Single in the Church
On February 14, 270 AD (or close to it), a priest was brutally executed by the Roman Emperor Claudius. This priest defied Claudius’ clear orders that marriages within his realm were outlawed because married men were not enlisting in the military in sufficient numbers. This priest, sensing the injustice of this edict, conducted marriages in secret until the day he was outed. His actions earned him sainthood many years later. His name was Valentine. Thus, we have the foundations of our modern holiday that celebrates romantic love—St. Valentine’s Day.
Valentine’s Day is worth celebrating because marriage came into being at the pinnacle of God’s “very good” creation. Marriage and family should then have a high place in the life of a church. At the same time, we have to be careful we don’t put it on a pedestal too high. When we do, we devalue a significant population within the church community. Ask many single adults (those never married, widows and widowers, and those single again through divorce) and they will tell you that being an integral part of a church community is sometimes difficult. Because marriage is so highly valued within the church, many mistakenly come to the conclusion that being single is abnormal, undesirable, or simply a stage of preparation for marriage. Many of us, myself included, mistakenly devalue single adults by making marriage into something the Bible might not. Let’s take a quick look at how Scripture views marriage and singleness.
MATERIAL BLESSING IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
From the beginning God established marriage as a means of displaying the very relationships that exist within the Trinity itself. In Genesis 1:26-28 man and woman were created “in the image of God.” They were different and yet the same, and they would relate in joyful pleasure in oneness together the way their Creator did within Himself.
Then came sin and the Fall, and everything was distorted. In comes God’s plan for redemption. God chooses Abraham out of all the people in the world to relate to him in a special way, establishing His covenant with Abraham and all His descendants. That covenant would include two main blessings. One was the land. He would eventually bring the sons of Abraham to the land “flowing with milk and honey.” The other blessing was a “seed.” That meant children, heirs. Abraham would become the father of many nations with descendants like the stars in the heavens. These blessings would be passed along through his natural descendants. Therefore, in the lives of God’s people, family was huge. Having children was huge. It tangibly represented the blessing of God. At this point in redemptive history, God’s blessing was typically experienced as something material and tangible.
EXPANDED BLESSING IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
When we come to the New Testament, things change. The blessings of God’s covenant relationship do not diminish, but instead they multiply. They also shift focus more to the spiritual than the material. It is not the physical seed of Abraham who are blessed, but the spiritual seed. The material family becomes secondary to something much more extensive in the family of God. This is why Jesus says in Luke 14:26 that if we come to Him, we are to “hate our father, mother, wife, brother, etc.” Does He really mean hate? Well, in comparison to the love we are to have for His Kingdom and the new spiritual family, it will look like hate. He says also in Matthew 19:29, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” Our inheritance in His Kingdom is not in a material family but a spiritual one.
This is also why Paul would say in 1 Corinthians 7, “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am.” In this extended passage, he seems to relegate marriage to those who have no self-control over their sexual urges. How do we square this with his teaching on marriage? They do not contradict. If we are going to be married and have children, then his teaching gives us direction. But, the better way is to forego marriage and family and to devote ourselves totally to our greater Kingdom family and our marriage to the Lamb.
I have to say that I tend to cringe when reading these words. Yet, in a Kingdom perspective of valuing the spiritual over the material, it makes sense. I deeply love my family and can’t imagine life without them, but having a big family is HUGELY demanding. I moved my family of six to Hungary to serve as missionaries. It was incredibly expensive, especially compared to what it would have cost me as a single man. Through that time I was entangled with parenting teenagers, not just ministry to Hungarians. My family status determined where I could live, what church we attended, and the time I could spend with nationals of other countries. Having a family on the mission field was in many ways a disadvantage. If I am single, I have far fewer restrictions and far fewer obligations than a family man. That gives me greater freedom to engage in others’ lives. Many people will never consider going to the mission field because of their family obligations, and that is a shame.
In biblical perspective, marriage is not something permanent or eternal. It is a temporary shadow of something far more glorious, our ultimate marriage to the Son. Therefore, being single is not a disadvantage in the Kingdom of God. It is a blessing, even an advantage. The heritage of the single person is not in material, physical descendants. It is in a family that spans the globe. The single is not incomplete, and singleness does not mean something is wrong preventing them from finding a suitable mate. Instead, the single has more opportunity to experience the glorious fulfillment that is possible through our marital union with Christ, something that might even be dampened in a material marriage. Being single is not a sub-par status; rather, singleness needs to be seen for the blessedness it can be.
VALUING SINGLES IN THE CHURCH
Being single brings with it a different set of needs. Companionship and intimacy are a challenge, especially in the church where they are expected to be pursuing the ideal of marriage. Living as a single also means there is no help with basic living necessities, such as laundry, groceries, car maintenance, doctor visits, etc.—help that most of us take for granted. And, especially for those who are now single again, returning home to an empty house can be oppressive.
This is where we as a church can step in. First, we must stop thinking of singles as incomplete and their status as undesirable, but instead as valuable parts of the body of Christ as they are, specially gifted to serve and give health to the body. Secondly, we must be careful not to design church life only around marriage, family, and children. Thirdly, they also need to be included as they are. We need to find ways to include them in our relationship circles, engage with them with our families, inviting them into our gatherings and our celebrations.
Let’s celebrate marriage and family, and in that celebration let’s value those who are now single. We do not put our hope in what is now, but we all wait for the ultimate fulfillment and joy that comes at the wedding feast of the Lamb.
Being Single at Southwood
by Nanette Respess
Single is defined by Webster’s as one in number; not married; unaccompanied by another; or consisting of one as part of a whole. The last meaning is my view of unmarried state as part of Southwood. A few years after college I was one of two professional, unmarried women attending a Sunday night Bible study that would later become Southwood. We were embraced by families, often invited to eat soup and sandwiches after church at a kitchen table, included in family game night, or at a child’s school or sports event. Being included in a family’s life was God’s provision for community through the body of Christ. Singleness wasn’t an issue.
As the church grew, I stayed connected to families and women as my source of community. A singles ministry was formed, and though I would participate periodically, I found connection among the larger body. Through the years, families included me in a meal in their home on the spur of the moment and in the lives of their children; helped me with my yard or house needs; helped me take care of my mom’s house, and even her, this past year. In 2008 God met my greatest fear of being alone with a major illness when diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The Southwood body met my needs by cleaning my house, landscaping my yard, delivering meals, writing notes, mowing my yard weekly, and continued through a renovation. The help comes if I ask for it.
Many unmarried people find Sunday mornings the loneliest day of their week as couples and families make up the larger congregation. Social media, the world, and even the church, can often feed the lie of being incomplete or less than worthy if not married. God helps me fight this lie through others. I grumbled one Sunday about having to park my car in the pouring rain while husbands delivered their wives to a dry door. Judy Honeycutt, the senior pastor’s wife at the time, dryly responded, “Well, who parked my car today? My husband got to work at 5:00a.m. He’s dry while his wife is soaked.” Her reply wasn’t meant to sting or hurt but to bring perspective enabling me to see my status differently. I have often sat with a pastor’s wife so she will have company in the pew, and I get the benefit of a child or two snuggled into my side.
As I look around the church on Sundays, I see so many single people, either by life’s circumstance or whose spouse is not active at SPC, serving and ministering to the body. I see Blake singing and working the sound booth; Sandy baking something for the musicians to eat during the sermon; Gloria ushering and greeting; Debbie making our communion bread; Judy teaching our one-year-olds; Winnie loving our youth; Joey preparing communion trays; Justin heading overseas; or Pete taking photographs. We have an opportunity to uniquely serve the church. This service was instilled through my parents. I am not always grateful that I don’t have a spouse. I can complain that life would be easier with a husband (which I know is not true). Yet, when I step back and see how God uses me in the body of Southwood and the lives of families, I do smile at the myriad of opportunities I have to serve in a manner worthy of my calling—a privilege not many people experience.
Consider inviting someone who is single or alone to eat grilled cheese with your family after church or grab a sandwich somewhere. You will never know how much this means to be included in community.