The first time I heard Dr. Al Mohler talk about why he believes adulthood equals marriage, I high-fived my car stereo. It was March 2003 and I was two months shy of turning 40 … as a single woman.
The controversy surrounding this message of Dr. Mohler’s was just simmering — it would take another year before it hit the airwaves and then ignite a series of Internet columns here and elsewhere. The audio message I was listening to that day was an interview with a number of pastors, including Dr. Mohler, and one of my pastors, Joshua Harris, of Covenant Life Church. Dr. Mark Dever, of Nine Marks Ministries, hosted the interview and the audience was several hundred pastors who subscribe to the Nine Marks audio series. As such, these pastors were talking to other pastors about trends in the church.
Very early in the interview, Dr. Mohler announced that he didn’t believe that singles ministries (as institutions) were biblical — and the discussion became very lively. Dr. Mohler’s main point was that the extended adolescence that he sees in mainstream culture is being replicated in the church with harmful consequences. He urged pastors to steer their churches back to where adulthood equals marriage, with the call to celibacy being the rare exception. And he also stated that churches ought to get involved with singles, saying to singles “it’s our business to help you glorify God by getting married.” It was during this interview that Joshua invited Dr. Mohler to speak at his final New Attitude conference in January 2004 to present this topic to single adults themselves — the controversial message that ultimately ended up being excerpted and aired on the FamilyLife Today radio show in June 2004.
So why was I, a never-married Christian woman, giving a hearty “Amen” to this perspective? It certainly was not because these gentlemen neglected to answer Joshua’s question about what to do now for all the older women who desire to be married but who aren’t being pursued. (I listened very carefully to this part!) It wasn’t because I had any secret satisfaction in hearing them talk about the failure of male initiative in this generation. It wasn’t because I enjoyed hearing a sweeping denunciation of singles ministries as a function of church life — when in fact this ministry is actually quite fruitful in my own church (though obviously not perfect).
I applauded because these pastors were challenging other pastors to pay attention to what was happening to single adults in the church today and to make some radical changes. Judging from the amount of material that I’ve read from singles, we want our churches to consider our plight and perspective — and this is what Dr. Mohler is doing on our behalf. We should be happy to hear it and not quick to criticize.
But I do recognize that it’s hard to listen to the 50,000-foot perspective on singleness in the church and not take it personally or wonder if it’s too late for you. For example, when Dr. Mohler finished giving a version of this message at New Attitude, “The Mystery of Marriage,” Joshua asked all the single men to stand up so that he could pray for them as they applied this message to their own lives. I noted wryly that only about a third of the room stood up. This imbalance in the church is one of the reasons for the surplus of single women.
I was also about to follow Dr. Mohler at this conference with my own message to single women, one in which I presented a slightly different perspective on the gift of singleness. My burden was that single women wouldn’t live in the future — waiting to receive another gift — but live fruitfully now, finding God’s grace to be sufficient for this season. Like Elisabeth Elliot once said, “If you are single today, the portion assigned to you for today is singleness. It is God’s gift. Singleness ought not to be viewed as a problem, nor marriage as a right. God in His wisdom and love grants either as a gift.” (Fortunately, my pastor C.J. Mahaney assured me I wasn’t contradicting this renowned theologian and seminary president — there was room for a “both/and” view on this topic.)
Dr. Mohler said if we single adults desired marriage and sexual intimacy, we obviously didn’t have the rare gift of celibacy and thus we should pursue marriage as one of our top priorities. That’s an excellent exhortation to single men, but it can be doubly provoking to single women who must both wrestle with desire (for marriage and, yes, sexual intimacy) and wait on male pursuit. Many women came up to me at this conference saying that since they desired to get married, they were now confident God would provide a husband. I wanted to support their renewed faith, but temper their presumption. Our subjective desires are never a good place to camp out, because if God doesn’t deliver on our schedules, we have a predictably sinful reaction to the perceived delay. Other women were tempted to self-righteousness and bitterness because their suspicions about male passivity were confirmed through this message.
Instead of these extremes, I hoped to encourage women to see that Scripture calls singleness both good and a gift (1 Cor. 7:6-8). It’s not a gift that we are to evaluate as we do Christmas gifts (do I like it? do I want to keep it?). But like other spiritual gifts it’s meant for the good of others (1 Corinthians 12:7) — the local church. There are very real opportunities to glorify God in our singleness. We’re not on hold, even as we hope for marriage. We have a purpose in the Body as single adults. (I don’t have time to fully develop this idea in this initial column, but I will, Lord willing, in future columns.) Seen through the lens of Scripture, singleness is ultimately not at all about us — it is about maximizing God’s glory and His purpose in our lives.
So here’s the tension: Dr. Mohler is right that Christian singles are affected by our mainstream culture with its low view of marriage, but not one Christian single adult I know is actually putting off marriage for the same reasons unbelievers do. Of the hundreds of singles that I know, I only know three adults who actually believe they are called to celibacy to freely serve the church. Everyone else wants to get married, but is at various places along the spectrum of hope to despair. (Not that my friendships and conversations represent a balanced statistical sample of Christianity today, but I have noted other writers echoing this same observation.) We need our churches to help us reverse this ballooning trend of aging single adults who want to be married but are finding it difficult to do so.
At the same time, we need to recognize that when we see our Lord face to face, He is not going to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You finally got married! Whew, that was a close call, but you finally flopped over that matrimonial finish line! Now enter into the joy of your Master.” No, our Lord is going to reward us for being faithful stewards of the time, gifts, and opportunities He has given us — including those found in extended singleness. I have no doubt it’s true when married people say there is no sanctification like that of being married, but that doesn’t mean single adults are condemned both to ongoing rejection AND spiritual immaturity. God promises to finish what He’s started in conforming me to the image of His Son (Phil. 1:6; Romans 8:29). There is a different kind of sanctification involved in extended singleness — one that requires us to rejoice with those who rejoice, yet still choose to invest ourselves year in and year out in our local churches even with our deferred hopes.
Dr. Mohler and I are only a few years apart in age. He has known the tremendous responsibilities of being a husband, father, and president of a seminary. My only expertise is that I’ve been single a lot longer, so I can state with authority that it is not the same to be single at 40 as it is at 20. (And I would gently suggest to those who married early not to confuse being single with being young. Singleness isn’t a static existence. I have much more in common with my fortysomething peers of any marital stage than I do with an unmarried 21-year-old).
So instead of taking offense at Dr. Mohler’s words, I suggest we singles should be glad he is calling pastors and single adults alike to make changes. Right after the New Attitude conference, I saw a number of single men respond to his charge to make getting married a priority — and several engagements have resulted in my church alone. Praise the Lord! I rejoice with my newly engaged friends. But I am more grateful that these friends were already making the most of their single years as active, fruitful members of our church. Because of this foundation, I have every expectation they will continue to glorify God and build His church as married couples.
Marriage is the norm, both biblically and experientially, for most people. So Dr. Mohler is right in exploring why there is an ever-growing number of unmarried Christians singles. Our churches should uphold a high view of marriage, and we singles should graciously applaud those efforts. But let’s not forget it is a temporary institution; the Bride of Christ, the church, is the enduring one and every Christian — married or single — is gifted for her benefit.
Carolyn McCulley is the communication specialist at Sovereign Grace Ministries and the author of" Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye? Trusting God with a Hope Deferred" (Crossway). She is also a member of Covenant Life Church, where she is active in the singles ministry. For more information, please log onto www.carolynmcculley.com.
Hear it for yourself …
- The original interview for pastors with Dr. Mohler and Joshua Harris is on the Nine Marks Ministry website, www.ninemarks.org in the audio archives.
- Dr. Mohler’s New Attitude message, “The Mystery of Marriage,” is carried in full on his website, www.albertmohler.com. (If you heard only the version on FamilyLife Today, I would highly encourage you to hear all the teaching that preceded this excerpt.)
- The excerpt of the New Attitude message and Dennis Rainey’s reaction to it on FamilyLife Today can be heard in the broadcast archives of www.familylife.com.
- The New Attitude message for single women, “Trusting God with a Hope Deferred,” can be downloaded or purchased from the Sovereign Grace Store at www.sovereigngracestore.com.
Read it for yourself …
Dr. Mohler’s columns responding to those who heard his excerpted message on FamilyLife Today, “Looking Back At ‘The Mystery of Marriage’—Part One” and “Part Two” are archived in the Crosswalk.com Weblogs archives.
Camerin Courtney’s reaction to the FamilyLife Today program was written for Christianitytoday.com’s singles channel, “Is Singleness a Sin?”