Christina Hitchcock always assumed she would get married one day. But as years went by and it didn’t happen, she found herself trying to piece together a vision of life without marriage. Even though she's now married, Hitchcock, who teaches theology at the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota, wrote The Significance of Singleness: A Theological Vision for the Future of the Church to show how singleness is a valuable way of life that points us to true fulfillment in Christ. CT features editor Gina Dalfonzo spoke with Hitchcock about cultivating a renewed understanding of singleness for the whole church.
Why is the vision provided by singleness so important for the church?
Paul’s endorsement of singleness in 1 Corinthians 7 isn’t merely about having more missionaries, more martyrs, or more people with more time for the church. Singleness has theological significance because it tells us something important about who God is and what God is doing.
Among the things singleness signifies are the reality of the Resurrection and the priority of the church. Singleness is a sign of God’s future breaking into our present, a future characterized by radical, total dependence on God. Within this reality, we’re not related to anyone or anything in and of themselves, but all our relationships go through Jesus and outward. That is the vision of the future we see in the Resurrection, and I think that’s the reason Jesus promised a future in which people will neither marry nor be given in marriage (Matt. 22:30).
I’ve heard many Christians—members of what you call the Marriage Mandate Movement—argue that the church has to stay focused on marriage and family, because the wider culture is losing sight of their value. How do you respond?
The church is not about protecting the family. That is not its identity or its purpose. The church consists of people who believe that Jesus was raised from the dead and act as his witnesses in the world. How the world responds, of course, is ultimately outside of our hands. We trust the Holy Spirit to do his work. And so I think the church is off-base when it gets into a protective posture, even to protect something as good as the family.
Have you received any pushback as a married author writing about singleness?
I feel the most pushback, honestly, from inside myself. Sometimes I feel a little bit like a fraud—“I was single, and now I’m not, but I have all this wisdom I want to share about singleness!”
But singleness isn’t just a question for single people. Part of the problem is that married people often assume they don’t have to worry about singleness—or that their job is helping single people get married as quickly as possible. Nurturing, preserving, and encouraging single people—and receiving from them this gift of a theological vision—is important to the whole church. If marriage can present a theological picture of who God is and what God is doing for people, then singleness can do the same for married people.
In the book, you profile Macrina (a 4th-century nun), Perpetua (a 2nd-century martyr), and Lottie Moon (a 19th-century missionary to China) as examples of Christian women who remained faithful amid singleness. Why, specifically, did you chose Perpetua, who was married and a mother but ended up separated from her family?
Perpetua was not “single” in the contemporary sense. But I stuck with her because I felt it was important to recognize that singleness comes in different shapes and sizes. Some single people are widowed. Some are divorced. Some want to be single, and some don’t. Perpetua is an example of someone who has been married, who had a child, and yet at a key moment in her life, as far as we know, no husband is involved. Her singleness is different but no less real, and there are people in the church dealing with similar circumstances today.
You write about Lottie Moon coming from a genteel Southern background. Where did she get the independence, determination, and strength to do trailblazing work as a single female missionary, when so many were trying to hold her back?
Some people point to the fact that the Civil War, which happened when she was quite young, basically left America very short on men. And so women were stepping up and doing things that they hadn’t done before, and many who probably would have gotten married didn’t because of the shortage of young men. But I think there’s more to the story.
First of all, Lottie Moon was incredibly brilliant. Her mastery of languages is an example of that. In that time and place, a smart, outspoken woman wasn’t necessarily what most men were looking for. She was very work-oriented in the best sense of that word. She wanted to live for a purpose that used all her talent. And when she became a Christian, she kept that drive but wanted to do good work for the kingdom of God instead.
There’s clear evidence she was in a serious relationship with a professor and that they wanted to get married. But when she felt the call to mission and the call to marriage were in conflict, she prioritized mission. If marriage could fit in with that, wonderful; if not, there was only one way to go.
In your conclusion, you challenge the assumption that “the family is not only God’s original community” but also “his eternal community and the blueprint for the church.” How did this assumption get so entrenched, and what can we do to uproot it?
Among other reasons, we live in a culture that glorifies sex and romance. As Christians, we don’t believe sex should happen outside of marriage, but we’ve almost entirely bought into the idea that sex is what makes a person fully alive. So when we promote marriage, very often what we’re really promoting is the sexuality we assume people need to live a fulfilled life.
You begin and end the book talking about your single friend, Flo. What are some qualities that made her life as a single Christian so attractive?
When I was young and immature, I had a number of horrible stereotypes about older single women. On some level, I imagined them as lonely, a little bitter, and owning lots of cats. I figured there was a reason nobody had wanted to marry them. And Flo completely exploded these stereotypes. She was just a beautiful woman inside and out. She was smart, funny, interesting, and fashionable.
But secondly, she was a real embodiment of what it means to live, first and foremost, as a member of the kingdom of God, rather than a wife or mother. She lived out an identity that was centered in Christ and the church rather a natural family of some kind.
This was exciting and attractive, partly because I felt like I was facing a life of singleness myself, which I found daunting and scary. I wanted it to be a good life, an important life, one that mattered. And Flo was the full manifestation of how a life fully fixed in Christ and the church could be significant, purposeful, and fun. I was so used to thinking of the perks of marriage and the negatives of singleness. She helped me flip that script and see some of the perks I had overlooked.
So often in the church, single members don't have a vision of singleness presented in real, full-bodied, wonderful people like Flo. And when we finally meet them, we start to think, “I could do this. This isn’t so bad.”
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