The Significance of Singleness:
A Theological Vision for the Future of the Church
Paperback: Baker Academic, 2018
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Reviewed by Catherine Guiles
To many evangelicals – and even some in wider American culture – applying the word significance to singleness seems strange, even offensive. After all, if God commanded the first couple to “be fruitful and multiply” in Genesis 1:28, what else could possibly be as significant as marriage and family? In her new book, Christina Hitchcock, a professor of theology at the University of Sioux Falls, responds with a robust explanation of why singleness has theological, not just practical, significance for the church that is based on the gospel, points to the resurrection and needs to be recovered and promoted.
Christian singleness as Hitchcock defines it (using “singleness” and “celibacy” interchangeably) partly means being unmarried and abstaining from sexual activity. However, she emphasizes that those are far from the only things it should mean. For the record, Hitchcock is married – but she unexpectedly remained single until she was 30, which brought her struggles and joys. In the process, she learned the lesson at the core of her book: that “my life is significant because of Jesus rather than because of another human being.”
To Christians, singleness should be significant – just as marriage is – because it teaches theological truths about community, identity and authority, Hitchcock writes. Rather than the current attitude among many evangelicals and other Protestants, which “does not understand singleness as signifying anything important about who God is or what God is doing,” Hitchcock writes that “the church must be the place where celibacy is given theological weight and is joyfully practiced,” and it can’t do that until it starts to appreciate what single people do: “Single Christians are important to the church not simply because they have extra time and energy, but, much more significantly, because they stand as a reminder and picture, both to the church and to the world, of these three things: the priority of the church, the reality of the resurrection, and the proper place for our hope and trust.”
To illustrate this, Hitchcock gives examples from church history. She focuses on three single people who all happen to be women: the fourth-century church leader Macrina, the third-century martyr Perpetua and the 19th-century American missionary Lottie Moon. Macrina embodies community by overseeing an enclave of celibate Christian adults that goes beyond her immediate family to include many “spiritual children”; Perpetua, whose husband is absent, gives up her infant son rather than deny her faith, costing her her life; and Moon insists that her authority to serve as a missionary in China and preach to men is given by the Holy Spirit, not a husband or male church leader. For all three women, their singleness is a large part of what makes their Christian witness possible and effective. I enjoyed these stories and share Hitchcock’s hope that men as well as women will appreciate them, but I also hope that in the near future, unmarried Christians like me will have additional famous single role models who work in secular jobs, not just full-time vocational ministry.
In her quest to correct evangelicals’ current attitudes, Hitchcock also skillfully refutes the criticism and fear of celibacy/singleness by pointing out how their obsession with and preference for marriage is based on the same faulty assumptions as secular culture’s preoccupation with sex. She explains that both Christians and non-Christians think of sex as the true marker of not just adulthood, but humanity, that almost everyone should engage in, based solely on ideals of autonomy and romance. Mainstream publications such as The Atlantic run cover stories asking why young people aren’t having sex as much, while conservative evangelical organizations promote a “Marriage Mandate Movement” based on the beginning of Genesis, but the mindset is the same: “The church has bought into America’s claim that the well-lived life is the one that has romance and sex at its center; we’ve just given it a spiritual sanction called marriage.”
The Bible, Hitchcock says, teaches something quite different. Jesus and Paul – two single men – are future-focused in their statements on marriage and singleness, looking to the resurrection to give significance to celibacy now. Since Christians will fully rely on God, rather than other humans, in eternity, Hitchcock says they can learn how to do that by watching their celibate brothers and sisters, who have to rely on God for everything in a more obvious way. And as great as marriage is now, it can’t compare to the relationships Christians will have then: “Jesus uses the idea of marriage to describe our resurrected relationship first with him, rather than with one another. Marriage is indeed an apt metaphor for the eschaton if, and only if, it helps us see that all our relationships will go through Jesus, rather than our relationship with Jesus simply being one of many.”
I appreciate Hitchcock’s theological depth and empathy for single people. My only major criticism is that she doesn’t explore some other related issues. Hitchcock seems to presume that singleness and childlessness usually go together, and she doesn’t discuss how churches can welcome single parents or the possibility of single adults adopting children. Also, although she contends that valuing singleness would help the church respond more credibly to issues related to homosexuality and women’s roles, I think society today is thinking about much more than that, and the church is nowhere close to catching up. (For example, consider the urgent need to discuss consent and listen to survivors amid the sexual misconduct brought to light by the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements.) I hope Hitchcock applies her wisdom to these and other topics in future books or articles.
Overall, The Significance of Singleness provides well-reasoned, biblically sound answers as to why singleness – and single people – matter. I recommend reading it along with books that discuss how single Christians can live faithfully and how married Christians can help, such as Gina Dalfonzo’s One by One, Katelyn Beaty’s A Woman’s Place and Wesley Hill’s Spiritual Friendship. Hopefully, we can all learn to embrace our own significance – and that of each other.
Catherine Guiles is a writer and editor in Arlington, Va. She blogs at www.catherineguiles.com.