Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Let's Talk about Singleness

Sometimes, I wonder: Do I talk too much about singleness and the church? My Composition students have particularly gotten an earful. Urged by a professional development seminar this summer to share my own writing with students, I referred them to the Project TGM post I wrote about singleness. I talked about the interview I conducted among my single friends.

I'm sure they heard all of this and secretly wondered whether I was only obsessed with singleness because I am a single woman, wondered whether my greatest fear was becoming the stereotypical "old cat lady" twenty years from now - just me, a tiny bungalow, and seven cats for company. (Full disclosure: I am happy in my singleness, and I do actually want to own a cat someday.)

Yet regardless of whether I sound unhappy or not, regardless of how those of us who talk about singleness are perceived, the issue matters. The problem is not actually whether or not we are happy; the problem is that, far too often, the way Christians talk about singleness denies singles, and especially single women, recognition as whole, growing members in the body of Christ.

Orson Scott Card, in Speaker for the Dead, suggests that "we are not yet fully comfortable with the idea that people from the next village are as human as ourselves". Those who are different than us, we fear, are lacking some essential part of being human. Sometimes church leadership fears the same thing: that we who are single are lacking some essential part of being Christian. They are not yet fully comfortable with the idea that we who are unmarried are in fact as Christian, as beloved by God, as themselves.

Perhaps this description sounds harsh. Don't get me wrong: Most church leaders in my acquaintance would, if ask directly, assure me that of course they believe single people have as much spiritual potential and receive as much love from Christ as married people do. Yet when they talk about the Christian life, what they say shows that within Christianity, marriage is normal; singleness, abnormal.

Let me give an example, the one that inspired this post: Just a few days ago I was sitting in a church service, and the speaker lamented the fact that fewer women were staying home to raise their children. He urged the women the congregation (many young college-aged women) to embrace their feminine roles, to accept with joy their calling to be wives and mothers and homemakers. This, he rhapsodized, was the central, God-ordained responsibility of women.

My main concern here is not actually how women choose to spend their lives, at home or at an office. Many women want nothing more than to marry and raise children, and even nonreligious women often prefer to stay home and raise their children. This is a personal decision, nothing more.

No, my main concern as this: So long as the church defines women's primary role as raising children and being keepers at home, there is no way for me, and other women like me, to be a healthy, growing Christian, at least not in the eyes of the church. Without a husband, without children, I necessarily fall short of the spiritual ideal that the church sets up.

This should not be.

In Christianity, under the New Covenant, the only standard is Christ, and we only walk with Him by His grace. This is the whole point of our faith: that we leave behind all the efforts and accomplishments we think make us holy, and, along with people from far, far different walks of life, turn humbly to Him.

Interestingly, when Christ walked among men, those who walked most closely with Him were often those who did not meet the Judaic standard for holiness: the Roman centurion, for instance, or the Phoenician woman. Yet it was these people, more than the Pharisees who did meet the religious standards for holiness, who were in fact the most like Christ, and the closest to Him.

My point here is this: As long as we insist on tying women's spiritual success to their abilities as wives and mothers, we set the bar for holiness impossibly high for singles. Yet according to Christianity, that bar should not even exist: What we are telling singles is in direct conflict with a gospel of grace.

Don't misunderstand me here: I'm absolutely certain that none of this flurry about standards and holiness and the Gospel occurred at all to the speaker I heard. I'm certain that his wish for women to joyfully embrace a life at home was made in good faith, from a good heart. He meant well.

Yet the fact that he meant well is all the more concerning. What it indicates is that he is entirely unaware of the distress that one comment may cause single people, that he does not realize that his vision of a holy life is impossible for singles. What it indicates is that this problem is widespread among the church, enough so to be (almost) invisible.

It is this invisibility which makes it so urgent that we the church talk about singleness: not so unhappy men and women can at last find life partners, but so that Christians, who also happen to be single, can be welcomed into the church, not only with a handshake and a smile but also with the way we talk about singleness. Let us be more like Christ, not laying extra burdens, impossible to bear on people, but lifting the burdens off and showing each other love.

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