Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What I Wished I Learned from the Church as a Single

Valentine's Day. My husband and I were engaged on that day 34 years ago. We are celebrating with Roberta Flack and the Oregon Symphony.

But I know this particular day is rather difficult to get through for single women. Once you get past grade school and the required distribution of Valentine cards, the delivery of red roses from an admirer is a fantasy and all the commercial hoopla makes it more painful.

There has been a lot of blog chatter lately addressing the struggles of singles in the church. Or rather, the struggles of singles WITH the church. At the same time I have been having or overhearing conversations around me with single women who are raising questions or revealing the pain the church is inflicting.

My beautiful and single friend, Kaitie, invited some FB responses to an article written by Ryan McRae, a single man in his 40's who dropped the pursuit of his call to ministry because a church job was dependent on his marital status. He had these strong words:
The church tells us that being married is a spiritual barometer—and that is a total lie from the pit of hell. 
Now add the topic of sexuality into the pot and the stew really gets hot. Delving into the seven deadly sins as part of the Lenten season, last Sunday my pastor addressed the first: lust. I couldn't help but think about the added weight some churches put on single women to bear the responsibility of a man's lust.

This past week several bloggers including Sarah Bessey and Elizabeth Esther addressed the persistent double standard in the church that boys will be boys when they lose their virginity but girls are "damaged goods" when they succumb to a boy's touch. The message is clear: the Gospel does not apply to a woman's vag...I mean, virginity.

I read the blogs but did not comment. What could I say? I was married when I was supposed to in my early 20's. Now I'm middle-aged and happily married to the only husband I've ever had sex with. I stayed home to raise our children, setting aside my own desires for a career or a ministry. I have been validated and deemed worthy in the eyes of the church.

But I have also mentored many young women in my Christian lifetime. I have seen their anger and I hurt alongside them when leaders, teachers and preachers speak and act in ways that makes them feel small and invisible, even doomed to lifelong singleness or a less-than-perfect marriage because of past choices. One young single woman told me how it hurt deeply when her pastor stated in a sermon that married couples understand the Gospel more clearly. A single, never-been-married woman now in her 70's who was a Wycliffe missionary in Peru for most of her adult life shared about a male pastor who insisted God wanted him to talk about marriage at a conference despite the presence of 40 single women.

As a single I did not dream of getting married. I hardly gave it a thought. But I did like boys a lot and fell into unhealthy patterns of fantasies, manipulations and breaking hearts. It was a miracle I ever married a wonderful man at such a young age of 23. I had a shallow faith and a lot of patterns to change. My 33 years of marriage had its times of doubt, loneliness, loss of desire, temptation to cheat and spiritual pits.

There are some things I wish I had learned before I got married. There are some things I believe the church could have said and done to help better prepare me and perhaps spare me from some of those rocky places.

Let me say at this point that I also know that God in his grace carried me through those rough times, taught me what I needed to know, replaced lost dreams with new ones and transformed me, along with our marriage, into the wonderful partnership it is today. I embrace the rocky places as part of my story now. But that doesn't mean I can't share what I learned after the vows or wish the church had said to those who feel pressure to get to the altar.

Marriage and/or children do not define you. Your identity is one of being part of a transformed humanity, redeemed by Christ, adopted by the Father, and empowered and indwelt by the Spirit. You are called to pursue Christ and serve others until you meet him in heaven where your resurrected existence will know nothing of marital status.

A husband is not a savior. No human being, even your most intimate friend, can be held responsible for your spiritual life. You own your own spirituality. A healthy interdependence of any community, including a marriage, is only as strong as each member's absolute dependence on Christ alone. As I wrote in a previous blog, one must be careful in considering the analogy in Ephesians 5 to not make the correlation between the husband and Christ too closely. A husband’s love cannot accomplish for the wife what only Christ can do. A husband does not make a wife holy – only Christ does. A husband cannot cleanse her through the word – only Christ does. A husband does not present his wife to Christ as a pure and blameless bride – only Christ does. Husbands are NOT like Christ in this way and the husband is NOT responsible for the wife’s spiritual state. This is an inappropriate extrapolation from the metaphor.

Marriage is not the only place you can become holy and blameless. In 1 Corinthians 7, the Apostle Paul wholeheartedly supported those who remained single and even encouraged it for those who wanted to pursue Christ undistracted. Those who seek to understand and experience the depth of the Gospel do not have to be married in order to do so. Profound spiritual formation can take place anywhere.

Marriage is not a required qualification for your ministry resume.
According to the Apostle Paul, ministry can be enhanced by remaining single, not diminished.

The heart of a church is not families but individuals who are first brothers and sisters, not husbands and wives. The current state of marriages and families requires attention in the church, but an equal if not greater emphasis should be made on the singles in our culture. The inclusion of singles into as many aspects and activities of church life as possible is the best way to communicate their value as co-laborers and members of the faith community. A church that works hard to build healthy friendships between women and men, both married and unmarried, more closely fulfills God's design that his family reflect his image in their mutuality. Genesis 1 focuses on the social interconnectedness of male and female when they are created. Genesis 2 spotlights a subset of those relationships in terms of a one-flesh union of a man and a woman. A healthy relational and spiritual community that is inclusive of singles is the best way to prepare those who may eventually get married and those who remain single do not miss out on satisfying levels of intimacy within such a community.

These are some of the things I wished I heard from the church before I got married. Maybe I would have taken it to heart and been spared some of the rocky places. Maybe not. But at least I would have started with a healthier and biblical perspective of spirituality, ministry and marriage.

So these are things I would say to any single friend.

And maybe we should prolong grade school and distribute Valentines to everyone we know and love, especially the singles.

What would you add to my list?