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More on Singleness, Marriage, and the Church
Answering reader questions and objections.
My previous newsletter received a lot of feedback: much positive, but a considerable amount of disagreement and critique as well. It’s a truism of the Internet age that comments sections are horrible ideas, but the comments on this post were very thoughtful and clarifying. I also had the opportunity to talk to a couple people I know in real life about the post, and these conversations were also illuminating. With that, I want to follow up on the ideas in the previous post, clarify what I’m saying and what I’m not saying, and engage with a few specifically incisive points of feedback.
First, I think it’s necessary to say that the topic of “The Church in a Time of Gender War” was not single people or married people. The topic was the local church, and how pastors, counselors, and members create a culture that reflects the value of marriage. A few people responded to my argument by pointing out that marriage is not the only way to know how to interact wisely with the opposite sex. Of course. My point was rather that marriage has a specific function as a teacher of men and women, and that this teaching, by forcing people to live together in mutual understanding and tying their happiness to their sacrificial love and preference for one another, creates an empathy between the sexes that no other relationship can.
The question is not (and this principle will come up a lot) whether A is bad and B is good. The question is rather: what can A do, and what can B do that A cannot? It won’t do to simply say that singleness is good and marriage is good, and Christians should simply hold both out as equally plausible options. Why not? For two reasons. First, the New Testament does not teach that the church should anticipate that marriage and lifelong singleness are equally normative (more on this in a second). Second, marriage is an intrinsic good rather than a derivative good. The latter is something that has value if you want it, but not necessarily if you don’t. That’s true of a master’s degree or a new car, but it’s not true of marriage, because the New Testament explicitly holds up marriage as a picture of the gospel that has real spiritual significance—for the people in the marriage, but also for people outside it too.
All of this is simply a long way to say that Christians, including pastors and church leaders, should talk about marriage in public in a way that reflects its intrinsic value and desirability. This is not the same as denigrating singles or making them feel less than Christian, but it’s also not the same as talking about lifelong signleness in romantic ways. Biblically and sociologically, marriage is an absolute good (not an ultimate good, but an absolute good), while lifelong singleness is not an absolute good but can become good in a particular context.
Did Paul Want Most Christians to Be Unmarried?
Before I engage particular objections, let me get perhaps the biggest issue out of the way: 1 Corinthians 7.
This passage more than any other has been interpreted as saying the opposite of what I’ve said above. Many—maybe even most?—evangelicals read 1 Corinthians 7 as Paul’s straightforward expression of a preference for singleness over marriage, and a begrudging admission that marriage is necessary for people who would otherwise commit sexual sin. For many reasons, I don’t believe this is the correct interpretation. For a full and convincing exposition, I would recommend Richard Hays’ volume in the Interpretation commentary series. I’m just going to summarize below the major points of why 1 Corinthians 7 does not teach that singleness is preferable to (or even equally desirable as) marriage.
-The historical context of 1 Cor. 7 is very likely that there were men and women in the Corinthian church who were betrothed, but now uncertain if it was good to proceed with their marriage in light of the news of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Paul’s teaching in this passage is therefore aimed at reassuring those who desired marriage that the gospel did not prohibit it.
-The sentence, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman,” is something the Corinthians are saying, which Paul is quoting for the purposes of responding. This is not Paul writing under the inspiration of the Spirit that men and women would ideally not marry; it’s his engaging the Corinthians directly and actually correcting their worldview.
-In verse 7, Paul writes, “I wish that all were as I myself am.” Is Paul wishing that all Christians were single? In context, Paul seems to be saying that he wishes all Christians were capable of self-control in the way that he is; after all, the “concession” comes on the heels of instruction regarding husbands and wives coming back together soon after an agreed-upon period of sexual abstinence for the purpose of prayer. This is followed by verse 8, in which Paul writes to widowers and widows (the word the ESV translates as “unmarried” denotes, according to Richard Hays, a widower) that it is “good” if they do not remarry, but if their sexual desires are strong, they can and should remarry. Again, Paul’s idea here seems to be that there is a kind of self-control over our impulses that would make the decision to marry feel less necessary. However, this is not the experience of every Christian (or even most).
There are more textual evidences to consider. For example, beyond 1 Corinthians 7, there are the qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 that assume that elders will likely be married and even have children. I do not believe these are requirements, but rather expressions of what Paul believed to be normal for the typical elder in the typical church.
The Value of a Creational Norm
This distinction matters, because based on some of the replies I got to my previous post, some readers took me to be saying that single people are in sin or not growing in their faith the way that married people are. Not so. There is a profound (subtle, perhaps, but profound) difference between saying that something has intrinsic value in the normative life of an individual or the church, and saying that this thing is compulsory. Daily Bible reading time has intrinsic value in the normative life of a Christian, but it is not a command to have a “quiet time” each morning. Going on a mission trip has value, but you won’t see any Scripture command it. Closer to what I’m talking about, friendship has deep intrinsic value, yet a person with no friends is not necessarily defying Scripture (although the reason for their lack of friends could be downstream from some area of disobedience, e.g., not going to church).
Again, the question I’m asking is: How do we as Christians and local churches talk about marriage in a way that reflects its intrinsic value, particularly in an American cultural context that increasingly does not see this value at all?
Negatively, I don’t think the answer is that we should downplay the status of marriage as the normative, creational pattern in which most Christians will participate. My sense is that in evangelical contexts, a desire to reach out effectively to the unmarried and correct instances of alienation and offense in the past, some have argued that we need to insist that singleness is every bit as normative for the Christian as marriage, and therefore, there is nothing “missing” for single people either in their Christian life or in the life of the church. Biblically, I don’t think this is correct. But I don’t think it’s correct practically, either.
In my experience, many singles in the church desire marriage very much and don’t know how to obtain it. Their local churches are small and lacking in options. Institutions that have historically been places where people find each other are receding (higher education is increasingly female-dominated), and the new normal in modern American life is an online-mediated existence that fails to cultivate the kind of meaningful proximity and mutuality where people can learn to love each other. My previous post suggested that the results of these trends in the broader American landscape has been ignorance and hostility between the sexes.
Positively, what can be done? Here’s where I want to dip into the (very helpful) comments on the last post.
As the mother of two single daughters of marriageable age I contend that there is a big disparity between single women in the church and single men. Single men don't seem to go to church in the part of the country where we live (upper Midwest) and my daughters do not meet Christian men in their workplaces and are not interested in online dating. They are convinced that the Lord will provide them a spouse if He desires for them to be married, an attitude for which I am grateful. The churches that they attend are also not focused on helping singles find mates although when there are few single men in the church that is understandable. So what choice do my daughters have but to prepare to life a single life, focusing on their professions and volunteering at church when they can? It is even difficult for them to find godly female friends and thus they spend many weekend nights home alone unless a family invites them to participate in their activities which happens for one daughter but not the other. Yes marriage should be held in high regard in the church but it is a delicate balance to tell singles to marry when there are no candidates.
This is an excellent point, and what Julia describes here—churches with single women but few single men—is widespread. I think she’s absolutely right that a delicate balance is required here, because in instances like this, prolonged singleness can often be the result of faithfulness: for example, refusing to date a non-Christian.
Here’s where I’m going to hazard a potentially uncomfortable suggestion. If a church finds itself in a situation where there are numerous single people in its membership who are both ready for and desire marriage, but the church itself cannot help them meet that desire within the congregation, then leaders of the church need to seriously consider how other gospel-preaching churches in the area could help realize this desire. I’m not saying bounce members around churches in a city as they troll for mates. I am saying that churches that believe in and preach the intrinsic, gospel-displaying value of marriage should take it seriously enough to admit when members may need a different context to experience it.
While I enjoy the blessing of marriage, and I do hope that my children get married, I don’t believe that marriage alone provides the solution to these issues, or even provides the best solution. For starters, married men and married women can have these same attitudes towards others who are not their spouses. And if I’m being frank, few Christian men and women I know have meaningful friendships or even relationships with members of the other sex. In a sense, single men and women can hypersexualize one another, viewing each other almost exclusively through the lens of potential spouse-hood.
No, I think a better way is to develop our theology of spiritual family. Namely, we are brothers and sisters in Christ before we are husbands and wives. This is true first in a Christian marriage, but it is also true in the church. The Christian women in my church are my sisters, and their spiritual gifting builds up the body- both male and female. The same holds true for men using their spiritual gifts to build up their brothers and sisters. If the two sexes cannot relate to each other, how can they build up one another according to 1 Corinthians 12? Our churches will suffer not because people are single; they will suffer because they don’t biblically love one another.
Marriage is temporary; spiritual brotherhood/sisterhood is eternal. And while marriage will likely help to bridge some of these differences, we as Christians must do better than fearing that fornication will be the inevitable end to a possible friendship/relationship with the other sex (a la “When Harry Met Sally”). I would suggest that a better solution is the one where we work hard at seeing one another for what we were adopted to be: spiritual siblings.
There are several important points being made here (most of which I agree with!), but I’ll speak to two:
I would actually push back on the equivalency being drawn here between men and women as church members, and men and women as husband and wife. In fact, I don’t think you need to make this equivalency in order to support Michael’s very right suggestion that we are brothers and sisters first before we are spouses. It can be true that our relationship to each other in our adoption in Christ is prior to our covenant relationship to someone in marriage, while simultaneously being true that the covenant relationship plumbs depths of knowledge and empathy and sexual understanding that the church relationship does not. So, Paul commands husbands to live with their wives in “an understanding way,” and he commands the young men to treat the young women with “all purity.” Purity and understanding do not exclude one another, but neither are they exactly the same. The New Testament is not shy about leaning into the gendering of spiritual life together; notice how for Paul, whole-church discipleship in Titus 2 includes women teaching women how to love their own husbands, and men teaching men how to be self-controlled. Thus, I would argue that a church congregation that’s growing in biblical love for one another is one that is also growing in how it holds forth as blessed the relationships the New Testament also holds forth as blessed.
It’s true that marriage is temporary and spiritual brotherhood/sisterhood is eternal. But I would take care not to pit the temporary and spiritual against one another too quickly. That our spirits will endure even while our bodies lay in decay and await resurrection is not a sign that our bodies are unimportant or do not affect our spirits. That our various local churches are not the same as the church triumphant that will define eternity is not an argument against spending your life in a local church. Likewise, the eternality of our spiritual sibling hood in Christ is not an argument against acknowledging the spiritual blessedness of a physical union.
My friend Mickey writes:
I think the best way to combat both discontentedness in singleness and the consumer driven lifestyle, which many married people are enslaved to as well, is to encourage families and the entire church to embrace singles as an actual part of their family. Basically, expand the definition of what it means to be family, as Christ already did. A single is lonely? Treat them in such a way that they still feel a part of a family even if they don’t have their own.
I agree totally. In fact, it’s that last sentence I’m most interested in. Who bears responsibility for treating singles as part of the family? The church does. Which part of the church? Well, probably the burden falls most squarely on those who can welcome singles into their own families and households. That’s exactly my point. The church’s ministry to singles presumes a normative pattern whereby households with husbands and wives can serve the practical and emotional needs of those without such support. Can the church still minister to singles while also acknowledging that this normative pattern holds and is good and in fact offers intrinsic value that cannot be replaced? I think we can.
When I started writing “The Church in a Time of Gender War,” my main concern was drawing attention to what I consider to be a very serious fault line between men and women in American contexts, and how this fault line might be already working its way into the church. From my vantage point, the relationship between the sexes in many places is perilously fragile. Men and women are polarizing politically in the opposite direction. They are increasingly at-odds in what they believe, what they expect from the world around them, and where the think the answers lie. Abuse, pornography, and ideology have all contributed to a deeply dysfunctional culture of gender, and the most visible expression of this dysfunction is, in my view, an alarming decline of marriage.
It’s amazing how the Scriptures anticipate our modern pathologies. Sexual “liberation” has merely commodified our relationships and led to a competitive marketplace of bodies and souls. Expressive individualism has freed us to be lonely. And yet, there are institutions and practices that can help us, if we simply will avail ourselves of them.
I believe churches that recover a fully Christian theology and culture of marriage will cultivate downstream from that a renewed hospitality and empathy between the sexes that will contrast strikingly against the confusion of the day. Let me share one final email response I received to my first article (which I will keep anonymous). Here it is:
Just this week my 19 year old daughter said she feels like it would just be easier to be gay because she doesn't know how to relate to guys. (Even though she has a great dad and three loving brothers) So foreign to my own experience, but then her whole life has been very different to mine.
I think there is a logic to this kind of despair—the despair of reaching out to the opposite sex—that the church must and can address directly. Joy in our sexual relationships is possible. Mutual understanding and patience are possible. It is possible to have a marriage and a household that illustrates the gospel. It’s possible, and wonderful, and worth praying for, working for, and waiting for.