The Church and Singles

Hey, guys:

There’s a lot that I’ve been wanting to blog about, but as the father of a five-year-old, an almost-three-year-old and a nine-month-old who is currently teaching an overload at the college (um, I’m doing the teaching, not the the baby), spare minutes to write are getting hard to find.  But I was in an email discussion among some preaching friends about what the church should preach on Valentine’s Day, and I said:

I’ll just add this: whenever I paid specific attention to married life and romance in my preaching, I spent equal time on singleness, and emphasized the unmarried lives of Jesus and Paul.  Married people tend to get a lot of attention and positive affirmation in churches, and that can leave singles feeling like they aren’t real people yet.  That’s unscriptural and damaging, especially in a culture where most people don’t marry until their late 20’s, and many are between marriages.

On the other hand, depending on the background of your congregation, you might want to make the affirmative case for marriage, given how many secular people don’t see the point of it anymore.  Have to get the secular folks to value commitment and get the churchy folks to honor singleness.

I was asked what it would look like if I were invited to preach a sermon honoring singleness, and my attempt to answer that turned into a rant I thought I would share here.  Disclaimer: this rant is ranty.

__________________________

Well, to be honest, my primary impulse is to tear down the idol of “family” which is often used as a synonym for “Christian” or “responsible.”  The biggest place you see this is in the term “family values,” which when used in conversation means “Christian values as I understand them” 90% of the time and means nothing at all the other 10%.  Or, I remember being at a pastors’ prayer breakfast with mayor once when the mayor said he didn’t like all the focus on “the Almighty dollar” in our town and wanted to replace it with “the Almighty family.”  I nearly fell out of my chair, since I was expecting his last word to be “God,” and I think I did drop down a few inches when assembled pastors burst into applause.  But most of them had been focusing on the family and promoting family values for so long that it might not have been a big stretch to just declare the family almighty and worship it.

I think I preached a sermon once called “Can Single People Have Family Values?” that tried to kick some of the stones out of the family altar the modern evangelical church has created.  What I’m afraid this does is create an expectation that real  Christians have spouses and kids, and if you don’t, you are either defective or in a sort of holding pattern while you’re waiting for your real life to begin.  Too many larger churches have singles’ classes that are functionally either “Youth Group 2.0” or not-so-thinly veiled elder-sponsored match-making services.  As someone who was single until 29 and hated that dynamic, I can attest that if you insist on showing up to just a normal adult class, there will be some people who try to gently steer you toward the kiddie table where you belong.  Or, consider this: if you have knowledge of biggish churches, you’ll find a lot of singles’ classes sponsored by a married couple, which is, again, a not-too-subtle hint that either (1) you guys can’t govern yourselves and need a real adult around here or (2) you would benefit from a living example of someone who has successfully gotten married, since that either is or should be your goal.  But how often do you hear about a couples’ class taught or sponsored by a single person?  “Never” is the answer in my experience.  Churches will choose someone who was married at 19 to lead a class of singles in their 20’s and 30’s even though that person has no experience in long-term singleness because we don’t value the experience of long-term singleness.  We value marriage, and they have proven they can get married.  We think long-term singles can learn from long-term married people–and, sure, they can–but we almost never reverse that.  And the fact that married people and single people are on such unequal footing in many churches, with the former always teachers and the latter always students, shows you how far we are from Biblical teaching.

And, as any unmarried preacher knows, you aren’t going to get very in a ministry career until there is a ring on your finger, in spite of the fact that almost all of the New Testament is either about an unmarried preacher (Jesus) or written by one (Paul).

Matthew 19 is one of the primary texts in this regard:

3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’[a] 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’[b]? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

I think it’s worth pointing out to the church that when the disciples say “Sounds like maybe it’s better not to marry!” Jesus doesn’t respond, “Oh, no, I wouldn’t go that far!”  He says, “Yeah, for some people it is–and single living can be done for the sake of heaven,which means it is something that heaven honors and finds valuable, even if earth doesn’t.”  In fact, for several hundred years of the early church, it would have made a lot more sense to name an organization “Focus on the Singles” or to talk about “Single Values.”

A few quotes from a paper I once wrote about this topic:
Jerome, writing to Eustochium, a celibate woman of aristocratic heritage, encouraged her to realize her superiority over married women: “Learn from me a holy arrogance: know that you are better than they are!” Ambrose provided the corollary: “Those who decide to marry…must of necessity confess that they are inferior to virgins.”

We should also remember that the Lord also taught, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 24.26). In its haste to point out that Jesus did not literally mean “hate,” the contemporary church has neglected to teach that Jesus certainly did mean that family matters are subservient to kingdom concerns, and his disciples may be called upon to leave all those attachments behind. Certainly that was true of those he called during his earthly ministry.

The fact that Jesus taught both that that some are called to be eunuchs for the kingdom and that whoever comes to him must hate his family, and the church has still managed to make an idol of family life shows how powerful this dynamic is.  I think we’ve basically given into the impulse to take what is the norm in our society and declare it the standard that all should strive for.  It’s very reassuring for our married folk to be told they’ve done it the right way.  But the Bible at the very least, presents both married and single life as valued paths, and, honestly, by the time you really absorb Matthew 19, Luke 24 and 1 Corinthians 7, it’s pretty easy to make the case that celibate singleness is the standard and marriage is a concession for people who can’t handle the higher calling.  This is a message most of the evangelical church is unable or unwilling to hear, even though it is right there in the Bible. And when a single person reads those passages and notices that they are either (1) never preached or (2) preached with so many disclaimers and caveats that there’s no message left by the end of the sermon, they see what’s going on.  We are going to do what it takes to continue honoring married people above singles even if we have to tape up the mouths and Jesus and Paul to do it.

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7 Comments

Filed under Bible, Church Culture, Rants

7 responses to “The Church and Singles

  1. Jeff Eaton

    The Barna Group put out a very interesting book a few years back called “Single Focus” that talked about a lot of the things you mention here. Not as much the theological aspect (ie, the substitution of ‘Family’ for ‘Christian’), but the issue of how singleness is perceived and treated in the church.

    Your point about the popularization of ‘Family’ as a synonym for ‘Christian, Probably Protestant North American’ is definitely interesting; I’m going to be mulling over it for a while.

  2. Part of the problem is segregating singles and marrieds in the first place, implying that they’re different species or (in the case of singles) dangerous or toxic. Adult classes should be “any adult who wants to join,” and marriage status should be entirely irrelevant. Don’t even get me started on couple retreats, or parallel husband and wife seminars about Your Spousal Role.

    I honestly think it’s tied into the sex obsession of so many churches; worrying about unauthorized sex leads to hyper-obsession with getting people married off and procreating. And suspicion of those who haven’t done so yet.

  3. Yeah, I agree completely. I could understand an every-now-and-then event where couples go to one room and singles to another to deal with marriage and relationship-specific questions, but there’s no justification for a routine segregation. And that feeds the “you aren’t really a part of this church” feeling.

  4. Ray Brooks

    Great insights Kirk. I could give many experiences of the trials of being single in church. Thanks for posting this.

    And, as you are a married man, thanks for remembering us singles biblically. It is refreshing.

  5. anonymous

    Two things:

    1) The Christian church (or the smaller subset, the Churches of Christ) provide nothing in the way of an example for how to enter into or cultivate a healthy marriage. Is anyone really arguing that the religious are setting any kind of standard for successful marriage relationships? That’s absurd: http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_dira.htm

    2) The church fails to deal with sexuality in any realistic way. The churched are taught to pretend they don’t have libidos, and are filled with guilt and shame because they actually do have sexual desire. Consider the cultural norm of the south where religion has strong control over the prevailing culture. The South is where gender roles are still deeply entrenched. The South is where you have individuals born in the 1990’s feeling pressure to marry as to avoid the eternal hell fires that surely follows fornication, and, also, to fit into the cultural norms that are not-so-subtly omnipresent. Unsurprisingly, the highest divorce rates are in the Bible Belt with Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama and Oklahoma rounding out the Top Five in frequency of divorce

    Thank you for calling attention to the way the Christian church is a part of the equation that leads people to enter into marriage with very little appreciation for the bleak chances that the marriage relationship will result in a lifetime of love and happiness, but your rant doesn’t go far enough for some, or at least me. The church and it’s culture of dogmatic certainty coupled with a shockingly detached way of addressing real relationships is a large part of the problem. It would be truly miraculous if that changed.

  6. Wow. Great post. There’s a few things here that I’ve never thought about before and some that I’ve been personally very bothered by too. I remember being super peeved as an adult who was unmarried by the way you’re treated like you’re not a genuine grown-up yet because you haven’t signed away your assets. I also remember calling the “married set” at church The Scary Marrieds because they had such an obsessed with their relationships status, and aloof aura about their get-togethers.

  7. Pingback: Sexuality and the Single Christian « life of a female bible warrior

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