When the early Christians talked about singleness and marriage, how did they talk about it? How are single adults viewed in our churches today? Is that consistent with the way they have been viewed in the history of the church? Is singleness a gift? Join Scott as we discuss these questions and more with our guest, Australian author Dani Treweek.

Dani Treweek is a Christian theological researcher, author and speaker whose ministry focus lies in resourcing Christian individuals & communities on biblical singleness, sexuality, theological retrieval, worldview formation & other related topics.

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: When the early Christians talked about singleness and marriage, how did they talk about it? By contrast, how are single adults viewed in our churches today? And is that consistent with the way they've been viewed throughout the history of the church? Is singleness a gift, an empowerment that single adults need to overcome the temptation that comes with a life of singleness? We'll discuss these questions and more with our guest author, Dani Treweek. I'm your host, Scott Rae, and this is "Think Biblically" from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. Dani, welcome. Great to have you with us. On the subject of singleness and marriage, first of all, what would you tell our married listeners right from the start to ensure that they keep listening and don't dismiss the rest of this podcast as irrelevant to their lives?

Danielle Treweek: Well, I think the first thing I'd say is just think of how many sermons and talks and podcasts your single friends have listened to on marriage and stick with this one just on singleness.

Scott Rae: That's totally fair.

Danielle Treweek: More seriously though, there are good reasons why. The first is, that actually if you are married and listening to this podcast today, I expect that there are single people in your life who you love and who you want to serve well and care for, and so thinking about singleness theologically is really important for the way that you love those people. Secondly, and this can be hard to hear, but the reality is that, by and large, 50% of everyone who is married right now is likely to be single again at some point in their life, and that's a difficult thing to engage with. Death and divorce are both tragedies, but many married people will again be single at some point in their life. And so thinking about singleness now is actually a really valuable thing that you can be doing for yourself. But finally, marriage and singleness, neither of them are actually just about us as individuals in our lives. They're actually about who we are as the body of Christ together, what it looks like for us to be church brothers and sisters one another. And so singleness is as much a topic for married Christians to be engaging with because they are together with single Christians as part of the body.

Scott Rae: Now, we're going to spell out a lot more of that as we go through this, because that's a really important part of some of the work that you've done. And I don't know if this is true in Australia, where you come from, but in the US now over 50% of heads of households are single adults. We passed the 50% mark actually almost a decade ago in the United States. Is that also true in Australia?

Danielle Treweek: Well, the stats are very difficult to work out, but the one that I find most surprising and significant is that in Australia nearly one in four households are solo occupied. So when you walk around the average neighborhood, nearly every one in four households has someone living in it alone, and that doesn't even include shared households, households which have other singles living together in it. So there are significantly more unmarried people in our communities than I think we realize.

Scott Rae: So how did you get interested in this subject of singleness?

Danielle Treweek: Well, I'm single myself. I've never been married. And so I was studying at a theological seminary thinking about a ministry future for myself and having to grapple with what does my singleness mean? But then going out into working as a woman minister in a church in Sydney, a lot of my time was spent caring for, pastoring, loving other single women who were grappling with a lot of the questions that I was really trying to wrestle with too, and just not sure where to go for answers in our sort of Christian discourse. And over many years, God sort of was working in my life and in my relationships with other people who were encouraging me to do some more work in this area. Originally I thought, "Oh, well, I'll write a book on singleness," but gosh, there's so many books on singleness, why just write another one if there's not something new or important to say? And so somehow I got convinced to do a PhD on a theology of singleness and so I'm now writing the book based on the PhD, which is where I'm now at.

Scott Rae: Well, I think that's the way it should be done, to really go in depth on the subject and then write a book at a more popular level on that, I think, is wise to do that. Now, let's think about in Australia, I know you may not be able to speak to the US experience quite like some of our listeners are aware, but in Australia, how are single adults viewed in the church?

Danielle Treweek: My impression is it's very similar to the US and that's largely because a lot of the Christian teaching that has shaped the Christian conversation in Australia about singles has come from the US as well. And so in terms of that theological input it's very shared. My sense is that it's probably a little more heartfeltly direct in the US than it is in Australia.

Scott Rae: What do you mean by that?

Danielle Treweek: Well, I mean, talking to single Christians over here in the US where I'm currently now, I think the teaching that comes out of a lot of our churches on singleness in a far more direct and problematic way, I guess, I think I'm trying to say in Australia the edges are a little softer,

Scott Rae: I see.

Danielle Treweek: a little blurrier I think. But underneath the foundation it's largely the same. I think it is that single Christians are, well, abnormal in some sense, not sort of on the trajectory of what Christian life is meant to be. They're lacking in fulfillment, whether that's romantically or sexually, relationally. There's a sense in which single Christians are seen to be sort of intrinsically immature spiritually, they've never kind of grown up as Christians. There's some gender differences. I think single Christian men tend to be more objects of suspicion at times, whereas single Christian women tend to be more objects of pity. And I'm talking in broad generalizations,

Scott Rae: Yeah, I understand.

Danielle Treweek: but I think that's generally true both over back home for me in Australia but also here in the US.

Scott Rae: Part of the reason I asked for that, I was a singles pastor for a while before moving into an academic setting, and this was back some years ago but I think it was largely viewed in the churches that I was involved in that single adults were somehow not quite complete by virtue of being single. And that the period of singleness was a parenthesis period.

Danielle Treweek: Yes, that's right. It's a training ground for marriage. I think we think of singleness as a preparation for marriage, and if you don't ever move out of the preparation period, well, you've kind of failed to launch in a sense.

Scott Rae: I wondered at the time, and still do today, is it possible that there may be some ways in which the culture at large view single adults that might actually be more biblical than the way they're viewed in the church? What do you make of that notion?

Danielle Treweek: That's an interesting question. Looking around at the culture around me, I'm not sure I would say that they view singles more biblically than the church, but that's not because the church, I think, views singles particularly biblically. I actually think probably both the culture and the church are fairly unbiblical in their view of singleness. But having said that, again speaking in generalities, I think that single people in the world around us can be treated with far more dignity and honor and respect in their singleness than often singles in the church are treated by Christians. So that is a bit of an indictment on us as evangelical Christians I think.

Scott Rae: That's part of what I mean by that, maybe they're treated a little differently. My sense in the culture is that for a lot of single men and women both, they don't view that period of singleness as life being on hold. They're getting on with their lives and if marriage happens, great, if it doesn't they're on with their lives just as aggressively. Do you see that playing out too?

Danielle Treweek: Yes, I think so. I agree. I think one of the tricks there is that the world around us, in sort of getting on with your life as a single person, the world around us would say live a really self-focused life. Enjoy the freedom and me focus that you get to have as a single person. And I think that's what I meant by not treating singles particularly biblically, because that's not a biblical view of singleness either, obviously. So yes, I think there is that distinction there.

Scott Rae: I would not want to view singleness as a time when my autonomy can run on steroids.

Danielle Treweek: Oh, I like that.

Scott Rae: Without any guardrails.

Danielle Treweek: No, I didn't expect that you would.

Scott Rae: Now, you don't particularly like the notion of singleness, or sometimes celibacy, described as a gift. And tell us-

Danielle Treweek: It depends what you mean by that.

Scott Rae: Well, tell us how you understand that and why you don't like that notion.

Danielle Treweek: Well, I like the notion of my singleness being considered a gift, but the question is what does that mean? What does the so-called gift of singleness mean? And so where I have trouble with is this idea of the gift of singleness being this special, spiritual, extraordinary kind of calling or empowerment to singleness, which is reserved for a select few. More and more I'm seeing it being used in the language of a gift of asexuality. This idea that you're completely free from any desire for marriage or sexual intimacy or anything like that, so that you can just live this wonderfully content single life. I don't think that is the biblical picture of what it means for singleness to be a gift. I think the Bible talks about singleness as a gift in a different way to that.

Scott Rae: Now, one of the things that I think you imply in your work is this idea of an empowerment to somehow just stay on top of sexual temptation in a way that people who don't have that gift or empowerment are simply unable to do so. So the idea that if you can't find yourself handling sexual temptation adequately, then the answer is you better think seriously about being married to keep yourself from satisfying those desires with immoral means. And so when it's described in that way, I think I rightly read your work as objecting to that notion because all of us are called to resist sexual temptation, whether married or not, and that for this idea that singleness and asexuality go together, it strikes me as really unrealistic.

Danielle Treweek: Yeah, I think that's exactly right. The reality is that all of our life, whether it's in the sexual arena or any other arena, is a life where we are continuing to struggle with our sinful temptations and desires. And the Bible says that the grace of God has come that teaches us to renounce these things and trains us to say no to them. We've got passages where Paul talks about the fruit of the spirit, one of the fruits of the spirit being self control where the Bible exhorts us to flee from sexual morality. And so there's a sense in which the scripture speaks very strongly about our agency in actually saying no to sexual sin in our lives. I'm not quite sure where we've got this idea that we need this special kind of what I call booster shot of the Holy Spirit, of asexuality or whatever that is, because that just doesn't seem to be the broader picture of what's going on with sin and salvation and sanctification in scripture. I will make one caveat which, I think there are a couple of parts in scripture where Paul, so in 1 Corinthians 7:9, the apostle Paul says it's better to marry than to burn. So he does take seriously that if you are someone who, not I think just has a healthy, normal kind of sex drive, but is engaged in habitual sexual immorality, then marriage is something for you to consider. But what you also have to think there is marriage is not a remedy to sexual sin. You could go off and get yourself married and how will you be treating your spouse if your purpose for marrying them is just so you have a proper outlet to express your sexual desires in a way that you didn't before? So we need to have much more thorough conversations about all of this, I think.

Scott Rae: I don't think my wife would've taken it particularly well if I had proposed marriage to her on that basis.

Danielle Treweek: No.

Scott Rae: Now, you do a lot of really good work on how the early Christians talked about singleness and marriage. And your point I think is a good one, that they talked about it really differently than we tend to talk about it today. So when the early Christians talked about singleness, how did they frame it and how's that sort of different than the way we talk about it today?

Danielle Treweek: Well, the first most obvious thing to say is that the early church didn't actually talk about singleness itself. Singleness is a term that only developed in about the 14th century. So this is, I think, a really important point. When we are doing work in history, when we are looking at historical texts, which the Bible is one, and understanding the Bible in its historical setting but also the early church in its historical setting, we have to be aware that we don't read our cultural, societal kind of perspectives directly on top of a completely different historical societal perspective. And so singleness for us today, there's all sorts of... in the West this is... all sorts of things about personal agency and decision and choice and circumstance, that just would've been completely foreign to a first, second, third century Christian context where marriages were largely arranged for you by your parents, where you really didn't have any kind of option or agency in a way that we would recognize today. So the first thing to say is we have to be careful not to just kind of superimpose our context onto historical context as we're reading that context. And singleness is an example of that. We think of this language of singleness, the early church didn't have the language of singleness, they had the language of virginity, a word which I actually would love to see us reclaim but sounds a bit odd because we use it in a very different way. They spoke about continence. Now clearly they're talking about sexual continence there, but the language of continence, the language of chastity, widowhood, all of these were very much part of the early churches' framework of what it was to be either married or unmarried. So that's the first thing to say. But what did they actually think about the state of being unmarried? Well, they didn't talk about this idea of a gift of continence as kind of this special spiritual empowerment to a life of singleness in the way that we would. They just talk about both marriage and singleness being states that are gifts from God. The situation of being married or the situation of being single, the situation of being chaste in your marriage, the situation of being continent in your singleness, were both just simply wonderful gifts that God had given his people. So for the first four centuries or so that's by and large where they were at.

Scott Rae: So it sounds like it had to do more with the particular station in life that you were in.

Danielle Treweek: Yeah, the situation you were in, that's right.

Scott Rae: As opposed to a capacity.

Danielle Treweek: That's exactly right. They weren't so much talking about ability and capacity to be sexually holy. That was kind of taken for granted for all sorts of reasons, that if you were unmarried then not only was it within your capacity, but it was your responsibility as a Christian to be sexually holy. They weren't engaged with the same questions we were about is that possible? How do you do that? It was almost taken for granted in many senses.

Scott Rae: Okay. Now, you highlight Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:7, which you might just restate that verse for our listeners who might not be familiar with it.

Danielle Treweek: Yes, Paul says, "I wish that all where as I myself am, but each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind." And in the context there he's talking about being unmarried at that point that he was writing the letter.

Scott Rae: Now, one of the things I think that's helpful for our listeners in the background too, I mean, there's a good argument I think to be made that Paul was actually married at one point, because I think it would've been highly unlikely that he could have qualified to be a member of the Sanhedrin without being married. And he's obviously speaking as a single person in 1 Corinthians 7:7, or writing in that way. The speculation is that when he came to faith, his wife actually left him, and that's all hopefully moderately sanctified speculation. He understood both stations in life and I think he understood that as just the life circumstance that you happen to find yourself in by virtue of the grace of God. You have a particular take on this particular verse that the ancients had that's different from the modern one that's popular in our churches. How are those two things different?

Danielle Treweek: Well, and again this is complicated because the ancients didn't all agree on this either. So just a few moments ago I spoke about how they tended to talk about what they often called the gift of continence, being the gift of being unmarried, rather than the capacity to be sexually holy in not being married, but just the state of being unmarried. When we get to Augustine things begin to change a little bit because he brings in far more complex, and I think theologically faithful in many ways, discussions about the corruption of our will as Christians, or as humans really, because of our original sin in Adam and the way that our desires are always inclined to evil, that we are not able to do that which we know is good because we are in Adam. And so Augustine is very realistic, I think more so than a lot of his earlier forebearers that actually, even as we know that it is right to be chaste in marriage and continent in singleness, that actually living that out is far more complicated because of our sinfulness. But his answer to that... well, not his answer, he says Scripture's answer to that... is that God's grace is what allows us to not only desire to live rightly but to actually go ahead and live rightly before God. And so he talks about in the context of marriage and what we say today is singleness, he talks about essentially the... I want to use the word the ordinary... grace of God that has appeared to us in Christ, the indwelling spirit at work in our lives, as being utterly sufficient for our sanctification. We don't need some special additional booster shot of the Holy Spirit so that we don't sin sexually. The grace of God has appeared that teaches and trains us to renounce unrighteousness. And so he does talk about a gift of continence in singleness or a gift of chastity in marriage as being about the capacity to live a holy life. But what he sees on view there is God's grace that actually allows us to do that rather than something on top of the grace of God.

Scott Rae: And you maintain all along that this is not something that is specially given to single people, but is something that was accomplished at the cross and is available to all believers and expected of all believers.

Danielle Treweek: Absolutely. And the same in marriage as well as in singleness. Being sexually holy in marriage is a tall order for us sinful people. Getting married and getting to have sex with your husband or wife doesn't suddenly make you no longer a sexual sinner, whether that's in action or in thought and desire. And so the grace of God is just as necessary for our sexual sin in marriage as it is in singleness.

Scott Rae: I think that's a great point, because I think in general I think our culture has overstated the place of sex in relationships and in marriage. And I think the church, in my view, in many places has overstated the role of marriage in the sanctification of believers. And I like the imagery you use of the booster shot of special grace to quote have the gift of celibacy or the gift of singleness, I think puts an expectation on single adults that's different, at least sounds different, than the expectation on married adults, because marriage doesn't cure sexual temptation.

Danielle Treweek: No, that's right.

Scott Rae: To treat it like that is a huge mistake, and I think we set ourselves up for failure if we do that.

Danielle Treweek: And the other thing that I was thinking about as you were talking then, is that this gift of singleness as this booster shot idea, it's normally talked about as being for a select few who God is going to enable to remain single for life. The reality is most of the women that I have ministered amongst would love to be married. I myself would love to have been married. I still would love to be married if that's what God's plan is for me. None of us have felt like we have this kind of special gift that we keep hearing is necessary to remain single long term. So on one hand, we're being told we need this special spiritual gift if we have any hope of not falling into sexual morality long term as single women in Christ, on the other hand God hasn't given us this so-called special gift. And so, so many single Christians, women and men, just end up stuck in this no man's land of you've told me I need this special gift from God but he hasn't given me this gift, so what am I meant to do? How do I reconcile God's goodness to me in that context? I think if we just think about this and think about the possible implications of it, we begin to see this just does not work scripturally. It just doesn't work.

Scott Rae: Well, I think not only biblically but I think pastorally too, because I've found with the single adults I ministered to for several years the idea of singleness as a gift, most of them would sort turn up their nose and say, "No singleness is a curse." They didn't view it as any kind of gift at all.

Danielle Treweek: Which I think we also need to address because even though singleness is not this particular sort of gift, which is this booster shot of self-control, the Bible does still speak about it as being a gift. 1 Corinthians 7 is soaked through with the language of singleness actually being, dare I say it, better than marriage. And so if the apostle Paul is talking about the goodness of singleness, we as a church need to help single Christians to recognize that their singleness is not actually a tragedy in God's sight. It's a good thing that he's placed them in this moment for however long it lasts. And I think we have a responsibility to come alongside them and help them to see the truth of that from God's word and to make that livable within our church community for our relationships to reflect that truth as well.

Scott Rae: I think if our listeners read the rest of 1 Corinthians 7, particularly beginning and around verse 25, some of that, I think, is Paul's teaching is that singleness is better prudentially because of the culture of persecution that they lived in at that time. But I think he also makes some arguments that it's at least morally equivalent to marriage because he makes it clear in 1 Corinthians 7 that marriage is not going to last forever, it's not eternal, and that the person who's married has divided interests as opposed to the person who's single does not. It seems to me that is still true today just as it was in the first century. And so what we encourage people to do when you're thinking about pre-marriage counseling or things like that, what are the kingdom reasons for why you are getting married to this person? How can we advance the kingdom better together than we could separately? I think that's a hard question that we don't often entertain and don't ask people to entertain.

Danielle Treweek: I think that's often largely because we have absorbed a lot of the world's thinking about marriage as being about my personal fulfillment, my personal happiness, what's going to bring me joy. And marriage should bring us joy and happiness. But when we read scriptural accounts of marriage, it's very rarely about us and it's much more about loving our spouse, being part of the body of Christ and pointing towards the eternal marriage. So I think our view on marriage as much as singleness needs to come back to scripture a bit and be reformed somewhat.

Scott Rae: One last question, Dani, besides what you just said, which is great advice for single adults today, what other advice would you have for single men and women navigating the landscape, not only sexually but just generally relationally today?

Danielle Treweek: I think the first thing I want to say is I understand how hard it is. I'm there. I've felt it myself. I've ministered amongst many, many singles who just find it really hard to be single, to embrace that and to honestly think it is good in light of the church's broad teaching about singleness over the last three, four, five decades. But we need to be people of God's word. We need to go back to scripture. And we see in scripture that 1 Corinthians 7 does talk about singleness actually being a good, wonderful situation for God's people. And as you said before, we have a picture of eternity in which actually none of us will be married to each other. None of us will be husbands and wives in heaven. We will be the bride of Christ collectively, but we won't be individually husbands and wives. Instead we'll be brothers and sisters in Christ for all eternity. And so if that's our eternal destiny, and how amazing is that going to be beyond what we can even imagine it now, that I think has to give some dignity to being single in this life. We as single Christians get to point towards that eternity in a really unique way. I want to exhort and encourage and challenge single Christians to not be content to sit in the discontentment, but to actually go back to God's word and grapple with what God's perspective on singleness is and to embrace that.

Scott Rae: Dani, that's great advice to don't be content to sit in the discontentment. That's really well put. I so appreciate your work on this. And I'd love for our listeners, especially who are single, to appreciate the station in life that you're in as a gift from God. Not a booster shot, but a gift from God to pursue the particular things that he's calling you to in this stage of life. And for those of our listeners who are married, to look at your married life as equally a gift, and to think about what is God calling you to do in that particular station in your life, which may be a lot of things would be similar but some will be quite different as well. So this has been really rich. I'm so grateful for your work on this and how you've been able to articulate this so well. So great-

Danielle Treweek: Thank you for having me, I appreciate it.

Scott Rae: Yeah, greatly appreciated for your time today.

Danielle Treweek: Thank you.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast "Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture". The "Think Biblically" podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including in our Institute for Spiritual Formation. Visit biola.edu/talbot in order to learn more. If you've enjoyed today's conversation with Dani Treweek, 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.