By Caitlin Magness
The church has always upheld marriage as the foundation of the family and a blessed way of life. But while in past centuries, marriage was generally regarded as a good thing in Western culture, it has recently come under attack, with divorce, adultery, promiscuity, and other forms of sexual immorality being not just tolerated, but actively promoted and celebrated. In response, the church has become extremely zealous in its defense of marriage, to the point that many uphold it as the highest form of Christian life.
I worry that this passionate promotion of marriage has led some to make marriage into an idol. Even more, I worry that single people are becoming increasingly invisible and isolated in the church’s marriage-minded culture. Being unmarried myself and with no plans of changing that in the near future, I’d be lying if I said I don’t sometimes wonder about my place in the church.
I have a complicated relationship with the word single—on the one hand, it can be empowering, as it is a “presence” word and not an “absence” word like unmarried or unattached. On the other hand, it also implies a solitary, isolated existence, as if singles somehow exist separately from other people. However, God’s Word teaches that we are all part of the Body of Christ. In that way, none of us is truly alone or “single.” Here are some things Christians can do to reflect that truth and reach out to single people in the church:
1. Provide spiritual resources and guidance for singles. The church is full of resources for married people, providing help and guidance on living a godly life within the vocation of marriage. It can be difficult to find similar resources for single people. Some issues a single person might struggle with that could necessitate spiritual guidance include dealing with loneliness, dealing with sexual temptation, building and maintaining godly friendships, dating, celibacy, and wondering about God’s plan for one’s life.
2. Treat singleness as a valid, God-given vocation instead of a transitional state. Single people are used to the question, “When are you going to get married?” Married people, however, are (I hope) never asked “When are you going to be single again?” Part of the reason for this, of course, is that marriage is a permanent vocation, while singleness is usually (though not always) temporary. But I think that we are also inclined to view marriage as a legitimate vocation, and singleness as simply a time of transition and preparation for marriage, rather than an opportunity for serving God, building relationships, and personal and spiritual growth. There's a similar idea in modern culture that if one is single, she is simply “between” sexual relationships and should be expected to get into another shortly. In the Lutheran view, however, all vocations are equally legitimate, which means that singleness is just as valid a vocation as marriage. The latter is more desirable for the majority of people, but both are blessed, God-given states, and both are given for a reason. Rather than pressuring singles to hurry up and get married, the church should help them to pursue and live according to their unique gifts, interests, and vocations.
3. Provide opportunities for single people to engage in church life, build relationships, and grow in their faith. Church fellowship is generally centered around the nuclear family, so it may be necessary for churches to provide additional opportunities for single people to serve the church. The goal would be not to create a spiritual ghetto for singles, but to enable them to engage as fully as possible in church life.
4. Remember the importance of friendship in Christian life. Modern culture is consistently dismissive of friendship: The phrase “just friends” is endemic, and friendship is often viewed as just a rung on the ladder to sex. The church has historically been opposed to such a reductive view. St. Aelred of Rievaulx writes in his book Spiritual Friendship, “In human life nothing holier can be desired, nothing more useful sought after, nothing is harder to find, nothing sweeter to experience, nothing more fruitful to possess than friendship." C.S. Lewis also writes beautifully about Christian philia in The Four Loves. By emphasizing Christian friendship along with Christian marriage, we can promote godly relationships for both married and single people.
5. Remember not everyone is actively seeking marriage or even desirous of it. In today’s sex-obsessed culture, it is often assumed that everyone strongly desires sex or marriage, so those who do not may feel alone, defective, or out of place. However, the Apostle Paul speaks highly of such people, saying that “I wish all of you were as I am” and “it is good for them to remain single" (1 Corinthians 7). As the authors of Ladylike point out in their excellent post on remaining single, there are no formal celibate vocations in the LCMS, so it becomes even more important for Lutherans to reach out and engage such people, or they may feel compelled to seek support and validation elsewhere.
These are all ways I think the church can help single people to live the fullest possible spiritual life. However, they are not the only ways. If any single or married people have additional ideas for how the church can engage single people and encourage them in their vocations, please leave them in the comments!
Caitlin Magness is the daughter of a family of Lutheran musicians and church workers. She is an aspiring novelist, college student, and thinker of too many thoughts. She lives in Oklahoma with her family.