You Will Spend Eternity Unmarried – But What About Now?

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.

My Church Doesn’t Get Singleness And I’m Mad Pt. 1

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.

  1. Say screw the church and leave – if I get married think about coming back
  2. Go to church at least at some level, but not engage the battle.  Maybe find a church that at least isn’t anti-single.
  3. 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.

  1. Do our best to understand why it’s the way it is, and trust that most of it is not personal.
  2. Earn the right to have a voice.
  3. 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.

Why Church People Hate Singleness

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.

 

 

 

 

Don’t Just Aim For “Christian” Singleness/Dating/Marriage

The first thing you are required to answer if you are dating someone and you go to church is this, “So are they a Christian?”  Then if you answer yes, your next goal is to date in a Christian way, and then of course have a Christian marriage, and raise Christian kids.  But here’s my question – what does that actually mean?

One of my favorite scenes in the Bible happens in John 6. Jesus starts out by feeding the 5000. For an encore He walks on water.  Now the crowds figure this out and so they show up to greet Him and the disciples.  The conversation goes essentially like this.

Jesus says, “You are here because of the miracle yesterday.”  They say, “Um obviously.” Jesus says, “You need to work for the stuff that lasts, not the bread that you need more of.”  They then ask what they need to do.  Jesus says, “The work of God is this, to believe in the one whom He has sent.”  In other words, “Stake your whole life on me.”  Their response is classic.  “Give us a sign that we may believe.”  He of course refuses and they all leave.

Here’s what’s funny.  If Jesus would have answered the work question with any sort of job, they would have done it.  If He would have said, “Stand on one foot and dig a ditch 100 meters while saying the levitical code backwards,” they would have tried to do it.  But actually staking their life on Jesus, not so much.  They didn’t want much to do with Him.

This is a constant battle as we think about singleness, marriage and the Church and really any other area of life.

It is easy to get wrapped up in formula and for that matter religion.  The real question is, what is your identity in?  Are you, your relationships, friendships, singleness, marriage and church about Jesus?

We end up with the wrong goals.  We want a family centered church.  Everyone wants a Christian marriage and certainly to have a Christian household.  And if you’re single, then your job is to not have sex (because that’s not Christian) and if you do date, do it in a Christian way.

But this can be a trap for all of us.  It doesn’t matter what you call it, or if you follow all the rules, if you don’t actually walk with Jesus.  It gives us the wrong identity and it can make us come up short.

I’m not saying all the rules or ideas are wrong.  For example, not having sex outside of marriage is right.  It’s Biblical.  It’s from God.  And the truth is that if I’m following Jesus, He is not going to lead me to have sex unless I’m married.  But the problem is that I can abstain from sex and still not follow Jesus.  It’s not the having or not having of sex that makes me about Jesus.

This is so important as we are seeking a spouse.  We can’t just say, hey that girl/guy goes to church so it must be good to go.  We can’t just date, go to church, be in a small group, not have sex, and call it good (although again, those are all good things).  The real questions are more like, “Is this other person really trying to follow Jesus?”  “What is the fruit of this person’s life?”  “Does it seem like Jesus is in this?”  “Am I brought closer to Jesus by the relationship?”

But this goes way beyond who to date.  What do we want our marriage to look like?  There are so many marriages that are “Christian” more in name than in action.  Marriages without fruit and growth.  Marriages where we are “good people” and “plugged in” but yet don’t really seem to be about Jesus.

And finally, the Church get’s wrapped up in this too.  They get so concerned about the nuclear family, marriage and single people not having sex, that pretty much that’s all they are about.

We end up with our identity being in a religion, self-righteousness, our kids, family or marital status that we miss actually walking with Jesus.

Our first call is to know and love Jesus.  This is true regardless of literally anything else in our lives.  This is what brings us together.  It’s what makes US the family that matters most. It is what keeps things like marriage and family from becoming idols (whether we have them or not).  It’s also the hardest thing to do.  Which is why Jesus calls it work.

My thought is this.  What if we didn’t worry about Christian singleness/dating/marriage.  What if we worry about trying to follow Jesus and all of that will take care of itself.  I get the dangers of that statement, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

Are your relationships Jesus centered or just “Christian”?  What kind of marriage or singleness do you want?

The Church’s Family Idol And Singleness

Here’s the truth about our culture right now. Close to 50% of marriages will end in divorce. Stats show that nearly one third of first marriages will end in divorce within the first 10 years.  When you add in out of wedlock births, close to 60% of kids in high school don’t live in their “nuclear family”.

The Church has seen this and tried to respond. . . mostly by talking about marriage and family.  But as an unintended consequence we have sometimes made family an idol. And for all of this attention to family, we are not winning.

We have this idea that if we do enough teaching on marriage and family that everything will turn around.  We have hundreds of books.  We hold seminars and conferences.  We have Focus on the Family, we have churches named the Family Church.  We have outreach to families.  We say, “We are going to be doing a sermon series on marriage so invite your neighbor.”

We’ve created this idea of the Biblical family.  This is a little crazy when you consider that there probably isn’t one marriage in the Bible that you would want to emulate.

Now to be sure there are great principles in the Bible for marriage.  But really they are mostly the same principles for all of life.  How do you love another person?  If you’re married, that should be the number one example of that. It’s your number one covenant relationship.

But the Bible isn’t about family. It’s about God and us, mainly God actually.  Jesus says unless you hate your wife and children, you can’t follow me.  How do we reconcile that with how we teach all this stuff?  Jesus is obviously not saying to hate anyone.  He is however saying that He comes first – and that is true regardless of marital status.  So the real question is regardless of my context how do I follow Jesus?  Seems to me we ought to talk to the other half of the peoples’ context.

Now before you rip me, let me say that I’m not against any of this.  I think it is vital the Church talk about these things.  I know that I have been impacted, even as a single, by these teachings.  I’m for it and I’ve encouraged us as singles to learn from it for a variety of reasons.  I’ve seen marriages and families be saved by it.  But this focus on the family will not turn the tide because singles aren’t there to listen to it.

Married people already go to church.  Most of the people that don’t go to church are not married.  According to Barna 37% of them have never been married at all.

What used to happen is the Church would lose the young 20 somethings and then when they got married they would come back.  The problem is that now they are not getting married.  Only 20% of those 18-29 have ever been married.  That means that we are losing the late 20 somethings.  It means that the neighbor you are supposed to invite to the marriage sermon series – they are single.

We can’t just say let’s save marriages because if we’re not careful, there won’t be any marriages to save.  We need a theology of singleness to go with our theology of marriage.  We need to offer some practical help for single people.  We can’t just say get married and then we will help you.  We need to help people figure out if they are called to celibacy or marriage and then help them do it.

Let me give you an example from my own church (which I love).  At my church we have what we call position papers.  These are “brief” papers that say where we stand on certain things.  So for example we have papers on baptism, communion, the end times, etc.

So of course we have a paper on marriage.  We also have one on divorce and remarriage. We have one on Christian sexual ethics.  We even have one on “dating” (we’d be better off with a position paper on how to get a date).  But we do not have one on singleness or celibacy.  And our church at one point was 50% single!  If we don’t have it, who does?

I’m not mad, bitter or whining. That’s not my heart at all.  But, we are losing and this is part of the reason why.  We need to deal with it.

Catch this:  Most of the battle for sexual purity, Godly marriage and family, and even the hot button issues like homosexuality and abortion, cannot be won without a right theology of singleness. People are lost and confused.

You CANNOT change this without a right theology of singleness.  And that theology has to go WAY beyond what not to do on a date.  Until it does it’s going to get worse, not better.

What is your church’s theology of singleness?  What is yours?

Sexual Immorality Is Not Just About You

About two weeks ago I was relaxing at a hotel bar where I often go to chat with friends or write this blog.  I was just about to shut it down when a gentleman showed up who was from out of town.  He sat down and started to share about why he was in town etc. Anyway after a while he asked if I had a family and I said no, but I was about to get married.  He of course congratulated me and shared he had been married for 20 years. Then he said this, “Of course you know, that once you get married, you’ll have less sex.”  I laughed.  I sure as heck hope not, because we are not having sex now.

It was the same when I was in college.  I was literally the only person in my suite of 9, that didn’t have sex my freshmen year.  They used to joke about it.  I was also the person they came to when stuff in their life was hard.  They knew I was different.

You see we don’t just flee from sexual immorality for ourselves.  It’s one of God’s ways of separating us out – as a witness.  It’s not just about you and me and our little moral battle.

One of the big misconceptions that people have is that sexual immorality is worse today than at other points in history.  There is the idea that all of a sudden it’s “crazy” out there and that marriage is being devalued etc.

This leads to a couple of problems.  First, there a lot of people who think what the Bible says about sex is “old school” and not relevant for today.  On the other hand the Church ends up running around shouting that the world is ending, making an idol out of the family and longing for the past (which I think is the 1950’s America).

Now it is true that American culture is changing.  But none of this is new.  Neither is our call to live differently than the culture.

When you look at the sexual practices that God lays out in the old testament it needs to be understood that God was giving them these specifics for a reason.  That reason is that all the other societies in the Near East were not practicing them.  When God says, don’t sleep with an animal, He says it because others were.  He’s not making up random stuff.  The Near Eastern cultures were crazy, even by our standards.  People were having sex in every way, with everybody and everything.  They even worshiped to it.

God was saying to the Israelites, “You will not be like them.  You are my people and this will distinguish you.”

The same is true in Paul’s letter to Corinth.  They had written Paul and they asked him what they should do.  How should they practice sexuality and marriage now that they had Jesus?  Paul starts that whole message by saying, “Now for the questions you asked about – here’s how to apply God’s teaching and live the way He would want in your context.”  Which was a completely pagan and dualistic context.  Sound familiar?

If we are going to flee from sexual immorality we have to define what that is. The good news is that currently most folks are not sleeping with animals or temple prostitutes (at least I’ve never been tempted by either).  So in our day, we can’t just take one liners from the Bible and try to make them mean what we want them to.  Instead, we need to take the overall meaning of sex, marriage, and celibacy in the scriptures (which is pretty dang clear) and apply that to our current context.  In legal terms it’s like law and case law.  How does the law apply to our case today?

But beyond that we need to realize that our call to flee from immorality is not just as a set of rules to keep us out of trouble.  God called Israel out.  He made them His people and commanded them to live in a way that demonstrated Him to the world.  One of the ways they were to do this was by how they behaved sexually.  Paul tells the early church the same thing.  You are set apart.  You were bought at a price.  You are NEW and different.  Live like it – in the light!

One of the reasons we fail is that even in our morality or lack there of, it’s all about us.  That wasn’t really the point.  God has bigger plans.  When we are set apart, people are drawn to us.  Want to be counter cultural?  Want to make a difference?  Want to point towards God.  Live this area of your life differently than the world.  It was true 4000 years ago and it’s true now.