Tim Keller: A Theology of Singleness

Tim Keller – A Theology of Singleness from Singleness, Marriage and Family

Tim Keller
November 2001


The church is to be an alternate city (Matt.5:14-16), alternate nation (1 Peter 2:9), even a ‘new humanity’ (Eph.2:15). It’s to be a place where the world can see what a society would look like if Christ was the ultimate value rather than sex, money, power, or some other idols. (A corporate idol is often called a ‘power’ in the New Testament (NT), which is defined as a good thing shaping a society in a bad way because it has been given idolatrous ultimate value.) It’s not enough to discuss Christian living in terms of individual ethics only. We also ask how as a community lives out the ‘gospel-values’ corporately, creating a society that reflects those priorities.

All studies show that in western cultures the percentage of single adults is growing. In 2000 the census showed that 48% of all adult householders were unmarried (up from 42% in 1990.) Center city areas are heavily single and churches like Redeemer will be largely filled with single Christians who must find a way to conduct their relationships in community so as to reflect the ‘new humanity’ created by the gospel.

A. THE GOODNESS OF THE SINGLE LIFE (The non-idolatry of marriage)

Paul’s weird passage on singleness

Paul says “Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this. What I mean is that the time is short.” (1 Cor 7:27-28) This passage is very confusing on its surface. First, this view of marriage seems at profound variance with the exalted picture of marriage in Ephesians 5:21ff. Was Paul just having a bad day when he wrote this? Second, his view of marriage seems to have been conditioned by a conviction that Jesus was coming back any day (“The time is short”). Doesn’t history show that he was wrong?

‘Kingdom Theology’ Applied to Singleness

But immediately after this passage Paul writes: “From now on, those who have wives should live as if they had none. Those who mourn as if they did not. Those who are happy as if they were not. Those who buy as if it was not theirs. Those who use the things of the world as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.” (1 Cor. 7:29-31) Here we see that behind “the time is short” phrase is a much more sophisticated view of history. Paul (as Jesus) taught the ‘overlap’ of the ages. The kingdom of God–God’s power to renew the whole of creation–has broken into the old world (‘aeon’ or ‘age’) through Christ’s first coming. The kingdom is here in a substantial but partial way (Rom 13:11-14).

On the one hand, it means that all the social and material concerns of this world still exist. But on the other hand, the gospel brings us an internal joy-peace and a hope in the future-of-God which relativizes and transforms all our earthly relationships (Rom 14:17). Therefore we must not “over-invest” ourselves and our hearts in anything besides the kingdom. The future of God means radical freedom! We are neither too elated by success nor too cast down by disappointment–because our true success is in God (Col 3:1-4). Though we have possessions we should live as if they weren’t really ours–for our real wealth is in God (Luke 16:1ff.) We should ‘sit loose’ to everything. There is nothing now that we have to have. Finally, Paul applies this principle to marriage and singleness. We are neither over-elated by getting married nor over-disappointed by not being so–because Christ is the only spouse that can truly fulfill us and God’s family the only family that will truly embrace and satisfy us (Eph.5:21ff.).

The Goodness and Necessity of Singleness in the Christian Community

Christianity was the very first religion or world-view that held up single adulthood as a viable way of life. Jesus himself and St. Paul were single. “One clear difference between Christianity and Judaism [and all other traditional religions] is the former’s entertainment of the idea of singleness as the paradigm way of life for its followers.” (Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character p.174) Nearly all religions and cultures made an absolute value of the family and of the bearing of children. There was no honor without family honor, and there was no real lasting significance or ‘legacy’ without leaving heirs. By contrast, the early church not only did not pressure people to marry (as we see in Paul’s letter) but it institutionally supported poor widows so they did not have to remarry. Continue reading