Why is it so hard being single in the church?

relationships-logoRELATIONSHIP QUESTIONS (#2 in a series)
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What does it mean to be single in the church? Why does society make it seem bad if I’m single?

First off, let me apologize to all my brothers and sisters who struggle with this question. Subtly or not so subtly, unmarried Christians are often treated as second-class citizens in the church, and this should not be. Period. And double apologies if as a marriage educator I have unknowingly contributed to that perception myself.

Why does this happen? Let’s start with the more generic reason. Social groups have implicit or explicit expectations about what they consider to be “normal.” If you don’t look the part, use the right language, etc., you’ll get the message that you need to straighten up, or worse, that you don’t belong. Sad to say, but I would guess that most of the people reading this have experienced that at least once, from family, friends, and yes, churches.

And there are perfectly good reasons for society to value the institution of marriage. Put all of this together with the fact that churches are often made up of families, and are the place where important family-related rituals are celebrated — e.g., weddings and infant dedications. It would be surprising, on sociological grounds alone, if marriage and childbearing wasn’t considered “normal” in the church.

To me, then, the question is this: how can marriage be valued as a legitimate social good without simultaneously devaluing those who are not or choose not to be married?

When norms are taken for granted, it can lead to exclusionary behavior, which is its own kind of arrogance. Unmarried Christians have sometimes been subjected to words or behaviors that convey a message like, “You look like a normal person. You don’t have two heads, and I’m guessing you’re not an ax-wielding psychopath. And you seem to be of a marriageable age. So what’s your problem?”

And trust me, getting married won’t make the enforcement of social norms go away. After you’ve been married a few years, the attitude will shift to, “Why haven’t you started having kids yet?”

In all of this, what we need are communities dedicated to discipleship and Christian vocation, and not just moving people along the path of what’s considered the normal life course.

There’s way too much that needs to be said about that topic alone, so let me simply add this: I’m a bit leery about the notion of being “vocationally single” — and not because I think marriage is better. Here’s why.

The idea is generally based on 1 Corinthians 7, in which Paul says he wishes that those who aren’t married would stay that way, as he is. Is it possible that God might call someone to remain single for the sake of the gospel? Yes.

But the whole point of Paul’s argument is wholehearted devotion to God, married or not. That’s the norm Paul is after. And if that’s the case, then why do we use 1 Corinthians 7 to talk about being “vocationally single,” but not “vocationally married”? It’s as if we need a legitimate biblical justification to be unmarried — “Well, I’m not married because I’m serving God” — but no excuse is needed for the married. Why? Because married people are “normal.”

In our church communities, therefore, we need to stay alert to the ways in which we privilege being married, not just over being unmarried, but over serving God. Make places for the married and the unmarried to serve side by side — places where all can learn to be single-minded instead of minding singles.