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A Brief History of Singleness


Albert Y. Hsu

SINGLENESS IN THE EARLY CHURCH: In the early church, singleness was viewed as a truly freeing and liberating opportunity. A young Christian in the second century would have heard an onslaught of "family values" rhetoric--coming not from the Christian community but from pagan sources. In ancient Greco-Roman culture, marriage and procreation were seen as civic duties. All good citizens were pressured to be productive members of society, in the literal sense of providing many offspring who would become craftsmen and soldiers to fill roles necessary for the functioning of civilized society. Furthermore, arranged marriages were still common. Children were expected to marry well and continue the family's name and prestige.

Elaine Pagels writes, "In classical Greek and Roman society, a young man or woman who hesitated or refused to marry the person chosen by his or her family would be considered insubordinate or possibly even insane. Many parents expected their daughters to marry at about the age of puberty or soon after; in aristocratic circles, advantageous marriages sometimes were arranged when the children were as young as six or seven. Through marriage, as the historian Peter Brown says, 'a girl was conscripted as a fully productive member by her society, as was her spouse.' Young men were expected to marry between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five and then to place themselves at the service of their communities, according to their family tradition and station."1

Christian singleness provided an alternative to this. "As surprising as it may seem to us, it was the church that provided an escape from the pressure to marry and reproduce."2 In contrast to parental and family-arranged marriages or marriage as a civic duty, the Christian single was able to proclaim that allegiance to Christ was more important than even the bonds of family or state. The first priority was to serve Christ and his church. Any obligations to the biological family came second.

Furthermore, the pressing issues of the early days of the church, such as threats of persecution and martyrdom, provided other reasons for Christians to remain celibate. "The call to martyrdom outweighed all other calls. If put to the test, the mother would be called to forsake her nursing child; the father would have to abandon a whole household of dependents. Familial ties were precious, but the Christian's paramount allegiance was, without question, to God."3


1. Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York: Random House, 1988), p. 80.

2 Rebecca Harden Weaver, "Yes, But . . .: Early Christian Teaching on Marriage, Sex, and Family," Regeneration Quarterly 1 (Summer 1995): 28.

3 Ibid.

Taken from Singles at the Crossroads by Albert Y. Hsu.

Copyright ©2002 by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA.

Permission kindly granted to Faith and Reason Forum by InterVarsity Press.