Pastoring Singles in the Age of Self
When the French philosopher Rene Descartes famously declared “I think therefore I am” he was (among other things) establishing a trend that has reached full fruition in our own day: starting the answer to life’s biggest questions with “I.” We find ourselves now living in the “Age of Self.” If the basic unit of life is “me,” then the fundamental goal of life is my own sense of fulfilment, not least sexually.
Such a context makes the Christian life of singleness all the more challenging, and the healthy pastoring of single people all the more urgent. Every generation has faced the pressure to regard the Christian sexual ethic as unnecessarily restrictive. But today we face the formidable cultural pressure to see that ethic as dangerous to our psychological health and an existential threat to societal good. Without careful shepherding, many of our singles will get caught in the riptides of these social currents and carried far away from Christ.
So how can we pastor singles in such a time? There are three truths in which we especially need to immerse the church, and especially our singles.
1. Marital status is not the primary determiner of fulfilment and happiness.
It is easy to think it is. Culturally, the message we hear on constant repeat is that a life without a significant romantic other is barely a life at all––certainly not one that can be full. A friend of mine watched three movies in a row on a long-haul flight, one a comedy, one a superhero movie, and one a more serious movie. He said each of them reflected this same message: you are a profound loser if you’re not romantically fulfilled.
Sometimes the message in the church is not that different. We might put marriage in the place of romantic fulfilment but attach the very same significance to it. Much of church life is structured around married couples and families that it can be hard to know how to fit in as a single person. We can often speak of marriage as if it is the telos of the Christian life, something we graduate out of singleness into.
So it’s understandable if many in our churches feel as though the opportunity to get married is going to be the single most significant determiner of whether they can basically be happy in life. The messaging all around us seems to reinforce this.
But the Bible show us a very different way of thinking. It is not the binary of single/married that will most profoundly determine our potential future happiness; it is the binary of being in Christ or not. Paul’s repeated message to his Philippian friends was not “rejoice in marriage always,” or even “rejoice in romantic fulfilment,” but “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4). He is where our deepest joy and fulfilment are to be found. When we find our ultimate contentment in Christ, we realize it doesn’t ultimately matter if we are married or single. We will not be missing out on the best life has to offer if we have Christ.
Pastoral experience bears this out. Even the best marriages will disappoint us at times. I’ve met and pastored many people who thought getting married would fill the deepest longings in life, only to discover it can even expand those longings. A life in Jesus, not a ring on a finger, is the only thing that can truly satisfy.
2. Marriage and singleness are not about us.
In 1 Cor. 7:7, Paul describes both marriage and singleness as gifts of God. They both come to us as good gifts from our generous Creator. Neither is to be demeaned or disparaged. Each is to be received with thankfulness. And like all of God’s good gifts, it is to be stewarded well. Like the spiritual gifts Paul goes on to speak of later in the same letter, marriage and singleness are not ends in themselves; they are for “the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7).
So the end-point of singleness—and marriage, for that matter—is not my own sense of fulfilment or satisfaction. It is easy to practice “selfish singleness”—to take the freedoms and opportunities of singleness purely as a way of serving our own happiness. We can take the lack of marital commitment or parental responsibility simply as a means to do what we want. But this is not to follow God’s design for us. If what attracts us is the lack of other people to be constrained by, then we have missed not only the point of singleness, but the point of the Christian life.
Paul’s positivity about singleness––often surprising to our contemporary ears—focuses on the opportunities it presents for service, not for self-fulfilment. In place of the constraints of family is to be “undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:35). This is such a desirable outcome to Paul that he could “wish that all were as I myself am”—single. So what should motivate singles about possibly remaining single is not delaying commitment, or having more disposable income, but the freedom to serve the Lord in ways that might not be possible or advisable if one were married.
3. Godly singleness is just what we need in the Age of Self.
As we come to terms with the Age of Self in which we find ourselves, we might realise that many of these opportunities singles have for “undivided devotion” to Christ and his cause are precisely what we need in such a time as this.
Take just one example: the Age of Self is desperately lacking in community. Singles are not the only ones who have something to contribute on this front, but there is a unique way in which singleness can be used to lubricate community within our churches. Many singles have a greater capacity for friendship than married people. Simply put, it is possible to “fit more people in.” That greater capacity can enable singles to meaningfully befriend a wider spectrum of people—to form deep friendships across generations and other groupings. Singles might have more opportunity than others to move between and be a means of connecting varying demographics, connecting people that might otherwise have little occasion to encounter one another. Singles can be great at introducing disparate people. Singles can be uniquely instrumental in helping to foster the very forms of thick and diverse community we need in this cultural moment, singles.
Or consider the ways godly singleness can be an answer to the deep confusion many experience when it comes to issues of identity and sexuality. So much is freighted on being romantically or sexually fulfilled: it has come to be one of the greatest goods in contemporary western society. Now consider the Christian single who finds their deepest longings met in Christ and lives in glad service of others. Such people are a prophetic counterpoint to the world around us. Life is not about me. Sex is not about me. There is one who is a bridegroom—one so complete in all his perfections that he can eclipse even the most intense romantic experiences this world has to offer. One whose future life with his people is so complete and full that we will not need to be married or given in marriage in the age to come (Matt. 22:30).
The Age of Self is likely to be with us for some time. But the answer to all the seemingly unassailable “Ages” of this world is the gospel of that single man, Jesus Christ, whose Word will always lead us in good paths, and whose life with us is sufficient for all our greatest needs and longings.
 See Carl R. Trueman’s landmark work The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to the Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2020) for more on this. A condensed and more accessible version is Carl R. Trueman, Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2022).