Singleness in the mission field

Ben Williamson

Seven years ago, I got on a plane. It wasn’t a particularly easy decision to make, but I flew out to Johannesburg to spend two months working for Johannesburg Bible College. Seven years later, I am still here. At least, I am still in Johannesburg, but I am now working as the pastor of Christ Church Hillbrow, in central Johannesburg. The decision seven years ago was made easier by two things: Firstly, it was only for two months (or so I thought!). And, secondly I was, and still am, single.

The apostle Paul wrote in his famous chapter on singleness, that one of the advantages of singleness is that the unmarried person is freed up to serve.

I would like you to be free from concern. 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. (1 Cor. 7:32-34a)

For many this freedom will mean freedom to serve in their local churches. For me it meant freedom to travel to the other side of the world to serve him there. Singleness gave me flexibility to make a decision which has led to me still being here seven years later. This freedom is part of the goodness of singleness which Paul affirms.

But the real goodness of singleness is not limited to this freedom. Paul speaks of singleness as a gift. In the context of 1 Corinthians a gift is not something just for the person who has that gift, but is for the whole church. My freedom to serve is, I certainly hope, a benefit to the church, but what Paul refers to is something beyond the service that a single person might offer – it is the testimony that the single person can bring to the church.

Although Paul is focussing on marriage and singleness, in 1 Corinthians 7 the heart of his message comes in his statement of a broader principle.

Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. (1 Corinthians 7:17)

The principle is to remain in the situation in which you are. Paul gives two examples of how that might work out, circumcision and then slavery. These two examples represent the two key distinctions in the ancient world, one defining you as part of God’s people or not, the other defines you as slave or free.

We see from Paul’s application to slavery explain why changing our circumstances should not be our focus.

Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him. Were you a slave when you were called? Don't let it trouble you although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord's freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ's slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. (1 Corinthians 7:20-23)

In verse 22 Paul is making it clear that our relationship to God is not defined by our situation, whether we are slave or free. While one might be a slave to a human master, in reality they are a free man to God. Similarly, if one is a free man one is still a slave to God. We are God’s, brought at a price and that matters much more than our external circumstances. In verse 25 onwards, Paul applies this in a unique way:

But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this. What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away. (1 Corinthians 7:28-31)

See that last phrase, ‘For this world in its present form is passing away.’ The reason our present circumstances don’t matter is because this world is passing away. That is this life is not all there is, we live for the new creation. The reason Paul particularly says that singleness is good then, is that singleness can point us to the fact that we do not permanently belong in this creation, we belong to the new creation.

The fact that I could just get on a plane seven years ago, suggests that I did not have many things tying myself to where I lived. Of course, I had a number of things to deal with, but it would have been a lot harder if I were married and had children. Families put down roots, kids enrol in particular schools - generally families have greater links to a neighbourhood and things going on around them. Singles do have those as well, but in general the single life is more transient, more temporary – it certainly feels that way to me. As I get older that is what I find one of the most difficult things about being single – an increasing feeling that I don’t quite belong anywhere. Perhaps added to by the fact that I am an Englishman living in South Africa. That gives me great freedom and opportunity but it can also be painful. Paul, I don’t think, wants to diminish that pain or hardship, but he wants us to realise as single people that this helps us to see that we are not yet home.

Having been in South Africa for seven years, it is hard to say where home now is. In a sense, I feel that both England and South Africa are home, but in another sense, I feel that neither are. Of course, that is the uniqueness of living in another culture, but it also the same sense we often feel with singleness: we don’t quite belong, we are not yet home. But that is the point - we are not yet home. And that is my testimony as a single person to the church: reminding the whole body that we are all living in a world that is passing away and should be living for the new creation.