The number of single adults has been growing for the past few decades in the US and today the number of households headed by a single person are more than 50% of all households. Yet in many churches the unwritten norm is “married with children,” and marriage is often seen as a sign of maturity. So where does that leave single adults, especially those who feel that they might be called to singleness? Join us for an insightful conversation with theologian Dr. Christina Hitchcock as she talks about the Kingdom value of singleness in her book, The Significance of Singleness. She has great insight for both single and married adults.
More About Our Guest
Dr. Christina Hitchcock is Professor of Theology at the University of Sioux Falls in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She earned her Ph.D. in theology from the University of Aberdeen and is the author of The Significance of Singleness: A Theological Vision for the Future of the Church.
Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian Ethics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Sean McDowell: And I'm your cohost Sean McDowell, professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: We're here today with our guest, Dr. Christina Hitchcock, who is professor of Theology at the University of Sioux Falls, PhD in theology from the University of Aberdeen and the author of a terrific new book on singleness that I want to talk about today.
Christina, thank you so much for being with us and particularly for writing the book that you did on this really timely subject.
Christina Hitchcock: Well, thank you. It's my pleasure to be here.
Scott Rae: So let me ask maybe the obvious question to start with. You're married.
Christina Hitchcock: Yes.
Scott Rae: And do you have, you have kids?
Christina Hitchcock: I do. I have two kids.
Scott Rae: Two kids. So it seems like the singleness ship has sailed so to speak.
Christina Hitchcock: Yes.
Scott Rae: But what made it, what motivated you to write this book on singleness and ... Tell us a little bit about why that subject is so important to you.
Christina Hitchcock: Sure. Well, I got married a little later. At least for kind of the evangelical subculture it was later. I got married when I was 30. So I had about eight years as an adult, a single adult in the church from when I graduated from college until when I got married. And that was kind of a revelation for me in a lot of ways, both about the church, but also about myself and my own expectations and where those expectations had come from.
I had a very strong expectation that of course I would get married and of course I would get married fairly young, and of course I would have a bunch of kids. And then when that didn't happen, I wasn't ... I didn't know what to make of that. I wasn't sure how to envision my life. Especially, I think as a Christian and perhaps especially as a Christian woman, what did that look like without marriage, and how would I be a part of the church and how would my life matter or be significant if I weren't married and I didn't have kids, if I wasn't a wife and a mom.
So I really started to ... So it caused me to examine my own assumptions about my life and where those assumptions had come from. And I really just discovered that I had kind of had a, I think from the church and from my youth group and just from the people around me, had these expectations placed on me. And what really concerned me was that this created a vision for my future and there was no alternate vision. So when that vision didn't happen, I felt lost and felt even like there might be a spiritual crisis around the corner. If God didn't do this thing that everybody in the church had said he was going to do, and if I didn't have this way of relating to the church and the world, then who was I? And what was my purpose and how did I fit in?
So that was really something I wrestled through for those eight years and felt like it wasn't just this kind of personal issue for me, but why didn't the church have a vision of life for single people that was significant and valuable? Because when I started reading the Bible, that's not at all what I got from the Bible. I got something very different from the Bible, that singleness was very valued and very important to the church, both practically and theologically.
And then also in the church, I just found that the church didn't quite know what to do with me as a single adult, and mostly the church kind of thought, "Well, we should marry her off as fast as we can because that will kind of help us all know what category she fits into." So both I felt uncomfortable with my singleness, and it seemed clear to me that the church felt uncomfortable with my singleness. That's the thing that really spurred me on to think about this.
And even after I got married to keep thinking about it and to keep feeling some concern about it, especially as a college professor. Of course, I have lots of young people in my classes who are hoping to get married or they're engaged, or for them worse, they're not getting engaged and they don't have any prospects. This causes real spiritual questioning for them. And so I, even after I got married, I still always had in front of me those people who are wrestling with this question.
Scott Rae: Christine, you have a great way of stating things really succinctly but also with a lot of punch to it. And one of those examples-
Christina Hitchcock: Thank you-
Scott Rae: ... in the book is when you say, "American Christians adore marriage and are terrified of singleness."
Christina Hitchcock: Yeah.
Scott Rae: Can you unpack that a little bit further?
Christina Hitchcock: Yeah, absolutely. So I think, I mean, I think that American Christians, and I'm speaking mainly as kind of the evangelical culture of Christians when I say that, that they have largely bought into the secular view of sexuality, kind of the Hollywood view of sexuality, which says that our sexuality is the way in which we become fully human. And so it's in a romantic sexual relationship that we realize our full humanness. You can watch any Hollywood movie to see this being displayed front and center.
I think the church has mostly bought into that idea, but has given it a spiritual gloss, which is marriage. Christians aren't saying, "Just go have sex with whoever you want." But they converted it into being married. And I think the main reason we like our secular counterparts adore marriage or this place in which we have a sexual relationship is because we're kind of afraid that if we don't have that, we're not really fully human, we're not really fully adult and that we haven't come into our own. Marriage is that place where we believe we will become fully human and we will be recognized as fully human.
I think that's why we adore marriage. We want marriage. I'm interested even in, it's not just in the church. Even in secular America, you can still, maybe it's going a little bit out of style, but I don't think much that marriage is still very much something on sitcoms or on movies that people want and they strive for and they hope for and they plan for. And I think it's because we've wrapped up our identity in this idea that we have this sexual romantic partner.
We're terrified of singleness partly I think, of course, because no one wants to be alone or lonely. But I think much more importantly because we feel that being single is a reflection of our identity or a lack of identity, a reflection of me not being the person I'm supposed to be. And being single is kind of a signal to the whole world, "Oh look, I'm not the person I'm supposed to be. I'm less than what I'm supposed to be. Something's wrong with me because I haven't been able to find this sexual partner, this romantic other."
And then the whole, the whole culture that we live in, both the secular culture and the church culture is geared towards marriage and towards couples. And so that only highlights even further and seems to affirm if you're not in one of those couples, that's kind of your problem. There's something wrong with you. You need to fix that.
Sean McDowell: Christine, I think it's really interesting that you're saying at the heart of the problem are certain ideas in our culture the church is borrowing from, but also bad theology about marriage and singleness. So what does the Bible teach on singleness? Like what is a biblical theological approach we should take to understanding singleness?
Christina Hitchcock: Yeah, well I mean that of course is the heart of the question I think. I mean I think the church has done a pretty good job so far of saying singleness has this kind of practical value. Like single people have more time, they have more energy, blah, blah, blah. And there's a lot of truth to that. So I don't want to ... I don't want to downplay that at all.
What I'm really interested in though is talking about singleness having theological value. We talk about marriage this way all the time. That marriage tells us something about who God is and what God is doing. And that's what I mean by having theological value. And so we talk about how marriage is a picture of Christ in the church or something like that, which it absolutely is. So marriage has this theological value to it. It points us to God and it tells us something about God.
But, excuse me, we're not good at thinking about singleness that way. And so what I want us to try and do is think about singleness as having theological value. And I think where we really see kind of the center of that is in 1st Corinthians 7 where Paul endorses singleness both for men and for women and he says he wishes everyone could be like him. And he gave a concession. "Of course," he says, "if you need to get married, go ahead. That's totally fine. It's not a sin to get married at all." But that there's something theologically special and important about being single. That can be summed up in I think a couple of ways.
First, singleness points us towards the church as the only kind of true and eternal institution as opposed to the biological family. It's not that the biological family doesn't matter or anything like that, but that in Jesus Christ, the church becomes our new family, our true family, our eternal family. So even our biological family, we come to be related to them more fully through Christ. So my children in the new order are first and foremost my brother and sister in Christ, not my children. My husband is my brother in Christ, not my husband. So all relationships go through and in Christ in the church. So that's the first thing singleness [inaudible] single theology can help us with, realizing that the church is our true family, our first family.
Secondly, I think the singleness points us towards God's future. Singleness is a sign of God's future breaking into the present because Jesus says that in Luke, I think it's in 22. He has the conversation with the Sadducees about marriage and singleness and he says, "That in the resurrection there'll be neither giving or taking in marriage because we will all be made, revealed as children of the resurrection, children of God." And so he says, he seems to be saying that in the resurrection, in the new heavens and new earth marriage as we know it now at least will not exist because marriage is just a foreshadowing of a much greater, deeper community that will exist in and through our relationship with Christ, by the power of the resurrection.
And so singleness now points to that order that's coming. It reminds me of Romans 8 which says that we know the world has suffered the birth pangs. Paul compares to the coming age to, the coming of the new age to a woman in labor. And birth pangs of course are painful, but they signal that something is coming. And I think singleness now is like that. I mean, singleness I think is the harder way than marriage. I think there can be ... It's a difficult way to be in many ways. But it's those birth pangs that signal something new is coming, something better, something from the future is breaking into our presence. Singleness always reminds us of God's future as opposed to our present, getting too settled in our present.
And then the last thing I think singleness, a theology of singleness should remind us of is that our hope and our trust is in God, and marriage and children are always ... They're wonderful. They're so wonderful that we're always tempted to put our hope and trust in those things, that here's a person who will love me no matter what. So they'll protect me, they'll help me, they'll love me, they'll keep me happy, whatever. Here's my children. They'll go on. Even if I died, they'll go on and they'll have children. So there's my hope for the future. We have pop songs about this sort of stuff, that children are our future and all that silliness.
Singleness reminds us that our hope is not in my husband or my wife or my children or some other person. My hope is in Jesus and that he's the one who will keep me safe. He's the one who loves me no matter what. He's the one who secures my future. He's the one who makes the future what it's supposed to be. He's the one I entrust my life to.
So I think in those three things is where we can build a theology of singleness. And I really do see that stuff embedded in 1st Corinthians 7 as well as some important surrounding text that singleness has this deep theological value, not just a practical value, and that that value has to be understood in and through Christ, the church, and Christ's future resurrection.
Scott Rae: Thank you for that Christina. That's really insightful framing of this. It strikes me as kind of ironic that if a ... And I think 1st Corinthians 7 also affirms that marriage is not eternal. I liked the way you put that, that singleness is an anticipation, a foretaste of the kingdom. It's ironic to me that we treat, in the church we tend to treat marriage as the end.
Christina Hitchcock: Yes.
Scott Rae: Why do you think that's true given what the Bible teaches theologically about singleness?
Christina Hitchcock: Well, that's a great question. I think there's probably more than a few reasons, but ... Excuse me. I think ... I mean, I think part of it is ... Well, I'll just go for the jugular. I think one of the main reasons is because the American Evangelical Church has forgotten its eschatology quite honestly. I think that we give lip service only to the resurrection and to the return of Christ into the creation of the new heavens and new earth. But that that is not central to our understanding of Christ. It's not central to our understanding of the church. We, that we anticipate our future being in a spiritual realm as spiritual beings only. And even then, so heaven is what I'm talking about. But even then, we think of heaven as the place where we'll be reunited with our loved ones, and we usually mean our spouse and our children, maybe our parents also.
But we don't have this vision of this renewed, this wonderful renewed earth that is full of resurrected people from all of God's times and places and that God is going to bring this new order into this old earth, into these old people, us, and that he is ... that what we're doing right now is not the greatest thing. The greatest thing is yet to come. I mean, Paul says in 1st Corinthians 15 that if Christ is not raised, then our faith is futile. And he goes on to say, "Christ is not raised, and let's eat, drink and be married for tomorrow we die." If this life is the best we've got, then we should do all those great things.
So when we forget the resurrection, when we forget what God is doing in the future, of course it makes sense. Get married, have sex, have a lot of kids. I mean those are all great things to do and they are probably kind of the most kind of full of natural human community that we can get. So if this life is kind of the best we can hope for, then by all means do all that stuff.
So when we kind of scooch the resurrection off to the periphery, we tend to focus on this world as if it's the thing itself instead of maybe a picture of the thing that is to come. I mean, I would lay the bulk of the blame at the American church's neglect of Christian eschatology.
I think there's lots of other reasons. I think that the secular sexual ethic has deeply pervaded the American church. And so I think that's going to have a lot to do with it as well, that we find our identity in a sexual relationship and we kind of don't know how to find it without that. So I think that would be another reason.
Sean McDowell: Could you talk about that last point you made a little bit? It's like you were just scratching on the surface of it, how the deeper kind of sexual ethic in our culture you think has influenced the church. Expand on that one-
Christina Hitchcock: Yeah sure-
Sean McDowell: ... if you don't mind.
Christina Hitchcock: Yeah. I mean, I think I talk about this in the ... I think the first chapter of the book, but that ... There's a guy named Stanley Hauerwas. He's an ethicist. He used to teach at Duke I think. Maybe he's a fellow at the University of Aberdeen now. But he wrote a wonderful essay called Sex in Public: How Adventurous Christians Are Doing It, which is a great essay. I highly recommend everybody read it, where he identifies two basic sexual ethics in the secular culture. One is the realist and one are the romantics.
Basically realists say, "Look, people are just programmed to have sex. They're going to do it no matter what. So we should just make sex as safe as possible." So these are people who are like, "Kids are going to have sex, so we should just make sure that they get a condom," that type of thing. And then the romantics are people who say, "Sex is all about how you feel and you have to be authentic with each other. So when you love someone, then you should have sex with them." So love is kind of the authenticating feeling for sex. And so if you feel love, you should go ahead and have sex.
What these two things have in common, the thing that ties them together is that both emphasize human autonomy, that it is up to kind of the individual to decide is this an appropriate time for me to have sex? And if so, how can I do that in the best possible way? So sex becomes that thing that validates me as a free human being and it makes me fully human. I think that the church, the American church has essentially bought into that line of thinking that that sex is, and both of those things, both the realist position and the romantic position.
You can easily read a lot of Christian books out there right now that kind of say, "Look, people are getting married way too late. The reason our young people are having sex before they get married is because we're telling them that they should go to college and they should go to graduate school and they should get a good job and they should wait until they're ready to get married. And so of course nobody can control their libido for 15 years. So of course they're having sex before they get married."
So there's this big push for Christian young people to get married quite young, like late teens, very early 20s. That's just the realist position with kind of a marriage gloss. So it's not, you should have sex whenever you feel like it, but it is still that people are programmed to have sex. They can't not have sex. So we need to just get people married. Marriage is to Christians, Christian realists kind of what a condom is to secular realists. We just have to make safe ... sex safe. So marriage is what does that.
But then of course you've got Christians who are romantics also and that love is the authenticating thing. And that it's only love that makes a valid marriage. Again, it's not sex, but it's marriage because we're putting up marriage gloss on it. And this causes all sorts of problems with our understanding of marriage, that marriage is that thing that completes us, you complete me. And if we don't feel love all the time, then there's something wrong with our marriage. And this leads to a lot of deep disappointment and frustration in marriage and kind of seeing marriage as this self-fulfilling humanizing thing.
So I think because we have taken on this secular sexual ethic and imposed it onto our understanding of marriage, that we both have a strong emphasis on marriage because we identify it as that thing that makes us fully human, that thing that makes us fully adult or grown up. And yet at the same time, it always fails to do the thing that we wanted to do ultimately. So we feel deeply conflicted about it and very confused about it where we think, "This is the way we're ... This is the thing we're supposed to do. This is what we're made for. We're made for sex. We're made for marriage." And yet that emphasis doesn't allow us to, I think, read the scriptures in all their fullness or to see God's plan in all its kind of radical ... with all its radical ideas.
Sean McDowell: Christina, I think you're right. I've written and spoken in areas of marriage and sexuality. It's amazing how often you hear voices even within the church saying people are going to do it anyways and you can't be fulfilled without sexuality. My question is always where do you find this in scripture?
Christina Hitchcock: Yeah. Yeah, that's exactly right.
Sean McDowell: And you just don't find it there as you're pointing out. Let me ask you this question. What would it look like practically in a church setting for the church to value both marriage and singleness? Because it seems like it's obviously we have our marriage weekend seminars, which are fine. We get suspicious of people who are single. I've had friends who are single for a long time, and everybody was always trying to set them up, well meaning, but undermining the value of singleness. So what would it look like practically to really value this the way scripture does?
Christina Hitchcock: Yeah, I think that's a great question. And the church I belong to right now is really working hard on that. So I respect them for that. And I think it's a difficult question because when you start really tackling it, you realize how many systems both in the church and the larger culture are set up to favor married people. And you kind of don't even think about it if you're a married person. But if you're not married, it's pretty obvious.
I mean, I think the very first thing to do is just, we should have some good sermons on the theological value of singleness, not the practical value of it, but the theological value of it. We should hear singleness praised from the pulpit and encouraged from the pulpit. We should have single people, we should show that we're proud of our single people and not ashamed of them. We don't think they're weird. We don't think there's anything wrong with them. We are so thankful for them, in that they are not just that we can give to them, but they're giving things to the church as a whole that married people can't give. They're giving us pictures of God and of who God is and what God's doing that married don't give to the church. There's this integral theological part of the church. And I think we should be saying that from the pulpit publicly using scripture to bear that out.
I think also it wouldn't hurt to think about, I mean, I honestly, I think the Catholic church can be helpful in this. The history of the Catholic church and that the Catholic church has always had a place for singleness. And we can debate the reasons for that and whether we like that or not. But as a result, the Catholic church throughout the centuries has tried to create systems to make singleness not only possible but fulfilling and a good life. We can't ask people to be single and then give them no structures to support that. That's just not fair and it's not possible.
For example, recently my husband started his own business and I have a job and he has a job and he quit his job to start his own business. And I have, we get our benefits through my job and that sort of thing. So off we go. We just go off on this adventure. And I have a friend who is single who would kind of like to quit her job and start something on her own. But it's so difficult for her because she doesn't have a husband who she can get her benefits through and who's kind of a backup salary. So she's just, she feels much more caught.
So we started talking, what would it be like for a church to have a fund, kind of a financial fund to help support single people in kind of life transitions because they don't have that normal spouse backup person to do that for them. So what would that look like, to have kind of a fund set up for single people to support them in economic transitions in their life? Whatever that might look like, whether they want to start their own business or whether they want to adopt a child or whether they, whatever it might be, I don't know. So start to try and think creatively about what are the difficulties single people face and how can we as a church step in and make that different for them, whether it's economically or socially or any other way.
I think one of the biggest problems, fears of being single, I know it was for me, was just the idea of being alone all the time. So what does it look like to integrate single people into our community as a church? Whether it's to live with other people, maybe live with families or single people living in community together, or I don't know. I mean I think we need to be creative about this, and I don't think it's a one-size-fits-all sort of thing, but I think we need, really need to think creatively and biblically about what is it that the Bible describes as a good and flourishing life and what are the obstacles to that in our current church culture for single people. And how do we go about rectifying those things.
In the book, I named some sources that are working hard to be creative and to think creatively about those things. I think we need to take that seriously. So I don't know that I have ... I don't have a one-size-fits-all and I don't necessarily have a single thing, but I do think churches need to take that call to action pretty seriously and start thinking about it in creative and biblical ways.
Scott Rae: Christina-
Christina Hitchcock: And use church history to guide them through that.
Scott Rae: Yeah. You may not feel like you have all the answers on that, but I think Sean and I, we'll both say that's a pretty good start. And especially I think some of the specifics that you've mentioned. One last question for you.
Christina Hitchcock: Yeah.
Scott Rae: It seems to me that there's a connection between how our churches would value singleness and our ability to connect to people who are wrestling with same sex attraction, same sex orientation. You connect the dots on that a bit in your book. Can you briefly tell us about why that matters?
Christina Hitchcock: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think the church by and large has bought into this idea, this secular idea that having a sexual partner is the thing that makes us fully human. And I think whether we say that out loud or not, that message is coming through loud and clear to everybody. So if someone is same sex attracted and at the same time is being told, "If you don't have a sexual partner, you're not fully human," then the message is either, "Look, get yourself a sexual partner so that you can be fully human like the rest of us," or it's, "So sorry. You're the one that doesn't get a sexual partner and so you don't get to be fully human."
So the church just either goes into full endorsement of same sex marriage and that sort of thing. Or the church just ends up being total hypocrites if they say no to that, because sex, because we affirm both at the same time sex is the thing that makes us fully human and sex is only reserved for people like me, not people like you. So you can't be that thing that you're supposed to be, fully human.
I think honestly is my feeling that the Evangelical Church is much better served at this point learning to embrace singleness than it is saying kind of fighting against homosexuality because until we fix the theology that is underneath this question, we're not going to solve the question in any way that is helpful or biblical. And we're not going to say things that are biblical to anybody. So until I'm willing to say, "I'm willing to be single or I'm willing for my children to be single," then I don't think I can just kind of say, "Oh well, you're same sex attracted so you're supposed to be single." Until the church can build up structures that make singleness possible and even beautiful, then it's so unloving to say you have to be single.
That's the opposite of what the church is supposed to be. The church is supposed to call us to holiness and then the church is opposed to help us be holy. And that doesn't just mean be a cheering squad, "Yay, you can do it." It means creating real structures that make holiness possible. That includes worship and sacraments and fellowship, but it also includes things like retirement programs and housing and financial stability and stuff like that. And I think we've over spiritualized once again, kind of forgotten our roots in that earthy resurrection when we say that that other stuff doesn't matter and people should just suck it up and do what's right.
There's a sense in which, yeah, of course we should all suck it up and do what's right. At the same time, the church has to do all that it can to support holiness. And until the church starts taking that call to holiness seriously, its own role in that holiness, then we just sound like hypocrites is what I think.
Scott Rae: Great. Christina, this has been really insightful conversation. Thank you so much for your book. The Significance of Singleness is the book that we want to recommend to all of our listeners. We'll feature it and put a photo up when we post the podcast. But it's a terrific book and I hope you keep writing because you write really well in this.
Christina Hitchcock: Thank you.
Scott Rae: You've got a lot to say on this and thank you so much for the way you frame it theologically is so helpful and so insightful. Sean and I both very much appreciate you coming on with us, and hopefully our listeners will get a copy of your book, The Significance of Singleness.
Christina Hitchcock: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Dr. Christina Hitchcock, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.