speak about many things to many different audiences.
Throughout the New Testament books that Paul wrote, he spends a lot of time addressing the relationships that fill our life. In some relationships, he had first-hand experience with which to give advice or caution, while in others, he relied on practical, God-given principles as he taught within the communities he was sent to reach.
Singleness was a topic with which he was intimately acquainted, as there are no indications anywhere in Scripture that he ever married. As we look at 1 Corinthians 7, we get a front-row seat as he speaks passionately about the single life and makes statements that still seem surprising hundreds of years after they were inspired and written.
After an introduction to the principles of marriage in I Corinthians 7, Paul makes his first “surprising” statement about singleness in verse 7: “I wish that all were as I myself am” (ESV). He repeats himself in verse 8 and expands his scope to include those who are single again after being widowed. “It is good for them to remain single.” From the context of the writing, we learn two things about this statement. First, he is not writing this as a command from God that ALL remain unmarried as he is, but simply observing that if it were possible, then life would be less complicated in many ways. Secondly, we see that he is declaring the single life as a gift God gave in the same way as marriage.
Paul picks up again toward the end of the chapter and makes his second “surprising” statement in verse 38: “So then he who marries his betrothed does well, but he who refrains from marriage will do even better.” In the verses just before, Paul spends time explaining precisely what he does and does not mean when he says this. Again, he reminds us that he is in no way saying no one should get married, nor is he advocating that anyone who is married already should leave that marriage. He reminds us all, married and single that living the life God has called us to is always the best life. Here, he spends some time explaining WHY he believes the single life is “even better” …it affords the opportunity for an undivided devotion to living a life on mission and pleasing the Lord.
When you read the passage as a whole, Paul seems to be writing about the goodness of the single life and then doubling back to make sure no one misunderstands him to say that marriage is in any way an inferior status. Still, much of the time when this passage is taught in our churches today, this theme does not seem to shine through. Usually, about as much time is given to expound on the “betterness” of the single life as the verses about bondservants. Is this ignored or added as merely a footnote on purpose? I don’t think so, but it needs to start becoming part of a more extensive conversation moving forward for both single and married believers.
If you are like me, and singleness has become more of a significant theme in your life than you ever imagined, then you have probably read these verses many times and thought to yourself (or maybe even dared to say out loud), ” Okay, Paul, I hear you but what does this really mean?”.
1. It reminds us that we are made for more than NOW. We are human; we are born with the limitations that come with being finite beings. Our human needs sometimes scream so loudly that if we are not careful, they can drown out the voice of the eternal spirit living inside us. Paul is seeking to remind us that what we see around us now is not what we should be living for or looking to fulfill us. If you are married and have children, the needs and the loudness of NOW can become exponentially more, and finding the time to focus on the eternal takes more effort. It is simple math.
While being single is not a guarantee that one will live a more wholly devoted life for God, I believe it does come with a call to strive to do so. Jesus Himself modeled the single, focused, missional life. Are we living our single life on purpose? Or are we merely enduring the days until God may change our marital status? Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians should challenge us to embrace this life God has called us to, whether we are single for the rest of our life or just this current season.
2. It is a call to the Church to embrace and even affirm singleness the same way God does. If we could look through Paul’s eyes, I believe we would see a vision for the Church today regarding singleness that looks very different than the present reality. I believe he envisioned a place where “Singles Ministry” was at the heart of the Church. A place leaders flow out of to minister to the whole body rather than an endless “purgatory” for the unmarried that follows youth and college ministry.
Unfortunately, in many of our churches, it is assumed that marriage is a gift God wants to bring to everyone, and the fulfilling, purpose-driven call of singleness is not taught until much later in life and to a much smaller audience. Leaders, teachers, missionaries, and single counselors are often encouraged to find a spouse to enhance their ministry or broaden the scope of their giftings. If this is also God’s calling on their life, then they should do so, but as Paul has admonished, if this is not, then they should be encouraged to “remain as they are.”
What if, instead, churches could find a way to teach about the devoted single life with the same excitement and purpose they teach about the importance of marriage and families?
If you are single today, then please know that singleness is many things, but an “inferior state to be avoided at all costs” is not one of them. Living life as a party of one has its challenges, and sometimes it is easy to crave the noise of now rather than work to see the gift buried deep down under the surface. I pray that these surprising words from Paul will sink in and take root as you strive to live your life with a more focused purpose on what God is calling you to. I pray God will quiet the noise of unmet expectations and raise a community around you to encourage and challenge you in the year ahead.
If you are a church leader, I pray God gives you the courage to encourage singleness with the same passion as the Apostle Paul. I pray you will seek ways to raise up single leaders within your fellowship and that God would bless your whole community through this effort.
If you are a parent, please know that your son or daughter may do everything in their power to find a spouse and have their own family, but there is a very real possibility that God may call them to live through extended periods of singleness as an adult. My prayer is that you won’t fear this for your child but will raise them to know the gift it can be. I pray you will invite single people to be a part of your life and community and that God will bring them Godly examples to follow.
Singleness can be a gift both to the single person and those in community with them.