At church one time I was talking with some older ladies. Our conversation went something like this:
“So, are you married?”
“Oh.” You could hear the disappointment in their voices. As if there was nothing more to talk about now that they knew I wasn’t a mother or wife like them.
This has happened many times in a variety of settings. Married Christian woman act disappointed and dismissive once they find out I’m single. No matter what I talk about—be it my love of hiking, my work to protect girls from human trafficking, my endeavors in writing—it’s all met with an odd silence. With a disapproving show of disinterest.
Because I’m single, I am nothing. Or maybe, in their world, I’m broken and in need of fixing.
I’m half of a whole.
My life hasn’t truly begun yet.
Or, though they never said it out loud, it could be that I’m a lesbian.
This may sound ridiculous, but a friend I know was cornered by people at her church. They expressed their suspicion that she was a lesbian simply because she’s still single and in her thirties. Talk about rubbing salt into an already raw wound.
When did the Apostle Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 7 that singleness is a gift fall out of sight underneath a pew, like a discarded giving envelope? When did we forget that many of the giants of the Christian faith were single? Apostle Paul. St. Augustine. St. Patrick. St. Francis of Assisi. Amy Carmichael. C. S. Lewis (although he did marry near the end of his life). Mother Teresa. Henri Nouwen.
Oh yeah. Jesus Christ.
The church has a deep heritage of honoring singleness. For centuries, monasticism was one of the deepest ways a believer could express devotion to God. A person would devote their life to celibacy, serving the poor, praying, studying the scriptures, teaching, making “darkness into light.” If believers were serious about their commitment to God, they had an option to remain single for the rest of their lives in worship of God. It was an honorable way to live, and many in society chose it.
It was from these monasteries and communities that great theologians recorded their insights, where education was given to the masses, where art and culture were cherished. It has even been argued that Irish monks saved Western civilization during the Dark Ages.
With such a rich history and honored place in the church, why would anyone, especially a Christian, dismiss singleness as a failure—or even worse, an aberration?
God never hesitates to use single people to do great and profound work in the world. Maybe if we were more concerned with serving the poor, reaching out to society, and giving our lives to the great work of God—instead of making perfect-looking Christian couples and families—the world would be forever changed again.
I am not suggesting we all should be nuns or monks. The monastic movement was not perfect. Still, I am saying the church in America puts an unhealthy emphasis on marriage to the detriment of single people and the honorable state of singleness.
Most seminary graduates must be married in order to even be considered as a candidate for a pastoral position. Given the climate of Protestant Christianity in America, an unmarried male pastor would be suspect. He would be thought to be gay or a predator. Christians have a knack for demeaning singleness, causing unmarried people to feel useless or out of step with God. Marriage, in contrast, is held up as God’s highest good. It is thought to show that we truly are walking with God.
How damaging is this to those who are single?
Yes, God can work in marriage. But He can work in the midst of singleness just as much. Marriage may be a step toward achieving the American Dream, but is not God’s dream for everyone. God has a unique plan for each life—and it might include singleness (for a period, or perhaps for life).
Americans are waiting longer to get married, or are choosing not to get married in far greater numbers than ever before. Statistically, singles make up an increasing percentage of the adult population. If the church refuses to grant singles a place, on a par with couples, it will lose out on a major portion of the gifts God gave to the church. Singles are whole people, not semi-persons waiting for real life to start with marriage.
And what if the women who stopped talking to me when they found out I was single were right? What if I had been a lesbian? Is marriage the “solution” they would recommend? The best-known organization that advocated reparative therapy as an attempt to change gays to straights has renounced such advocacy. The organization’s head apologized and repented. He pointed to the great harm that was done, and the organization disbanded. It is wrong to pressure gays to marry, to pretend to be heterosexual, as if that shows they are healed and acceptable.
The church must also not pressure young adults to rush into marriage. In too many cases, young people don’t know themselves yet. They aren’t ready to enter into something as serious as marriage. Pressuring young people into marriage will do nothing but lead to more heartbreak and divorce. (Although I’m not saying this is the case in every young marriage. There are many that work out, but just as many that fail).
We must offer people an alternative to the idolatry of marriage. We must teach everyone that singles are whole in and of themselves because God made each individual in His image. A man does not complete a woman, and neither does a woman complete a man. Each person, not just each couple, is a vital part of the church. God has a plan for each person, single or married.
God completes us when we find our identity and our worth in Him.
Real life comes when we embrace the here and now and serve God with joy and passion.
We should be pursuing Christ, not marriage. We should allow people to be who God made them to be, not pressure them to conform to our definition of what a “mature adult” does. We should be pursuing His love that can change each one of us in profound ways—single or married.