Alone in hostile territory: being single in the church

Why is the church so fixated on who’s entering into exclusive intimate relationships with who?

That was just one of the lines that didn't make the cut in a piece a wrote for the September issue at work. I'll probably get in enough trouble for my provocative opening (which I'm a tad worried readers will misconstrue) that it's just as well I left this inflammatory line out.

The reason I liked this line so much that I had to share it elsewhere is that it spreads...let's not call it blame or accusation, let's call it...responsibility across a whole spectrum of people. It calls out those who can't accept single people as real adults until they've started dating; it challenges gossips and finger-waggers who tut-tut premarital sex without offering any constructive advice for making other choices; it points out the absurdity of  males in ministry who think the only way to preserve their purity is to never talk to women; and it questions those for whom preventing homosexuality from being acceptable is the nearly the only idea of being biblical.

I've often denounced "the evangelical cult of the nuclear family" in conversation, and when a blogger's addition to the discussion of premarital sexuality (on "waiting for marriage") set me off, I got assigned to write a personal piece on the subject of singleness in the church. (To the blogger: a healthy, well-adjusted, happy single Christian woman in her 50s who hasn't had sex isn't "waiting for marriage." That perspective is a recipe for bitterness, self-hatred, and misanthropy.) We need a better way to talk about living pure and chaste lives -- and to acknowledge that standards still apply after marriage. The evangelical world has so few resources for thinking theologically about singleness (and, aggravatingly, every book I found ended up with the author married by the end), that I started reading books on nuns and was inspired and challenged by the women I met. 
The article was hanging over my head for quite a while. It was ironic that by the time I finished the article, I'd done so much thinking and reading and mulling over singleness and the church that I'd stewed myself into a rather dissatisfied place -- which made my "healthy, well-adjusted single person" persona feel a little disingenuous.

But that didn't stop me from having something to say! There were so many things I'd've loved to rant about in the article, but I had to keep it focussed on what I'm convinced is the main point: people in the church all need each other to help us be followers of Jesus. Full stop.

However, I still want to get these things off my chest -- in a forum where I'm less likely to get in trouble, because, let's be honest; the whole world CAN read this blog, but in reality, if 2 or 3 are reading anything regularly, I'll call that an audience. In my article, I tried to keep my comments generic gender-wise. Many of these comments here spring from the particular frustrations of being a single woman in ministry.
  • I wanted to say that I’m not a second-class citizen, a social failure, not-a-real-adult, or incapable just because I’m single. (Most days I believe this, though I have little conviction about the second one.) Please don't think single women are fit only for children's ministry, or the worship band; spiritual gifts are connected to our membership in the family of God, not the acquisition of a husband and children.
  • I wanted to rail against strict "accountability rules" for males in ministry that practically forbid talking to women. These are disgraceful and false. They teach that we’re incapable of being anything more than weak, unprincipled, and lust-driven people and we daren't even try to rise above our baser instincts, only repress them and run from any possibility of temptation. One pastor's personal guidelines for safeguarding his ministry were making the rounds of Facebook reposts; I was appalled to read that he's so careful not to give undue attention to a woman when he's counselling a couple that he often doesn't recognize her if he meets her outside the session because he never actually looked at her face. This is not healthy. I begin to splutter and turn incoherent with indignation at the suggestion that a man and a woman couldn't work together or even be friends. (I won't even start on the hypocrisy that calls Islam oppressive when Christians hold standards like this.) The disciples get most of the ink, but the Gospels reveal that Jesus had a whole group of female friends as well.
  • Speaking of friends, I'd like to urge women to allow me be friends with their husbands too. Please don't assume I'm trying to mate-poach. Sometimes I need to hear perspectives from the opposite gender. (I say this on behalf of other women who I know lack for male companionship. I'm extremely grateful that the husband of one of my close girlfriends has also become a very good friend; I'm so enriched by his perspective and encouragement.) I don't agree with Harry's famous statement in When Harry Met Sally that men and women can't be friends without the sex getting in the way. That said, I don't think it's wise to have as a "best friend" someone of the opposite gender who is not your spouse. 
People-who-are-not-in-an-exclusive-relationship-with-a-special-individual-to-whom-they-are-attracted don’t need to be singled out. Though I love to talk with other single people because we understand each other's particular joys and challenges, I don’t want to be segregated into some singles group at church as though I’m incapable of talking to or learning from someone who’s married. Just because I don't have a spouse or children doesn't mean I'm incapable of appreciating the perspectives, joys, and challenges of those who do; in fact, I need to hear them to help me be a more balanced and compassionate individual.

Which brings me back to the point I made in my article. I’m really convinced that the most healthy thing the church can do for singles and married people is to stop making it about singles and married people and start making it about discipleship for all members of the family of Christ.


Just wanted to say I appreciated this post as well as your article in the Herald, largely, I admit, because I've been thinking about my sister - and this is quite relevant for her situation. So, thanks.
kar0ling said…
Thanks for your comments...and for everything.
The more feedback I get from -- let's be honest -- women about their frustrations in this area, the more I want to wave what I wrote in pastors faces and to follow through on that joke to tweet "Stop making single people feel like crap in your church!"
On a less triumphant note, I have a sneaking suspicion my first line should have ended in "whom".

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