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Years ago I was caught in the crosshairs of a church-discipline situation. Two confessing members, and dear friends, wished to marry. The elders had determined they should not. After soul-searching and prayer I declined their wedding invitation out of deference to the elders’ lawful authority. My decision was clearly influenced by Scripture (1 Peter 5:5, for one), but also by this: Of the three realms ordained by God to order human affairs—family, civil government, and church—the church was the only one that survived the grave. Or it might be more accurate to say that family and civil government were subsumed in the church, the collective bride of Christ under God’s direct rule.
Whether my friends should have stayed single was a knotty question with no definite answer. How to regard single people in the church today seems just as knotty, but the answers should be clear. And with more singles in the pews, they should be forthcoming.
I’ve written a great deal about marriage in these columns because the institution is under attack, with ill consequences for the future. One consequence for the present is more single men and women in the pews, as needful of good teaching, companionship, and encouragement in Christian living as any couple. In between marriage-enrichment seminars, parenting classes, moms days out, and senior outings, what can be done for them? The usual answer is singles classes or college-and-career groups, where the traditional goal (and unstated purpose) is for individuals to find someone to marry. Many still do. But singleness, these days, is not what it used to be.
The church’s former college kids are in their 30s. Some are divorced. Some are reeling from destructive relationships. Some complain (or ruefully suspect) that “the good ones” are already taken. Some are afraid—typically men who have been on the wrong end of a divorce settlement, or read cautionary tales on websites, or simply heard from cynical pals: “Trust me, dude; marriage is a racket.”
And some wait hopefully for the right partner to cross their path; wait year after year as hope shrivels and resignation sets in.
While rightly shoring up marriage, the church tends to neglect the unmarried or segregate them in a classroom down the hall.
No one understands singleness in the church better than those who experience it, such as Gina Dalfonzo of BreakPoint.org. Her book One by One, drawn from personal reflection as well as methodical polling, shines a spotlight on what we might call the Evangelical Singles Conundrum. While rightly shoring up marriage, the church tends to neglect the unmarried or segregate them in a classroom down the hall. Singles often miss out on dinner invitations and family gatherings, and when the ladies meet, husbands and parenting are the main topic of conversation.
In Dalfonzo’s experience, the single state is seen as a kind of holding tank, with marriage idealized as a reward for sexual chastity. Insisting that marriage is the highest road to sanctification makes anything else look like a low road to spiritual adolescence. And failing to build up the positive aspects of chaste singlehood (a mistake the Apostle Paul never made) leaves the unmarried vulnerable to sexual sin.
Singles need the church. The devout man struggling with same-sex attraction, the mature woman who hasn’t met her match, the disillusioned and the fearful, all pine for shepherding. But the church also needs them, and not just as nursery help or cleanup crew. The church needs single teachers, organizers, and administrators who are faithfully navigating a course marked by its own forms of temptation.
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul weighed the unmarried state against the married state and found it slightly preferable. His stated reason was the “present distress” (verse 26) of first-century persecution and, many commentators assume, an expectation of Christ’s immediate return. Since then believers have suffered other times of “present distress,” and with marriage rates falling, this looks like one of those times. Big cultural shifts call for big readjustments in the church, where God may be raising up a generation of Christian singles to reach their peers outside. And in the wedding supper to come, we will all be equally married.