Do we really believe that singleness and marriage are equal in God’s sight?

Do we really believe that singleness and marriage are equal in God’s sight?

Those who are not married and those who are married are of equal value in God’s sight. All people are made in the image of God. All Christians are saved only by grace through the blood of Jesus Christ shed on the cross for our sins. In no way does our marital status impact whether we are of value to God.

The apostle Paul famously says this in 1 Corinthians 7. In fact, he holds up singleness as superior for serving God in some ways, for instead of having divided interests you can live for God with all your heart.

This is not controversial theologically, yet do we truly believe this in practice? Christians and churches can teach marriage as such a worthy goal that single people are unintentionally alienated. Christian groups campaign for marriage in the wider culture, which is needed and timely. There are all kinds of ministries in most churches for marriage enrichment or for children. Well-meaning Christians can make unhelpful comments to single Christians in their churches about marriage, even trying to set them up with others they know. While marriage is a good gift from God, we can give the idea that it is the goal in life rather than serving God in whatever state we happen to be in.

And that’s before consider the family pressure many young adults feel to get married. There are many tense moments at family gatherings for the average single adult when their parents imply (or simply say!) that they are in some way less worthy because they have not been married.

It is good for us to understand that the modern focus on marriage in the church is not how it has always been. The monastic movement, for all its flaws, was an attempt to take 1 Corinthians 7 seriously and to use your life to wholeheartedly serve Jesus without the divided interests that come from marriage and children. People who chose singleness to serve were honoured for that choice, and their service bore much fruit.

How can we, in the modern Christian church, properly teach the value of singleness in serving God rather than communicating that marriage is always a superior option? As someone who is married with children but has the privilege of ministering in a church that has many single adults, I constantly grapple with how to do this well. While this is a complicated issue, here are some ideas:

  • The obvious one is to teach the whole counsel of God on this issue. Yes, there are passages that explain the good gift of marriage. But there are also unmarried people (notably Paul and Jesus!) who are examples for us. As for direct teaching on this, it’s not only in 1 Corinthians 7 but also in Jesus’ explaining that there is no marriage in heaven, and in the Law teaching that loving God and our neighbour is how we fulfil the law (not by being married).
  • The illustrations used in sermons are also important. The natural place for me to find illustrations is my wife and children, but I almost never do this. I realise that many who are listening to the sermon have different family structures, and if most of the illustrations are to do with marriage, this is hard for them to relate to.
  • Language matters. When the ministries of the church are labelled as “family” ministries, that can unwittingly communicate that those without a spouse are not included. Of course, the intention was to communicate that everyone in the church is part of the family, but that might be misunderstood.
  • The reality of the church family must cross demographic boundaries. It is too easy for single people to only socialise with single people, and married people with married people. The gospel is for everyone, and our church communities must connect across natural friendship lines. It should be normal for singles and married to share meals and be in Bible study groups together. A range of life experiences in a group is beneficial for everyone.