Singleness in the Church
In April 2023, the Church of England released a new 238 page report entitled Love Matters. Commissioned by the Bishops of Canterbury and York, it is the third instalment of a series exploring housing, social care, and relationships and family. It contains five key messages, the third of which reads, “We must honour singleness and single person households, recognising that loving relationships matter to everyone.” The others explore valuing families, supporting whole of life relationships, empowering children and young people, and building a kinder, fairer and forgiving society.
It is significant that singleness is highlighted in such a way. Singleness is far more common that at previous times in history. The church, however, has not always been a welcoming or safe place for single people, despite the fact that Jesus himself was single.
There are a number of social, theological and relational reasons for this.
Firstly, society has changed and single people’s place within it has shifted as a result. Single person households have increased, and lifelong singleness is far more common than in previous generations. If we look at the early 1970’s, 95 percent of women could be expected to have married at some point in their life according to marriage rates. That rate is much lower today considering the number of marriages in 2019 was less than in 1970. First time marriages are almost a decade later for men and women: 23 and 21 respectively in the early 1970’s, but 31 and 29 in 2019. Women are having children far later in life. In the 1970’s 93 percent of mothers would have their first child before 30 (including 18 percent before age 20). In 2021, 51 percent of new mothers were aged 30 and over. The fertility rate in Australia is falling, with only children and no children statistics growing. 36 percent of children are now born outside of marriage. Recent projections suggest that one in four women of reproductive age will not have children.
The church too, has experienced a pendulum swing in its relationship to marriage and singleness. Before Jesus, the Jewish people saw singleness and barrenness as a curse. There was a sense that one’s ‘name’, and therefore a sense of eternal life, came through the bearing of children. When Jesus came, singleness was valued more, as Christ alone offered eternal life. Children and family were no longer as great a focus. Paul and the early church saw the practical benefit for ministry in being single, but over time the Christian church elevated singleness to a calling, and even required it of its male and female clergy. When the Reformation occurred, the Catholic Church was called out for its celibacy restrictions and the pendulum began to swing back towards marriage. By the mid-twentieth century, family was elevated in the Protestant church to such an extent that single people were viewed as someone to be pitied, that they were cursed, that something was wrong with them or even that they were engaging in sin and hence the reason they could not find a spouse.
The church today, for the most part, continues to hold to a family-centric model, with activities and groups planned around the family, children and young people. These can include playgroups, mother’s groups, Sunday Schools, family camps, and youth groups. This plays out in the statistics in our churches. According to the National Church Life Survey, the number of never married and divorced individuals in churches is half of that seen in the surrounding community. Single people often report feeling left out of the church’s vision and practice of community.
Secondly, church theology has not always been helpful around the nature and status of singleness. Dr Dani Treweek, whose PhD studies explored an eschatological view of singleness, notes that there have been some unhelpful, even destructive, ways of viewing singleness in the church by leading theologians. It has been expressed as an assault on marriage, a more sin-prone lifestyle, and a reflection of spiritual immaturity and selfishness, because God uses marriage as the main way to sanctify individuals.
Treweek notes that these attitudes stem from underlying beliefs that singleness is viewed as deviant or lacking that which is understood to be normative – marriage. Marriage is far too often understood as something to be pursued by all Christians rather than something that is to be honoured by all (Hebrews 13:4). Some Christian leaders preach that marriage is a divine command. There is a distinct contrast here – while marriage has problems, singleness is the problem. The way you get out of that is to get married as quickly as possible.
Another problematic theological area is the concept of the gift of singleness. The gift of singleness has been understood to be a supernatural empowering of the Holy Spirit to “endure” singleness. If a single person has this gift, then the Christian life will be a breeze. If an individual has the gift of singleness, they shouldn’t marry. If they don’t have this gift, then they need to find a spouse because their singleness will be unendurable. There are a number of problems with this viewpoint. It minimises temptation that all Christians experience, not just those who are single. It is reliant on feelings which can change from one day to the next. This view also demeans singleness because it suggests that singleness is so bad that one requires special blessings and dispensation from God to be able to cope with it. It also creates a two-tiered system of singles – those who have the gift and those who do not.
This is not a Biblical understanding of the gift of singleness. In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul states that both marriage and singleness are good gifts from God and neither one is superior to the other. It is the state of being that is the gift. A person starts off with the good gift of singleness and if they get married, they exchange it for the good gift of marriage. Inevitably, through divorce or death of a spouse, most married people will exchange that back for the good gift of singleness. Both states of being have problems and both have benefits.
A third area that compounds some of the problems with singleness and the church’s response, is the growing tide of loneliness stemming from communication and relationship deficits, especially for those under 30. The think tank Publica and the PM Glynn Institute recently staged a series of meetings with church leaders from a variety of denominations across Australia which highlighted how growing social media usage, Covid lockdowns, online gaming, and incredibly easy access to pornography has resulted in a generation of people struggling to form meaningful relationships. When it is becoming more of a struggle to even form same sex friendships, the “burden” of having to follow the church’s mandate to find a spouse proves too overwhelming.
Compounding this is the reality that single people often have to navigate suspicions about their motive and behaviour in the church. This has arisen due to society’s understanding of sexuality. Sam Allberry, pastor, apologist, and author of 7 Myths About Singleness, highlights this very specific issue. In the Undeceptions podcast On Friendship he said:
“Just as our culture has made sexual intimacy the kind of all encompassing telos of human relationships and so on, I think in the church, what we’ve tended to do is to become so hyper suspicious of inappropriate intimacy that actually we’ve made it harder for people to have a healthy intimacy. And so…you see any form of intimacy and you’re tempted to think that’s probably sexual ultimately.”
All these factors, and more beside, result in single people often feeling unable to contribute, alienated, and unwelcome at church. The Love Matters report offers a possible way forward. It says the church should
“not regard [singleness] as lesser than living in a couple relationship…We have an amazing opportunity to reimagine a diverse society in which all families and loving relationships are valued and strengthened, promoting the stability that enables us all to thrive in a variety of family constellations, including being single.”
Dani Tweleek offers a way of thinking about singleness beyond this world:
“The new creation is when we are going to be at our most wonderfully perfected, when we are going to know and be most fully known by God and by each other. If singleness, as a very broad description of not being married, is our eternal future, then that gives singleness in this life a certain dignity and purpose and significance, just as marriage has. In Ephesians 5, marriage is a profound mystery that points to this great heavenly truth that’s awaiting us. So also God has embedded a significance in the single Christian life now, which is to act as a signpost towards eternity.”
Dr Katherine Grocott