Statistics show that one in three people in our churches are single. And yet many of our church communities tend to make singles feel “singled out”—that is, we’ve so normalised marriage and children that we’ve made many single men and women feel out of place.
In this episode, Dani Treweek helps us see a richer theological vision for singleness—one that shows us what life will be like for all Christians in the future. She argues that by thinking theologically, we will better appreciate the single men and women in our communities, and better appreciate our place and God’s vision for us if we are single.
Links referred to:
- Dani Treweek’s website
- The Single Minded Conferece
- Our previous interview with Dani in episode #019
- Details of our August event: “Can we live without sex?” with Dani Treweek and Chris Thomson
Runtime: 45:56 min.
Chase Kuhn: One of my favourite movies of the last decade is an odd satire called The Lobster. The film challenges the relationship expectations of contemporary society, demanding that people may not remain single. If they should find themselves single, they must check themselves into a hotel where they have a set time to find a compatible mate. Should they fail to find a mate in the set time, they will be turned into an animal of their choosing. As absurd as this plot may seem, the point of the movie is simple: we’ve decided that if you aren’t going to be married, then you are not fully human.
Now, we may baulk at such a premise in the film, but how much better—or more human—have we made singles to feel in our churches? Is someone abnormal if they haven’t been married? Can they really experience a full and satisfying life without a spouse?
In today’s episode, we pursue theological clarity about singleness and the Christian life.
CK: Welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast. My name is Chase Kuhn and I’m coming to you from Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia. The Centre for Christian Living exists to bring biblical ethics to everyday issues, and today, my guest is Dani Treweek, who has recently completed a PhD on the theology of singleness. Dani, welcome!
Dani Treweek: Thank you for having me!
CK: Very, very glad to have you. You’ve been a long-time friend of Moore College, you’ve studied around here, you’ve—
DT: I have.
CK: —worked on your PhD around here—
DT: I did, yes. I didn’t actually do my PhD through Moore College; I was doing that through St Mark’s Theological Centre in Canberra. But I’m a Sydney girl, born and bred, a Moore College graduate, and had the privilege of spending a year working in the postgrad room at Moore College—
CK: That’s great!
DT: —and benefitting from the library downstairs: that was a big plus! [Laughter]
CK: Well, we loved having you around! That’s great. And it’s great to have you back today.
DT: Thank you!
CK: You are not a first-time guest of the podcast; you were on here about two years ago in 2018, talking about a theology of singleness, and for those that are listening today, I just want to encourage you to go back and listen to that episode with Dani as she was interviewed by Tony Payne back then. Today we are not going to re-cover old ground, necessarily; what we’re going to be doing, hopefully, is to continue to learn from the research that you’ve been doing, and helping men and women think about what it looks like to live in this world, whether they be single or not.
CK: Yeah. And—
DT: And yeah, absolutely.
CK: —we have a lot to learn from you. Just to kick it off, tell us about—I know this is every PhD nightmare [Laughter]—give us a—a one-minute answer—
DT: In a nutshell! [Laughter]
CK: —what your—of what you were studying and wh—and why? What drove you to study it?
DT: You—you’d think that I’d have this answer down pat by now, don’t you, but I—
CK: Oh no! I know what it’s like. Don’t worry.
DT: —I don’t! [Laughter] Well, what drove me, I can answer that really easily—
DT: —is that I’m single myself, I’ve never been married, and all—as I was studying here at Moore College and then went out to work in a church, I became increasingly concerned about how do I as a single Christian live a godly life that honours Jesus? But more than that, how do we as Christians—as the church of God—think carefully about what it is to be single or married, together as members of the same body. And so, a few people knew that that was something that I’d really been doing some work on—I—I laughed, actually; I was looking at my Facebook memories the other day from eleven years ago, and it was something like, you know, “Off to do a seminar on singleness. What should I say?” and I thought, “Oh gosh! Little did I know that, you know, eleven—twelve years later, I will have just finished a four-year PhD on the topic!” [Laughter]
But it’s, you know, it really arose for me as a—a pastoral concern. But what I really realised as that pastoral concern became more pressing for me is it’s really a theological question we needed to grapple with, and I particularly needed to grapple with theological answers to the question, rather than just trying to come up with ways to make life better as a single person.
CK: That’s very helpful. I think that’s one of the things I admire most about you is your frame of thinking—that is, that you want to be approaching these issues from a theological starting point, and I think that’s why we have so much to learn from you, it’s—
DT: Oh, thank you!
CK: —because you’re actually thinking more beyond just the practicalities of it, but trying to shape up the kinds of practices that we take to live out our lives from a theological starting point, and so I’ll look forward to—
DT: Thank you!
CK: —hearing more about that today.
DT: Well, that’s certainly a part of my—that’s a result of my training, really, here, and elsewhere—that we really need to grapple with things theologically: we need to understand who God is—who we are before him—how we walk before him—in order to answer any of these questions.
CK: That’s great. And, of course, your work has been academic lately, but you’ve also been very active in helping people to think through the issue of singleness from all different angles through a ministry that you began—
CK: —the Single Minded Conference.
CK: Can you tell us a bit about that ministry?
DT: Yeah, that really—I mean, the whole reason I did a PhD was so I could be well-positioned—well-thought through—to make a more practical contribution than just writing, you know, 100,000 words of academic language that maybe five people will read. And so, Single Minded really arose as one key way to do that, and so, back in 2018, I formed a team of people who put together this conference that Sam Allberry spoke at in 2018, and we sold out of early bird—we sold out of tickets in the early bird period—
DT: —and ended up having, between those who were—are there on the weekend and those who are livestreaming, I think we had about 1300 people at that initial conference tuning in. And we realised, “Okay, we’ve hit on something here. There’s a gap here that hasn’t been filled.” So we’ve been gradually working on that in the years since and sort of evolving the ministry a bit more as we’ve tried to do that.
CK: That’s fantastic. Just as a—a segue into maybe some of the practicalities that you encounter as you’re talking to Christian men and women that are single, I mentioned this to you before, but I’ve heard about a book recently by Nancy Guthrie, I believe, called What Grieving People Wish You Knew. I wonder if you could answer the question maybe from the vantage point of yourself and, maybe, those that attend your conference, what single people wish you knew—
CK: —and how can we actually help people think about the experience of singles in the church and in life generally, and the kinds of pressures that they feel may be as Christian or maybe even in secular society?
DT: Yeah. Well, I think the first thing to say is it’s probably going to be a very long book—What Singles Wish You Knew. And the reason is it’s probably going to be a long book, if anyone ever writes it—or at least a book with lots of different chapters—is because there’s so many different experiences—
DT: —of being single, and so many different things that different singles wish even other singles knew. And so, what I, you know, may struggle with as a woman who’s never been married is going to be very different to a friend of mine who is a single mum who’s divorced, compared to another friend of mine who is widowed compared to other friends of mine who are same-sex attracted. Even amongst my peers of women around my age who have never been married, there’s very different experiences of what that looks like.
And so, my chapter would probably focus less on what I wish you knew about how hard it is for me to be content as a single person, because God has really worked over many years for me in that way. But other friends of mine really really struggle with that. And so, their chapter in that book is going to be quite different.
But making some broad, sweeping generalisations here, I think lots of singles wish that other Christians knew that they really long to be recognised as an authentic part of God’s family, rather than just have room made for them in the church—that they don’t want to be treated as a special class within the church. They just want to be brothers and sisters—
DT: —within that church. I think a lot of them wish that we understood the different ways to be lonely and how that manifests in different ways. The different griefs that come with loneliness, with not having children, with fears and uncertainties about the future—you know, someone—the very beginning of COVID, I was on another podcast where we were just sort of talking about, you know—this was well before any of us knew what was really coming at us in this—back in March, I think—we were talking about what are some of the challenges that people who live alone particularly will face in the coming season ahead. And while I was sort of rabbiting on, and then someone said, “What about you? ‘Cause you live alone. Are you—who’s going to look after you?” And I just had this moment of … “Who’s going to look after me? What—I—oh my goodness!” You know. So there’s all these things that catch us by surprise.
CK: Yes, of course. [Laughter]
DT: So it’s a very open-ended book at the moment [Laughter] is my answer to that question! [Laughter]
CK: There’s a few things I’d love to actually engage there, because I think your answer is actually very profound and helpful. In fact, I was listening again to your previous podcast, and at one point, you said something about what you just said a second ago—that singles are a part of the church, and they’re not people that we need to make room for—
CK: —and I think unfortunately some of the language that we often use is we have to create this separate little space—maybe a—a singles group or a singles small group, or whatever it may be—
CK: —that’s going to cater to this unique kind of person or something. Where actually they’re just men and women that are part of the body of Christ; they’ve got their own gifts to bring to the table—
CK: —they belong, they want to serve, they’re worshipping with us, they want to encourage us. It’s not a second-class or separate class. It’s—
CK: —just human beings.
DT: Yeah. That’s right. Yeah. And I think it really—I mean, here, we’re talking about our theology of church.
DT: —you know, as much as a theology of singleness or marriage, you know, it’s who do we understand ourselves to be as the body of Christ? And, you know, obviously now we can’t go into a—a long, detailed discussion of this, but I think we really have to grapple with these questions of what do we understand of the place of the nuclear family to be within that broader family of God’s household?
DT: And not see those things as synonymous. There’s clearly an overlap in a really significant overlap in lots of different ways. But I think sometimes—I keep reading articles which sort of state this self-evident truth that the health of the church is dependent upon the health of families within the church. And it’s just not just one-off; I read it all the time and variations of that, and I think, “Show me your working! Show me you your—”
DT: “—theology that gets to you that point,” because I kind of think, well, the health of the church is dependent upon our relationship with Christ—
CK: Yes! Yes!
DT: —you know, as the bridegroom—the one who we’re united with. The health of the church is dependent on our relationships with each other as brothers and sisters in him—
DT: —and church isn’t this association where lots of individual families just come together to do something once a week and then allow there to be room for others to join them. So there’s lots of work that I think we need to do there.
CK: Yeah, of course! And I think it’s probably got to be well-intentioned that people would say these things:—
CK: —in other words, they’re trying to say, “Let’s bite for families”—
CK: —“that would otherwise be struggling”.
CK: But the unintended consequences of even that well-intentioned—
CK: —push is actually a bad theology—
CK: —of what the church is.
DT: That’s right. And you—you’re absolutely right: it is well-intentioned. All the time, it’s well-intentioned. And I—we were talking before, and I said, “I feel like every time I speak on anything to do singleness and marriage and church, I need to put in a million caveats,” you know—
CK: Of course.
DT: —“The family is really important! The family is—”
DT: —“vitally important to us as a society more broadly, let alone to us as a Christian community.” But we also need to grapple with, well, what are the senses in which it’s important in different circumstances and in different settings?
DT: And I think we need to do some work on how we understand the church to be not an independent community, but a discrete community—
DT: —and where that overlaps with Christian family, rather than just sort of importing them to be the same thing in one way or another.
CK: Yeah, I think that’s very helpful. And we’ll count that as your blanket caveat—
DT: Sure, great!
CK: —you don’t have to give any more today! [Laughter] And just so it’s clear, I’m a married man, but I really love single Christians too. And I don’t think my family’s the answer to all things. I will make all these caveats right now!
DT: Well that—that also goes to something that we’ve talked about too, which is we as Christians aren’t very good at seeing nuance at times, and—
DT: —and living within the grey of how we speak about these things. So, you know, I instinctively feel that if I talk really highly about singleness, people are automatically going to think that I’m sort of devaluing or diminishing marriage. And, you know, I think you feel the same as you talk about—
DT: —how much you love being married—that singles are going to hear that as a diminishment of singleness, and that’s t—been true of Christian history throughout the entire history of the church—that there’s kind of this pendulum that’s swung one way or another where, you speak in elevated terms about, well, what we now call singleness—
DT: —and you see a diminishment of marriage, and then you sort of get through to the Reformation and the pendulum starts swinging the other way, and we’re well and truly at the kind of height of that swing. And we just … I just don’t understand why it needs to be so. I don’t think the Bible speaks in that way. The Bible is able to uphold both the single life and the married life as being inherently valuable and purposeful and good in God’s sight, and saying that about one doesn’t mean it’s a diminishment of that truth about the other. We somehow need to get better at this.
CK: Yeah. And to be able to speak with appreciation for either/or has to be not always read as the opposite/against—
DT: That’s right.
CK: —if you will.
DT: Yeah, yeah.
CK: Yeah. Tell me some of the ways that we do this, maybe unwittingly, in our churches. In other words, how do we support this culture of promoting family over against singleness? Just practically, and probably unknowingly.
DT: Well, I mean, I—I guess I’m not sure that we actually do promote singleness at all. I think I’ve heard lots of really good sermons on 1 Corinthians 7, so I don’t want to diminish that. But that’s kind of—that’s the look-in that singleness gets: “Oh, look, we’re up to 1 Corinthians 7, so, okay—”
CK: Here we go!
DT: “All right, time to think about singleness!”
CK: “Let’s go hard on singleness!” [Laughter]
CK and DT: That’s right!
DT: Whereas one of the things that I did early on in my research was I looked at a lot of the statistics and the demographics, and I may have talked about this in the last podcast—
DT: —I’m not quite sure. But what really surprised me is that about—on average, when you look at the National Church Life Survey statistics—on average—and it was really very consistent across denominations—about a third of Christian congregations are single.
DT: That’s one-third. I would—I think if you went to most ministers and said, “Just tell me off the cuff, how many—what proportion of your congregation do you think are actually not married?”, you wouldn’t get anywhere close to a third.
DT: And so I think that actually speaks to the invisibility of a lot of single people—particularly, maybe, divorcees and widows and widowers. But then also, you look more broadly at the general demographic population-wise, and about 50 per cent of the population are not married.
Now it’s a bit tricky ‘cause de facto and all sorts of things—
CK: Yep, yep.
DT: —get rolled in there. But significant portions of our Australian community are not married, and I think, again, if you sat down and you thought, “What’s the church’s evangelistic strategy in reaching out to our community?”, one of the first things you ought to be doing is looking at, well—not the first, but a key thing is looking at what are the statistics of who is married, what percentage of this community are young families, what are actually—people living alone—older people living alone—and so I think just even the way we don’t tend to recognise the—the diversity of our congregations in that sense—
DT: —is just an unintentional way that we don’t really give much consideration to the place of singleness within the Christian life.
CK: Yeah. And we make marriage, then, the norm.
DT: That’s right.
CK: And which then makes singles by default abnormal.
CK: Or—or not normal—
DT: That’s right.
CK: —in terms of the way that we’re treating people generally.
DT: Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah, we—marriage is certainly normative in our contemporary Christian culture.
DT: And, look, part of my research—I did a lot of looking back through church history, and what really surprised me is, actually, singleness—we call it singleness now; they didn’t. They just sort of tended to use language of “virginity” or “celibacy”—
CK: Chastity, yeah.
DT: —or “chastity”—they all kind of have their different and overlapping meanings. But actually, that life of not being married has been abnormal for all of church history. In the early church, singleness—even though it was spoken about in much more heightened theological terms—was still abnormal. The vast majority of early church Christians were married—partly because they didn’t have the option of not getting married in, you know, the economic, social reality that they lived in; this was just intrinsic to making life work in the world. But I think the difference between—or a difference—between their sense of singleness as abnormality and ours is that they actually saw that abnormality as something to be treasured—
DT: —as something that actually spoke to a good beyond itself that made a contribution to how we understand ourselves as Christians and as the church, and particularly where we’re heading in eternity—
DT: —in a way that we’ve lost.
CK: It wasn’t just a missing out or a “less than” status—
DT: No, no.
CK: —it was a special status in some ways.
DT: It w—and, you know, there’s dangers there too.
CK: Of course.
DT: But when you look at why they actually valued the abnormality of the unmarried life, it’s because they had a deep appreciation for the fact that this world isn’t our home—that we’re heading to an eternity where we won’t be married to each other, but the church herself will be married to the bridegroom in the fulfilment of marriage—
DT: —and they saw the single life now as being uniquely positioned to be able to be a reminder of that truth within the Christian body. And—
CK: That’s incredibly helpful.
DT: —yeah, I don’t think that we see that.
CK: I just preached at a wedding a couple of weeks ago and it was at—I mean, a massive privilege to have walked with a Christian man and a Christian woman through years of singleness and—and then watch them come together in—
CK: —love and to celebrate the picture that marriage does portray—
CK: —of Christ and the church coming together. But I think what you’ve helpfully picked up on is that that’s not the only picture that we have for the end—that is, what we call an eschatological vision. We don’t have just that picture—
CK: —because in the end, marriage is the church—that is, God’s people—unto Christ. But in the new creation, there is not marriage—
CK: —in the—
DT: Between humans.
CK: Between human beings.
CK and DT: That’s right.
CK: So tell me a little bit more about that picture that you discovered and how that then recaptures, if you will, a dignity and a valuing of singleness that may be pastorally helpful today.
DT: Yeah. Well, I mean, I spent 100,000 words trying to tease this out in my thesis, [Laughter] and so, even when I got to the end of it, I thought, “Oh, there’s still many—so many more questions I have”. So unfortunately I can’t give you the nice pat answer that would satisfy us all. But, yeah.
My—really to take it back a step, what my research was—the question it was particularly interested in looking at was where we do do well as a contemporary church, thinking and talking about singleness is we do recognise the freedom and the flexibility that the single life brings—
DT: —to be involved in gospel ministry—to be dedicated to gospel service. So, you know, the 1 Corinthian 7 sense of being undivided in your devotion—
DT: —not being worried about the concerns of your wife and your family, but being freed up to be entirely concerned about the Lord’s affairs. And we need to keep preaching that. We need to keep grappling with that, and I think more singles—including myself—need to keep being challenged by that—that the freedom and the flexibility we have—I heard a friend of mine—Kamal Weerakoon—just the other day speak about this as kind of—I think he used the language of “the adventure of the single life” in terms of its gospel opportunities.
CK: That’s great.
DT: So there’s that. But what I really wanted to grapple with is “Is there more?” Is there more to say about the value and the purpose of singleness for the Christian beyond just how it’s spent? Because what tends to happen is we say, “The good single life is really only experienced so much as you experience it as a good thing. If you find singleness hard, then, well, actually, you’re not really living the good single life as a Christian, because you’re not really using it for all that you can be using it for.” And so, I wanted to say, “Well, is there more?” In the same way that we look at marriage as having an eternal purpose that points us towards heaven, is there something there that we have lost sight of as a contemporary church that singleness points us to? So that’s the very long way of saying, “Yeah, I think that is very much the case”—that—
DT: —we see in Jesus, in Matthew 22, tell the Sadducees that we will not be married to each other in heaven; we’ll be like the angels, and let me tell you, there’s been some interesting interpretations of what that means! [Laughter] But we’ll leave that aside!
But if we are going to be not married to one another in eternity, then does that not suggest that me as a single person now, who’s not currently married to someone is able to point you and the rest of my church community—married or single—to that reality that we’re all longing for?
DT: And I think there are numerous ways in which we have the opportunity to do that—without—we’re not there yet.
CK: Yeah, yeah.
DT: You know, we’re still talking about a preview. We’re still talking—
DT: —about a foreshadowing. But as someone who is not a wife, I am a sister to you and to—
DT: —other men and women within the church. How does my relationship as that sister now help show you what we’re all looking forward to with each other in eternity as the bride married to the groom?
CK: That’s so fantastic. I—actually, I really want to come back to this, ‘cause I think there’s a few things that I really want to tease out—
CK: —on that very point.
DT: Okay, okay.
CK: I want to come back just for a second before that, though, to 1 Corinthians 7, because I’m really intrigued by this. When we talk about singleness, we often say that there is a gift of singleness.
DT: [Laughter] Yes.
CK: Right? [Laughter] And the problem I’ve had as a pastor in the past is that I have singles that really don’t feel gifted for singleness. In fact, they don’t want to be single.
CK: And so, now they’re thinking, “I don’t think it’s my gift and, in fact, it’s not even what I want, necessarily”. But then there is an unintended guilt that is placed upon them, because I am single; I should be using my singleness, then, for this gift, ‘cause clearly that’s my gift, if this is what God has called me to. And therefore, because I’m not meeting some whatever expectation of my life—
DT: Yeah. Yep.
CK: —that I’m really not winning at all.
CK: And I am a mess.
DT: Yeah. Yep.
CK: And so, I guess I just wonder, if it’s not that—well, maybe we should talk about what singleness is as a gift, for example. But also, the kinds of words of comfort, then, that you speak to people that maybe are single, but not by choice.
DT: Yeah. Yep. Which is me: I mean, I had always anticipated that I would be married, because that’s what we’re sort of taught to expect as Christians—
DT: —and just in our world generally. It is one of the most contested questions in the kind of whole realm of thinking theologically about singleness is “What this gift of singleness?” I have been long time convinced that it’s not talking about a special spiritual empowerment; it’s not talking about a special injection of the Holy Spirit that makes me perfectly content as a single person. There’s a range of reasons why I—I just reject that interpretation.
DT: One of them, you know—probably the basic one is, that’s not how we think more broadly about gifts that God gives. You look further in 1 Corinthians at Paul’s use of language about gifts there, and it’s all about service.
DT: It’s not about me feeling good about my lot in life. It’s not about me even feeling fulfilled in the opportunities and there—the gifts—the, you know, spiritual expertise that I, perhaps, am given. It’s about using the situation that God gives me—the person he’s made me to be—to serve others.
CK: That is so helpful. Can I just pause there?
CK: I just want to just stop there because I want to take that in. We often think about spiritual in spiritual gift surveys, and however we would think about a gifting as a means to self-fulfillment, which is a terribly worldly way—
CK: —of thinking about—
CK: —what we may have these gifts for.
DT: And a terribly Western—
DT: —postmodern way of thinking about it.
CK: Yes! It’s about self-actualisation or something.
CK: When, in fact, as part of a body belonging to one another—
CK: —brothers and sisters in Christ, we have things that have been given for us—to us—for one another.
DT: That’s right.
CK: And it’s not about patting on the back or you shining in excellence—
CK: —in some way, or feeling good about yourself; it’s actually about growing the body up.
DT: And it’s also about costly service.
DT: You know, the Christian—we’re so comfortable in our sort of Western modern life—not so much at the moment; I think we’ve been thrown into a whole lot of discomfort in the last few months. But we’re so comfortable that we expect life not to be difficult. But we read Scripture and the shape of the Christian life is a cruciform life. It’s one that actually—not is—we shouldn’t be martyrs who are longing to be—
CK: Of course.
DT: —you know, find life costly for the sake of it, but—because following Jesus actually comes at cost.
CK: Yeah. It’s not about you—
DT: That’s right.
CK: —it’s about loving and serving the Lord Jesus and his people—
DT: That’s right.
CK: —and whatever it takes for his mission, is the idea.
DT: And so that brings us back to the gift idea of singleness—that, you know, there are some people I know who delight in being single and take such joy in it, and are so excited by it. There’s others who find it really, really hard. But I take what Paul is talking about there in 1 Corinthians 7 to be the gift of being single is simply the situation of being single: just as I have the gift of singleness for as long as I’m single, you have the gift of being married—
DT: —for as long as you are married.
DT: And, you know, the reality is that most married people will be given back the gift of singleness—
CK: That’s right.
DT: —at some point in their life. And so, I understand it to be a situational gift: this is who you are. This is where God has placed you—the circumstances he’s placed you in. Sometimes that will be joyous. Sometimes that will be hard. But we’re called to honour him and serve each other in that situation. And I think that’s what the gift is referring to.
CK: And isn’t it helpful that it cuts both ways, because the singles have to serve other singles and marrieds, and the marrieds have to serve other marrieds and other singles.
CK: And actually, we, together, are bearing witness to gospel grace in our own lives.
CK: And we’re fools to think that either side doesn’t have the highs and the lows—
DT: Absolutely. Yeah.
CK: —that the other may.
DT: That’s right.
CK: And so, what we’re doing is actually walking together and witnessing to one another of gospel truth through all of the stages of life as the body of Christ, which is—
CK: —such an opportunity.
CK: What I love is that you’ve captured a theological vision that is actually much more God-centred than it is man-centred or—or woman-centred, I should say; either way. It is not an anthropocentric view.
CK: It is a theocentric view. And that means that Christ is King and anything in my life is unto him—whatever stage I’m in.
DT: That’s right.
CK: Which is great.
DT: Yep. Yep.
CK: As we take a break from our program, I’m really pleased to announce that our next live event on August 19th will feature today’s guest, Dani Treweek, along with my colleague, Chris Thomson, on the question of “Can we live without sex?” There are so many questions raised in churches and society about whether sex is an essential element of a fulfilled and satisfied life. Is it a necessary marker of one’s graduation from childhood to adulthood? Does the call to sexual purity place unfair and unrealistic demands on the single Christian? Does the unmarried person require a special spiritual gift to not give in to their sexual desires?
I hope you’ll join us as two unmarried theologians consider how the world’s concept of sex as an essential part of our self-discovery, self-identification and self-expression compares with what God reveals about his purposes for human sexuality and his call to sexual self-control and holiness. Together, we will consider whether it is truly possible for the Christian person to really live without sex.
Now back to our program.
CK: Another thing you’ve picked up on is how unaware we are of the stages of singleness. And so, you have singles and people think, “Oh, that’s pre-marriage or something.”
CK: But actually that’s really not it at all, because we have divorcees, we have widows—widowers—we have a whole host of people that will find themselves single for some or all of their life—
CK: —at different stages, maybe, even, and we need to be much more aware of this. In fact, some of the pastoral issues that I’ve had to deal with in ministry have been through those that have found themselves widowed or divorced and now dealing with singleness again.
CK: And finding themselves quite unprepared for that.
DT: Yeah. Yeah.
CK: And, again, I think it shows the need that we have for thinking these things through better together.
DT: Yeah, that’s right. I imagine there’s a degree to which you can’t prepare for the death of the spouse who you’ve been married to for twenty—thirty—forty—fifty years—
DT: —and suddenly finding yourself needing to live not just as an adult, but an adult who is, you know—had much more life experience that’s been formulated as a married person—suddenly doing life at that age and stage by yourself.
DT: And so, I don’t think there’s even necessarily a way to fully prepare for that.
DT: But having said—I think we do need to recognise that singleness—a return to singleness—is a very real option for a lot of people.
CK: If not all people—I mean, very seldom will you and your spouse—
CK and DT: —die at the same time. That’s right. Yeah.
DT: Exactly. And even within that, you know, I think we tend to think, “Oh well, that’ll be when I’m 80—85.”
DT: Well, no: it happens to people of all sorts of different ages and stages, and working out what it is to live as a single man or woman, or as—you know, as a widow or widower who has young children, compared to someone who is eighty is going to look very different as well. I think the common element to both of those things is we have a community of people—a family that we belong to—
DT: —who we actually need to expect will help us live well—
DT: —and grieve well in those situations. We’re not on our own.
DT: That’s a truth I often reflect on—even as, you know, as I—as I said, that podcaster asked me, “What are you going to do if you get sick with coronavirus by yourself?” [Laughter] and I—as much as I was, in that moment, “I don’t know. What am I going to do?”, I thought, “Well, no: I have any number of people—”
CK: That’s right.
DT: “—who will love me well.”
DT: I need to be able to ask—
DT: —I think more than I’m willing to at times. That’s the danger of singleness. But we’re not alone.
CK: Yeah, that’s so helpful.
DT: We’re part of a family.
CK: I mean, even as a married man and being away from family—we’ve just welcomed a new child—and who has cared for us? It is our church family. And it is actually singles and marrieds in the church family caring for us as their family.
CK: And that has been one of the greatest blessings to us, just as I hope it would be for you—
CK: —in the middle of COVID as well. One of the things that you’ve picked up on is the importance of how we think about singleness and marriage in the context of the church, and just as anecdote, I remember, again, in a ministry that I was serving in, we had a congregation that was set up for young marrieds and young professionals, but basically, based on the time that we were meeting and the demographics, we had no facilities for children. Which meant, in effect, that if you got married and decided you were going to have kids or were having kids, you had to leave. And what happened was we had a group of singles that had been a part of our congregation and eventually they were just drifting out into No Man’s Land: they were like an iceberg set at—set at sea.
CK: And they stayed together as a tight community, but they thought, “These are the people that I can talk to and interact with, because they’re the only ones like me.”
CK: And I wonder—I mean, I’ve tried, at other points in time, to engage with this, but we set up our churches so demographic-specific that we’re, again, I think unintentionally exclusive in the ways that we care for people or don’t. And also, we don’t help ourselves for, perhaps, some of these difficult junctures in life. And so, you were mentioning before, how do we help a young widow with young children, or how do we help an older widower with grown children or grandchildren and is very alone and frail? Or how do we help the person that’s never been married, but really having a crisis in their life? And how do we learn to do these things? It’s as much as we speak the truth in love to one another, but as much as we model it as well in the community. And I just wonder how we can structure our congregations, if you will, to bring down unnecessary lines of exclusivity.
DT: Yeah, yeah.
CK: So do you have any tips about that?
DT: Well, I think—I mean, you mentioned—I completely identify with that kind of iceberg of this sort of gradually getting older singles who are sort of drifting and not quite sure where they fit in, and—and that point, you sort of mention, they clung together because they were like each other.
DT: And I—I think we tend to do that as Christians. I think we tend to do that as people, don’t we.
CK: We do.
DT: We group together with people who we see as like us—in whatever that criteria might be. But when we look at Scripture, the delight of the church family is it’s full of so many people who are not like each other!
CK: So great!
DT: You know? And even just the picture of the Jews and the Gentiles together, you—I don’t think we appreciate the significance of the divide—the cultural divide—
DT: —that existed at that time between Jew and Gentile, and the enormous change of the gospel actually bringing these people into the same family. I don’t think we quite appreciate the depth of that. But I think if we can get our heads into that, we suddenly see, “Oh, Christian life isn’t about me doing life alongside people who are like me; it’s about the way that God has brought such disparate people together—”
DT: “—in Jesus.”
DT: And then, not only has he brought them together, but he’s transformed us into family. And so, we get Paul, the Jew, talking to his Gentile believers, saying he’s like a mother—you know—nursing mother caring for his little children. Or a father who disciplines his children. We get this picture of discipleship being a family relationship: we’re mothers and fathers, we’re daughters and sons, we’re brothers and sisters, and that crosses all of these divides.
DT: And that’s one thing that I am so delighted, as a single person—that I get to be a mother to others. You know? This year, I decided I would really like to be able to invest in discipling some younger Christian women, because there’s not a lot of those at the congregation that I’m in. And so, I’m co-leading an evening church Bible Study group. And then—to be honest, they’re not that much younger than me! But I had women who were a little bit older than me who did that for me—who did act as a mum to me in—
DT: —in many ways, and a Christian mum in terms of my formation as a Christian woman. And it’s such a delight that as a single woman, I get to do that.
DT: But also that I get to be a daughter to other men and women in my church family as they disciple and form me in Christ as well.
CK: So helpful, because it shows us windows, again, of being able to model and learn from people in different spheres of life, based on our gospel interactions. So the more that we group together by likeness, culturally—
CK: —the more we actually just look like the world.
CK: Or like any other social club. And actually, the more that we come together across differences, strictly because of the gospel, the more we actually testify to one another to the work of Christ in us—
CK: —by his Spirit.
CK: And actually, the fact that I can love people so different than me and they’re actually receiving me and loving me themselves, is a testimony, again, to the gospel of grace.
DT: That’s right.
CK: And then, like you said, I mean, we all need this, don’t we: there are people in our church that have very broken homes and they’ve never seen what it looks like to see a stable marriage. There are some that don’t have children—that don’t know what it is to raise children. There are some that would desperately want to have children—that are married or single alike—that would also like to have interaction with young children.
DT: Yeah, absolutely!
CK: I keep thinking of—I kept thinking of one woman in my church that has frequently said to us, “I love being around kids and it would be such a joy for me if I could just spend time with your children.”
DT: “Let me babysit your children!” [Laughter]
CK: “Let me just be around your kids!” And I thought, “I don’t know that you know what you’re asking for, but—” [Laughter] “but you’re welcome!” [Laughter]
DT: Yeah, that’s right. And I mean, I think another—this is a group that has been on my mind and heart more recently in our church communities: they’re not single people, ’cause they are married, but people whose spouses are not Christians or who are no longer Christians.
DT: Their experience of the Christian life, in some ways, is very much as a single person.
DT: They are themselves married and their marriage still exists and is very important. But they come to church and experience church, they experience being discipled, they experience discipling others, they experience raising children from a Christian perspective very much on their own. And some people talk about this as kind of a “functional” singleness—
DT: —within the Christian community, and they’re—just—you know, we’re talking about a range of different people who make up our church family. They’re a group who have been on my mind and my heart a bit recently as well.
CK: Yeah, an awareness of their situation—not to write them off as just married and—and covered in certain relational dynamics—
CK: —but actually the experience of loneliness that then they may have—
DT: That’s right. Yeah.
CK: —I’m well aware of what you’re talking about. I think one of the helpful things, as well, Dani, is that too often we allow, again, cultural norms to regulate the ways that we interact at church.
CK: And if I may, I think what we have done is overly sexualised the ways that we interact. Now, of course, there’s plenty of temptation around, and I think that’s part of what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 7—
CK: —about singleness and holiness and everything else—
CK: —but. But when I come to church, if I only think about women either as potential problems or potential prey—
CK: —if you will—
CK: —that’s a very very bad view of the opposite sex. And actually, the way that we can reframe how we relate to one another as Christian men and women, there’s a real opportunity for us!
DT: That’s right. Yep.
CK: I guess how would you advise that? In other words, should we get rid of thinking almost categorically that these are the singles and these are the marrieds? Or how do we actually grab hold of a healthy dynamic of thinking about sexuality in the church?
DT: That’s another massive question. A theology of sexuality is—is a massive box to open and explore, because I’m not even sure that we’re all talking about the same thing. As we talk about “sexuality”, what do we actually mean when we talk about that? Are we just talking about what we do or could potentially do with our sexual organs? Are we talking about the fact that we’re gendered—we’re male and female—
DT: —and so really, I as a woman am always relating in a sexual way to everybody else—
DT: —because—just because, I’m a woman, you know. And so, I think the starting point is there’s just so much to actually define in terms of that. But, I guess, my big picture answer to your question is, well, the Bible defines our relationship within the church as being brothers and sisters. Now, arguably, there’s still a sexual element to that—not in, again, the sexual organ use kind of way, but brothers and sisters, they’re still men and women—
DT: —who are relating to each other as brothers and sisters.
DT: And so I don’t think we want to be—we want to just negate and toss away sexuality as kind of having no significance for the way we relate to each other. But Scripture talks about that relationship as being a one of siblings—one of brothers and sisters. And strangely enough, even husbands and wives are brothers and sisters—
CK: That’s right. Yeah, that’s right.
DT: —in the church! And it’s going to be the enduring relationship between us into eternity. And so, yeah, I very much do agree with you about this concern: we can’t just—we can’t just look at each other sexual beings—particularly those of the opposite sex to us—as sexual beings who are going to be problematic—
DT: —to us in some way. We need to be able to capitalise on the difference of sexuality between men and women in a way that’s consistent with the gospel privilege we have as brothers and sisters. But obviously how we do that is a whole other kettle of fish. [Laughter]
CK: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, quick plug! [Laughter] In August, you and Chris Thomson are going to be speaking on the topic of “Can we live without sex?”
CK: There’ll be more about this in the announcements—
DT: Yeah, there will.
CK: —on here.
CK: Just as we, maybe, round off our conversation, I want to come full circle to the eschatological vision—that is, that end time vision. So you said one of the things that we can see is singles actually modelling something to us. Now, the reason why I’ve come at this point is because I think the way that you model healthy, godly sexuality is something wonderful. So because you’re a single woman doesn’t mean that you are not sexually attracted or that you’re not a sexual being—
CK: —or anything else. In fact, what you are doing is living out a godly sexuality.
CK: You are seeking to be a sexual woman in the confines of the stage that God has brought you to. Which actually looks like you being a woman—
DT: Yeah, that’s right.
CK: —in the church!
DT: That’s right. Yep.
CK: And I just wonder how can we think about singles and the modelling of that end time vision, if you will—
CK: —through sexuality.
DT: Okay. Through sexuality. I mean—
CK: And maybe even through retrieval that you’ve talked about within history.
DT: Yeah, okay. Well, I mean, again, this is probably something we’ll talk a little bit more about at the event in August. One of the mistakes, I think, we make is thinking that being single and being committed to godly celibacy in singleness is about suppressing or denying the fact that you are a sexual creature. I think that’s one of the key mistakes that we’re making, because we just have such limited view of what it means to be a sexual creature.
In terms of what that looks like from eschatological perspective, again, I feel like I’m rehashing what I’ve just said, but it’s trying to work out, well, the Bible talks about in eternity—in the new creation—we are still going to be embodied beings. We’re not just spirits floating around; we’re still embodied, and 1 Corinthians 15 talks about how I will still be me—
DT: —in the new creation. I will be changed—I’ll be perfected—but I will still be me, which I take to mean that I will still be a woman.
DT: That’s a key part of who I am, and so, I don’t quite know what that will look like in eternity beyond just that I imagine there will be a perfecting of my relationship with other women and with men in the body of Christ as I live as a sister to them in eternity. And so, I think if we get a picture of eternity where sex itself—the act of sex itself—doesn’t seem to be on the table, but we know that life in the new creation is going to be beyond our wildest imaginings of what good is going to be, that has to critique the way we think about sex now as the be all and end all of life. It has to teach us that sex, though a good gift from God, has a particular purpose and a particular function, and is not the good, because eternity is the picture of the good. And so, surely sex isn’t intrinsic to my full experience of what it is to be a fulfilled human being now if it’s not going to be intrinsic and essential to it in eternity.
CK: That’s great. Dani, I am so grateful for what you’ve shared with us today. Thank you for helping us think a bit more about singleness. There’s so much more I’d love to explore. [Laughter] We’re out of time. We’ll have to get you back again.
CK: And I’ll look forward to the event in August. Thank you so much.
DT: Sure. Thank you very much, Chase!
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