How do we as a church deal with this reality?
In the wider world, singleness is less of a problem (at least in part because singleness in the secular world is not equated with celibacy). But in the church there is a clear understanding that you will progress from being a youth to a young adult to a young married to a young parent to being a parent of Christian youth. (Curiously, the path seems to stop there!)
Update: an older friend pointed out to me in an email that, once your children hit their teenage years, your success or failure moves from being judged on your own performance in this process to being judged on that of your children.
If you deviate from this progression at any point then you have failed. My friends live with a significant burden of failure alongside the sorrow of their actual singleness. I, too, live with failure as I have produced no children.
I suspect that this veneration of marriage and family in Evangelical circles has come about in response to two factors:
- Family breakdown in our wider society
- The high status of celibacy in the Anglo-Catholic traditions (the idealisation of monks, nuns and priests)
We have partially succeeded. In the New Zealand the divorce rate amongst Christians is a small fraction of that in the secular population. But in the process we have been selling an ideal that a significant minority of our community will never be able to live out. As well as the pain of living without a partner they have to deal with the pain of personal failure and the resultant questioning of their own worth.
We need to stop doing this to our women!!
Update: the same older friend pointed out that this doesn't just affect women. It's more likely to happen to them due to the dearth of men in the church, but, just because a man has many women to choose from doesn't mean he'll find himself a partner amongst them. If he doesn't, he is then subject to the same disapproval as an unmarried woman.
But what can we do? Should we promote serial monogamy? Or polygamy? Should we excommunicate these women? Should we focus all of our evangelistic efforts on men?
None of those feel particularly Christian to me!
What does the Bible say?
I think we need to challenge the idea that marriage is the only or even best way to truly live the Christian life. God did say that it was not good for man to live alone, and He did create humanity in His image as male and female. But He also allowed into the Bible some pretty negatives statements about marriage and family.
In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul said:
to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. 1 Corinthians 7:8, NIVJesus himself went even further:
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple" Luke 14:26, NIV.Lastly, Jesus taught that in Heaven, where everything will be perfect, no one will be married. So how necessary to happiness or Godly living can it be?
What does that all mean?
I think that Jesus and Paul were both well aware that family ties bring with them a desire to protect those they bind us to. The well-being of our family members can easily become more dear to us than following God. God's not big on having rivals!
In the missionary circles in which Martin was raised the presence of children created much heartache. The parents longed to protect their children and have them nearby, but in order for the parents to do the work God called them to they often had to live apart from their children. People also had to be willing not infrequently to allow their spouses to go into danger they would never have faced back home. People sometimes refuse to serve God as missionaries because of factors like these. Some people even think that it is actually wrong for people to subject their family members to such dangers and deprivations.
Marriage and family bring joy, but how often do we teach that they also bring a terrible temptation to idolatory?
So what can/should the church do?
I think that my friends' singleness is just one example of how things are not as God would have them be. The whole world is broken and I long to be part of a Christian community that acknowledges that. A community where some have the joy of marriage, some have the joy of a satisfying job, some have the joy of children, some have the joy of 'golden years' in old age, some have the joy of abundant material goods, but all have sorrows. Where we submit to one another in love, bear one another's burdens, and serve God together. Yet where we also long together for the day when God will live amongst His people and there will be no sorrow or pain any more because everything has been made new (Revelation 21:1-4).
I also want to be part of a community that acknowledges the realities of marriage and parenthood and helps us to live Christianly within them. People long for marriage in part so they will not be alone in old age, yet nearly half of all married people will die after their spouse. People long for children who can carry on their legacy, yet Christians should be storing up treasure in heaven, not concerning themselves with their earthly legacy. Most importantly we should teach that marriage and family are mixed blessings as our desire to protect both our spouse and our children can easily draw us away from God.
Finally I want to live part of a community where no one is alone. You don't have to be alone because you're single. A single woman need not only know the hugs of female friends and never that of a man. People without children of their own need not have no role in the raising of children. Jesus saw his own true family as being not his biological family, but the family of God. Presumably what was true for him is also true for us, his followers: we certainly speak of ourselves as the family of God. I want to be part of a people that lives that out, for all our sakes!
In conclusion I must acknowledge my limited 'right' to speak on this topic. I am married and very happy to be so. I am deeply grateful to God for bringing Martin and I together and for the joy that there is in sharing my life with him. I am sorry that my two close friends do not have this joy, and pray frequently that God will join them together with husbands.