Talk to any of your single Christian friends and they will tell you that the church is not a fun place to be single. The church is full of seemingly happily married couples and families. Married people are generally chosen as leaders and given public roles in the church. Preachers illustrate sermons with many examples from marriage and parenting life (I am guilty of this). If someone is single, we assume that they have a lot of extra time on their hands and must be looking for volunteer opportunities. My single friends tell me that one of the questions they are most commonly asked in church is, “So, are you dating anyone?” Singleness is seen as sort of a “holding pattern” for marriage, as if is all single folks do is sit around and think about how good it would be to be married.
It is no wonder, given this out-of-balance emphasis on the married life, that a call to single living is not an attractive invitation. We may be concerned that our unmarried friends are having unmarried sex, yet we don’t recognize the ways our disproportionate emphasis on marriage contributes to this. We have essentially told people that (a) you can be married and have sex and have the fulfilling life God intended or (b) you can be single and not have sex and be less of what God created you to be.
What can we do to bring greater balance?
First, I think we should demote marriage and family in the church. Of course I don’t mean that we should make less of marriage than God makes it in Scripture, which is a wonderful, joyous institution that reflects the love of Jesus Christ for his people. What I do mean is that we must work to demote marriage from the idolatrous platform it has been given. At times marriage, and presumably sexual joy in marriage, is seen as such an objective for Christians that it becomes the supreme goal almost more than Jesus or the Kingdom of God itself. Marriage is so exalted that if a single person is not married and they are getting older, we wonder what is wrong with them. Christian talk about “family values” and such only cements this idea; that God’s basic desire for human flourishing is for you to be married and to be in a family, and if you’re not experiencing that, then, well, you should hurry up and try. It’s no wonder that there is such momentum toward gay marriage even within some parts of the church, because we have essentially communicated that if you are not married then you are less than human.
The problem with this is that it’s wrong. It is just not biblical in any way or form. If anything, Jesus is the antithesis of the family values candidate based on some of the radical things he says. In Mark 3:33-35, Jesus demotes his own blood family below his friends, the church. The Bible sees the community of believers, not the nuclear family, as the most primary level of relationships now in our Kingdom life. We must call into question any notion that the supreme expression of human love is found in marriage. As long as we do that, we are saying to our single Christian friends that they are experiencing less of real human love.
Remember: it is the community of believers, the eternal body of Christ, that is the most lasting thing in the universe, not marriage! Which means even in marriage, our identity as brother and sister in Christ is even greater than our identity as husband and wife. In the end of all things, singleness trumps marriage. We all become brothers and sisters brought together in the one great marriage of Christ to his church. So to be a Christian and to be single is a clear expression that one’s future hope is not in having a family, but is in the Kingdom of God.
The second thing I believe we must do is re-affirm and reclaim singleness for the church. In light of the last, we must stop treating singleness as a “second tier” calling or a minor league to marriage. As long as we do that we are communicating to our single sisters and brothers that they are experiencing less of the full human experience as God intended it. This is obviously not the case. Jesus was single and he was the perfect human! Paul advocated for singleness and even called it a “higher calling” than marriage (1 Cor 7:38). I sometimes wonder that at least for a season we should assume that singleness is the normative call for Christians, and if someone is married there must be a special reason for it.
At the very least, we need to rethink how we treat our single brothers and sisters in the church. The church should be one of the few places where we buck the cultural norm and give people the opportunity to actually know folks from across the spectrum of age and stage of life. When we demographically segregate the church, we militate against the formation of real, trusting mutual relationships across age gaps and life stages. We need mixed economies of community where families and couples, elderly and children, married and singles can be in community together. The gospel really can do this. But the idol of marriage must be taken down, the calling of singleness must be lifted up, and the Kingdom of God must be our priority concern.
Corey Widmer is Associate Pastor at Third Presbyterian Church and Co-Pastor of East End Fellowship, a multi-ethnic congregation in an inner city neighborhood of Richmond, VA. Corey, his wife Sarah and their four daughters live in North Church Hill and have been part of a community development effort there for the last 8 years. Corey is a graduate of the University of Virginia and Princeton Seminary, and is currently pursuing a PhD in theology. He loves the outdoors, especially biking and birdwatching.