Having a Gospel-Focused View of Singleness
My first ride in an ambulance, like most people’s, was completely unexpected. For a few days I’d been struggling with painful abdominal cramps, and assumed it was some form of food poisoning that would eventually subside. It wasn’t and it didn’t. The pains became more intense, so I went for a walk-in examination at my local doctor’s. The waiting room was full; this wasn’t going to be a quick visit. I sat there, doubled over in pain, and as soon as the doctor appeared to call in the next patient the entire room pointed to me and said, “You need to see him next.” It takes a lot for English people to let someone skip the line.
About two minutes and one careful prod in the stomach was all it took for the doctor to realize what was wrong: my appendix was on the point of bursting. He sent for an ambulance and off I went. It was the most physical pain I’d ever been in, but it still felt kinda exciting to be in an ambulance, knowing it was speeding through traffic with the lights and siren blaring. Needless to say, once I was where I needed to be (on a surgeon’s table) it was all very straightforward from there. A short convalescence back home and soon I was on my feet.
Life without an appendix, of course, is not something one has to adjust to. Other than now being a few ounces lighter, nothing changed. Whatever role it might once have played, it is now pretty much vestigial. The body works just fine without it. I haven’t missed it at all.
It might be easy to think of our sexuality in similar terms. Given what we’ve seen about how marriage points to the relationship Jesus has with his people, where does that leave those of us who are unmarried? If we are to live lives of celibacy, does that mean our sexuality is now playing no active role in our lives? Are people like me wasting our sexuality by not giving expression to our sexual desires? If so, it seems odd that this vital aspect of our humanity is now seemingly redundant. If God made us sexual beings, how can it be good that we don’t in any way fulfill that aspect of who we are? Our married friends can feel satisfied that they’re honoring their sexual feelings, giving expression to them in a godly way and in the proper context of marriage, and thereby honoring their sexuality as it points beyond itself to its ultimate referent in Christ.
It is understandable to think this way. I have done so myself at various points, and regularly meet people who still do, especially singles. They feel as though this negation of sexual activity in some way makes them incomplete and dissatisfied. It doesn’t feel right to have something so apparently significant just sitting there unutilized. It would be like a phenomenal pianist never having access to a keyboard. Seems like a waste. But this is not the full way the Bible would have us think about our sexuality. The meaning of marriage in no way exhausts the way in which our sexual desires, met or unmet, can play a constructive role in our lives and be a means of honoring the gospel.
On one occasion Jesus was asked about the nature of marriage in the coming kingdom of God. The Sadducees, who didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead, thought they had found a knockout blow to those who did:
Teacher, Moses said, “If a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.” Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother. So too the second and third, down to the seventh. After them all, the woman died. In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? (Matt. 22:24–28)
The Sadducees were referring to the Old Testament practice of levirate marriage. In the Old Testament, to die without children was a disaster. Children were not just one’s legacy; they represented a spiritual inheritance and an ongoing place in the land God had promised. To the Sadducees, this practice made nonsense out of the belief that there was going to be a resurrection of the dead. We’ll get to that in a moment, but we need to deal first with the fact that for many people today, this practice made a mockery of something closer to home: it implied that a childless widow was to be passed around the family line like an heirloom.
One of the things we need to realize is that in the Old Testament, this reflects not a low view of the first brother’s wife but a high view of her—she was not to be left destitute. God had shown himself to be a redeemer of his people, and embedded in his law are commands that show that he wanted them to be redeemers too. For a man to marry his brother’s widow meant she would have a place and inheritance among God’s people. One of the most famous examples in Scripture is when Boaz married Ruth. He was her kinsman-redeemer, a member of her family who could legitimately redeem her. Taking on the responsibilities of kinsman-redeemer wasn’t easy; it was a huge act of kindness and potentially very costly. (A relative closer than Boaz passed on redeeming Ruth for this very reason.) By doing so, Boaz points forward to the ultimate redemption that comes through Christ, the one who became our kin so that he could redeem us at great cost.
Back to the Sadducees. They have Jesus in what they think is a theological headlock. God’s law itself made the idea of the resurrection untenable, as they think their hypothetical situation shows. But Jesus won’t have it.
Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” (Matt. 22:29)
They thought the Scriptures backed them up, but Jesus accuses them of biblical illiteracy. They don’t actually know the Bible beyond the handful of verses they assume confirms their thinking. And more than that—they don’t know the power of God. They’ve thought up a scenario that they are convinced a resurrecting God can’t handle, a thought experiment God wouldn’t have thought of. They have no sense that God’s hand is so much bigger than man’s. Their Scriptures are full of blank pages, and their God is no more powerful than what their imaginations can conceive of.
For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is not God of the dead, but of the living. And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching. (Matt 22:30–33)
They didn’t have microphones to drop in those days, but you get the idea. God’s famous refrain throughout the Old Testament had clearly been lost on them. Just because Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had died didn’t mean that God was done with them. Their stories were not finished yet. He was still their God, and they were still his people. Only a small mind can imagine that God’s promises and purposes are constrained by human life spans.
There will be a resurrection—there will be a physical life to enjoy in the coming kingdom of God.
Physical Life to Come
But the key point for us is the first one Jesus makes. There will be a resurrection—there will be a physical life to enjoy in the coming kingdom of God. And one of the characteristics is that there will no longer be human marriage. Jesus compares the way we will be then to angels. We mustn’t miss the point he’s making. We’ll be like the angels, not in the sense of being all winged and floaty (he’s talking about a physical resurrection, after all), but like them in respect to their marital status. The Sadducees had been mistaken in assuming (1) there would be no resurrection, and (2) that if there was a resurrection life, it would correspond exactly to life now. But the resurrection is not just an extension of our physical life; it is a transformation and fulfillment of it. And, says Jesus, that means (among other things) there will be no more marrying. That aspect of life, it turns out, belongs only to this realm.
We need to let this sink in. Jesus is not just saying that there won’t be any more interminable photo shoots, or any more awkward wedding lines, or any more hokey father-of-the-bride speeches. He is saying that there will be no more earthly marriage. Marriage, as we practice it now, will have served its purpose. Life then is a fulfillment of all that marriage now is meant to point to.
My parents, like virtually all parents, have pictures of me and my brother in various prominent places around their home. I discovered recently that they always take along a couple of these pictures when they travel. Wherever they are, home or away, they like reminders of their family. But they don’t bring them along when they take a trip with me or come to visit. When you have the physical reality, you don’t need the picture.
Marriage is a picture of Christ and the church. So when we enter into the fullness of our relationship with him, when the church is finally presented to him as his perfected bride, the institution of marriage will have served its purpose. We will have the reality; we will no longer need the picture.
As Glynn Harrison reminds us:
The Bible does not teach that there will be no marriage in heaven. Rather, it teaches there will be one marriage in heaven—between Christ and his bride, the church.1
Our marriages are therefore temporal and momentary. They are not eternal. The state in which we will spend countless billions of years in ultimate bliss will not be as people married to one another. Outside of our relationship with Christ, we will be single. We can presume other forms of human connection will be present in the new creation. I take it that the friendships that lie at the heart of healthy marriages now will continue into eternity. But the marital constitution of them will not.
This reminds us that marriage now is not ultimate. It will be absent in the age to come and is not vital in this present time. This reality is reflected in the life of Jesus himself. The most fully human and complete person ever to live on this earth did so as someone who was single, and yet he called himself “the bridegroom.” The marriage he came for was the one all of us who are in him will enjoy will him for eternity. His singleness on earth bore witness to this ultimate marriage he had come to establish.
Singleness for us now is also a way of bearing witness to this reality. Like Jesus, we can live in a way that anticipates what is to come. Singleness now is a way of saying that this future reality is so certain and so good that we can embrace it now. It is a way of declaring to a world obsessed with sexual and romantic intimacy that these things are not ultimate and that in Christ we possess what is.
- Glynn Harrison, A Better Story: God, Sex, and Human Flourishing (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2016), 136–7.
This article is adapted from 7 Myths about Singleness by Sam Allberry.
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