We all know that there are plenty of Christian books about marriage and raising children. It might surprise you to know there are not very many Christian books out there about singleness—though they do exist.
However, when it comes to Christian books aimed at men, the writers tend to assume that the men who are reading them are either married, or that they should be married as soon as possible.
As an example, The Masculine Mandate is a book that was originally written in 2009.1 When it comes to the question of godly masculine living, this is what the author Richard D. Phillips says about singleness:
It is vital for the well-being of almost any adult man that he becomes married. It is true that the apostle Paul identified a ‘gift of singleness’ that he wished all men had. He was referring to the ability some men possess to devote themselves to serving God without the encumbrances of marriage. So, unless you have the gift Paul referred to, it is imperative for your well-being that you be married, to move beyond the ‘not good’ status of single adulthood.
So, given that I am a man in my 40s who does not have a wife, have I therefore failed as a Christian man?
I’m convinced that the understanding of the Scriptures as set out in this example is wrong, and that in particular it misrepresents 1 Corinthians 7. Sexual sin was a big problem in the Corinthian church, yet even there the apostle Paul didn’t insist that Christian men get married as a solution to that problem, except in very particular circumstances. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ that is the solution to the problem of sexual sin, as it is for all sin. What is vital for the well-being of any man is not that he must at all costs become married, but that he knows Jesus Christ.
Personally, I don’t remember ever praying for the gift of singleness. I don’t remember anyone declaring that I had the gift of singleness. I have had plenty declare I should be married—possibly as a result of reading books like this one.
Here is the challenge: The Christian single men amongst us are the ones who need to develop an understanding of how Christian masculinity is expressed as single men. This isn’t an easy task, and all I can do is offer a start. So here we go.
Why marriage is recommended for men
I think one of the reasons why Christian ‘men’s books’ promote marriage is that marriage is seen as the easiest way for a godly masculine identity to be expressed.
The frustrating thing about many Christian books for men is that often the writers are really helpful in identifying the issues. Men particularly define themselves by what they do. The Masculine Mandateshows the reader that the Christian man is called to express his identity as a man made in God’s image by being a worker and a shepherd.
Naturally, marriage then provides a straightforward relational framework for that to happen. By being a husband, a man is called give himself up for his wife, working to present her holy and blameless (Eph 5). By being a father, he is to shepherd by bringing up his children in the Lord without provoking them to anger (Eph 6).
So the typical men’s book views a man’s mission like this: A man is to focus his energies on first being a husband and father, then working in his church, with the world placed at the periphery.
Where singleness goes wrong in men
But once you view the man’s mission from this perspective, singleness clearly becomes a problem. If a man doesn’t have a wife and ideally children, then how will he express his masculine roles of a worker and a shepherd?
Where there should be a family to serve, there is only self-service. Thus we inevitably see what becomes the parody of a single man being irresponsible, lazy and self-indulgent. We see a man who is failing to work and shepherd, obsessed with worldly pleasures rather than following Jesus.
Now we have all met men like these, and we probably have been tempted to become one of them.
So our writers of these Christian men’s books encourage the singles to get married so that they are somehow forced to ‘grow up’ and become responsible, godly men. And I’m sure you also have met men where that was, or is, their experience.
The virtue of singleness
Yet singleness is a gift, and a gift for the good of the church. A man can feel the frustration of singleness, and yet God can be using a man’s singleness for the kingdom.
When Paul, the single apostle to the Gentiles, addresses men in 1 Corinthians 7, he says:
An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided. (vv 32-34)
If anything, the married man is the compromised one here, as he has a wife whose care he is entrusted with. Knowing how much a husband rightly wants to please his wife, Paul says this can distract him from his walk with Jesus. That is, marriage adds a layer of complexity which may limit the capacity of a man to serve outside of the marriage.
Therefore, in the logic of Paul’s argument, the alternative is to have fewer extra responsibilities for the sake of “the Lord’s affairs”—and so we are in fact free to be single. This means that we as single men can and should be moreengaged with serving our church and the world around us, because we don’t have to first consider the needs of a wife and children when we decide what we’re going to do.
The character of single masculinity
Now so far there is nothing about this model of singleness that looks particularly ‘masculine’ at all. But remember that the prophet Samuel said that David was a man after God’s own heart (see 1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22). When Samuel said this, David was a single man. There’s no disputing that the biggest disasters in David’s life came about through his love life and the dysfunctional family that resulted. No one would use David as example of a ‘family man’, but nevertheless he remains a hero of the faith.
Here are a few thoughts on how we as single men can be distinct from our married brothers in Christ Jesus:
Be more involved in church life than our married peers
Firstly, I think we should be more devoted to church life. As workers and shepherds seeking to be interested in the Lord’s affairs, we should be eager to work hard to build his church, and in whatever domain God gives us, we should seek to shepherd his people.
Be even more in the world but not of it
Secondly, the phrase ‘be in the world, but not of it’ (see John 17:16-17) should apply even more to us than to our married friends.
The friends of my youth are now suburban Dads. They have families, they are paying off houses, they are paying school fees and they hope to one day pay for weddings. They see the big cultural changes in our society, and many of them are reacting by digging in and setting up boundaries—because they have a family to protect, and it is right that they protect their family.
Single men: as we don’t have a family to raise, we inevitably are closer to the cultural debates of our day. As we don’t have a wife, we probably have more close friends who are not Christian. As we are not husbands and fathers, in the eyes of the world we don’t fit the Christian stereotype, so we can undermine the assumption that Christianity is only for families. Our distinctiveness as followers of Jesus can be a powerful witness to those who think the gospel isn’t for them.
Live more dangerously than our married peers
Finally, I think we are called to live more dangerously than we could if we were married.
There aren’t that many accounts of single men in the Bible—and frankly the ones that are there show us men who seem to be a bit crazy. For example, no parent has ambitions for their son which involve living out in the desert eating locusts and honey. Yet John the Baptist’s ministry heralded the coming of the Lord Jesus himself.
Jeremiah was known as ‘the weeping prophet’ for a reason. He didn’t want to proclaim the word of God, because he knew the hearers wouldn’t listen and it would bring him trouble. But he did, and as he anticipated, it made his life miserable. But it is in Jeremiah where we see God revealing his great plans to establish a new covenant in Jesus.
Recently I was speaking with another Christian middle-aged single man about how our futures seem to be far more uncertain than those of our married friends. That is a fact of life, but perhaps we can, and should, be placing ourselves more at risk to better work for the Lord in our circumstances? After all, the apostle Paul could say that “for me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). Just like him, we have no dependents. That means we can lose the lot, even our own lives, if that’s what we are called to do.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it
So Christian single men, I think we have two models for living here:
Option 1: Prince Charming. Your main mission as a single man is to make yourself ‘marriable’. Get a high paying job with a bit of status. Try to look impressive. Take on roles in church that make you look good and that allow you to meet lots of single women. You might just succeed in your mission, and then once you are married you can learn to be a godly man just like the men’s books encourage.
Option 2: Camel hair, locusts and honey. Your mission is to pursue the dangerous opportunities which your married brothers can’t take on because of the families that God has given them. Do things that will cost you, but that will honour Jesus and build God’s church. You probably will find life hard and your peers will think you are crazy, but everyone will know that you live for Jesus first.
This article was originally a talk given at the 2019 Living Single conference in Sydney https://cbtb.org.au/events/courses/living-single