This guest post was written by Noah Filipiak.
I recently attended a wedding where the pastor used Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 as his text to describe marriage:
Two are better than one…If either of them falls down, one can help the other up…But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
But this text is not about marriage. The lying down together is not sexual, it was simply practical in an era where there was no indoor heating. You would lie down together so you didn’t freeze! The third strand of the cord is not referring to God; it’s referring to a third human. The context these four verses is humans helping humans. God isn’t going to lie down with you in bed and keep you warm.
When we read ideas about marriage into the text (as the pastor did), it not only belittles singles (“oh pity them!”), it also places an unbiblical emphasis on marriage. It shames singles and portrays them as second-class Christians who God is holding out on.
If you want to use the “cord of three strands” imagery in your marriage ceremony to depict you, your spouse and God, that’s fine. But don’t preach a sermon saying that the meaning of Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 is for married people in a way that directly precludes its application to single people. The meaning of the text has to do with friendship and community, things that singles are uniquely positioned (much better than married people) to excel in. Fan the flame of this great teaching into the lives of Christian singles, don’t douse it by reading marriage into the text, glorifying marriage to a degree the Bible never does.
The Church has been swinging and missing on singleness for quite some time. Following church growth strategies, churches often focus their programs and sermon series around young families. While this might seem harmless, that emphasis eventually forms a pragmatic creed–a creed that marriage is the pinnacle of the Christian walk and that being single means you’ve missed the boat.
You’ll find the opposite of that message in the Bible and you’ll find that the damage done to Christian singles speaks loudly–if you ask them. In a recent survey of 504 Christian singles,* 45% felt like outcasts within the Church. Here are some of their comments:
My lifestyle is not known by the church. I do not exist.
I hate sitting through sermons on Marriage. Yes there is always the lone “Single people can get stuff out of this too”, but it’s hard when the whole time you think about being alone.
Churches seem more family oriented and I felt unimportant as a single.
I have sometimes felt that married folks were given some special status in ministry that singles weren’t.
Just being alone all the time. Everyone has their own life.
Feeling like I don’t belong to any group/ministry
As a single my most difficult experience was when I visited this church and the Pastor told me I should be ashamed of myself for having children and no husband.
Feeling left out of the family oriented activities.
Constant lip service to the value of the single life, but lack of actual cultural follow through. Maybe one leader at the church is a single person. The rhetoric and implicit narrative of much of the pulpit messaging is pretty clear that being married is more important and valued.
Holidays with no family to sit with. Families are central to the church and dominate culture, so many things are built around them, leaving single people to be on the outside of church.
At a previous small church a group for singles and young married adults was called Pairs and Spares. Need I say more?
Everything is done as couples: Sunday school, small group, church activities. It’s all geared towards families. Why would I want to go and be the one person sitting by themselves?
I think the hardest thing is sometimes just looking around and feeling like I am one of the very few singles, or times when married couples in the church don’t initiate with me as a friend. Sometimes I feel like the topic of casual conversation at my community group is totally revolved around being married/spouses, and I don’t have a lot to add to the conversation since that isn’t my reality. It sometimes feels like married people don’t know what to ask me aside from my job or if I’m in a relationship.
the idea that life is somehow incomplete or lesser without a significant other is prevalent.
What’s been difficult is hearing statements such as “when you get married” or “God hasn’t finished preparing her” or “there’s someone out there for everyone.” They don’t encourage but rather cause more pain.
I think more often than not I feel part of a “mystery” group – that my church doesn’t know how to minister to me or support me well. I think this is often manifest in subtle ways – not having support systems in place, not having singles who can pour into my life (not feeling understood because most/all pastors are married), and not being included in examples (e.g. sermon illustration focusing on your spouse/children).
Is marriage good? Sure.
Is it better than singleness? No.
Is it more holy than singleness? No.
Is it commanded by God in the Bible over singleness? No.
The more I study what Jesus and Paul said about singleness, the more I am convinced that singleness is the ideal presented by the Bible and that marriage is the concession (heyo!), not the other way around. Don’t take my word for it, take Paul’s:
1 Corinthians 7:7: I wish that all of you were [single] as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
1 Corinthians 7:32-35: I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.
1 Corinthians 7:38: So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better.
Put those phrases together:
“I wish that all of you were [single] as I am…I would like you to be free…live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord…he who does not marry does better.”
Have you ever heard that sermon preached?
I don’t mean that singleness is an option, but that it’s the prescribed ideal biblical option for discipleship, and that marriage is a concession given, but far from an ideal.
We need to stop shaming singles and stop pitying singles in the Church. We also need to stop misreading and misteaching what the Bible says about marriage.
Marriage is not to be worshiped. Sex is not to be worshiped (including sex within marriage). Jesus is to be worshiped.
We should be looking to singles to blaze the trail on this, not shaming them as incomplete or second class Christians.
Image via Unsplash.
About Noah Filipiak
Noah Filipiak is the founding pastor of Crossroads Church in downtown Lansing, MI. He hosts the “Behind the Curtain” Ministry Podcast and blogs at AtACrossroads.net and for CovenantEyes.com. His first book, on finding identity in Christ in an over-sexualized world, is currently being considered by Zondervan.