Is singleness a burden or God's highest calling?
A glimpse of God’s heavenly promise
Have you ever considered why we use unmarried interchangeably with the word single? How do you think that makes a single person feel? As if they lack something – a wife or a husband?
Why would we routinely call someone single “unmarried” when we never call someone who is married “unsingle”?
For Dani Treweek, who has grappled with a theology of singleness for the past 16 years, it is frustrating that both society and the contemporary evangelical church see singleness as a state of lacking and deficiency, grounded in what it is not.
“I went into my research wanting to answer the question of whether there is something glaringly missing from our theological understanding of singleness.” – Dani Treweek
“Lacking in love, lacking in sexual fulfilment, lacking in relational intimacy, lacking in purpose, lacking in possibility, lacking in belonging, lacking in authentic self-realisation,” she lists.
“Both spheres [society and church] typically define and characterise singleness by what it isn’t rather than by what it is. Or to put it another way, singleness is primarily thought to be the absence of good, rather than a good in and of itself.”
As the founding director of the Single Minded Ministry, Dani is known for the singles conferences, held throughout Australia and livestreamed, which produce resources about Christian singleness but for everyone.
So it’s exciting that she has brought together the encouraging insights from her PhD research into a new book called The Meaning of Singleness, being launched next month.
She expects the book to cause a bit of a splash in evangelical circles because it pushes back at what she sees as unhelpful teaching on singleness, including by some well-known theologians such as Tim Keller, Albert Mohler, John Macarthur and some authors writing for the Gospel Coalition, who, in various ways promote a problematic view of the unmarried life.
Dani traces at least some of this negative theology of singleness back to the Reformation after discovering that the early church fathers had a completely different perspective on singleness – what they typically called virginity – from Calvin and Luther, who saw marriage as a biological necessity to avoid falling into sexual sin.
“I went into my research wanting to answer the question of whether there is something glaringly missing from our theological understanding of singleness,” she tells Eternity.
“And I had an instinct that it would be in thinking about eschatology [end times], and particularly about the fact that none of us will be married in heaven, according to Jesus,” she explains.
“God has embedded a significance in the single Christian life now, which is to act as a signpost towards eternity.”
“What I discovered was astounding – it was that right through our church history until particularly the Reformation, what we call singleness was deeply appreciated because of its eschatological significance in ways that we just have no appreciation for at all today.”
Dani believes today’s church has forgotten this wonderful teaching, which is based on the premise that none of us are going to be married to each other in the new creation.
“The new creation is when we are going to be at our most wonderfully perfected, when we are going to know and be most fully known by God and by each other. If singleness, as a very broad description of not being married, is our eternal future, then that gives singleness in this life a certain dignity and purpose and significance, just as marriage has. In Ephesians 5, marriage is a profound mystery that points to this great heavenly truth that’s awaiting us. So also God has embedded a significance in the single Christian life now, which is to act as a signpost towards eternity.”
The idea of a new creation where no one will be married was hugely significant to the earliest Christians, she says, who demonstrated a sense of anticipation about living in the now but not yet.
“I don’t think they necessarily all held a Jesus is coming back tomorrow expectation. But they did deeply feel this place is not our home. We’re already citizens of the new creation. That is where we are going, and we just want to get there. And that changed how they thought about life here and now – particularly marriage and singleness.”
Dani sees the basic problem in the way that the evangelical church sees singles is that it doesn’t have a theology of singleness.
“We actually need to realign our understanding of singleness as a purpose with God’s vision for it.”
“We say stuff about singleness which is a theology of the gaps. We say what we can to plug the gaps without actually having a foundation for that. And so, as much as I think there needs to be very significant pastoral and practical kind of attention paid to how we help single people to feel like they truly belong within the Christian family, if we don’t have the theology undergirding that it’s just a Band-aid solution that’s going to fall apart – it’s just temporary. We actually need to realign our understanding of singleness as a purpose with God’s vision for it.”
She believes that part of the contemporary Christian pushback comes from a misconception that marriage versus singleness is a zero-sum game where if you invest in and appreciate singleness, people automatically think you have to diminish marriage, and vice versa.
“We just can’t seem to be able to go ‘both of these are not just good, but actually necessary for each other.’ That’s not unique to our time. That has been the whole history of the church,” she says.
“The pendulum has swung wildly from one end to the other. And it’s very hard to find the even middle point. But that’s where the Apostle Paul lands in 1 Corinthians 7 – marriage is good, singleness is good, even better; he has no trouble holding those two in correspondence with each other. But we struggle to do that.”
One of the early things Dani grappled with in her research had to do with what she called an instrumental theology of singleness, which is that singleness is only good if you are seen to be living a good single life.
“If your experience of singleness is messy or complicated or challenging, if you’re discontent or if you’re struggling with it, then your singleness isn’t good. But with marriage, we say, ‘Oh gosh, marriage can be hard and complex and messy and sometimes it’s even abusive and awful.’ Still, outside the messy experience of marriage, marriage itself is always intrinsically, purposefully, always intrinsically good because of the purpose God has embedded in it. And so that comparison between how we talk about singleness versus marriage in that sense led me to go, ‘Well, hang on a second, is there eschatological significance to singleness?’ That means it is always purposeful. It is always meaningful, even when our experience is complicated, even when I might feel my singleness is tragic, is my singleness truly from God’s perspective a tragedy? And I think Scripture says no.”
Dani longs for the church to understand that it needs single people – not just to fill gaps in the rosters but as a pointer to community.
“The church needs single people. Not simply to do the ministry and fill up the rosters.”
“I long for us to recognise that even as our experience of singleness, like all things in this fallen world, is messy and at times feel tragic to us, our perspective is not God’s perspective and that God has a good purpose for our singleness, which doesn’t just benefit us. It doesn’t just make me more content with, ‘Oh, OK, all right, I can get on with life because God’s got something good.’
“One of the fundamental points I push home in the book is that the church needs single people. Not simply to do the ministry and fill up the rosters. The church needs single people to remind us of who we are as the eschatological body of Christ, as the community who will be married to Christ together. As his bride we will relate to one another, not as husbands and wives, but as brothers and sisters in eternity.
“This is our interpersonal nature as the church. So it’s not simply that it makes life easier for me as an individual, single Christian; it helps me to see that I have a significant role to play in the community of God’s people.”
“Marriage is a good gift that God has given us. It’s a complex and complicated gift.”
As someone who anticipates she will remain single even as she is open to the possibility of that changing, Dani affirms that longing for marriage is a good thing.
“Marriage is a good gift that God has given us. It’s a complex and complicated gift. Sometimes I think singles have a very idealistic picture of marriage, that it will be the silver bullet that completes my life. So we need married Christians to be honest with us about the complexities of marriage and the reality of marriage,” she says.
“But I think there’s a rightness in praying for and hoping that God might give you that good gift that he hasn’t given you yet. I think where singles need to be challenged is not being controlled by that longing, not idolising a good thing and idealising a good thing. And in that longing for something else, that is marriage, not to miss the goodness of what God has given us in the present in our singleness.”
“I live in a time and a place where they’re telling me, to be my authentic self, I need to be able to realise my sexuality in this way.”
Another area the Church needs to be challenged is resisting the prevailing worldview that people need the freedom and opportunity to express themselves according to their sexual desires to be their authentic selves.
“That’s very much the ideological commitment of the world. The Church has bought into that more than we are willing to admit. So the single Christian is by and large thinking, ‘Well, I live in a time and a place where they’re telling me, to be my authentic self, I need to be able to realise my sexuality in this way. But the Church is also telling me I can’t do that outside of marriage to someone of the opposite sex to me.’ And so the single Christian ends up in no man’s land. And you can see why they see their singleness as a tragedy because what do I do with that? I don’t think we appreciate how much we’ve been catechised by the world’s thinking on sex,” she says.
Asked for a remedy, Dani says we need to go back to Scripture and do some deep theological thinking to realign our understanding of the purposes of marriage, sex, and friendship in community with God’s purposes.
“My book is not the answer to the conversation, but just provokes the conversation, giving people some questions and some things to grapple with as we take this conversation forwards.”
One example she discusses is the sexual nature of a resurrected Dani.
“I think my sexual nature is a key part of my creation as a human being. I expect in eternity I will be a woman, but I also expect in eternity I will be a woman who is not married and who will not be having sex; therefore, for me to have a sexual nature must be more than about whether I am having sex or not because my sexual nature will, I assume, have ongoing meaning in eternity, even as it’s not being expressed through sexual intercourse. So what is the purpose of my sexual nature? It must be more than just that.”
She suggests in the book that having a sexual nature is a call to community rather than a call to a community with just one other person. Reflecting on John 17, where Jesus prays that his disciples will be one as he and the Father are one, she speculates that we confuse marriage with that prayer.
“We talk about the kind of oneness of a husband and wife – and there is a one-fleshiness of a husband and wife. But talking about this harmonious melding of souls together into being one, if you look at John 17, Jesus is praying exactly that for all his disciples together, not just for a husband and wife. I think this is an area we haven’t grappled with in the way we need to.”
You can order the book here.