Paul, Singleness, and Mutuality: 3 Proposals for the Church

Nick Quient

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Paul Singleness Mutuality SL

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Something I’ve come to understand is that singleness is a high price to ask of people.

I was single for a long time before my girlfriend said yes to my awkward proposal (thankfully), and so I have some realization of what it means to be single in a sub-culture within a larger and highly sexualized American culture. To constantly be fed a steady stream of images and products designed to inflame and provoke and yet maintain sexual celibacy is not easy.

When Christian culture prioritizes marriage over singleness, we make things even more difficult by unwittingly illustrating that our single brothers and sisters are unwanted, or worse, unneeded.

So how can the church integrate and empower our single brothers and sisters? I offer three suggestions, though many more could and probably should be added.

1. Recognize the implied status of married men in the church

My wife tell me that on her seminary campus she often sees masculine language on ads for pastors and other church jobs. Almost exclusively, these churches wanted married men—not single. I will be seeking ordination upon graduation (probably alongside my wife, and I know that I am much more likely to be hired if I am married.

Being a married man in evangelicalism is like having special access to all the perks our subculture has to offer. For example, it includes an implied status that exudes responsibility and maturity. I know several men who have gotten married specifically to increase their chances of being ordained by a particular denomination known for wanting stability in candidates. What better way to illustrate this than by showing you are married?

I’ve heard male friends say that being married automatically makes you more mature, with one even intimating that unmarried men were lazy. Having known many married men, I can tell you that immaturity is not imputed on you when you “put a ring on it”. Plus, if I am allowed a moment of cynicism, hiring a married dude often means that a church gets an additional (unpaid?) worker in the wife.

We need to recognize the privileged status we confer upon married men, especially in our churches.

2. Understand that the unity of the church demands a place for single men and women

To paraphrase one of my New Testament professors at Fuller Theological Seminary, “disunity in the church was what most frosted Paul.”

The church is—ideally—a place where there is no division between its members. The famous texts written by St. Paul in Galatians 3:28, 1 Corinthians 12:11, and Colossians 3:11 abolish division in the church, with clear implications for the daily lives of Christians in any time period. One body, many members. We miss out on what it means to be “in Christ” in the church when we place divisions where Paul tore them down.

To be “in Christ” is to be a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15) and a new person (Ephesians 4:24). We are to put on the new self (καινὸν ἄνθρωπον: more literally, “new person”). This “new person” is indeed “members of one another” (ἀλλήλων μέλη). Though the cases differ, this is the pronoun found in 5:21 where mutual submission is enjoined to all believers).

To put it simply, the church desperately needs single women and men. There are times that I cannot speak to a single person as effectively as I speak to someone who is married man or woman. The social dynamic is different, and the experiences of both are often divergent. Our oneness in Christ Jesus does not remove the distinctions of gender or singleness, but it recontextualizes them within the social setting of mutuality.

Paul wishes that “all people” (πάντας ἀνθρώπους) were like him: single. Yet, he does not denigrate marriage, but rather believes that single men and women likewise have a deep calling to Christ. Paul’s reference to the deacon (διάκονον: masculine form, not “deaconess”) Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2 reveals a unique facet of this: the text does not mention anything about Phoebe being married at all. The letter to the Romans, likely carried by Phoebe to the Roman church, reveals a place in the church for those who are single to fulfill this same calling. Indeed, the marital status of most of the women and men who assisted in Paul’s extensive missionary activities (Rom. 16; Phil. 4:2-3) is rarely mentioned. (Read more on this here.)

3. Intentionally empower single women and men in ministry

Churches must hire single men and women to serve in any capacity they are called to, regardless of their marital status. The example set by St. Paul, who often tells the church to imitate him (2 Thess. 3:8-10; 1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1), should push us towards an acceptance of singleness as a valid option for ordination and ministry. Paul’s consistent use of family language throughout his epistles also demonstrates his belief in the necessity of viewing the body as a family. For example, he calls Apphia a (or “the”) “sister” (τῇ ἀδελφῇ) in Philemon 1:2; and he calls all Christians “brothers and sisters” (ἀδελφοὶ).

To avoid hiring single men and women in a church means that the church is missing out on the gifts and callings of others in the family. Churches must be intentional in the process of selecting paid and volunteer staff. This means specifying in job descriptions that marital status or gender is not an obstacle or requirement for said job. It means using gender inclusive language, or even specifically seeking out a single person for some ministry positions.

The church must exercise solidarity with our single brothers and sisters. We ask so much of them, and it is unfortunate that we are often not willing to sacrifice with them and for them. To profess singleness for others means being willing to carry your cross alongside them and sharing in their fears and burdens and sadness, in order that we would all be transformed as a unified and beautiful body to Christ’s glory.

Singleness is difficult in our modern day and age. This is not to disparage marriage, for marriage too is difficult. But for Paul singleness was seen as a “gift from God” (χάρισμα ἐκ Θεοῦ, 1 Cor.7:7), and it would surely have further frosted Paul that we would divorce singleness from community. Rather, may we strive to model mutuality as married and single believers.

There is no longer single or married; for we are all one in Christ Jesus.

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More posts by Nick:

Dancing with Deborah: My Exodus from Patriarchy

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18 Comments

  • I realize that John is probably being hyperbolic (at least I hope so) but I am somewhat suprised his incendiary comment was approved. The civil tone of the comment section is one of the most appealing features of this blog.

    • Yes, Jacob, I took the comment as being sarcastic. I apologize as editor for not catching that one. Thanks for your feedback!

  • A good friend, my age, 50 ish, who has never married, has given up on the denomination whose theology most matches her own to attend a church (of another denomination) practicing a conscious process of single inclusion. She feels the church she’s (mostly) left is too focused on family groups. Interestingly enough, the “former” church has been a pioneer in our local conference in lgbtq inclusion – but single women… not so much. I do find that women pastors in my denomination don’t always seem to need to be married to be accepted, as much as men pastors have been expected to be. I also feel age does play role in degree of acceptance. Most of us would do well to review our own biases from time to time

  • “Churches must hire single men and women to serve in any capacity they are called to, regardless of their marital status. ” Are you kidding? Most Protestant denominations in this country have a ban on hiring single men, including the Southern Baptist Convention. I can tell you this without a doubt: Apostle Paul would be beaten, and probably shot, if he showed up at any one of their churches on a Sunday morning.

  • I agree that our churches need to be more intentional in integrating and empowering single parishioners, especially if we are to minister to men and women who experience same-sex attraction and for whom heterosexual dating/marriage isn’t an option.

  • Good post, I commend the author for highlighting this important issue which is so often forgetting within the church – I’m concerned though at the lack of gendered analysis, or consideration of intersections between marital status and gender and age. I would argue the experience of being a single man is very very different from being a single woman. Being single at 20 is also very different from being single at 30, 40 and so on. Outside the church societal views of single men and the ‘bachelor’ tend to be far more positive, often celebrated, compared to views of single women who are still often defined in terms of their ability to attract a man, with child bearing seen as somehow defining, or the ultimate expression of, femininity. See recent publications incl ‘why we hate single women’, ‘spinster’ etc in the secular press. Within the church my anecdotal experience is that this implicit and explicit construction of single women is even stronger – I regularly hear from single childless women in their 30s they feel invisible in the church, with the predominant normative representation of a christian woman as a wife and mother, and a lack of alternative role models or representations within the church. Statistics in many churches show women far outnumber men, and in my observation this often further reinforces male privilege with single men able to often treat single women as dispensable because there are numerous women competing for the attention of the few single men (with the cultural privileging of marriage and child bearing further reinforcing this goal in the women). women I talk to also discuss how little they feel supported by the church as single women living out the reality of celibacy and singleness, often not statuses they have chosen, and of grappling with deep grief at their singleness and also childlessness, because there are simply not enough christian men. moreover, they often describe the church as the place in which they experience the most sexism and exclusion of all settings in their lives. We need a more active engagement of both secular and christian writing and experiences of this important issue using an intersectional approach across marital status, gender, age – and of course other social identities each of which have various forms of privilege and stigma attached to them. Thanks to Nick for starting the conversation here, I hope it provokes much thought and action and that we can all be more like Jesus in the way he treated single women and men

    • Naomi, you are exactly right, and I had those same thoughts when I read the post. The post presents the perspective of a male seminary student, and I really appreciate his observations. At the same time, the situation is much more complex for single women, who are by no means a homogeneous group! Would love to have you write a follow-up post! You can send it to gail@junia.thereachco.dev 🙂

      • Thanks Gail, agree completely. Will email you re a follow up post

    • Noami,

      I LOVE your comment. I wish the blog had a “like” button. Much of what I can say may be summed up with an “amen” or a “preach.”

      “I would argue the experience of being a single man is very very different from being a single woman.”

      This is absurdly important to note. I have a here at Fuller who is a single mom. She was essentially not accepted to a very popular conservative seminary because the application asked about her marital status and motherly status. Being honest, she answered.

      Had I been a single father, I do not doubt that I would have been accepted. This broke my heart to learn, and I’ve been struggling to make sense of the status I have in Christ, and how my friend is viewed. Your comment is exceedingly important in bringing this to light.

      Thanks so much!

      In Christ,
      NQ

        • Thanks Nick – unfortunately there are numerous examples of double standards regarding experiences of single women compared to single men both within and outside the church. Your friend’s experience is so disappointing, yet I suspect not uncommon across a range of formal processes such as college admission as well as more informal experiences of exclusion. You might be interested in a PhD project recently completed in Australia exploring some of these issues

          http://www.smh.com.au/comment/why-women-leave-the-christian-church-20150305-13vqig.html

          We need a lot more empirical and theoretical work documenting these experiences among women, and calling for action and change to address the harms caused.

          All the best as you explore these issues further – we need men and women from all martial statuses and backgrounds highlighting these issues. Unfortunately, when single women raise these issues they are often dismissed as self-interested and their lower status within the church means it’s harder to have their voices heard.

  • Good advice, Nick. A couple months ago there was an announcement at church (first of three services) and the language used was all about married people and family, even though the event was not restricted to families. I pointed it out to the pastor who did the announcements and he immediately made notes to add singles-language to the announcement to be inclusive of everyone at the church. I like seeing those moments of growth.

  • Great post – thanks Nick. I’d love to hear more suggestions on this topic if you have any resources.

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