I heard a story over Christmas that saddened me. A friend of the family came to dinner who has been a missionary overseas for most of her adult life. She has lived a full life; an exemplary Christian life. She’s in seminary now, and contemplating ministry, yet she confesses that she’s feeling burned out on church—not sure she belongs.
Now I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking a break from church, and if you’re going into ministry, it might even be a healthy thing to do for a season—our relationship with Christ is made closer by fellowship and worship, but these things don’t happen exclusively inside a building Sunday mornings. What saddened me was one of the reasons why this friend is questioning her place in the church: the fact that she’s single.
Upon returning to the States from her more recent stint abroad, our friend tried to go back to her old church. Rather than finding a community that embraced and nurtured her, she found that the pastors weren’t sure what to do with her. She’s not young enough to bond and socialize with the “young singles” groups, and everyone her age is married. She didn’t explicitly say this, but my guess is that the married couples, whether consciously or not, treated her with condescension. I’ve seen it happen.
Our friend’s experience is not unique. The modern church has elevated marriage to a status it does not deserve, and in so doing it has sent the message that being single means, somehow, being deficient or incomplete. This view of married life as the be-all and end-all of the Christian journey is not only problematic, it goes against scripture. Let us not forget that Paul practically labeled marriage a consolation prize to the higher calling of singleness.
Of course, as someone who’s about to get married, I don’t think the life I’ll live is inferior. There’s equal godliness to be found on either path, or as Paul himself admitted, “each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” (1 Corinthians 7:7) But I reject the notion that David and I are now entering some kind of elite club or that we’re just now becoming fully realized adults. And I pray we never treat our single friends as if they deserved any kind of pity. I pray we never make them feel like they’re second-class citizens at church.
Being single isn’t easy, and it’s not always fun. Neither is being married. But the attitude of our churches has made the lives of single Christians harder and unhappier than they need to be. This is the case especially for women, who often see no place in the church except as wives and mothers.
For LGBT Christians, who are still excluded from marriage by many churches, the consequences have also been dire. Celibacy is exacted upon gay Christians like a sentence. Lesbian and gay people are told they must avoid romantic love at all cost, and when they do, they are abandoned, patronized, and left to feel alone and inferior. On this topic, too many Christians "tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger." (Matthew 23:4)
If we want churches that are truer to the Gospel—communities that better resemble the Kingdom—those of us who have chosen marriage must get off our high horses. We must remember that our spouses do not complete us, because none of us is just a half. Singleness is not a sentence, and it is not a failure. Unmarried people deserve our respect as equal children of God, whole in their own persons. Let us each seek the Spirit’s advice for our life. Let us discover our gift, be it singleness or married life, without pressure and without bias. Then let us use that gift for the benefit of our community. And let us celebrate unmarried people and the important benchmarks in their lives with the same joy we celebrate weddings and anniversaries.
The church David and I belong to recently changed the language of its marriage practice. We now recognize “the goodness of both singleness and marriage within scripture; therefore we seek to uphold the commitments of singleness and the covenants of marriage within our community.” I like this language. I think it brings us closer to what the New Testament describes.
I’m thankful and hopeful for our little church. I’m glad David and I belong here. I’m glad our straight friends who’ve been married for decades belong here. I’m glad our friend who is considering adoption and single motherhood belongs here. I’m glad our recently divorced friend who, having once been bitten, is now twice shy belongs here.
Relationship, community, and the path to the Lord are more broad, complex, and nuanced than the binary model of single versus married. If we choose only to see these things in black and white we will miss out on the true spectrum of God's goodness.