The Biblical Story
The myth of romantic love and the myth of the family as the key place of human fulfilment are two of the key myths that we are presented with in our day and age. Like any ‘myths’, these myths invite us to enter into them, to ‘inhabit’ them. These myths shape our perceptions of our roles in life. They help us to form us our self-identity. They shape our values and expectations. They also serve to determine the form that our society will take.
Any long-term single person inhabiting such myths will find them to be places of pain and alienation. These myths have little or no place for the single person. The Bible presents us with a very different ‘myth’, one that shapes us in a manner quite unlike the myths of romantic love and the idolization of the family. I will try to present this ‘myth’ in broad brushstrokes, focusing on particularly illuminating episodes of history.
In Genesis 1:28, God blesses mankind and commands them to be fruitful and multiply. Fruitfulness and multiplication may seem to be impossible outside of the relationship of marriage. The person who is outside of the marriage relationship may seem to be left outside of such a role, unable to fulfil one of the most basic tasks given to humanity. In the light of Genesis 1:28 it would seem that marriage is a moral necessity. To wilfully remain single is to reject God’s purpose for humanity. Singleness can only be conceived of as a state of lack and falling short of what God intended. Single people are to be regarded with pity or moral disapproval, depending on whether they have chosen to remain single or not. According to this reading of Genesis 1:28 pursuing marriage is a moral responsibility.
I am persuaded that, in the light of the rest of Scripture, such an application of Genesis 1:28 to our context needs to be radically re-evaluated. However, I believe that it is important that we appreciate that, in the original context, the task of biological reproduction seems to be in view as part of mankind’s primary vocation in creation.
In Genesis 2:18 God declares that it is ‘not good’ for man to be alone and determines to form a helper for Adam. Adam needs someone to aid him in the fulfilling of his vocation. God could have created Adam to be self-sufficient and reproduce asexually. The fact that He didn’t teaches us something about the nature of man. Although many have read it in such a manner, this verse is not intended to teach that it is not good for people to be unmarried. This would directly contradict the teaching of Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:8. What this verse does teach is that man needs society. Fellowship with God in creation is not enough. To be fully realized as a creature made in God’s image, man needs fellowship with God in the gift of other human beings. There is a ‘human-shaped hole’ in each person’s heart that only other people can fill.
This need in each of our hearts can only be truly satisfied as God conveys His personal presence to us by means of other people. Ultimately, God is the One who fulfils all of our needs, but only as He gives Himself to us in other people.
Man’s need is not merely the psychological need for human intimacy. Man also needs support and aid in the fulfilling of his vocation. The woman brings particular gifts to the human task that men need. Man cannot properly fulfil his task without woman. This does not merely apply in marriage. Man’s need for the woman and woman’s need for the man applies in every area of life and should also serve to shape our psychology. It may have been ‘good’ for Paul to be single. However, in his task of raising up seed for God, it was not good for him to be alone. The ideal would have been that he would have been accompanied by a sister woman (or deaconess, not necessarily a wife — 1 Corinthians 9:5; cf. 1 Timothy 3:11). The role of women as helpers in the Church’s mission deserves a lot more attention than it often receives (Luke 8:1-3).
Human beings need fellowship, intimacy and support. Remove fellowship, intimacy and support and we cannot survive. Being ‘alone’ is the most dreadful state imaginable. This does not just hold in the relationships between men and women; it also applies in a broader sense to relationships between people of the same gender. Moses needed Aaron as a ‘helper’ suited to him. The apostles needed elders; elders need deacons. We all need helpers suited to us; no man can successfully live as an island.
In Genesis 3 we read of the Fall of humanity. God promises that He will deal with the serpent through the Seed promised to the woman. This seems to directly connect the hope of salvation with the hope of physical seed. It seems as if the single person cannot truly be part of such a process. Once again we should take note of this verse and then be patient to see how the rest of the Scriptural narrative goes on to exegete it.
We should also observe the manner in which the Fall complicates the relationship between the sexes. Following the Fall we should not be surprised at the development of the idea that women should strive for independence from men and the despising and avoidance of women by insecure ‘macho’ men. At the Fall the project of attaining absolute autonomy from God and from others began in earnest. These facts must be kept in mind when we examine the question of singleness. Often the practice of singleness in our fallen society is motivated by the hatred of men and quest for dominance on the part of women and by the fear and rejection of the woman on the part of the man. The quest for autonomy and the avoidance of commitment to and sacrifice for others is that which motivates many single people today. It is important that we distinguish this powerful and destructive myth from the story that undergirds the practice of Christian singleness.
The call of Abram has much to teach us in many ways. The very calling of Abram (‘Get out of your country, from your kindred and from your father’s house’) seems to allude to Genesis 2:24. The suggestion may be that God is about to form a new type of family, related to the natural family of Genesis 2:24, but going beyond it. This new family will serve to bring God’s salvation to all of the families of the earth.
The nation of Israel begins, significantly, with a disruption of family ties. John Goldingay writes:—
The ancestors’ story opens with a God-commissioned family disjunction as Abram is charged to leave his father’s household (Gen 12:1). In emphasizing Abram’s “leaving,” Israel’s story begins by denying the significance of ties to country, home and family. Human beings treat these ties as having ultimate significance, and country, home, and family will be central to Israelite faith. Jesus’ charge to his disciples will also take up this note in denying the significance of family ties, which contrasts with regular Christian attitudes to country, home and family. Being involved in the fulfillment of God’s purpose means abandoning your parents, brothers and sisters, though not (in Genesis) abandoning dependents such as your wife and your dead brother’s offspring, nor servants and property (Gen 12:4-5). Abram is forming an independent household (bayit) of his own (cf. Gen 15:2-3; 18:19) and parting from the rest of the extended family (mišpāhâ) in order to bring blessing to all the “families” in the world (Gen 12:3).
Israel’s identity is formed by an initial separation. This initial separation effected by divine calling relativizes the ties of family in an important manner. The call of the covenant takes priority over the call of the family. The new family that God is going to form must first depart from the families of the world if it is going to be the means of redeeming them.
The promises that God makes to Abram in Genesis 12 are important to notice. He promised that Abram would be fruitful and multiply. In this promise the command of creation was transformed into a promise. The command of creation is going to be fulfilled in the family promised to Abraham. In the coming chapters we see that God’s promises focus on seed and inheritance (the land). As the life of the people of God was orientated towards these promises, we should not be surprised that marriage, family and sons are central to the patriarchal narrative. Throughout the story of the patriarchs the role of the man seems to be that of bringing forth a son. The woman serves as his helper. Barrenness plays an important role in the stories of the patriarchs. To be childless is to be cut off from the promises of God, which are focused on seed and inheritance.
The religion of the patriarchs is a family-based religion. God is the God of the fathers. Sexual activity plays a prominent role in the story of the patriarchs. The rite of circumcision directly deals with male sexual activity. Circumcision was first given along with the promise of Isaac. Circumcision symbolically declares man’s impotency to bring forth the promised seed and declares dependence on God. Abraham will receive the promised seed, not as a result of his virility or the fecundity of Sarah’s womb. When Abraham grasps for the seed in a fleshly manner with Hagar, pain results. Rather, Isaac is given as a gift, apart from Abraham’s power to bring him forth. The practice of circumcision serves to symbolically remind Abraham that his sexual powers count for nothing in terms of God’s larger purpose. Man will not be saved by sex, nor by the natural power to bring forth seed. God continually teaches His people that they are incapable of bringing forth the promised Seed.
Circumcision also serves to stress the priority of the covenant over the family. Many of the original people to be circumcised were not physical descendents of Abraham and any of Abraham’s physical descendents who rejected circumcision would be cut off. The fact that Abraham went on to have other children by Keturah after Sarah’s death should remind us that being a physical descendent of Abraham was not that which marked out the true people of God. The blood of the covenant of circumcision was stronger than and relativized the blood of the biological family. Circumcision teaches us of the reality of adoption, whereby strangers, orphans and aliens can become full members of the household of God. The fact that the life of the patriarchs began as a life of wandering also served to prevent the development of a ‘blood and soil’ mentality.
Throughout the patriarchal narrative it is repeatedly underlined that it is God who is forming Abraham’s family, rather than Abraham and his offspring. God chooses Isaac rather than Ishmael, Jacob rather than Esau. Abraham must learn absolute trust in God’s power to form the promised family, beyond all human means. He must be prepared to sacrifice his ‘only begotten son’ (the words of Hebrews 11:17) at God’s command, trusting God to bring him to life again. He must trust in the power of God completely.
Throughout the OT, it seems that the people of God are organized around the institution of the family (although the picture is far more complicated when one examines it more closely). Those who are born out of wedlock are unable to exercise positions of leadership in Israel, nor are those who are emasculated (Deuteronomy 23:1-2). The rites of Israel were also centred on the family. Circumcision was administered by the head of the family and the Passover was initially a family celebration.
This was the case because Israel was orientated towards the promised Seed. The Seed-focused character of Israel’s life made the family far more central. Barrenness and singleness were regarded as deeply negative realities as, to some degree, they cut one off from God’s promises and inheritance. It was necessary for such a state to persist for a time. The fact that the world was structured in such a manner for a period does not mean that God intended this to be the lasting form of society. Israel may not have had the power in herself to realize the hope of the promised Seed. However, the fact that it was Seed that was promised granted marriage and the family a more central role in Israel’s life, at least initially.
Even though the family was central in many respects, the family didn’t ultimately set the terms (e.g. Deuteronomy 13:6). The covenant was more primary than the family. The OT is also certainly able to present a critique of the sins of the family. Despite the close connection between circumcision and the family, circumcision also served to reveal that Israel was bound together by covenant first and foremost. The family was only secure within the covenant. One would be cut off if one was not circumcised. In addition to this, there were many circumcised Israelites who were not descended from Abraham. It becomes increasingly clear that the Abraham’s family was going to be formed by something more powerful than family bloodlines. In the OT we see the biological family gradually being drawn into something far deeper and more determinative than itself.
Significantly, as the story of the OT develops, there is a focusing of certain metaphors that initially appeared to be very familial beyond the biological family. We move from Eve, past barren Sarah (in whose case the promise character of the seed becomes apparent) and the wives of the patriarchs to Daughter Zion travailing in birth. No longer is there a clear focus on biological offspring as there was in the case of Eve and Sarah. The focus is on national restoration and widespread adoption of people from other nations. The teaching of divine marriage also serves to clarify themes that may have originally been interpreted as familialistic. The celebration of such feasts as Passover also becomes less familial in the passage of time. Tribal boundaries become less important. The prophets also speak of a time when the biological family and marriage would become even less determinative realities (Isaiah 54 & 56).
In addition to the above points, we should recognize the gradual movement beyond the focus on biological offspring that one sees in the prophets. The continuity of patriarchal, priestly and kingly lines was of considerable importance. As one enters into the prophetic era, however, the focus on the continuity of family lines becomes far less prominent. The offspring of prophets served as prophetic signs (e.g. Isaiah 8:18), but there was no focus on a prophetic line of fathers and sons comparable to that which can be seen in the case of kings and priests. The manner in which the wife of the prophet serves as his helper is far less focused on ensuring the continuity of his bloodline. The continuity of the prophetic line tended to work in a different manner (see Elisha asking for the portion of the firstborn and treating Elijah as his father in 2 Kings 2). The prophet’s bearing of sons might picture God’s sovereign act whereby He would reject, form or reform His people, but God’s creation and recreation of His people was less and less centred on the biological family.
As the nation as a whole took on more of a prophetic character, biological procreation was still important, but it was nowhere near as primary as it was in the past. As people’s understanding of the promised inheritance became less focused on a plot of turf in a particular land, biological offspring became less important (situations like that seen in Numbers 36 would be far removed from the concerns of cosmopolitan Jews of the Diaspora). Inheritance in the resurrection would not be so familial in character. Even the unmarried could be assured of a permanent stake.
Already in the OT we can see the promise of seed becoming associated with the rebirth of resurrection and the restoration of Israel that the image of resurrection speaks so powerfully of. The prophet speaks of a strange coming time when the one who was cut off would see His seed and the barren and single woman would have more children than the married woman (Isaiah 53:1—54:3). Even eunuchs would receive an everlasting name that would not be cut off (Isaiah 56:3-5).
When the Seed finally came, He was born to a virgin. This was a sign that it was God’s grace that triumphed, not the virility of man. Salvation was achieved by God, apart from the sexual activity of a married couple. God would form Abraham’s family in a manner that may even involve forming children from the stones. The miraculous raising up of a child from the womb of the woman, which had been subject to a curse in Genesis 3, stands as a sign of the future raising up of a man from the lowest parts of the cursed earth.
It is important that we appreciate the full significance of the coming of Christ for the life of the people of God. If the true Seed has come, then assurance of inheritance comes as one is a member of that true Seed. We already have a stake in this future inheritance by the gift of the Holy Spirit. He is the One who guarantees our share in the inheritance, not our biological offspring. Hope becomes resituated and the whole life of the people of God becomes re-orientated. The decreasing primacy of biological reproduction as the means by which the creation mandate would be fulfilled is seen even more starkly. If the promised Seed is a present reality then marriage and seed-bearing are no longer entered into out of any necessity. The creation mandate has already been fulfilled in principle. Our seed-bearing is merely one way in which we can implement and proclaim this fulfilment. Willingly remaining single or childless are other ways. The future inheritance has already been guaranteed and the fulfilment of the creation mandate can take place even apart from marriage and biological offspring (cf. Acts 6:7; 12:24; 19:20; Colossians 1:6). Marriage can now be entered into as a free vocation.
From the earliest period of the Church, singleness was regarded as an equal vocation to that of marriage. Such a movement beyond the societal structure of the OT should not be passed over without comment.
One of the most radical aspects of the belief of the early Church was its belief in the relativization of the biological family. For the Church water came to be understood to be thicker than blood. One’s baptism was a more definitive event than one’s birth. The kingdom of God set a sword in family relationships. One must leave father and mother to be joined to Christ (Matthew 10:34-38). The loyalty that Christ demanded was stronger and more fundamental than that of family. The basic relatives of the Christian are not those of the biological family, but those of the worldwide family of God (Matthew 12:48-50).
Jesus’ training of His disciples differs sharply from the training of Abraham in certain respects. Abraham was trained to be the faithful man by whom God would bring forth a family. He had to leave his own family for this reason. God’s promises to Abraham focused on future seed. The rite of circumcision was focused on the act of seed-bearing. We know hardly anything about the families of the apostles, because there is no pressing need to have physical offspring in the new creation order. This was not the focus of their task. We don’t read about the barrenness of Andrew’s wife, or anything like that.
Abraham left his family for God to form a new family through him. Whilst Abraham’s family was characterized by separation, the Seed that has come in Christ is characterized by reunion. Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, are brought together in this new family. The most determinative relational reality that we are part of is the Church. In Christ man and God and man and man are united to a degree that is impossible even in the closest marriages and families (the very idea of sharply distinguishing between our ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ relationships makes no sense in the God-man). The Church is to be the place where this reality is lived out.
The Church is the eschatological society. Consequently it does not exist as some ‘sphere’ parallel to the natural family. The Church’s relationship to the family is probably best conceived in temporal rather than spatial terms. Whereas the covenant primarily worked in terms of linear historical progression in the OT and was closely tied with the continuation of bloodlines, in the new covenant the Church is the future come into the present. The natural family must live out of
the age to come that has arrived in the Church and into
the present age. The Church isn’t merely some institution of the present age, alongside the state, the family and the individual.
To think that the natural family is necessary for the formation of the Church is to forget the eschatological character of the latter. The natural family may be a means by which people are called into the eschatological life of the Church, but the existence of the Church is secured quite apart from any of the activities we engage in in the present age. Our activities in the present age are designed to bring the life of the age to come to bear upon the present world. They do not serve to bring the age to come into existence. Whilst the old covenant believer acted forward into the future, our primary movement is working from the future (as it has arrived in Christ) into the present.
Equating the old covenant order with that of the new covenant is something that we are tempted to do by the strong connection that many Reformed people have drawn between circumcision and Baptism. We need to resist this. Circumcision and Baptism are different
in very important ways. Covenantal theology is not merely familialism under another name.