I want to treat today’s topic with a little more sensitivity, because I don’t want this to seem like a church-bashing session. So before I tell you why it’s been hard to be single in the church, let me give a few qualifications.
First, the things I’m going to say today are based on observations, personal experiences and the experiences of friends. There are many churches to whom these do not apply.
Second, churches do amazing things. There are beautiful, generous, wise people in the congregations and on staff. So I’m not trying to disparage churches in general; I’m only describing an experience that I believe lies in the blind spot of many churches.
Third, I don’t think the pain singles experience is intentionally or even knowingly inflicted by most churches. As I said above, I think it’s a blind spot. And hopefully, by having an honest conversation, we can help each other see.
Ok. That being said, here are the top 7 reasons why I think it’s hard to be single in the church.
1)The mythical “gift” of singleness.
I’ve heard many, many times from church leaders that some people have “the gift of singleness,” which is divinely given and has nothing to do with that person’s free will. Furthermore, if a person has the “gift of singleness,” they know from a young age that they’re meant to be single for the rest of their lives.
Therefore, if you don’t know that you’re supposed to be single forever, that means you’re supposed to get married.
This is nowhere in the Bible. Nowhere. Paul says in I Corinthians 7 that marriage is a concession, something you’re allowed to do as a last resort if you can’t resist sexual temptation.
I know lots of single people, even single people who have been single for decades and died single. And I don’t know of a single person who knew they were going to be single forever.
2)Marriage is a short-sighted goal.
Is marriage beautiful? Yes. Would I like to be married some day? I’m definitely open to the possibility — if it’ll allow me to do something for God that I can’t do as a single person.
Will I feel that if I’m single forever, I have a gaping void in my life narrative, or I’ve not been blessed by God? Absolutely not.
Marriage is a beautiful illustration of Christ and the church. But even the most amazing marriages only last for five or six decades and then we enter the other side of eternity, where, Jesus says, “they neither give nor are given in marriage.”
In the whole scheme of things, marriage is a drop in the ocean of time. Marriage is great, but instead of perseverating on it, what if we lifted our eyes to the real promise — that one day we will all be reunited with and “married to” Divine Love for eternity.
For me, that’s the most exciting thing.
3)Marriage is treated as the benchmark for maturity and adulthood.
This is true in general society, but I think it’s even more noticeable in the church.
Single people are often disqualified from, or not even considered for, ministry positions because they’re not married. For one, because everyone’s worried that singles’ sex drives are so out of control, they’ll try to seduce everyone around them. And for two, because one of the qualifications Paul stated for elders is that they be “the husband of one wife.”
This phrase has caused unbelievable (and, I think, unnecessary) turmoil and pain in the church. I’ll deal with the gender implications in a later post, but for now, can we agree that “be the husband of one wife” means “If you’re married, honor your vows. Oh, and don’t practice polygamy.”
To interpret it any other way seems weird because, by taking this passage literally, we’d have to disqualify at least two incredible men — Jesus and Paul — from church leadership.
It’s crazy to think we’d ban Jesus from ministering to people in our churches. And it’s also bizarre to think that Paul wrote qualifications that disqualified himself from ministry.
Paul even says in I Corinthians 7 that single people are MORE available to minister and be available to people than married people. So how is it that we do exactly opposite of that and make it difficult for singles (especially single men) to be in leadership?
4)There are more resources to support marriage & family than singles.
In many churches, there are multiple classes for people who are, or who want to be, married. There’s a pre-marital class, a class on marriage, a marriage mentorship program, and a parenting class. There are lots of Christian resources for how to be married. There often aren’t any for how to be single.
I went to a church of a few thousand people, and several singles tried to get a singles group started. At first they were told no, because, “as everyone knows, singles groups are just meat markets.”
Then they were told that “the church doesn’t need a singles ministry because no one would come — no one actually wants to be single.”
A few years later, they were allowed to start a singles group, but it had to be like all the other small groups meeting that quarter — which meant it was assigned a room at the church and had to meet once a week, on campus, at a certain time. Now, anyone who knows the lifestyle of single people know that this will absolutely not work.
The two leaders asked if they could, instead, host get-togethers in different venues, at different times during the week, to allow single people the opportunity to connect with each other in a more informal way. They were told no. If they didn’t meet in the small group format, then they were no longer a ministry of the church.
The church did, however, avoid scheduling events at 8 p.m. on weeknights because they knew many parents wouldn’t be able to make it. But when it came to creating a schedule that worked for singles? Not so much.
5) I Corinthians 7 is acknowledged but not encouraged.
I have never heard a sermon in which a pastor preaching on I Corinthians 7 camped on the sentence “being single is being preferable…..”
First of all, Ephesians 5 gets WAY more attention than I Corinthians 7. And when pastors do preach on the passage in Corinthians that includes the bit about being single, they always transition quickly to, “BUT….if your sex drive is too high…and it probably is….then it isn’t wrong to get married.”
And…the church will do your premarital counseling, host your bridal shower and wedding, and the pastor delivering this sermon will marry you.
But if you choose to remain single, what will the church provide for you? Umm……
Christianity is radical, right? Following Jesus means taking up a cross and following him, right? And Jesus was poor and single, right?
If our faith is so radical, why don’t we encourage people to make radical choices? Why don’t pastors stand up in front of their congregations and preach on I Corinthians 7 and challenge people to consider whether, for the sake of the Gospel, they can put off marriage (at least for a season) to do something for God and others that they couldn’t do if they were married?
There’s an opportunity cost for every choice we make in life. The opportunity cost for being single is dealing with loneliness and celibacy. What’s the opportunity cost of marriage? Well, an enormous amount of time, tons of energy, and tens of thousands of dollars in setting up a household, throwing a wedding and taking a honeymoon.
Has anyone ever dared to ask out loud, “What could we do for the Kingdom if we skipped the wedding and spent that time, energy and money on ministry instead?”
I have never heard anyone ever say that out loud in church. Not just from the pulpit, but in any of the pews.
6)Singles are used as worker bees in the church.
I’ve heard more than one pastor say that if you’re single, you’re meant to serve the church. Which, several have said, means providing childcare on Sunday mornings so the married couples could participate in the morning worship service.
We’re not 15 year old babysitters, okay? We’re every bit as intelligent and mature as any married person, and we need fellowship and teaching just as much as anyone.
Should we participate in childcare? Of course. We should do everything we can do to serve the community. But married people should do the same. We are all to serve each other.
7)Single people are not discipled in their singleness.
When I’ve spoken to pastors about being single, the immediate response has been to come up with solutions to make singleness not quite so painful until some guy wises up and marries me.
Singleness is not a disease, and marriage is not the cure.
Yes, singleness is sometimes a struggle and people in that season are sometimes miserable or discouraged or weary — but you could say the same thing about marriage, right? And we don’t offer miserable married people divorces; we teach them how to grow and persevere in the midst of the difficulties.
I have never, not even once, been encouraged to persevere in my singleness because I could do something with it that I couldn’t otherwise do for God. Instead, I’ve been encouraged to look forward to marriage. And I’ve also had pastors profusely apologize to me that they haven’t been able to convince a man in our congregation to pursue me. Both are vastly unhelpful responses.
When pastors say this, it reminds me of Anna and Simeon, who were both (presumably) single adults who spent lots of time at the temple, and were the first people to hold baby Jesus when Mary and Joseph brought him to the temple 8 days after he was born.
In today’s churches, I think most pastors would try to convince Anna and Simeon to get married to each other, and assume that if they didn’t persue marriage, one or both of them was too selfish, immature, short-sighted, picky, etc.
What would the temple have missed out on if Anna and Simeon had married, moved out, and purused domestic bliss? The entire community would have missed out on their constant presence, and Anna and Simeon themselves would have missed out on the opportunity to dwell in God’s house and to serve others.
All that to say, Do singles want to get married? Yes, probably. But who knows when that will be. Maybe next year, maybe not ever. And if we hold our breath waiting for it, we’ll miss all the beautiful opportunities that are right here, right now. As Henri Nouwen says, we’ll miss the treasure under the ground on which our feet now stand.