Singleness is always a hot topic within conservative Christian circles as in: why does God want me to be single when all I really want is to be married? And while the reasons for such hand-wringing over God’s ultimate plan for one’s relationship status varies from, say, Suzanne Venker’s claim that the problem is women who are too influenced by feminism and therefore they are too angry and not feminine enough to marry or something less harsh like that asserted by Sharon Hodde Miller who recently said singleness isn’t the fault of women per se, but rather singleness should be seen in a larger context of its benefits and the overall goodness and will of God, the end result is problematic, especially if you’ve been conditioned to believe your relationship status is a direct result of God’s will for you.
So, fortunately, Hodde Miller recently offered a more nuanced statement about marriage:
Marital status does not reflect the loveliness of one’s personality—or God’s special favor. The world is more complicated, marriages are more diverse, and God’s ways are more mysterious than that.
But even as Hodde Miller strikes a more reasonable perspective regarding the state of marriage, she seems to struggle to construct one for those who are not. At least she removes the claim many churches make when she notes that single women are not more sinful than men and indeed all people are in need of God’s generous grace and redemption.
Progress often comes in baby steps (I remind myself).
What Hodde Miller fails to identify, though, is the problem for those who desire to be in relationships and who see this unfulfilled wish as God’s design. Rather the problem instead (and here I would suggest we should extend our conversation to include all people, not just those who identify as heterosexuals), lies with the church that has worked tirelessly to establish this familial context as the one ordained by God.
In creating expectations about families and roles and differences between girls and boys, the church creates firm ideas with impressionable children and youth about what they should anticipate as they grow older. By focusing attention on traditional families as somehow more right and more blessed than other ways of living, the church sets up people who fall outside of this traditional model to see themselves as somehow less whole, somehow less godly, certainly less blessed by God.
And, these messages are pervasive throughout our Christian sub-culture. Two parents are better than one. Families are not complete unless there are children. Divorce is frowned upon and viewed as something less than what God intended (even when there are clear signs of unhealthy or damaging patterns). Then, as an ironic twist on the endorsement of a familial unit as the best that God intends, there is the caveat that this ideal most certainly doesn’t exist if the members are homosexual. Suddenly, in such cases, God desires singleness and therefore the model of Paul comes into play even though his reason for being single—believing the return of Christ to be imminent—no longer seems plausible.
But here is an excellent example of the biblical gymnastics that always accompanies such staunch notions of God’s intent. If we are talking about heterosexuals who have fallen in love and anticipate marriage, we nod in interpretive agreement over Genesis 2.18 where the assertion is made that it is not good that a human being should be alone. If on the other hand, the person is homosexual, we dismiss this relational truth and instead ask such persons to embrace another way of living, one based on independence and possibly isolation.
And, if there are women (and such singles usually are women) who desperately want to be married in part because they have been taught by the church since they were in Sunday school and youth groups and now find themselves in singles groups that God’s best design is for them to live into some prescribed role that is primarily constructed around gender, then we point them not to Genesis but to Paul even though his decision to embrace a single life is contextually miles away from where the church has conditioned such women to be.
All of this just seems to me rather unfortunate and, really, damaging to so many people.
What if instead we agreed that living to our fullest potential, embracing the gifts and graces God has given to each of us is what we are all called to do? And, for some of us we may also be married and for others of us we may not get that opportunity, even if we desire it. This disappointment may be one we learn to live with, but it does not say anything about us, nor, indeed, anything about God. It just is.