A biblical view of singleness has been hard to come by in church history. At one extreme, some have regarded the unmarried life as an elevated spiritual realm, a blessing that only the godliest can handle. At the other extreme, singles groups in some churches are seen as mere holding tanks where believers remain only until they can marry. In contrast, the Bible presents a third way of viewing singleness in 1 Corinthians 7, one that the church needs to recover.
Singleness is a calling. Regarding marriage and singleness, Paul told the Corinthians, “Only let each person lead the life . . . to which God has called him” (1 Corinthians 7:17). The word translated “called” is the Greek verb kaleo. It means “to choose for receipt of a special benefit or experience.” In the New Testament, being “called” by God to anything is an overwhelmingly positive experience. Believers are called to God’s kingdom (1 Thessalonians 2:12), to “eternal glory in Christ” (1 Peter 5:10), and to eternal life (1 Timothy 6:12). At times, God’s people are also called to an office of service (Hebrews 5:4). By placing singleness in this category of calling, God is obviously not classifying it as a position of second-class citizenship in His Church.
At the same time, singleness involves struggle. Paul’s statement that singles must exercise “self-control” and his accompanying exhortation, “It is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9), indicate that unmarried Christians face a battle to abstain from sexual intimacy outside marriage. God created humans as sexual beings, and singles are no exception. They experience sexual desire but are expected to fulfill the root need for intimacy by drawing near to Christ and being totally known only by Him. Yes, sexual abstinence can be a struggle. But obedience brings great blessing, and God empowers His single children for their calling. (Incidentally, Paul said married Christians also have unique struggles that singles don’t face [1 Corinthians 7:28-35].)
For some, singleness is a temporary calling. In 1 Corinthians 7:40, Paul advised widows to remain unmarried. But earlier in the chapter, he made clear that while their husbands are alive, God calls women to stay married (1 Corinthians 7:10). It would seem then, that Paul believed Christians can have different callings at different stages of life. God may call a believer to singleness for a season of life and marriage for another season. Because He has called you to singleness at age 30 doesn’t mean you will still be single at 40 or 50. As some have wisely counselled, “Run as hard as you can toward God, and if someone keeps up, introduce yourself.” Conversely, just because He called you to marriage at 20 doesn’t mean He won’t call you to live the final 20 years of your life as a widow or widower. The Lord has a perfect plan for each portion of each believer’s life.
Singleness is a gift that should be used to serve the church. In 1 Corinthians 7:7, Paul calls singleness a “gift” (Gk. charisma) from God. Interestingly, this is the same word the New Testament uses to describe spiritual gifts, which are to be used for serving others in the body of Christ (1 Peter 4:10). Most likely, that is part of what Paul has in mind here, because he also speaks of singleness as an assignment (1 Corinthians 7:17) and an opportunity for “undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:35). Indeed, single Christians generally have more freedom to serve others in and outside the church because they don’t have as much responsibility to care for their own families. So during your season of singleness, take advantage of God’s gift by serving your church in a variety of ministries.
Of course, marriage is also a gift and a calling. Married believers are not on a lower spiritual plane than singles. Still, it’s time for the church to rediscover the calling and gift of singleness so that unmarried believers don’t feel like they’re in a holding pattern until “real life” begins.