Review: The Significance of Singleness by Christian S. Hitchcock
Updated: Jul 24, 2022
Christina S. Hitchcock’s The Significance of Singleness seeks to address the dearth of theological literature on the subject of singleness. A quick glance at her foot notes highlights a stark problem: there are few other books on the subject she cites positively. Her book is a welcome entry into this underrepresented area of study and theological refection.
Hitchcock begins with a sharp, and necessary critique, of the American, specifically evangelical, church’s theology of marriage along with its consequent neglect of singleness as a valid and rich vocation for Christians. She argues that the Church has merely adopted society’s understanding of sex as based on an individual’s sense of autonomy (8). The Marriage Mandate Movement within evangelicalism, represented by organizations such as Focus on the Family, argues that sex is a normal and expected part of life. Its only difference with society’s position is its the assumption that sex should be regulated to marriage (9-11). Marriage Mandate proponents also agree with society that the sexual relationship is the best and only place to truly experience love and intimacy, though regulating it to the context of marriage (13). For the Christian and the non-Christian alike, sex is “the sign of true humanity” (15). Hitchcock, however, argues we ought to root our understanding of humanity, love, intimacy, sex, marriage, and singleness in light of Jesus’ resurrection and see how it points to His Kingdom life in the present (17-22).
Hitchcock then provides three case studies which she uses to highlight theological themes underpinning singleness and celibacy. Some male readers may be disappointed to note that all three of her case studies are women. However, because throughout history, marriage has been particularly necessary for women in society, these women highlight the theological themes more dramatically than their male counterparts. They represent a sharper, and clearer, break with society’s understanding of sexuality than their male counterparts.
The first case study is St. Macrina, an early church monastic. Hitchcock argues that in Macrina, we see the Image of God as consisting in relationship (35). Hitchcock does not defend her definition of the imago Dei as clearly as she could, given that it has been a topic of theological disagreement throughout the centuries. Rather than in marriage, we recognize true relationships as seen in Christ’s relationship to the Father and in our relationship with Him (43-44). In Macrina’s singleness, she found community first through her relationship with God and, second, through a community of like-minded women, rather than in marriage (47-48, 50-55).
Hitchcock’s second example, Perpetua, an early church martyr, demonstrates a rejection of rooting her identity in motherhood and marriage and, instead, in baptism. According to Hitchcock, baptism highlights that our identity is rotted in the promise of Christ’s resurrection rather than in our natural relations (74-75). Baptism also binds us to the community of Christ’s church (75-77). Baptism requires us to root our trust completely in the Kingdom of Christ and the Church, including ourselves as its members. We must demonstrate our trustworthiness to fellow members who have entered vulnerable relationship with us (77).
Her third example is missionary Lottie Moon. In this chapter, Hitchcock is in danger of arguing more for women in ministry than for a theology of singleness, but the key themes she highlights are appropriate for her subject. In a day when women’s missionary activity was defined by their marriage (97-104), Lottie Moon ministered as a single woman. She argued that a woman’s missionary activity does not come from her marriage. Instead, the work of Christ works in each individual both for salvation and to provide individuals who can share the love of Christ with each individual, irregardless of gender (112-117). Second, she argues that the Holy Spirit is given to each individual who empowers each Christian for mission (117-120). Her authority came from Christ rather than her marriage.
Following her case studies, Hitchcock sketches several areas of theological reflection which would benefit from a robust theology of singleness. First, the subject of women’s roles in the church needs to be rooted in the empowering of the Holy Spirit rather than in regulating a woman’s role to her marriage (128-132). Second, if the church is to affirm a traditional understanding of marriage, the church needs to offer a robust and life-giving understanding of celibacy for heterosexual and homosexual persons alike. The alternative is blatant hypocrisy (132-135). Third, the church needs to provide an affirmation of friendship in an age when society is suspicious of all relationships as sexual (132-140). Fourth, Christians needs to be reminded that the call to make disciples is a call to invite the world into relationship with Christ, rather than merely building the church through child-rearing (140-144).
Hitchcock’s work provides many profound themes worth recovering in the church’s understanding of singleness. However, her book remains simply a sketch. Each of these chapters, and even sub-headings, could be expanded into their own full-length book treatments. Hitchcock offers a robust beginning to theological reflection on singleness and celibacy, one which is desperately needed. However, it is also just that, a beginning. It is time for the church to further her reflections.
Hitchcock, Christina S. The Significance of Singleness: A Theological Vision for the Future of the Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018.