The Singleness As A Gift Problem

Today I want to revisit the idea of the “gift” of singleness.  I was reminded of how messed up our theology of singleness seems to be by this post at Relevant.

Now to be fair, the author says some good things so I want to point those out.  He rightly says that the Church is too focused on marriage as the only path.  He also rightly implies that the Church is terrible at dealing with single people.  And he even goes so far as to say that not everyone will or even should get married.  Amen!

However, the problem here is that he links the gift of singleness to all people that are not married.  This idea is rampant and it’s bad.  It’s terrible theology, and it leads to confusion. Now I’ve written about this a ton, but like I said, we need to keep revisiting this.

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The Church’s Uncoupled Teaching Problem

My last two posts I’ve been responding to a post from Relevant that Scott Sauls wrote dealing with the Church and its focus on the nuclear family and lack of focus on singles.  I want to respond to one last part today.

I want to restate that I’m not trying to pick on Scott or attack him in any way.  I appreciate that he is at least identifying that there is a problem in our evangelical culture when it comes to this issue.  I also believe that he represents where a lot of people in our circle are at.  That is, they see there is a problem, but they don’t realize how deep it is and that a lot of the assumptions they are making are actually deeply flawed.

In the last post we looked at the idea that God will either bring you someone or He won’t and if you aren’t married then He just hasn’t done so yet.  I actually think the main reason that Scott brought this up is not so much to offer a terrible platitude to singles but to try to say that unmarried folks can have just as rich of walk with Jesus as married folks.  Let me say a huge Amen to that.

I think more and more church leaders are waking up to that idea.  However, the way in which they view that unmarried life is lacking and it is a huge reason we have all the confusion that we have.  So let me respond to that here.

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You Are Single For A Reason – But Probably Not The One You Think

In my 20 plus years of being single I’ve heard a lot of reasons for singleness.  Some of it was attempted pastoring or self righteousness, but most times it was attempted encouragement which I learned to appreciate because I knew people loved me.

As I’ve said almost ad nauseum here we in the Christian single culture have basically settled for spiritual platitudes that don’t really deal with the issue at hand – either individually or as a whole society.

One of those is the idea that God has you single right now. This is of course often followed by other platitudes such as “God has you single right now for a reason”, or “Since God has you single right now, take advantage of that”. Or “God has you single right now so be content in that”.

One of the big problems we have in protestant culture when it comes to singleness is a complete lack of understanding of what Paul is talking about when it comes to the unmarried.  It kills us because we keep bringing “the word” to the situation without even understanding what we are saying.  We mix and match scriptures in an attempt to make the current singleness culture fit into our favorite theological leanings.  It ends up being “help us sleep at night theology” that frankly doesn’t help many people live well single or get married.

Now before I say more and make some people really uncomfortable, let me say this clearly for the record – God may indeed want you to be single right now.  No doubt He calls us to all sorts of different things in all sorts of different seasons.  So I’m not negating that possibility in someone’s personal life.

But it is a terrible blanket answer to singleness.  It would mean that God has suddenly in the last 40 years of history decided that people shouldn’t get married until 30 or older.  Or I guess it could mean that for thousands of years people disobeyed God by getting married earlier.  I’m not comfortable with either of those answers.

First off, the bible never talks about singleness as we know it.  It just doesn’t.  In the oft referred to passage in 1 Corinthians 7 Paul is answering questions the Corinthians had asked about marriage and sexual immorality.  There was mass confusion and he was attempting to clear some things up.

Paul says a lot of things here but when it comes to the “gift” of being unmarried, Paul is NOT talking about a call to a season of singleness.  He is instead talking about a call to (or gift of) celibacy.  He is saying that some are called to serve God from an unmarried state. He is not saying you have the gift of singleness until you get married.  He is saying if you have it, don’t get married.  That is a HUGE distinction.  

What we’ve done is taken this and turned it into a way to avoid dealing with why we are single.  Or we take other things Paul says in other places and transpose it into this passage.  For example in Philippians 4 Paul says he has learned to be content in all circumstances.  We transpose that to mean, “God has called you to singleness right now and you should be content in that.”  But that isn’t what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7.  He says if you aren’t content (read called, or gifted) in celibacy – Go Get Married!

This is so critical.  Paul is not saying if you are unmarried that you don’t have to worry about the things of marriage.  It would be more accurate to say that one of the ways to see if you are called to celibacy is to ask if you are worried about it.  Otherwise he would be saying that celibate people are better followers of Jesus than married people.  If that were true then no one should get married.

My biggest problem with this is that we end up saying to people, if you are single right now that is where God has you and you should just sit there and be content in it.  That is not what Paul says.

There are lots of reasons our society is where it is in terms of marriage.  Most of it is not God’s plan.

God is not calling you to be insecure around women you like.  He has not given you the “gift” of lack of commitment.  He has not called you to live with someone you are dating instead of marrying them.  He is not calling you to consumer date.  He is not promising you that if you are called to marriage that it will magically happen without your effort.  He has not “gifted” you with the fear of divorce.  He has not given you the “gift” of extended adolescence.  I could go on and on.

We as singles need to quit hiding from our crap in bad theology and the Church needs to get off it’s butt and quit enabling us to do it.  The Church should be the safest place to deal with all of the reasons why we are single, not just the ones that make a nice sermon.

You are single for a reason – lots of reasons actually.  Some of that may be God’s timing or calling.  But a whole heck of a lot of it isn’t.  The way out isn’t mixing and matching scripture to feel better.

Can You Date A Non-Christian?

One thing that almost every Christian organization agrees on when it comes to singles (other than Don’t Have Sex of course) is that a Christian should not marry a non-Christian. Now when you tell young singles this they all nod their head, make big commitments to the Lord and dream of the perfect Christian Courtship.  This is all so simple, right up until that doesn’t happen or you meet someone who you really like, who isn’t a Christian.

Then it’s rationalization time.  “I haven’t met any Christians I’m attracted to.” “Well we aren’t really dating – they are just a friend” which is usually followed with, “well if they were a Christian I would date them but they aren’t so. . .I’ll just hang out with them like we’re dating but not call it that until we are dating and then whoops.”  Or, “Well I won’t marry them unless they come to follow Jesus but I’m hoping that will happen.”  “I’m just sharing Jesus with them.  I mean if they got it then yeah maybe but. . . ”  Here’s the problem – we will always want to date who we are attracted to and guess what, we marry who we date.

This is such a hard deal on a lot of levels.  First we really can’t help who we are attracted to.  Attraction isn’t really a choice.  Now what you do with attraction is and we need to get a hold of that.  But still it’s hard.  Also there are a lot of really cool non-christians. Ha!  It’s true right? And there are a lot of Christians that aren’t cool (funny, exciting, adventurous, hot etc).  Not only that, but guess what, everyone is created in God’s image and everyone can love.  That’s right even non-Christians can show love.  Crazy I know.

What makes this even trickier is that the Bible is not as clear here as we might like it to be. The problem is the Bible doesn’t talk about dating at all and when it comes to who to marry, really we’ve got one passage that says it straight up and another that kind of leads to the idea.

Paul in 2nd Corinthians 6 talks about not being unequally yoked.  While this is not about marriage I think it’s obvious that if we aren’t to be partners with unbelievers then it’s not a very big leap to assume that would include the biggest partnership of your life.  And in 1st Corinthians 7 Paul says that widows are free to remarry but they must marry a believer. That’s about as straight up as you can get.  But that’s it.  And before you try to go old Testament Israel marry within the tribe on me, remember Hosea.

But we have to live in reality and reality is this: If you are following Jesus then your life is heading in a direction.  And that direction, regardless of how much you like them or how much you have in common etc, is not the same as that of someone who is not.

There are all sorts of other problems.  It is easy for this other person to become your mission.  In other words you are somehow going to win this person to Jesus.  Here’s the thing, it could happen, but it could not happen and then you spend the rest of your life in different places.  Not to mention that they might end up pulling you in their direction – away from God.  This is a cheesy analogy but one person is standing on a chair and the other is on the ground.  Is it easier for the person on the floor to pulled up or the person on the chair to be pulled off?  As a bonus you are WAY more likely to fall into sexual sin.

Also, how can you have a covenant marriage with you, this other person and God, if this other person doesn’t believe in God.  Biblical marriage is a covenant, not a contract or an agreement.

But most of all, it is harder to follow Jesus and almost impossible to do ministry.  I have been in full time ministry for nearly 17 years.  I have worked with literally hundreds of people serving in our work.  Like anything missional, it’s hard and people leave for all sorts of reasons.  But the number one reason people get taken out – sexual sin.  The number two reason that usually leads to the first – dating someone who is not following Jesus.  This happens directly and indirectly.  The person who is not a Christian is going to have a hard time supporting you giving your life away for the Kingdom, which if you are following Jesus is exactly what you are called to do.

This raises other questions like, What is Christian enough? and How do I know who to marry?, and I plan to address some of that soon.  I also concede that this might not be “law” so to speak.  So tell me what you think?  Is what I’m saying right?  Are you rationalizing a relationship you’re in right now?  If you’re dating a nonbeliever how has that affected your walk with God?

What Paul Is Not Saying

A lot of married people have told me over the years that I should enjoy ministry as a single person because when (notice not if) I get married then I will not be able to do as much for the Lord.

I’ve determined that most of these people have no idea what they are talking about.  I don’t mean that as a slam at all.  I just think that most people haven’t lived it.  It comes mostly from people who have a tough situation or who got married really early and the last thing they remember about being single was what it was like as an a person in their early twenties.

This whole thought process is based on a bunch of wrong understandings and assumptions.

A lot of it comes from what I would call a misinterpretation of Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:32-35. Paul basically says that an unmarried person is devoted to the Lord and not distracted by the needs of his spouse. This is then interpreted to mean that a person can do more ministry as a single.

But I don’t think that is actually what Paul is saying when you put it in the wider context of that scripture and certainly in the context of all scripture.

First of all if this is true then the Church should be encouraging everyone to stay single. We’d get a heck of a lot more done apparently. But obviously this is not the case.  Hmm. So I can be more devoted to the Lord as a single but I should get married.  Confused yet? So are they.

This is why it is so important to think about calling instead of making assumptions.  In the broader context it seems to me that Paul is saying live as you are called – don’t give in to societal (or I would add Church) pressures.  Are you called to singleness – don’t seek marriage.  Are you called to marriage – don’t remain single.

Paul is not trying to say that married people are any less devoted to the Lord or that they can’t do ministry.

He’s saying be aware that the married person’s number one ministry is to their spouse -that is what the covenant of marriage is all about.  Second would be their children.  But that doesn’t become their only ministry.

Paul is also not saying, as many people tell us singles, “Enjoy this season being devoted to the Lord until you get married because then you’ll be less devoted.”  Paul is not talking about a season of singleness.  He is talking about a calling to follow the Lord in a way that doesn’t include marriage.  Big difference!

This is actually one of the huge tensions single people often face.  They know that they are called to be married, and yet they are trying to serve the Lord.  Tension comes in big time when the calling seems to lead them into less chances to meet potential partners.  Let’s say you’re single and 30 and feel called to work with youth.  You work on a team with all married people.  So now you spending your free time with married people and kids. Whoops.

I have often lived in this tension.  Do I stay in my small group with all marrieds or not? Should I go do my ministry tonight or to the party?  I want to date this person but they aren’t doing any of the same ministry (church, small group, project etc) as I am.  What do I do?

The truth is that despite the common assumption, I can be extremely distracted with marriage and the things of this world even though I am presently single.  I’ve seen this totally wreck single people’s ministry and for that matter their walk with God.

I’ve actually seen many times where a person becomes a better missional person after they get married because the question is now answered and they don’t have to be distracted by it any more.  And there in lies what I think the whole of scripture would point to.

We need to take stock of our calling.  One of the tests here is if I’m not distracted by the need to marry it might be a good idea to stay single (now just because I’m distracted doesn’t mean I’m called to be married but it’s an indicator).  If on the other hand I don’t feel called to follow the Lord that way and indeed feel like I should be married then I need to pursue that.

What Paul is saying is be devoted to the Lord and take action.  When he says to “stay” as you are that is not passive – it’s an action step.  If you should get married pursue it, with the Lord obviously.  If you shouldn’t get married, pursue that – again with the Lord.

Getting Married For Sex

One time in college I was meeting with this older gentleman who I looked up to and as we were talking the subject of relationships and marriage came up.  We were talking about a couple of relationships of people we knew as well as one I had just gotten out of.  Now this guy had gotten married really young and had been married for a long time.

The conversation turned toward the decision to get married.  He said, “I always tell people this – don’t get married for sex.”  Now I was young and arrogant so I nodded knowingly but I really had no idea what he meant.  Ha.  He went on to explain it basically saying that desire to have sex was not a good reason to marry.  I think he was wrong.

I would maybe say that sex shouldn’t be the only reason you get married.

But actually, sex is part of the reason.  God created us with a sex drive.  Again this is pre-sin.  Adam and Eve have sex – heck they are commanded to – before the fall.  God did not create our sex drive so that we could sit around and not use it.  And, as is fairly obvious in the whole of scripture (more on this soon) sex is to be enjoyed (key word) in the context of marriage.  In fact one of the functions of sex is to bond the two together in marriage (hence the whole becoming one flesh thing).

One of the reasons that we have more single people than ever in history (49% of adults in the U.S.) is that we have separated sex and marriage.  

Sex is an industry in our country.  It is readily available in one form or another every day. This really screws up single people.  For one thing, almost everyone has had sex before marriage.  If you haven’t that is great but it’s not the norm at this point.  So if you are having or have had sex, it makes marriage less urgent.  If I can have sex, oral sex, and/or meet my own sexual needs through a constant stream of porn and masturbation without marriage – then there is less of a pull to get married.  This is not rocket science.

Even worse, once you have sinned sexually you can allow the guilt and shame of that to drive you.  It can drive you to continue doing it, or only date people that also have, among other things. It can make you feel like you’ve messed it up so you now can’t have it the right way.

On the flip side, and this isn’t talked about much, delaying marriage is one of the big reasons that people end up seeking sexual fulfillment outside of marriage.  Even just 50 years ago in 1960 (not exactly ancient times) 59% of those aged 18-29 were married.  That number is now 20%.  So basically 60 years ago you started thinking about sex in your early teenage years and you waited 4-10 years.  Now you wait 10-20.  That is no joke.  It’s hard to do.

Add to this the fact that a lot of religious people have turned sex itself into the bad guy, which leads to all sorts of problems, not the least of which is married people still feeling bad about sex. This is why it is so important to do more than tell single people to not have sex – it can mess up both singleness and marriage.

Here’s the point.  Sex should be part of the reason you get married.  

This is one of things Paul talks about this in 1st Corinthians 7. He is speaking to a group of people trying to navigate marriage and sex in a completely crazy society (sound familiar?).  He says it straight up – if you are going to have sex – get married. In a way, Paul is saying, part of the way to avoid sexual immorality is to enjoy sex in the context of marriage. Paul says some have the calling to be single, but if you don’t, get married and have some sex.

This is so important.  There are no easy fixes here in our context, but one of the things we have to do is get two things clearly in our heads.  The first is we need a solid biblical view of sex (that it is good, from God, and part of marriage).  The second is that it is indeed a part of the reason we get married – God intended it that way.

I’ve joked with friends before that if it weren’t for sex, would anyone get married?  Look, there is way, way more to marriage obviously.  And, obviously just wanting sex with someone is not a stand alone reason to get married.  However, it is a part of the driving force – and that’s a good thing, not a bad thing.