The Scarlet Letter: Christianity and Singleness Part 1
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Ok. Perhaps I exaggerate. But the truth is I could not imagine a more perfecter candidate for the position for which I was applying.
The job in question was with a church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, that was in the process of starting a Saturday night venue oriented towards young people in the area. The venue had a missional focus, oriented around worship but also focusing on engaging the arts and apologetics. The ideal candidate would help organize the venue as well as teach classes as needed. Which mean that in addition to teaching on such cool subjects as philosophy, I could help start art classes that the community could participate in, ideally building bridges between the church family and those outside the walls.
Me? Philosophy? Apologetics? Art? Young, emerging-type Christians? Where do I sign up?
And above all that, the information I had on the church indicated that they were desperate to hire someone to spearhead this initiative (do you like that “spearhead/initiative” phrase? I do. Makes me feel like a high-powered businessman, like a younger, less objectionable version of Donald Trump).
So I promptly sent my resume and cover letter to the contact person for the search committee. He responded the same day. His question? “How many kids do you have?”
Now let’s be clear. Contrary to what you may have heard, I’m not stupid. I knew the question he was really asking, as blatantly as if he’d requested a digital photo of my left ring finger to see if it bore the “mark of spiritual maturity.”
So there were two facts I needed to square with. First, I was not married. Second, I wanted the job. So I wrote back with equal promptness to explain how being single is actually a really, really good thing, as it has afforded me the opportunity to better myself educationally so that I can engage throughtfully in the areas of apologetics, art and emerging Christianity.
“Well,” he would later reply. “We’re really looking for married candidates.”
And that’s the end of that story.
To my knowledge, they never looked at my resume. They never saw the years of service and education I had racked up in the very areas in which they were most concerned. Instead, they could only brand me with the scarlet letter “S.”
I am single.
In the evangelical world, this is not that far away from carrying a sign and ringing a bell when you come into town to warn people of your uncleanliness.
To be fair, if this church didn’t want me for that reason, I was probably only seeing the tip of the iceberg, the rest of which representing a conservative environment that would only chafe me like a cheap pair of underwear.
But sadly this is far from the only church that has (ahem) singled me out – based not on the content of my resume, but on my bare ring finger.
And something’s gotta give.
Never mind that dudes like Jesus and Paul were single. We’ll get to arguments like that in the next post or so.
No, right now I need to keep ranting. Because there is something dramatically wrong with an evangelical community that sets family and marriage as the highest – nay, only virtue.
And this, folks, is why I steer so far around fundamentalist publications that are so hell-bent (no pun intended…?) on marriage and family, and frankly the next person who recommends I read Focus on the Family’s “Boundless” magazine I will personally hunt you down and stick chewing gum in your hair.
Because what we get from fundamentalism is a steady stream of moralistic rhetoric – a “what’s-wrong-with-you” mentality that seems just as content to point fingers as put rings on them.
Consider one such article, appearing in Boundless, called “The Cost of Delaying Marriage.” According to the author, single women are making a mistake in postponing marriage. The author compares this delay in marriage to waiting at a train station. The aging, single woman
“…may find herself tapping at her watch and staring down the now mysteriously empty tunnel, wondering if there hasn’t been a derailment or accident somewhere along the line. When a train does finally pull in, it is filled with misfits and crazy men — like a New York City subway car after hours; immature, elusive Peter Pans who won’t commit themselves to a second cup of coffee, let along a second date; neurotic bachelors with strange habits; sexual predators who hit on every woman they meet; newly divorced men taking pleasure wherever they can; embittered, scorned men who still feel vengeful toward their last girlfriend; men who are too preoccupied with their careers to think about anyone else from one week to the next; men who are simply too weak, or odd, to have attracted any other woman’s interest. The sensible, decent, not-bad- looking men a woman rejected at 24 because she wasn’t ready to settle down all seem to have gotten off at other stations.”
Ouch. Let’s repeat that one delightful phrase: “men who are simply too weak, or odd, to have attracted any other woman’s interest.”
Hey now. I may be weak, and I may be odd, but I’m certainly not…(wait, what was that third thing you said?)
According the the amalgamation of statistics over at Internet Monk (click here to read his insightful article), the average age for marriage has risen from 22 in the 1940’s and 50’s to 26.5 in 2008.
Young people are choosing to delay marriage for a variety of reasons, including furthering one’s education or focusing on career.
Yet churches often are uneasy about the aging singles within their congregation. Lifestyles that made sense in the college years start to become conspicuous as young adults advance in years. Given that many churches focus on things such as marriage and family, many young people only experience further alienation from God and the church through constant reminders of what they have not yet “achieved.”
And I say “achieved” only halfheartedly. I can remember a day when a young couple was introduced before my church congregation. The person introducing them (mercifully, not one of the church staff) told the congregation that the couple had actually met within the church and went on to marry. And I bristled when he remarked that they were the “first success” that arose from the ministry to young adults.
That really does sum it up, doesn’t it? Marriage is defined in terms of achievement and failure. Is it any wonder that I can’t get hired? Clearly my singleness constitutes a significant moral and spiritual failure – this is probably why one church used the word “dangerous” when referring to hiring a young, single pastor.
So what do we make of this?
I’ll play their game. I will. Let’s pretend there is something “wrong” with being single.
THE WORK OF GOD
I can’t help but remember the story of the man born blind (it’s in John 9. you should look that up, because John was a way better writer than I could ever hope to be).
When Jesus and the disciples passed this guy, they asked, “Hey Jesus, see that blind guy? Is he blind because of something he did, or was it his parents?” The disciples, like many others in their culture, understood infirmity and sickness in cause-and-effect terms. But thankfully, God’s kingdom is not based on karma. “Neither,” Jesus replied. “But this is so the work of God may be displayed in his life.”
The man was healed, declaring before sinners, skeptics and the church crowd, “I once was blind, but now I see.”
Could it be that singleness works the same way? Could it be that your marital status might – just might be a means through which God can demonstrate His significance? It’s not about the fundamentalist categories of blame and shame. It’s about understanding the gifts of God in our lives, whether those gifts be marriage, or even the lack thereof.
And so, with Valentine’s Day right around the corner, I thought it would be appropriate to put up a few posts about singleness and the Christian life, largely inspired by the suggestion of my good friend Sara, who frankly needs her own blog because she’s smart and (relatively) good at being awesome. This series is (loosely) designed to explore the ways that this issue impacts the lives of both the younger generations as well as the life of the church as a whole.
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Chris is a writer and speaker. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship and as a research writer for Docent Research Group.