The Significance of Singleness: A Theological Vision for the Future of the Church
Hitchcock, Christina S. The Significance of Singleness: A Theological Vision for the Future of the Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018. $21.99. Softcover, 176 pp. ISBN 9780801060290.
Having been single for all but 16 of my 60+ years, I am interested in how others view the significance of my status. I am supremely interested, because I am reviewing a book on singleness by a married person. As the author herself admits in the introduction, “It almost feels like I am no longer qualified to speak on this topic” (p. xxvii). She goes on to say that she and her husband “clearly … entered marriage with a sense that we were taking the easier and, from a Christian point of view, perhaps less significant road” (p. 4). So, why does Hitchcock find singleness so significant?
The simple answer is that Jesus and Paul both did so. The more nuanced answer, found in part one of the book, examines the “Marriage Mandate Movement” and Hitchcock’s opinion that “both Christian and secular ethics are built on the same secular foundation” (p. 9). This foundation can be viewed from two different perspectives: one (the “realistic view”) expects that human adults will have sex; the other (the “romantic view”), that love should be the basis of sexual relationships (p. 8). Bottom line, Hitchcock questions whether adult humans need to have sex (with or without a loving, marital relationship). And now we are back to Paul and Jesus. Jesus, unless we are persuaded by the likes of Nikos Kazantzakis, was unmarried and celibate (noted in part two). Paul, who may have been married early in his life as a Pharisee, was celibate as a Christian and believed that followers of Jesus are better off not getting married (I Corinthians 7).
According to Hitchcock, contemporary evangelicalism, in general, and the Marriage Mandate Movement, in particular, take for granted that Christians should aspire to be married. In fact, to be fully human means to be sexually active (p.15). The command in Genesis 1:28 to “Be fruitful and increase in number” must be interpreted to say that humans should physically reproduce. But to interpret Genesis without regard “to the rest of Scripture and the redemptive story it tells mistakenly assumes that the creation story rather than the story of Jesus Christ is the primary way we understand our lives” (p. 12). Does not Jesus’ Great Commission cause us to reconsider how the increase of God’s people takes place (p.27)?
In contradistinction to the secular ethic Hitchcock finds at the root of “our modern fear of celibacy,” she wants to think in terms of the eschaton (p.17). We Christians are to be people of the Kingdom, people of the future. “In the resurrection it will be revealed that our primary relationship is with God, not human beings” (p.18). Therefore, Paul’s preference for celibacy should not be dismissed as pertaining only to the first century, and the metaphor of the Church as the bride of Christ should focus us on that “primary relationship” with Jesus. According to Hitchcock, a commitment to celibacy should: 1, prioritize the church (p. 23); 2, focus us on the return of Christ (p. 24); and 3, cause us to trust God above all else (p. 25). In her conclusion to part one, Hitchcock briefly, but poignantly, brings up the topic of homosexuality. She asks, “Do we really think we can connect sexual activity with the full humanness God intended for us and at the same time deny that activity to some human beings” (p. 27)? At this point, I wish Hitchcock had mentioned that Jesus was fully human and completely celibate, but his celibacy is a topic in the second part of the book.
Part two paints pictures of three single women: Macrina, Perpetua and Lottie Moon. It is in the chapter on Macrina, Gregory of Nyssa’s older sister, that Jesus’ celibacy is discussed alongside her own. Macrina desired to pursue a life of celibate virtue, or “absolute dependence on God and God alone for satisfaction of all her needs and desires” (p.32). In so doing, she revealed her identity as an image bearer of God. Hitchcock defines the imago Dei in terms of “relationship, rule, and righteousness” (p. 35). Our relationships with God are eternal, and our ruling, like God’s, must be characterized by righteousness. With the Fall, however, these three are tainted and humanity’s long journey from death to redemption begins. In such a context, Hitchcock refers to the Creation Mandate and God’s “gifts of land and children” (p. 37). Moreover, she opines that in Christ the Creation Mandate to multiply takes on new meaning. Macrina, though single and celibate, “had many spiritual children” (p. 56). Jesus’ own singleness and celibacy were her models and can be ours too. Hitchcock mentions the Protestant discomfort with imitating Jesus’ celibacy. Because he was the savior of the world and as much fully God as fully human, perhaps we need to take his celibacy as beyond us, as superhuman. But according to Hitchcock, “Jesus is the true human. He is human in the way God intends for all of us to be human” (p. 41). By this she does not mean that everyone should remain unmarried; a sentiment I wish she had fleshed out in more depth. From this statement on his humanity, Hitchcock goes on to consider Jesus’ rule, relationships, and righteousness. She also goes onto consider the Great Commission as a fulfillment of the Creation Mandate. There is nothing wrong with having biological children, but if we are to live in the eschatological future, the making of disciples should be the priority. “In the light of Christ, it becomes clear that marriage is in no way required for fulfillment of the Creation Mandate, and may even at times be a hindrance to it” (p. 63).
From Macrina, Hitchcock turns back a century to the martyr Perpetua, a wealthy, young woman, who faced the arena and the loss of her child, rather than sacrificing to the Roman emperor. When Perpetua was arrested, she was a catechumen; she was baptized as a prisoner. Hitchcock goes into some detail explaining the early church’s approach to baptism. The rite was three long years in coming to the catechumen and signaled the end of one’s old life and the beginning of a new life, a new identity, in Christ. When Perpetua told her father that she was a Christian, she was saying that her “truest identity is shaped by Christ’s Death and resurrection” (p. 74). Her baptism was transformational (pp. 74-75), communal (pp.75-77), and ethical (p.77); so too, it gave her the interpretive grid to understand the visions God sent her in the final days of her life. Her visions made it clear that she would die a martyr’s death, but would be undefeated by Satan. From a temporal perspective, she died abandoned by her family and the father of her child. From an eternal perspective, she died trusting completely in the one who able to save her soul.
In the third picture, we jump ahead to the nineteenth century and to Lottie Moon. Lottie was an extremely well educated woman who became a believer in 1858, a time when single women were barred from the mission field. Lottie did become a missionary to China in 1873, so this chapter is devoted to her experiences. When one considers the time period, in particular the death of as many as 750,000 men in the Civil War, it should become apparent that Lottie lived through a period typified by changing expectations of women. “Evangelistic needs took precedence over traditional rules and norms” (p. 110). Lottie made the most of her situation and was able to spread the teachings of Christ in the north of China. She was quite a force to be reckoned with because her authority came from the Holy Spirit (p.117). Hitchcock paints Lottie, not as a model of “female empowerment,” but as “a testimony to God’s power and authority” (p. 120). I will give a hearty “amen” to Hitchcock’s statement, “The true ground of authority in the church is always God and the gifting of the Holy Spirit” (124).
The third part of the book is titled, “How singleness can shape us into better theologians” (p.127). Hitchcock revisits the question of women in the church. It is not surprising that her three portraits are of single women, women whose relationships truly need to be focused in and through God. She also revisits the topic of homosexuality. “Any coherent no to homosexual marriage must be accompanied by a true and humble yes to singleness” (p.134). She bemoans the fact that contemporary culture, even Christian culture, downplays the value of friendship. “Without single people in our midst, we are more prone to assume that true love is always exclusively sexual” (139). Hitchcock opines that “we make serious theological mistakes,” when our only plan for kingdom building is biological (144). Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, it is not of the present, but of the future, when “all our relationships will go through” him (p.21). It may be because I am single, but I found Hitchcock’s arguments to be compelling. I would be very grateful if her more in-depth study of Paul and Jesus’ commitment to celibacy were the subject of another book.
Elodie Ballantine Emig
Instructor of NT Greek