Jesus never married. Paul commended singleness as preferable to marriage, at least for some. And for centuries, and still today in the Roman Catholic Church, priests were expected to be celibate.
But in much of the world today, the pendulum has swung to the opposite side. We look with skepticism on singles, especially if they serve in ministry. Maybe there’s something wrong with them, we assume. Spiritual maturity is sometimes equated with marriage, and then with children. And that’s not necessarily wrong, since God can and does use those roles and responsibilities to sanctify believers. But such a view still reflects many cultural assumptions not necessarily shaped by Scripture.
Sam Allberry has contributed a timely word for this discussion in his new book, 7 Myths About Singleness. Sam is a pastor, global speaker for Ravi Zacharias Ministries, and editor for The Gospel Coalition. He argues that neither marriage nor singleness can satisfy our longings. Only Christ can do that. And I love this quote from his book that sums up his whole argument: “If marriage shows us the shape of the gospel, singleness shows us its sufficiency.” How true. It all points to Christ.
Allberry joins me on The Gospel Coalition Podcast to discuss these myths, why we don’t talk enough about the challenges of marriage, the need for intimate friendships, sexual temptation, and much more.
Collin Hansen: Jesus never married. Paul commended singleness as preferable to marriage at least for some. And for centuries and still today in the Roman Catholic Church, priests were expected to be celibate. But in much of the world today, the pendulum has swung to the opposite side. We look with skepticism on singles, especially if they serve in ministry. “Maybe there’s something wrong with them,” we assume. Spiritual maturity is sometimes equated with marriage and then with children. And in some sense, that’s not necessarily wrong because God can and does use those roles and responsibilities to sanctify believers. But such a view still reflects many cultural assumptions not necessarily shaped by scripture.
Sam Allberry has contributed a timely word for this discussion in his new book, “7 Myths about Singleness.” Sam is a pastor, global speaker for Ravi Zacharias Ministries, and an editor for The Gospel Coalition. He argues that neither marriage nor singleness can satisfy our longings. Only Christ can do that. And I love this quote from his book that sums up his whole argument, “If marriage shows us the shape of the gospel, singleness shows us its sufficiency.” How true. It all points to Christ. Sam joins me on “The Gospel Coalition Podcast” to discuss these myths, why we don’t talk enough about the challenges of marriage, the need for intimate friendships, sexual temptation, and much more. Thank you, Sam, for joining me on “The Gospel Coalition” podcast.
Sam Allberry: Hey, Collin. It’s good to be with you. Thanks for having me.
Hansen: So Sam, some regard celibacy as actually harmful denial of our human needs. They say it’s unfair to demand and unbearable to experience. So how do you counsel singles pressured by this message?
Allberry: Thank you. Yes, that’s a common way to think and I think it says far more about our culture today than it shows about singleness itself. In our culture today, sexual or romantic fulfillment are seen as being essential to human flourishing, and therefore the prospect of that being inaccessible or denied to someone feels like we’re sentencing that person to lead a very diminished human existence. It’s an act of cruelty. So I think what I’d say to someone who is kind of worrying about that and wrestling with that is two things really.
The first is that the New Testament gives us a very, very positive view of singleness. Jesus himself, as you remind us, was single and yet he was the most fully- human person who ever lived. So we can’t say that singleness is dehumanizing without ultimately saying that Jesus was subhuman. Moreover, Paul the Apostle speaks very positively about singleness in Corinthians 1:7.
And I would say that, actually, marriage itself is also a very good gift from God, but isn’t easy. And Paul actually says in Corinthians 1:7 that marriage comes with certain trials, and he commend singleness as a way of being spared certain trials. So neither is seen as the kind of solution to the problems of the other. When we move from being single to be married, we’re not moving from having problems to not having problems. We’re simply exchanging the challenges of singleness and the joys of singleness with the challenges of marriage and the joys of marriage.
Hansen: I think, Sam, that might have been, perhaps, the chief takeaway that I had from your book. I don’t think I’ve actually ever thought about it that way. Why do you think evangelicals in particular seem to talk so much about the challenges of singleness, but not of marriage?
Allberry: I think we’re not very good at being open generally, plus I think we’ve sort of, we’ve imbibed this idea that marriage is something you kind of graduate into. It’s a sort of sign of spiritually coming of age. And so, I think that makes it hard for people to admit that sometimes marriage isn’t easy. So it’s interesting, I think we often compared the downs of singleness with the ups of marriage, and we forget that there are ups of singleness that Paul talks about and there are also downs of marriage. And I suspect the social media age hasn’t helped with this because the only kind of side of marriage we see on our social media feeds is the highlights and we just see those moments on Facebook or on Instagram when the kids are being precocious, when the family meal looks delicious, when the vacation is looking perfect. And we kinda forget those are edited highlights and what you’re not seeing is the kind of family arguments. You’re not seeing the kind of…the kid in tears because they don’t wanna do something that mom and dad are making them do. You don’t see the strains in the marriage.
So I think we just need to see that singleness and marriage, both of them, are intrinsically good and both of them come with particular challenges. And the challenges of singleness are different to the challenges of marriage. But I don’t think we’re very good at being open about some of the challenges of marriage. We’ve kind of built it up that it’s meant to be this amazing, fulfilling thing that kind of completes us and fulfills us.
Hansen: Well, it just seems to be dangerous in general to compare your lows to somebody else’s highs. And like you pointed out, where social media is almost all highs, that’s a problem. It hadn’t occurred to me until you had mentioned that that, when I look at my single friends in my church, they seem to always be on vacation. They’re always skiing somewhere, they’re always traveling around the world, they’re always seeing cool stuff, they’re dropping everything and just heading off around the world on some exciting adventure, while I’m home and I’m taking care of the kids. But of course, they can’t quite see some of those…or they’ll see some of my joys on social media, but I also won’t see some of those meals that they eat alone or other challenges that they see. It just seems to be you’re making a big point about comparison in general that I think the Apostle, Paul, wanted us to address through that contentment in any and all circumstances.
But I wanted to ask you, this was one of the standout parts of the book, you quote one pastor as saying, “I just to see singleness as a disaster.” And I’m just wondering, how do we get to that point where we strayed so far from the explicit biblical teaching on singleness and marriage? I mean, I think we can agree that there could be some cases where singleness would be a disaster. But overall, I don’t know how you square that scripturally.
Allberry: I think, yeah…I think, and I’m trying to be generous to that particular pastor. I suspect it’s looking at the abuse of something and, you know, damning something by how it’s abused. So there are obviously a lot of people today in our own culture who don’t want commitment, who don’t what responsibility, and kind of perpetuate their adolescence. And in that sense if, by singleness, we’re meaning that, that is a disaster. But the fault of that isn’t singleness. The fault of that is singleness being used in an ungodly and a self-centered kind of way, just as there are plenty of people who get married for self-centered reasons or who are unpleasant to their spouse, or who think marriage is gonna be…you know, is all about them being served by their spouse. And you wouldn’t say, well, marriage itself is a disaster. You would say some of those people are a disaster, some of their marriages are a disaster, but precisely because they’re not doing marriage the way it’s meant to be done. And similarly people who are single purely for reasons of self-centeredness are not doing singleness the way the Bible says we should do singleness. Paul’s whole point in commending singleness is not that, “Hey, we get to do whatever you want. You can be free,” but actually you get the flexibility now to serve Christ in a way that can be more wholehearted and single-minded than if you were married.
Hansen: Well, let’s talk about…you mentioned some of the benefits that accrue to the church for people who serve through singleness in those situations. But explain how friendship intimacy can help us to see the livability of singleness. I think that’s one thing that certainly is a source of a lot of fears for people when it comes to singleness.
Allberry: It certainly is and I’ve heard a number of people talk about singleness as being doomed to a life of loneliness and a life without love. And again it reflects something that is very particular to our own cultural moment where we have so collapsed intimacy and sex into one another that we don’t really conceive anymore of forms of intimacy that aren’t romantic or aren’t sexual. Whereas the Bible gives us, I think, just much broader categories of intimacy than we typically see available to us in our own culture. And one of those is, as you’ve mentioned, friendship and the Bible has a really high view of friendship. We tend to have a relatively low view of friendship because we think of it as being the kind of, again, the thing you graduate out of when you get into romantic relationship or when you get married. And it’s a very superficial thing often, friendship. You know, we have friends on Facebook simply by giving them access to our contact details and to our home page. But in the Bible, friendship is something far, far deeper. It’s a soul-to-soul relationship.
A friend is someone who knows the inner you, the hidden you, the secret you, the person who knows what’s really going on. It’s someone you disclose your innermost thoughts to. And so, when we see friendship in that light, we realize it is very, very intimate. And it’s something we are designed to enjoy and to experience not just if we’re single, but if we’re married as well. We all need this gift of being deeply known and deeply loved by other people. And friendship is meant to be one of the primary ways in which that takes place. So that means for those of us who are single, we shouldn’t be feeling lonely. We should be trying to cultivate that kind of deep friendship, but one of the problems is I don’t think that’s on the radar of many of our churches and we need to, I think, rethink our approach to friendship. We need to rethink our approach to church life as a body, as a family, together, so that people can experience biblically appropriate and healthy kinds of intimacy.
Hansen: Go ahead and get practical there, Sam, maybe just in general, but then specifically for men, how men can forge more intimacy in friendship.
Allberry: Yeah. It’s difficult because, obviously, different stages of life can affect how we go about doing this. Most of us, if we go to university and that kind of period of life, friendship is so easy because we’re all in each other’s lives anyway. Everyone is around. Everyone is available to hang out and spend time. My experience seeing this with many other people is that generally when you get into your 30s and people start to become married and there are mortgages, there are kids, there are more responsibilities, people are just not as available for friendship as they would have been in their early 20s. And so, I’ve heard a number of guys say that it’s actually, it’s quite hard to make new friends after your, kind of, late 20s because you’re kind of locked into work and home, and family routines. It’s hard just to get to meet new people, let alone get to know new people. So that can be a significant constraint and a number of people have said to me how it’s just unusual these days to make new friends once you’re past a certain age in your life.
So I think there’s a challenge there. This is something the whole church, I think, needs to realize and to try to address, and to facilitate. Because it does none of us any good to have a lack of friendship. And that’s as much a problem for married people as it is for single people. So I think we need to give more space in our church life for people to be getting to know each other, that our meetings aren’t always just about a particular functionality or a particular task that we’re doing together, but to create spaces. And it tends to be harder for men than women more generally, so particularly create spaces for men where they can grow relationally [SP], whether that’s through my own church at home having a men’s breakfast event once every couple of months or so, or we have a regular men’s evening every, again, every month or so that just gives space for guys to be eating together and maybe having a discussion or something. But it just gives people a chance to get past the kinda superficial, “Who are you, how are you, what do you do, I’m fine,” type conversations. That can take time, but also, as believers, I think we can form deep friendships very quickly just by virtue of the fact that as followers of Christ, we already share so many very deep things. And it’s not difficult sometimes to begin to kind of express those things and to be a bit more open with each other.
I think one of the issues is, and this is a massive generalization, but people often observe that women tend to be…just tend to be better at speaking from the heart to the heart than men, typically. But, again, I think guys, it’s harder for us, but we need to work hard at…maybe just, it’s another guy we get along with at church that we can pray with every once in a while. And that might be one of the ways we begin to deepen the friendship or a Bible study group where we’re talking about the things of the Lord with other brothers. Things, again, that just give us a way of beginning to speak at a slightly more personal level than simply talking about how work is going or sport or whatever else it might be.
Hansen: Well, I think this is a related issue here, and this is maybe the flash point of discussion around some of these issues. Do you think, Sam, that evangelicals have a problem with idolizing the nuclear family?
Allberry: I think we probably do actually and it’s difficult because, obviously, the family is a great thing, it’s a God given thing, and it’s… Because something is good doesn’t mean it can’t become an idol. Many of our idols tends to be good things that we’re just turning into ultimate things. But I think, again, it just helps to let the Bible course correct how we think about family. But we tend to hear the word “family” and assume…again, the nuclear family, we assume that’s what God means by family. But in many ancient cultures, in many cultures today, actually, in other parts of the world, people live family life in a much broader way. Family is not just mom, dad, and 2.3 kids. But it tends to be the wider family, the aunts and the uncles, the cousins, and those who are kind of honorary aunts and uncles in the family life as well. People just tend to do life within a broader circle of community than we tend to.
So I think one of the things that we’ve done is we’ve kind of got this idea that the nuclear family is meant to be self-sufficient and self-contained, that it’s the basic unit in which you do life. And often sadly, the basic unit in which you do church which means I think we have a lot of nuclear families that are struggling because I don’t think we are designed to be self-contained in that way. And I see a lot parents increasingly coping with the busyness of family life, you know, after-school programs for their kids, and life is just…there’s about 15 years where all you’re all doing is running kids back and forth between things, and just trying to keep up with that is enough, let alone trying to build friendships with anybody else.
So I think we do need to step back and think, “Well, hang on a sec. Family is not just the nuclear family.” There are significant primary responsibilities we have within a marriage and to our kids, but actually family is a broader concept in the Bible which includes the fellowship of the saints that we gather with Sunday by Sunday. That includes other people who may not be blood relatives, but who are nevertheless family to us. And I think if we take it in that broader way, it actually makes it more manageable because there are more people involved. There’s more of a team, you know, there are no two people who can be everything their kids need them to be. And therefore, to have the input and support of the wider church family of aunts and uncles, whether literal aunts and uncles or honorary aunts and uncles, actually really helps. It helps the family and it helps other people as well.
Hansen: Well, give us some concrete advice there on that score there, Sam. What are the best things married couples and families can do to love and care for their single brothers and sisters? And I should be clear, in ways that will also benefit them, benefit the married couples and families.
Allberry: Yeah. And this is the wonderful thing about God’s economy on this is that everyone is a winner if we do things God’s way. So I think again, just thinking, “Well, my family isn’t just the people who have the same last name as me and who live under the same roof as me. My family is the people I share the Lord’s table with. It’s the people who were baptized into the same name as me, people I gather with Sunday by Sunday.” So trying to make that not just a theoretical nicety, but part of our lived reality and so folding people into the life of our nuclear family, that we don’t just exist as a single unit, but we do things with others on a regular basis. And not just in an “entertaining others very occasionally and putting on a nice show,” kind of way, but actually folding people into real life.
So that might be as simple as something a group of us do back in my home where there’s a gang of us who…we always go on vacation for a week every summer. There’s two families and about four or five singles depending on the year. And we’ll go on vacation together for a week and the singles love it because we get to do…we got people to go on vacation with. The kids love it because there’s a whole ton of other people to kinda play with and to muck around with. The parents love it because they can get a bit of a break as well and other are people helping with looking after the kids or playing with them or with the cooking, and all that kind of the stuff. It really does seem to be a win-win. And I think we can take some of that model into the kind of week-to-week regular life as well where it’s not that we’re adding something additional to our already full schedules. It’s that we are doing what we already do, but involving more people in that which may end up meaning that we have slightly less to do because there are more people involved.
So there are families at home where, you know, I’ve sometimes helped with the school run. If I know they can have a very busy week, that’s something I feel able to say, “I can help you out. That would be at least one thing less for you to do,” or they’ve said, “Hey, would you bear to help taking someone to their music lesson this week,” or maybe it will be that I come around and I cook lunch for the family on a Sunday or one evening during the week. Because it’s gonna be easier for me to come to them than it will be for them to come to me. But I just think we can involve one another more often, more regularly in the normal day-to-day stuff of life. And in my experience, it’s in that normal day-to-day stuff of life, that’s where lost really happens. So, yes, having the very nice rare occasion when you have people around and you do a special meal and everything’s perfect is nice. But actually, real life happens in that kind of day-to-day normal stuff and the more I think we open that up to other people, the more we find real relationships, real friendships developing and building.
Hansen: One of the areas that we have to talk about is, of course, sexual temptation. One of the things that I think we have to be able to point out that I often hear talked about in premarital counseling and things like that is that marriage does not end your sexual temptation. There are any number of different things that happen in marriage that, I mean, that preclude sex, either for a time or in certain extreme instances permanently. So what are some things that we can do to be able to help each other to flee sexual temptation?
Allberry: Yes. And thank you for reminding us that that’s not just an issue for single people. As you say, it’s an issue for just about everybody. There are a number things. Obviously, what we’ve just been talking about should actually help in its own way. I think having healthy forms of intimacy can help be a good guard against craving unhealthy forms of intimacy. And to feel as though we really are known and understood, that there’s a group of people who really do get us and value us and love us, can reduce some of the need some people may feel for unhealthy intimacy, and often that ends up being expressed and desired in quite sexual ways. So one way of fleeing sexual temptation is to build up healthy intimacy. It obviously, it always helps to have people who know our weaknesses and can be…who know how to pray for us and how to encourage us. So again friendship is key there. I’m very grateful for some brothers who know what my temptations are like, who I can be very open with when I’m going through a season of temptation and can say, “Listen, this is what’s going on.” You know, “I’m gonna need your support and encouragement, and accountability.” So those things will also help.
But I think you’re right that marriage is not necessarily gonna provide sexual fulfillment. No marriage is perfect and no sexual relationship is perfect. And so, while someone might have a very healthy marriage and a very healthy sex life within that marriage, there may still be significant kinds of temptation. And so, having both the clarity of what the Bible says about the seriousness of sexual sin, having people who can stand alongside us, encourage us at times, rebuke us when that’s needed as well, but just having healthy intimacy, I think, is the best way of guarding against unhealthy intimacy.
Hansen: Last question I have here for you, Sam. I really liked how you compared and contrasted the ministries of Tim Keller who’s married and John Stott who never married. Well, tell us how their example, each of them in these different ways has instructed you.
Allberry: Yeah. They’re very different men with somewhat different ministries and yet both so powerfully used by the Lord and both powerfully used globally. John Stott’s singleness meant that his capacity to travel was obviously much greater. So he was, particularly in his last of decades, he was on the road almost all the time. He would kind of… All Souls was his anchor point back in London, but he would be traveling globally in God’s providence. He was having that global ministry at a time when evangelicalism globally needed that kind of leadership. He was able to encourage brothers and sisters in places like Australia or Latin America in preaching, in theology, in ministry which he just would not have been able to do if he was married or shouldn’t have been trying to do if he was married.
Keller, being married, has less capacity to just hop on a plane every third day, but you can see the ways in which his marriage has fed into and sustained his ministry. I think he would be the first to say that he couldn’t be doing what he does as a pastor and as a Christian leader were it not for his wife, Kathy. And Tim can only be Tim because Kathy is Kathy. And so, his marriage has actually enabled his ministry. It’s fed into it.
So it’s just lovely seeing how both singleness and marriage each can reinforce and strengthen ministry. Neither are they are an alternative to ministry in that sense, but in each case the person has been able to do what they’ve done by virtue of, in Scott’s case, being single, and in Keller’s case, by being married. What they will do will be different because of those two things, but at the same time they couldn’t be used in the way they have been used were it not for the fact that they were in one case single and in the other case married.
Hansen: Well, I hope people have gotten a good taste of what they can get in the book. The book is “7 Myths about Singleness.” The author and my guest here on “The Gospel Coalition Podcast” has been, Sam Allberry. Sam, thank you.
Allberry: It’s a pleasure. Thank you, Collin.