Singleness is far from a straightforward issue. Different forms of society produce different forms of singleness. Whilst there have been people without marriage partners (or ‘sexual partners’ in our society, where marriage is swiftly becoming less of a determinative social reality) in every society known to man, the shape that singleness takes can vary considerably, depending on the shape of the society in which it occurs. The manner in which singleness is perceived and shaped within our society owes a lot to certain ‘myths’ and social structures that hold sway. If we are to come to a more biblical account of singleness, it must be by means of a critical awareness of the manner in which we ourselves are shaped by the reigning ‘myths’ of the societies in which we are part. Revealing some of these underlying myths may be regarded as part of the necessary prolegomena to our discussion.
As we grow up we find ourselves powerfully moulded by the social and ideological structures into which we are inculturated. Our self-perceptions and roles in society are not generally things that arise naturally from within. Rather, we are presented with them by the governing ‘myths’ that exist in our societies. The rule of many of these myths is often so complete that we see the roles that they present us with and the self-perceptions that they shape in us as part of the natural order of affairs.
Evangelical discourse about singleness leads single people to perceive themselves and live their lives in a particular way. In addition to the strong cultural movements within evangelicalism itself, there exist massive cultural currents in the society as a whole. I will begin by examining the manner in which these trends shape the discussion. I will then seek to partially extricate the discussion from its current position, by questioning the common terms in which it is framed.
My goal is to attempt to present a distinctively Christian ‘myth’ that provides us both with the linguistic tools to positively articulate and with the social space to actively embody a powerful form of Christian singleness (I am using the term ‘myth’ to refer to account that embodies the ideals and institutions of a particular society or part of society, not to make a claim about the truthfulness of a given account).
Evangelical Discourse on Singleness
Evangelical debates surrounding singleness tend to be framed in a manner that presupposes marriage as the normative pattern. Christian singles tend to be defined by lack relative to married Christians.
The Marginalization of Singles
In particular, it is frequently presumed that every Christian who wants to achieve personal fulfilment should actively desire marriage. For this reason, much of the material directed at singles focuses on how to escape singleness or on how to stoically live with the lack, when all appears to be lost.
Year by year acres of trees are felled to write new books on courtship, dating, the Christian family, motherhood, fatherhood, being a good wife or a faithful husband; precious little is written to address singles as singles (rather than as those seeking to escape the fate of singleness). As a result of this, Christian singles faced with no immediate prospects of marriage feel marginalized. Somehow their lives haven’t followed the expected script of Christian existence and in many respects they feel condemned to silently stand in the wings of stage of the Church, watching all the happy married couples and nuclear families with 2.4 children get on with the play.
Churches often try to deal with singles in a manner that reinforces the conception that marriage is the normative state. Singles’ groups at churches tend to degenerate into arenas for spouse-hunting. Rather than serving primarily to deepen faith, encourage godliness and nurture close friendships (that are not regarded merely as stepping stones towards marriage), they often serve primarily to reinforce the myth that true fulfilment is to be sought in the married over the single state.
Relationships among singles are often regarded as means towards marriage or as compensations for the absence of marriage. It should be no surprise that pain frequently results when one of the partners in these friendships gets married. Seemingly strong relationships can be swiftly dismantled and abandoned and those who remain single often end up feeling used, betrayed and rejected. It should also be observed that many singles, in close friendships with members of the other sex, face the continual expectation of other members of their churches to take things further and aim for marriage. This expectation makes it very hard for them to enter into and enjoy natural friendships with members of the opposite sex without misunderstanding creeping into the relationship or characterizing the response of others to the relationship. When we have the strong impression that other people bring such expectations to their relationships with us and they have the impression that we bring such expectations to our relationships with them, we should not be surprised that natural friendships between the sexes often find it hard to get off the ground.
Lacking the linguistic and social means by which to assert the possibility of close friendships between members of the opposite sex, outside of the context of marriage, many long-term singles feel limited in the degree to which they can enter into friendships with over single people across the gender divide. This problem merely exacerbates the problem of loneliness faced by many singles.
Strong relationships with both men and women are important for healthy development. It is far from ideal to only enjoy strong relationships with members of your own sex. The need of men for women and the need of women for men extend beyond the boundaries of the marriage relationships. When single men and single women relate to each other they do not relate to each other as androgynous beings. Rather, we are to cultivate femininity and masculinity in such relationships. The lack of such relationships in our lives leads to the distortion of both masculinity and femininity. Given the unhealthy expectations and values of many of the contexts in which we find ourselves, such relationships demand particular sensitivity, but they should never be neglected.
Those who do not actively run after marriage when opportunities seemingly present themselves are often looked upon with disapproval. As the state of marriage is at least subconsciously presumed to be superior (often morally) to the state of singleness, those who do not pursue marriage are perceived to be falling short of God’s ‘perfect plan’ for their life. Many singles in such a position can feel preyed upon by married people, who come across as smug and self-righteous.
It may well be the case that, underlying the reaction of married evangelicals to those who willingly persist in singleness, there is a feeling of concern that a particular myth that has powerfully shaped their lives to that point is being directly confronted and exposed. They have framed their lives in a manner that presupposes that marriage is the position of privilege and should be universally sought after by Christians. They feel incapable of adequately defending that which they have taken for granted to that point. They may feel that their own identity is, in some manner or other, under attack. The state that they have idealized is relativized by content Christian singles.
We should not be surprised if such married people (and there are a significant number of them in evangelical churches) who wish to defend the superiority, universal desirability and privilege of the position of marriage, subconsciously feel a need to see all singles as dissatisfied, disappointed, lonely and desperate to be married. Such an attitude on the part of singles serves to reinforce the power of the myth that married Christians have been told and lived concerning marriage. The presence of people who are content and joyful in a state of singleness is disconcerting to them.
Evangelical churches’ teaching about the sexuality of singles is also worth observing here. Singles are continually reminded that engaging in sexual intercourse outside of marriage is a bad thing. They are given a large number of prohibitions and instructed about a host of sins that need to be avoided. They are told that they must abstain from sex and wait until marriage. They are reminded that sex is always more fulfilling within the context of the committed long-term relationship of marriage.
There are some important things to recognize here. Singleness is consistently defined in terms of two governing myths: the governing myth of the family and the governing myth of personal fulfilment. The message that is given is that personal and sexual fulfilment is only truly found in the marriage state. Abstinence is a negative state that is wholly orientated towards marriage, where fulfilment is supposed to lie. Singleness is presented in a negative manner. The subtle message that is conveyed here is that long-term singleness is not a positive and fulfilling way of living one’s life.
The fruit of such teaching should not be surprising. Those who live in terms of this teaching and never actually manage to marry are more likely to end up regarding themselves as failures, ending up disappointed and possibly even bitter.
Another manner in which churches reinforce the conception that marriage is the normative state can be seen in the way in which families are given forms of special attention that is commonly denied to singles. Most churches have regular family meetings and meetings geared to minister especially to husbands and wives, mothers and fathers. Few pay anything like the same amount of attention to developing ways of ministering to the needs of those in long-term singleness. Many evangelical churches go to great lengths to be ‘family friendly’ and attract married people and families. They try to develop a family image. However, the form of ‘family friendliness’ and family image that is cultivated is often one that can leave long term singles feeling alienated and sidelined, as little place is found for them within such a vision of the Church. They gradually become invisible.
Single people are often marginalized in terms of church government in evangelical churches. The sort of family image that many churches wish to cultivate does not sit well with the idea of having single men in key leadership positions within the church. Older prejudices about celibate clergy also come into play here. The lack of single people in prominent leadership positions within the church can lead to insensitivity on the part of pastors and elders to the concerns of single people.
I believe that it is important that we properly name the focus on the normative character of marriage and the family over the state of singleness. Such an emphasis stands in opposition to the teaching of Scripture in a number of key respects. For this reason, I believe that within modern evangelicalism there is a serious case of the idolatry of marriage and the family. It is important that we have the courage and wisdom to recognize and name it as such. When a good thing like marriage or the family are given inordinate or ultimate value in a way that displaces God to some degree or other, we have a case of idolatry. Such a good thing swiftly becomes a bad thing, exercising a powerfully negative force on society. A number of scholars have argued that this is precisely what has happened in the case of marriage and the family. As I have argued so far, any discussion of singleness will be distorted by this idolatry. For this reason, I hope that the present discussion of singleness will have much that is of profound relevance to married Christians as well.
Privatization and Individualization
A further thing that shapes evangelical discourse on singleness is the individualization and privatization that is so strongly evident within the Church.
Within the Church today far too many Christians regard their genitalia as their own private property. Rather than the church being regarded as a place where one is held accountable to others and subject to discipline and tradition, the church comes to be regarded as something that we ‘buy into’ as religious consumers. If we don’t like the demands that the church places on us, we can just as easily ‘sell out’. The decisions that people make about marriage and singleness tend to be governed by their own private needs and reasons, rather than by those of a broader community. Many believe that marriage is ‘private’ and that fellow Christians do not have the right to hold one accountable for the way that a Christian husband treats his wife in the ‘privacy’ of the home, for example. Seldom do people regard marriage or singleness as primarily being for the service of the larger body of Christ, so that one owes one’s faithfulness in the vocations of marriage and singleness to the body as a whole and that the body is perfectly within its rights to demand such faithfulness and call one to account for unfaithfulness.
To the degree that many people seek the church today, they tend to seek the church as a means of self-fulfilment in their own private and individual ‘spiritual journeys’. The church comes to be seen as a ‘life-style enclave’ (as Mark Searle puts it), where people who enjoy the same thing meet together. The Christian community is not regarded as the context out of which we live our new lives as Christians; rather, the community is a means to our own individual ends. We participate in community to meet our own individual needs, but are reluctant to submit ourselves to the constraints that true community places upon its members.
As the processes of individualization and privatization takes place, the central locus of community ceases to be the Church. True community, which goes far beyond a vague and transient feeling of togetherness, can no longer be found in most Christian churches, which merely peddle a ‘synthetic’ form of community, a form of community that is no real community at all. Much attention is given to creating a sentimentalized ‘sense of community’, but the reality of community is seldom present. Real community hurts and is not what most people are looking for.
All of this has taken place as churches have ‘bought into’ the individualistic market-orientation and privatization of our culture. Nowadays, if people want community they seek it in marriage and the family. They can no longer find it in the household of God. At least marriage and the family promise tradition, long-term commitment, obligation, discipline and accountability, which are necessary for the real community of ‘belonging’ to one another. Deep down many Christians know that such true community cannot be found in voluntaristic institutions. As the Church has become just such a voluntaristic community, they have lost hope in the Church.
Single people are thereby marginalized from the deepest form of communal belonging. Their aloneness is deepened by the fact that those who exist outside of communities of belonging are also often subject to mistrust and suspicion. All of this merely serves to fuel the myth of the superiority of marriage and the idolatry of the family. If single people are to be rescued from their isolation their saviour is marriage and the biological family, rather than God’s adoption of them into the family of God (which in many evangelical circles has been reduced to little more than a cosy theological abstraction).
As one author writes: “In a church that assumes the married state to be normative, single people are often left without this kind of accountability and support. Without it, their needs for intimacy, affirmation and character formation often go unmet, making the single life difficult and intensely lonely, and the potential benefits of their relational availability go untapped by the church. Such privatization of sexuality also can lead single people to hold unrealistically romantic views of sexuality after marriage.”
Society’s Discourse on Marriage
The problem with modern society is not that it despises marriage. It is that it idolizes marriage. Alexander Schmemann writes: ‘It is not the lack of respect for the family, it is the idolization of the family that breaks the modern family so easily, making divorce its almost natural shadow. It is the identification of marriage with happiness and the refusal to accept the cross in it.’ Many in modern society regard marriage and the family as the great hedges against loneliness. Marriage and the family are the key places of psychological and moral fulfilment. The family will collapse under the weight of such expectations. Ultimately, the family is unable to save us.
Modern society has given us an idealized portrait of love. The powerful myth that society gives us is the myth of romantic love. This myth is propagated in many ways, as we all know. Many Christians are powerfully shaped by this myth, as we all know. The romantic myth is a relatively modern one. For most of written history the myth of romantic love has exerted far less power over the actual shape of the practice of marriage in society. The freight of expectations that we bring to marriage is noticeably absent in many previous societies. Marriage was not regarded as a panacea, nor did people presume that marriage needed warm romance at its root. Fidelity was regarded as a far more important indicator of the quality of the relationship than romance.
For many (most?) people in the history prior to the modern era, romance was at best a marginal concern when entering into matrimony. However, many of these people found marriage to be a place of deep joy that eludes many who enter into the union of marriage today. Exuberant love and passion certainly have their place in marriage, but they are never enough of themselves to sustain a successful relationship.
The finite ideal of romance is bound to disappoint (as any finite ideal is). Romance is not the key to lasting marriage. The reality of marriage is far more painful than the romantic ideal suggests. Far from being the best place for self-fulfilment, marriage is a place where people must die to their self-centeredness. Far from being the locus of true self-realization, it is a place of continual self-denial.
Our society has also depoliticized and privatized marriage. The romantic myth presents marriage as a relation between two people for their mutual fulfilment. Such a conception of marriage turns marriage in on itself and results in the problems listed above. Historically, marriage has been deeply ‘politicized’. By this I mean that the marriage of two people was directed to a purpose outside of itself, to the service of a larger community. The shared external focus of the husband and the wife within the marriage served to integrate all of their lives to the service of some greater aim. The displacing of such a ‘politicized’ view of marriage by the privatized notion of marriage can account for the weak character of many modern marriage bonds. When all that unites you to another person is your desire for personal, sexual, emotional and psychological fulfilment, your relationship will, of necessity, be a weak one.
The privatized view of marriage has an impact on singles. Marriage becomes closed in on itself and those outside the bond feel alienated. The Christian view of marriage must always ‘politicize’ it. Marriage must be entered into for a purpose greater than the psychological fulfilment of the married partners. Those entering into marriage must do so believing that their marriage will enable them to serve and love God and His people better. They must not presume that the same is the case for every other person. Such a marriage will serve to benefit and serve singles, rather than leaving them feeling isolated.
Many Christians have adopted the ideal of romantic love. They argue against sex outside of marriage by claiming that sex within marriage is far more fulfilling. That may well be true, but Christians can easily forget that God’s primary desire for us is that we know, serve and love Him, rather than for our sexual fulfilment. Genital sex must always be subordinated to this far greater purpose.
Perhaps the deepest problem in our society’s discourse about marriage is the great focus placed upon sex. Our society has taught us that active sexuality is both a right and a necessity. One cannot be fulfilled apart from genital sexuality.
In our society so much of the fabric of intimacy has been lost. People look for intimacy wherever they can find it. The message that society gives us is that true intimacy is only found in genital sex. As a result to place prohibitions on the free expression of people’s sexuality is to commit a sin more grievous than almost any other. Marva Dawn has written insightfully on this subject in her book, Sexual Character: Beyond Technique to Intimacy.
As our society has been starved of love it idolizes sex as that which will give it what it so desperately seeks. However, sex outside of the broader fabric of intimacies that are established in the Church and marriage is bound to disappoint. By itself, genital sex is totally insufficient to bear the burden of expectation that our society places on it. Consequently, people go to great lengths to make sex more ‘exciting’, trying to develop new techniques to deal with the act itself. In a society that idolizes genital sex, long-term single people will be made to feel like unfulfilled failures.
Furthermore, when the vocabulary of love becomes so impoverished that it can only truly apply to genital sex, the possibility of true, deep, intimate and fulfilling friendship apart from sexual overtones will be doubted. In our society authentic friendships (especially across the generations, social classes, and across the barriers of gender) are becoming harder to find as sex increasingly comes to be regarded as the true locus of intimacy.
Friendships with people of similar age are often sexualized in people’s mindsets. Close and intimate relationships between people of the same sex are often presumed to be ‘gay’ (for example, the relationship between David and Jonathan in Scripture and Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings). Singles often feel the need to prove their heterosexuality. This further complicates their relationships and frustrates their quest for genuine friendship and intimacy.