Brothers and sisters, the recent discussions of the Trinity and of complementarianism have revealed among other things the theological and historical shallowness of much that passes for state-of-the-art theology and social thought in Protestant circles. We really must do better. This week I’m sharing two guest posts that model depth of thought and positive engagement that surmount the stereotypical evangelical method with a deeper, more holistic approach to personhood. This first piece deals with the topic of singles and the church by a woman writing from the Reformed perspective:
How Do We Solve a Problem Like the Singles?
Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds. Hebrews 10:24
What the Catholics Know About Singleness
Protestants are clueless about singleness. In spite of the many strengths of my reformed Presbyterian upbringing, at 25 I had absorbed the church culture’s implied teaching about singleness – that it is a state of interminable suffering. Accepting that I would be crippled without my “better half” until marriage, I turned to my church’s much better teaching about suffering. As in Herbert’s poem, “The Pulley” my loneliness and restlessness tossed me to Christ’s breast, and that rich friendship is not one I would trade for any number of dates with the dashing music director. Yet while it is quite true that there is a suffering in singleness, much of it results from the contradictory attitudes in the church; if Paul was right about the blessings of singleness, why does the church seem to pity us so much?
Among the Catholics I met while in graduate school at the University of Dallas, this contradiction was far less apparent. There, I met the numeraries of Opus Dei – a semi-monastic order of (essentially) nuns and monks who have jobs in the “real” world, but live together in large houses where they minister to the community and the church. The presence of convents and monasteries changed all the assumptions about singleness among these devout Catholics. Here, singles had more opportunities for enjoyment of God, for service. They had a voice. They, in fact, had to tell the other Catholics that they were not holier than married people – a sentiment summed up in the Catholic girls’ complaint that “God gets the best and we get the rest.” I’ll not deny the problematic theology here, but the Protestant theology that the singles are the poor left-overs is hardly an improvement.
The Protestant Message in a Sexual Age
When I returned to Protestant (specifically reformed Presbyterian) circles, my ear was tuned to notice the cultural pressures towards sex, the Protestant pressure toward marriage, and the silence of the pulpit. In their most recent podcast on the Sexual Revolution
, the MOS team summed up our culture’s immense pressure toward sexual identity. Christine Colon takes it one step further in her book Singled Out
– culture tells us that virgins are immature and emotionally stunted neurotics whose only escape is in having sex. Christian singles hear this from culture and from the church that sex outside marriage is wrong. The result is that the slightest nudge toward marriage from a well-meaning believer comes across to the single like another reminder that we are immature and emotionally stunted and our only hope for happiness is marriage.
We are told to both “enjoy our singleness while we can” and to “get serious about getting married.” When I answer the “Are you dating” question in the negative, the look of pity, confusion, surprise, and embarrassment that follows is another reminder that I as a “professional” woman am outside the experience of the housewife with three children. What follows is rarely helpful: “Maybe you’re too assertive,” “Don’t worry! You’re pretty!” “That’s right – party it up!” and the recent classic – “Have you tried eHarmony?” In the Mrs-Bennet-like moves to cure the problem of our singleness combined with the pulpits’ occasional teaching that singleness is good, both married and single people have grown confused.
In hyper-complementarian and patriarchic circles the damage goes even further. If all women are to submit to all men, and if a woman’s natural place is in the home, where does that leave single women who work for a living? Can a woman be the boss of men? Can she even take pleasure in her work outside the home? And when she does return to that empty home at night, what happens to her sense of “femininity” if she is then too tired to keep house like a good woman should?
The Difficulty of Content Singleness
Contentment is difficult for singles because from our perspective, both the believing and unbelieving world seem to agree that happiness in celibacy is impossible. In both worlds, sex/marriage has become a defining threshold between childhood and adulthood. We are children, teenagers, college-age, single, then married. When we pass 30 or 40 and are still celibate, everyone (literally) thinks something’s gone wrong.
Even popular scientific theories like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs classes the need for sex at the same level as food, water and air. If the church does not answer, is it any wonder that Christian singles sometimes conclude that masturbation is not wrong and that pornography is at least better than the alternative? Essentially, we come to believe that God has given us “everything pertaining to life and godliness” except a spouse.
The God Who Satisfies
It is just such erroneous thinking that provoked Paul’s comments on marriage and singleness in 1 Corinthians 7, the premise for which appears in the end of chapter 6. There, as he calls the Corinthians out of their sexual immorality, Paul quotes the saying, “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food” (6:13). In other words, as the stomach is meant for food, so the body is meant for sex. Paul disagrees. The body “is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (6:13). This means that for the married person and the single, there is some need more pressing than sex (or food or air) that can only God can satisfy.
“Your body is a temple” (6:19), then, is not meant as motivation to work out or eat well, but rather to keep from sexual immorality. Because the believer’s soul is united to God in a way similar to the uniting of a married couple (6:17), the sexually immoral person “sins against his own body” (6:18). We think that as long as we’re not hurting anyone else, then it’s not wrong. But for the Christ-indwelt believer, masturbation and pornography are deeply wounding to the God who lives in us. “You are not your own,” as a husband’s body is not his own. “So glorify God in your body” (6:19-20).
This sounds serious, but the implications are radically liberating. You don’t need to get married or have sex to live a rich life! The single person is a whole person on their own. They wait for no “better half” to live the good life. That life is for now. That contentment is for now.
In fact, living a content, celibate life is one of the ways that the single participates in the marriage metaphor. We know that the relationship between a man and wife symbolizes Christ’s relationship with his church. The single reminds that church that it is with Christ that that relationship ultimately exists. To live as a content single now, while longing for that future satisfaction, is our way of bearing Christ’s image in the world.
The Call to Happy Christian Singleness
Though content, celibate, singleness is certainly not easy, and though suffering well is a way of bearing Christ’s image in the world for a time, denying the essential good of singleness is calling God’s gifts bad. The Father does not give bad gifts to his children. Ultimately, then, if you are a single believer, congratulations! For now at least, you have the “gift of singleness.”
Now, that claim usually gets me raised eyebrows and lots of questions. The answers are in I Corinthians Chapter 7.
This is the (in?)famous “gift of singleness” passage, which never uses the words “gift of singleness” at all. Instead, what we think of as “singleness” is really treated as just the baseline of the Christian calling. Marriage has added responsibilities, but everyone is first called to the ordinary, individual, Christian life. When I am told that my apparent “gift of singleness,” of not longing for marriage makes my message irrelevant to those who do long for marriage, I am confused. Should those who inherit the enormous ocean of Christ’s riches be characterized by
sorrow because they lack the thimbleful of marriage?
Yet because marriage is a good thing to desire, we assume it isn’t wrong to be sad that we don’t have it. In fact, it’s almost considered a virtue in this age of equating marriage to maturity. But if we were to replace the term “marriage” with any other (an orderly house, a trip to Bora-Bora, tiny houses…) it is immediately clear that this is idolatry in disguise. Kevin DeYoung notes in his book on same-sex attraction that “A minivan full of kids on the way to Disneyland is a wonderful good, but a terrible god.” Neither marriage nor singleness is better. They are simply different states in which we live out our Christian calling.
Paul’s assertion in I Corinthians that singleness is better may, in fact, be his way of expressing his contentment with his own state. One who is content is often inclined to think his life happier than another’s. Perhaps it is good for the average married person to think her life is happier than a single’s, and it is right for the single to think his life is happier than the marrieds’.
What is the Good of Singleness?
Once I convince my friends that singleness is not inherently bad, I often find that they will admit that their singleness is good for others. Now they have all this free time to do what married people cannot they may assume the best use of their singleness is nursery duty. While some should certainly be working in the nursery, that duty is not necessarily inherent to singleness.
Instead, the first and greatest benefit of singleness is “undistracted devotion to the Lord.” As with every believer, a single’s work should spill naturally out of that devotion to God, but the work is not the first goal. And we must also remember that the fruit of the Spirit is varied; there are as many ways to live a godly single life as there are to live a godly married life – perhaps even more. People are remarkably unique, after all.
So one single who is free from worldly anxieties, and who devotes that freedom to “heavenly anxieties,” may end up spending their life in a very different way from another single. I am often told “I know singleness can be good. There was this single lady in our church – such a happy person! And she ran the whole children’s ministry.” That’s wonderful. But it’s not for everyone. I know one single woman who spent her free time becoming a professional fly-fisherwoman. Now she travels all over the world as a fly-fishing guide to the rich and famous and has a unique ministry to them as a result. Another worked hard at a good job, bought a big house, and then in her fifties two teenage girls who needed a stable home moved in with her. There are a million other possibilities too. So encourage singles to dig into prayer first, and then to be creative with their freedom, “only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal 5:13). As with all aspects of the Christian life, we are not “The Christ,” or the Savior of others – we simply live the life he gives us in quietness and contentment.
How Can I Help the Singles? How Can We Help Each Other?
And to such a life of quiet contentment should we be encouraging one another. I’m beginning to hear married people ask what they can do to help the singles. I find the question disarming but also problematic. The thirty-something single has indeed lived an extremely different life from the thirty-something who married at twenty, and we should acknowledge the differences before we can understand each other.
But after a great deal of discussion, study and prayer, it has become clear that singles are not actually that different from the married! Responsibilities and life experience differ and should be acknowledged, but our identity before the throne of God, where believers find their worth in Christ, is the same. In that place, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female,” neither married or unmarried, “for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
This unity in Christ means that more fundamental to the call to marriage or singleness is the call to follow Christ. The real question is how we might encourage each unique individual “to love and good deeds” (Heb 10:24). Because of the pressures from all sides to get married and have sex, it is probable that the single person needs to be affirmed as a whole person. Dropping the “this is my better half” would be a great start. Married people are not “halves” either!
Most importantly, do not assume that all singles (or married people, for that matter) are alike. Approach each with that loving curiosity that asks just the right question and gives encouragement unique to them. Some singles will flourish best when drawn into another family. Let them in, if you are so called. Others may simply want to be your friend. If so, don’t withhold from them the struggles of married life. I have learned much about friendship through the struggles of my married friends, and married people may be surprised to discover in their single friends a more unbiased perspective than another married person can give. Mutually look for what the other married/single person can teach, remembering that we all are independent, single, set-apart people in the end.
And, Single Christian, I know, because I have felt it myself, that singleness can be intensely and uniquely lonely. Don’t deny it when it happens, but do not think that marriage will solve it. Loneliness knows no distinction between marriage and singleness. But let the suffering have that good effect that all suffering has for the believer. Because we do remind the church that her ultimate satisfaction in Christ, there is a longing for heaven built into our kind of image bearing. So run to Christ with the longing, and you will find the burden lighter.
Consider too, that all the virtues which make singleness easier are not ones that a western church tends to emphasize: quietness in solitude, commitment in friendship, patience while working, and contented celibacy. You must be an independent thinker if you’re to live this radical kind of life. And it is a radical, adventurous life. In our culture, this is uncharted territory.
Also, interpret kindly the well-meant efforts of your married friends. As you get to know them better, you may be surprised to hear how common the sufferings of the faithful Christian life are. From my married friends, I have learned how to live in relationship with others; from my single friends, how to pursue God’s call with a peaceful kind of energy. Marrieds and singles have the same sin struggles, the same call, the same Lord. So drag each other heavenward, “encouraging one another and so much the more as you see the day approaching” (Heb 10:25). And know that really, “glory, glory dwelleth in Emmanuel’s land.”
Rachel Kilgore is starting her 3rd year in the English PhD. program at Baylor and is a member at Redeemer PCA in Waco, Texas. She grew up in Houston and went to the University of Dallas for a Master's degree in English. After that, Rachel taught as an English adjunct for 3 years in Dallas and Houston before realizing how necessary the PhD. was for teaching English long-term. She usually studies Jane Austen, the ethics of reading, and the development of the novel.