With rates of long-term singleness on the rise across Western societies, evangelicals are increasingly reflecting on the challenges this poses for the church. In The Meaning of Singleness: Retrieving an Eschatological Vision for the Contemporary Church, Danielle Treweek reframes the discussion around the Bible’s picture of the creation to come. Author and theologian Barry Danylak spoke with Treweek—founding director of the Single Minded ministry and an Anglican deacon in Sydney—about cultivating a robustly theological understanding of singleness.
What are some the challenges you see with defining singleness?
Singleness is a modern concept that carries lots of baggage. It can mean different things in different contexts. We don’t open 1 Corinthians 7, for instance, and see Paul talking about singleness specifically, but rather a host of related concepts like virginity and betrothal. And elsewhere in Scripture we see categories like widowhood and examples like the eunuchs in Matthew (19:12). So we need to be flexible in how we talk about singleness, recognizing some of the assumptions we’re bringing to that concept.
What is the chief problem with how today’s evangelicals understand singleness?
The chief problem is that, by and large, we have an impoverished theological understanding of singleness. And I see two problematic tendencies that have brought us to this state.
The first problem arises from the fact that we’re very good at looking over our shoulder to Genesis and developing a theology of marriage from Scripture’s account of creation. As Christians, however, we also look forward to what is ahead, to the new creation that Scripture promises. So we have to work out what it means to live in light of this reality we’re heading toward, one that Scripture tells us has already been inaugurated.
The second is failing to realize how much we are products of the world we live in. Paul warns in Romans 12 against being conformed to the patterns of this world (v. 2). But when it comes to matters of marriage, romance, sex, friendship, and community, we’re being discipled by the world without realizing it.
You point out that many popular evangelical writers view personal sanctification as one of the primary purposes of marriage. Why do you see this perspective as mistaken?
Marriage certainly can be helpful for sanctification. But we shouldn’t assume that getting married is the best way to become like Jesus. The Holy Spirit works within us in the context of all our relationships, marital or otherwise. I can certainly see how the Spirit uses marriage bonds to challenge our sinfulness. But you don’t need a spouse to have your sinfulness challenged, either by the Spirit or those around you.
What are some ways singleness is theologically significant?
The typical approach to understanding the theological significance of singleness relies on its instrumentality. In other words, it’s a matter of what you’re doing with your singleness.
Of course, that category really is important. But I’m trying to explore whether there’s something theologically significant about the status of being unmarried, in and of itself. Looking at singleness through the lens of eschatology, we can see how it has implications for things like sex, romance, companionship, community, parenthood, and family. What keeps coming back to me is how a faithful theology of singleness is essential for our ecclesiology—for understanding who we are as the church.
You argue that celibate Christian singles might inform a more expansive, biblically authentic understanding of sexuality. How can this play out?
Too often, the church sees celibacy as oppressive rather than expansive. There are two reasons I think that’s wrong.
The first is that single people committed to honoring God with their bodies can testify to others that they’re not enslaved to sexual longings. In a world that celebrates sexual desire as the total of who you are, celibate singles can show that we have rich and fulfilled lives.
The second reason takes things further into an eschatological perspective. As resurrected people in God’s new creation, we’re going to be our most perfected human selves. We will retain our male or female sexual natures, but as we see from Matthew 22, we won’t express those natures through sex in marriage (v. 30). If, in eternity, I’m my most perfected self, and that self is celibate, then this suggests that human sexuality is oriented toward relationship more broadly. Single Christians get to remind the world that there’s more to being sexual than having sex.
How do we actually inspire today’s Christian singles—and for that matter, the church as a whole—to see singleness as theologically significant?
In my pastoral ministry, the vast majority of singles I’ve gotten to know desire marriage. So how do I handle that theologically and pastorally?
I think the answer is helping them to see their singleness the way God sees it. Our world can send the message that your singleness is only as good as you feel about it. If you’re happy and content being single, then your singleness is good. But if you’re unhappy and struggling, then your singleness is a bit tragic. My desire is to think beyond the personal experience of singleness to see the significance God has imbued it with.
For the church as a whole, the answer is much the same. Let’s be willing to go back to Scripture and look afresh at God’s purposes for marriage and singleness alike. Of course, that always feels like a cop-out, because people are keen to ask how the church should address singleness on a practical level. And that’s important to wrestle with. But without considering the underlying theology, we’re only applying Band-Aids to a gaping wound.
How has your own experience with singleness informed your work?
I became interested in this subject because I was single, and remaining so as fewer of my friends were. This compelled me to think theologically about God’s purposes for this part of my life. But what really cemented it for me was working in ministry and being exposed to lots of single women grappling with similar questions—not only never-married women, but widows and divorcees as well.
And even though this is a more pragmatic way of looking at things, it’s still true: I don’t think I could have done all this research and reflection had I been married with kids over the last eight years. Being a single woman in ministry has allowed me to invest in this project, which is a great gift to me and hopefully for others as well.
What advice would you give Christian believers struggling with their singleness?
First, take that struggle seriously. You don’t need to feel shameful because you’re struggling. There are real griefs involved in all sorts of life circumstances, singleness very much included.
But don’t be content to remain in that struggle. Prayerfully ask God and other believers to help you seek Christian growth and contentment. And ask that you can find a comfort and peace rooted in God’s sovereignty over your life. Even amid grief, we can move toward the joy the gospel gives us, particularly as we look toward the new creation that awaits us.
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