Sunday, August 30, 2015

Singleness Thought of the Week: Catholics, Protestants, and Singleness

Something interesting is happening in the Roman Catholic Church.  Similar to the Protestant Church, and indeed in every area of our society today, there are Catholic singles who are finding it difficult to marry, some remaining unexpectedly single into their 30s, 40s, and beyond.  You would think that in the Catholic Church, which celebrates the single state (making it a requirement for those who seek religious life in the clergy), older singles would feel right at home, but such is not the case.  That’s because even though the Catholic Church considers both Matrimony and the Holy Orders of celibate priests and bishops to be sacraments (a religious rite in which they believe grace is dispensed), simply being single (by circumstance, not by choice) doesn’t land neatly into either of these categories.  As a result, older Catholic singles are falling into a spiritual no man’s land in the Church, since they have no inclination to take a vow of celibacy and yet have little or no opportunities to marry.  This predicament has made some singles feel overlooked, unwanted, and invisible in the Catholic Church.  The Catholic Church itself is equally flummoxed by the increase in never-married singles among its laity, not quite knowing what to do with them.  Several singles have formally requested that the Church recognize unintentional singleness as a vocation or calling, thereby giving their singleness meaning and purpose.  So far, the Church has not responded affirmatively.  

These used to be all the single ladies in the Catholic Church....but not anymore

As a reformed evangelical, I’m at odds with much of the Catholic catechism and doctrine and yet, I feel a strange kinship with these Catholic singles.  We share some of the same concerns and frustrations even though we stand at opposite ends of the religious spectrum.  Ever since reformer Martin Luther ran off and married that nun, challenging people like Pelagius who exalted the celibate life over marriage, marriage has been the summum bonum of the Christian life in the Protestant Church.  This is especially true in reformed churches like mine, where there is constant talk of the importance of marital and parental roles, complementarianism, sanctification through marriage, marriage as a symbolic representation of Christ and the church, and so on. 

Many evangelical leaders and pastors would argue that the church values singleness as well as marriage, citing God’s approval of both marital states in 1 Corinthians 7 (which was written by the single Apostle Paul).  But although it’s true that they acknowledge singleness by choice for those who have the “gift of celibacy”, it’s really young singles that the church values – think of them as the “Future Married People of America”.   Church leaders love ministering to young singles (my church labels them “College and Career”) because their single status is seen as a fun-filled, action-packed temporary stopover before marriage.  Lessons for young singles cover such topics as how to get the most out of your short season of singleness, biblical dating and courtship, tips on becoming a suitable marriage partner, and sexual purity with an anticipating eye towards marital intimacy.  These are subjects most church leaders and pastors know very well from extensive study and experience and they enjoy digging into them in great detail.  In short, if you’re either married or young and marry-able in the church, there’s a veritable feast of spiritual food offered to you in the form of sermons, books, classes, ministries and seminars.

When you’re still single past the age of 30 or 40 in the church, however, it can feel as if you’re on the fringe of the Christian life.  The concerns that plague older singles….undesired celibacy, loneliness, feelings of rejection, and identity issues are prickly subjects, often having no clear solution, and pastors are loath to teach on them.  Plus – and this is an uncomfortable truth – but other than Jesus’s discourse on eunuchs in Matthew 19, there’s scarcely little in the Bible about unintentional singleness, and what little there is sounds negative and insulting, like the passages in Proverbs 30:21-23 about an unloved woman and Isaiah 4:1 about seven woman vying for one man.  

First Corinthians 7 is the most popular passage to turn to for comfort on the single status but, as true as it is, it's not as comforting as you'd expect – I can’t put my finger on exactly why.  Maybe because even though there are advantages to being single for the kingdom (undistracted devotion to the Lord) and advantages to being married (companionship, intimacy), a person finding themselves single by circumstance can’t just flip a switch in their head and decide they prefer singleness.  Therefore, a single woman like me who can’t find a way to marry but still desires marriage doesn’t profit in either case.  I don’t benefit from singleness because I long for marriage and I don’t benefit from marriage because I can’t get married.

So now that I’ve thoroughly depressed you (my apologies), what’s my advice for all you fellow single Christian women out there?  Find joy in the tension.  Find joy in the uncomfortable limbo of not being where you want to be in this life and not feeling at home anywhere - not even in the church.  How?  By understanding that this is the tension all Christians should be living in.  Yes, God loves to bless His children with marriages, family, even wisdom and wealth (like Solomon) but He doesn’t want us to get too cozy here, wishing that this life would never end.  This life is not our final destination.  In fact, it is but a brief vapor compared to our eternity with Christ (James 4:14).  While here, we should be redeeming the time by growing in the knowledge of God, pointing lost friends and family to Christ, and displaying the truth of the Gospel in our lives (1 Peter 3:15).  All these actions pay dividends both in this life and in the eternal life to come.  So the true benefit of unintentional, sexually-frustrating, socially awkward, and sometimes painfully lonely singleness is that it keeps us from being too satisfied with this life for our own good (1 John 2:15-17; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31).

The Apostle Paul said in Philippians 1:21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain”.  Our singleness helps us to live that truth.  Therefore do not curse it, do not despise it, do not hate it or regret it.  If you're child of God, even unwanted singleness will ultimately work for your good (Romans 8:28).

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