Carla Unseth

Turning our Eyes to Heaven - Singleness in Church History

What is the value of marriage? This is a question that both the culture and the church answers, and actually in a very similar way. Have you ever heard schools say that “education begins at home”? Though culture may have a different definition of home and family, there is an understanding that the home is foundational to society. The church especially believes this. Marriage, home, and family are taught as God’s basic institution for society. Focus on the Family’s website says, “We believe the institution of marriage is a sacred covenant designed by God to model the love of Christ for His people and to serve both the public and private good as the basic building block of human civilization.” But, did you know that the church has not always viewed marriage as God’s central design for civilization? In fact, there were many years where the church saw marriage as a necessary evil, a result of the fall, and a consolation for having to face the reality of death. These ideas are hard for us as modern Christians to even fathom, they are so far removed from our current understanding of marriage and singleness.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I have been reading “The Meaning of Singleness” by Danielle Treweek. This book looks at the church’s current view of singleness, along with the historical church’s view of both marriage and singleness, and concludes with a look at how we should view singleness today.

Reading this book has been eye-opening for me, because I have always believed and been taught that the church has always valued marriage as “the basic building block of human civilization”, as Focus on the Family puts it. However, the look at the historical church shows a very different view of marriage and singleness from the first century up until the Reformation. In fact, one of the changes that came with the Reformation was a re-evaluation of the value of marriage. At the time, it was revolutionary to think that marriage could be as valuable as singleness!

Dr. Treweek looks at the history of singleness by century, but it seems that there are some common themes that ran from the first century through the Middle Ages and to the Reformation. I will try to summarize those ideas here, though I would highly recommend this book if you want a deeper understanding.

The first thing to mention is that the early church did not actually talk about “singleness”, but rather about “celibacy” or “virginity”. The question wasn’t about the civil union between two people, but rather about the physical union and what that represented regarding Adam and Eve’s fall, and the future heavenly realm. It is easy to put inferior motives onto these church fathers, as if they just didn’t know as much as we now know. However, it is important to remember that their high view of celibacy came directly from their theology. 

The theology of these early church fathers flowed out of a combined view of the fall as a movement from an angelic state to an earthly one, and the future in heaven as a return to that angelic state. While the theology of the early church did not rest solely on one passage, this theological center can be seen easily in Matthew 22:23-33. In these verses, the Sadducees present to Jesus a far-fetched situation in which a woman is married seven times and then dies and goes to heaven. They ask the question: whose wife will she be in heaven? Jesus responds in verse 30 by saying, “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” This verse tells us that on the restored earth, people will be like angels, who don’t have sexuality and don’t marry. Ancient commentators such as Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa believed that, not only does this passage tell us that in the future there will be no marriage, and by extension no sexual expression or sexual desire, but also that this passage reaches back to the beginning of the earth to say that marriage was not actually God’s original intention for humanity. God intended for humans to live without sexual desire, and it wasn’t until the fall that God introduced sex and marriage. After the fall, procreation became necessary in order for the promised Messiah to be born.

However, by the first century and on into the Middle Ages, church leaders such as Augustine and Jerome also recognized that the Messiah had indeed already been born – Jesus. This led to an internal tension. Was marriage and procreation still necessary? At that time in history, marriage was a financial necessity for most people, so not many could actually live a single and celibate life. However, those who could were considered to live on a different plane of existence than those who had to live under the mundane necessity of life. Living a celibate life was seen as a way of “shaking a fist” at death, and living unapologetically in resistance to Satan and his designs on the world. Bearing children was delivering more victims to the death that was brought into the world by sin, so staying celibate was a way of defying death by not bringing more victims of death into the world.

So, based on this theology, there were four benefits of singleness or celibacy. The first is that the single person is keeping themselves free from the sin of the world. I think that in today’s church, this is the only reason that we see for the early church’s inclination toward virginity and we don’t totally understand their motivations. I know that I myself have had the impression that they just wanted to control people, and that they saw sex as impure because it gave pleasure. But in reality, the belief that sex was impure came out of a theology of the fall. In order to live their own theology, they wanted to “avoid admixture”, as Bishop Ambrose put it, with the things of the world.

The second and third reasons flow into each other. The single person has the opportunity to live the “vita angelica” – that is, they are living now as the angels in heaven. Since the early church believed that we will not have sexual expression, living that way now was an opportunity to merge heaven and earth. They could actually begin, in a sense, eternity in the present world. Along with this, then, was the idea that the single person serves as an eschatological reminder to the community of the future heavenly life. Even though virginity was still considered abnormal within the community, it was a celebrated abnormality. It was considered profoundly eschatological, and therefore it added value to the community. People could look to them and see what a future heavenly existence would be like. As they lived with a view toward heaven, others would be encouraged as well not to get too wrapped up in earthly life, but to live with a view to the future.

The last reason, and though an important reason, it was probably the least important reason, was that their earthly sacrifice was seen as leading to special heavenly blessings. While all believers will receive rewards in heaven, it was believed that God would have special blessings reserved for those who sacrificed for Him in this way.

To us today, it is hard to imagine a church grounded in the theology that doesn’t put marriage and family as the ideal. Today we place such a high value on marriage and on family that we see the family as the center of God’s order for the world. But, it is important for us to keep in mind that the church’s beliefs have not been static throughout the ages. And, while I don’t think that we should go back to saying that marriage is only a result of the fall, I do think that there are things that we can learn from what these early church fathers taught.

Primarily, we can see the value in singleness, particularly as it directs us to look to the future heavenly realm. We can see single people living with their deepest relationship being Christ, and we can recognize that such is our future heavenly state. And while many single people would say that they don’t feel totally “complete” in Christ right now, that very longing can turn our eyes to heaven to say that when we are with Christ, we will be complete. Our union in Christ will be so perfect that it will surpass any relationships that we have on earth, including the marriage relationship.

In fact, the Bible also tells us that the marriage relationship here on earth is a reflection of the relationships within the Trinity. However, we can definitely all agree that marriage isn’t a perfection reflection of the Trinity! Married people also feel incomplete and long for a more perfect union. This longing also turns our eyes to Christ and to a future in heaven where we are fully and perfectly known, and fully and perfectly united with Christ.

As a result, both marriage and singleness should be symbols that turn our eyes to Christ and remind us to live on earth with a view to heaven. We need to live in light of eternity – recognizing that our future heavenly completeness will come through union with Christ. The views of church leaders throughout history may be different from our own, but they can help renew our understanding of the value of singleness within the church.

*The picture is of St. Julian and St. Basilissa, who were celebrated for having a "chaste marriage". It is said they led many to Christ through their spiritual examples.