If you want to know what’s important to you, check your bank statement and your calendar.
This principle applies to our personal and professional lives, but it also applies to our churches. A quick survey of the websites for ten popular churches in my city revealed this truth: married people are more important to churches than single people.
Where do I see this?
- On church events calendars listing multiple marriage and parenting classes, but not one class designed for single adults. (At one church, even their financial class was only listed on the “Marriage and Family” page).
- On staff pages that show roles like “marriage and family pastors” at more than half of the churches, but not one pastor for single adults outside of the “Young Adults” ministry.
- Women’s Bible studies are far more likely to meet on weekday mornings and provide childcare than to meet in the evening when working women could attend. Evening women’s studies often do not provide childcare, implying that all women who would want to attend have someone at home to watch their children.
- At one church, a “Celebration of Women” is scheduled for a Wednesday morning—a time impossible to make for any working woman, and at another, “A Night of Comedy and Romance” is planned for February 14th.
- Every one of these ten churches in my area has preached a marriage or parenting-based message or series in the past six months. Only one church (where the lead pastor’s daughter is single) has had a message about singleness in that same time period.
This is just a quick survey of a few websites—the front door to churches today. As a single woman who is currently looking for a church, the message rings loud and clear to me: we aren’t here for you. 'As a single woman who is currently looking for a church, the message rings loud and clear to me: we aren’t here for you.' Can you relate? Click To Tweet
While this message may not be intentional, trust me: it is prevalent and it is hurtful. So here is some advice from one single woman to church leaders out there.
Pastoring The Single Folks Among You
1. Don’t teach that marriage is the ultimate goal for every believer
In most churches I have encountered, marriage is viewed as the ultimate life goal for every believer. This view of marriage as most important impacts not just single adults, but every person in the church.
Our children grow up thinking marriage is a guarantee.
We teach our teenagers to “save sex for marriage,” but what about the ones who will never get married? This teaching sets them up for failure, because it narrows their sexuality to an act and views God as withholding.
Young adults head off to college or into the workplace intent on finding a spouse—and when that doesn’t happen, for some, it becomes a crisis of faith.
Even married adults are affected when their marriage isn’t perfect, their spouse isn’t a “spiritual leader,” or they face infertility. If we teach that marriage and family are preeminent, what happens when one or both of those things isn’t someone’s reality?
2. Don’t equate marriage with maturity
Similarly, I have witnessed time and time again marriage being held up as the pinnacle of maturity—a sign one has progressed in their formation. Where does this leave the single person?
When marriage and family are regarded as proof of maturity, while the absence of them is (at least implicitly) seen as evidence that a person still needs to “grow up,” the church faces dire consequences. Married people are far more likely to serve in leadership positions—not because they are more qualified, but because they appear more qualified.
Additionally, the single and the celibate have no leaders like themselves to journey with them or look up to, and they are left with no models of unmarried leadership.
But here’s the thing: the Bible teaches no such thing.
In Scripture, we see both singleness and marriage as situations in which people can be fully human. The Bible teaches that neither marriage nor singleness is more important, nor that marital status is indicative of someone’s spiritual fitness or maturity. Consider that Jesus himself never married, but remained single his entire adult life. If Jesus could demonstrate for all humanity what it looks like to be fully human as God intended, and yet he was single, does this not show us that a person can be fully human, mature, AND single? In Scripture, we see both singleness and marriage as situations in which people can be fully human. Click To Tweet
3. Don’t refer to singleness as a “gift”—that’s not what Paul was talking about
“Maybe you just have the gift of singleness.”
Those of us who are single hear variations on this theme far more often than we want to. The idea comes from a poor interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:7. A careful examination of the entire chapter reveals that neither singleness nor marriage are “gifts” at all.
The context of 1 Corinthians 7 provides some important information for us in this discussion: The Corinthian church was embroiled in some pretty serious issues surrounding sexual immorality, caused, partly, by the over-sexualized culture in the city. At the end of Chapter 6, Paul addresses this head-on and tells his readers that they need to remember they are part of the Body of Christ (a concept he’ll tell them more about in Chapter 12), and that they are, therefore, to avoid every kind of sexual immorality.
Chapter 7 is Paul’s answer to a question they had specifically asked him, which was, “since we live in such a sex-saturated society, would we be better off if we just avoided sex altogether?” Paul answers by teaching, not about whether it’s better to be married or to enjoy the “gift” of singleness, but rather, about self-control.
Paul tells them, in verses 4-5, that if they are married, they are to recognize that their body belongs to their spouse, and that other than for brief periods of time when the spouses mutually decide to remain celibate, they are not to deny one another sexually. Otherwise, Paul says, they may be tempted to look elsewhere for sexual satisfaction because they lack self-control.
In verses 8 and 9, and 25 through 40, Paul tells them that, given the times in which they are living, they shouldn’t seek to change their marital status—unless, that is, they cannot control their passions (v. 36). Paul believed that Jesus would be returning very soon, and also anticipated the increased persecution the Church was about to face. So given that one way or another, the local church in Corinth would be facing drastic changes soon, he urged the people to focus less on their marital status, and more on pursuing holiness and Christlikeness.
With this understanding and context, the word “gift” in verse 7 takes on a different meaning. Rather than singleness being the “gift,” it’s more likely that Paul was telling them the “gift” was self-control—the will and ability to control one’s sexual passions.
Instead of viewing marriage as of supreme importance the way many churches do today, Paul praises those who are able to remain unmarried, because, he says, they are freer to focus their energies on pursuing Christ.
4. Devote resources to the needs of single people in your midst
Churches that devote significant resources to married people but ignore the needs of single people do a great disservice to their communities and to the gospel.
Yes, marriage is important! And it is important for the local church to support and help build strong families—but not at the expense of other members of the family of God.
Let us value all members of the Body of Christ equally, invest in all members equally, and empower all members equally to use the gifts the Spirit has given them to build up the Church. Pastors, are you devoting the same resources in your church to supporting single people as you are to supporting marriages and families? Click To Tweet
There is a place for “Weekend to Remember” conferences and studies on “Parenting Beyond Your Capacity.” But there is also a place for “Sex and the Single Girl,” or a financial class that isn’t filled with partner discussions and conversations about whether spouses should have separate bank accounts.
In a church that holds a better doctrine of marriage and singleness, no one is disqualified from leading and serving simply based on their marital status. Just as we need to hold a correct doctrine on issues like sin, the Trinity, and salvation, we also need to hold a correct doctrine of what it means to be human, and that includes a better doctrine of singleness and marriage.