I have spent a lot of time here railing against what I have called the Church’s Nuclear Family Idol. What I’m realizing is that there are a lot of people in certain corners of the church that are railing against that idol but in a different way. Therefore I feel the need to clarify two things – 1. What I’m speaking against and what I’m not and 2. What is the rightful place of the nuclear family in the church.
Right now there is a lot of reporting out there about the American Evangelical culture and it’s impending doom. While I think that reports of it’s death have been greatly exaggerated, it should lead to a lot of reflection in all sorts of contexts.
As I watch it unfold and watch the church interact with the culture in several ways and in many different contexts I see a couple of things that we have to get past. These things play out in all sorts of different ways, but of particular interest here in the space, is in relation to singleness.
Here are two major problems (not that there aren’t more – as well as many good things) that I see over and over again in different cultural exchanges.
One of the things that always bothers me is when we assume single people should do more ministry. This sort of thought process happens all the time for several reasons.
It comes from the pulpit because pastors either misunderstand or misuse what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7. Without going into too much depth here as I’ve written extensively about this, Paul is not saying if you are not yet married that you are therefore not distracted and able to be a better, more focused Christian. He is instead saying if you are not distracted by a desire to get married, it could be that you have the gift/calling of celibacy and that would be a good thing.
But this is where this gets really ironic is that the same people telling you to “take advantage of your singleness” in ministry don’t want you to actually lead the ministry. Perhaps what they really mean, is that while they can, they want to take advantage of your singleness.
You see it’s fine if you want to serve in the nursery or maybe the youth, on the worship team, set up and tear down, and in the rare church you might even be able to lead a small group.
But, if you want to be a pastor or elder, better think again.
I’ll be honest. When I started writing this blog four years ago, I thought I would share some thoughts about my experience as a single for over 20 years of adulthood and specifically in the Church culture. Somehow in my mid thirties I had a sort of awakening that a whole lot of what I thought I knew about singleness, what I’d be taught and even what I had taught others was wrong. But I had no idea how wrong we were.
This is why now and then I’m responding to some posts from prominent leaders in our church culture. They represent what we teach and when it comes to this context, they come up almost unbelievably short. It’s astounding really.
In a post on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Page, they share from a speech from Al Molher (whom Time called the “reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement in the U.S.” – Yikes) in which he addresses the “sin” of delayed marriage. I know you’re getting excited already. . .
A few people in the church starting to wake up to the fact that the cultural context has changed. Not only that but some are even beginning to see that they are part of the problem because of the ways they’ve handled that. I myself have admitted many times here that I’ve taught many things wrong through the years – and I was teaching it as a single person.
Now the majority of the church has yet to even roll over, let alone wake up. But it is encouraging to see some movement. Over a couple of blog posts I want to sort of encourage (read challenge, push, bother, implore) them to not just offer band aids or think that a few simple thoughts are going to solve this. If you are a pastor/elder/leader type person, you need to know that it’s going to be slower and more all encompassing than you think.
My fear for this discussion is that churches who are starting to see the problem of having family as an idol or not doing well with singles will only look to give simple answers that won’t actually unmask the deeper assumptions and mistakes that we have made and/or are making with this topic. Changing what we say won’t be enough. We have to go back and rethink the whole thing to have a chance.
As an example of this I want to respond to parts of an article written by Scott Sauls for Relevant. Let me be clear – I’m not coming at Scott. I don’t know him personally but know folks who do and I’ve heard only great things about him. I also want to give him a lot of credit for writing about this. He is obviously way ahead of the curve which is apparent in much of what he writes.
I’m simply using his post as a launching pad to challenge some of the things that I believe the leaders in his, and similar circles, seem to assume.
A few weeks ago I wrote a post about why married people need a singleness sermon series. The reason I wrote that post was two fold. First, we need married people and single people to be taught from Christian leadership the truth about the whole thing. Single people need to learn from a marriage and married people need to learn from singleness. It represents the whole of the story. One without the other comes up short.
Secondly, I think that one of the reasons that more pastors and leaders are scared to preach and teach on this (besides never having thought about it) is that they don’t know how to include the married people in it. I outlined that in that post and I’d encourage you to go back and read it if you haven’t.
Today I want to share with you the opening remarks of that sermon series. It’s the sermon you probably won’t ever hear, but the only one with a real chance to matter.
So without further adieu – pretend I’m in your pulpit.
“Today we begin our sermon series on singleness and the gospel. As I mentioned last week, we all need this sermon series – no matter what our marital context. It’s important because it affects not just the unmarried in our congregation but the marrieds and our youth. It all works together. This is one of the most important things we’ve done here in a long time.
I want to start today by saying this. Most of what you have heard about singleness is wrong. On behalf of the church – our church here and the church universally – I’m sorry.
I’m sorry for all the times that we skimmed over it or mentioned it in passing including the obvious scriptures. I’m sorry for all the times we focussed on the nuclear family instead of the family of God. For all the platitudes and easy quick answers, I’m sorry. For all the times that we said things without actually studying and thinking about how all this plays out in the gospel and in the lives of our people, I’m sorry.
In the fight to rescue our culture, we’ve often failed to engage all of our people. In an effort to fight for the marriages in our church, we’ve often left out or glossed over the unmarried. To those who are unmarried and struggling, I’m sorry for where we have not taken your context seriously. For all who are married, I’m sorry for how what we taught you about singleness (or didn’t teach you as the case may be) may have hurt your marriage.
For all the times, and there have been many, that we made it seem like the only important thing for the unmarried was not having sex – I’m sorry. There have been times where we have treated you as less complete, less spiritual and less capable of leadership because you weren’t married. That was wrong.
For those of you who are called to celibacy there are no words. We have just flat screwed that up. We haven’t talked about it or offered you any guidance, support or teaching. Nor have we honored your calling and choice. I ask your forgiveness.
For lumping all unmarrieds into one group, I’m truly sorry. The truth is there are those who are single by calling, those who are single by choice, those who are single because of sin in their life or the sin of others. There are those who don’t know how to get married but want to. There are also those who are divorced – some biblically and others not so much and others who were divorced before they even knew Jesus. Finally there are those who are widowed – who never expected to be unmarried again. These are all completely different situations, and yet we’ve often treated them the same. That was wrong.
We’ve taught you what not to do, but not what to do. At times – too many times – we’ve made marriage and family an idol. We repent of that here and now, in public. Jesus invites us all to be in the family of God – and so do we – no matter what.
One sermon series over the course of a few weeks cannot repair all of that. It can’t possibly heal all the wounds or fix all the problems – for you as an individual and certainly not as a whole church. But maybe it can be a starting point towards a different discussion – and a discussion that actually includes everyone. The conversation won’t be easy or short, and we won’t all agree on everything. But we have to have it – both for those inside our church and for the lost outside the church.
Our hope is that this series will open the door to a whole different way of seeing singleness, marriage and the Kingdom. So, here we go. . . . ”
The serious guts it would take to say the above and pursue this series would be incredible and probably won’t happen. But it would be awesome. Talk about changing a room.
What would you want to see in a singleness sermon series?
When I think about family, one of the first things that comes to mind is dinner around the table. Kids grow up there. Couples grow old there. It’s where the day is reviewed and the world’s problems are solved. What’s amazing is even if there isn’t much to eat, you still do it together. There is something about it.
A mentor of mine (father figure is more accurate) lives in a beautiful large home. In that home he has a dining room table. Interestingly the table is round, not long, so there is no head of the table so to speak.
Let me describe what happens when you go to dinner there. When you pull up in the driveway you set off the driveway bell. They have that bell so that by the time you get the door they are already there to greet you – usually with a hug, not a handshake. Then you go inside. Typically there are some drinks and often even some sort of good snack. This is followed by the choicest of meals. You eat this while seated around the round table. My mentor will then have some sort of question that he wants each person to answer. (By the way, this is the furthest thing from fast food possible – you could be there for three hours – but it won’t seem like it). He genuinely wants to know about the people around his table.
All sorts of people have sat around that table. Politicians, dignitaries, business partners, business competitors, refugees from third world countries, people from a bunch of different walks of life, and even me. And every one of them is welcomed and listened to. “Now wait, we haven’t heard your story yet. Tell me about. . . . ”
It’s a picture of family – God’s family. It’s a picture of The Kingdom.
We live in a time where it seems like the nuclear family as we’ve known it is being blown apart. There’s the divorce rate. There’s the fact that more women in America have their first kid out of wedlock than in it. More and more people are choosing to not actually get married or if they do it’s much later than ever before.
This actually hurts our society in several ways (shrinking middle class anyone?). And the Church has seen it and often has become focused on changing it. But the problem is, focusing on the nuclear family won’t turn the tide.
First, it leaves out and alienates too many people. Families go to church. Single people don’t. 50% of Americans are unmarried. And guess what, most of them aren’t going to church. Part of the reason? Focus on the nuclear family.
Secondly, Jesus wasn’t focussed on it. Jesus said things like, “unless you hate your mother and father, or brother and sister, you are not worthy of me.” He said, “I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, . . . a man’s enemies will be members of his own household”. Once when he was teaching, his mother and brothers came and he says, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” He points to his disciples and says, “Here are my mother and brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Try preaching that one on Mother’s day.
None of this is to say that family is bad or that the church shouldn’t speak to what marriage and family should look like. It should. People who are married need to know it and people who aren’t need to know what it would mean if they did get married. Not only that, but marriage and family are set up by God. Marriage happened pre-sin in the garden. It’s not a concession, it’s a gift. But the problem with focusing there or calling the family “the foundational institution of human society” is that God never said that. God’s Family is the foundational institution of humanity – not my family – thank goodness!
The point of marriage, family, or for that matter celibacy, is to point to God, how he loves us, and the Kingdom, not the other way around. When we lift one up over the other, we limit the picture of the Kingdom and we leave people out – the exact opposite of God’s picture.
You know what the safest, most welcoming place in the world for the single person should be? The Church. It should be the place that calls them family, not the place that makes them feel like they dont’ have one. You see the Church should be a place where you can find fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters. Maybe if we could figure out how to do that, we’d have less to worry about on the back end. What we need is for the Church to focus on the Kingdom Family.
Which family is your church focused on? Who are your brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters?
I believe this: There is a family dinner table – and you are invited. When you show up the Master meets you at the door – with a hug, not a handshake. He serves the choicest of meals. It doesn’t matter what your story is, how “important” your earthly role is/was. Married, never married – whatever. It won’t matter except as part of your story. Everyone has a seat. He wants to hear everyone’s story – your story – even though He’s knows it. There’s no hurry. You’ve got an eternity – and after all, this is family.
A few years ago I’d had sort of an interesting run where I’d been in a relationship that ended about a few months earlier. I had been on some dates with various people and was sort of tired of it all. But I was also doing a lot of random ministry and enjoying it. I told a friend at that time that I was considering once again if maybe I should just stay single. I wasn’t mad about it (believe me I’d been there), I was just looking realistically at my situation and thinking it wasn’t all bad. The truth was that I had asked God about this several times. What was cool about that time period is I was really ok hearing whatever from God. If God wanted me to remain unmarried I was ok with that.
As an aside – one of the keys to hearing God is being willing to hear anything. I need to be willing to hear yes and no. That is what being surrendered to him means. “God I will do what you want – whatever that is.” When you are in that posture it makes it much easier to really see what He is calling you to. I’m not suggesting that is easy, just saying it’s true.
But as I prayed it never felt like God was calling me to that. It just never felt right to say I was called to celibacy and to remain unmarried – even when I wanted it to.
One of the great failures of the church is that we do basically no teaching on this calling. In protestant culture we don’t really even offer it as an option. I’m not sure why we are so afraid of it. I’ve had pastors say from the pulpit essentially, “we don’t know anything about this, so we are going to skip it.” I’ve mentioned before that at my church we have a position on every other angle – dating, marriage, divorce, remarriage, sexual ethics, homosexuality – but not celibacy or being unmarried. And our church has at least 40% unmarried people. Do you think it’s possible that someone in there might need that teaching?
Part of it is that we have made marriage/family an idol in the church. But I think part of it is that now for generations no one has taught on it, so people are just lost.
Let’s be clear about a couple of things.
You are created and born unmarried. Even Adam and Eve were created unmarried. There is no soulmate. Your number one relationship regardless of marital status is with Jesus. At the resurrection, regardless of what happened in your life here, you will be unmarried. You will spend eternity unmarried.
The question is what are you called to here and now? I know it’s really only one scripture but I think Jesus actually lays it out pretty well in Matthew 19.
The pharisees have tried to trap Jesus with a question about divorce. Jesus answers that by raising the bar to the point where basically divorce is almost always wrong. A person can’t just get divorced. The disciples freak out and say essentially, “that’s too hard”.
Jesus then says that the gift of marriage isn’t for everyone. It’s at this point that Jesus offers some thoughts on celibacy. Most translations use the term eunuchs but I think it applies. (for a couple of interesting versions, check out The Message and the JB Phillips)
Jesus basically says that there are three groups of people that are called to celibacy (notice they are not called to dating forever, sleeping around etc.).
There are first of all those who are born that way. They are born with the “gift” so to speak. Maybe it’s physical. Maybe they for whatever reason have just never really felt the drive for marriage, maybe even for sex. In other words there are those who have been created to live a life unmarried.
Secondly there are those who have been made that way by men. These might be people who have never been asked to be married or have been rejected. Maybe they’ve been physically injured or have a mental illness.
You see here’s the deal, we live in a fallen world. I know that hurts. But there will be some people who don’t have the gift or the calling to remain unmarried who nonetheless, because of sin, woundedness (their own, others’, the world’s) don’t get married. There are earthly consequences to sin – both our own and others. This is one reason we need to punt the family idol. You could do a lot right and still not have one. We Have To Get This.
Finally there are those who have chosen celibacy for the kingdom. We have choice. If we get married, we choose that. Both marriage and celibacy are a gift and a choice. Jesus is saying that some choose to dedicate themselves to a work that means not being married. They choose it.
One of the big problems is that we have lumped all unmarried people into one category – single. But in the scripture there are the not married yet, the married, the divorced, the widowed and then these three – those who are unmarried because they were born with a different gift, those that are unmarried because of a fallen world, and those that are unmarried because they choose to forgo that gift and follow a different calling.
The question is of course where are you on this list. Are you willing to hear that answer? Are we willing to walk with people to help them figure it out?
I’m not pretending to be exactly right about all of this. But I do know we HAVE to have the conversation.
A few weeks ago, a reader asked me if I would write a post about anger at the Church and what to do with that so I thought I’d take a stab at it.
Let’s do two things by way of prologue.
Bitterness Is An Enemy and Not From God
I’ve written before about how as a single we can easily fall into the trap of bitterness. There are a lot of mad singles. I’ve been there. Believe me. There is an anguish. There can be a sense of entitlement. There is a sense of loss and we react to it. I’ve written before that we can be mad at God, mad at women, mad at other guys, and mad at ourselves. All of these are important things to consider and deal with. I believe that we are mostly mad at God. Really all of us at one time or another feel this. We can also be mad at The(a) Church which brings us to:
The Church in general and in particular within protestantism, has really messed this up.
I mean it’s not good. Where to begin? The don’t get it. And maybe worse, they don’t like it. We don’t honor or even teach about celibacy. We often don’t let singles into leadership. The church is in a defensive position on marriage, and is actually often unwittingly helping to hurt marriage in the process. The Church as a whole has created an idol out of marriage and family.
Rarely does a church address the singles in it’s midst (let alone the outside of it) and when it does, mostly what it does is tell us is what not to do, wait for the one, and then your questions of sexual prowess will magically be answered. Of course as a guy the church has told us it’s all our fault, and therefore we are all (men and women) set up to fail.
So basically most of the church’s answer to singleness is to offer spiritual platitudes, worry more that we might marry wrong that if we would marry at all, and never address any of the things that we go through – including have to walk into their doors all by ourselves. And that is just a brief warm up. So yeah, there is a lot to be mad about.
What Do We Do With It?
The real question isn’t are single people generally frustrated with the church. It’s not even should they be, because frankly they probably should be. The real question (and the one that the reader was wanting to know) is what do we do with it.
I think there are three choices really.
- Say screw the church and leave – if I get married think about coming back
- Go to church at least at some level, but not engage the battle. Maybe find a church that at least isn’t anti-single.
- Engage the church, forgive our leaders, earn the right to be heard, and then fight for what we know is right.
We all know option one is wrong, but it is an option. The problem here is that it hurts the church, and that really shouldn’t be our goal. Taking ourselves out of the equation won’t change the equation in our favor (or anyone else’s).
Option two is where a lot of people I know (and myself for a long time) seem to be at. It’s kind of a surrender really – this is just the way it is. That is easier in a lot of ways and I guess at least you are there.
But option three is where I think we need to be. So how do we do that? We need to do three things.
- Do our best to understand why it’s the way it is, and trust that most of it is not personal.
- Earn the right to have a voice.
- Exercise our voice in a way that can be heard.
Today, I want to tackle the first one and tomorrow I’ll write about the other two.
I’ve written a lot about this part before, but let’s sum up some thoughts that can help. We need to understand that the leaders of the church (most of the time) have the right heart, even if the wrong solutions. There are so many factors in play. Many in the church are looking around and watching the family fall apart. They see it and want to help. This is where all the family focus and effort comes into play. It’s why there are hundreds of Christian books on marriage and family. They are trying to rescue the family, which isn’t all bad. To their credit, I think these resources have helped a lot of families make it. That’s a good thing.
They also don’t want to see us hurt ourselves or others, which is why they constantly are worried about sex outside of marriage and all that goes with that. As I told an audience of singles at our church, the surest ways to get the pastor to stop talking about not having sex, would be if all of our singles would . . . stop having sex.
And finally as I’ve written about before, on a practical level most pastors and church leaders have never been single. They really don’t get it. It doesn’t mean they don’t care. They just literally don’t understand.
What knowing these things can do, if we can get past the bitterness, is allow us to forgive people for getting this wrong. I think we have to start there, because otherwise it’s just about us and that’s not enough. This whole thing is way bigger than just our own personal situation. It’s a real problem in the Church and we have a chance to help. More on that tomorrow.
I’ve determined that church people really hate singles issues. Now they don’t hate singles (even though some singles might feel that way). I think they for the most part really do care. But I think they hate it and avoid dealing with it.
I’ve been thinking about why they feel that way, and I’ve come to some conclusions. This is not meant to be exhaustive, just my first thoughts.
First of all, people they care about are hurting. There are people that church leaders care for that really want to get married. They see the desire in their people’s hearts and it bothers them that they aren’t met.
Secondly they hate it because it leads to all sorts of messy problems within the church that they don’t have good answers for. This guy won’t leave this girl alone. These two went out three times and now the girl thinks because it didn’t work out that the guy is a player out to do harm. A single man has the qualities to be an elder, but what if he dates someone in the church, what if it doesn’t work out? What if he dates someone from a different church? What if a woman from the church likes him and he isn’t interested? Is he more likely to fall into sexual sin than a married man? What does that scripture about the husband of one wife mean? (For the record it means don’t have more than one wife).
It’s a mess. It’s not supposed to work this way. But our culture has changed. Marriage is in the decline. If we were to continue on the trend we are on right now, married people really will be in the minority in our country. But the church isn’t set up for that. It also isn’t set up to help us navigate our way out of it. And that is freaking frustrating.
Thirdly, church people hate singleness because there is no easy biblical answer to the problem. There are some biblical answers, but we don’t like most of them. So what mostly happens instead is that we end up trying to make them up. We like nice little bible answers. We like when we can say to a married man, “Love your wife in this way or that, because a verse in the bible says it that way.” Or to a married woman, “respect your husband this or that way because there is a verse or two in the bible that says it that way.”
One of the reasons the Church likes to talk about marriage and family (not the only reason) is that it makes a really good sermon. Singleness. . . . not so much. Not only that but you can toss a word or two into a marriage sermon about singleness because most single people in the church want to get married. Married people aren’t interested in the single sermon. They should be, but they’re not.
The word singleness isn’t even in the bible. Actually I guess the word is in 2nd Chronicles but not the way we mean it. Dating is not in the bible. Neither is courting in case you thought it was. Taking a wife in the bible often meant literally taking one – and that probably won’t preach.
You see the problem with dealing with singleness is that you actually have to get dirty to do it. To give any sort of answer that matters you have to jump in with the single person. You can’t quote a verse, do a study and walk away feeling good about yourself because it won’t do the trick.
To deal with singleness we’d have to deal with things like the call to celibacy. That actually is in the bible, but in 20 years in church I’ve never once heard a pastor do it justice. I for sure have never seen a small group set up to determine if you might be called to it.
To deal with singleness we have to get in with the single person and help them navigate why they (that one person) is single? It requires actually walking through things like, fear of commitment, awkwardness with the opposite sex, communication with the opposite sex, confidence around the opposite sex, insecurities and sin, not to mention the sins of consumerism, sexual immorality, and laziness. It means dealing directly with people’s wounds over an extended period of time. It means dealing with fear – not creating it.
We can tell men to man up and women to dress up until we are blue in the face but at some point we have to actually know the man or the woman and find out what’s up. We can talk all day about God’s timing and waiting on the one He has for you, but at some point we have to move beyond sounding deep and go deep with people.
It means not pretending that there is biblical answers where there aren’t. And church people hate that because they want there to be a biblical answer even where there isn’t one. By the way this includes single church people too.
If the Church is interested in changing the trend and reaching out to the unmarried (50% of America is unmarried. 80% of those between 18-29 are) then maybe it’s time the Church “Man’s Up” itself and rethinks how it goes at this deal.