By now, we should all be aware that Western marriage and fertility rates are an unmitigated disaster. These circumstances raise a lot of questions. Among them is how Christians ought to talk about singleness in and out of the Church. Given the existential nature of this crisis for the West, the question may not be as urgent as “how can we teach fruitful chastity again,” but it’s certainly a valid one. There are a growing number of singles in our congregations and our mission fields. Many will not emerge from this societal collapse married. Some may have become unmarriageable–whether by circumstance or by their own actions. Others may simply never find success. Either way, such situations testify to the fact that we never really get over some hurdles this side of Paradise.
But worthy though the question might be, the popular answers leave a great deal to be desired. As I’ve written before, the typical attitude is a vainglorious one: singles (especially women) are said to be the unsung heroes of the Church, and voices need to be raised STAT. Marriage, we are told, is just too highly esteemed–a peculiar point of view given how our culture despises it–and singleness needs to finally receive its due.
But while the topic is timely, Concordia STM student Jacob Rhodes’ presentation, “The Never Married: Developing a Vocabulary for and about Singleness,” does little to improve the discourse. It at least attempts to avoid the common pitfalls while solving the problem he perceives. However, it’s hard to overstate how badly it fails in that attempt or how much Rhodes inadvertently undermines his own thesis.
According to Rhodes, the Church has become ensnared in a narrative it received from society rather than from God. If one considers the beginning, middle, and end of a normal life, family characterizes the end, and preparation for family the middle. While the Church puts its own spin on the first two stages, she nevertheless still makes holy matrimony the centerpiece of earthly life. The fruit of this narrative is the ubiquitous attitude that marriage is the normal state of a healthy and mature adult.
Rhodes claims that the consequence for those who don’t qualify as normal in this sense is to be “othered” by church and society alike. We treat singles as though something is missing in their lives. We place them in singles-only ministry ghettos. They are unrepresented among church leadership. They are implicitly unwelcome at events like family picnics. They have to endure endless familial anecdotes or Biblical instruction for spouses and parents from the pulpit. They feel lonely, alienated, and even fearful of what their communities might think about their lack of a mate.
While Christians value marriage in and of itself, he claims we put no such value on singleness. Christians only value it in two senses: The first he calls “instrumentality”, in which the single person has more bandwidth for various tasks because he’s not tied down with a wife or kids. The second is merely as a time of preparation for marriage–in other words, singleness is valued because it provides an opportunity to end itself in favor of something better. But on its own terms, we define singleness solely in terms of deficiency–the lack of a mate which a person is supposed to have.
So if Rhodes considers this the problem, what does he propose as a solution? In short, he asserts that all Christians should find their identity in Christ and in Christ alone. Appealing to Galatians 3:28, he suggests that just as there is no longer any Jew and Greek or slave and free, neither is there married and unmarried. In that “end” stage of life, we need to replace marriage with the eschaton–eternal life in a world where marriage is (perhaps) obsolete.
What does this mean in practice, though? Surely, most of the Christians about whom Rhodes objects would already say that their most important identity is in Christ and that they are striving to live in light of eternity. What needs to change?
Some of the changes are simply a matter of attitude. For example, he tells us to emphasize the value of singleness to help singles feel more included in the church. But he includes specific suggestions as well: Teach Christians how to live the Christian vocation of singleness that they already possess, rather than teaching them how to prepare for marriage. Include more single people in church leadership positions. Families should invite singles to their meals and celebrations so they won’t feel lonely. Churches should develop singles ministries which aren’t judged by their ability to make singles married. And in general, churches must reduce how often they have family events and reduce family-oriented instruction in favor of more inclusive practices. When we accomplish all this and more, Rhodes contends, singles will finally feel welcome in our churches and the congregation itself can be everyone’s true family.
You’ve no doubt noticed a number of issues with this argument already, so lets just get into the details.
It’s an ancillary point, but I’ll begin with the title because that’s also where the disappointment starts. With a name like “The Never Married: Developing a Vocabulary for and about Singleness,” I was expecting something in the way of new terminology to aid the discussion. He offers none. Rather than helpful terms or concepts to be evaluated objectively, he only presents us with highly subjective attitudes he would like to adjust.
But is the alleged focus given to marriage an inappropriate one in society or even the church?
If so, Christians have a real problem on our hands because the Bible itself treats singleness as “other.” Marriage is very much treated as the norm in Holy Scriptures. Rhodes might complain about too much family-oriented instruction, but God told us to “be fruitful and multiply” before literally anything else. He also made sure to explicitly reiterate it after every global disaster like the Fall or the Flood. He might suggest that we have too many married people in church leadership, but when God established qualifications for certain offices, He Himself included things like “husband of one wife,” “manages his household well” and “keeps his children submissive.” And while the Bible directs a great deal of instruction specifically at wives, husbands, parents or children (alongside what it directs to everyone) it devote comparatively little specifically to the single–especially if you deliberately exclude instructions that point them towards marriage.
Just as the Bible presents marriage as the norm, it presents celibacy as “other.” Rhodes might object to the church treating singles as though something is missing, but that’s exactly how God Himself treated Adam in a perfect world before creating Eve from his side. “It is not good for man to be alone.” When Jesus and Paul talk about celibacy, they treat it as an exception that people aren’t generally equipped to handle. For those who are not so equipped, “singleness” is described as burning with desire or unable to be accepted. Jesus and Paul neither need nor command any special accommodation for their “singleness,” but simply take the sufficiency of God’s gift as already given.
Understandably, Rhodes’ analysis of the solution isn’t any better than his analysis of the problem. Given that his diagnosis matches the world’s current obsession with “marginalization” and “inclusion” it shouldn’t be any surprise that his prescription is likewise effectively the same as the world’s: Expunge every natural identity people possess for the sake of peace. Division is, inevitably, part of what identity does. And so, for the thoughtless, eliminating identity is a quick and easy way towards unity. Why would nations fight if nations are just meaningless lines on a map? Religion won’t cause friction if it’s just personal preference. If you treat your parents as a matter of happenstance rather than Providence, they can make no inconvenient claims on you. There can be no battle of the sexes if male and female are just social constructs. In the same way, if we find our identities “only” in Christ as Rhodes recommends, then singles cannot feel alienated.
Rhodes tries to find his license for expunging marital identity in Galatians 3:28 the same way theological liberals do. He also makes the same oversight in his application. The God who said there’s neither slave nor free also gave different sets of instructions to slaves and masters. The same God who said there’s no male or female also announced very different vocations for each in the church, the home, and society. Galatians 3:28 speaks to the universality of the Gospel, but clearly it neither expunges natural identities nor renders them meaningless to the Christian.
The Real Issue with Singleness
Rhode’s case is not only at odds with the plain sense of Scripture, but also with itself. He accuses the church of falsely claiming there is something incomplete about singleness. But consider his own testimony on the subject.
Even though marriage and children are already sidelined by things like education and career in church and society alike, the fleeting references to family that remain are still enough to trigger feelings of loneliness. He suggests that families invite singles to their family celebrations, but what is this except a family providing something that’s missing to someone without a family of his own? And consider this quote he highlights at the end as “enough” to demonstrate his point:
“I hate to admit it, but one of the loneliest times of my week is Sunday morning. Sitting alone in a pew amidst a sea of happy couples and families, I listen to sermons about how to be a more god-honoring spouse and parent and announcements about church-wide family picnics I won’t attend because as a single, I’d feel too out of place. When we had communion a couple of weeks ago, it was served by the deacons–and their wives. As I sat staring at the lineup of smiling couples across the front of our church, I wondered where the single leaders were. And I stopped going to church singles groups because they’re usually too ‘meat-marketty’ or too depressing.”
Setting aside the impropriety of deacons’ wives distributing communion, think critically about this confession and consider the implications. This isn’t a normal response for those who are truly called to celibacy. What Paul describes in 1 Cor 7 or Jesus in Matthew 19 is characterized by contentment. Contentment is manifestly the “gift” part of the situation. And while the Church certainly encompasses many individuals who are contentedly single, that is self-evidently not who this conversation is about. Rhodes’ descriptions make it plain that this is about people who are feeling lonely, marginalized, lost, and even ashamed. The conversation is only occurring because so many people are not content.
Why should the mere sight of happy couples or the mere mention of marital responsibilities elicit such a response among someone with the gift of celibacy? Such people do not seek marriage or desire intercourse. They may have a few wistful thoughts about what marriage might be like, but it doesn’t go beyond that because they are secure and content by the grace of God. But Rhodes’ observations about the plight of the single all attest to a deep and abiding insecurity and deprivation.
The truth of the situation is precisely what Rhodes denies: for the growing population of singles in our congregations, something very important is missing. And given what specifically triggers their feelings of alienation, it’s extremely obvious that what’s missing is marriage and family.
To be sure, they do feel excluded in church. They do feel alienated in church. They do feel abandoned in church. But modern culture fails to recognize that our feelings aren’t self-interpreting. It’s only natural they’d erroneously conclude that the church must be excluding, alienating, and abandoning them. But if you know better about feelings, then you’ll also know better about the root cause. While I have no wish to offend, respect requires that we call a thing what it is. These singles are experiencing envy.
Now, I want to be clear that it doesn’t feel like envy to our suffering singles, but that’s because envy never feels like envy. Even the fox who declared his coveted grapes to be sour walked away feeling disgust and irritation, but not envy. This is because envy isn’t really an emotion at all. Envy is a conviction that a blessing you haven’t been given ought to be yours. Convictions produce all sorts of different feelings depending on the circumstance. Nevertheless, one can see the sour grapes attitude in Rhodes’ argument. “Marriage is just for this world anyway. I’ll find my identity in the eschaton instead.” By Rhodes’ own descriptions, there is clearly a great deal of bitterness at work among Christians singles today.
The Real Solution.
All of this said, we cannot stop there. Naming the problem as envy doesn’t make the problem go away or give the Church a license to ignore it. The valuable part of Rhodes’ presentation is detailing how singles describe their own experience. While Rhodes may be misinterpreting that experience, it nevertheless is what it is. The church needs to help singles with it–all the more because there’s a very real deprivation at work. Once we can actually admit that and deal with the issue in truth, our course becomes clearer. There are at least two ways the Church is instructed to deal with deprivations.
The first and most obvious is to assist those in need. If you say “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? Inasmuch as it lies within our abilities, congregations should help their singles find appropriate spouses. We must recover the lost art of match-making. Parents must prepare their sons to be good husbands and their daughters to be good wives so that they may fulfill these natural longings in one-another. Mature Christians should teach single men and women to avoid inadvertently sabotaging themselves when it comes to finding a mate. Much could be said here, but in short, we must do precisely the opposite of what Rhodes prescribes. We must focus on marriage even more.
Admittedly, we need a lot of improvement in this regard. Rhodes quotes a statistic stating that “62 percent [of singles] felt that their church leader’s advice on relationships and issues of singleness was either not relevant, unhelpful, or virtually non-existent.” I’m only surprised that the percentage is that low. We are several generations past the point where we deliberately jettisoned our know-how on coupling for the sake of feminism. Our Boomer leadership is mostly clueless about the realities of hookup culture and modern “dating.” We’ve long been teaching our culture’s values as though they came from God. The church has put herself at a huge disadvantage in this regard. But that only means the church needs to work that much harder in order to rebuild what we’ve lost.
Nevertheless, our efforts cannot stop there. As I wrote back at the beginning of this piece, not every single Christian is going to emerge from this crisis married. Despite our best efforts, not every injury is going to be healed in this life. Not every belly will be filled. The Church must help the poor, but the poor will nevertheless always be with us. The same is true of singles–especially now.
But our course for such men and women should also be clear: mourn with those who mourn. The material abundance of Western society has greatly dulled our skills in this regard. We implicitly except the healing of our sicknesses and the filling of our bank accounts. What’s more, we expect that the right application of effort will always produce success. It does not. To make matters worse, we tend to avoid the afflicted because we don’t want remind ourselves that we aren’t always in control of our fates.
But mourning with those who mourn doesn’t involve denying that their loss is real. We don’t refuse to mention colors to avoid offending the blind. Neither should we refuse to mention marriage to avoid offending the single. That’s patronization rather than mourning.
So what does it involve? Listening, for one. We ought to give singles space to vent and listen to how they feel. We ought to respond with sympathy rather than pity. Despite what contemporary fools will tell you, we can do this without affirming their every errant interpretation of their feelings. What’s more, we ought to give them the opportunity to see that we take their needs seriously by our efforts to help them. True, those efforts will fail for some individuals. Nevertheless, “at least you cared enough to try” still provides some measure of comfort and blunts the feeling of alienation.
Rhodes’ suggestion of families inviting singles over for holidays is actually a good one–as long as we take propriety seriously. This is the domain of older couples, not couples encountering the seven-year itch. Congregations hosting holiday meals for their members would also help to make sure no one is forced to spend Christmas or Thanksgiving alone. And if singles groups feel too much like a meat market at times, Christians can also organize get-togethers for their fellow congregants centered around identities besides singleness–hobbies, service projects, book groups, movie nights, and a billion others. Giving company to the lonely is certainly within our power.
When it comes to church leadership, we don’t need the quotas for singles that Rhodes’ suggestions imply. Still, there is something to be done on that point. Consider the complaints about couples serving communion and such. There is a real problem here because leadership needs to be about the office serving the congregation, not about the people filling those offices or their familial relationships. It seems to me that promoting exclusively masculine leadership in the Church would bear much fruit towards making those positions less relationship-focused. These vocations indeed do work that is valuable in itself, and we ought to acknowledge it regardless of marital status.
Of course, this only begins to scratch the surface of what the church could do to help. Rhodes deliberately aimed his presentation at beginning a conversation rather than providing the final word. That is no less true of my rebuttal. But whatever course the church takes, we cannot afford to root our efforts in the presumptions of the culture, fairytales about overvaluing marriage, or sour grapes. When we take seriously what Scripture says about men and women, marriage and celibacy, sin and grace, we are provided with a multitude of tasks, both small and great to care for the singles in our congregations and communities. May God give us wisdom, direction, and success in caring for all of His sheep.