In a recent column, you said you should only be in a relationship if you determine that you can "better serve the kingdom" together than apart. I have a question about what that means.
It seems that, in every case, single people can surely serve the kingdom better, since marriage usually takes away time, energy, emotions, money and other resources from a person that are given to his spouse, instead of to churches or ministries. He can, for example, spend more time Bible reading, instead of spending time with his wife. What do you mean that people can better serve the kingdom together?
They can, but do they?
While singles have the potential to devote more time, energy, emotions and money to the kingdom, singleness is not inherently kingdom-oriented. There is no guarantee that never marrying will translate into the fully expended celibate service Paul talks about.
When I was single I had lots of discretionary time, even with a demanding job. I could have devoted hours to charity work. But I didn't. Instead I spent it at a tiny table at Borders sipping iced hazelnut lattes, reading books and writing in my journal. I'm not saying it's a sin to do that, but it wasn't the stuff of "undistracted devotion."
I wasn't even doing as much to serve the kingdom as my married friends were. Sadly, that's not unusual. While 29 percent of married people told Barna Research that they had volunteered to help a church in the past seven days, only 14 percent of never married people had. The time today's singles have available for spiritual service is the same time the leisure and entertainment industry demands from them.
In our culture, it's more likely that for every weary mother, daily sacrificing her own time, energy, and resources for her husband and children, there are singles that are virtually indistinguishable from their unbelieving friends.
After telling the Corinthians that someone who is unmarried can have "undistracted devotion to the Lord," he clarified in a letter to Timothy that unmarried women are vulnerable to "idleness." He warned that young widows pledging themselves to celibate service may later find themselves wanting to break that pledge because of their sensual desires:
At the same time they also learn to be idle, as they go around from house to house, and not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things not proper to mention. Therefore, I want younger widows to get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach. (1 Timothy 5:13-14, NASB)
Paul explained to the Corinthians that a married woman is concerned with how to take care of her husband (a statement of fact, not a criticism). But he didn't stop there. His letter to Timothy showed he also believed that the responsibilities of marriage are honorable and an antidote to idleness. This is consistent with the Proverbs 31 description of a wife of noble character who "watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness" (Proverbs 31:27).
Surveying the overarching themes of Paul's writings, it's clear that he believed an unmarried woman has the potential to serve the kingdom in a greater way, but if she is not gifted to overcome her vulnerability to sexual temptation and idleness, it is better for her to marry and serve God in marriage.
It's true the kingdom ushered in by Jesus brought new esteem and opportunities for celibate service, but not a spiritual fig leaf for any and all single lifestyles. When Paul said he wished others could be like him, he didn't just mean his marital status. He meant his undistracted devotion to God.
What did that look like? In his second letter to the Corinthians he gave us a glimpse:
We put no stumbling block in anyone's path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (2 Corinthians 6:3-10)
This is the high calling that accompanies kingdom-benefiting celibate service. Interestingly it's the same high calling that patriarchs like Moses, prophets like Isaiah, apostles like Peter, missionaries like Jim Elliott, evangelists like Billy Graham and scores of other people have followed over the years while also taking on the responsibility of marriage and children. Both the call to celibate service and the call to marriage are of high value in God's eyes when they are submitted to His purposes.
Marriage is not a compromise. It is not a spiritually inferior path. Most believers are called to marry, and for them finding a spouse with whom they can serve God is a high call — their call. For them, to remain single would be a loss to the kingdom. When I raised the "better together" test, I wasn't suggesting a choice between "stay single or get married," but "marry this man or marry another."
Copyright 2007 Candice Watters. All rights reserved.