What to Do About a Surplus of Singles
- Wednesday, August 31, 2005
Lots of verbiage fills corners of the Internet and entire rows of bookstores about the “pesky problem” of an excess number of single adults these days.
Whether it’s a dating solution with a money-back guarantee or an apologetic for the contributions and worth of singles, everyone has a published opinion. So do I. As an author of a book affirming biblical femininity and purpose for single women, I have added to the swirling sea of opinion.
That’s why I can’t seem to escape the conversation. Every new opinion on the topic is forthwith forever to be e-mailed to me, with a note asking what I think. So to save everyone some time, here’s what I think:
There simply is no one-size-fits-all “solution” for single adults.
Singleness, rather, is like a multi-faceted gemstone. If you view it from one angle, it seems like that’s the correct and complete view, but then you turn the stone and you see an entirely different facet to consider. Yes, there are consequences to the choices we singles make that contribute to our singleness, but yet there are also influences from our mainstream culture that negatively affect our churches. Yes, the church could do more to help singles get married, but yes, the church also could do more to affirm the valuable and godly contributions that singles make. Yes, there can be problems with many singles ministries, but there is also good that comes from some singles ministries. Yes, Scripture has a high view of marriage. Yet it also calls singleness good and a charisma, or gracious endowment of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 7:6-8).
There is no one-size-fits-all demographic description of single adults, either. Generally speaking, being unmarried is the only thing that unites an otherwise completely disparate set of people — a 20-year-old male college student, a 35-year-old divorced mother of three, a never-married and childless 40-year-old man, and a widowed 55-year-old grandmother. But for those who are believers in Christ, we have an identity that trumps being single, and we must never lose sight of that fact. It is of far more eternal value than our current marital status.
So, with that said, I’d like to offer 10 perspectives on the multifaceted concept of singleness:
It’s not possible to know why someone is single. Though many are sure that a particular character trait or physical feature is the reason why someone they know is still single, empirically that can’t be true, for many married people are guilty of those same qualities. And I’d like to gently point out that making such claims assumes a level of omniscience that none of us possess.
What you believe about God informs what you believe about singleness. Christians who believe that we serve a loving and wise God who ultimately will accomplish His plan and purpose for us also believe that singleness can be part of that good plan at various times. Though there is an obvious tension between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, the Bible’s accent is on God’s rule and reign in our lives. So we are called to trust Him in all circumstances, even ones we would not choose for ourselves, such as extended singleness. This is my position. For those Christians who don’t hold to this theological view, I’d like to submit that this belief is not the same thing as blaming God for our singleness or not taking any responsibility for the choices we’ve made that contribute to singleness. It means that unwanted singleness is one of those “all things” that God is working together for good in His mysterious providence (Romans 8:28).
Those of us who are single today can know this is God’s will for us today and still give thanks for it. “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). As for the future, let’s leave that in the Lord’s loving hands. It’s impossible for us to know what tomorrow holds so there’s really no need to fret over whether we are “called” to lifelong singleness or how to parse that concept. Married people don’t know whether they are “called” to lifelong marriage, either. Our circumstances can radically change in only one day.
It’s no surprise that a culture that denigrates marriage will have a high number of unmarried adults in its midst. The church is not immune from being affected by this trend, as evidenced by the comparable divorce rate. So I applaud pastors, theologians, churches, and ministries that are studying this trend and calling for transformation, as far as it can be brought about by our endeavors. I would only appeal that when these discussions are held, please don’t forget that you are talking about people and not just statistics. Please offer biblical hope for change to those who are currently single and listening to you.
We singles have to learn to listen to generalities about marriage and singleness without taking it personally. I know it’s hard, but let’s be thankful that the Lord is raising up various people to notice, examine and teach in order to correct these trends. To continue the gemstone analogy, we have to remember that they are looking at a different facet of singleness when they are speaking.
Singles can play a vital and fruitful role in our churches, especially when everyone remembers that our primary identity is Christian, not whatever marital status we currently possess. We are all called to grow up in Christ, who is the head of the church (Ephesians 4:15). Being single does not exempt us from this sanctification process. It is just a different path toward that goal. (Yes, I understand that marriage puts a bright spotlight on selfishness and that many married people will testify to how their weddings put them on the fast-track of sanctification. But there’s a different form of long-simmer sanctification for single adults who have to continue to choose daily to be involved, confess sin, serve others, and not withdraw in the face of years of loneliness and lack of intimacy.) The Bible is clear that singleness is not a second-rate status in the church (1 Corinthians 7:8), and it provides several compelling portraits of singles (Paul, Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Lydia, and possibly John the Baptist and even Timothy.)
Yes, we singles do bear some responsibility for our current singleness, but that isn’t the same thing as bearing the entire or sole responsibility, as though God is not in the picture. There are numerous factors in life that contribute to an individual’s current status, but what we can see now is not the end of the story. Joseph’s future wouldn’t have looked promising if you’d met him in jail — a result of choices made by Joseph, his brothers, and others. But that wasn’t the end result of God’s plan nor was He limited by those choices. The same goes for us. For example, I did not become a Christian until I was 30. So perhaps that’s a factor in why I’m still single more than 10 years later — I was not in the church in my prime marrying years. There are consequences for the choices I’ve made in my life, but I’m still committed to praying for a husband as long as I desire to be married because I have no idea what God has ordained for my future. And while I’m praying, I want to remember to thank God for saving me at all, even if it was at the ripe old age of 30! Unmerited favor at any age is a stunning gift.
Not all singles ministries are alike, so sweeping condemnations or celebrations of such are unwise. A singles ministry reflects the leading and teaching of its church elders, and as such there are as many flavors of singles ministries as there are churches. Even within any particular singles ministry, you will find serious Christians and the shallow souls who give singles ministries their bad reputations as “meat markets.” In my opinion, however, singles shouldn’t be segregated from the rest of the church. We need relationships with families, and perhaps those relationships will curb stunted singles ministries.
For those who married relatively early, please don’t confuse your memories of being young with being single. Singleness is not a monolithic season. To be single at 40 or 50 and beyond is much different than being single at 25. The ease of finding a marriage partner also changes with time. If you married early, you may think it is not a complicated process to find a mate and you may not clearly perceive how difficult (though not impossible) it becomes over time.
There are huge differences between taking some initiative to seek marriage in the context of all other responsibilities and tasks, and being consumed by the initiative. If I die tomorrow, I will not hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Let’s see, you answered 175 personal ads, attended 546 different singles meetings, went to 891 singles mixers, and accepted 34 blind dates! Enter into the joy of your master.” No, I — like every other single Christian — will be evaluated for how I invested my time, talent, and treasures into the Kingdom. So please don’t push us into a frenzy of activity just to Meet Someone. If we go to singles meetings with our deer-hunting headlights up, we will first blind and then scare away the prey. Instead, please ask us if we are going to meetings to serve others, receive the teaching, reach out to visitors, and advance the gospel. Those are the activities that will earn eternal rewards. If we Meet Someone while doing it, it is an added blessing. However, married people, you can help us steward our time if you prayerfully consider compatible people you can introduce us to and then discreetly (meaning: don’t tell us your matchmaking agenda) invite us all to some event.
I hope this list contributes to a fuller consideration of singleness. But this fact remains: The older I become, both chronologically and in the Lord, the more I become aware of how innovative He is in fulfilling His plan. He is not a God of formulas and stereotypes. How He is working in another’s life is never the same as in mine. He is infinitely creative and specifically personal. And whenever we, like Peter, decide to ask Him about His plans for a particular friend and companion, His answer is the same now as it was then: “What is that to you? You follow Me” (John 21:22).
Carolyn McCulley handles church and ministry relations for Sovereign Grace Ministries and is a member of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD.
She wrote "Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye? Trusting God with a Hope Deferred" (Crossway) and contributed to "Sex and the Supremacy of Christ" (edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor, Crossway). Carolyn welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or at her blog, solofemininity.blogs.com. Previous articles and messages are posted at www.carolynmcculley.com.
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