When Christians discuss important topics related to God’s design for marriage and family, it is easy to forget that a significant constituency of the church is single. That is, within any given church you will not only find many married Christians; you will find—now more than ever, due to historical and sociological reasons we can’t explore in this article—single Christians.
But an important question all of us need to ask is this: How do single and married Christians fellowship with and serve each other in a way that honors the blessing of marriage and the gift of singleness? Fortunately, we do not need to look outside of Scripture for a resolution to this question. Due to circumstances in a local congregation nearly 2,000 years ago, the apostle Paul faced this very problem, and he answers it for us in his first letter to the Corinthian church.
Single and Married Christians in Corinth
The church in Corinth was struggling. Although Paul regarded them as genuine believers (see 1 Cor 1:3-8), they were burdened by a host of doctrinal, ethical, and interpersonal problems. One issue concerned how married and single Christians related to one another.
Apparently some single folks in Corinth conducted themselves with an air of spiritual superiority. Singleness was seen as the preferred state because it highlighted a person’s ability to deny his or her carnal desires while also demonstrating one’s whole-hearted devotion to Christ. Married people, due to their need to satisfy their sexual appetites through marriage, were clearly less mature than the single Christians and less devoted to the Lord in light of their family obligations. Some married couples were even separating from their spouses due to, perhaps, to a false sense of spiritual obligation to be single (1 Cor 7:10).
But it may have also been the case that the married couples in Corinth were guilty of expressing a similar kind of spiritual superiority over the single Christians in the church. Given God’s design for marriage in Genesis and His command for all humanity to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:26), some couples may have viewed singleness as a kind of curse or, at least, a mediocre Christian existence. Paul, therefore, commended singleness as a blessed status due to the freedom it provided unmarried Christians (1 Cor 7:8; 17; 27; 32-35).
The Temptation to Despise Another’s Marital Status
It’s not difficult for us to see why both groups would have been tempted to despise the other, for we are faced with the same temptations today. Single Christians may view married Christians as spiritually weak, burdened with the affairs of life and child rearing, and no longer able to give their lives wholly to God’s service. Likewise, married couples can see singles as perpetually stuck in adolescence, unwilling to grow up and take on greater responsibilities, using their singleness as a guise for unrestrained freedom.
Both attitudes are wrong and sinful, and they will, if left unchecked and un-mortified, begin to create an atmosphere of suspicion among the married and single people in a church. Regardless of whether we are single or married, we need to be aware of the temptation to cast a judgmental eye on our brothers and sisters due to their marital status. Why? So that we might enjoy the sweetness of fellowship Christ intends for us to enjoy. But how do we cultivate this kind of fellowship? Let me offer five biblical exhortations to help you live well with your single and married brothers and sisters.
(1) If you’re single, thank God for your singleness. Paul’s solution for the trouble that was brewing between the single and married Christians in Corinth was not to denigrate singleness. Actually, Paul exalts singleness—given his Jewish background—to a surprising and unprecedented status, even proclaiming that he wished all people were single like he was (1 Cor 7:7). Paul recognized that with the coming of Christ and the revelation of the gospel, singleness—once an uncommon state for adults in Israel—now held new significance. Steve Wellum explains:
In the OT, there’s nothing comparable to th[e] teaching [that singleness is a gift]. But now that Christ has come, the new creation has begun to dawn, and the old creation structures are being transformed, including marriage and the family—although this will not fully occur until the consummation. In the church, singleness is not viewed as subpar or abnormal, since singles, along with married couples, are part of what is permanent: the church. As God’s people, we live out the purpose of our creation and image bearing in relationship to one another and to Christ (“Can a Single Person Fully Image God?” 9 Marks Journal [Spring 2017], 12)
Paul never commanded Christians to remain single, but he did endow singleness with new significance while also informing the Corinthians that it held weighty advantages for Christian life and ministry. The greatest advantage is that singleness provides believers with the freedom to serve Christ without the anxiety of caring for a family (1 Cor 7:32-34), which enables them to “secure undistracted devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor 7:35). If you are presently single, therefore, thank God for your singleness. If you have strong desires to be married, this time of singleness may feel like a trial. I understand that. But your singleness is also an opportunity to steward well, and Paul even implies that a unique happiness attends the single life (1 Cor 7:40). Heed the apostle’s instruction and use this time to cultivate sincere devotion to Christ (1 Cor 7:35), and to use your ministry advantages to diligently serve others. You don’t need to be married to fulfill God’s call for your life.
(2) If you’re married, thank God for your marriage. Similarly, Paul didn’t solve the interpersonal troubles in Corinth by siding with the singles who were belittling marriage. No, Paul recognized that marriage was the normal state of mankind and an effective weapon in the fight against sexual immorality (1 Cor 7:1-5). The married people in Corinth are to remain married and serve each other selflessly (1 Cor 7:10; 7:1-5). In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul reveals the stunning truth that earthly marriage is a picture of Christ’s relationship to the church (Eph 5:25-33)! Marriage, therefore, is a good gift from God. We don’t deserve it, but God graciously lavishes us with intimate companionship through marital union. Thank God for your marriage.
(3) Remember that earthly singleness and marriage are only temporary. It is helpful to both single and married Christians to remember that our earthly marital status is, in the grand scheme of eternity, a brief, momentary season. If you are single and you grieve because you are afraid you will never get to experience marriage, keep in mind that marriage is only a shadow of a coming reality. Marriage was given to humankind in order to showcase a coming spiritual reality that will someday encompass all creation: the marriage of Christ to his Bride, the church (Rev. 19:7-9). If you never marry in this life, you haven’t really lost anything: you have only bypassed the postcard of Patagonia for an actual climb up Cerro Torre.
If you are married, it is important to remember that history is headed in an irreversible direction where human marriage will no longer exist (Luke 20:35-36). Corporately, we will be married to Christ. But individually, we will all be single. With the reminder of the temporary nature of earthly marriage and our coming eternal state of singleness, we are kept from looking down on those who are presently without a spouse.
(4) Practice hospitality toward one another. Regular, proactive hospitality among members of the church is the God-given means for developing deep, Christ-centered relationships (Acts 2:42-47; Rom 12:13). If you are single, take the initiative to get to know married couples and welcome them in your home so that you might spend quality time with them. If you are married, find ways to invite the single folks into your home to be with you and your family. If a single person’s parents and siblings live far away, they will appreciate time in your home among your family.
We must remember that there are no essential divisions between single and married Christians in the local body, for we all individually share the same spiritual status (Gal 3:28-29). Granted, our places in life (e.g., single, married, married with children, grandparents, etc.) tend to naturally place us in certain groups with people in a similar stage of life. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But we must be careful that we don’t allow a wedge to form between us by only spending time with those in our same life-stage.
(5) Pray and thank God regularly for the married couples and single Christians in your church. Finally, pray regularly for the single and married Christians in your church. If you are married, get to know the single people in your church, invite them into your life, and pray regularly for them. Pray that God would enable them to serve well and to fight for contentment in Christ during their season of singleness (Phil 4:13). Pray for God to provide spouses for those who desire marriage and pray that they would be using their time of singleness to cultivate unswerving devotion to Jesus (1 Cor 7:35).
And thank God for them. They are your brothers and sisters in Christ, heirs of a common salvation, and their ministry is essential to the health of your local congregation. Many of the singles in your midst work difficult jobs during the week and then give multiple hours to serving the church as well as caring for their friends and family. You may not be aware of it, but a whole lot of ministry happens at church due to the diligence of the single brothers and sisters among you.
If you are single, take time to regularly pray and thank God for the married couples in your church. God has called them to the challenging task of raising children (Eph 6:1-4) and reflecting Christ’s relationship to His church through their marriage (Eph 5:25-32). They need your prayers for wisdom, patience, and perseverance.
And thank God for them. They also are your brothers and sisters in Christ with whom you will dwell with for all eternity, and their ministry is vital to the well-being of the church. As family constraints increase, some married couples may find they don’t have as much time as they wish they did to serve the local congregation. Yet many of them serve when and where they can, exercising their gifts to strengthen the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:7).
Singleness is a gift, and so is marriage. Those who are presently married are called to serve Christ with their spouses, reflect His relationship with the church, and, if the Lord blesses, bring up children in the fear and admonition of the Lord (Eph 6:4). Those who are single are called to make the most of their singleness, pursuing purity, diligence, and faithfulness. But all Christians—married and single—are called to live harmoniously with one another, to maintain unity in the bond of peace, and walk in love (Col 3:14; Eph 4:2; 5:2). May we strive for this unity and love among our local congregation.