The Shifting Ground of ‘Church Values’

In response to Graham’s post, I think there’s a lot to be gained from remembering that the Church has never had a perfect/functional view of marriage/singleness/sex, but that we go through phases of different types of dysfunction. A quick read of the Church fathers and you find yourself embroiled in debates as to whether men and women should be able to leave their marriages in order to join monastic orders; singleness (or, more specifically, virginity) being considered a ‘higher’ calling than married life. Or, to look at the tradition of Roman Catholic priests, as a minister, your call is marriage to the Church, which is a sacrament in itself – the direct opposite of the ‘favour’ shown to married ministers in protestant churches.

As to representing the ‘single’ view, as a very young single woman (though currently in a relationship) my early twenties have been plagued by the ‘dating pool’ view of church, and a constant anxiety about whether my attempts at friendship are being read as having ulterior motives. More generally, I do get the feeling that single people are relegated to a kind of ‘second class citizen’ status, once they are over ‘marriageable’ age – an age which is much harsher for women than men.

Marriage, Singleness, “Family Values”, and the Church

I’m married. I have 3 children. I’m a pastor. I drive a minivan.

By the standards of “traditional Christian family values” I have all the boxes checked off. When my wife and I were expecting our third child, we had to trade in our dependable, much loved Toyota Corolla for a minivan. I hated the thought of being a minivan dad. I felt like pleated khakis and a fanny pack were not far behind. But one lady in our church actually said something to the effect of “I’m glad you have a minivan now, it sends the right message”. By that I assume it was meant the image I project by driving a minivan is that of a “family man”, and a pastor should be a family man. Anything I can add to that image is to the benefit of my ministry. Apparently some people want their pastors to be dads who drive minivans, have a flock of children and a homemaker wife. But on what is that based? There seems to be the assumption that Christians are supposed to get married and make babies and have perfect nuclear families.

Since this post is meant to get a conversation going I won’t try to be comprehensive or conclusive, but I just want to throw out a few ideas on the subject of marriage, singleness and the Church’s assumptions about the ideal of family life. Most of the PTSS contributors are married, and have children. Sadly, Lore Ferguson had to drop out of this due to time constraints, but she has done lots of thinking and writing on this subject of singleness. Alastair and Hannah M will have to bear the load of the single perspective. But here’s a few of my own thoughts.

When building a case for Christian marriage, many turn immediately to Genesis 1 & 2 (a section which I’m sure will play a significant role in our conversation moving forward). “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.'” (Gen. 2:18 NRSV). And in the previous chapter, we read that after making male and female in his image God commanded them “Be fruitful and multiply” (1:28). So does this mean all humans are meant to be in covenantal partnership with a spouse and make babies? Is there room for singleness in this vision for humanity? A few thoughts which should add nuance to our reading:

Is this descriptive of Adam and Eve or prescriptive for all humanity? There are all sorts of interpretations of the historicity of Genesis 1-2, and our purpose here isn’t to tackle that, as fun as it may be. But my own 2 cents is to read Adam and Eve as representative of humanity at our origins, not literally historical people. Thus, God’s creation of humanity in two genders for the sake of partnership and fruitfulness is for the purpose of human flourishing. But if a specific human doesn’t procreate are they failing to obey God’s command? Or is humanity collectively in view here?

I am not prepared to push beyond the text, and impose this as commanded to all individual human beings; that each and every single person must have a spouse and produce children. Marriage was prescribed for the benefit of humanity, but is it a requirement of all people? We as humans are better off as image bearers in community, but does that specifically require the community of marriage? In other words, is being unmarried the same as being “alone”?

In the New Testament, there is a bit of tension on this front. In a unique passage, Paul gives his own personal advice on the subject: “ To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am.” (1 Cor. 7:8, throughout 1 Cor. 7, Paul specifies that he is giving his own opinion, not binding divine commands) It seems there is, according to Paul, some advantage for Christians in remaining unmarried. Paul honours singleness. However, 1 Tim. 3 (which many say isn’t actually by Paul of course, but both texts are accepted as canonical) we read that

Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way— for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?

Not a popular passage among egalitarians or singles, since on the surface it certainly seems to insist all bishops must be males who are married and have well behaved children. So do we conclude singleness is good, unless you want to lead? But that would obviously be problematic for Paul, who was unmarried. The marital statuses of many of the apostolic community is shrouded in mystery. Peter had a mother in law, and Philip had daughters. There is some consensus that there are married couples in the leaders listed in Romans 16. But it is quite difficult to ascertain exactly what the Apostolic community envisioned with regard to marriage in the Church, and how it played out it the formative years of the Christian community. There seems to be honour given to both singleness and marriage. Paul assumes marriages will take place. Some (or perhaps even most) Christians will marry, and likely have children and ought to conduct themselves in the context of marriage in ways which reflect Christ (how the remarks like those in Eph. 5 are best interpreted is a discussion which I am fairly sure will come up in the future). But Paul makes significant room for singleness as a viable, or even preferable way.

So, what do we do with that in the here and now? The Christian cultural bubble seems to prefer marriage. There certainly seems to be a significant push on young folks in the Christian community to “pair up” and make babies for the glory of God. The “family values” ideal of dad, mom, 3 kids, a house, a dog, a minivan, etc. has become assumed as the vision for Christian life. Those who remain unmarried sometimes receive some funny looks and strange questions (“when are you going to settle down?”, “haven’t met the right person yet?”, etc.) There is pressure in Churches to build ministries to young families. But how many ministries to young singles exist? And are the ones that do exist mainly focused on creating opportunities for singles to meet potential spouses? I suspect that part of the reason I was called to my current pastoral role was because I was married and expecting a second child when I interviewed. A young family man will attract the young families to Church. But this of course denigrates singleness. We certainly wouldn’t consciously exclude singles, but what part do they have in the overall vision of the Church’s mission? (Also, it’s bizarre that folks in the congregation I pastor emphasize young families, when our building is located in a neighbourhood which is mostly made up of folks who aren’t young families).

Also, it’s worth asking, is there a double standard? Are single men finding a different experience from single women? I’d certainly be curious to hear the experiences of both sides on this front. Are single women honoured in their singleness or is it viewed as strange? Do men receive similar pressure to find a nice girl to build a family with? The demographics of my own congregation suggests that singles are not flocking to Church (at least not this one). We have a few, but they are far outnumbered by married couples, widowed folks, and even by divorced people. The number of never married folks is a very slim percentage here. Is that because of the assumed expectation of marriage?

So to summarize and suggest some ideas to cover in our conversation:

1. What assumptions do we see at work regarding the relationship between Christianity and marriage?

2. Can we establish a biblical foundation for honouring singleness in the Church?

3. Has the Church over-emphasized the ministry to the young families demographic?

4. Do we see a conscious or unconscious bias toward having clergy be married?

5. Is there a difference in the experience of men and women towards singleness?