Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. 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. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.
Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that.This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
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.
– Paul, 1 Corinthians 7:6-9, 25-35
“On the balance of marriage and singleness:
We must never exalt singleness (as some early church fathers did, notably Tertullian) as if it were a higher and holier vocation than marriage. We must reject the ascetic tradition which disparages sex as legalized lust, and marriage as legalized fornication. No, no. Sex is the good gift of a good Creator, and marriage is his own institution.
If marriage is good, singleness is also good. It’s an example of the balance of Scripture that, although Genesis 2:18 indicates that it is good to marry, 1 Corinthians 7:1 (in answer to a question posed by the Corinthians) says that “it is good for a man not to marry.” So both the married and the single states are “good”; neither is in itself better or worse than the other.
Reasons people remain single:
I doubt if we could find a clearer answer to this than in the recorded teaching of Jesus himself in Matthew 19:11-12. He was talking about “eunuchs,” meaning people who remain single and celibate. He listed three reasons why people do not marry.
First, for some it is “because they were born that way.” This could include those with a physical defect or with a homosexual orientation. Such are congenitally unlikely to marry.
Second, there are those who “were made that way by men.” This would include victims of the horrible ancient practice of forcible castration. But it would also include all those today who remain single under any compulsion or external circumstance. One thinks of a daughter who feels under obligation to forego marriage in order to care for her elderly parents.
Third, “others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven.” These people, who are under no pressure from within or without, voluntarily put marriage aside, either temporarily or permanently, in order to undertake some work for the kingdom which demands single-minded devotion.
Singleness as a gift from God:
It’s noteworthy that Jesus himself, before listing those three categories of single people, said that not everybody could accept what he was about to say, “but only those to whom it has been given.” If singleness is a gift, however, so is marriage. Indeed, I have myself found help in 1 Corinthians 7:7. For here the apostle writes: “each man [or woman] has his [or her] own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” “Gift” translates charisma, which is a gift of God’s grace (charis). So whether we are single or married, we need to receive our situation from God as his own special grace-gift to us.
On Stott’s own experience as a single:
In spite of rumors to the contrary, I have never taken a solemn vow or heroic decision to remain single! On the contrary, during my 20s and 30s, like most people, I was expecting to marry one day. In fact, during this period I twice began to develop a relationship with a lady who I thought might be God’s choice of life-partner for me. But when the time came to make a decision, I can best explain it by saying that I lacked an assurance from God that he meant me to go forward. So I drew back. And when that had happened twice, I naturally began to believe that God meant me to remain single.
Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight, I think I know why. I could never have traveled or written as extensively as I have done if I had had the responsibilities of a wife and family.
God created us as social beings. Love is the greatest thing in the world. For God is love, and when he made us in his own image, he gave us the capacity to love and to be loved. So we need each other. Yet marriage and family are not the only antidotes to loneliness.
Some pastors work on their own, isolated from their peers, and in consequence are lonely. But the New Testament plainly envisages that each local church will have a plural oversight. See, for example, Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5. So in All Souls Church in the heart of London we have always had a team ministry, and we have found it an enormous enrichment. I have also been greatly blessed by Frances Whitehead, my faithful secretary for more than 40 years, and by the “apostolic succession” of my study assistants.
In addition, single people are wise to develop as many friendships as possible, with people of all ages and both sexes. For example, although I have no children of my own, I have hundreds of adopted nephews and nieces all over the world, who call me “Uncle John.” I cherish these affectionate relationships; they greatly lessen, even if they do not altogether deaden, occasional pangs of loneliness.
Final words of advice for single people:
First, don’t be in too great a hurry to get married. We human beings do not reach maturity until we are about 25. To marry before this runs the risk of finding yourself at twenty-five married to somebody who was a very different person at the age of twenty. So be patient. Pray daily that God will guide you to your life partner or show you if he wants you to remain single. Second, lead a normal social life. Develop many friendships. Third, if God calls you to singleness, don’t fight it. Remember the key text: “Each person has his or her own gift of God’s grace” (1 Cor. 7:7).”
– John Stott, John Stott on Singleness
“Because [Westerners] privilege marriage as God’s preferred way of life for everyone, churches in America, on the whole, do a very poor job of ministering to single adults. Our programs are rarely geared for singles. The few that tend either to isolate them from the rest of the congregation or function as a Christian matchmaking service. We sometimes think that the best discipleship step a single Christian can make is to marry a good Christian mate. In fact, we are often suspicious of a male Christian who chooses singleness. Something is “wrong” with him, and the burden of proof falls to him to prove otherwise. Some churches will not hire a single man as a pastor for fear “that a single pastor cannot counsel a mostly married flock, that he might sow turmoil by flirting with a church member, or that he might be gay” [see link below]. We fail to recognize, as Paul did, that singleness is a gift and that those who choose the celibate lifestyle have greater freedom to serve the Lord. John Stott and Henri Nouwen are just two examples of celibate Christian singles who dedicated their lives to the service of Christ and his kingdom. Spiritual gifting is not reserved for the married. Perhaps instead of focusing all our attention on ministering to the needs of families, we should find more meaningful ways of equipping singles for the work of the Lord.”
– E. Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes
– Erik Eckholm, Unmarried Pastor, Seeking a Job, Sees Bias
– John Morgan III, The Gift of Celibacy—Its Meaning Today
– Christine Colón, Bonnie Field, Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must Be Reinvented in Today’s Church