Stop Telling People to “Just Get Married”
“You shall not commit adultery.”
For a single Christian, marriage is often sold like 21st-century snake oil:
“Having trouble with lust?
Feel assaulted by a hyper-sexualized world?
Do you sometimes struggle to find purpose?
Do you ever feel distance between you and God?
Are you searching for, and lacking community?
Are you lonely? Angry? Bored? Have seasonal allergies, excess weight, or back pain?
Then get Married! That’s all it takes. Get Married and *poof!* — most of your troubles will disappear. They’ll sort themselves out… or at least, you’ll have the sort of troubles — family troubles — that we, the church, know how to deal with.
Once you’re married, you can come to us with you communication struggles, your squabbles over division of labor, and your parenting stress, and we’ll smile, and nod approvingly. This will be a great relief and improvement from the church having to deal with you as a single person. As long as you’re single, we shift uneasily, hope you don’t mention sex, and secretly judge you for frittering away time ‘hanging out with friends.’ Whatever that means, you’re certainly not procreating the pipeline for our children’s ministry... .”
Convinced? But wait, there's more:
“We’ll offer you marriage seminars, marriage retreats, sermons on marriage and family, and parenting classes. We’ll make sure your family is strong. Once we see a ring on your finger, we might even consider taking you off the JV, and putting you on Varsity — maybe you can lead a ministry or become an officer. At the very least, you’d now be a respected member of the team.”
There was a time, shortly after I started pastoring, when our church was going through a head pastor search process. Someone suggested out loud that I should be the next lead pastor. The elder standing next to me slapped me on the back and joked: “We gotta get him married first!” We all laughed. I wasn’t offended or surprised. It was a joke. But it also wasn’t a joke. He simply happened to have the forthrightness to speak the unwritten rule. After all, how many single lead pastors do you know?
The point isn’t about pastoring. I would go so far as to say it’s quite legitimate, in certain church cultures, to desire and prioritize hiring a married lead pastor as the best fit. However, what that speaks to is a reality within our churches which should be a source of sadness and introspection. Why do marriage and family seem to be the church’s one-stop solution to sexual brokenness? Certainly marriage and family are great gifts from God and vehicles of His grace, but not the only ones. The great commission can be fulfilled in raising up godly children, but it is not the only way.
We need to find a way to recognize and re-value the legitimacy of singleness and lives of celibacy. Perhaps the Protestant church still has a bad taste in its mouth. It might take a long time yet to cool off Luther’s reactionary spirit to Catholicism’s confused spiritual elevation of celibacy—a confusion which lingers today, and whose effects can be seen in some of the tangled mess of its priesthood.
There are other issues at play as well here. Perhaps we view a lifestyle of singleness as one that must be too much bound up in the world’s values of sexual license and selfish personal fulfillment. But regardless of our underlying concerns, the fact is that we lack a schema for the adult Christian single that is not earmarked as damaged, or sad, or sprinkled with warning labels.
It’s hard to imagine that the demon of sexual confusion, disorder, and destruction has peaked in his ascendancy to power in America. In this climate, the church needs to be guiding people to more, not fewer, pathways to healthy sexuality. We have every reason to expect that prolonged seasons of singleness will become more and more of a norm. This means the church has to wrestle with what to do with these growing masses, that cannot (and should never have been) shuffled to the bottom of the deck. The panacea of “just get married” is often not the best response.
In some ways, there is as much, if not more, to be feared in marriage than in singleness. The prohibition against adultery has in its sights the most extreme assault against God’s plan for sexuality. The great evil is not homosexuality or switching genders—it’s breaking the oath of a covenant commitment meant to represent Christ’s union with His Church. It is the severing of, and disloyalty to an established marriage which represents the greatest violence against God’s holy will.
My point is not so much to attempt an airtight case in the foggy field of ranking sins, but rather to argue that, at the very least, marriage and family should not be thrust upon believers like Tylenol and antidepressants. Let’s keep in mind the perfection of Jesus, the lifelong single. Let’s reread 1 Corinthians 7. Most fundamentally, let’s treat singles as equally grace-needy brothers and sisters.
Read previous articles in this series here.
Justin Poythress (MDiv, WTS) is Assistant Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers, FL. He blogs regularly at Time & Chance.
"Was the Nuclear Family a Mistake?" by Justin Poythress
"Was Paul Co-Dependent?" by Bruce Lowe
"A Worthy Goal" by Oliver Allmand-Smith
Holiness and Honor: A Reformed View of Sex and Marriage, with Iain Duguid, David Murray, and Joel Beeke. Includes Tim Geiger's message, "Biblical Sexuality for Married and Single Christians."
Fine China Is For Single Women Too by Lydia Brownback