Singles. They’re everywhere. In the workplace. On college campuses. In coffee shops. In bars and clubs. Practically anywhere you go you can find single people, even in churches. From leaders in the church to many couples in churches, the church can have the picture of marriage and promote marriage heavily among members. Many churches push for a biblical understanding of marriage in culture and within their weekly activities, often have couples retreats and various ministries to and for married couples, newlyweds, engaged couples, and even non-engaged couples. What about singles? That’s who is left and that’s often how it is in church life. There are the married couples and activities for them and their children, there are the older generations and widows who tend to have an older community to be involved with in the church. However, single people often get overlooked, and if they are not overlooked, people treat single people as a problem that needs to be fixed in the church. What do I mean? I’ll tell you…
You’re a single person and you walk into a church, maybe a young professional, or a college student or recent college graduate, what do you hear? It’s probably something like this… “Hi! My name is ……. Is this your first time here? Do you have a family? Oh! You don’t, well, we’ll have to fix that.” Sometimes, you might be a regular member of the church and someone you often or rarely speak with in the church approaches you and instead of asking how you are and how your heart is, they take the liberty to say something like… “I know a girl you have to meet,” or “I know a guy I need to introduce to you,” or “I should have you over for dinner some night… (and you’re thinking, ‘wow, this person actually wants to know me,’ then) I have someone I want you to meet, I think you’d be good together.” Hopes of someone actually caring to know you dashed. They don’t care to know you, they think you are a problem that needs fixing. What’s worse? Many couples in churches think there is actually something wrong with someone who is single and comfortable with being single.
It’s even worse if you’re single and involved in ministry, if you get that far and are not disqualified beforehand by your singleness. It can be frustrating as a single person in the church, as church people generally don’t know how to treat people who are single and often times treat them as a problem. Sometimes, this can create the sense that the church is for couples and married people only, and single people are not welcome.
So, the question is, how can couples seek to embrace and love single people in the church?
This is a big issue and I don’t feel it’s been treated quite as much as it could be, so consider this blog post more like an appetizer to foster further discussion. The title of this post could have easily been, ‘How not to love single people in the church.’ However, ‘Singles,’ is shorter and I have the benefit of the visual pun with the One Dollar Bills. Bonus! Now, let’s take an example of a conversation that happens often around other Christians from a single perspective…
I was at a meal with some friends not long ago and someone introduced themselves and asked if I had a family. My response was that I’m not married, but have a family back home where I grew up. Then, when they heard I was a pastor, suddenly, the conversation became increasingly awkward for me and went something like this… “You’re a pastor and single? Wow! I can see how that’s a big problem for all women in your church. I wouldn’t want any women around you. I love my wife. My wife is great! She’s the best! I love my wife sooo much! I wouldn’t bring my family anywhere near you or your church, that just seems like a real danger… Single people but especially single ministry leaders. So, you said you’re a pastor, right? How can you live with yourself, seriously, being single?”
Now, this was a more extreme example of an actual conversation that took place. Someone learned I was single and in ministry and I was immediately treated almost as a sexual predator. It was strange to be viewed so negatively, and especially by someone who claims to be a brother in Christ. I felt a little hurt by the conversation and although I tried to help him understand singleness and ministry and how it can be a benefit, I was ignored for the rest of the meal by this person. Often, when people learn that I’m not married and in ministry, and if they are older and married, they immediately begin to talk down to me and speak as if it’s cute that I’m in ministry. These types of conversations, although not this extreme, happen regularly whenever I’m around other ministry leaders from other churches or other Christians.
From a married or couple standpoint, they see me and my being single as a real need that they want to help and address. They see their trying to change my singleness as a means of loving me. However, from a single standpoint, it can look quite the opposite and cause the single person to wonder, ‘What is wrong with me?’ and focus in an unhealthy way on their singleness more than they would naturally.
In 1 Corinthians 7, the Apostle Paul addresses those who are married, single, and widows. He basically says, if you’re married, stay married. If you’re not married, stay not married. Whatever you are, serve Christ in your circumstance and glorify Him where you are. He’s saying, don’t try to change your situation, but love Christ and serve Him in whatever situation you are in.
He provides the exception to singleness being if you are “burning with passion,” than it is better to marry and turn that burning into a healthier outlet as opposed to simply lust outside of marriage. Paul also mentions that it is better to be single than married. Something that rarely gets mentioned in the church today and often is simply glossed if it is mentioned as something specific only to Paul as an Apostle. His reason for remaining single is that one is able to focus more time and energy into serving the Lord while a married person has to be concerned about “worldly things” that have to do with their spouse. The single person can focus more fully on serving the Lord than a married person. He also mentions that he wished that all could be single as he was, and he doesn’t mean that in just being single but specifically in order to focus more time and energy in serving the Lord.
Now, in light of Paul being single, Jesus being single, and others who have been single in the past and are revered by the church, what has happened? I believe one issue is that being married has become synonymous to being a healthy Christian in American churches. I say American churches because I don’t feel I can speak outside of my own context, respectively.
How can being married be a requirement to being Christian? Well, I know I won’t make friends with this comment, but I’m going to say it, I believe Christians are prone to making the family an idol in American Christianity. If family is what you worship, then God is essentially tagging along for the ride and is an accessory to your family. You may have your family go to worship together, you may have your family pray and read the Bible together, but more often than not instead of the foundation of your life, the meaning and purpose of your life being God, your meaning and purpose comes in your family.
Sometimes it’s not family, sometimes it’s work, or any number of other things that can be a source for idolatry. However, when the family is an idol, it is treated as an ultimate thing in your life as opposed to a good and blessed thing that reflects the goodness of God in your life. Family is a good excuse for being busy for many things, no doubt, but when spending time with family trumps your relationship with God and your family’s relationship with God in the life of the local church as well, it is a sign that your care more about your family than you do about God. This doesn’t mean you abandon God, but that you use God to serve your family in ways that you like, but when inconvenient for you and your family, God gets pushed aside for other things. Again, these other things can be good excuses and that simply shows how very easy it is for idolatry to arise in families and the difficulty of maintaining a life of faith in a marital relationship especially with children. By no means does this mean that marriage and children are bad, they are a good thing. I’m not saying they are a bad thing, I am saying that if they’ve become an ultimate thing you’ve committed idolatry and you are putting your family over God in your life. Some people view their purpose in to worship in a local church at all in solely being to support their family, support, not be the foundation for their lives, their marriages, and their children. There is a difference. Again, not arguing against families and couples, just saying that there is the tendency to commit idolatry in our culture and especially so in churches.
How does all that play into how singles are treated in churches? Well, it means that if people believe the ultimate purpose of life is to have a family with kids, they will see and treat you as incomplete flaws that need help and will speak to you often with loving language, but in condescending ways until you start to look like them in having a family of your own.
If family and kids are the purpose to life, than God doesn’t really matter. It can be good and keep the kids out of trouble (or at least make them want to hide their trouble from others more), but a relationship with God through Jesus Christ will be secondary to your human relationships with your family. This is the challenging thing, and if we’re honest, we’ll confess that it is the right thing as well… Our purpose in life, our ultimate purpose, is to worship God. If that is our purpose in life (and death), then a marriage is a good thing, a blessed thing, a gift, but you can live according to your purpose without being married. You can be single and worship God fully. The reality is that married or not, we are all flawed and imperfect creatures. Getting married is good, but it will not fix your problems. Married people who are honest know this is true. We are sinful and marriage doesn’t change our state of sinfulness, Jesus changes that state.
Some might plead that singles are tempted to lust and need to be married to fix their lust problem and their desire to have sex outside of marriage. Counter, married men and women have these same desires and the divorce rate amongst Christians in America should be disturbing and the number of married couples who commit adultery should show us that lust is not just a problem for the single, but for the married as well. The married person might say, “Well, not if that desire is controlled and given fully and self-sacrificially to my spouse, and then together we can be united in serving the Lord together.” Agreed, but a single person can exercise self-control (fruit of the Spirit) and give themselves wholly to God in serving Him, and not just in a monastery, lol. We’re all flawed and imperfect creatures, but our human relationships cannot fix us. When we view and treat our spouse or potential spouse as a Savior, we are setting ourselves up for failure. They will never meet the expectations you have and will not be able to fix you in that regard. However, when men and women look to Christ while being honest about their utter brokenness both before God and one another, they have sacrificed their pride and desire for one another out of a healthy love for God.
Some might argue from Genesis 2, when we learn that “it is not good for man to be alone.” Indeed, the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 was easy to be single, but that he didn’t “burn with passion.” He had self-control in his singleness and used his singleness to more fully serve God. Despite being single, Paul had great Christian brothers around him often in his life to support him, encourage him, and help him. I, personally, don’t think I would be able to make it in ministry if I didn’t have good Christian brothers in my life and healthy relationships to hold me accountable and encourage me and pray for me as a single man. It is not good for man to be alone, but as a single person, I don’t think that means necessarily that a single person is alone. I think single people can be alone by not allowing intimacy with Christians of the same gender in the context of a church to hold them accountable for their relationship with God in Christ, and simply not having a community in which to share one’s life in can leave one more open to temptation. However, if a single person is on-guard against these things and has a strong Christian community of brothers or sisters in one’s life to encourage and strengthen them, a single life can be quite rewarding and enjoyable in serving the Lord. I believe that is what the Apostle Paul had in his life, and I don’t think it was a coincidence that people accompanied him on his missionary journeys, and not only for discipleship purposes for those with him. Paul David Tripp once said, “We need instruments of seeing in our lives.” The single person without an instrument of seeing in his/her life is prone to sin and putting themselves in a dangerous place. The married person who will not allow their spouse to see into their life on an intimate level likewise is putting themselves and their marriage in a dangerous place. We need instruments of seeing in our lives, whether married or single.
The answer to how we can love single people more in the context of the local church isn’t necessarily by having lots of things to do, as some have suggested before, as these things can simply be used as ways of connecting single people to other singles in order for them to get married and be fixed. Indeed, some single people might desire that and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the real way to love single people is to stop trying to fix them and to simply love them and accept them as a brother or sister in Christ (if a believer), and if not to still love and accept them. Single people can love married people more in the church by seeking to get know better and spending time with young married couples. Married couples can model and help show what a marriage looks like for single people and a healthy transparency could serve both sides (married and single) well. Singles often spend time doing things like watching movies, going to concerts and museums, going to sporting events, going out to eat frequently, or regularly watching tv shows. Married couples have different, real, responsibilities and priorities which often disrupt doing any number of those things. That doesn’t mean those things are bad, but a kid who is sick is going to disrupt an evening out with friends. It just will. I think being able to have shared activities could be a good way for both sides to love one another more. If you’re a married couple, what about having a single person over for dinner without a potential hookup for them to meet? What about just getting to know them? If you’re single, what about intentionally talking to and getting know married couples in your local church? There is wisdom in healthy married couples that singles could use, especially those hoping to get married. That wisdom shouldn’t be, get married. That wisdom could have to do with the realities and challenges of marriage and children. Single people could benefit greatly by this. Married couples are not able to spend as much time as singles in devoting themselves to the Lord, so there is an opportunity there glean wisdom and knowledge even from singles.
One of my favorite Coldplay songs is the song “Fix You.” In it, Chris Martin says,
…light will guide you home, and ignite your bones, and I will try to fix you… and high up above or down below, when you’re too in love to let it go, but if you never try you’ll never know, just what you’re worth…
If we seek to find what we’re worth in any relationship outside of Christ, we might find some enjoyment, but we will not find lasting contentment and eternal joy. It’s tempting to think that a relationship can fix your longing, but as C.S. Lewis once said, we all have that longing for a far off place and that longing cannot be met with even the best food, the best spouse, the best house, or the best clothes, it can only be met in Christ. If we can change the attitude of “I need to fix you because you’re single” in the church, and started honestly acknowledging our own brokenness as sinners as well as our ultimate purpose in worshiping God, we can confess readily that we cannot really fix anybody, but we do know someone who can fix anyone, his name is Jesus. When we do that, our lives are redeemed in Christ, and our purpose as a church is not to point to marriage as our salvation and that of the world, but to Jesus Christ who is the only true Savior of the world and whether single or married, we can all worship Him in the midst of our circumstance and bring glory to Him untethered by the desire to set somebody up with someone or to be setup with someone. Paul’s advice wasn’t to get married or be single necessarily, but to worship and glorify God as you are. Only then, will you find true fulfillment and lasting contentment.