By Rabih Hasbany
“Aqbalak!” Single people in Lebanon probably hear this expression every time they attend a wedding. It means “we hope that you will marry soon.” As a single man, I have heard it so many times, and I’m really tired of it. But rather than getting frustrated I’d like to use my position to share about the gift of singlehood that I am not only embracing but truly enjoying.
There is an assumption that the norm for any person is to get married. In our society, unmarried people are treated like they’re incomplete. The Church can be part of the problem too. It preaches about marriage and the importance of healthy marital relationships but rarely do we hear sermons about the blessings of singleness or how we can invest our years of celibacy in fruitful and effective ministry.
Many things remind singles that they’re different. Churches regularly organize meetings and workshops about things related to marital relationships and raising children, and sometimes they have ministries exclusive to married people, excluding those who aren’t married. Singles are expected to prepare themselves for marriage and family, but is anything done to prepare them for faithful lives of singleness? Although it is expected that singles will use all their extra time to invest in ministry and serve the church, they are often treated as spare parts who can do anything at any time or accommodate to any situation. For example, in church conferences and retreats couples and families are given their own rooms whereas singles are expected to share rooms with each other, or accept the lowest quality accommodation. Things like this are normal in a single’s life.
Sometimes we forget that singlehood is the original relational state that everybody experiences. Instead, it is seen as something unnatural or a temporary condition. Just as some choose to get married, why can’t we think about the choice to continue life as singles? We should recognize it as a special period for investing in ministry as well as personal growth. Practically, when you are single you have more capacity to give quality time to those who desperately need support and someone to listen to. It is an opportunity to be more present in the lives of people around us, but it is also a time to invest in personal growth, discover potential, develop skills, and learn new things.
During the first 1,500 years of the church’s life, it was common for Christians to prayerfully ask the Lord if they were called to marriage or to singleness for the sake of the kingdom. This is a question that we rarely find in the prayers of Evangelical Christians in the Middle East who, unlike some other Christian traditions, do not seem to embrace monasticism in their traditions.
The Bible has significant insights for us on this topic. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul answers believers in the church who have questions about whether it is better to refrain from sexual relationships. He answers by saying that marriage is good but then goes on to say that he prefers to stay single because time is short. The mentality of the 1st century church helps us understand the meaning here. They expected a swift return from Jesus (1 Cor 7:29-31) and this changed their views on a lot of things, like marriage. Paul expresses his personal preference of singleness for the sake of the work of the kingdom. Singles have greater freedom of time and resources to invest in the kingdom, while married people must manage the family’s affairs and allocate time and money on their spouses and children. “An unmarried man,” Paul says, “is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord” (verse 32). Protestant reformers criticized Catholic monasticism, but they too recognized that singleness makes the servant more available for the work of the kingdom. John Calvin says, “Now the point of the whole argument is this—celibacy is better than marriage because there is more freedom in celibacy so that men can serve God more easily.”
Although Scripture and some Christian thinkers agree that celibacy creates more capacity for kingdom work, many church leaders today teach that marriage is better. They assume that all single people should get married and keep reminding singles in their congregations that they are praying for them to find the “one” God has assigned. Many assume that it’s God’s will for singles to get married rather than encouraging singles to seek God’s will for a faithful unmarried life. The dreams of marriage can cause a lot of people to stumble. Maybe our view of love and relationships is more influenced by Disney and Hollywood movies than shaped by God’s vision for us. As a result, we see many desiring to live romantic love stories with happy endings, and if this does not happen they feel despair and failure.
Even so, a single’s life has its own challenges. Singles can face experiences of loneliness and sexual temptation. Certainly, these struggles are not exclusive to the unmarried, but they can come with the lifestyle in strong ways. The battles of loneliness and sexual temptations can be closely related. The lonelier we feel, the easier it is to struggle with sexual fantasies and be tempted into sin. We need to be proactive in seeking help in these areas. This means taking the initiative to stay in close contact with friends and family. And we must be self-disciplined, as the Bible commands us to “flee from sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18). It is often helpful to have one or two close friends to whom we are accountable in this area. Maybe the same would be wise for married couples! Instead of praying for singles to get married, maybe it’s better to come alongside singles with their struggles.
Whether singles get married one day or live their lives unmarried, no believer will stay forever single. The Scriptures speaks of Jesus as the bridegroom who will return to take his bride, the Church, to be with him in the new redeemed creation. On that day suffering will end, including the challenges of difficult marriages or singleness! God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and we will praise Him: “Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready” (Revelation 19: 7).
This hope is for us today, not just in the future. We can experience something of this marriage with Christ here on earth through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Christ has redeemed us to live with him and enjoy him in our present time on earth as well as in heaven. This is an invitation to live the joy of Christ without letting our social situation, whether we are single or married, deprive us of the joy of intimacy in our relationship with God.
It is amazing to see how positively the New Testament speaks of singleness. Paul speaks of it as a gift from God: “each of you has your own gift from God” (1 Corinthians 7:7). We must resist the implication that it is second rate. This is not what the Bible teaches. Marriage is good, but so is celibacy, and it has been given to some.
Instead of venerating marriage and despairing singleness, a sound theology of marriage and celibacy should be presented where there is no preference for one personal status over another, nor favoritism for one group at the expense of another. The members of the Church must be seen as members of one body who complement one another, and faithful single people of Christ have an irreplaceable place in this body!
Rabih is the Certificate in Ministry Program Lead at ABTS.
Thank you Rabih for sharing so personally and affirmatively on this critically overlooked matter for churches. A biblical view of singlehood is vital to every believer; married people are only one horrendous moment away from becoming single (again), therefore a theology for singlehood is relevant to all. And if nothing else, discussions like this again help us to see with understanding the life situations facing our brothers and sisters while illuminating foundational truths of Christ’s gospel. Thanks again, Rabih, for stirring this conversation. It is long overdue.
Thank you, Brent for your feedback. It’s critical to the Church to develop a sound theology of singleness. This will enable the body of Christ to embrace all its members regardless of their relational status.
Thank you Rabih. This is well written and timely given the realities in Lebanon which mean more and more people will remain single at least for longer periods of time and the Church should indeed do a lot more to tackle this. (e.g. When was the last time a sermon was preached in Lebanon about singleness? How many older believing couples make space to invite singles into their lives without a “match-making” intention? What training are we providing to disciple those who might not get married in opportunities / challenges of that particular state…)
I have often surprised people with I have discerned (after many years of prayer, mission and discipleship within more established Christian communities) that “I am not called to marriage” when they said “Aqbelak” (not enough space to expound this idea here properly but let me add to what Scripture you quoted above Matthew 19:12 ; 1 Cor 7:31-35 (the wider context of what you quote) ; Luke 20:34-38…). This leads to an excellent conversation about how best to serve the Lord and advance His kingdom in Christian community today (rather than satisfy society’s expectation). An excellent book on this topic is written by Barry Danylak (Redeeming Singleness) who in my opinion has very sound theology and practical advice.
Thank you, Joe, for sharing part of your experience. This adds another level to the topic which is worth looking into it and exploring its implications. How to present ourselves to people as singles “not called to marriage but called to ministry”. It is challenging to the norms and expectations that the church assumes and that lack a sound understanding of the Scriptures. Thank you for opening a new topic that can be addressed in another blog post or article.