Is it a sin to be single?

To a modern ear, the question can sound bizarre—but in many circles of Christianity, especially online, the question of whether young people (especially young women, as in a recent viral TikTok video) are engaged in sinful behavior by being single into their late 20s or 30s is earnestly asked and debated. Yet in other circles, a diametrically different question is asked: Could it be a blessing to be single? Doesn’t Paul say he wishes that everyone could be unmarried as he was (1 Cor. 7:7–8)?

The proximate cause of the debate within Christianity about singleness is not mysterious: The share of people ages 18–35 who are married has fallen from 59 percent in 1978 to 29 percent in 2018. Marriage is coming later in life or not at all, so there are a lot more single adults in society and in many churches. Because marital status is strongly associated with political and religious views (single people are generally more liberal and less religious), many conservative Christians see in the rise of singleness a plausible source of the general turn away from faith in American life.

But for Christian single adults, the story is quite different. Most Christian singles do desire to marry someday; in a survey of regularly church-attending single women under 35, my consulting firm found that the average desired family size was 2.7 children, versus just 2 children for never-attending single women or 2.8 for regularly attending married women. Christian singles have about the same family aspirations as their married peers. They are unmarried not mostly because of a lack of desire but because of factors not strictly within their control: family and churches who discouraged hasty and young marriage, lack of suitable Christian partners, instability in the job market, fears of divorce motivating hyperselectivity, and so on.

To untangle the singleness story, it’s worthwhile to consult a few basic facts. We’ll start by challenging the view that singleness is a sin.

Not a sin at any age

First, in the initial three centuries of Christianity, conversions were disproportionately among women, especially widows, because Christianity did not as aggressively push for remarriage as Roman paganism did.

Second, it’s likely that Christianity discouraged very young child marriages, so parents of teenage girls shielding their daughters from prepubescent unions to much older men were also an early constituent Christian group. Song of Solomon presents a paradigmatic image of married love and is abundantly clear that the bride and groom are similarly young adults (2:2–3), implying that the ideal norm was considerable age similarity. Likewise, in the Book of Ruth, Boaz, an older man, is evidently very surprised at Ruth’s willingness to marry him, given their age gap (3:9–11)—implying again that the ideal among God’s people (if not always the practice) was a close age proximity for married couples. Scripture also explicitly remarks on the 10-year age gap between Abraham and Sarah.

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Accordingly, though in Roman society girls as young as 12 were routinely married off to much older men, Christians generally adopted somewhat later marriages for their girls to more similarly aged grooms (although still much younger marriages than we see in modern societies). That means young Christian women and girls were single longer than their pagan counterparts.

Third, because most early Christian churches were house churches and houses were a domestic space where women wielded considerable authority, early Christianity afforded women a uniquely influential status and role. Married women, as matriarchs of their houses, had a particular role in that regard, but ascetic celibate women were also a vital part of early Christian social life.

Fourth, the much-vaunted Proverbs 31 woman is recorded doing many things, including many commercial activities that yield income for the family. Modern gender norms as they relate to employment are not based on a clear biblical precedent; the ideal woman in Scripture makes a quite considerable economic contribution to the household—and not only through keeping house.

Fifth and finally, it is crucial to recognize that the Bible nowhere commands marriage as a universal aim, except insofar as its mandates to multiply operate through marriage. Paul emphatically rejects the notion that marriage is universally commanded (1 Cor. 7:1–16). In the early church, when controversy arose over the status of marriage, even the most pro-marriage advocate (a monk named Jovinian, to whom we’ll return below) did not go so far as to say marriage was commanded. While the Old and New Testaments contain strong exhortations to childbearing for married people (which many, though not all, Christian churches interpret as commands that married couples at least be open to children), there is no similar push for marriage itself.

So, then, the early church was defined by openness to people of many marital statuses and gave women, including a disproportionate number of unmarried women, higher status than in Roman society at large. These norms likely arose from a recognition that Christianity simply did not require people to marry in general and in particular did not require young girls to be married off early or widows to remarry late in life. Paul’s wish that more should be as he was (celibate) even led many early Christians to see marriage as an inferior state.

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A pitiable state at any age

The historic debate about the status of marriage is worth spending time on as it, ironically, provides the first strong argument against the idea that singleness might be seen as a blessed estate.

Early Christianity in fact had a large and very public argument about the place of marriage in the church, centered around a figure named Jovinian. Jovinian was proclaimed a heretic, but his beliefs are pretty amicable to many Protestants: He thought that monasticism is not spiritually better than married life, that all are equal in heaven, and that the true church is known by faith, not by visible institutions.

Importantly for our purposes here, the controversy over Jovinianism revolved around the status of marriage. Jovinian argued that marriage was not a lesser status than “virginity.” On the other hand, Jerome (translator of the Latin Vulgate) wrote a blistering critique in which he argued that monasticism was spiritually superior to marriage.

The dispute raged for decades, but the key point is this: In a massive church-wide debate, the only question being debated was whether marriage or monasticism was superior. At no point was singleness—as in, a long unmarried period for people who are not living ascetic lives of church service—even considered as an honorable estate to be mentioned.

Jerome, the great denouncer of marriage superiority, says that monasticism is first in honor, marriage second, and widowhood third. He does not consider singleness a state to be described or ranked. When Jerome and Jovinian debated “virgins,” then, they had in mind ascetic monks, not modern singles. Likewise, when Paul wishes more people were as he was, he does not refer to being unmarried in general; he refers to being unmarried for the sake of the gospel.

Singleness to enable complete commitment to ministry is commended by Paul. But for people who face sexual temptation—and especially people who desire marriage or children—Paul urges a speedy marriage. (Of course, finding a willing partner is perhaps more of a challenge today than in Paul’s day, limiting the options for many young people.)

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The key intuition here is simple: Christian vocations are treated as honorable to the extent they help and serve our neighbors. In speaking of Christians whose faith does not motivate them to help and serve their neighbors, James famously calls such faith “dead” and “useless” (James 2:17–20).

Marriage is instituted for mutual service by spouses and joint service to the next generation. Celibacy is instituted for service to the church (not as a requirement for church service but as a possible aid to it). Widows likewise are commanded to be hospitable and helpful to younger people. Unless singleness is clearly defined as a state that has some purpose oriented toward the good of the neighbor (not just incidentally beneficial but purposively so), it is difficult to understand what possible endorsement the status can be given. It is not sinful, but it is not good.

Second, while Paul’s celibate vocation was of great benefit, Christianity mostly grew in its early centuries via births, marriages, and adoptions, not evangelism classically construed. Early Christian new-member classes specifically took pains to teach pagan men to understand their Christian wives’ faith. And because Christianity prohibited abortion, infanticide, and early forms of birth control, Christians had much higher birth rates than pagans.

Early Christian writings are replete with references to babies being present in church—not least because most churches were in houses, at a time when Christian families almost certainly had at least four children each, possibly as many as eight or nine, with likely two to four children surviving to adulthood. Beyond that, Christians adopted children abandoned by pagans, meaning that in addition to their own children, Christian households would also have included many adoptee children. Early Christian churches would have sounded like daycares.

The notion of some Christian singles that their singleness will be very useful for the gospel rests on the fundamental assumption that their evangelism as unmarried individuals will be more spiritually fruitful than the discipling of their children—a very debatable assumption. In almost every generation of Christians for almost all of history, fertility has been a much bigger source of new believers than adult evangelism has.

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Third, attitudes toward singleness matter. If churches exhort and encourage marriage, it may impact young people’s willingness to explore relationships with one another. The academic evidence for this is strong: While many factors outside young singles’ control impact their options, one way or another, young people with a greater desire to marry do in fact get married at higher rates. Moreover, religious young people who marry in their early 20s do not have elevated divorce rates.

In other words, while it is understandable that singles facing a dysfunctional dating market would feel put upon by churches exhorting marriage, a big factor driving low marriage rates is that many young people are deprioritizing efforts to find a spouse. Churches have no reason to endorse that deprioritization and are doing the right thing by exhorting young singles to prioritize the pursuit of a spouse.

And finally, while Scripture at no point condemns singleness, it does pity singleness, particularly for women. Widows and virgins (i.e., unmarried women, presumptively virgins in ancient times) are singled out as dependent groups who deserve help and aid on the basis of their vulnerability.

To this very day, public welfare programs and discrimination laws are more generous for women than for men based on precisely the same reasoning: that women are especially vulnerable to various kinds of risks and predations. Because infertility is rarer in young marriages, almost all marriages in ancient times yielded children, so “childless” women were almost always “unmarried” women. Biblical exhortations about caring for the childless, then, also situate single people (especially women) as vulnerable and needing care.

At no point in Scripture is not-yet-married-ness ever treated as anything other than a less-than-desired state; nor should it be, since people who are not yet married agree that being single is less than desirable. In a strange way, there’s a Catch-22: If churches laud and honor singleness and create space for singleness, they are in fact ratifying a state that most single people report they don’t desire for themselves.

The gift of singleness

Here it is necessary to comment on an intermediate position most of us have encountered in our churches: young people who desire marriage, for whom marriage has not yet occurred, and who—in confronting more of their adult lives as singles than they anticipated—are seeking to make something meaningful of their singleness.

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They do not see themselves as permanently celibate but are uncomfortable with a family-centric church life, feeling left out or excluded from that life or unfairly pressured to find a spouse. These young adults often speak as if singleness is something that has happened to them, as if they had no choice in the matter; many will even comment that since God has not given them a spouse yet, singleness must be God’s plan for them.

This view contains many debatable elements. First, if it is to be theologically consistent, it can be espoused only by the most strictly Calvinistic of Christian sects. It posits not only that, as regards spiritual righteousness in the eyes of God, all things are foreordained but also that every single happenstance of life is the active plan of God, proper to his nature rather than alien to it. The same theology asserting that God denied a spouse to a person who desires the honorable estate of marriage asserts that children who die prematurely are killed by God. Some churches do have this theology, but many do not.

For Christians who do not espouse this deterministic interpretation of divine sovereignty, the argument that singleness is God’s purpose for someone’s life simply because he or she is not yet married falls apart: Singleness may be the product of mistakes, whether by the person in question or by other people around them. The unsettling question not-yet-married people wrestle with is the possibility that perhaps they are not married because of some choice they themselves made. To respond to this question by affirming singleness is not to offer a reasonable act of inclusion but to concede the entire discussion.

Pastorally, this kind of situation is challenging because every person’s life story is different. Some people did earnestly desire marriage, pursued romantic relationships headed toward marriage, and then were abandoned at the altar. Surely such individuals cannot be faulted. Others say they desire marriage but have not asked anyone of the opposite sex on a date in a decade and spend their evenings on Netflix or video games. Both sets of people may talk of their singleness in similar ways yet have vastly different experiences, which a pastor must navigate with compassion for each in their difference.

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But speaking as a sociologist, the latter kind of case arises partly because of the collective choice within Christianity not to set a firmer norm of marriage in early adulthood.

Among the ultra-Orthodox Jews who live down the street from me, young people who desire marriage find spouses rather efficiently. Among our churches, they do not. Likewise, among the Punjabis who live in the neighborhood around my church, marriage is usually arranged and nearly universal by the mid-20s—a fact that is as true for urban, educated Christian Indians as for rural Hindu or Muslim Indians.

Marriage behaviors vary dramatically across social groups within a single economy because marriage norms and values vary. Norms matter, and by more consistently exhorting all young people in a religious community to actively pursue marriage in their 20s, marriage rates in the 20s can in fact be increased.

Speaking dispassionately then, the option many marriage-wanting Christian singles in America seek—to have their singleness accommodated, left unremarked upon, or even recast as a gift from God—is not tenable. Perpetuating a norm of singleness as a neutral state will yield still more singleness, the very thing these singles say they do not want.

Any public marriage norm a church adopts will of necessity have exceptions. This is simply the reality of life in a fallen world. But it must be emphasized here that despite the strong argument that not-yet-married-ness is an unfortunate or pitiable state, it absolutely cannot be characterized as a sinful state. This nuance matters.

What singles want

The reason the nuance matters is that we must keep in mind the actual sides of this debate. The vast majority of singles want to get married.

The most common reasons given for nonmarriage amount to “I haven’t found the right person yet.” A key reason for that is some other singles are not pursuing marriage seriously enough. For singles who want to get married, the best possible scenario is for other singles to get more serious about getting married. The main beneficiaries of a greater emphasis on marriage as an honorable estate—to be consciously and intentionally pursued in early adulthood—are precisely the not-yet-married people who often feel put upon by marriage-centric teaching in churches.

The people who most loudly bemoan single life are usually not people who are married (they often have fond memories of their more-abbreviated single days!) but singles who want to be married. Get on any social media platform and you’ll find that the main people complaining about single life are singles.

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To say that nonascetic singleness is an undesirable or pitiable state is not to demean, insult, or condemn not-yet-married people—this is what these young adults say about themselves! Churches exhorting singles to pursue marriage are not heaping burdens on them; they are agreeing with them about what is good, coming alongside them, trying to nudge their potential marriage partners into getting on the same page.

The debate about singleness will intensify as marriage continues to come later and less often. Churches will vary in how they approach it. The long record of history suggests that churches that find ways to help young singles find partners and have children will survive in the long run. Churches that don’t find ways to help in that process will wither away, because no Christian movement has ever been primarily sustained by adult converts long term.

Pastors will face increasingly difficult counseling questions about how to handle singleness. Speaking as a family sociologist, my advice would be this: Proclaim the truth boldly even where it is uncomfortable; dispense mercy and comfort liberally where they are needed.

It is important for churches to establish strong public norms around marriage, forthrightly upholding the honorable status of marriage and exhorting young people to intentionally seek it, not simply wait for it to happen. And when, inevitably, this stance leads to not-yet-married individuals feeling (likely justifiably) that their unique circumstances have not been fully understood, pastors are well within their rights to be compassionate.

There is no contradiction in a pastor publicly advocating for Christians to marry by age 25, noting that wedding later does not help Christian couples avoid divorce or achieve happier marriages, while also privately counseling individuals whose earnest desire for marriage has been thwarted by factors beyond their control that this outcome is not their fault, that they should feel no guilt, and that God is not denying them marriage for inscrutable ends.

Public religious teachings have large effects on the family behaviors of believers. If pastors exhort and encourage marriage and childbearing, these practices will increase. Thus, public teaching should focus on the clear goods of marriage and childbearing.

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However, for the many people who earnestly desire marriage, are earnestly pursuing it, and simply cannot find suitable spouses: mercy. Marriage is not commanded.

Because the good of marriage is under attack from a culture that does not value it, it must be defended in public. Yet individual Christian singles bearing the brunt of that cultural attack are not the enemy but the enemy’s target. They should be not condemned but exhorted, not pressured but encouraged, not scolded but supported.

Lyman Stone is a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) and director of research at the population research firm Demographic Intelligence.