How Did Paul Pastor Singles?
It may come as a surprise that Paul actually has a lot to say about Christians who are unmarried and how they should view their unmarried life. Paul zeroes in on the topic in 1 Corinthians 7 in answer to some questions the Corinthian Christians had written him on marriage, singleness, and divorce. There must have been a lot of “singles” in the Corinthian church: many early Christians were slaves (7:21), and many slaves had no control over whether they could marry. In addition, mortality rates were high and divorce was common, so many early Christian singles had probably been married before (7:8, 15, 39–40). In God’s providence, then, 1 Corinthians 7 shows us how Paul pastored singles in first century Corinth, and, in the process, gives church leaders today helpful, practical advice on how to help unmarried people in their churches advance the gospel in their special circumstance.
First, Paul makes clear that the circumstances of the unmarried are special.
His straightforward comments about the need for sexual relations between married couples in 7:1–5 and the unnecessary danger zone married couples enter when they refrain from sex reflect the teaching in Genesis 2:18–25. That passage moves from God’s comment, “It is not good that the man should be alone” to the conclusion, “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”
God created human beings to be both social and sexual creatures, and marriage is the means he has provided to address the deepest human longings for companionship and intimacy. This leads to a critical principle for pastoring singles. As much as anyone else in the church, those who are single should understand the importance of marriage within the people of God. This must be done in a way that does not make singles feel less than complete or somehow unimportant to the body of Christ. But the answer to the complex question of how to pastor singles in a way that’s sensitive to their situation is not to neglect teaching on marriage, or to sequester singles away in their own social and instructional world within the church, away from married couples and their families.
Second, Paul also makes it clear in 1 Corinthians 7 that singleness is not a predicament that needs to be addressed, an emergency that needs attention, or a problem that needs to be solved. Quite the reverse: Paul says twice in the passage that the unmarried state is “good” (7:7, 26), and makes clear that he was himself single (7:8).
But how can singleness be “good” when God said, before creating the first married couple, that it was not good for the man to be alone? It all has to do with what Paul calls “the present distress” (7:26), that is, the chaos that the first couple’s disobedience to God introduced into the world. One of the most critical tasks for the church within such a world is the advancement of the gospel, and this leads to another principle in pastoring singles: they need to understand that they have an opportunity to advance the gospel in ways and places that would be far more difficult for married couples and families.
Paul doesn’t say so explicitly, but it would make sense if this were why he said “to the unmarried and widows” that “it is good for them to remain single as I am” (7:8). We only have to look at what Paul’s life of gospel advancement looked like to see what he means. A few chapters earlier he put it like this: “To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands” (4:11).
It’s not that singles need either to marry or to endure massive physical hardship for the sake of the gospel. But they can look at their singleness strategically from the standpoint of the gospel’s advancement. Time that married people might spend nursing a sick child back to health, helping a teenage daughter with a job application, or repairing the two clunkers in the driveway, an unmarried person might be able to spend visiting a sick child in the hospital, peeling potatoes in the church’s soup kitchen, helping the pastor figure out Excel, or following up a conversation about the gospel with a co-worker with a meeting at a coffee shop. And yes, a single person might, like a single missionary friend of mine years ago, end up flying a helicopter in west Africa that occasionally takes gunfire.
Whether singles advance the gospel in ways that are risky or tame, however, Paul’s example also illustrates another important principle of pastoring those who are unmarried. Being single in the church should never mean being lonely in the church. Paul surrounded himself with co-workers in the gospel’s advancement, both men (Phil. 2:22) and women (Phil. 4:2–3), and these close friends worked with him to make his ministry possible.
In pastoring singles, it’s important to provide opportunities for them to meet each other, become friends, and work together in the common cause of the gospel’s advancement. This doesn’t need to involve a particular program for singles (though that could certainly help), but it may simply involve keeping singles in the church in mind, inviting them to meet one another, and encouraging them to volunteer together in the work, worship, and witness of the church. In the process, some of them may discover a believing soulmate of the opposite sex that God leads them to marry. But because singleness is good in itself, that certainly shouldn’t be the unstated goal of getting singles together.
Paul affirms the goodness and usefulness of singleness. He does this both directly in 1 Corinthians 7, and in the example of his own ministry. The church of every age should do this too by encouraging singles—whether never married, divorced, or widowed—to look on marriage positively, but to see their singleness as an opportunity that God can use to advance the gospel in the company of other like-minded believers.