*** I wrote this last year on the occasion of my wife's and my 10-year anniversary. It's now our 11-year anniversary, and I thought I would repost it as it's an important topic to revisit. ***
Tomorrow is my 10 year wedding anniversary. 10 years is an important anniversary for any couple, but doubly so for us as just a few years ago, I was terrified that we would not make it this far. But lo and behold, we have arrived at this important milestone, and my wife is still healthy and cancer-free. I love Carol to bits, and am so thankful for every year, really every day, that we spend together.
At this point, you would probably expect me to gush about my wife and our marriage for another thousand words, but I actually want to do something quite different, even the opposite: I want to talk about the value of singleness in the Christian faith. I know it is a strange subject for a happily married man to talk about on the occasion of his anniversary, but perhaps that makes what I have to say all the more relevant, that a happily married man might feel it is vital to make this point.
It seems to me that the evangelical church places marriage on something of a pedestal, describing it in elevated terms, and investing enormous amounts of time and resources into strengthening that institution. I wasn't born in the evangelical movement and so don't know if it was always this way, but I would guess that this was a response to cultural developments of the past few decades, both the rising prevalence of divorce as well as co-habitating couples. These dynamics did legitimately threaten a biblical understanding of marriage, and still do. And so it was only natural that the church would shift its attention to marriage, in order to prevent, or at least slow, the degradation of that institution. I think it's important to keep this context and these good intentions in mind.
But there was an unintended side effect to this, that as the emphasis shifted towards the signifcance of marriage, the significance of singleness was minimized. Marriage became very very important, and very very good, so good and so important that it became the implicit goal for all Believers. And in contrast, singleness was naturally overlooked, and even became something of a pariah status, a deficiency to be avoided at all costs. Singles' ministries often focused not on living as a single person, but trying to escape singleness as quickly as possible, offering mixers and retreats where single people could meet, court, and get married, and so leave their wretched state behind. Whether consciously or not, marriage had become the goal for all Believers, an ideal state that was infinitely better than the alternative.
This emphasis on romantic relationships and marriage in church only added to the immense cultural and even biological pressure that nearly all human beings already feel to get married. Not to mention that there are some cultures that stress marriage more than others (**KOREANS!!!** Whew, sorry, had to sneeze). And so the burden that single Christians bore was doubly heavy, feeling pressured to marry not just from society, their parents, even their own bodies, but from their churches and pastors as well.
In my mind, this was an enormous failure on the church's behalf. Of all institutions, church should have been the one place where single people could thrive and feel valued for who they were. After all, there is a deep respect for singleness both in the Bible and throughout church history, just as much as for marriage. Jesus himself was single, and so being single is hardly a sin. So the church could have offered itself as a community and family for single people, a place of lifelong and loving commitment, so that no single person would ever have to worry about growing old alone. We could have, and should have, stood apart from the world as a refuge for single people, the one place that they could find freedom from the pressure to get married, and be valued no matter what their marital status. But sadly, evangelical churches have become known for the opposite, an institution so focused on marriage that singleness became a curse in comparison.
I have to admit that I myself was completely ignorant of this dynamic until a close friend told me her story of why she left the church. Now this person is not a mental construct that I created for the sake of argument, but someone very real, and very dear to me. Although she dated a few Christian men, she never found anyone with whom she wanted to spend the rest of her life. This was difficult enough given the pressure she felt from her parents to get married, but what made this infinitely worse was the fact that the church didn't seem to have a place for her either. No one ever spoke about singleness, nor assigned it any value except as a stepping stone to marriage. She received sideways glances whenever she expressed a lack of enthusiasm about getting married. Although no one ever consciously drove her away, she felt out of place, alienated, and unappreciated. And so she stopped coming to church.
She eventually did find people who accepted her as a single person, and never pressured her to get married: non-Christians. It was her non-Christian friends who provided her a community where she could be both single and fully valued - after all, to them, marriage was a dated and impotent institution, why push it on anyone?! And to this day, she has not set foot in a church, and feels little inclination to do so again. Now, there is definitely an element of "chicken or the egg" to this story - was it really the church's focus on marriage that drove her away, or was it simply an excuse to leave? Is this a story of external alienation, or internal apathy? I don't know the answer to that. All I know is that if the church had played its proper role in valuing that sister as a full person, regardless of her marital status, she would have had one less reason to exit those doors. And that breaks my heart.
What could have the church shared with her instead? Well, they could have told her the words of the Apostle Paul, and how he says in 1 Corinthians 7 that if possible, it is better for someone to remain unmarried and be completely focused on the things of God. They could have shared the words of Jesus in Mark 12, that in heaven, there won't be the same concept of "marriage" as we know now because we will share that type of relationship with Christ, and with all Believers. They could have told her about Acts 2, and the joyful community of the early church through which one entered not through marriage but baptism, a family of faith. They could have shared the words of Revelation, and how virgins and unmarried people are given a high place of honor. They could have shared the stories of monks and nuns and ascetics, all godly people who devoted their lives to both total community and total celibacy.
Or they could have shared more soberly and honestly about marriage, and how even though marriage is good, it is not perfect. In addition to sharing about the wonders of marriage, they could have included a description of its inherent difficulties, that there are depths of pain and anger and hardship that are reserved only for married couples. Instead of hiding the difficulties of marriage behind the curtains of euphemism and propriety, they could have been honest and open, and in so doing, revealed to single people that marriage is not at all a haven from sin, hurt, loss, loneliness, or pain, not in the least.
Or they could have simply said, "You know, it's totally okay to be single."
Now it may sound like I am dumping on the institution of marriage, but I am not, not in the least. I know what a blessing marriage is, and so rest assured, I am not discouraging anyone from wanting to get married. But neither am I discouraging anyone from staying single either. And that is an important distinction that the church needs to remember, that valuing the importance of one does not necessarily mean that we must devalue the importance of the other.
And so on the occasion of my 10 year wedding anniversary, I'd like to say this: it's okay to not be married, really. God is not mad at you because you are single, and you have my permission to scoff at anyone who says otherwise, that marriage is God's universal will for all people. There are plenty of passages in Scripture that talk about singleness and celibacy with deep honor and respect.
Moreover, marriage is good, even great, but it's not perfect. There are things that you can do as a single person that I cannot. As Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians, as a married person with kids, my attention and energy is inherently divided among many concerns, but yours need not be. You can live fully for the Kingdom in a way that I simply cannot. Not to mention that you can also stay up late, making a ruckus while drinking beer with your friends, while I tiptoe around my house like a ninja and struggle to stay awake past 9 pm.
But on a more sober note, I know that you worry about being alone. But frankly, so do I, because marriage will not bulletproof your life from pain or loneliness or tragedy. People can be married and still feel desperately alone, or misunderstood, or even hated/hateful, all at the same time. Marriage can be like living with your best friend, but at times, it also can be like living with your worst enemy. In fact, fear, loss, and mourning take on terrifying new dimensions when you are married, because you will be faced with the prospect of losing part of yourself.
No, the antidote to loneliness is not found in marriage, at least not by itself. It is found in our relationship to a God who is always with us, the true Lover of our soul. If is found in friends and family. And it is found in the family of faith, the eternal community of the church.
So tomorrow I'm going to have a wonderful ten year anniversary with my wife, but that doesn't mean you have to as well. Because REALLY...it's okay to be single.
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