“Everywhere I looked people were standing in two’s. It was like Noah’s west-side, rent-controlled Ark.” -Carrie Bradshaw in Sex in the City
I have an awkward relationship with Valentine’s day.
As a husband and father, I enjoy celebrating it with my wife and kids, but I intensely dislike it when churches try to capitalize on it. As if it was distantly related to Easter or Christmas and not something heavily promoted by Hallmark and www.Flowers.com
I say I don’t like this, because in most of the churches I’ve seen make a really big deal about marriage and families and romance and kids and happily ever after, and rightfully so. Those are good gifts from God in many people’s lives.
But for many (most) churches we have gone beyond celebrating marriage and family.
For the past several decades we’ve all but idolized it.
Christians Who Don’t Want to Mingle
Last year, I saw an advertisement from Christian Mingle that starts by saying:
“Single Christians: Good News!
ChristianMingle.com has over 13 million people registered online
So join today and find God’s match for you.”
I can’t tell you how frustrated that silly ad makes me. After all, I thought Christians meant something bigger and better when they’re talking about good news. But the ad also frustrates me because it assumes that God has a match for everyone, and if you haven’t found your match you must be on the outside of God’s will just looking in at all the normal Christians.
I understand this as a marketing strategy, I just don’t like it as a “Christian” one.
Maybe we should give grace to Christian Mingle, they actually aren’t run by theologians, they are run by Spark Networks, the some company that also runs Mormon mingle, Adventist mingle, J-Date, Black Singles.com, deaf singles, plus-sized singles and many, many more.
But all this raises the question, What’s the deal with singleness?
Because from a historical perspective, the church used to have a place for single people, We used to know what a gift that single people were to a Church.
Stanley Hauerwas points out that when Christianity first was introduced to the pagan world it changed the way they viewed marriage because it de-idolized it. After all, there was no more radical act in that day than to live a life without producing heirs.
Children were the way to achieve significance for an adult, because they would remember you. Children gave you security, because they would take care of you in your old age. And it was in that culture, that a large percentage of Christians chose to remain single, making the statement that their future was not guaranteed by the family… but by God.
In the 1st Century, Augustus Caesar ordered that widows be fined if they didn’t remarry within two years. But in Christianity, widowhood was highly respected and remarriage was, if anything, mildly discouraged. The church stood ready to sustain poor widows, allowing them a choice as to whether or not to remarry. It praised them, as though they were a special treasure.
Or at least it used to.
A Single Advantage
Last year in the New York Times, Jessica Crispin wrote a fascinating article entitled “St. Teresa and the Single Ladies” about how challenging being single in American culture is, and how she (though not a Catholic) is drawn to the only religion she knows of that values singleness.
Here’s how she said it:
I can’t remember the last time I saw a television show or a film about a single woman, unless her single status was a problem to be solved or an illustration of how deeply damaged she was…
I’ve been single for the most part going on 11 years now, and so I have heard every derogatory, patronizing, demeaning thing said about single women. “There has to be someone for you,” a married woman friend once said exasperatedly after I recounted another bad date. Implying, unconsciously, that there must be one man somewhere on the planet who could stand to be around me for more than a few days at a time.
I can’t help but think that we lose something when we couple up, and maybe that thing is worth preserving. I pointed out to a different friend that it was the nuns who were the most socially engaged, working with the world’s most vulnerable.
Historically Christianity has had a tradition called Monasticism, a way of living out a singular focus on the Kingdom of God.
Now Monasticism isn’t really part of my heritage, but I wish it was. Because at its core, monasticism is just about a single-minded pursuit of Jesus. It’s about people who have chosen to devote their singleness to the Kingdom of God.
And these are the people who are teaching Jesus’ parable to the rest of us: when you find the pearl of great price, you leave everything else to go after it.
According to Jesus, a life of singleness devoted to the Lord is some people’s calling, and it is a high calling; and even if yours is a temporary singleness, there’s more to being single in Jesus, than waiting around for romantic love. There are things your singleness allows you to do that a married couple cannot.
In the words of the Times article, “We lose something when we couple up, and maybe that thing is worth preserving.”
Becoming Eunuchs and Other High Callings
There’s a time in Matthew 19, when Jesus talks about the dangers of marriage, and how painful it can be when it goes wrong, and his words were so strong that his disciples actually respond by saying, “Maybe it’s better not to marry!”
And I think it’s fascinating that Jesus doesn’t respond, “Oh no, sorry, you’ve got me all wrong! You must have misunderstood. Marriage is the greatest. Everyone ought to try it.”
No. What Jesus actually says is, “Not everyone can accept this word… some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by people; and others have made themselves eunuchs because of the kingdom of heaven.”
When Jesus talks about eunuchs, I don’t think He’s talking about surgery, He’s talking about people renouncing marriage. This is Jesus putting a very high value on singleness.
And then He says, “The one who can accept this should.”
If you were getting acquainted with the Jesus story for the first time, one of the most shocking parts about Jesus life would be the fact that Jesus is single, stays single, even fulfills God’s purposes as a single!
We forget what a scandal it was in 1st Century Judaism that Jesus was not married. As a Jewish man, (especially a rabbi) You had a duty to God, your ancestors, and to your family to marry and make babies.
Later rabbis would even say: “Seven things are condemned in heaven, and the first of these is a man without a woman.”
Marriage was so taken for granted that Biblical Hebrew has no term for bachelor. It was considered necessary in order to be part of society. You had to be a part of a family, and those who weren’t were seen as an outcast (particularly true for women).
But Jesus did not focus on the family, at least not like that. Instead Jesus created a new family. He stayed single, and created and claimed instead a family that included all kinds of people from all walks of life.
Including single people.
No…especially single people.
Do you realize how risky it is to be single? Do you realize how much faith it takes to not have heirs?
I like the way Rodney Clapp says it:
The single Christian ultimately must trust in the resurrection…. Singles mount the high wire of faith without the net of children and their memory. If singles live on, it will be because there is a resurrection. And if they are remembered, they will be remembered by the family called church.
I know that there are a lot of preachers who really love people, and want to care for everyone, and this just isn’t on their radar. You need to know, chances are there are a lot of people in your church who have seen today coming for weeks, and they might even be dreading it.
So If you are a preacher or church leader think carefully about how you talk about what really matters. And if you are a Christian be careful not to lose sight of the bigger picture.
Because after all, Valentines day is only about romantic love.
But Churches are communities that are always about something bigger and better than that.
We are about Resurrection.
Yes it’s true that it’s not good for a person to be alone, but that doesn’t have to mean marriage, That’s what the church is for.
And contrary to what Christian Mingle says, that’s what Good news for Single Christians really looks like.
*This is a post that has been adapted from a blog from last year.