The Meaning of Singleness

There’s lots of books, articles, seminars etc about sex, marriage and relationships at the moment. That perhaps has always been the case anyway. On the other hand, there’s very little about singleness. Again, I suspect that’s been the case for a long time. University  Christian Unions used to put on such a seminar at their weekends away but that was about it.

If there’s been any commentary on a Christian view of singleness recently, it has come heavily from a particular school of thought (to name names, that associated especially with Doug Wilson) which sees marriage as the ideal norm for all believers.  I’m increasingly seeing people suggest that unless a man (for some reason it seems to be aimed at men) has a special gift of celibacy, then they should pursue marriage in order to rescue a woman from a sad life and also resolve any temptations they might have.

Into that context steps Dani Treweek, an Australian theologian whose area of PhD research was Theological Retrieval concerning Singleness.  Theological Retrieval is a particular approach to theology and ethics that relies heavily on historical theology, seeking to place thinkers and writers of the past in conversation with Scripture, each other and us in order to retrieve a theology that helps us to answer questions today. As Treweek explains,

“At the heart of retrieval lies the conviction that theology, and its ethical application, belong to not anyone individual or demographic group, but to the corporate church across time, space and tradition.”[1]

The fruit of Treweek’s studies is her new book “The Meaning of Singleness” published by IVP.  She divides the book into four parts: The Context of Singleness, The diagnosis of Singleness, The Retrieval of Singleness and The Meaning of Singleness. 

In part 1, The Context of Singleness, she shows how we have moved from a positive view of maid/maiden to “old maid” and seen the development of a negative perception of singleness in society.  She then goes on to show how singleness has also been marginalised in the church  as marriage is presented as the preferred  norm. Even in Tim and Kathy Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage, there appears to be an implication that marriage is pretty crucial for discipleship.[2]

The problem with single identity in the contemporary church is picked up on in more detail in part 2, The diagnosis of Singleness.  Treweek picks up on the kind of conversations I’ve referred to above. She notes that lust has become seen as “the one temptation which the Christian is unable to resist, even with the sanctifying help of the Spirit.”[3] She also, correctly in my view, identifies the true love waits/purity movement as a form of prosperity gospel.  The promise is that if you show enough of the right kind of faith by refusing sex outside of marriage then you will get your dream wedding and your dream partner.[4]

Treweek also observes that friendship has become a foundational component of evangelical marriage with sexual chemistry following from this.[5] As I understand her, I believe she is identifying a potential issue here where the wait of expectation for friendship rests solely on the marriage partnership to the diminishment of friendships outside of the marriage partnership.

In Part 3, Dani begins to do the hard work of Retrieval. Beginning with an overview of how singleness, chastity and marriage have been viewed through history, she moves on to home in on how Christians throughout history have engaged with the two primary texts of singleness.  She concludes the section by showing how this has worked out theologically.

In chapter 5, as she looks at Church History, she observes that for the early church, virginity was seen as a better life, particularly  in the context of expected imminent return of Christ. This developed throughout the middle ages into of a threefold hierarchy of virgin, widow and celibate spouse.[6]  Single, celibate people were called into vocational communities as monks and nuns. Earlier Christians saw virginity/singleness as unusual/atypical just as today but for them it was something worthy of celebrating.[7]

The Reformation initially saw singleness and marriage as equal. However, there was a strong reaction to medieval doctrine and this meant that increasingly the single/celibate life was seen as beyond most people. It was treated with suspicion as the monasteries were dissolved.[8]

Chapter 6 focuses in on two key passages. First there’s Jesus’ debate with the Sadducees in the Synoptic Gospels over the case of a levirate marriage where all the brothers died.  The Sadducees wanted to know whose wife the woman would be in God’s Kingdom. Jesus responds that there is no giving and taking in marriage there. The Reformers focused on the eschatological/teleological implications of Luke 22 the Sadducees and the levirate marriage but did not pick up on ethical implications for now.[9] The other key passage is 1 Corinthians 7.

In the last chapter in this section, Treweek seeks to retrieve a theology of singleness. She shows how patristic and medieval theologians saw virginity as superior to marriage.[10] She also gives particular attention to theological thinkers who emphasised an eschatological take on singleness including John Paul II[11] and Stanley Hauerwas.[12]

In the final part, Treweek focuses on fleshing out her own conclusions as she talks about The Meaning of Singleness. She argues s that contemporary approaches to singleness have “become deeply impoverished.”[13] So that,

“the unmarried form of Christian lie has become largely unintelligible, and so largely uninhabitable for the majority of its protaganists.”[14]

This is because we have unwittingly allowed our view of singleness to be shaped by dominant culture.[15] Ironically, at the same time,  as well as marginalising singles,  the idolisation of marriage also puts unrealistic expectations on married couples too so that marriage also becomes “uninhabitable”[16]

Dani argues that Eschatology/”telos” offers a  crucial to a better approach. [17]

“At the heart of the Christian ethical task therefore is the ability to tell time -specifically the time in which the directed ends of human actions have changed.”[18]

It is as we see both that marriage points us to the eschatological wedding feast of the lamb and that human marriage will no longer be necessary in eternity that we are able to think through ethical implications for now.  There is one thing consistent between now and then, we will be spiritual brothers and sisters in Christ. Therefore, because being siblings is a significant part of the telos, single people get to participate in an eschatological foretaste now.  This is true of marrieds too -but on this specific thing singles have a particular experience that marrieds don’t.[19]

Singleness, therefore is not a lack, it’s not the state of being unmarried but a positive state within the church. This is not about a specialised calling only but about living well in the circumstances God has called us to.  Single people have much to contribute to and teach the church such as about “singleness and faithful friendship.”[20] Singleness and marriage should not be opponents but complement each other as we live looking forward to Christ’s return.[21]

I believe that Dani Treweek is making a crucial and helpful contribution both to our theology and to our pastoral ethics. A church that fails to pay proper attention to or that is derogatory towards a significant part of the body is an unbalanced, unhealthy, at risk church. Dani has both rightly helped to diagnose a problem in the church and to offer a helpful, biblical, historically sound solution. 

If I were to offer some constructive criticism, it would be that I think the book could have benefited from a slightly different structure.  I would have liked Dani to take us straight into the diagnosis and from there taken us to the historical and church context which could have been integrated more with the retrieval section. 

Stylistically, I must admit that I find retrieval theology not the easiest to read but the fault probably lies more with me! For the same reason I prefer the systematic theologies of Frame and the like to the Dogmatics of Bavinck!   Though Treweek tackles the approach well and managed to give breadth without the scatter gun safari trip of quotes that we sometimes see from authors.

However, whatever your personal stylistic taste, the exercise is crucial and bares patiently sticking with.  The book is pitched at an academic level and I believe that there is scope for a more popular level/pastoral version.

This book should definitely be picked up and read by pastors and church leaders. You will note that I write as a married Christian/pastor. I agree with Dani that marriage and singleness are not opponents. We also need to take seriously the challenge that we have not always looked after single people well or appreciated the blessings they bring.  This goes deeper than how we organise our programmes and the nature of our services but arises out of gaps and missteps in our theology.  Dani Treweek has helped to fill in the gaps and retrace the missteps to set us back on the right path.

[1] Treweek, The meaning of Singleness, 218.

[2] Treweek, The meaning of Singleness, 48-49.

[3] Treweek, The meaning of Singleness, 56.

[4] Treweek, The meaning of Singleness, 59.

[5] Treweek, The meaning of Singleness, 60.

[6] Treweek, The meaning of Singleness,  120-122.

[7] Treweek, The meaning of Singleness, 126-127.

[8] Treweek, The meaning of Singleness, 124.

[9] Treweek, The meaning of Singleness, 138.

[10] Treweek, The meaning of Singleness, 180.

[11] Treweek, The meaning of Singleness, 188-199.

[12] Treweek, The meaning of Singleness, 200-212.

[13] Treweek, The meaning of Singleness,218.

[14] Treweek, The meaning of Singleness,218.

[15] Treweek, The meaning of Singleness,218.

[16] Treweek, The meaning of Singleness, 219.

[17] Treweek, The meaning of Singleness, 220.

[18] Treweek, The meaning of Singleness, 225.

[19] Treweek, The meaning of Singleness,233.

[20] Treweek, The meaning of Singleness, 248-250.

[21] Treweek, The meaning of Singleness,279.

I was sent a complementary review copy of this book.

The Meaning of Singleness is available from IVP at $35 in the US and here in the UK via Amazon at £29.99 (paperback) or £22.49 (kindle)

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