May 31, 2016

Five Things the Church Can Do For Single People

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!


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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.

Image source.

17 comments:

  1. "I worry that single people are becoming increasingly invisible and isolated in the church’s marriage-minded culture." This has been true for a long time. Having been in this situation for 30 years now, it seems to me the leadership of the LCMS prefers their members to move from college graduation to marriage as quickly as possible, but they provide little or no guidance or assistance to people in that stage of life.

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  2. One of the best ways I've found to become involved in my local congregation as a single person is via church music. Activities such as choir and handbells are not inherently couples based, so a single person can participate in them without feeling out of place. As a bass in the choir I sit with the other basses, not with the other basses and their wives.

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  3. Could you elaborate what you mean by, "Provide opportunities for single people to engage in church life, build relationships, and grow in their faith,"? I only ask because ever since my husband was called to our small congregation (80 in attendance on Sunday morning), I've slowly begun to realize that it's not practical for small churches to have something special for every demographic. We just don't have enough people to make up vibrant groups for every demographic imaginable!

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    1. That's why I don't think you need to necessarily have a special group just for singles. Often it's just a matter of reaching out to people as individuals, or making room for them in existing groups and activities. For example, like Thomas said, making sure that not all church fellowship is couple-based, and that there are ways for single people to engage in church life without feeling like they're either invisible or sticking out (such as church music).

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    2. I find myself a bristling a little by the "Provide opportunities for single people" part of this post. While I am married, I was formerly single :) In church, there were no shortage of activities available. . . from church music to church council to Sunday school teacher to Bible studies. What stopped me from doing those things was my own shyness to go on my own without knowing many people.

      Now that I'm married an in a small congregation (less than 80 in attendance), there are no activities that are couple-based--potluck, Bible studies, church clean-up.

      It was difficult as a single for me to become involved in my larger church because I was new to town. I didn't know people. I had to step way outside of my comfort zone.

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    3. I didn't mean to imply that these problems are exclusive to single people, or that married people don't also feel isolated in the church. A married person could probably write another whole article about things the church can do for married people. This article is based on my personal experience as a single person in the church, so naturally it's not going to apply to everyone. That said, if I came across as bitter or accusing, I apologize. It certainly wasn't my intention!

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    4. I don't think you came across bitter or accusing, but I must apologize for coming across too strong. I just read the definition for "bristling" and realized it's much too strong a word for what I meant. I'm sorry. I guess I meant less of a bristle and more of a "little concerned by".

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  4. I think one way the church can support single people is to have member families extend hands of friendship to them. I'm getting married next month but for several years I've lived as a single person in two large cities away from my family b cause of my job. I've spent many holidays and Sunday afternoons alone. The few times that someone has invited me over to their home to have a meal or celebrate a holiday have been wonderful. It's so easy to get lonely when you see everyone leaving with their families after church and you're going home to an empty apartment.

    The other suggestion I have is for the church to facilitate old fashion matchmaking. I know singleness is a fine vocation in its own right but most single people do desire to be married. Furthermore, the pool of single confessional Lutherans is extremely small. Introduce the single Lutherans you know!

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  5. Thanks for this post! As someone who is nearing the end of her college career but is not in a relationship (and is unlikely to be anytime soon, as far as she can see), it's really encouraging to know that there are other singles out there who share some of the same struggles.

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  6. As far as I can tell from scripture and the church fathers, singleness is not in itself a vocation unless one is so specifically to serve the church. Otherwise, it IS a "halfway point" on the way to marriage, which should be the general aspiration and goal of all. Unless you want to disagree with Luther's very strong comments in this vein.

    Of course, because our world is broken and our culture so anti-marriage many will have difficulty getting there, and some never make it. But I see that as more a cross to endure than a state to celebrate. Obviously make the most of singlehood. Don't sit there and moon. But I don't think that should be a license to disregard the very first command to be fruitful and multiply.

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    1. I'd say that the single Lutheran women I know (especially those who are a bit older and would love to be married) do try to think of their single life as a unique opportunity to serve the church and their neighbors.

      There's a balance to be struck between maintaining that "it is not good for man to be alone"--encouraging marriage--and not treating *individuals* as if they can't start their "real lives" unless and until they get married. Because some of them never will. Plus, we can't ignore Paul as per I Cor 7:8.

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    2. I agree that singleness itself is not a vocation. Vocation is in essence a relationship to the neighbor, and this is the largest part of what makes singleness so frustrating or uncomfortable. The world sets it up as an equally valid form of human relationship, which is an attempt to define self by isolation from others, not by relationship to them. (i.e. "Single" does not fit in the same category with "Sister, Daughter, Mother, Wife"!)

      Of course, as Anna points out, those who are single can and should serve their neighbors with their time and energy through other vocations. Something I have been pondering lately, though, is whether the Church best serves singles by making them feel welcomed and useful as they are or whether she might better serve them by finding ways to move them from the non-vocation of "single" into a permanent vocation, whether of marriage or of individual service (cf. I Cor. 7).

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    3. Reading these comments, I realize that "vocation" is a pretty ambiguous word to throw around without first defining what it means. I tend to use it to refer to whatever walk of life a person finds himself on, but I know some people have a more specific definition, and I like yours. Perhaps "station" would be a better word to use for singleness. However, I think a case can be made for singleness (or should I say celibacy?) as a relationship to one's neighbor(s). A single, celibate person doesn't have a marital relationship as their primary relationship, so they will have more time and energy to devote to other relationships (friends, family, the church, etc). I'm not saying that married people don't have other meaningful relationships, but the marriage always comes first (again, as Paul notes in the 1 Corinthians chapter). So I do think it's possible to talk about singleness in terms of relationships, and not the absence thereof. That's one reason I'm uneasy with the word "single," as I mentioned in the article.

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    4. There is no Bible verse that teaches that singleness is "IS a 'halfway point' on the way to marriage" or that marriage "should be the general aspiration and goal of all."

      Regardless of what Luther teaches in his writings or sermons, the teaching of the Lutheran church is normed by Scripture and the Confessions, not Luther's writings. The Confessions teach that virginity is a higher gift than marriage. It would be nice to see that gift honored at least as much as marriage is in the Lutheran online world.


      We are justified neither because of virginity nor because of marriage, but freely for Christ's sake, when we believe that for His sake God is merciful to us. Here perhaps they will cry out that, like Jovinian, marriage is made equal to virginity. But, because of such racket, we will not reject the truth about the righteousness of faith, which we explained before. Yet we do not make virginity and marriage equal. For just as one gift excels another, as prophecy surpasses power of speech, the science of military affairs excels agriculture, and power of speech excels architecture, so virginity is a more excellent gift than marriage. Just as a public speaker is no more righteous before God because of his ability to speak than an architect because of his skill in architecture, so a virgin does not merit justification by virginity more than a married person merits it by conjugal duties. Each person should faithfully serve in his own gift and believe that for Christ's sake he receives the forgiveness of sins and through faith is regarded righteous before God. BOC, AP, XXIII (XI)

      Frankly, I find the emphasis on marriage and the vocations of wife and mother—to the point of seeming like they are idolized—in the LCMS difficult to bear and am thankful that the author made the attempt to address ways that those who are single might be served by the church. The latter is especially important as, it seems to me, the usual talk about singleness is how those who are single can serve the church.

      As far as vocation, perhaps the word to use here is neighbor. Singles have needs and concerns different from those who are married and from those who have children. Understanding those needs and concerns can go a long way towards serving those particular neighbors.

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    5. If we consider Joy's comment here: "As far as I can tell from scripture and the church fathers, singleness is not in itself a vocation unless one is so specifically to serve the church."

      The trouble here, besides that the Lutheran Confessions and several virgin church fathers certainly celebrate virginity, specifically, is that it is not we who determine what serves the church. That was, in part, the Roman error regarding vocation. God certainly uses people who are not married to serve the church to the extent of, yes, working through singleness whether it is chosen, desired, or not. Vocation may be affected by our choices or desires, but it need not be so.

      Jesus said, "For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 19:12). I do not see Him condemning any of the three, whereas I think Joy reads it as only the third group are "vocational."

      That second category should ring very real to us. Men and women, boys and girls, are treated in such a way that they may not desire marriage or sex. Must the church really condemn them for that? Is the church's job really wedding people off rather than tending to God's children?

      Pitting vocations against each other . . . really? We have to make a hierarchy of God's gifts? Anyway, the Large Catechism nicely mixes things up by presenting parenthood as the highest honor and a child's obedience as the holiest of works. Those into allegory can see the honor of God the Father and the special place in God's heart for the work of His Son, Jesus Christ.

      Single describes the neighbor. Adjectives aren't necessarily vocations, but it is serious business indeed to imply that neighbor is a lesser vocation than marriage or parent. Jesus became our neighbor. That's huge. Jesus is involved regarding other children of God, but He remains eternally Son. And, yes, He comes for the great eternal Marriage between the Church and Himself, but if that eternal marriage counts for Jesus, it should count for others as well.

      We needn't celebrate adjectives. At the same time we needn't think honoring marriage includes denigrating the maidens.

      "Christians" (little Christs) and "Children of God" are terms unrelated to marriage or parenthood. That in itself should speak volumes about the degree to which we should honor childhood in its various forms, including adult children, married or unmarried.

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  7. Yes, Caitlin, I think we are basically thinking many of the same things and struggling with terminology! I would still suggest that "single" or "celibate" is not a vocation I hold. "Friend" is, and "daughter," and perhaps "member of the choir" or "organist" or "assistant to the mother with small children sitting next to me in the pew" or any number of other relationships to people. I may enter into these transient vocations more freely because I am single, but when I am just at home by myself, I'm not sure that is really a vocation (maybe some Lutheran author has written on this and I am just showing that I need to do more reading!). For my own part, I've been thinking a lot in the past months about how individualism has infiltrated our culture in the past 250 years or so and how deeply and detrimentally this has affected not only society but the Church. . . . But that is an article for another time, and so for now I'll just offer my appreciation for what you have written!

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    1. You really should write that article. For my part, I've begun to suspect that some of the cultural patterns we blame on feminism are actually the fruit of individualism. Or at least, of what individualism has done to feminism.

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