Singleness is a growing trend. The United States Census Bureau shows that the median age of first marriage has risen drastically over the last several decades. Looking at the figure below, it can be observed that men and women are marrying nearly 8 years later today (about age 30 for men, 28 for women) than they did at the lowest median age in 1956 (22.5 for men, 20.1 for women).
This change has not left the church unaffected, nor has it gone unnoticed by church leaders. It’s not uncommon to hear the word ‘epidemic’ used as a means to describe this increase in singleness.
In response, many churches created “singles” ministries as a way to help young men and women to meet one another and establish relationships that could lead to marriage. Church leaders elevated marriage from the pulpit and talked about God’s goodness that is displayed through marriage, including the sex and sexuality which God meant to be enjoyed as a genuine good within the context of marriage.
Yet, for some, each of these came with unintended consequences. “Singles ministries” became a quarantine area where unmarried adults are kept from integration into the rest of the body (the married body). The elevation of marriage from the pulpit often came coupled with the denigration of singleness in the pews. Talk about sex absorbed the culture’s attitude that sex is the ultimate goal of life, rather than a good to be enjoyed in its proper context. These, along with a general absence of teaching on singleness, has left many with a negative impression of singleness as being undesirable and unfulfilling.
This stands in stark contrast with the Bible’s teaching on singleness. The kind of language which relates singleness to disease falls far short of the Apostle Paul’s language, who describes singleness as a gift (1 Corinthians 7:7).
In this paper, I wish to demonstrate the goodness of singleness affirmed in Scripture and apply that to the modern church context. First, I will explore 3 different Pauline scholars’ summation and evaluation of Paul’s doctrines about singleness in 1 Corinthians 7:1-40. Then, I will incorporate other Scripture (Genesis 2:18 and Matthew 19:10-12) to fill in what else Scripture teaches on singleness. Lastly, I will apply what Scripture teaches to churches today and how they ought to engage singles.
Pauline Theology of Singleness
In this section, I will be looking at the work of three scholars and their interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7: Thomas Schreiner, Fernand Prat, and Will Deming.
1. Thomas Schreiner
Schreiner begins by looking at the Jewish world’s views of singleness and how markedly different it is from Paul’s view of singleness. For Jews, Genesis 1:28 and 2:18-25 were a divine ordinance. He quotes Sirach 36:29-30, which reads, “He who acquires a wife gets his best possession, a helper fit for him and a pillar of support. Where there is no fence, the property will be plundered; and where there is no wife, a man will become a fugitive and a wanderer.” Likewise, the Genesis Rabbah on Genesis 2:18 says, “whoever has no wife lives without good, without help, without joy, without blessing, without atonement.” Thus, Judaism as a whole looked down upon singleness. In light of this, Schreiner responds, “What is remarkable and undeniable in Paul’s theology, given his Jewish background, is that he thinks singleness is “better” than marriage.” Though Paul ought to view marriage as a necessary good, he views singleness as not only good, but better.
Schreiner then confronts the idea that Paul was ascetic in his theology. He believes that while there were ascetic elements in Corinth, Paul most certainly is not ascetic. While singleness is “better” (1 Corinthians 7: 38) and “a greater blessing” (1 Corinthians 7:40), Paul balances these statements with calls to marry for those with strong sexual desires (1 Corinthians 7:9, 36). We know from other Pauline texts that he holds a very high view of marriage (Ephesians 5:22-33) and rejects those who forbid marriage (1 Timothy 4:1-4), even advising young widows under Timothy’s care to marry rather than remain single (1 Timothy 5:11-14). Thus, “despite the emphasis in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul likely viewed marriage and children as the calling for the majority of believers.”
Schreiner concludes with a discussion of reasons why, according to Paul, one should be single. The first reason is due to “the present distress” (1 Corinthians 7:26). Schreiner thinks this does not refer to any particular issue in Corinth but to “the distress of living in the present evil age” (1 Corinthians 7:29, 10:11). The second reason is because “those who marry will have trouble” (1 Corinthians 7:28, 32-35) whereas those who are single “have fewer distractions and a freedom to fulfill the Lord’s will.” Even then, though, we all have to live in the present evil age regardless of whether we are single or married. In spite of this, Paul cherishes singleness because of the freedom it affords the individual to serve the Lord.
2. Fernand Prat
Prat places his treatment of “marriage and celibacy” under the rubric of “cases of conscience.” He divides his study of marriage and celibacy into four parts.
First, he discusses what Paul’s ideal is in 1 Corinthians 7. He interprets the phrase “it is good for a man not to touch a woman” (7:1a) as a Corinthian slogan which Paul used for his own purposes, concluding that, “In itself it is good to renounce the rights of marriage, to preserve virginity, and not to contract another marital union when death has broken the first.” Although marriage is also good, it is still “less good” than celibacy. Summarizing, he states Paul’s ideal in the following three phrases: “the use of conjugal rights is permissible, but continence is more perfect; marriage is good, but virginity is better; second marriages are allowed, but widowhood is preferable.”
Second, he explores the implications of this within marriage. While the truism that abstinence is better also applies to them, they also have to balance this with the caution that marriage is good in order to avoid sexual immorality. Not to mention, they have “a real debt” to their spouse to not deny sexual relations, as it is a “denial of justice.” Continence is still the ideal, but Paul recognizes that it “requires a special gift from God.”
Third, he reinforces the fact that Paul, in no uncertain terms, makes “the state of virginity or of widowhood” to be “better,” especially from a “spiritual point of view.” This applies equally to men and women. Yet, Paul also stresses that virginity or widowhood is not commanded, being an “evangelical counsel.” Paul’s ultimate reasoning for the superiority of singleness is the ability of that person to devote themselves fully to God. It is also possible that “the near prospect of the parousia” is also informing his view.
The last section does not discuss singleness in any length, but rather reinforces the indissolubility of marriage, even in cases of mixed marriages.
3. Will Deming
Deming’s monograph is solely devoted to the topic of marriage and celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7, divided into 4 sections. In section 1, he evaluates the competing theories for the different theological motivations behind Paul’s call to celibacy. While most see asceticism as the primary motivation, Deming finds this unconvincing. Instead, he finds more parallels to the Hellenistic world, particularly with competing elements of Stoic and Cynic moralists, which he outlines in sections 2 and 3. Section 4 is where he synthesizes what he believes to be Paul’s own view of celibacy and marriage, which is where I will spend the remainder of this section.
Deming begins by outlining who he believes to be Paul’s audience in 1 Corinthians 7, as this will shape how and why Paul responds the way he does. Drawing on parallel ideas and similar Greek phraseology observed between Paul’s Corinthian audience and Stoic literature, Deming concludes that there existed in Corinth “a syncretistic or popularized form of Stoicism” with “a considerable degree of integration between Stoic and Judeo-Christian belief systems.”
Deming also cautions against extrapolating the principles in 1 Corinthians 7 beyond their intended scope. Paul is not writing a “theological position paper” but could have written something “substantially different” given “a different set of circumstances.” This is exemplified by Paul leaving a number of questions unanswered while trying to strike a balance between upholding the good of both marriage and celibacy.
Finally, Deming summarizes Paul’s views of marriage and celibacy. For those who are married, Paul sees little room for singleness. Marriage is to be upheld in every way. “Divorce is impossible, being a violation of Christ’s commandment.” The same is true even in the case where one spouse is a believer and the other is not. Only in the case of separation (1 Corinthians 7:10-11) or where the non-Christian spouse decides to leave (1 Corinthians 7:15) does some form of singleness seem to present itself.
For those who are already single, “Paul’s treatment of whether single Christians should marry or remain celibate is thus based wholly on the expediency of the times—and this cannot be stressed enough.” Due to the time of crisis, Paul discourages the Corinthians from “initiating marriage,” as the conditions of marriage “foster material need—”tribulation in the flesh”” as well as “divide their interests and draw them away from the Lord (7:32-34).” Paul concludes that “devotion to the Lord should take precedence over becoming married.” Yet, Paul does not make this command absolute, but makes allowances for marriage when sexual desire is strong. He does not claim celibacy is best, but says that singleness is “‘better’ than subjecting oneself to almost certain hardship (7:28, 38) and that marrying is ‘better’ than being overcome with sexual desire (7:9; cf. 7:36).”
4. Comparing and Contrasting Schreiner, Prat, and Deming
All of these authors make worthwhile contributions to this discussion. Schreiner appears to be the most balanced of these three scholars, taking a finely nuanced approach both in trying to balance the historical issues along with the theological interpretation. Prat is the most ascetic of the bunch. While he rightly acknowledges the superiority of singleness which Paul articulates, he does so without acknowledging the circumstances which may not make that principle universal in nature. Deming is the most historical. Stoicism from Greek culture does appear to have had an influence on the conversation in 1 Corinthians 7, although perhaps not to the extent that Deming states. He acknowledges the presence of Jewish influence, but it features far less in his evaluation. He rightly warns against extrapolating what is written here beyond its intended audience and hits on most of the key theological points which Paul articulates.
Surveying Non-Pauline Scripture
When surveying the rest of Scripture, there are two primary passages which also contribute much to the conversation regarding singleness: Genesis 2:18 and Matthew 19:10-12.
1. Genesis 2:18
After God had created Adam, he declared,
“It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18).
The phrase “not good” stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the Genesis narrative which had declared the rest of creation “good” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31, 2:9, 12), intending to shock the reader. Kenneth Matthew comments that, “The Hebrew construction of v. 18 accentuates the negative phrase “not good” by placing it at the head of the sentence.” This shows that, at mankind’s core, he is a social being.
Yet, it is not that man is just a social being but that there is something special about being in relationship with the opposite gender. Allen Ross and John Oswalt note, “By saying “not good” the text means that by himself the man could not fulfill the plan of God to be fruitful and multiply or rule and have dominion.” Thus, God created a “helper fit for him,” or, more literally, “a helper corresponding to him.” The word used for helper (ʿēzer), is most frequently used to describe God, and is therefore not a demeaning term because “when God helps people, it means he does for them what they cannot possibly do for themselves.” Likewise, when the woman is described in this way, it means that “she supplied what he lacked…and by implication the reverse would also be true.”
In the Jewish worldview, to be married and to procreate was a divine ordinance from God. A few exceptions are made in the Levitical law for abstaining from sex during a woman’s menstrual period (Leviticus 15:24, 18:19, 20:18). Another anomaly is the prophet Jeremiah, whom God commanded never to marry (Jeremiah 16:1-4). But, as Daniel Gold explains, “Although traditional Judaism proscribes sexual relations outside marriage, all Jews are expected to marry and engage regularly in conjugal relations.” So, if this Genesis 1-2 is the foundation for what Paul came out of, how, then, do we understand his permissiveness in allowing Christians to remain single, even calling singleness better? Part of the answer will come in looking at the next passage.
2. Matthew 19:10-12
Matthew 19:10-12 is the only other major passage in which singleness is discussed, albeit in a cursory way. In the preceding verses, the Pharisees were questioning Jesus about the permissiveness of divorce. Jesus, using the text of Genesis 2:24, upholds the sanctity of marriage and makes divorce impermissible except in cases of adultery. Given that Jesus’ command was even stricter than Shammai’s, the disciples remark, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10). Jesus responds by saying,
Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it. (Matthew 19:11-12)
“Eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” can be broadly interpreted to mean anyone who remains single for the kingdom of heaven.
What, then, has changed to allow for people to deviate from the established Jewish norm of marriage and procreation? The answer lies in the phrase “for the kingdom of heaven.” The incarnation of the Word of God ushered in a new phase in the kingdom of God. Matthew’s gospel especially stresses this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2, 4:17, 10:7). Thus, while Genesis 1:28 and 2:18 remain in effect, a higher priority has entered into the picture: service to the kingdom of God.
With the advent of the kingdom of God, the service of God’s kingdom trumps all (Matthew 6:33). As Leon Morris discerns, Jesus “is simply saying that the claims of the kingdom override all other claims and that some are called to serve in the path of celibacy (just as others are called to serve in marriage).” R.T. France likewise concurs that “some may be called to voluntary celibacy…because of the special demands of their role in the kingdom of heaven.” To remain single and celibate in service of the kingdom of God thus becomes a good, though not a good that he intends for everyone. As Jesus opens and concludes his response, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given…Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” (Matthew 19:11b, 12b).
Summary of Scripture Regarding Singleness
The Scriptural data paints a clear picture of God’s attitude toward singleness. Marriage and procreation have been the norm since the beginning of creation (Genesis 1:27, 2:18). But with the advent of the kingdom of God in the person of Jesus Christ, a new priority to serve the kingdom of God has established itself as our highest calling. Singleness, alongside marriage, becomes one of the ways to fulfil this calling. Paul’s treatment of the subject echoes this sentiment, teaching that singleness offers an opportunity of undivided devotion to the Lord not afforded in marriage. Though marriage is good, and in most cases advisable due to sexual desire, singleness is also a good to be stewarded by the Christian to serve Christ.
Application to My Ministry and the Church
In light of what Scripture says regarding singleness, there are several ways in which to apply this to the church and to my own ministry.
First, the church needs to start teaching on singleness from the pulpit. This will help to dispel negative attitudes about singleness which stem from an absence of teaching about the goods of singleness. Additionally, it will give singles crucial resources on what it means to steward their singleness.
Second, the church needs to rethink how it does singles ministries (or even if it should have one). One of the main issues with singles ministries is that they are often founded on the wrong premise that singleness is bad and needs to be remedied, like it is a disease that needs to be cured (hence the ‘epidemic’ language that is often used in broader Christian culture). Those who attend such ministries are often given a subtle impression that because they are single, then there’s something wrong with them and that God doesn’t value them for their singleness. This distorts what Scripture teaches on singleness and the single person. A proper mission statement for a singles group would focus on how singles can be uniquely devoted to the things of the Lord, particularly in serving the rest of the church.
Another problem that often develops with singles ministries is the resulting division between the singles and the rest of the church. Singles can feel quarantined in these groups, not being fully welcomed or integrated into the body of the church until they marry and “graduate” from that group. This leads to a disunity because singles feel looked down on by the rest of the church.
An equally problematic corollary is that singles groups can sometimes try to be too self-sufficient and independent from the main body of the church. They can get so caught up in fellowshipping and ministering to the needs of the group, they forget that they are part of a body who needs their time and talents.
Can a singles ministry be done in such a way to avoid these things? I do think it is possible, but without proper teaching about singleness, a bent towards service, and an emphasis on meaningful integration with the rest of the church, there will be a high likelihood that it will fall into one of the pitfalls mentioned above.
Third, for myself and those who are single, one of the biggest points of application is to learn what it means to steward one’s singleness well. Because of poor teaching or church culture which says that singleness doesn’t matter or isn’t valued in itself, then singles will think that there isn’t any responsibility tied with their singleness when, in fact, the opposite is true. Both Jesus in Matthew 19 and Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 draw the connection between singleness and service to God. Therefore, if we aren’t using our time and undivided focus to serve the church, then our priorities are wrong and need to be adjusted.
What this will look like on a practical level will depend both on the ways the individual can make a meaningful contribution as well as the needs of the church. As a single person myself, I have the duty to seek the Lord’s will for myself as I read the Word, pray, and seek the Holy Spirit’s leading on how I can serve the Lord with an undivided focus. No matter how long I remain single, I will use the time and talents I have to serve Christ.
Scripture holds to a high view of singleness. This is attested to by those who were the best exemplars of what it meant to be single: Jesus and Paul. Marriage is God’s gift to mankind and will continue to be the norm as long as this present age continues. Yet, in light of Jesus and the gospel, God has made singleness an equally valid and meaningful way to live. Those who are gifted with such an opportunity (whether or not they desire to marry) ought to use their unique position to serve God and serve his church. The church, likewise, must elevate singleness in its teaching, proclaiming the truth of God’s word as it applies to the married person as well as the single person.
 “Figure MS-2, Median age at first marriage: 1890 to present,” United States Census Bureau, Historical Marital Status Tables, https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/visualizations/time-series/demo/families-and-households/ms-2.pdf
 For example, Katie Van Dyke, “How Married People Can Combat the Singleness Epidemic,” The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, January 25, 2016, accessed December 5, 2018, https://cbmw.org/topics/singleness/how-married-people-can-combat-the-singleness-epidemic/.
 Thomas Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2001), 415.
 Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, 415.
 Ibid, 416.
 Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, 416.
 Fernand Prat, The Theology of Saint Paul, Vol.1, trans. John L. Stoddard (London: Burns Oates and Washbourne, 1945), 106.
 Ibid, 107.
 Prat, The Theology of Saint Paul, 108.
 Ibid, 109.
 Ibid, 110.
 Ibid, 111.
 Ibid, 112.
 William Deming, Paul on Marriage and Celibacy: The Hellenistic Background of 1 Corinthians 7, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 209.
 Ibid, 210-211.
 Ibid, 213.
 Ibid, 214.
 Deming, Paul on Marriage and Celibacy, 215.
 Gordon J. Wenham, “Genesis,” in New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, ed. D. A. Carson et al., 4th ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 62.
 K. A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, vol. 1A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 213.
 Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 1, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1967), 70.
 Allen Ross and John N. Oswalt, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary: Genesis, Exodus, vol. 1 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008), 48.
 Allen P. Ross, “Genesis,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 31.
 Ross and Oswalt, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary: Genesis, Exodus, 48.
 The Encyclopedia of Religion, s.v. “Celibacy.”
 Craig Blomberg, Matthew, vol. 22, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 294.
 Craig L. Blomberg, “Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage, and Celibacy: An Exegesis of Matthew 19:3-12,” Trinity Journal 11, no. 2 (September 1990): 183-185. A narrower interpretation is argued for by Quentin Quesnell, “Made Themselves Eunuchs For The Kingdom of Heaven (Mt 19:12),” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 30, no. 3 (July 1968): 335-358.
 Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992), 486.
 R. T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 1, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 286.