Podcast: Is Singleness Superior to Marriage? (Sam Allberry)
This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
Marriage Is Not an End unto Itself
In this episode of The Crossway Podcast, Sam Allberry, author of 7 Myths about Singleness, shares from his own experiences as a single person, explains what the Bible really teaches about singleness, and explains the important roles unmarried Christians can (and should) play in the life of the local church.
Subscribe: iTunes | Google Play | Spotify | Stitcher | Castro | Pocket Casts | Castbox | Overcast | TuneIn | Player FM | Radio Public | RSS
7 Myths about Singleness
This book responds to 7 common misconceptions about singleness, helping everyone—married and unmarried alike—value the unique opportunities that singleness affords to contribute to the flourishing of the church as a whole.
If you like what you hear, consider leaving us a rating and review on iTunes, Spotify, etc. Positive ratings help us spread the word about the show!
Sam Allberry, thank you for joining us on The Crossway Podcast. I want to start by talking about your grandfather, who’s just a few months shy of one hundred now, is that right?
He’s now a few months over one hundred!
Two Seasons of Singleness
Okay, tell us about him and how does his story help illustrate the importance of the topic of singleness?
Thank you. Yes, he’s a wonderful man. He turned one hundred a few months ago, actually nearly a year ago, goodness! As is the custom in the UK, if you make it to one hundred you get a letter from the Queen, congratulating you, so he got that. But here’s what it got me thinking about: I remember as a young kid it being the golden wedding anniversary of my grandparents. Their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Big family party. It wasn’t that long after their golden anniversary that my grandmother died. And so when my grandfather turned one hundred, it made me realize it’s not going to be much longer before he would have been single for longer in his life than he was married, even though he was married for over fifty years.
So it just brought home to me that so often when we think of singleness we think of the “not yet married.” And that's a growing demographic in our culture certainly; but actually there is a significant number of people who will be single again, and might be for a significant period of time. We often tend to think of marriage as saying goodbye to our days of singleness. But even if a marriage doesn't end through divorce, couples don’t tend to die together, so over half the people who are currently married are going to be single again. And for some of them that return to singleness could still be decades long. So it just brought home to me how relevant the topic of singleness is for all of us, and being married doesn’t mean anyone is done with singleness. You may still have many years of singleness ahead of you.
Share a little bit about your own personal story and your own experiences as a single person.
I’m not only single, but have never not been single. I’m now in my early forties, and I’ve never been married. One of the things I’ve realized is that—although singleness feels very normal to me because I’ve never been married—being single in your forties is different that in your twenties, and it may well be very different in my fifties and sixties. People who are single at that stage of life tell me it’s different again, so there’s not one universal experience of singleness. And I guess married life looks different in your thirties than in your fifties, and in your seventies as well. But it’s certainly the case with singleness that we look after the single people who are in their twenties very differently than we look after the people who are in their forties or their fifties.
Singleness at Various Ages
In what ways?
Well, I think a lot of people in their twenties still have a lot of unmarried friends. People are beginning to get in the marriage zone, but generally people are, if they’ve recently graduated, still doing friendship in the way they did as a student. So you’re still in each others lives on a day-to-day basis.
My experience was that, as I got into my thirties, more and more of my friends were getting married and beginning to have kids and were, therefore, just less available. So they moved from being “do-life-with friends” to “catch-up-with friends.” Which is great—we need both—but it meant that it then became harder in my thirties, and now in my forties, to find friends I could do life with. A single friend of mine who’s in her late sixties has said that it shifts again as people become empty nesters. Suddenly they’re more socially available again and wanting to reconnect with friendships.
So it just means that the pastoral needs, the life experiences, the positives and the negatives of being single—all change and shift over time in different seasons of life.
You write that the topic of singleness can be a conversational cul-de-sac, particularly with married friends. What do you mean by that?
If you meet someone, the very first questions we tend to ask each other are What do you do? and Do you have a family? When someone asks you if you’re married or if you have a family, the answer yes opens up several other avenues of conversation—Oh really? How long have you been married? or What ages are your kids?—and all of a sudden you’re off to the races and there’s tons of stuff to talk about. I’ve sometimes found that when someone asks if I am married or have a family and I say that I’m single, the conversation just grinds to a halt because people don’t know where then to go with it. There’s no obvious next follow-up question.
So it can be a bit of a conversational cul-de-sac in that sense, if we suddenly hit a dead end and it can sometimes be a bit socially awkward. I’m English, so everything feels socially awkward, but I think sometimes when you’re at the age where the normal expectation is you would be married by now, when you then say that you’re not married, you can see people thinking, Oh, um . . .oh . . . and then not quite knowing what to do next.
What are some of the kinds of comments, perhaps awkward comments, that you’ve received related to your singleness from maybe well-meaning friends who don’t always know what to say?
Yeah, I think sometimes it’s just from strangers, to be honest. Or the person you’ve not yet met before at church or something like that. But it might be, Oh, are you not married yet? Like you’ve just not kind of grown up to this stage yet. Sometimes people will kind of ask you, Well, why not? or just instinctively respond with what they think is necessary sympathy, Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m sure there’s someone out there for you.
I’ve had all those kinds of comments. I’ve received speaking invitations where more than once someone has aid, Would you like to come and speak at this place? Do feel free to bring Mrs. Allberry as well if you would like. My kind of snarky response to that is often, Well, I’ll see if my mother is free but she may not want to come.
So sometimes there’s a response that indicates people think you should be married now, and you’re just not doing your job properly—in my case, being a man—if you haven’t started a family or you’re not doing your job as a Christian properly if you haven’t gotten married. Sometimes people assume it’s just because you are trying to prolong your adolescence, or you’re commitment-phobic, or you have an aversion to settling down rather than seeing it as a part of your calling and vocation. But the responses tend to have in common that they are assuming it’s generally not a good thing if you’re single at that stage, and you should probably be married by now.
The Examples of Paul and Jesus
In light of that, what do you think are the reasons why we think that Jesus and Paul were never married? And we don’t view either of them—certainly not Christ—as less human and less fully a man. And yet so often it seems that their example doesn’t really inform our understanding of singleness today. Why do you think that might be?
With Jesus we can easily just shove him in such a different category of humanity, because he’s Jesus. But I think you’re right. We forget that if the most fully human person who ever lived was never married, being unmarried can’t be a diminishment of your humanity. When it comes to Paul, I think we either have a kind of caricature of him as being this very rare, almost unique kind of lone ranger—he was an apostle so he was in a unique situation. Even though Paul actually was very relationally involved. You see that in his letters. He was not short of intimacy and friendship. But it’s interesting, if Paul was around now I think a lot of churches would be very pleased to have Paul as their apostle but not as their pastor. And I think we don’t take Paul’s comments about the benefits and spiritual value of singleness, I just don’t think we pay attention to that these days.
Value of Singleness
What are some of those?
Paul says—particularly in 1 Corinthians 7, the passage he spends the most time speaking about singleness—things that are very, very surprising to our ears, in terms of what we assume today if you’re single: that it means you’re missing out on all the necessary benefits of life that you get from being married. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 that, “those who marry will have many troubles in this world and I would spare you that.” So the thing Paul primarily thinks of us missing out on if we’re single is certain trials that come with being married. That’s not what we would instinctively think. It’s not that Paul has a low view of marriage. He says some of the most beautiful and lofty things about marriage in the whole Bible. But he’s aware that there are certain trials that will come through marriage, through child rearing, that we just won’t have to deal with as single people.
Then he goes on to talk about how the person who is single is able to serve the Lord in a way that is—the language he uses—“less divided.” We can give the Lord undivided devotion. I think is Paul saying that if we’re single, we’re typically being pulled in fewer directions than if we were married. If we’re married, if we have children, we should be being pulled in lots of different directions. We have obligations to our family. That is going to give us less flexibility. Whereas if we’re single we can be far more flexible in how we serve the Lord, how we serve his people, and we can turn on a dime. If you’ve got a family with young kids, just getting out of the door becomes a half-day process of finding shoes and bathrooms and getting the right limbs in the right coats and all that kind of stuff. So I just think that there’s a posture we can have if we’re single that can really serve the Lord. And the challenge of that is that actually, for those of us who are single, culture will say, Well, your singleness means you can do whatever you want. Actually, we should be thinking if we’re single, No, my singleness is so that I can be serving others rather than just using my singleness to serve myself.
Is Singleness a Special Calling?
So some people seem to think that—maybe looking at Paul as an example of this—singleness is a special calling from God and with that calling comes some kind of supernatural ability—you say “super power”—to maybe not feel the need for marriage anymore and be able to resist temptation in a way that others can’t. What do you think about that?
I think that’s a caricature of what Paul is actually saying. Certainly our expectation from the Bible is that marriage is the norm. Not that singleness is very highly commended in the New Testament especially. So I don’t think the Bible says that there’s this kind of special calling that happens for you to be single. Paul just says everyone has their gift. One person has the gift of marriage, another person has the gift of singleness. That is not saying that you need to have some unique, special spiritual experience in order to feel as though you’re called to be single. Some people do have the sense that actually they feel as though the way they’re wired, or the opportunities they have in ministry, or other circumstances mean that actually it makes sense for them to intentionally remain single. But I think the language of Oh, you need a special calling to be single implies it’s just so intrinsically difficult that you have to be a uniquely endowed Christian just to be able to cope with it. And I think that undermines what Paul is actually teaching about the goodness of singleness. The fact that he calls it a gift, just as marriage is a gift—it’s a positive state from the Lord for us to be in. And if we think it isn’t, I suspect it’s because either we’re just not very good at honoring singleness in our churches, or we’ve imbibed more than we realize of our culture’s idolatry of romantic and sexual fulfillment. And so then we think that if we’re not married or with a special other person then that’s just a diminished form of life.
Culture’s Subtle Influence
Yeah, we see that. It seems pretty obvious to a lot of conservative Christians the way our culture has idolized sex and that kind of intimacy, but in what ways would you say that Christians—the evangelical church—has maybe unwittingly accepted some of those ideas about intimacy and sex and celibacy?
I think we’ve largely bought into our culture’s framework and then just lightly Christianized it. So whereas our culture will talk about romantic and sexual fulfillment, we just kind of call that marriage. But again, the underlying thinking can be the same that, if you don’t have that special relationship, then you’re not really experiencing a full life. You’re not experiencing love or intimacy. So what we’ve done is we’ve—along with our culture—narrowed our view of intimacy and kind of collapsed it into sexual and romantic intimacy. Whereas the Bible has a high view of nonromantic intimacy—of friendship, of family, of kinship—and yet, culturally we’ve kind of reduced intimacy to romantic and sexual relationships. We therefore created a culture in which it’s actually hard to experience intimacy if you’re coupled up because we’ve downgraded all other forms of intimacy. And my fear is that we’ve done more of that in the church than we realize and we’re still predominantly putting all of our eggs in the basket of romantic fulfillment, aka Christian marriage. And forgetting that actually Christian marriage itself is not meant to fulfill us. It’s meant to point to our relationship with Christ, which does fulfill us. And we’re meant to be experiencing a breadth of intimacy within the people of God, whether we’re married or single.
What Pastors Can Do
What could pastors do to help cultivate that kind of culture where singleness is affirmed and not immediately viewed as a negative? What are some things that churches could do?
Several things. One, obviously, is to teach on it and to teach the positives the New Testament gives us on singleness. I think the other thing is we need to rediscover the art of biblical friendship. The Bible has a huge amount to say about friendship, but I think we’ve largely neglected it. So that would be another thing to teach.
But more broadly than that, we want to try to cultivate a kind of culture within our churches that really does honor and cherish friendship, where we really do treat one another within the local church as a family. We often use family language when we describe churches, but if we're not following through on that it's actually deceitful. That's meant to be a reality and we want people who don't have their own nuclear family to feel as though they really do have spiritual family. Otherwise we're just not being church in the way the New Testament says we should be church.
Advice for Marrieds
What one piece of advice or encouragement would you give to someone—a married person—who hears what you’re saying and wants to do a better job of intentionally loving and reaching out to those who are single, whether by choice or by necessity?
Well I think the onus is on both sides actually. So it’s not just that we singles just wait around and all the married are meant to invite us around. We need to take more initiative than we often do as well. But for those who are married, it’s to remember that marriage is not meant to be an end in itself. It’s meant to be a means of service. It’s meant to be a gift through you to the wider people of God. And the same with kids. Our biological, nuclear families again are not meant to be an end in themselves but a means of service to others. So I think it’s good to be folding other people into our family life, not drawing a kind of red line around our family and kind of keeping everybody else out of it. But actually opening up the family life and including people who otherwise wouldn't have an experience of family life. And actually that's a win-win. That doesn’t just, you know, give the single person an experience of family life, actually it blesses the family too because again parents . . . the nuclear family is not designed to be self-contained and self-sufficient. It takes the whole church to raise kids, so it’s good to have other worked examples of the Christian life, other spiritual influences that are a regular part of a family life as well as the parents.
Caring for Same-Sex Attracted Christians
And what about those who are same-sex attracted? Particularly I’m thinking of how the church can intentionally care for them in light of their unique struggles?
Well, I think all of the above. Many of the struggles for those who are same-sex attracted are very similar to those who are single for other reasons. I may not want to be single. So certainly, again, if we are commending a biblical view of marriage and sexual ethics, we really do need to be making sure that our churches are providing healthy intimacy. And my fear is that if someone’s only choice in life seems to be either unbiblical intimacy or no intimacy, they’re going to end up choosing unbiblical intimacy. And if that’s the case, I think the wider church shares responsibility for that. So if we’re calling people to live by the Bible’s teaching on sexual ethics, then we need to be doing what we can to make that a way in which people can flourish. That they’re not actually missing out on human intimacy.
Singleness and Waiting
Thank you. One last question. What encouragement would you give to the single person who is struggling with their singleness and has a desire for marriage but it hasn’t come yet?
Marriage is a good thing. So in that sense, it’s a good thing to desire and it’s a good thing to pray for. It’s probably not a healthy thing to fixate on or to really hanker after. So I think part of the encouragement is that marriage is actually not going to be the answer to life’s struggles. People who are married struggle too and in once sense what we do when we get married is we’re exchanging the struggles of singleness with the struggles of marriage, and they’re different. And therefore, what we mustn’t do is compare the ups of marriage with the downs of singleness. Otherwise we forget there are downs of marriage too and ups of singleness. So not to have a romanticized view of marriage because as someone who’s been involved in pastoral ministry for quite a few years now, I’ve seen some very unhealthy, very unpleasant, very difficult marriages. And I’ve seen people who are lonely in their marriage. So it’s made me realize that actually sometimes it’s easy for me to think, “Well, I wouldn’t ever feel lonely if I was married.” That’s not necessarily true and I think loneliness in marriage, I imagine, is much harder than loneliness in singleness.
Sam Allberry, thank you for joining us today.
My pleasure. Thank you.
Popular Articles in This Series
Podcast: A Christian Doctor’s Guide to Thinking about Coronavirus (Bob Cutillo, MD)
A Christian doctor discusses the current coronavirus pandemic, explaining what's currently happening in the US and around the world and offering perspective on how we should think about this virus.
Podcast: Are Christians Obligated to Give 10%? (Sam Storms)
What does the Bible teaches about tithing? Are Christians still obligated to give 10% of their income today?
Podcast: Help! I Hate My Job (Jim Hamilton)
Jim Hamilton discusses what to do when you hate your job, offering encouragement for those frustrated in their work and explaining the difference between a job and a vocation.
Podcast: Calvinism 101 (Kevin DeYoung)
What are the five points of Calvinism really about and how can we believe them, while maintaining gracious humility towards others who don't?