Just over a year ago I wrote a series of posts on the subject of singleness and promised a review of Barry Danylak’s book Redeeming Singleness. It is described as giving a biblical theology of singleness.
Let me be honest: it is not the easiest read in the world. There are reasons why it has taken me a year to get to the end of it and then write this review! It is intended as a serious theological work- those looking for pastoral reflections on singleness or engagement with contemporary culture will need to look elsewhere. There are also areas where it could have done with much tighter editing- the outstanding material comes about half way through the book and the danger is that only those who are inclined to persevere will get there. That’s not to say there aren’t gems dotted through the book though- I was rather amused to discover that the ancient author Plato recommended that any man not married by the age of 35 (I know it is hard to believe but that includes me now…) “should pay a yearly fine…lest he imagine that the single life brings him gain and ease.” And it was interesting to see Daniel and Nehemiah added to the cast of notable servants of the Lord who would have been single- forced to be eunuchs by the authorities. I had never thought about this before.
The heart of the book deals with a critical question- why is the Old Testament almost universally negative about the single life and the New Testament generally positive about it (see Jesus in Matthew 19 and Paul in 1 Cor 7)? Right from the outset of the Old Testament marriage and procreation are commanded- God tells Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and increase in number.” In Deuteronomy 7 and Psalm 127 children are regarded as a sign of God’s blessing- almost as a reward for obedience. Consequently, to be unmarried or not have children was regarded as being under a curse. It was of vital importance that offspring were produced so that the family name could be continued- this was why if a man died his brother was to marry his widow so that the family line could be continued (which is the background to the latter stages of the book of Ruth). Danylak is perceptive in explaining the reasons for this- “One reason that preserving a name was so vitally important to the ancient Hebrews and their contemporaries was that it could survive one’s death in a culture with a still shadowy and undeveloped concept of the afterlife.” Overall Danylak summarises the Old Testament evidence in some telling sentences- “We have no known examples of those within Israel who voluntarily chose to remain single.” Indeed this was not part of God’s purposes- “In the Old Testament God was primarily building and forming his covenant people through the mechanism of physical procreation.”
So what changes in the New Testament? Why does Paul wish everybody was like him (in being single- 1 Cor 7:7)? This is where Danylak is so helpful in noting the big transition from the old covenant to the new covenant. “Whereas marriage and physical procreation were the necessary means of building the physical nation of Israel, the spiritual people of God are built through the process of spiritual regeneration.” What matters primarily is not the birth of physical children but the new life given to those who trust in Christ. Danylak lists a number of passages that indicate this transition:
– It is prophesied in Isaiah 53-54. In Isaiah 53 the Servant who dies will have offspring. In the following chapter the barren woman who has no husband will have more children than the one who has a husband. All of this points to the fact that there will be people added to the company of God’s people as a result of Jesus’ work on the cross rather than simply through physical birth.
– We see how the descendants of Abraham are re-defined in the New Testament as those who share Abraham’s faith rather than his physical lineage (see Romans 4, Galatians 3). “The true offspring of Abraham are no longer defined physically through their ethnic identity but spiritually through their union with Christ by faith.”
– Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 shows up the limits of physical birth into Israel. What matters is being born again of the Spirit.
– The nature of inheritance changes. Under the old covenant marriage and physical procreation were necessary to maintain one’s inheritance (physical land) into the next generation whereas under the new covenant our inheritance is kept in heaven for us (1 Peter 1)
Once you consider these passages much of Jesus’ teaching begins to make sense- the way he talks positively about singleness in Matthew 19, the way he defines himself in terms of his spiritual rather than physical family (Mark 3:31-35 and elsewhere) and his warnings against letting allegiance to the family triumph over allegiance to him.
What are the implications of all of this? At one level it doesn’t lessen the pain of singleness or, indeed, childlessness. At times I think the book, and indeed my original posts on singleness, have underestimated the pain of that. This emphasis on spiritual regeneration does not deny the goodness of the gift of children- and not to have that gift will inevitably bring pain. But I think it can be helpful to re-think our understanding of Scripture and our worldview in the light of this. Four points in conclusion:
– As Christians, we must read the commands and promises of the Old Testament through new covenant glasses. I remember a few years ago hearing Genesis 1:22 (“Be fruitful and increase”) preached as a present day command to Christians. We were called to have lots of (physical) children. I recall at the time feeling dissatisfied with this as an appropriate application but struggled to work out why. Looking back, the problem is that this command was not being seen in the light of the new covenant. Surely the equivalent is to seek to have children of new covenant- through the proclamation of the Gospel?
– In new covenant language, it is possible for all of us to be involved in nurturing children. It is striking to see how frequently Paul and the other apostles use the language of children to refer to those they have led to Christ or are seeking to grow to maturity. “Paul’s legacy was greater than that of any physical parents, for Paul’s progeny were those begotten in Christ through the limitless power of the Gospel for an eternal inheritance in heaven.” One of the challenges for those of us who are single is to use our singleness to serve the Lord in an undivided way- to be concerned about the Lord’s affairs (1 Cor 7:32-34). It is lovely when in serving the Lord in our prayers, witness and relationships within the church we end up having spiritual children. Of course it is possible for married people to have spiritual children as well- indeed part of the longing is that physical children will also be spiritual children. But Jesus and Paul insist that the single person may have special opportunities to pursue this calling.
– If the single person is esteemed rather than regarded as somehow inferior under the new covenant then we must stop suggesting that it should be the goal of everybody to get married. Danylak writes this, “To suggest that to be a fulfilled or complete Christian in the new covenant requires anything more than Christ is to deny the fundamental sufficiency of Christ as the sole vehicle of covenantal blessing.”
– If Jesus rather than spouse and children is what we need in the new covenant then the single life can demonstrate something powerful- especially in a culture that things it impossible to be content without a sexual relationship. “Christian singleness is a testimony to the supreme sufficiency of Christ for all things, testifying that through Christ life is fully blessed even without marriage and children.”
I’m conscious that I might have wound people up in this post! In no sense at all am I denying the goodness of marriage and children. But what Danylak is flagging up is that in the new covenant there are things that are even more precious.