As an individual who feels called by the Spirit to promote Kingdom here on this earth until the day I reach God’s Kingdom in its perfection, I work alongside many Christian brothers and sisters to promote gender equality. Every day I am confronted by those that would want to exclude women from a variety of ministries and vocation and grossly twist New Testament scripture to promote patriarchy, rather than mutuality, in marriage. My heart longs to see a day where women are elevated to a place of honor, a place where they are valued for their individuality, a place where their leadership is sought in the home, in the church, and in the marketplace, and where they feel free to be true to their unique calling and giftings.
As Valentine’s Day weekend approaches, I am reminded that women are not the only ones who experience exclusion in the church and in the world. In a culture that worships sexual pleasure and romance, and in a time in when the church works so hard to glorify marriage and the traditional family, my thoughts are with my single brothers and sisters.
We pick up on messages, some subtle and some blatant, from a lot of places. From TV shows, films, and literature we get this message that you are not really experiencing life to the fullest without regular sex, romantic encounters, or even experimental passion. From the pulpit maybe we pick up on marriage being the preferred lifestyle when the majority of practical application for any message pertains to how we treat our spouse or children. Our families send messages when they treat us strangely when dating is not a priority. Singleness accompanied by celibacy is often treated as a second-rate existence, a life-style not to be desired, but one inflicted on those not attractive enough, not sane enough for lifetime partnership.
But this idea is so far removed from the truth we find in scripture. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul makes it clear that the single life and the married life are both gifts from God (verse 7), but he also adds that he wishes more would choose to live like him as a single person. Paul describes a multitude of reasons why he finds the single life superior to the married life.
It is free from complications that often come up within marriage (verse 7).
There is less stress (v. 28)
Your sole focus can be pleasing the Master (v. 32)
Time and energy is not divided between your family (33-34)
You can live a happier life (v. 40)
Ultimately Paul felt the single life was the most efficient way to live as a disciple of Christ, and for good reason. If Paul had been traveling on his missionary journeys with a wife and four children, he may not have been able to travel as many places, plant as many churches, preach the Gospel as often, or write as many epistles. That should not be taken lightly. And if you can’t take Paul’s words from the first century seriously, consider the words of my co-worker. He is 50 years old and has been single his entire life. This is what he says about his singleness:
“There is absolutely no doubt, no comparison that can be made, in relation to my being able to reach people more effectively as a single person. In the back of my mind I don’t wonder whether I will be late getting home for dinner or to put my children to bed, or to finish a promise project for someone in my family. I can be 100% present wherever I find myself. If I choose to marry, my first priority ministry WILL be to my family as it should be. As for now, I go on short term mission trips to places where harm is possible. I don’t have to weigh the overwhelming cost of leaving a place if I sense that I am being called. I don’t have to uproot my children from a school to follow Jesus. I don’t have to jeopardize my wife’s intimate friend relationships to move. I can be available late for the lonely. I can pick up the hitchhiker. I can love openly without people wondering if my family will approve or be damaged by the implications that come when we risk love for the Kingdom. There is an ENORMOUSLY high price to be paid for following the call to single living; but the potential for reward is equally high.”
The single life is not just useful, but it can also be fun and full of freedom. I work with college students for a living. It is not uncommon to hear student talk about the goal of getting or giving a “ring by spring,” meaning a desire to be engaged to be married before graduation. I try to remind students that singleness is a gift, and can be a really fun way to live! I know since I got married 7 days after I graduated from college, some might not think me a credible source. But I know many women and men who postponed marriage for 5, 10, and even 15 years post-college and had amazing life experiences and opportunity because of their extended time as a single. Last October I got to speak at a retreat with Nicole Doley, author of The Wait: Encouragement for Single Women. She shared with me this piece of advice for Christian college students:
“The notion that it’s best to graduate from college with your MRS degree is outdated. That may be true for some, but not for all. I’m a firm believer in marriage and I think it’s one of God’s greatest blessings. Nevertheless, unmarried 20somethings are starting businesses, discovering oil and making billions. Imagine all of that energy, time and talent invested in the Kingdom! The Bible says there’s a season for everything. In the past, the season for having babies was in your 20’s. I, however, had two perfect, gorgeous little boys in my 40’s. Thanks to modern medicine the window for starting a family is much larger. Why not take advantage of your youth, time and creativity and see what you can accomplish for the Kingdom, because when spouses and babies come, you will be blessed, but tired!”
At this point, some of you might be confused about my intent in writing on this subject. You may be thinking, “Why would someone who is married and has two children be witting about the benefits of the single life on Valentine’s Day? She must be unhappy, right?”
Let me just tell you that I love being married. I have never regretted even for a second marrying Rick a week after I earned my college degree. I love him. And not in some awkward, dutiful way that we sometimes ascribe to Christian marriage. I really like him as a person. I still (cheese alert) start tickle fights with him when we crawl into bed. He is my best friend, biggest encourager, most-fun playmate, and loyal partner. And when I think about my sons Grady and Hananiah, and how precious and adorable and hilarious they are, despite all the work that goes into raising them, I get tears in my eyes thinking about how much God must love me to put them in my life.
I’m not promoting the single life here to diminish the gift of marriage and children. After all, God created marriage! I’m promoting the single life because, just like with the married life, there are remarkably beautiful gifts from God within that path. Though it is our tendency as humans to egocentrically elevate the lives we live, we need to see beyond our little worlds. We need to see that God has rich blessing and good gifts for us as his children, no matter whether we are married or single.
I am convinced that the church needs both married couples and singles to function at its highest capacity. But sadly the church is just as guilty as the world in treating singles as second-class citizens. Another single co-worker of mine, also in her 50s, said this about singles and the church:
“I believe the hardest place to be single in my experience is the church. Single people are often viewed with either pity (as though something is wrong that leave them in this unfortunate condition) or suspicion (are they gay?). One is not a whole number in the church, despite the fact that Jesus was single. Can’t singles just be adults, disciples, fellow travelers on the journey? Aren’t they part of the “faith family” too? Often singles really enjoy the opportunities to be around kids and families, yet they are frequently shut out from those very opportunities. A single who stays in the church for the long haul is rare indeed.”
So how do we change this? How to we elevate the singles around us? How do we as a church create a culture that honors the single life, just as we honor the married life?
We can let our single friends know we love and support them, rather than constantly trying to play match-maker.
We can avoid talk that belittles celibacy.
We can point people to the Jesus that wants to co-labor with us, rather than just write our love story.
We can include singles in our community and social gatherings, even if they might be the only single present.
We can recognize that singles and married individuals are called to minister and serve the church.
We can make our main focus submitting to the Spirit and doing Kingdom work. In doing so, we align our hearts with the heart of our heavenly Father, and as a result see the beauty of life paths that look nothing like our own.
I suggest we start a new kind of love revolution, one that will bless and encourage a powerful group of people that are dearly loved by our Savior. Rather than treating singleness as a less-than existence, we can respect singles in a way that brings honor and elevates them to a place where they feel freedom and authority in their individuality.
I ran a night-time trail race a few years back. At the start of the event, when everyone was bunched together with their headlamps, it was easy to see the path. But as the race went on and the runners grew more and more spread out, I realized my headlamp was really dim. As the miles continued, I found myself alone in the dark. I actually tripped over a root, fell into poison ivy, and found myself at the doctor getting a steroid shot a few days later on account of my eye being almost completely swollen shut! I think the biggest lie we have come to believe about the single life is that it means running this race alone, in unknown and dark territory. But no single person is called to run this race alone, just like married people are not called to run this race exclusively with their family unit. As disciples of Christ, we are a part of the family of God. Community, in all its complexities and benefits, is a gift that God extends to each and every one of us. This Valentine’s Day I pray you will experience the love and closeness of a Christ-centered community that accepts and empowers you, and that you find, regardless of your marital status, gender, class or calling, you are never alone.