When your scaffold is dodgy
One thing you can be assured of is that on, or just before, February 14th every year, a slew of new articles on Christian singleness will be published online. These “It’s OK to be single on Valentine’s Day (I really mean it! Honestly!)” articles, are always a bit of a mixed bag. Personally I find some of them very insightful, encouraging and challenging. Others confuse me and leave me feeling a little ambivalent. While still others irk me. Quite a bit really.
However, it’s a rare occasion when just one of these articles manages to engender all of those reactions at the same time! Enter a 2014 Valentine’s Day article (yes, yes I'm slow on the uptake) ‘Nine Lies in the Not-Yet-Married-Life’ by Marshall Segal of DesiringGod.org.
There is much within this article that is to be commended. For example, it is saturated with the gospel. The author repeatedly writes about the loving and gracious kindness of God shown to us in Christ, 'our only hope and cure’. He reminds us that absolutely nothing (including singleness) can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
He also refuses to dismiss the unique sense of grief felt by many single Christians, by identifying that –
… the unfulfilled desire for a companion and lover, especially year after year, much more often feels like the grief and bondage of joblessness and infertility that the uninhibited emotional and devotional freedom many imagine.
He encourages single Christians to seek contentment by trusting in God’s good purposes for them and resting in the peace he offers in Christ. He also presents a clear theology of marriage, arguing that God didn’t design it ‘to bear the burden of our eternal purpose or happiness’, but to be a means by which we might experience and express our ultimate heavenly union with him. Finally, he reminds us that this world, and everything in it (including marriage and singleness), is not going to hold so much as a candle to the perfection of the new creation.
There is so much encouragement and challenge to be found in this article... especially if you are a single Christian. However, there is also a whole lot of disappointment and frustration to be found in this article… especially if you are a single Christian.
The author's premise is that true Christian freedom and fulfilment can be experienced and summed up by the bearing of spiritual fruit which is brought about by the work of the Spirit in the lives of those who have been united in Christ – married or single. So basically, Galatians 5, right? However, having established that single people need to remember Galatians 5 and so stop thinking that marriage is the path to spiritual fruitfulness and freedom, the author then goes on to explain the nine different ways that singleness itself actively works against the cultivation of spiritual fruit.
Now notice… it’s not how the sinfulness of Christians who just happen to be single actively works against the cultivation of spiritual fruit. It is singleness itself.
Here is a taste:
SELFISHNESS – Sure, married people are as selfish as the next person, but ‘the single life by nature caters to and cultivates it’.
SELF-PITY – The anxieties, fear and grief that characterise singleness result in ‘preoccupation and self-pity’.
ENTITLEMENT – This is ‘one of the great dangers of singleness’ and it leads single people focus on themselves at the expense of others.
APATHY TOWARDS HOLINESS – Singleness doesn’t allow individuals to experience the ultimate form of human accountability (something available only to those who are married) and as a result single people easily think ‘it doesn’t really matter who we are and how we act’.
IRRESPONSIBILITY – The freedom of singleness fosters a lack of commitment, meaning that single people ‘move from one thing to the next, to leave old responsibilities and obligations for fresh new things’.
LACK OF SELF-CONTROL – Singleness isolates people for ‘There is no unchecked life like the single life’. This results in it being ‘very easy to live wildly and unwisely’.
Now, if you are single you are probably shuffling a little uncomfortably in your seat thinking ‘Well… Ummm.. I kind of struggle with one/some/all of these areas of ungodliness’. Yep. You probably do. I do too. But here's the thing - we do not struggle with selfishness, or a lack of self control or a temptation to be irresponsible because we are, by circumstance, single. No. We struggle with all these things, and more, because we are all, by nature, sinful. (See Romans 1:21-22, Romans 5:12, Psalm 51:5 and so on)
Look at it this way. Lots of married people find it really hard to be kind and patient to their spouse and their children, right? So, are we to understand then that marriage, by its actual nature, caters to and cultivates unkindness?
Sadly, plenty of married people are tempted to be unfaithful to their spouse. So then, is adultery one of great dangers posed by marriage itself? The author says that the answer to both questions is a clear “NO” when he writes-
Rather than unlocking fruits, [marriage] will more often (graciously) uncover flaws – flaws we will then trust God to cleanse and correct.
In other words, marriage is an arena in which God graciously exposes married people's sinfulness for what it is, so that they can pursue godliness through the sanctifying work of the Spirit.
But apparently the same isn't true for singleness.
In this article the author is (perhaps unintentionally) arguing that, rather than being another arena in which God graciously exposes our sinfulness, singleness - by the very nature of what it is - actually engenders sinfulness within us. He is saying that singleness, in and of itself, leads us towards sin and actively works against the cultivation of the fruit of the Spirit.
Now there are a whole lot of poor assumptions which prop up this theologically flawed and prejudiced (yes, I said it) view of singleness. This post is already quite long so I won’t ramble on about them now. But to finish, let me just point out one thing which I think might actually be the primary assumption undergirding this blinkered view of the single life. You've probably already noticed it, it’s right there in the title.
The author’s preferred description – in fact his definition – of single people is that they are people who are 'not-yet-married'. He doesn't describe them simply as “not married” or “un-married” or “no longer married”. No. They aren’t married...yet.
The vitally important truth of this article – that marriage is not the qualification for Christian ‘happiness and significance’ – is undermined by its very title! The term “not-yet-married” tells us that marriage is the goal… that marriage is the designated endpoint for earthly existence... that marriage is what we were made for.
As a result we have no choice but to understand singleness as being a substandard and problematic life state for the Christian. We have no choice but to claim that singleness itself works against us, or at the very least makes it so much harder for us, to reach the ultimate goal of Christlikeness.
A dodgy scaffold, but a sure foundation
This article is somewhat reflective of the contemporary evangelical theology of singleness as a whole. There is much in it to be absorbed by, to be challenged by, to grapple and wrestle with. But when you take a step back, turn just a little to look at it from a slightly different perspective, eye it up carefully... well then you begin to realise just how shaky the scaffolding is.
The scaffold propping up our evangelical theology of singleness is dodgy. It's causing hurt, sadness and damage to our single brothers and sisters in Christ; it is not doing our married brothers and sisters in Christ any favours; and it isn't allowing us to rejoice in the true character of the Body of Christ in all its wonderful diversity in unity. It's time for us to start rebuilding our theology of singleness.
Praise God that we have a firm, sure and true foundation upon which to do that rebuilding.
‘For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ’ – 1 Corinthians 3:11