John Stott is being remembered as an evangelical statesman, a pastor/scholar, and an inveterate birdwatcher. He was also a lifelong bachelor. While researching my book on a theology of singleness, I had the opportunity to meet Stott and interview him about his views and experience as a single. He later revised and expanded his candid remarks into a more thorough treatment of the subject, from which the following is excerpted.
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).
Adapted from Singles at the Crossroads: A Fresh Perspective on Christian Singleness, by Albert Y. Hsu. Copyright(c) 1997 by Albert Y. Hsu. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press; PO Box 1400; Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.
See our full coverage area on John Stott.
Christianity Today's earlier coverage of single living includes:
Every Older Single's Battle | With Singled Out, Christine Colón imagines what celibacy might look like for today's evangelicals (Aug. 5, 2009)
Choosing Celibacy | How to stop thinking of singleness as a problem. (September 12, 2008)
Practicing Chastity | A lifelong spiritual discipline for singles and marrieds. Lauren F. Winner reviews Dawn Eden's The Thrill of the Chaste. (March 15, 2007)
Sex in the Body of Christ | Chastity is a spiritual discipline for the whole church. (May 13, 2005)
30 and Single? It's Your Own Fault | There are more unmarried people in our congregations than ever, and some say that's just sinful. (June 21, 2006)
Solitary Refinement | Evangelical assumptions about singleness still need rethinking (June 11, 2001)
Two Cheers for Celibacy | People who expect a sudden reversal of the century long clerical requirement show an inadequate understanding of why the Vatican is committed to this policy. A Christianity Today editorial (June 10, 2002)
A Singular Mission Field | There are more single people in America than ever—and they need the church as much as ever. (June 4, 2001)
Sex and the Single Christian | What about the unmarried in their post-college years? (July 7, 2000)
Women Churchgoers 'Face Growing Difficulty in Finding Partner' | British magazine says church is out of single men, especially older ones. (June 7, 2000)
John R. W. Stott (1921 – 2011) is known worldwide as a preacher, evangelist, author, and theologian. For 66 years he served All Souls Church, Langham Place, in London, England, where he pioneered effective urban evangelistic and pastoral ministry. During these years he authored more than 50 books, and served as one of the original Contributing Editors for Christianity Today. Stott had a global vision and built strong relationships with church leaders outside the West in the Majority World. A hallmark of Stott's ministry was his vision for expository biblical preaching that addresses the hearts and minds of contemporary men and women. In 1969 he founded a trust that eventually became Langham Partnership International (www.langham.org), a ministry that continues his vision of partnership with the Majority World Church. Stott was honored by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World."