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Singleness in the Church, Part 1: A "Gift"?

"Over 50% of adults in America are now single."

I first heard this mind-blowing statistic at the recent Christian Counseling and Education (CCEF) conference in San Diego during one of the breakout sessions (led by Jayne Clark). She addressed some of the specific issues that singles struggle with, as well as the mess that the American church has made in trying to minister to this growing demographic. This post consists of my reflections on her talk.

Frankly speaking, there's an ungodly stigma in the church attached to singleness. Whether it be snide comments from other people ("So when are you going to settle down?") or the name of the church's singles' ministry (I know of several ministries to the 20-something demographic called "Pairs and Spares"), singles are generally looked down on as if they were second-class citizens in the kingdom of God.

Even when the church's intention isn't to hurt them, singles are regularly overlooked. For example, pastors often craft sermons and sermon series to address marital struggles, but the struggles of singleness are frequently ignored. Opportunities for fellowship in the church are often limited, especially when most of the people in the church are in family units. Plus, singles are often overlooked for leadership positions in the church. This is especially true regarding single candidates for a pastoral position. Give a pastoral search committee two equally gifted men—one single and the other married—and the committee will pick the married man nine times out of ten.

On top of all this, we add insult to injury when we ask someone (perhaps one who is approaching 30 and still not married), "Have you considered whether you have the gift of singleness?"

This notion regarding the spiritual "gift of singleness" (often described as a God-given lack of desire to be married) is popular and deeply-engrained. Personally, I had always assumed it to be true, but it's simply not Scriptural! In fact, it's a misinterpretation of 1 Cor 7:7. When you look at what Paul actually says there, he asserts that both singleness and marriage are "gifts" (which leads to problems with the usual interpretation).

For example, when a person struggles with singleness and wants to get married, it's commonly claimed that that person doesn't have "the gift"—he or she isn't called to a life of singleness and, as a result, should get married. But what about when a married person struggles with wanting to stay married, as most married people do at some point in their marriage? Does that mean the person doesn't have the "gift" of marriage (and should therefore be single)?

For Paul, the "gift" has nothing to do with desire (or a lack of it). He's simply saying that both the state of marriage and the state of being single are "gifts" from God. That is, they are seasons of life with unique opportunities to serve the Lord and minister to others. On the flip-side, each also has distinct challenges and temptations that need to be faced.

This post has rambled a bit, so let me sum up. It's not "bad" to be single. Obviously there are some bad reasons for staying single, but there are also some bad reasons for getting married. Both seasons of life are gifts from God. We don't need to be ashamed of the season we're in, and we certainly don't need a super-spiritual calling to a life of singleness to explain why we're not yet married. Rather, as Paul points out a few verses later, we should focus on being faithful to God in our particular season of life (1 Cor 7:17). 

Does this mean it's wrong for a single person to want to be married? Not at all! It's perfectly legitimate to want to be married. However, there's also a danger. Marriage isn't the "cure-all" for the struggles of singleness, just as being single isn't the cure-all of the problems of marriage. Because of our sinful hearts, though, the grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence. Jayne Clark mentioned that much of her counseling was of singles wanting to be married and married people wanting to be single! The heart of the matter is being content with the situation God has given you (1 Cor 7:17). Can you say with Paul, "I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content" (Phil 4:11)?

All this goes to show that the American church needs to re-examine what we think, both theologically and relationally, about singleness. Until we do, we're going to continue to hurt our brothers and sisters in the Lord with our comments and our teaching.

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