Ahhh, 1 Corinthians 7 (especially verses 25-40), that section in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that’s well known for its message that “singleness is a gift.” And, yes, singleness is a gift, I’ve just heard too many sermons that get to the application as if Paul has written;
“To all the single people in the house,
You’ve been given a gift! Because you don’t have a spouse to prioritise, or children to take care of – you have more time, energy and resources to invest in the gospel and active ministry. The Youth Group and Sunday School need volunteers and there is always a need for people to go an do overseas mission. You are a gift to the church.
Now, let’s pray.”
However, Paul isn’t directly addressing those who are unmarried and widowed. He is answering a question concerning those in the church with a ‘single’ status. Can this passage encourage, comfort and challenge single Christians? Yes! Because singleness is a gift both for the individual and the church. It has advantages (hello independence!) while also being difficult and lonely. It’s not always permanent (see “4 Things God Says to Singles”) and it’s not a curse… This post has a unique and specific purpose: to add to the application, addressing the church as a whole. It includes every Christian, no matter your relationship status, gender or age.
“To all the people who love Jesus and are in fellowship with other Jesus lovers,
Singleness is a gift from God – both for the individual and the church. Therefore, as a church, we need to look closely at our culture and the message it is sending because I think we are falling short of who God calls us to be as His people. We have fallen into some bad habits, unknowingly. We are unconsciously minimising and demoralising our brothers and sisters in Christ who are single: whether unmarried, divorced and widowed.
Too often marriage and the nuclear family is idolised – good things God has created for His glory have become glorified. This idolisation converts singleness from being a good thing God has created for His glory into something resented and disliked. It’s as if singleness is an annoying infection that won’t go away… until, a partner, the ‘cure’ comes along.
As a church, we have paid a heavy price for this idol. Too many Christians start dating non-believers, playing the ‘flirt to convert’ game. Others get married way too early, unprepared and for the wrong reasons, which can lead to ‘unhappy’ marriages that don’t glorify God and sometimes end in divorce.
Some examples of how this idolatry plays out in the culture of our churches (of which I too am guilty of) are:
* We say and hear statements like;
“God has someone special just for you.”
“Just wait on God’s timing.”
“God is preparing you to be the best husband/wife you can be.”
”Someone will come along when you least expect it – just be patient.”
“I met my spouse at Beach Mission – you should join a team this year”
“There is someone out there for everyone.” and
“How are you still single?”
These statements assume that a) that everyone wants to be in a relationship, and b) that God’s plan for everyone includes marriage while propelling the lie that marriage is needed for a content and full life. It can also imply that singleness is a ‘limbo phase,’ that they’re doing something wrong or that if they had more faith the ‘god-fairy’ would have provided someone already.
* Suddenly investing time, energy, food and coffee into two individuals once they’ve coupled up. This can take many forms. It may be more frequent invites to socialise with other ‘coupled’ peers or an older couple suddenly showing interest in accountability and mentoring of new couples in the church. God desires people of all ages and life stages to fellowship together, as every individual has both things to teach and learn from others.
* Ministry peer-support groups (usually gender driven) are formed exclusively for married people to talk and pray about married life. While there is a place for sharing with others in a similar life-stage as you, the Bible isn’t so picky.
* Buying into the world’s idea of the wedding. We may all know it logically, but marriage is more than the wedding. The wedding itself is a celebration of the union of two people for life. Some people spend way too much money and spend way too much time organising one day, with an exclusive invite list. The second question after “how are you?” most engaged people are asked is, “how are the wedding plans going?” While it can be an exciting topic for discussion, it shouldn’t become the first and often only one. Are you more interested in someone’s daily walk with God, or their one day of celebration.
* Buying into the world’s idea of sex. #sorrynotsorry, but “we’re too tempted sexually and God wants us to get married” (gee, thanks 1 Cor. 7:9) is not a good foundation for marriage – it’s called self-control (thank you Proverbs 16:32, 25:28; Galatians 5:22-23; Titus 2:11-12; 2 Timothy 1:7; 2 Peter 1:5-7; oh, and this blog). Too often we watch movies, binge tv shows, read books, share videos and skim magazines that make us think about and desire sex more than our intimacy with God. Let’s not put sex on a pedestal either. Sure, it’s another good thing from God – but so is the cocoa bean.
* Buying into the world’s idea of dating. There is nothing wrong with dating – honestly, each to their own – no judgement here. However, advice like, “put yourself out there, pursue someone” is so unhelpful, as is “your standards are too high.” The only one you should pursue is God. He should be our first love, single or married and He sets the standards for marriage partners, not us.
So, Church, it’s time to step up and treat our single brothers and sisters like the precious gift (and family members) they are. Some practical things we can do to start are:
1. Stop the assumptions: not every unmarried, divorced or widowed person is discontent with the singleness and wants to be married.
2. Stop the suggestions: marriage isn’t our life goal – bringing glory to Jesus is. Stop praying for a husband or wife, instead pray for contentment, godliness, that Jesus would be glorified always and to become more ingrained in the church family.
3. Stop the labelling: we are more than a girlfriend, a boyfriend, a fiancé, a wife, a husband, a mother, a father, a divorcee, a widow or a single person. We are children of God – chosen, precious, forgiven and loved more than we will ever know in this life. Asking “Oh, you’re still single?” or “any guys/girls on the scene?” can suggest that their relationship status or a label is the core of their identity.
4. Stop being ignorant: this IS an issue and we need to openly and lovingly address and challenge it.
5. Start the inclusion:
– Think about where you sit at church. While it is important to participate in fellowship and teaching together, it’s okay to have weeks where you don’t sit next to each other… but #sorrynotsorry, you have to be the one to take the initiative and invite others to sit next to you because people will assume you and your spouse will be seated side by side.
– Invite a single person over for a family dinner one night a week. All it takes is an extra cup of rice and a few more veggies to cater for an extra person when you’re already cooking for a family. I’m sure if you ask them to bring dessert they’d be more than happy to.
– Organise social activities without your partner. While it’s important to do things as a couple, you’re still individuals and participating in things with others and without your spouse shows you’re a) not literally joined at the hip b) interested in having your own friendships and relationships.
– Try evolving the idea of a “Married Men’s/Women’s” support or prayer to be a simple, “Men’s” or “Women’s” group. Single people can both benefit from your life experience and contribute to the fellowship of these groups more than most of us would actually believe. You can’t tell me that in a “Married” men’s/women’s fellowship group that 100% or even 85% of the conversation is exclusively marriage related.
– Really, initiating or participating in any activity that focuses on our unity and what we have in common, that promotes genuine community and sense of church family and embraces our differences as a point of uniqueness, not a cause for exclusion. Please, please share you have other idea’s.
We are all sinners who struggle to have an undivided heart for God. There are hundreds and thousands of things that can distract us from living a life devoted to God – marriage and family are only two of them.
So, sister or brother in Christ, how are we going to challenge and encourage each other to truly live in undivided devotion to the Lord, regardless of relationship status?
What are you going to do to start transforming our church culture, to celebrate singleness as the gift it is, stop both the exclusivity and the idolising of marriage and the nuclear family?
Jesus, please help us to be a considerate church that focuses on our unity. Please help us to do better.”
As a divorcee who is getting married in a week, I ask my friends to keep me accountable (because I should and do know better) – to challenge me when I fail and join me when I try to be more inclusive and mindful. I am more than a divorcee or fiancé and I will be far more than a wife. My intrinsic value and identity is bound in my status as a human being, created by God and called His child – because I’m forgiven and redeemed by Jesus. Guess what? So is yours, so let’s live like it!
Ps. if you ask when I’m going to have kids, you may experience death by stare.
Thank you to all those who contributed their experiences and ideas to make this post as real, honest and challenging as possible.