Swimming against the tide is never easy. It’s tiring and can make you feel that you aren’t making very much progress. In a marriage-obsessed Christianity, being a single Christian is swimming against the tide … and it’s being invisible. Statistically, in the states, the number of people who are single slightly outnumber the married couples at 50.2% as of 2014 (1). Instead of acknowledging this reality and speaking the needs of our culture, the Christian church continues it’s long-standing tradition of speaking almost exclusively to marriage. It seems that with the rise of complementarian teachings, even more than usual they’ve been preaching about God’s order for the home, male headship, and how wives must submit. As a result, single Christians are often excluded or left with the message that because marriage is central to Christian teachings, they must seek marriage with their whole heart so that they can more fully follow God’s direction for their lives as mature Christians. In all of this, there’s not an easy statistic to point to as to the gender balance of single men and women in Christianity; but there are a great many anecdotes of more single women than men struggling to find their spouse into their thirties and beyond. That is supported by the findings of the U.S. Census Bureau in 2011 that for every 100 unmarried women there are 89 unmarried men (2).
So we can safely say that there are more single women than men and there are not enough men for all the women to marry. That means that for a great many singles, they endure a decade of sermons about the centrality of marriage without a single sermon spent on encouraging them where they are at all the while being told platitudes to keep on trying for marriage. That’s not to say that the Bible doesn’t have verses that speak to singleness, it does, most churches simply refuse to preach on singleness as a viable and Godly alternative to marriage. After all, since the teaching goes that marriage is a reflection of the relationship between Christ and the Church, then approving singleness would be like saying it’s okay to be an unmarried Jesus or a Christ-less church. Not only that, but marriage is viewed as a requirement for ministry positions – so singles have no representation among the leadership of the Church. Those who do lead the church generally had short seasons of singleness and are not always understanding of what a longer season of singleness is like especially in a marriage-obsessed church. So I thought I’d give them a hand.
1 Corinthians 7:8-9, “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
Yes, we know that Jesus and Paul were both single. Granted, Jesus is more like a bride-groom whose upcoming marriage to the church will end his singleness, but Paul was married to his ministry. He was treated as a leader even though he wrote the rule that said that the leaders ought to be married. I don’t think he meant to disqualify himself as a leader from the church that he leads. Look at that little word ‘if’ – it might surprise you to know that after growing up with True Love Waits and a thorough education about STDs that people have actually gotten pretty good at controlling themselves. Yet every time this verse is trotted out, there is this emphasis: “BURN with passion!” to turn it into a full circle injunction to get married because obviously nobody can control themselves. This, I think, more greatly reflects that married people teach this verse. Married people lack the ability to control themselves, hence, why they got married – so they don’t burn with passion. There’s no getting around that it is good to be single.
1 Corinthians 7:25-40 is probably the longest passage about singleness that Paul wrote. He talks about being free from concern and not having our interests divided; that is, not having to choose between our spouse and God – because we have no spouses, all our focus goes to God. In Paul’s culture, singleness was dangerous. A man who opted for singleness wouldn’t have sons to inherit his property or to continue his family name. A woman who opted for singleness wouldn’t have children to care for her in her old age. Yet here it is – being uplifted and treated as honorable. In fact, it was so honorable that Paul had to tell the marrieds that they shouldn’t get divorced so that they could give everything to God. Because these verses are being ignored, it’s almost as if the Bible is being re-written: “Are you married? Good! You’ve arrived. Are you unmarried? Then seek to be married with your whole heart so that you may share in the fullness of the gospel!”
The reality is that there are certain seasons to singleness each with it’s own specific needs – being not-married and child-free, being a not-married parent, being not-married through divorce, and being a widow or widower. Each of these seasons represent an opportunity to minister to someone that almost always gets ignored. To see the invisible, to help the hurting, and to remember the forgotten. Just to celebrate each and every individual person where they are at.
The marriage-obsession within Christianity has gotten some bad press, usually with the focus to get people married young with the aim of getting them started having children young. A recent conference where adults tried to arrange marriages for their single children and single young adults was cancelled because of the controversial age range of their kids. Singles classes at church can often feel like a speed-dating service in our early to mid twenties, but as we age out of college and young adult ministries, singles can often feel forgotten. As if they’ve expired beyond the ‘best by’ date.
I think the best place to start is for churches to acknowledge their historical failure in serving single Christians in all seasons. It’s time to balance the scales – for every sermon on marriage, preach one on being single and godly or being single and faithful or being single and doing ministry. I think it’s time to recognize the gift of leadership that single men and women have and change our rules to permit singles a greater role in the church. It’s time to highlight single men and women who have done a great service to the church and given everything to God. I think it’s long past time when the schedule is set not according to the needs of parents, but also according to the time constraints of single Christians. It’s time to be inclusive rather than exclusive. It’s time to see us as people who are needed and wanted rather than anomaly to fix or just wish away. It’s time to recognize that there’s a population of believers who are weary from swimming against the tide and who need to be raised up to breathe a fresh breath air and it is time to do something for them before we lose them… forever.