December 8, 2013
Pastor Joe Wittwer
The Meaning of Marriage
#7—Singleness and Marriage


ILL: Author Christena Cleveland tells this story.

A couple of summers ago I visited a church whose pastor, known to be a scholar, gave a profound sermon on the beauty and holiness of marriage. Even as a single person, I was inspired by his sophisticated, lovely depiction of a Christ-centered marriage. It was that good!

At the end of the sermon, the pastor looked up from his notes and began to ad lib: “I know that over 40% of you are single, so I should probably say something about singleness as well.”

My ears perked up. I just knew that his brief thoughts on singleness would be as profound as his message on marriage. I leaned forward.

“Here’s what I want to say to all you single people: Don’t have sex before you get married. Then when you get married, make up for lost time.”

Fortunately, that’s not all the Bible has to say about singleness and marriage. 

Video: Josh on being single.

Introduction and offering:

Thank you Josh for those inspiring insights!

Today is part 7 of our series, The Meaning of Marriage, based on this book by Tim and Kathy Keller.  We’re going to talk about singleness and marriage.

First, some perspective.  Roughly half of the US adult population is single, and that number has been growing. Here are the latest stats I could find:

In 2010, the percentage of U.S. adult population that is

Currently married: 51

Widowed: 6

Divorced or separated: 14

Never married: 28

(Pew Research.

Simply put, we can’t address what the Bible says about marriage without also addressing what it says about being single.  And what it says may surprise you.

When Tim and Kathy Keller planted Redeemer Church in Manhattan, they soon found themselves in a congregation that was 80% single.  That reflected the demographic of their community. Tim assumed that a largely single congregation wouldn’t require many sermons on marriage; he soon discovered that was incorrect, and in 1991 preached a nine-week series on marriage that is the basis of this book.

Why preach on marriage to single people?  Keller writes, “Single people cannot live their lives well as singles without a balanced, informed view of marriage. If they do not have that, they will either over-desire or under-desire marriage, and either of those ways of thinking will distort their lives.”   (p. 184).

Also, while half of the population is currently single, at least 80% of us will marry at some time in our lives.  It behooves us, married or single, to understand what the Bible says about marriage and singleness.

The Big Idea: Christianity affirms single adulthood as a good way of life.  Single adults benefit from a balanced and informed view of marriage.

We are going to talk about four things, starting with:

1. The goodness of singleness.

Singleness is not a disease for which the only known cure is marriage.  Often it has felt that way, especially in the church, where singles are often made to feel like second-class citizens.

ILL: The first church that I worked in as a youth pastor had an adult Sunday School class with a clever name: Pairs and Spares.  How would you like to be a spare?  That’s how many single adults are made to feel. By the way, when I googled this, I discovered quite a few churches still have groups called “Pairs and Spares”!

The church has often lost its grasp on the goodness of singleness and labeled it “Plan B” for the Christian life—you’re the spares. Directly or indirectly, subtly or not so subtly, we act like singles are half a cookie.

  • “Aren’t you married yet?”
  • “What’s a nice girl like you doing unmarried?”
  • “What you need is a good wife.”
  • “Found anybody to date yet?”
  • “I’m praying the Lord will lead you to a good guy.”

Parents say that; relatives say that; friends say that. We act like it’s Plan B. Tell that to Jesus, or the apostle Paul, both of whom were single. Single adults cannot be seen as less than whole since Jesus, the perfect man, was single.

In fact, let’s clear up a misunderstanding.  When the Bible says that in marriage, the two become one, it isn’t saying that two halves come together and form one whole person.  In marriage, two whole people come together and form a new unit. The equation is not ½ + ½ = 1.  It is 1 + 1 = 1.  You don’t have to be married to be a whole person—Jesus is the ultimate evidence of that.

Christianity treats singleness as a gift from God, as a viable and worthwhile lifestyle.   Stanley Hauerwas writes that Christianity was the very first religion that held up single adulthood as a viable way of life.[1] Jesus lived as a single adult; so did the apostle Paul. The Christian faith doesn’t elevate either marriage or singleness as the only ideal state. Both are gifts, and we are called to live as Christians in whatever state we find ourselves.

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul treated singleness as a good condition, and even urged Christians to stay single.

1 Corinthians 7:7–8 I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

8 Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do.

While discussing marriage, Paul says that he wished all of them were as he was: single.  But he quickly adds that each person has his/her own gift from God. Being married is a gift; and being single is a gift.  And every gift from God is a good gift. 

What does Paul mean that being single is a gift from God?  Paul always used the word “gift” to mean an ability God gives to build others up. The “gift” of being single for Paul lay in the freedom it gave him to concentrate on ministry in ways that a married person could not. It didn’t mean that he had no romantic interest in the opposite sex, no sexual desire, or no desire to marry. He may very well have had all those, and being single may have been an emotional struggle.  So Paul is not speaking of some elusive, stress-free state. Neither is it a state of misery. It is a God-given ability to be fruitful in life and ministry through being single.  Understood this way, it is not a gift only for a few monks or sisters—and it may be only for a season.

Bottom line: if being single can be a gift from God, it must be good.  God doesn’t give any bad gifts. 

Notice too that Paul encourages the unmarried and widows to stay unmarried, “as I do.” Why would he do that?

Later in this chapter, in verses 25-40, Paul suggests that in some circumstances, being single may be better than marriage. 

1 Corinthians 7:26 Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is.

He goes on to say that if a person is single, it’s best to remain that way—because of the present crisis. We don’t know what the crisis was—it may have been a local persecution of Christians.  But whatever it was, it wasn’t a good time to get married.  It was better to stay single.  Please note: this wasn’t advice for all time; this was advice for that time, that unique situation. There are circumstances in which it is better to be single than married.  Later in the chapter, Paul adds this:

1 Corinthians 7:32-35 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—34 and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.

Simply put, Paul says that being single can be advantageous to doing God’s work and spreading the gospel. It was for Paul. In his role as a traveling apostle, it was better to be single than married.

Being married is good and a gift from God.  Being single is good and a gift from God.  As a result of this revolutionary attitude, the early church did not pressure people to marry (as we see in 1 Corinthians 7) and it supported poor widows so they did not have to remarry.   (p. 187).

The gospel de-idolized marriage, which leads to our next point.

2. The secondary character of marriage.

You might remember that a couple weeks ago I told you that in our vows, I promised Laina that she would always be second—not what is usually promised at a wedding. I promised her that I would always love Jesus first, and that by loving Jesus first, I would love her better. I believe that’s true, and that it is the single biggest reason we have a great marriage.  It’s Jesus first—for both of us.

Jesus made it clear that the most important thing in life is to love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.  Love God with all you’ve got.  That’s first.  Second, love your neighbor as yourself. 

So I love God first, and Laina second.  Our marriage is second.  It is second only to Jesus—not to my parents, or my career, or my hobbies. But it is second to Jesus.

Without this perspective, when we make an idol of our marriage and put it before God, we put too much pressure on our marriage to fulfill us.  We expect too much of our spouse.  No one person can meet all of your needs, heal all your brokenness, or fulfill all your desires.  When we make an idol of marriage, we expect our spouse to do for us what only God can do.  And that will ruin a marriage.

If we’re single and make an idol of marriage, we put too much hope in our dream of marriage. We begin to look for the perfect person who will meet all our needs, and we all know that person doesn’t exist.

Jesus didn’t say that the most important commandment is to get married; it is to love God with all you’ve got.  Jesus didn’t promise His followers that they would get married; He promised a new, abundant life, whether you’re single or married.  When we make marriage first, we make it an idol—and that idolatry hurts both marriage and singleness.

So love God first. If you’re married, make God first and your marriage second and you’ll have a better marriage.  If you’re single, make God first and you can enjoy the goodness of single life.

What about the argument that male and female complement and complete one another?  Let’s talk about: 

3. Gender completeness and singleness.

I think the Bible teaches that the genders complement one another.

Genesis 2:18 The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a companion for him who corresponds to him.”

The word “corresponds” is literally “a like opposite.”  The woman and man complemented or completed each other.  They were alike—both were made in the image of God—and they were different.  So we have much in common as human beings created in the image of God, but there are also differences in the sexes. 

ILL: I loved Ginger’s opening last week.  When I asked her to speak, her first question was, “What will I wear?”  Obviously, I’ve never asked that question.  In fact, the local fashion police recently ticketed me for wearing a Hawaiian shirt, and forced me to retire them.  But they’ll be back!  Wait long enough and they’ll be back in style.  Skinny jeans—those were called “pegged pants” when I was in junior high. 50 years later, they’re back. I can’t wear skinny jeans—I love my fatty jeans!

So there are gender differences. We can argue how much gender differences are based on nature or nurture.  But the fact remains that in every culture in all of history, men and women have been different. 

So the question is: how does an unmarried person experience the complementary benefits of the opposite sex?  Unfortunately, the only answer often given is, “Get married.”  But there is another answer.  Cross-gender enrichment can be achieved not only in marriage, but also in friendships, and particularly in the church. The church is a family and has the power of the deepest bonds.

ILL: When I became a Christian, I suddenly found myself adopted into a new family.  The members at our small church in Sweet Home, Oregon, took me in and loved me like family.  At home, I had 5 younger sisters—and only one bathroom, which explains a lot of my neuroses!  In church, I found the brothers I never had, peers who loved me and challenged me.  I had spiritual parents who guided and corrected me.

Early in high school, my pastor, C. Paul Moore, pulled me aside one day and challenged me to not just read the Bible, but learn it. Memorize it.  He said that he could see that I had a call to spiritual leadership, but I would need to be grounded in Scripture. I responded by digging into the word, reading it every day, and I started writing my own commentary—which I wish I had kept because I think it would be very entertaining reading! My pastor was a spiritual father to me.

Later, in college, I was surrounded by Christian friends of both genders who were instrumental in shaping my character and life.

The church is a family and has the power of the deepest bonds.  I love my family and friends and neighbors, but not all of them share my deepest beliefs. My Christian family does.

The gospel creates a bond that makes the church into the Christian’s ultimate family. This means that a single should be able to find in a strong Christian community the enrichment of cross-gender relationships.  Christian fellowship is more than sharing coffee and cookies and small talk. It goes beyond the superficial to what God is teaching us, what He is doing in our lives, how he is shaping and growing us.  When we practice the “one-another” commands with our brothers and sisters (love one another, serve one another, honor one another, speak the truth to one another, challenge one another, and so on), a kind of cross-gender enrichment happens naturally.

I’m not suggesting that the church is an alternative to marriage, but I am saying that a single can benefit from the complementary nature of the opposite sex in strong Christian community. 

4. The goodness of seeking marriage.

We see singleness as good and a gift from God, and yet we don’t fear or avoid marriage.  It is good and a gift from God too.  In our individualistic culture, many fear and avoid marriage because they believe it will cramp their style, limit their options.  Just as some have made an idol of marriage, others have made an idol of independence.  Being single is good; being married is good too.

Paige Brown strikes the unique Christian balance with the last line of her article on singleness:  “Let’s face it: singleness is not an inherently inferior state of affairs… But I want to be married. I pray to that end every day. I may meet someone and walk down the aisle in the next couple of years because God is so good to me. I may never have another date…because God is so good to me.” There’s the balance.   (p. 196).

So if you’re married, it’s good.  If you’re single, it’s good.  And if you’re single and want to get married, it’s good. 

But how should you seek marriage?  The Kellers share some helpful ideas. 

They begin by critiquing our cultural norms.  Did you know that our system of dating is relatively new? For most of history, marriages were arranged by parents.  This was true in America too, until the 18th and 19th centuries, and is still true in many parts of the world.  In the late 19th century, as romantic love became the dominant motive for marriage, a system of “calling” or “courtship” came into being. A young man was invited to call on a young woman at her home, where they spent time together on the front porch or in the parlor.  He saw the young woman in the context of her family, and they saw him.  In the early 20th century, modern dating developed. Now the man didn’t come into the woman’s home, but took her out places of entertainment to get to know her. The whole process was individualized and removed from the context of family or community.  Finally, early in this century, the “hook-up” culture emerged. A hook-up is a simple sexual encounter with no strings attached—no promises, no relationship, a one-night stand. “Friends with benefits” add sexual favors to a friendship.

So how is a Christian single to navigate this confusing landscape? The Kellers give some suggestions; I’ll highlight a couple.

Understand the Christian vision for marriage. This is what we’ve been talking about in this series. The Christian vision of marriage is spiritual friendship that helps one another become our new selves in Christ. Our cultural norms are to look for beauty and bucks.  We tend to screen potential spouses first based on looks or ability to provide. Screen first for faith and friendship.  Does the other person love Jesus first?  Can you build a friendship that could grow into romance and marriage?  Let the Christian vision for marriage, not the cultural norms, shape how you look for a spouse.

Don’t allow yourself deep emotional involvement with a non-believing person.Christians marry other Christians. 

1 Corinthians 7:39 A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord.

Marry who you wish, Paul says, but he/she “must belong to the Lord.”  Why is it so important to marry someone who shares your faith?  If you are a Christian, you love God first, with all you’ve got.  Your relationship with Jesus isn’t an add-on; it’s central.  It’s not one small part of your life; it is what shapes your life. For a Christian, Jesus is Lord—He rules over all of life, every part of it.  If your partner doesn’t share your Christian faith, then he or she doesn’t truly understand you, who you are and what you’re about. If you are following Jesus and the other person is not, you are ultimately going different directions.

ILL: When I was in high school, I vowed to the Lord that I would not date or get serious with a girl who didn’t love Jesus as much or more than me. It limited the field—but it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Do you love Jesus?  Find someone who loves Him as much as you!

Feel attraction in the most comprehensive sense.  There is nothing wrong with being attracted to someone physically.  You think she’s beautiful; great!  You think he’s a hunk; fine!  But obviously, you need more than raw sexual attraction to build a marriage on.  Are you attracted to the other’s character?  What do you love about them?

ILL: One of the assignments we give men in our mentoring program is to make a list, “Ten Things I Love About You,” and give it to their wives.  When I made my list, I wrote down 18 things I admire about Laina.  I’m an over-achiever; and I have an amazing wife.  Here are the first three:

  1. Jesusperson.  Laina loves Jesus and lives consistently for Him.  She is faithful in her devotions, consistent in her obedience, and genuine in her love for God and people.
  2. Selfless.  Laina is the most others-oriented person I know. She is always thinking of others before herself.  When she shops, she is looking for things for others, not herself.  She remembers little things others say and knows what gifts to buy!  She is thoughtful.
  3. Discipline.  Laina is the most disciplined person I know. She has incredible will power!

There are 15 more—all about character, not her looks.  Don’t misunderstand me; she’s beautiful.  But there’s a lot more to my wife than her beauty!

Are you attracted to other person’s character? Are you attracted to their mythos, the common threads of shared interests and activities?  Are you attracted to their faith?  Look for this kind of comprehensive attraction.

Don’t let things get too passionate too quickly.  Next week, we will wrap up this series by talking about sex, and Sean will give the Christian reasoning and biblical basis for our sexual ethic.  Simply put, Christians believe that sex is reserved for marriage.  No pre-marital sex; no extra-marital sex. Sex is reserved for marriage.

When you engage in sex while dating, you trigger powerful emotional connections with the other person. These can cloud your judgment and keep you from seeing the other person as they really are. 

There is a better way. Save sex for marriage. Use this time to get to know each other deeply, as friends, as Christians, as persons.  Rather than isolating yourselves, build your relationship in the context of Christian community. By serving the poor, or going to Bible study and fellowship groups, or attending worship you can come into each other’s “front porches” and “parlors” in a way that is difficult outside a community of faith.   (p. 206).

ILL: When I was getting to know Laina, and then when we started dating, we spent very little time alone.  Most of the time we were at her house, where I led a weekly evening Bible study and daily morning prayer times.  Before and after those times, I hung out with Laina and her brothers and sisters, all under the watchful eye of Pastor Noel.

We never spent time alone at my apartment.  She came there one time, and I quickly realized this was not a good thing.  We agreed not to be alone there. 

We went to church together, we served together, we hung out in groups with friends.  And occasionally, we did something fun together…just the two of us. But most of the time, we were in community. 

We were just laughing last week about going to the Dairy Queen with friends when they had their 2-for-1 banana split sales. Laina would eat two banana splits by herself!  It was love at first sight!

I still believe that the best way to date is not in isolation—just the two of you all the time—but in community. That leads to my last suggestion.

Get and submit to lots of community input.  As I just described, I think relationships develop best in a community rather than in isolation. When we’re dating, we see each other only in artificial environments.  We put our best foot forward.  It’s all about impressing the other person.  But when we are in community—whether with our families, or friends, or church—we see each other as we really are, in our native habitats.

Just as important, others see the two of us and are able to give input, to affirm the relationship or express caution. 

ILL: This is the rationale behind a couple of wedding traditions.

“Who gives this woman?” we ask, because we want to know that the parents and families are behind this union.  Those who know you best should be able to joyfully affirm the relationships. 

“If anyone objects, let him speak now or forever hold his peace.”  We don’t do this much anymore, but behind it is the idea that marriage is not just a private, individual act, but one that profoundly affects the community. 

The Christian community has a deep interest in the development of strong, great marriages and therefore a vested interest in our singles marrying well.  This is why we don’t do weddings without the pre-marital training. We pair you with a mentoring couple who gets to know you well, and speaks into your relationship. Your marriage will be stronger if it is born and nurtured in community.

Take a moment, look over your notes, and write down your next step. 


[1] Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character, South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991, pg. 174; quoted in The Meaning of Marriage, by Tim Keller, pg. 186.