Australia  |  

Four myths about singleness

And practical tips on dealing with sexual temptation

When talking about singleness in the church, Sam Allberry says there are many shades. “Just as there are many shades in the marriage experience,” he adds. “Single people at church aren’t just those whose are in their twenties who aren’t married yet.”

Advertisement

Allberry, a UK pastor and author, was speaking at Singleminded Conference in Sydney on Saturday, slated as a conference about singleness, but for everyone. It obviously hit a nerve – the conference sold its 400 tickets in under a month, with 500 more people watching via live streaming from over 90 churches around the country.

Our Aussie churches are disproportionately welcoming and caring for married people, but failing to do the same for those who have never been married or who are divorced.

According to statistics from the National Church Life Survey, Australian churches have almost 50 per cent less people who have never been married or are divorced than in the wider community. In church, 17 per cent of people identify as ‘never married’, compared to 30 per cent across Australia. And while 6 per cent of church attendees are divorced or separated, that number rises to 12 per cent in the wider community.

“Our Aussie churches are disproportionately welcoming and caring for married people, but failing to do the same for those who have never been married or who are divorced,” Singleminded organisers said in an introductory video at the conference.

“Singleness should not mean aloneness. If singleness means aloneness, then we’re not doing church very well.”

“Singleness should not mean aloneness. If singleness means aloneness, then we’re not doing church very well,” said Allberry.

It’s part of the reason why Sam Allberry believes the whole church needs better teaching on singleness. His new book, Seven Myths About Singleness, will be released next year and attempts to fill some of the holes Allberry sees in that teaching. He spoke about four of the common myths he has come up against (as a single man himself) at the conference.

Four myths about singleness

1. Singleness is bad for you

According to Allberry, our culture would have us believe that singleness – at least in the way Christians talk about it as single and celibate – is as bad for you as not sleeping or not eating.

“It’s not just laughable to be celibate and single, but it’s harmful,” he said, outlining this perception. “For so many people today, you can’t really experience what it means to be a real human being if you’re never having sex. Your sense of personhood is directly attached to your sex life. So by not having sex, you are harming yourself. You’re living a shrivelled version of the life you’re meant to be living. Like not sleeping or not eating. It’s a fundamental aspect of our humanity. So to forego it is just bad for you.”

When we define singleness today, we tend to think of it as the absence of marriage. If you are single, you are unmarried. And so we define it by what it doesn’t have; what you’re missing out on.

He recounted being called a unicorn for his decision to live a celibate life. “Someone said to me, ‘I’ve heard of people like you, I just never thought I’d meet one.”

But, says Allberry, the view from the Bible offers a very different perspective.

“Jesus himself was single. And that is an enormous reality. Jesus was the most complete and fully human person who’s ever walked on the planet. And yet, he was single. Despite the claims of some novels, Jesus did not marry. He wasn’t ever in a romantic relationship. He didn’t date. And he didn’t have sex. So we cannot say that any of those things are essential to being a person, otherwise Jesus was subhuman.”

And, he says, Jesus commends those who are single for the sake of the kingdom. “Jesus puts a spotlight on the eunuchs and commends them.”

And then there’s the Apostle Paul.

“Paul was single. And far from thinking singleness was a negative thing, he actually tells us it’s a really positive thing,” says Allberry.

“When we define singleness today, we tend to think of it as the absence of marriage. If you are single, you are unmarried. And so we define it by what it doesn’t have; what you’re missing out on. But Paul only does that in one respect. He says the one thing you are without is: worldly troubles.

“It’s very easy to compare the ups of marriage to the downs of singleness … But Paul says, no, what happens if you marry is that you introduce a new set of challenges. He is realistic about marriage. It’s not a walk in the park.

“Paul says singleness is not bad. It actually spares you certain headaches. And it actually frees us for service.”

2. Singleness requires a “special calling”

“Many people in the church today, when they think of singleness, they think that it’s just such an awful thing that you need to be endowed with some special spiritual superpower in order to survive it,” says Allberry.

“They decide this superpower is called ‘the gift of singleness’. Now, Paul speaks about this gift, about himself as a single man. Yet many people today have taken the gift of singleness as some unusual and special capacity to live as a single person. So it must mean you don’t have any sexual desires, or any romantic longings of any kind. It’s those people who have the gift of singleness.”

The outworking of this type of thinking is that some people have the gift of singleness, and others don’t. But what happens then if you’re single but don’t have the gift of singleness?

And, says Allberry, that would also imply that there’s a “gift of marriage”.

“And then we would have to say that not all married people have the gift of being married. What’s to stop someone in a difficult season of marriage from saying, ‘I just don’t have the gift of marriage. That’s the problem here’.”

Allberry says it’s this type of thinking that can be used to justify disobedience to God.

“I know the Bible says that I shouldn’t marry an unbeliever, but I don’t have the gift of singleness, and there’s no one else around right now.”

“Or I know the Bible says that I shouldn’t be in a same-sex relationship, but I don’t have the gift of singleness.”

We don’t have this category, anymore, of deep friendship that isn’t sexual.

“It makes God out to be pretty unpleasant. Because he puts you in a situation in which you are single, and then doesn’t give you the gift of singleness. That doesn’t sound like a God of love, to me.”

Allberry argues we need to reframe that “gift” thinking.

“The gift of singleness, and for that matter the gift of marriage, is not that some people are particularly able to do well in those different situations. The gift is itself the status. Some people have the gift of being in a marriage. Some people have the gift of being single. The gift is the status, not whether you feel like you’re strong enough to withstand all the challenges that come up [in either status]. This is good news. It liberates us from thinking that the grass is greener on the other side. Whatever God has given me, it is a good gift.”

3. Singleness means no intimacy

Allberry told the audience that our culture no longer has a category for intimate relationships that aren’t sexual.

“Our culture says that intimacy and sex are pretty much the same thing. They’ve been collapsed into each other. So, we can’t conceive that there is such a thing as intimacy that isn’t sexual. And when we hear of previous generations speak about very, very deep friendship, many people in our culture will roll their eyes and say, ‘They must have been gay. Or there must have been something going on there.’ We don’t have this category, anymore, of deep friendship that isn’t sexual.”

“Jesus is saying ‘I’ve let you the whole way in. I’ve opened up everything to you. That is friendship. That is intimacy. It’s being deeply known and deeply loved.”

“The Bible tells us, and experience frequently confirms, you can have a lot of sex and no intimacy. And the Bible tells us, and experience frequently confirms, you can have a lot of intimacy, none of which is sexual.”

Allberry points to both Jesus and Paul as examples. “Jesus had intimacy. He did life with a group of disciples. He did life in a deeper way with three of them, and one of those was known as the disciple that Jesus ‘loved’.”

And, while we might think of Paul as being some kind of “lone ranger apostle”, Allberry says if you look at Romans 16 (which reads as a long list of greetings) we see just how embedded Paul is in the lives of other people. “He uses very close, familial language to describe his relationships.”

In age of Facebook “friends” and the pursuit of sexual fulfilment, we’ve “downgraded friendship”, says Allberry. “We’ve turned ‘friend’ from a noun into a verb.

“In contrast, the Book of Proverbs says you can’t live wisely in this world without friends. And it shows us that a friend is someone who knows your soul. A friend is not just someone you have a few shared hobbies with. A friend is someone who knows the real you. Who you tell your secrets to.

In John 15:15, Allberry found a passage that he says he didn’t expect to find. While speaking to his disciples, Jesus contrasts his relationship with them as not ‘servant/master’, where the servant doesn’t have access to much of what the master knows and does, but rather, “I’ve called you friends. For all that I have heard from my father, I have made known to you.”

“Jesus is saying ‘I’ve let you the whole way in. I’ve opened up everything to you. That is friendship. That is intimacy. It’s being deeply known and deeply loved,” says Allberry.

4. Singleness means no family

“Jesus says you will never have less family as a result of following him,” says Allberry. “Being a disciple of Jesus means a net increase in family.”

“If God has blessed you with a biological family, your boundary between your biological family and your spiritual family needs to be blurred and porous.”

But, he says, that promise assumes that other Christians will be that family. And he issues a warning to the Church to stop using the term “church family” if they don’t really mean it. He says we use the term to make our churches “sound nice”, but too often, “we’re not actually being a family.”

“If God has blessed you with a biological family, your boundary between your biological family and your spiritual family needs to be blurred and porous.”

Allberry uses the example of how the Apostle Paul greeted Titus in Titus 1:4, where he calls him ‘my true child in our common faith’. Shortly before he was preparing a sermon on that passage, Allberry had been at a wedding where it struck him afresh – upon watching the father of the bride dance with his daughter – that he would never have a daughter of his own.

“But then I came to this passage, and it turns out I’ve been a parent for a while without realising it. There have been children that God has given me; that I have ‘spiritually begotten’.”

“Singleness doesn’t mean no offspring. Because in Christ, and through his work and his gospel, the Lord gives us spiritual offspring too.”

How to deal with temptation

Towards the end of the conference, Allberry took questions from the crowd. Two of his answers, relating to the struggle to remain celibate, struck this writer as things we may all need to hear – single or not.

I’m struggling with [romantic] feelings for a very close friend. What is a godly way I can deal with these feelings? 

Note: this question was asked by someone who identified as same-sex attracted. But we think the answer is relevant to many situations, including unrequited love or feeling attracted to someone who is not your spouse. 

“It’s good to acknowledge and to be honest with yourself that you have those feelings. That’s a significant step in itself.

Cultivating healthy intimacy in a range of friendships is the best guard against having unhealthy intimacy with any one friendship.

“In my experience, when I’ve had that kind of dynamic, it has helped me enormously to have one or two other people who I can talk to about that, who get it and who understand.

“I can think of a time, a few years ago, where I was struggling with a particular friendship. I hated that I was struggling with it. But I was. And I said to a couple of very close friends, ‘I’m struggling with this person and there’s a couple of things I need you to do: one is to check in with me, and the other thing I need you to do is to just draw close. Because I need to know, and I need to show myself, that I have intimacy not just in that friendship. And that way I’m less likely to single out that friendship as the friendship without which life cannot succeed.’ So I’ve found that making sure I’m cultivating healthy intimacy in a range of friendships is the best guard against having unhealthy intimacy with any one friendship.

“But having other people you can process that with is enormously helpful. It’s a really painful thing to deal with on your own.”

What’s the godly way of dealing with sexual temptation in singleness without sinning? 

“The most obvious and immediate thing that the Bible says is to ‘flee sexual temptation’. So one way of responding to sexual temptation isn’t to think, ‘How close can I get to this before I succumb to it?’ That’s a profoundly foolish way to respond. It’s a very natural, a very human way to respond. But it’s a bad way. So flee from it.”

If your heart is feeling drawn to something, it’s actually not enough to keep saying ‘No, stop it’ to it. You need to be saying ‘yes’ to something better.

Allberry also referenced a lesson he learned from author Thomas Chalmers in his book The Expulsive Power of a New Affection. 

“His basic point is that the best way to overcome an ungodly desire is with a greater, good desire. So you need a new affection to expel the sinful affection. If your heart is feeling drawn to something, it’s actually not enough to keep saying ‘No, stop it’ to it. You need to be saying ‘yes’ to something better. And so, I think when it comes to sexual temptation, there are various better things that we can try to set our hearts on. One thing is to be so enthralled with the beauty of Christ and his holiness – if that can capture our hearts, that is a great positive reason to say no to sexual sin.

“This is what I find helps me if I’m struggling with temptation to a particular person. One of the things I say to myself is that every good thing I’m attracted to in that person exists in greater form in Jesus Christ. If it’s because that person just feels unusually safe or warming or affirming, or whatever it might be, those are all qualities that are breadcrumbs that lead me to the one in whom all of those qualities exist in perfection. There’s more of that in Jesus.”

Allberry offered this advice to those struggling with pornography.

“One thing I would say in addition [to having someone to talk to about it] is find a (preferably Christian) charity that tries to oppose human trafficking and get involved. Because what I want you to do is to see that there is something going on on the other side of your screen that is appallingly wicked. And that by indulging in pornography, you are feeding it.

“It’s very easy for us, if you’ve stumbled into pornography, to say that we have succumbed to it. We are the victim of its lures against us. But what I want you to know is that you are also a perpetrator when you engage in pornography. And I found it’s helped a number of people I know [to] emotionally, financially and prayerfully invest in efforts to stop human trafficking. It gives them a different perspective.”

Comments

More