“I’m loving my wife and I haven’t met her yet.” Those words, stamped on the back of a black T-shirt, welcomed me to my first Christian conference. I was shocked — having evaded the evangelical campuses of the Midwest and joined one of the more progressive campus ministries at my school, I thought I had escaped the “ring by spring” marriage mania of complementarian Christianity.
Unfortunately, my fellow college freshman’s piece of clothing proved to me otherwise: The marriage-centric culture of Protestant Christianity runs deep.
We’ve come to expect our culture to be obsessed with coupling — from the “You complete me” scene in Jerry Maguire, to tax benefits for married couples, to E-Harmony commercials. But experiencing it in the church is almost worse. “Young adult” and “singles” ministries are often thinly-veiled dating services, and using marriage as a sermon illustration is so overdone it has become a cliché.
These are all strange things to come from a religious group that was started by a single guy.
Even if we leave Jesus out of it (he was God, and that may have been some complicated baggage to approach on the first date), one of the most important founders of the church was single, and told everyone they should stay single, too! In 1 Corinthians 7:8, Paul writes, “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do.”
So how did the church go from a place that encourages celibacy to a place that doesn’t know how to talk to single people? To a place where pastors’ and spiritual mentors’ only advice is to “save” yourself for marriage, to wait patiently, and to pray for a future spouse? A place where singleness is considered at best, the waiting room before the rest of your life begins and at worst, a prison sentence?
Churches’ inability to value, respect, and engage with singleness couldn't be happening at a worse time. Increasingly delayed marriages and higher divorce rates mean more Christians are single for more years. For these people, the old rhetoric of purity and patience just doesn’t cut it, and the teenager talk of denying your urges is no longer the issue. Single adults want fulfillment in life and in God — before, after, and regardless of a marriage proposal.
Part of the issue is that most Protestant churches are run by almost exclusively married people. The view of the single person is almost always missing from what’s being said from the pulpit and written in the statements of faith.
And what is the church saying to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters about marriage and singleness? For years, churches focused on the legality and sanctity of marriage. Now, with more universal marriage rights emerging, many churches must build new theologies around homosexuality and relationship. Some have landed on a message that gay Christians must remain celibate to refrain from sinning. But — regardless of spiritual or theological correctness — because our current theology of singleness cannot handle the idea of lifelong celibacy, this message does harm to LGBTQ Christians, often left without support to figure out singleness on their own.
For these reasons and more, we must see that what we say to single Christians is spiritually important to many among the most vulnerable and alienated in our society.
When people and ideas are underrepresented, they are also misinterpreted, ignored, and misunderstood. That is why Bella DePaulo’s term “singlism” — the stigmatization, marginalization, and discrimination against single people — is so apt for Christianity. Similar to other forms of discrimination, like white privilege, male dominance, or heteronormativity, matri-mania is the water in which we swim. Our cultural systems constantly try to push us into relationships, making the idea of staying single something strange and, at times, unfeasible.
Thankfully, amidst the Christian singles meetups and Valentine’s Day dating classes, some Christians starting to speak up against the unilateral treatment of single people in the church. Christena Cleveland — Christian author, theologian, professor, and, yes, single person — published a manifesto of sorts on her website in April, titled “A Liberation Theology for Single People.” In it she writes,
“A liberation theology for single people proclaims that the God of the Single Person, the same God who embarked on a mission of Love, left the perfect Love of the Trinity, crossed metaphysical planes in pursuit of Love, took on human flesh as an act of Love, and ultimately expressed Love for all on the cross, says NO to any suggestion that Love is unavailable or less available to single people.”
It is time for the American church to engage in this liberation for singles. As we have seen with racism and imperialism, cultural ideologies can transform into oppressive theologies, which then need to be answered with a call for liberation. This must include repentance and reconciliation, relinquishing of power, and making room for a new system to be put into place — a system that is made by, cares for, and affirms single people.
The church, if it is any reflection of the Scriptures and the God of the oppressed, has something good to say to single people, about the value of a Christian ethic of singleness. But until it has discovered, or re-discovered, what that is, it should spend more time listening to its single people, and less time trying to say anything at all.