I will never forget hearing Dr. Peter Kuzmic of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary give a series of talks on mission. During one of those talks, Dr. Kuzmic gave a list of areas the church needed to embrace in order to see the Gospel extended in our time. The list included things like suffering, simple living, and martyrdom. To my surprise, the list included singleness.
What does singleness have to do with mission? Quite a bit.
The Opportunity of Singleness
Paul’s words are well known but often misunderstood:
I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. — 1 Corinthians 7:7-8
So what exactly does Paul mean? He explains:
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. — 1 Corinthians 7:32-35
Paul writes that singleness brings particular opportunities to serve God. There are possibilities to serve God that married people do not have, or do not have so fully. So Paul calls singleness an opportunity, albeit for many a most unwanted opportunity. Nevertheless, God invites the church to see singleness in this way– an opportunity to serve God, an opportunity to delight in God which is a gift “far greater than sons and daughters could give” (Isaiah 56:5). So often the single in church and mission is seen as the not-yet-married person, but Paul calls us to embrace our circumstances whether married or single to serve Him.
The Gift of Singleness
Further into the letter of 1 Corinthians Paul writes: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:7). Here Paul is talking about Spiritual gifts,and the application for the single is forthright: your singleness is not your own, it is for the common good. It is a gift given to you to serve others, to bless God and his people. Of course the same is true of marriage: my marriage is not “my” marriage, but a gift given to me and my wife to serve each other, our kids, church, and the world.
Yes, we know that singleness brings unique trials (Ecclesiastes 4:9-11), as does marriage. But if you are single, have you embraced it as a gift? It’s not an identity, an excuse or a bitterness, or something that belongs to you, but a gift to be stewarded.
David Brainerd (1718-1747) died young and never had opportunity to be married. As a young man, Brainerd developed a passion to know God and serve him as a missionary among the native Americans. Brainerd kept a journal of his thoughts and prayers as he devoted himself fully to God, embracing his singleness. His journals have blessed many, and I turn to them often when I am feeling spiritually dry as a source of spiritual nourishment. Here is a taste:
“Oh, the closest walk with God is the sweetest heaven that can be enjoyed on earth!” O! one hour with God infinitely exceeds all the pleasures and delights of this lower world."
It can be tricky to discern if you, like Brainerd, have the ‘gift of singleness’ or not. How do you really know whether you can serve God ideally single or married? We can at least say this: if you are single now, God has given the gift. It does not mean that you will remain single always, or that you should not pursue the gift of marriage. But for now, enjoy the gift of singleness.
Thriving in Mission as a Single
So how do we thrive as singles? First of all we must do away with singleness as something to be coped with as if it is some kind of problem or illness. Grasp the opportunities singleness brings with enthusiasm. Rather than focusing on why God has not lead you into marriage yet, ask why God has given you singleness for now.
Theologically, we must know that singleness is all the time illustrating some great New Covenant truths about salvation. John Piper offers the following illustrations of singles:
- That the family of God grows not by propagation through sexual intercourse, but by regeneration through faith in Christ.
- That relationships in Christ are more permanent, and more precious, than relationships in families.
- That marriage is temporary, and finally gives way to the relationship to which it was pointing all along: Christ and the church – the way a picture is no longer needed when you see face to face.
- That faithfulness to Christ defines the value of life; all other relationships get their final significance from this. No family relationship is ultimate; relationship to Christ is.
There are of course a number of opportunities in global missions that are vacant and not suitable for families. These opportunities are often dangerous (like in 1 Corinthians 7), or require harsh living environments, or are pioneering and would take a lot of time. Many of these opportunities are suitable for those who are trained in a vocation – engineers, teachers, or nurses, and not necessarily pastors or theologians. Right now we need singles to take up these positions, giving a few years or more for the extension of the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
Not everyone currently experiencing the gift of singleness, however, is called to go overseas. Singles can embrace the missional opportunities in the current circumstances.
One way we can thrive in singleness is to see our work (and/or studies) as the vocation through which we are living out are calling to serve the Lord and others. This is true for everyone, but especially important for singles.
Another way to thrive is through serving our local church, our truest family, the body of Christ. There are the concrete, specific ways such as giving time to specific ministries, helping families with small kids, and similar service which is particularly difficult for families. But we should also not underestimate how counter-cultural simply to be deeply involved in the life of a local church as a single. Our culture idolizes individual freedom and autonomy, encouraging people use their time, money, and bodies for themselves and their own pleasure. What a witness it is to the world for a single Christian to willingly submit themselves to a community of people through sacrificial service and relational commitment!
At UCC, we want to consider better how we can serve singles to live fully for Christ and others on mission. The Bible teaches us that it is a gift from God and offers unique opportunities.
For those no longer single, it is also important to reflect on this topic and consider how we personally can more fully integrate the single members of our church and community into our own everyday lives through meals, holidays, small groups, and more. This will allow married and single alike to serve one another, to deal with the unique challenges of each, and press one another on in living on others-oriented mission for the glory of God.