In a faith centered on love and inclusion, are single people and their God-given gifts truly being welcomed in our churches?
According to theologian Christina Hitchcock, definitely not. Instead, she argues, American evangelical churches suffer from a fear of single people. They mistakenly view independence and autonomy as the markers of maturity and assume that sex is a necessary component of achieving full humanity. Consequently, the church often sees singleness as a neutral, immature, or even negative state, while marriage is touted as theologically significant. In The Significance of Singleness: A Theological Vision for the Future of the Church Hitchcock works to push back against these mistaken beliefs by crafting a theological framework for the role single people play in the kingdom of God and in our churches today. The book also serves as a corrective for evangelical Christian groups, such as the Marriage Mandate Movement, that put an unhealthy emphasis on the importance of marriage (and marrying young) to the Christian faith.
In the first part of her book, Hitchcock offers a helpful and comprehensive theological framework for understanding the role of single Christians and what they represent about God and the church. Evangelicals often present marriage as a reflection of Jesus’ relationship to the church and the family as a response to the Creation Mandate to “fill the earth.” Yet Old Testament mandates must be seen through the lens of Jesus and Hitchock argues that singleness is a way of living that fully embodies God’s hope for the future because it most clearly demonstrates the necessity of putting all our trust and faith in God. Hitchcock writes, “the evangelical commitment to marriage at the expense of singleness may point to what is essentially idolatry: the desire and will to relate to all things immediately and independently of God” (21).
Hitchcock’s book chooses three single, historical, Christian women to illustrate her theological framework: fourth century theologian Macrina, third century martyr Perpetua, and nineteenth century missionary Lottie Moon. Macrina demonstrates how a celibate single woman can fulfill the creation mandate—seeking righteousness through fasting from marriage, building relationships through a community of women, and ruling as a leader in her community and a teacher to her brothers (who became leaders of the early church in their own right). Single mother Perpetua’s refusal to renounce her Christian faith led to her martyrdom, despite the pleas of her devoted father and the needs of her infant son. Hitchcock argues that Perpetua’s Christian identity was so strong that it outstripped her identities as daughter and mother, representing the importance of realigning our identities toward Christ, rather than those around us.
While Hitchcock uses Macrina and Perpetua as effective examples to build her theological framework, the chapter on Baptist missionary Lottie Moon stood out to me as the most accessible and historically robust of the chapters. Moon’s experiences in China are a fascinating reflection on the historical role of women in American evangelicalism and the role of singleness and marriage in mission work. Moon used her natural authority and gift of leadership to push back against her own denomination to secure roles for talented, single women in the mission field. Moon’s life, work, and inspiring perspective on the single woman’s role in the kingdom of God is a compelling example for American churches to embrace (and embrace quickly) the powerful and often untapped gifts of single Christians.
The Significance of Singleness is an ambitious and much-needed theological outline on singleness. However, it leaves the reader with a number of unanswered questions. What is the relationship between celibacy (as a choice) and singleness (often not a choice)? How should the church create different theological visions and perspectives to give grounding to those who are single for different reasons (unmarried, divorced, or widowed)? What are some practical ways churches can implement this theological framework on the ground? Should the church approach singleness differently for men and women (to correct secular society’s typically uneven representations)? Hitchcock could have taken her theological analysis a step further to offer perspectives on these closely related topics. Hitchcock leaves the reader wanting more.
This book will primarily be useful for those working or leading in a church setting. It is not a self-help volume or an opportunity for personal reflection, nor is it written specifically for single readers. It can be dense at times and focuses heavily on academic theological analysis. Yet, The Significance of Singleness will prompt you to think more deeply about a seriously under-examined theological topic and will inspire you to greater reflection on an issue that should be considered by every participant of a faith community. This book may not answer every question, but it is an impactful starting point to launch the reader into a complex and important topic.