A review of the book by Danielle Treweek, Intervarsity Press, 2023
I was determined not to get married, and my friend, Braxton, agreed with me. Marriage would tie us down. Children would take away the freedom to live our lives however we wanted, which for us meant taking off on a whim to sail along North Carolina’s Outer Banks or go hiking in her forested mountains.
And then, one day, Braxton betrayed me. He’d fallen in love. They were going to be married. And he wasn’t the only one. One by one my high school friends—David, Derek, Alan, Floyd, Dan, Archie—all stood at the church altar and took the vows that would change their lives.
My church celebrated these unions, because my church taught us that marriage was the ultimate experience of joy and fulfillment that humans could find under God’s heaven. And it taught that God had set aside a special life-partner for every man and woman of faith. Seek and ye shall find.
I met Kathy and the scales fell from my eyes. We were married and feted with great joy by our friends. My marriage changed my thinking about many things. I delighted in being a father, and I began to look with pity on the men and women I knew who hadn’t yet found the love of their lives.
I’ve just finished reading Danielle Treweek’s book The Meaning of Singleness, and was surprised to learn from her research that the early church viewed marriage with a good deal of caution; in 1 Corinthians 7:8, the Apostle Paul, himself unmarried, urges single men and women to remain unmarried. Why? Not out of fear of losing their personal freedom, but because they were living with the expectation of the very soon return of Jesus. The first Christians didn’t want earthly commitments to hinder them from hurrying about doing God’s saving work and preparing themselves for his coming kingdom. Many committed themselves to a life of celibacy and missional service to God. Singleness was seen as a way to serve a higher purpose with one’s life.
As the centuries passed and with the rise of Protestantism, these attitudes began to change. For practical and theological reasons the church gradually began encouraging and celebrating marriage.
Fast forward to the sexual revolution of the 70’s, and among evangelicals marriage was increasingly seen as an antidote to the laissez-faire sexual promiscuity what was celebrated in secular world. Purity culture and covenant marriages were a few of the responses to hook-up culture and no-fault divorce. As divorces rose and marriages declined, loosely-committed cohabitation became more common, or life-long singleness lived out in a framework of sexual opportunism.
Many churches responded by casting singleness as incompatible with faithful Christian discipleship, and even as a threat to the mission of the church. Even when singles are not viewed with suspicion, they are very often outsiders in a church culture which, intentionally or not, leaves them adrift as it focuses its energies on marriage, families, and children.
Treweek’s excellent and deeply-researched book takes a fascinating dive into the history of marriage and singleness in Christianity, tracing the shifts in the church’s attitudes through the ages. She highlights and challenges the harmful attitudes about singleness that have been adopted in some Christian circles by doing a very careful theological study of what the Scriptures actually teach.
She informs her conclusions with some of the perspectives the early church held dear, and the modern church needs to relearn: that we are not members of an earthly kingdom only, but an eternal kingdom, and that the meaning of our present earthly experiences of marriage, singleness, masculinity, and femininity will be transformed into something new and different in heaven. (See Matthew 22:23-30, for example.)
The church can and should begin living out those eternal perspectives today, because they reflect a better understanding of God’s purposes for us as individuals and as his church.
Our high respect for marriage in the church is not wrong, but it is too often expressed and practiced in such a way that it casts faithful single Christians as impoverished, incomplete, less blessed, and to some extent a threat to those who are married. Yet, how can it be true that a single brother or sister in Christ experiences fewer of the benefits of the blessings of God than a married believer?
Might it be true, instead, as the earliest Christians believed, that the single believer, free from the myriad responsibilities of marriage, is given more freedom to practice their gifts and calling in Christ?
There is an erroneous, often unspoken, belief in the church that it will be revitalized age after age by the children born to Christian parents and nurtured in church-led Christian education. Treweek rightly points out that baptism is the true source of church growth, and that single believers can become spiritual parents through sharing their faith and reaping the harvest God has prepared. All of us, regardless of our marital status, are charged by Jesus to go out and make disciples. The family of God is not biological but spiritual. Treweek says:
“God’s people are no longer an exclusive society defined by pedigree, bound by blood, and oriented toward life in this age. Instead, the church of this meanwhile [this time between Christ’s resurrection and return] has already, though not yet ultimately, been transformed into whom it will be in the “forever”—an expansive community defined by union in Christ, bound together by the indwelling Spirit and oriented toward life in the age to come. As such, it is virtually impossible to overemphasize the sense in which the full inclusion and integration of unmarried members within the body of Christ is integral to the church’s own self-understanding of exactly who it is, where it is bound, and what (or rather, who) it testifies to…. By failing to esteem…its single members—or worse still, by designating their unmarried state as inherently problematic and threatening—the church is only serving to undermine its own unique identity as a community whose collective life is constituted by the eschatological kingdom of God rather than by family bloodlines.”Danielle Treweek, The Meaning of Singleness
All fine and good, but what about sex? As the church has pushed singles to find suitable marriage partners, it has often focused on a need to mitigate sexual temptation. It has suggested that living in celibacy and chastity is a near impossibility. In this simplistic view, married sexual relations satisfy and tame the body’s sexual demands, which will build up to the breaking point in the life of a single person.
Again, Treweek wisely points out that this view fails to acknowledge the powerful work of sanctification that the Holy Spirit does and is doing in all of us. Sexual lust is not by any means the chief human temptation, and sexual sin is not the most difficult to tame. Pride, arrogance, deceit, faithlessness, idolatry, envy are all equally destructive and equally part of our human natures. Treweek rightly says that the path of singleness for a faithful Christian is one of many challenging paths we are each asked to walk in life, and it is no more difficult than any other when discipleship is viewed as a “long obedience in the same direction,” to borrow Eugene Peterson’s wonderful phrase.
The Meaning of Singleness is a very important corrective to some of the beliefs and practices in the modern Christian church, many of which have been been flavored more by cultural influences than the call of the Word. It’s not a light book, but it’s full of solid insights into what it means to fully live out Paul’s high calling in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (NIV)” May we add, neither married nor single?