Most times, when we talk about families in the church, it's easy to forget that not everybody fits into the same situation that we're in. Because I'm married, and because I have young children, it's natural for me to think about issues that married people with young children face. It's almost possible to believe that everybody is in the same situation that I'm in.
The same thing happens with cars. I find when I get interested in a certain model of car, all of a sudden those models are everywhere. The reality is that they've always been there, but I haven't noticed them. You've heard of selective hearing. I believe that we're also guilty sometimes of selective seeing. We don't always see what is actually around us.
When it comes to church, I've found that there's a group that's significant and growing, and yet many times we don't see this group. The ironic part is that all of us have spent time in this group, and yet I've found personally that those days are easily forgotten. Sometimes, without even knowing it, we make this group feel ignored or second-class. The language we use - talking about family picnics and family get-togethers - and the actions that we take can sometimes make this group of people feel like we don't even see them. Truthfully, sometimes we don't. But it's not because they're not there, and it's not because this group isn't large, and growing. Sometimes we begin to think that everyone is part of a two-parent family, even though when we look around, that's not at all the case.
I'm talking about singles - the group of people who have never married, or who have married and find themselves single again. This is a huge group of people - 40% of the population and growing. Right now, there are four and a half million Canadians who live either alone or with people who aren't part of their family.
And yet as I thought about it this past week, I don't think I've ever heard or preached a sermon on singleness. There are a lot of times that we forget that they're around, and even worse, that we're insensitive to them. I know that I've done this. It's easy for those of us who aren't single to be insensitive to singles, and to try to make them fit into our world. Sometimes we make the opposite mistake, and we create a singles ministry that is almost a separate part of the church. They at least feel noticed, but then we separate them from the mainstream of the church. There's nothing wrong with a singles ministry, but it is wrong to compartmentalize such an important part of our population.
As I prepared this message, I realized that I've seldom thought about church from a single's perspective, and I don't think I've ever asked a single adult what it feels like to be part of our church. It's easy to ignore singles or to patronize them without even realizing it.
There used to be a time that singleness was identified as a temporary period that young adults faced before they got married. Some people still define singleness that way. My older brother didn't marry into his thirties, and it was amazing to see some of the comments that were directed at him. People wouldn't leave him alone because he was still single. People were continually matching him up with girls - sometimes a good thing, sometimes a bad thing. It all depended on how well they got along.
The underlying message, though, seemed to be that he was incomplete, or that his life hadn't really begun. Sometimes, even singles feel this way. Some of the markers that take place in married people's lives weren't as visible - the mortgage, the first child, the first child going to school, and so on. Sometimes we communicate subtle messages that say to a single person, "You haven't really lived and you can't be fulfilled because you're not married." They're made to feel almost like half a person. But that's not God's view at all.
I really have two goals today. If you are married, I want to challenge you to open your eyes and your lives to others here who aren't part of your family. I dream about becoming a church where deep connections are taking place, not just between married people and married people, but between married and single, young and old, across the barriers that divide us. If nothing else, I'd like us to open our eyes to see that we need to open our ministries to those who aren't in our situation, and to open our lives as well - to look beyond our marital status to see what we have in common.
But I also want to speak to singles today. I don't speak with authority on the subject, but I do want to look at what the Bible has to say about singleness. I'm not sure that I've always had a proper understanding of what the Bible teaches about being single, so I want to look at a passage that teaches us some important lessons on singleness. I've also asked some single adults for their advice on what I should say on this topic, so part of what you're going to hear comes from them.
Today I thought it would be valuable for all of us to look at what the Bible says about singleness, and to examine some of the attitudes we carry about singleness that we may have, without even knowing it.
I'd like to look at a passage of Scripture today that teaches about singleness and marriage. If you have a Bible, open it to 1 Corinthians 7. It's on page 1289 of your pew Bibles.
The author of this book, Paul, is writing to a church, and in chapter 7, he's answering a question that they asked him. We don't really know what the question was, but some scholars think it may have been something like this: "Paul, is it good to be married?" That's a pretty good question, and one that's relevant to us today. It appears that some in the church were probably going around quoting Genesis 2:18, "It is not good for the man to be alone," and driving all the single people crazy. They were probably asking questions like, "When are you going to settle down?" "Why don't you go on a date with my nephew? He's really cute." The Jewish religion at that time taught that marriage was the "unqualified duty for a man." Celibacy was viewed as being abnormal. Some people in the Corinthian church were placing a lot of pressure on the singles to get married.
On the other hand, some people in that church were saying that it was better to stay single. There seemed to be this belief that celibacy was good, even if you're married, and singleness is even better. So there was this big debate going on about whether or not it was okay to remain unmarried, or whether everybody had to marry.
The moral situation in Corinth wasn't too different from our situation. They lived in a sex-crazed culture, much like we do today. It also looked like the Christians in the church were about to enter a period of persecution.
Let's look at what Paul said to the question, "Should everyone get married?" The first lesson we learn from this passage is found in verse 1:
1. SINGLENESS IS AN OPTION
1 Corinthians 7:1 says, "Now about the questions you asked in your letter. Yes, it is good to live a celibate life." Here, Paul answers the question of whether everyone should get married or not. Later on, he says that you can get married if you want, but here, Paul says that singleness is an option. Singleness is not just the state that you're in while you wait to be married. Singleness is a valid choice. It doesn't make you incomplete or second-class. The implication for us is that we shouldn't expect everyone to get married, because singleness is a valid option.
We don't really know what was going on in Corinth, but there were some extenuating circumstances that made the single life more desirable than being married. Paul says in verse 26, "Because of the present crisis, I think it is best to remain just as you are." Most guess that there was a time of persecution coming, and having a family would allow greater freedom, and it would reduce the amount of suffering that would take place. In the present circumstance, Paul thought that singleness might make sense. Depending on your circumstances, singleness may or may not be the best opti on for your life.
It's easy for married people to think that marriage is better than singleness. Part of the problem for those of us who are married is that we begin to see marriage as the only way in which relational intimacy takes place. It's an important way - but it's not the only way. We can have rich relationships outside of marriage. Sometimes those of us who are married make the mistake of turning inward as families and excluding others - both married and single - from our lives. You don't have to be married to be fulfilled, and you can have rich relationships even if you are a single person.
The reality is that marriage is not forever, and will not be part of the way we relate to each other in heaven. Jesus said, "Marriage is for people here on earth. But that is not the way it will be in the age to come. For those worthy of being raised from the dead won't be married then" (Luke 20:34-35). We will experience rich relationships in heaven - but they won't be marriage relationships. Deep relationships with others are possible to everyone, even apart from marriage.
You can choose singleness, and still have rich relationships and a fulfilled life. A great example of this is Jesus. He was single, and yet nobody would ever say that he was incomplete or unfulfilled. He stayed in close touch with his family and his friends. He offered love to others, and he received it back from them. He felt free to express love and care through human touch. He was comfortable having one of his closest friends lean on him. He even knew how to lovingly caress - in a non-sexual way - a woman who was known to be a sinner. He also knew how to be alone. He experienced both the joys and the frustrations of being single, and yet he was completely fulfilled. The fact that Jesus was a single adult should change our attitudes about singleness. It's not second class. It's the way that God chose to live when he came to earth.
Listen to what Jesus said. One day he was teaching in a house, and somebody told him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." Mark 3:33-34 says: "Jesus replied, 'Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?' Then he looked at those around him and said, 'These are my mother and brothers. Anyone who does God's will is my brother and sister and mother.'" Jesus was probably referring to his disciples - the twelve men that he had chosen; his band of brothers. They responded to his call to follow him. The ties that he had with them were stronger than the blood ties he had with his own family. You don't have to be married to experience true community, and relationships that go deeper than blood. We can enter into a relationship with the only person who could ever complete us and make us whole, whether we're married or we're single - Jesus Christ.
Singleness is an option. That means that we may have to work harder at acknowledging the needs and even the presence of single adults. It may mean changing some of our attitudes. It may mean opening up our lives to the richness of relationships outside of our own families. If you're a single adult, it may mean honoring your single status - a status that was held by our Savior. Paul teaches that singleness is an option. You can find the deepest fulfillment, the deepest unity of heart and soul, without being married.
I've learned that I need to change my attitudes. Being married isn't necessarily better, and neither is being single. Both are gifts from God. Singles aren't just people waiting to get married. Jesus Christ himself was single. Singleness is an option.
Paul continues to answer the question. 1 Corinthians 7:2 says, "But because there is so much sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband." It sounds like Paul is contradicting himself. He's just said it's good to be single and celibate; now he's saying it's good if you're married not to be celibate. The point Paul is making is this:
2. SINGLENESS IS A GIFT
Paul says in verse 7, "I wish everyone could get along without marrying, just as I do. But we are not all the same. God gives some the gift of marriage, and to others he gives the gift of singleness." Paul's just outlined some of the drawbacks of being single. One of the drawbacks is that some people just can't cope with sexual temptation outside of marriage. It looks like some back then really wanted to get married, and were in danger of losing their moral purity out of a false desire to stay single. Paul said to them, "It's okay - go ahead and get married. You obviously don't have the gift of singleness."
This wasn't a new teaching. Jesus said in Matthew 19:12, "Some choose not to marry for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven." A single person can focus their energies on the work of God more than a married person could. Singleness is more than just an option; it's a gift from God. It's a calling for some people.
This isn't to diminish marriage in any way. The apostle Paul had a very high view of marriage. He compares the union of a man and woman to the union that Christ has for the church. But Paul didn't diminish singleness either. Sometimes we concentrate so much on the positive aspects of marriage, that we totally miss the other side. If you're single, that could be a gift from God for you - a gift of grace. If you are single and want to remain single, that's not a deficiency. That's a gift. It provides you with opportunities that married people will never have.
The single life is not second-best. You can be fulfilled and fully honoring God's call in your life whether you're married or not, whether you're a parent or not. One of the challenges we have as a church is to filter out the signals that our culture communicates - messages like "You're nobody until somebody loves you" - and to replace them with the Biblical message that God gave some the grace-filled gift of singleness. Somebody has written, "We do people a disservice when we fail to proclaim the single life as a Christian option. Marriage is not for everyone, and we should say so" (Richard Foster).
One of the greatest gifts I've received is to watch a single adult firsthand raise four of her children. She didn't choose singleness - yet as I look back, I can see how God used her singleness. It's taken a toll on her. Yet I believe it's also provided her with opportunities and growing experiences that she would never have experienced if her marriage had stayed intact. What happened to her was a tragedy - and yet God uses tragedies. She's taught me firsthand that singleness isn't second-class. It's been a gift that God has used in many people's lives.
One of the strongest indicators of which gift you have is your desire - your inclination. If you have the gift of singleness, it's probable that God has also given you a desire to remain single. If you have the gift of marriage, God will probably also give you the desire to get married. Both are gifts from God. Both are valid. Both are to be honored.
Some are called to be single. But there may be others who find themselves single, without ever really feeling called to singleness. They may be divorced or widowed. It's a biological reality that there are more women than men out there, and a commitment to marry only an individual who loves the Lord can greatly narrow the options. We need to be sensitive to those who are single who would never have chosen that singleness for themselves. God can give grace and hope to those in this situation. We can be honest with God. We can be open with each other. We can pray that God will give his grace to meet our needs.
It turns out that both groups were wrong in the Corinthian church. The group that said marriage was mandatory was wrong. Marriage is an option, but it's never mandatory. But the other group was wrong as well. The group that taught that singleness was mandatory was also wrong. What's important is to understand God's unique calling on your life. You may be called to marriage; you may be called to singleness. One is not better than the other. Both are gifts from God.
I want to close with a final instruction that applies to all of us, regardless of our marital status. The third lesson we learn about singleness - about marriage as well - is found in verse 17. Here's the lesson:
3. CONTENTMENT IS THE KEY
Verse 17 says, "You must accept whatever situation the Lord has put you in, and continue on as you were when God first called you. This is my rule for all the churches." Paul's instructions were consistent to all the groups - stay as you are, if you can help it. Some people were ready to make wholesale changes without thinking about how it would affect them. In a situation in which there were people from all different races and social levels and family situations, Paul said, "You can please God just where you are. You don't have to change your job, and you don't have to get married or divorced or whatever to serve Jesus Christ. Be content in your situation. You may be just where God wants you to be."
This doesn't come easily. It just hit me this week that one of the Ten Commandments talks about contentment with our marital status. I'd never really thought about it before in this context, but the tenth commandment says, "Do not covet your neighbor's wife" (Exodus 20:17). It's possible to be married and to still want what somebody else has. There are married people who want to be single and single people who want to be married and married people who want to be married to someone else. We're called to be content, right where we are, with what we have right now.
The hardest thing in the world is to be content with our current situation right where we are. Paul is teaching that we should willingly accept whatever situation God has placed us in and be content to serve him there. Paul gave example after example in this passage to illustrate this principle, but it's just plain hard. Paul's not saying we should deny our desires, or be dishonest about how we feel. He did say that it's possible to be content no matter what situation we find ourselves in. Paul said in Philippians 4:12-13, "I have learned the secret of living in every situation For I can do everything with the help of Christ who gives me the strength I need."
It's not our own resources that give us this contentment. It's not that all of our needs are being met, or that all our desires are fulfilled. The only way that we can have contentment in whatever situation we're in is with the help of Christ, who gives us all the strength we need for whatever situation we find ourselves in. God is ultimately the one who gives us the fulfillment, the contentment, the peace that we're all looking for. We can never look to another person to give us what ultimately is only God's to give.
Marriage has its struggles. There's no doubt that anyone who is married will struggle sometimes with the cost of marriage. I'm grateful that we're in a church in which we can say, "We're struggling. We don't have it all together. I need help in this area."
Singleness also has its challenges. I want to be a church that we can be open about some of the struggles of singleness - that there are challenges, just as there are advantages.
Maybe it's naïve, but I'd love to be a church in which we saw past our marital status, and we acknowledged the significance and the value of every person in Jesus Christ. I'd love to see us develop deep and significant relationships beyond those who are just like us. I'd love to be a church in which singles didn't feel second-class, because the greatest person who ever walked this earth was himself single. I want to be the kind of church that affirms people both in marriage and in singleness - a church that recognizes the value of sacred singleness.
Father, I pray for those here today who are called to singleness. Forgive us for sometimes being insensitive to that calling. I pray that we would be a church that highly values that calling for your glory.
I pray that we would be a church in which deep relationships are formed - in which singles mix with married people and married people become deeply involved in the lives of those who aren't married. Father, open our eyes to those around us who aren't in our situation, and help us to love and to serve each other.
I pray that no matter what our situation, that you would give us your strength and peace and contentment. We pray all these things in the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.