October/November 2013 - Vol. 70.

Jesus’ Teaching on Singleness

by Dr. Barry Danylak

Jesus’ teaching on the subject of singleness is not extensive, but what he did say appears to be quite radical in the context of his predominantly Jewish audience. A case in point is his dialogue with the Sadducees on marriage in the resurrection (Matthew 22:23-33; Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:27-40). The Sadducees raise the question of the levirate marriage teaching of Deuteronomy 25 as a challenge to the possibility of a resurrection. The teaching to which they refer was given in the Old Testament context in which marriage and procreation were necessary and foundational to the reception of the covenantal blessings. Jesus is thus confronted with a direct clash between the methods and means of the old covenant and those of the new kingdom which he is announcing. 

A new order of relationships 
Of the three accounts, Luke provides the richest detail concerning marriage and singleness in Jesus’ response.  He responds: “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God (Luke 20:34-36).” The statement is a critical clarification. Marriage is an institution for this age and not for the age of the resurrection. Verse 36 explains why marriage is no longer necessary in the age of resurrection, “for they cannot die anymore.” The implication is that one of the primary functions of marriage, to provide for the continued existence of the species, is no longer necessary in the age to come.   Jesus’ statement appears disconcertingly shocking at this point. For beyond the procreative function of marriage, surely he was aware of the joy and fulfilment that marriage brings through intimacy and companionship, and the practical transforming value of learning to love another who is different! Yet it is apparent that in Jesus’ eschatological understanding of the new creation, intimacy and companionship are restored in such a fashion that the unique provision of these things through the marital relationship is no longer required. Even more wonderful relationships are a feature of eternity. 

Because the kingdom which Jesus is announcing is not built through physical procreation, nor is mortality present within it, marriage will no longer be necessary in the consummated kingdom of God. Nor will it be needed for sake of intimacy and companionship in the advent of the perfected order of the new creation. Thus the place and necessity of marriage radically change in the movement from the people of God in the Old Testament to the coming of the kingdom of God which Jesus announces.

Divorce and divine ideal
Jesus’ other surprising teaching on marriage and singleness arises in the context of questions on divorce which Jesus’ disciples raise in Matthew 19:1-12. Here the Pharisees raise a question concerning the extent to which Moses allowed divorce.  Rather than engage in their legal speculations, Jesus surprises them with a reiteration of the divine ideal, legitimizing divorce only on grounds of adultery.  The disciples, surprised by Jesus’ radically idyllic answer, respond in turn with an equally radical proposal that “if such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry (Matt 19:10).”  Given the critical function of marriage in the Jewish context, the disciples react to Jesus with a response which they presume is equally as extreme as his.  But Jesus surprises them again.  For rather than refuting their wildly absurd idea, he instead commends it and reiterates it: "Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.  For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it (Matthew 19:11-12)."

Jesus’ use of the term “eunuch” (eunouchos) on one level seems surprising given the disdain for eunuchs within Jewish culture and their exclusion from the temple on account of their physical deformity. But on another level it provides in fact a vivid model for the point he makes. For in the ancient world, a court eunuch was one who set aside sexual activity (either from a congenital defect or as a result of physical castration) for sake of devoted and loyal service to the king. Since the eunuch could not have children or a dynasty of his own, he could be more trusted in his loyalty to the monarch whom he served. Likewise, without wife or family, the eunuch also had additional time for service to his king and could serve him in a completely dedicated fashion.  Perhaps Jesus had the Old Testament example of Daniel in mind. While there is not conclusive Scriptural evidence that Daniel was a eunuch, there is strong circumstantial evidence that he was (2 Kings 20:18; Daniel 1:3).  In any case, Daniel provides a model example of loyal and dedicated eunuch service. 

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[This article is excerpted from A Biblical Theology of Singleness, copyright  © Barry Danylak 2007, published by Grove Books Limited, Cambridge, UK. Used with permission.]

Dr. Barry Danylak served as a teacher and lay leader in single adult ministries for thirteen years while working as a member of the technical staff of AT&T Bell Laboratories. He recently completed his doctorate at Cambridge University, England on 1 Corinthians 7 and singleness in the first century world. He lives in Alberta, Canada.
Redeeming Singleness: How the Storyline of Scripture Affirms the Single Life, written by Dr. Barry Danylak, and published by Crossway Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois, USA.

Of the three great monotheistic religions of modern time, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, only Christianity affirms singleness as a distinctive calling and gift within the community of God’s people. 

This affirmation of singleness is not merely an accidental phenomenon within Christianity but has a fundamental relationship to the distinctive claims of Christianity. To the extent that singleness does relate to larger theological themes which develop through the biblical canon, there is a firmer basis both to encourage those who feel called to pursue it as a distinct calling within the church, and also to offer constructive consolation to those who find themselves in an undesired single state.  It is no less important that those who are married also understand the theological significance of singleness within the community of faith and the emphasis on the new community which its presence affirms. 

Impact of demographic changes
The significance of this question also arises from demographic changes which are underway in most Western societies.  Among these demographic shifts is the sizable increase in the percentage of single adults that constitute most Western societies. From 1971 to 2005 the percentage of single adults in the United Kingdom rose from 32 percent to 50 percent of the total adult population (16 years and over). 

There are a number of reasons for this societal trend, including a growing acceptance of out-of-wedlock partnerships, the increasing divorce rate, and the increasing age of first marriage. 

As the church is not immune to the effects of changes in society, it too can expect to see an ever increasing proportion of its congregations consisting of unmarried adults. In addition, the increasing acceptance of homosexual marriage within society now also challenges the church to greater theological reflection on the place of marriage and singleness within its community.

Experience of absence
Though singleness as a life option is affirmed in the New Testament, those who are single may experience two different but related absences. 

The first is the absence of intimacy and companionship resulting from living without a marriage partner. This is experienced by all those who are single—whether never married, divorced or widowed. A second is the absence of physical offspring. This is experienced by those never married and only some divorcees and widows, but it is also a shared experience of many who are married and have either been unable to have children or have lost their children through death. 

The desire for intimate companionship and the desire for physical offspring are both characteristic of those who are called to life-long singleness. But many more others may find themselves experiencing one of these absences without the other. These individuals may also resonate with aspects of the biblical-theological reflection here proposed.

Biblical-theological reflection
The perspective of this book is to offer biblical-theological reflection on the purpose of the calling and gift of singleness. While a number of other treatments begin theological reflection with the experience of singleness, either personally or as it is portrayed in the Bible,  the intent here is to depict the significance of singleness in relationship to the developing storyline of the biblical covenants. 

To appreciate this fully requires us to consider just how important marriage and physical progeny were for the Israelite community under the Sinai covenant. But it also requires us to recognize how physical progeny in the old covenant served as a model to anticipate Christ and the spiritual birthing process of the new covenant. Thus the present approach begins with an extended treatment of marriage, procreation and singleness as it functioned in the Old Testament covenants as a backdrop for the emergence of the topic in the New Testament. 

Though it may be a life devoid of the joys of both spouse and physical offspring, the New Testament nevertheless affirms singleness as a calling for the church. The place and contribution of singleness arises naturally out of the biblical storyline as God’s redemptive hope unfolds to all humanity through Christ. 

In Christ a new community is being built, a community of male and female, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, married and single.  Singleness reflects important aspects of this community in a distinctive way. 

In affirming singleness as a calling and a gift, the New Testament also offers a message of hope and inclusion for those who are single.  The message in no way denigrates marriage, but rather, affirms that life together in the body of Christ needs and benefits from both single and married people. It is the storyline of the biblical text that explains why this is the case. 


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