In Christian circles, singleness is viewed as “pretty much awful,” defined primarily by the absence of something. Sam Allberry wants the church to know that singleness is a good gift. More than that, it’s a matter we all need to be thinking about. For one thing, most married Christians will one day be single again—whether through bereavement or, sometimes, divorce. Even more importantly, he argues, every part of Christ’s body has a stake in every other part. Married Christians need to hear about what the Christian life is like for singles, and vice versa, in order to support the health of one another’s seasons of life. To facilitate conversation around these matters, Allberry discusses seven “myths”: singleness is too hard; singleness requires a special calling; singleness means no intimacy; singleness means no family; singleness hinders ministry; singleness wastes your sexuality; and singleness is easy.
The first “myth” Allberry seeks to debunk is that “singleness is too hard.” One way of turning this claim on its head is by recognizing that marriage isn’t inherently any easier. We tend to downplay Jesus’ and Paul’s exhortations about the very real worldly troubles that married life can bring. This is not to say that marriage won’t still be the preferred path for most, but that, like singleness, marriage is also an incredibly difficult calling. We also tend to view a celibate life as not only difficult, but as somehow less than fully human. But the unintended implication of such a claim is that “Jesus himself is only subhuman.” Christians confess that Jesus is the most fully human person who has ever lived, but—colored by the prejudices of contemporary culture—our ways of talking about his intentionally unmarried state don’t always bear that out.
The flipside of assuming that singleness loses out on the best things of life is that we think it’s only possible to live this way if God grants some special superpower. Allberry argues that this “[denies] the intrinsic goodness of singleness.” In fact, such an assumption indirectly permits sin when people pursue ungodly relationships on the belief that they’re “not called to celibacy”; this mindset “puts us in a situation where we have no capacity to obey” God, because he supposedly hasn’t granted us the requisite gift. At the root of this myth is a misunderstanding of the nature of the gifts our loving Father gives. Gifts are intended to build up the church, not to give us a special feeling of satisfaction or peace. Only by looking at both singleness and marriage in biblical perspective—something he picks up in a later chapter on sexuality— can we begin to view them as equally good gifts.
In Myth 3, “Singleness means no intimacy,” Allberry addresses the devaluing of deep friendship in Western society. Culturally, we have a hard time conceiving of intimacy that’s non-sexual, but Proverbs is filled with examples of such friendships, which can and ought to be pursued by anyone, married or single. In fact, married people can run into difficulties if they don’t pursue strong friendships alongside their marriages. And while singles may not be able to experience the same depth of intimacy that married people do, they might well have the opportunity to experience greater breadth in relationships, and more flexibility to show up quickly for friends in need.
Allberry also makes some interesting points in his debunking of the myth that “Singleness Means No Family.” He looks at some ways that singles can be folded into the lives of hospitable families. But he doesn’t stop there; he also makes some important suggestions of ways that singles should contribute to families. All parents have weaknesses, and no parent can offer a complete view of the Christian life. It’s helpful for children to see that Christianity isn’t only something that their parents do; plus, godly, “honorary uncles and aunts” can have a moderating effect on parental eccentricities. These are all genuine ways that singles can take part in the creation mandate, even if they never bear children themselves. And being able to have spiritual offspring is no mere consolation prize, but the beginning of an eternal legacy. Elsewhere in the book, Allberry reiterates the importance of “proximate friendships”—nearby friends, ideally families, one can enjoy simply “doing nothing” with—and that these often tend to be a lifeline for single people in a way that they aren’t for busy, self-contained families. (Though I’d suggest that, to a lesser degree, this can also be true for childless couples or families living hundreds or thousands of miles away from extended family—both of which can face a kind of loneliness of which they’re frequently, viscerally reminded.)
In Myth 6, “Singleness Wastes Your Sexuality,” Allberry makes a persuasive case that we need to have a more gospel-focused view of marriage as well as a gospel-focused view of singleness. For married people, it’s easy to forget that marriage isn’t meant to fulfill us, but meant to point to what will ultimately fulfill us. Allberry reminds us that Jesus’ own singleness on earth bore witness to his ultimate marriage to the church. Too many Christians expect to find in their marriages what only this marriage between Christ and his Church can bestow. He argues that “If marriage shows us the shape of the gospel, singleness shows us [the gospel’s] sufficiency.” The presence of single people in the church provides ongoing testimony to the truth that “the end of all our loving,” single or married, “comes in Jesus.” For single people themselves, unfulfilled sexual longings serve as a reminder of the greater consummation we’ll all enjoy in the new creation. This means that one’s unmet desires “don’t need to be met for their purpose to be fulfilled.” There is real comfort in this—yet celibate singleness impacts the whole person in unique ways, and talk of finding fulfillment in Christ risks sounding vague in the face of those challenges. While Allberry rightly emphasizes the importance of face to face friendships throughout the book, it might have been helpful to be more explicit on this point—for example, how do the church’s means of grace tangibly point to that someday-fulfillment of desire?
Finally, some of the most stirring passages in the book come in the chapter addressing the final “myth,” that “Singleness is easy.” Allberry names some of his hovering anxieties of growing old alone, but acknowledges that married people are haunted by a similar “provisionality”—a lack of ultimate security in life is not a singleness problem; it’s a life problem. At the end, none of us can lean on another person, whether spouse or friend, to walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death; only Jesus can be our companion there. When each of us realizes that no earthly relationship or circumstance can fill our souls, we come to a liberating truth:
“The key to contentment as a single person is not trying to make singleness into something that will satisfy us; it is to find contentment in Christ as a single person. The key to contentment as a married person is not trying to build a marriage that can make us content; it is to find contentment in Christ as a married person.”
There probably isn’t anyone in the church today who couldn’t use this reminder in one way or another. And the reminder that the single person isn’t missing out on anything ultimate by being unmarried could also apply to the fears of the childless person, or to other situations where someone might feel chronically unfulfilled.
This book is not intended to give an exhaustive exegesis of passages on marriage and chastity, though Allberry touches on all of them and directs to solid resources for further study. Rather, the book is a friendly, biblically-based conversation-starter with nuggets of practical wisdom consistently scattered throughout. The seven myths, while giving valuable food for thought, weren’t the most memorable takeaway—it was the reminder that, at some point in their lives, most Christians will discover that God’s gifts can be difficult to receive well. We all need one another’s faithful witness, honesty, and tangible presence as we learn to serve one another with our gifts and together seek our deepest contentment in Christ.
Sarah White (MA, St. Louis University) is a freelance writer living in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and basset hound, Basil.