7-10-8 The Single Life: Conclusions
It is often pointed out, quite rightly, that as a community we have tenaciously hung on interpretations of Scripture which when analyzed just don't hold up. We are so familiar with a certain form of words, often from the A.V., and we accept them on a surface level without analyzing them. And when they are analyzed, they really don't support the interpretation we have out on them. For example, " the right hands of fellowship" , in its context, has nothing to do with baptism. Fellowship isn't " extended" through that outstretched hand; the context of the passage is totally different. " Fellowship" isn't given through that handshake in some metaphysical sense (as some of us were taught!). And in any case, note how we've slightly changed that text to suit the interpretation we put on it: " the right hands of fellowship" have become " the right hand of fellowship" . And there are many many other like examples. The more the Lord shakes us in preparation for the coming day of truth and ultimate revelation, the more we will appreciate how much of our spirituality has been based on misconceptions. I'm not talking about matters of fundamental doctrine: I refer to matters of practice.
It's significant that every verse quoted to justify marriage is from the Old Testament. Clearly enough, the New Testament doesn't continue this theme- 1 Cor. 7 and Mt. 19 advocate the blessings of the single life rather than the married life, and the emphasis is on producing spiritual rather than physical children. It must be remembered that Israel were a theocratic state; every child born to Hebrew parents immediately entered the congregation of God, regardless of the spiritual effort of their parents. All children of believers automatically seemed to accept the Gospel. This put an entirely different context on the purpose of having children. To have many children was therefore a blessing because they would become the children of God. The equivalent of preaching the Gospel in the New Testament was having children in the Old Testament. The righteous were therefore promised the blessing of many children. But this isn't the case now- there is no New Testament indication that the blessings we receive are in the form of children and wives. We are asked to sacrifice these human relationships for the sake of the Kingdom, rather than receive them (Lk. 14:26; 18:29). To say that marriage means that we can't respond so enthusiastically to the call of the Gospel is an irrelevant excuse, in the eyes of the Lord (Lk. 14:26). Those who said it evidently thought that the Lord would understand and appreciate that their marriage was important, and so they couldn't respond as He was asking. But Christ didn't appreciate their way of thinking as they thought He would (Lk. 14:20,26). Christ was referring back to the way that under the Law, a man was legitimately excused from fighting the Lord's battles if he had recently married (Dt. 24:5). The Lord is teaching that He realizes that his followers will be inclined to think that the OT attitude to marriage was his; and true enough, many of us have gone right down this road. 'But', He effectively continued, 'that isn't the case. I don't think that marriage is any excuse at all for not responding to me with all your soul. I'm asking you to take up my cross, to follow my example, to hate [not just my paraphrase] wife and relations and houses etc. And that's that, I'm not ameliorating the standard I put before you' (although He later allowed Paul to do this). Quite clearly, the call of Christ is to give ourselves to His work rather than get married and enjoy family life. This explains why what NT teaching there is about family life is aimed at those who were already married at the time of their conversion. Yet we wriggle and wriggle to get round verses like Lk. 14:26: " If any come to me and (at the point of his calling and conversion) hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children...yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple" . Christ is clearly teaching that at the time of our calling (remember Paul's teaching that we should be prepared to remain in the state we were in when we were called) we must be prepared to resign hopes for marriage and family life, even our own physical life, for His sake. If we won't have this attitude, we can't be His. Who would argue with these words? All the complaints single brethren and sisters make about not being able to find partners are made almost sinful by reflection on these words. We aren't here, in these few moments, to get anything. We're here to give, to sacrifice, to die. And if at least in principle we won't accept this; we might as well not bother. This is, I think you'll have to agree, a fairly accurate paraphrase of the Lord's teaching. We can't claim to follow a man who came to give and give and give, if we are dominated by a spirit of getting.
These things should more than explain the handful of OT passages which could appear to teach that family life is ultimately desirable. But we will briefly consider them individually.
Psalm 127 is a Song for Solomon, and is a commentary on God's promise to build David a house, i.e. a family (this is the more common usage of the word): " Except the Lord build the house (family of David), they labour in vain that build it...it is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late...for so he (God) giveth his beloved (Christ) sleep (the death of Christ would bring about the building of the spiritual house). Lo, children (the house / family promised to David and Abraham) are an heritage (the inheritance, promised to Abraham) of the Lord (the heritage of Yahweh is His righteous people: Jer. 2:7; 12:7-9; 50:11; Joel 2:17; 3:2; Mic. 7:14; 1 Pet. 5:3): and the fruit of the womb is his reward...happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed (a common description of the acceptance of the righteous at judgment), but they shall subdue (AVmg.) the enemies in the gate" , in fulfilment of the promises to Abraham concerning his seed. There seems little doubt that Biblically, this is how we are to read this Psalm; it is a commentary on the promises to Abraham and David. Those children are God's heritage, His inheritance. The Psalm isn't saying that the children of a marriage are a heritage given to us by God. If that's the case, Christians are turning round to God and saying 'Well, actually I don't want this heritage you're giving me, I don't want these blessings, you can keep them'- because nearly every couple use birth control, thereby refusing the majority of the supposed " inheritance" God is offering them. “Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of” children (127:5) is surely to be connected with Ps. 126:6, where the sower [the preacher] returns with joy, “bringing his sheaves [converts] with him”.
This follows straight on from Ps. 127, and therefore Ps. 128:3 should be read in the same context: " Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine...thy children like olive plants round about thy table...that thus shall the man be blessed that feareth the Lord" . That man is the Lord Jesus; we are the children He has been given (Is. 8:18). Israel, his wife the vine, will be fruitful in the Kingdom (this is prophesied several times), and we are promised to sit round his table (Lk. 22:30). Israel in the Kingdom will be the vine that blossoms and buds, and fills the face of the world with spiritual fruit (Is. 27:6).
If we still insist on reading this passage on a literal level, then we have to say that many children equals blessing from God. This means that the barren sister isn't blessed; and it means that whenever people in the world have children, God is blessing them. And it also means that to use contraception is to throw God's blessings back in His face. Let's remember that the concept of blessing in the OT and NT are different.
The Law could not give life, but it offered temporal blessings, within the context of the Middle East in the two millennia BC, as a recognition of the principle that God rewards obedience. Thus they were promised long life, fruitful land and wombs (i.e. many children) if they were righteous (Dt. 7:13). But now, long life and fruitful land aren't seen by us as blessings. They were blessings relevant to the context in which they were given; and likewise fertility is to be seen in the same light. It seems inappropriate (to me, anyway) to talk about the blessings of children and a nice house. People in the world bless themselves with these things; and so do Christians. We are more human beings than we like to think. People have nice houses because they go up the ladder at work and take out a mortgage. And if we don't know why people have children, we need to read a school biology text book. It's nothing to do with God's blessing, it's just the outcome of life and normal human experience. If we are going to say that fertility is a blessing from God, and that therefore the blessings of the Old Covenant still apply today, then the reverse must also be true: barrenness is somehow a sign of God's displeasure and will only be taken away with contrition and repentance. Yet the barren sisters I know are among the most spiritual of all. From this alone it's clear that " blessings" and cursings don't operate today as they did under the Old Covenant. And likewise the zealot brother who dies in his prime has not failed of God's blessings just because he didn't reach the " long life" promised for obedience (e.g. Prov. 3:2).
The blessings of the New Testament are far more abstract. The blessings of being in Christ, the abundant blessings of being " in heavenly places" , of knowing Christ our Lord (Rom. 15:29; Eph. 1:3); the blessing of forgiveness (Gal. 3:14; Acts 3:25; Rom. 4:7), all brought together in " the cup of blessing" we weekly drink (1 Cor. 10:16). We are given these on account of being in Christ, we have been already blessed with them (Eph. 1:3), they are not mediated as rewards for obedience. The spirit of the New Testament is to pick up the cross, to suffer the loss of all things in response to these spiritual blessings we have received (Phil. 3:8), rather than to receive physical blessings.
Prov. 18:22; 19:14; 22:6
" Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favour of the Lord...house and riches are the inheritance of fathers: and a prudent wife is from the Lord" .
As we have said, it was " good" to be married under the Old Covenant. But we have shown how Paul picked this up and turned it round, in saying that it was " good" to be single, and that marriage was worse than the single life. " House...riches...father...wife...inheritance" (Prov. 19:14) occur together in only one other place: When the Lord Jesus said that His followers must forsake these things to follow him. Again, He is making a deliberate allusion to the attitude of the Old Covenant concerning family life (as when He said that the idea of being excused from war because of marriage no longer applied to those who served Him). Here the Lord is saying that His people would not be receiving physical blessings from God as they had done under the Old Covenant, e.g. fertility, a good wife etc.; indeed, He expected them to sacrifice these things for the sake of His Kingdom.
" Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it" (Prov. 22:6).
This has been the flagship verse for those so keen to encourage single converts to marry and have children. But we showed earlier that it simply isn't true (now, anyway) to say that Christian children are " the next generation" . In the U.K., only one in three or four make it through to the end, as we showed in our earlier analysis. This fact alone torpedoes the interpretation hung on this verse; many a fine Christian couple have found this verse doesn't mean what they thought it did. If children are well brought up 'in the Truth' but they do depart from it, then we aren't reading this verse properly. So we need to analyse it. I have several suggestions:
1. The AVmg. offers an alternative when it suggests that if a child is trained up in his way, he won't depart from it. This would suggest that this verse is a wise practical observation: that a child's background in childhood will stay with him all his life. Or it may mean (see RV) that you can't treat children all in the same way: train up each child in his way. It may not necessarily be referring to spiritual things. The Hebrew for " old" means literally 'gray-headed'- it doesn't mean that if you teach a child the Truth in childhood, when he's a teenager, i.e. older, he won't leave it. The verse is saying that childhood training lasts right up to old age.
2. The Hebrew translated " he should go" is 340 times translated " mouth" , and 57 times " commandment" . It may be one of the many Proverbs which comments on the need for control of the tongue. If you train up a child in the way of his mouth, in the way of talking he should have, when he's older, he won't change.
3. Or taking " mouth" as an idiom for teaching, it could be saying " train up (Heb. 'dedicate') the child to the way of the commandments" . Proverbs is often a commentary on the Law; in this case, the Proverb would be teaching that the command to teach the Law to one's children (Dt. 4:9; 6:7; Ps. 78:5) should begin in childhood, and when he was old and gray-headed, he wouldn't depart from the Law.
4. " Train up" is always translated elsewhere as " dedicate" . It could be referring to the practice of dedicating a child to God, as Samuel and Jepthah's daughter were, and as provided for by Lev. 27. 'If you dedicate a child to the way of the Law, when he's gray-headed he'll still follow the Law' may be the idea; rather similar to the idea that a child brought up by Jesuits before the age of 7 will always be a Catholic until old age.
5. Following on from this possibility, it is worth mentioning that the Rabbis interpret this passage as referring to circumcision being easier when young. This is thoughtfully discussed in Randy Morrissette, '" Train up a child" And Circumcision', The Advocate 8/1995 p. 182.
Whatever the verse means, it can't mean what Christians have taken it to mean, because it simply isn't true. And we have to remember that Israel were a theocratic state; children automatically entered the congregation (cp. ecclesia) by reason of their Jewish parents. So at best it is saying that such children's future spirituality will be influenced by their upbringing; it isn't saying that because of good upbringing, children will inevitably come into the Truth, come into the ecclesia. This isn't the context within which it was spoken.
The Single Life: Overall Conclusions
1. Marriage, in the last days especially, is not going to give all the answers to the problems faced by the single believer living in the 21st century.
2. But the single life is extremely dangerous spiritually.
3. Without marriage, single life is very difficult.
4. An answer is provided to these dilemmas by the teaching of Mt. 19 and 1 Cor. 7. These passages teach that if single believers devote themselves to the work of the Lord Jesus, somehow both the problems of 'undevoted' single life and the drawbacks of marriage are overcome. It seems to the present writer that Christ and Paul teach that we should remain in the marital status we were in when we were called.
5. Becoming a eunuch for the Kingdom's sake may well lead to problems in mid-life, as it did for Hezekiah, Timothy and others who were inspired by Hezekiah's example. Being a eunuch for the Kingdom mustn't be seen as just a form of escapism from personal problems.
6. There are many myths within our community concerning married life, based on a misunderstanding of some OT passages and a disregard or skimming over of some basic NT teaching. A third of those baptized fall away, and only about one in two or three children are baptized. The last days are taking their toll. The single life devoted to the Lord is recommended by the Spirit in 1 Cor. 7 and Mt. 19, especially for the last days. For those who feel morally unable to remarry due to their former wife being still alive, the devoted single life seems the obvious option.
7. The devoted single life fits in with the spirit of the New Testament, concerning sacrificing human relationships for the sake of the Kingdom. The spirit of self-sacrifice required of the follower of Christ is far higher than 21st Century Christians seem to think. " The Kingdom of God's sake" often has specific reference to the preaching of the Gospel of the Kingdom, and it seems this is the most obvious field of endeavour for those who chose to be eunuchs for the Kingdom's sake.
8. There is a beauty and a realness about the devoted single life. Paul is our example, including his attitude to marriage. May we like him finish our course with joy.
H.P. Mansfield, Preparing For Marriage (West Beach, SA: Logos), pp. 13-21.
Don & Ellen Styles (eds.), Family Life In The Lord (Torrens Park, SA: CSSS, 1984) pp. 52-57.
Don Styles, A Letter To My Sons (Livonia, MI: CBS, 1987).
Eric Toms, Youth And The Truth (Nottingham: The Dawn Book Supply, 1979).
G. Andrews, Sons Of Freedom: God And The Single Man (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975)
M. Clarkson, Single (Eastbourne: Kingsway, 1980)
J. Duin, Sex And The Single Christian (London: Marshall Pickering, 1990)
M. Edwards & E. Hoover, The Challenge Of Being Single (New York: Signet, 1974)
M. Evening, Who Walk Alone (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity, 1974)
L. Harding, Better Than Or Equal To? (Milton Keynes: Pioneer, 1993)
K. Keay, Letters From A Solo Survivor (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1991)
C. Richard, Single (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988)
I. Tanner, Loneliness: The Fear Of Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1973)