“You’re not really an adult until you get married or own property.”
So goes the joke about the maturation process for young people, where singleness is typically portrayed in the negative. At best, it’s viewed just as a phase one will eventually move past. At worst, it’s indicator of one’s self-worth and identity: “What wrong with him that he’s still not in a relationship?”
It’s a silent but prevalent social expectation. Singleness is something to move away from. Something to escape.
But once you are liberated from singleness, then you’re somebody and are worth taking seriously, as Kristin Koch wrote in the Huffington Post about moving from the single life to being engaged:
“Of course, my stock quickly rose as soon as I exchanged my scarlet ‘S’ for a sapphire engagement ring. Just like that, the same people who once made me feel pathetic for being ring-less suddenly admired me. It was like the door to an exclusive club had opened up to me. And membership had its privileges.”
Kosh noted that her social and work life, friends and colleagues started treating her with respect, and more career opportunities were opened to her. To some degree, full integration with society was denied to her until she proved that someone found her valuable enough to marry.
Kosh, having lived with her boyfriend for six years, was clearly viewing her situation from a more secular perspective. But the “singleness is hell” attitude saturates much of the modern Christian thinking as well.
“When God brings someone into your life, she’ll be the one, but it’s always on his timing.” “I’m praying that your future husband will be godly.” “You’re young! You still have time to find someone.”
Although said with good intentions, underneath these comments is the same assumption that the larger non-Christian culture holds: the good life is not available to you until you’re married.
Not only is there the same social hierarchy within churches (like being promoted from the young adults Bible study to a young marrieds group), but singleness often impedes one’s ability to serve in ministry.
“We’d prefer our youth leader to be married, so that the girls can have someone to connect with as well.” It’s actually a pretty savvy business move. Pay for one youth worker, but get the second one for free.
“We want a pastor to be able to minister to married couples,” implying that experience in marriage, not experience in understanding and applying Scripture, is what really equips someone to counsel couples.
But at the heart of all these comments is belief that marriage is a better state than singleness. As someone who has served in ministry, I’ve seen ministers who have been severely limited in their work precisely because they were married.
It’s been amusing to see churches demand that their pastor be married and then complain that he doesn’t visit enough homes, meet with more members for counseling, or attend more of the ministry events of the church because of his family commitments.
Some of my friends who are married pastors have shared that, while their wives have been so helpful in their ministry, countless opportunities were left at the wayside because the pastor’s first commitment was (rightfully) to his wife more than his ministry. Is the modern church’s stagnancy due to a lack of single ministers who can devote themselves fully to their ministry?
At a culturally larger level, many Christians who implicitly proclaimed that life without marriage is sub-human found themselves fumbling and incoherent when those same-sex- attracted pushed to participate in this “inner-circle” called marriage. Life-long celibacy in obedience and pursuit of God? Evangelical churches had never celebrated such a path of life before, and when this course of action was suddenly appealed to in response to gay marriage, the call sounded empty and hollow. For decades, the church led the way in proclaiming that marriage was the only way to really mature as a person and enjoy life, and the secular culture took that assumption to its logical conclusion.
In the Bible, the apostle Paul literally commands: “Do not seek a wife.” I’ve only heard one pastor in my life recommend such an approach to me. But he, like Paul, knew that marriage, while a great gift, was also a burden: “Those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that.”
The church needs Christ-centered marriages, but it also needs Christ-centered singles who are empowered and encouraged to lead and serve in ways that married Christians can only dream of.