There’s something that I’m noticing more upon my recent employment at a small Christian university: the evangelical community idolizes marriage. There, I said it. It’s an idol. There’s even a ‘ring by spring’ joke that runs the campus. This mindset of marriage—that it’s automatic, expected and even ‘normal’ has been an adjustment.
I spent the majority of my college (both masters and undergrad) single. I’ve dated here and there, but it really wasn’t a ‘goal’ that I had to be married. I’d say this was true, too for most of my colleagues. As we spent our time writing papers, reading books and defending theses, marriage seemed secondary.
Now, I’m nearing 30 (when did that happen?!) and it seems like one of the bigger shifts of my heart (and mouth) has been in learning to find language for my singleness. Suddenly, I am in a work environment where I need to articulate my singleness in a new way. My relationship status is perceived with theological strings and implications. That is to say, my singleness is somehow is a reflection of my walk with God.
Singleness is perceived as not being a first, best or an equal plan to the mainstream of marriage. Most singles’ classes turn into sugar-coated spiritual development are treated more as dating services. Marriage is treated as completion. It’s viewed as a ticket to being able to ‘fully minister’ in a church (just ask how many single pastors how easy it is to get a job). More often than not, church life is catered to the young marrieds & families, missing a large demographic of singles in the church. But, there is still loneliness in marriage, and singles are equally gifted in ministry and preaching.
As we look at this #churchtrending series, I ask, where is our theology around singleness? To move towards this theology, I think we need to talk about community. There is no marriage in heaven but there is community, so why are we living as if marriage is our ultimate example of Christ? Why are we not making the same radical commitment towards community as we are toward marriage? There are two distinctions, I feel, the church needs to transform our view of singleness in the church.
Most of our narrative for community comes from marriage &family—they are, after all the dominance of our social lives. But the functions of church as family-centric misses a call for a deeper community. Jesus Community calls us to full inclusion of others. The greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. I look to the community of Antioch as an example of covenant. People gave and take took as they had need. They fellowship, and did life on life. They sacrificed so everyone had enough. The command to share unity and fellowship wasn‘t just about marriage.
Although there are some obvious distinctions, I have to wonder what if we started viewing the church as a marriage to each other? Just because I am not married does not mean that I don’t want to give or receive that love in a deep, intimate way. As a single I need a space where I can be known, pursued, loved and be called to sacrificial care in that way for others.
Ultimately, it is the body of Christ that is praised to be the bride at the church so why do we only use marriage between two people as it illustration for what Jesus has called us to? We are called the bride of Christ collectively– within the church to show him what it means to love with others. It’s in the context of the church that we should bear one another’s burdens; it’s within the church that we can learn to be known and know others.
My soul has been asking, How do I pursue intimacy outside of marriage? When we view the church as intimate we create space for inclusion. But this means we need to redefine how we understand and experience intimacy.
First is acknowledging that marriage is insufficient. Marriage cannot be an only source of emotional, spiritual and relational community. While this may seem obvious, our culture holds up marriage as the ultimate way of connecting and being known. To then liken our relationship with God as marriage puts marriage on a pedestal. It implicates marriage as the best way to know and experience God. The truth is we are called to know and be known in community (married or not).
A common misconception around singleness is the way we link our relationship status to our sexuality. Our sex-craved society has blurred intimacy and sexuality. The lie is that we cannot form healthy, safe relationships without them becoming sexual. The church has responded in fear—if we ‘guard our hearts’ we protect our sexual innocence, we bullet proof our minds from lust, divorce and emotional dependence. What we miss, though, is that in guarding our hearts we are also closing ourselves off to healthy, intimate relationship as friends and community. We are told to love without fear, not to have fear direct our love.
One of the deepest I experienced this was when I had a married couple live with me. It was beautiful to learn from them how to do life together, to be treated as an equal and mutual part of their family for the season they were living in my house. What I experienced was love without fear. There was a deep trust and intimacy that developed between the three of us as we lived life together. It took work to set up healthy rhythms and patterns, but it was worth it. In living with this married couple, our intimacy came from our fearless love. As I grew to know them, I wanted to love, support and defend their marriage. In turn, their love for me was the knownness and community I needed of sharing life. In redefining our definition of intimacy, we remove the stigma that closeness and community must have sexual connotation. Intimacy then becomes freedom because it is grounded in Christ.
Jesus is our model for best being known by God and did that in singleness. His model for being known and knowing God was presented in community. He started the first small group, (and by my introvert standards it wasn’t very small). 12 guys, two Mary’s and a Martha later, 15 people seems like a pretty big small group to me. But these are the people who Jesus did life with. He modeled intimacy in fellowship and community with people in all walks of life. Intimacy was the way they pursued God together.
It was the experience of knowing and figuring out life—this faith and way of understanding God together.
—[Image by Maureen Bond, CC via Flickr]