One of the trending topics on Twitter this week was #youdeservetobesingle, and people around the world tweeted messages such as ‘#Youdeservetobesingle when u use ppl n when they need u’ and ‘cheating on me with my friends, #youdeservetobesingle’. Singleness seems like a punishment or comeuppance for misbehaviour and bad character. It’s a curse, as many cultures prescribes. In the chapter, A brief history of singleness, author Albert Hsu lays out the historical and cultural context to the curse and stigma of singleness that is perhaps still experienced today.
The Jewish life in the Old Testament times revolved around marriage, children, families and community, and not having children or inheritors was almost an abomination. Hsu explained that one key reason was the lack of certainty of an afterlife; what the OT Jews were sure of after death was descending into Sheol, i.e. the grave. Therefore, a so-called survival after death was primarily a handing on the family name. Hence, family lineages and genealogies are stressed in the OT times, and barrenness and lifelong singleness were seen as curses. In fact, when faced with an impending death, Jephthah’s daughter and her friends ‘went into the hills and wept because she would never marry’ (Judges 11:38b). In the words of Hsu, “in the lamentation of the daughter of Jephthah, virginity was almost regarded as a disgrace, and that childbearing was considered the noblest function of women,” the Israelite nation had no place for the unmarried. However, God remembers the singles who are faithful unto him (see Isa 54:1-2 and 56:3-5).
When Jesus came into the picture, his teachings broke convention. He taught that dignity and personhood come not from marriage and childbearing but from identity within the kingdom of God, and that marriage is not an eternal state (Matt 22:30). Life is not perpetuated in a family name but through resurrection in Christ Jesus. He also created a new family, the church. “Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother (Matt 12:49-50).’” Apostle Paul even listed the practical advantages of being single in 1 Cor 7, i.e. the unmarried believer is “free from concern” and “concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord.”
With persecution stopping and Christianity becoming the official faith of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, monasticism replaced martyrdom as the highest calling. Celibacy became the widespread ideal for clergy, and Catholic doctrine made it official, with the church viewing it more spiritual than marriage. However, by the sixteenth century, clerical celibacy had all become a sham, with many priests and bishops having illicit marriages. Protestant Reformers hence sought to renew a corrupt church, calling for a return to a purity of lifestyle and doctrine based on the Scriptures and not human traditions. The great reformists Martin Luther and John Calvin even urged marriage over singleness, believing that marriage is the cure for sexual immorality inside and outside the church. At this age, most churches, I would say, are very much family-based, but I won’t say that it’s because of a bias or skewed theology. Rather, the family-based structure is built on the fact that family is still the basic social unit, and the generation of believers should exist in the family unit.
As I was examining the context of an Asian society, marriage is still considered the normative state. Singles are usually suspects of character flaws and/or being too picky. We are all too familiar with the ‘friendly’ interrogation by relatives during festive visits on our relationship status, and the well-intended advice to settle down. Yet, it is possible to live a complete life as a single, in the context of a community of good friendships and relationships. Just look at Jesus. Let me just jump to a paragraph in a later chapter where Hsu humourously described the scenario of someone going up to Jesus and quoting Genesis 2:18 to Him: “‘Y’know Jesus, God said that it is not good for man to be alone. I think it’s about time that you settled down?’ Tim Stafford writes, ‘Imagine, if you can, patronising Jesus as a single person. ‘Why haven’t you ever married,’ He is asked. ‘You seem like such a nice person. I have a cousin in Bethsaida I’d really like you to meet…” I really wonder if Jesus ever had someone come up to him and said that, especially in a society where men were married in their late teens or early twenties! Jesus is indeed the best example of one who can live a fulfilling life as a single.