Singleness and Marriage in the Church
Updated: Apr 23, 2021
WARNING: this post is long. I have a lot to say, here. This topic, more than most, for some reason really digs at me. Here goes:
Aaron Renn of The Masculinist is a guy whose material I’ve recently come across. He’s definitely a serious commentator on issues facing men and the Western Church. Reading his work makes me really think! While in places I disagree with him pretty starkly, and in other places I quibble, often I find myself in wide agreement with what he says. At the very least, he challenges my thinking and his arguments are great to contend with and wrestle with. One of the places where he is spot on is his challenge to evangelicals and other conservative Christians to really wrestle with the changes in our culture, and what that means for us. He argues that we--including many pastors and staff in American churches--have not adequately done so. One of his main pieces of advice for us is that we need to prepare to lose status and respect in the culture, because that’s coming. We middle class evangelicals (and other Christians) tend to make peer respect an idol. Threaten our status, and a lot of us quake in our boots. Despite ovations to the contrary, we love the applause of men. When the culture says “cross this line, and we’ll like you,” we quickly oblige...or at least a sizable portion of “us” do. A lot of times, what passes for “edgy” or “tough words” from the pulpit and Christian public discourse is anything but; it’s fairly safe. What we think are tough words many times are not, when you think about it. Renn sees this tendency in our American Christian subculture and is taking steps to point it out and warn us. Let him who has ears, hear. Staying faithful requires preparing for that.
Another arena where he makes a really useful, insightful, and somewhat counter-cultural contribution is his views on how we in the church approach singleness and marriage. I’ve been a Christian for 24 years now and have belonged to four fairly large and well-known evangelical churches. I’ve heard a lot of sermons on marriage and singleness, and….I dunno: even when I was a single guy in my late teens and 20’s, something just didn’t sit right with me when I listened to these sermons. The advice I received from marriage from para church mentors aligned with the sermons 100%. They all pretty much said the same thing, and there was something about it all that bothered me, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Let me nuance a bit: in college, there was this dual reality: among my friends circle, there was plenty of dating, and guys taking the initiative...complete with "DTRs" ("Define the relationship" talks) and such, but from the pulpit and a decent number of voices in parachurch ministries, the emphasis was on affirming singleness. Once I graduated college and stepped into the "young adult" world in churches, the emphasis on singleness increased, and the emphasis on dating well faded into the background. It was almost as if they were saying, “don’t think about marriage. Don’t pursue it. Don’t desire it. Singleness is where it’s at.” If a marriageable partner happened to passively drop in your lap, fine, you “weren’t sinning,” but those who actively prepared for and pursued marriage, aside from perhaps preparing financially, were sort of looked down upon. This matched up fairly well with secular society’s message of “have fun now; settle down later (read: well into your 30’s).” Maybe that’s a little unfair, granted--there was the emphasis on chastity and holiness from the church which the secular message definitely not only lacked, but actively disparaged--but the upshot at least felt awfully similar.
Somethin’ always felt off to me about these messages. One sided, and lack of instruction, help, and encouragement to date well left singles vulnerable. The work of Kerry Cronin and documentaries like The Dating Project shine a bright light on that vulnerability. As Cronin says in the linked interview, when parents (and others) encourage young adults to put off dating and focus on career, what replaces dating is not “nothing.” What replaces it is often not...good...at..all. Reading Aaron’s work on this issue really helped me put my finger on the problem. I’ve heard lots of messages in Christian circles on the awesomeness of singleness, and the travails of marriage, but rarely the reverse. While they would technically say “you aren’t sinning if you get married” and pay lip service to it, it really seems like pastors went out of their way to shoo them away from marriage and convince them to stay in their singleness for longer periods of time. The way my wife put it, we (meaning: the Church in America), at least in the circles we ran in when younger, don’t want to come off as looking “thirsty.” This seems awfully weird. Why not be honest about the downside of singleness, and directly say, “yes marriage has its challenges, but let me tell you also why it’s awesome”? Christian subculture is full of “tendencies,” and the general tendency seems awfully out of whack, here. There *are* downsides to singleness, downsides that don’t play out until way down the line when it’s harder to reverse. The bill doesn’t come until later for many who buy into the message. We should be talking about that. While we shouldn’t be making singles feel like “second class citizens,” as the popular saying goes, and we should be careful not to lead them to stew in unhelpful anxiety about their state, that doesn’t mean we should avoid being honest about certain realities. I really don’t think the American evangelical church as a whole is in danger of treating singles like “second class citizens” anyway. Maybe my experience is an outlier, but I usually don’t hear that kind of message, and it has always struck me as deficient and odd. I mean, I know some people insist that in the church we over-emphasize marriage. While there are a lot of families in churches in terms of numbers, when it comes to messaging and narrative emphasis, I have no idea what they are talking about. There might be an aunt or two that haggles "when are you getting married, sonny?" but I really don't see that emphasis from the pulpit. Again, maybe my experience runs counter to the majority narrative, but I don't think so: the churches I belong to are far from abnormal, and I've been paying intense attention to the messaging since I became a Christian. Renn puts it like this:
"Marriage is normative for Christians and the vast majority of Christians are not called or suited for a celibate life. Among other things, the consequences of being single, particularly into and beyond middle age, are severe. The church is by and large not leveling with people about this. Single people literally die younger than married ones, along with other negative life effects. Go look at any Brad Wilcox piece on the benefits of marriage, and simply look at the other side of the ledger.
What’s more, the “fun times” of youth, especially when the opposite sex is involved, rapidly fade and even disappear – and it happens faster than you think.
In short, unless you are a man who happens to be either wealthy or a celebrity of some sort, life after 40 is not good when it comes to relationships. If you think you’ll find solace in your career, this is also the time when most people hit their career ceiling. Some time in people’s 40s is when they generally discover to their chagrin that they are now expendable in the office too.
People need to be aware of this when thinking about what it would mean to be single for the long term. And it should go without saying that the longer you are single, the more likely you are to be tempted into the sexual marketplace."
This--especially that last part--is just not something I hear very much. I’ve NEVER heard a pastor admit that today, in the 21st century, the longer a person is single, the more likely it is that the person will be tempted by sexual compromise. Prolonged singleness and chastity is a hard one for the overwhelming majority of people. That doesn’t mean we throw chastity to the birds, no way, but it does mean that we should perhaps level more with single people about the risks of putting off marriage. To paraphrase C.S Lewis (when he was speaking on another subject, admittedly), we “castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful. We take away the organ but demand the function.” Applied here, we expect singles to stay single for longer and longer and downplay marriage--or at least that is the outcome of our message, if not the intent--but expect just as much chastity from them in our sexually charged culture.
Sometimes, we don’t realize how our messaging can unwittingly contribute to the problems we bemoan. We almost think that marriageable relationships for young people are just going to happen, without their effort and preparation. Tell me: do we approach *anything* else in life like that? Would a parent or pastor counsel the same attitude when it comes to college and career? This is simply wrong headed, especially when you realize that family is much more impactful on happiness and life value than a college degree and career. Later in life, when life hits hard, it’s your family--if you have one by then--that will be by your side, not your boss, not your co-workers, not your Sex and the City besties. Your spouse and your kids will be there. For more and more people, including church folk, by the time they wake up to that reality, they are really behind the 8-ball. Renn puts it this way: they have a much shorter runway to marriage and kids. When you blink and you’re suddenly 35 and married to your job, it is much, much harder to suddenly pivot and take marriage seriously. In the church, we should be telling young adults about this reality and counseling them to arrange their priorities--NOW, while they are young--in light of it. Say whatever else you want about him, but I think this is one reason why Jordan Peterson is so popular with religious folk, especially young men *and* young women, despite the fact that he comes from a secular, evolutionary framework that mythologizes the resurrection. He speaks forthrightly and without pause on things like this, and the advice he gives is quite unpopular in the culture. People deep down respect forthrightness and are drawn to it. A lot of what passes in the church for forthrightness, especially in this area, is anything but...it is safe and quite conventional, and young adults can smell that. If someone doesn’t marry young, that’s fine. I married a few days shy of 30, and Aaron married much later than that. We do need to balance out our messaging though. The atmosphere these messages produced is why I turned to online dating later in my 20s, which is how I met my wife. The “beautiful people” in the church with the social capital had no problem pairing off, but for the rest of us, we were kind of stuck in a no-man’s land of dating, not really knowing how to pull it off. The “script”--or lack thereof--the rest of us were left to follow--It was just a weird atmosphere, really. Perhaps that was because I was somewhat socially awkward. I’ll own up to that...but still. Along these lines, Aaron continues: "I did not personally marry young, so will not argue that you should. I feel like I was very fortunate, however, and got bailed out by grace. That doesn’t happen for everybody, so you need to understand the dynamics of life in making decisions about how to live it.
In short: Stay chaste; get married (or at least give serious consideration to what a lifetime of singleness means), to someone with a low divorce risk; understand the likely runway you have to land the plane to marriage. Again, these four principles aren’t the entirety of a response. They are only a start. And they don’t address the system at all, merely how to live within it.
What then about the church? My general impression of church teachings is that pastors still think it’s the 1950s, only with an explicitly or functionally egalitarian view of sex roles. But things like encouraging men to be more chivalrous is ridiculous in light of the radical changes in society since the eras in which those previous behavioral norms hold sway. When well-known pastors write entire books about marriage that are replete with statistics but never once mention that women initiate the vast majority of divorces, they are doing a serious disservice to their readers.
The church needs to think a lot more seriously about what it means to live in the world we are in today.
But beyond just advice that doesn’t take seriously the realities of today’s world, the church itself has become a partial enabler of its dysfunction. I wrote in Masc #11 that the church has become an inadvertent facilitator of divorce. I also see that the church is supportive of long-term singleness, which, as I noted, often leads to a bleak place after 40 for those who fail to land the plane to marriage. For example, there are courses on singleness, articles on how you shouldn’t make an idol out of the family, teachings that Christianity affirms the value of singleness, etc. And there are pushes for even more. A number of vocal singles with platforms have called for the church to change even more to accommodate the rising number of singles.
I take the opposite view. The church should be making it’s singles less comfortable. Yes, Paul considers singleness a superior state. Historically that meant celibate vocations, something few singles are interested in signing up for today. But even for the Protestant, the explicit biblical value in singleness is that it allows someone to focus on serving God, as Paul himself did. So by all means let’s support and honor the people who stay single to serve the church at a higher level than the average member, but it’s not clear why we should do that for those who are just pursuing a career and a yuppie lifestyle of avocado toast brunches and the like. Paul himself even told widows under 60 that they should remarry. There ought to at least be a tradeoff here: much more support for you as a single in return for you reciprocating to the church."
I’m all for chivalry! Aaron is too. His point is that that seems to be the long and short of the counsel we give to young men on dating. But young men need more, much more. That should be just the beginning of the counsel. We need encouragement to marry, and help on how to do that well.
The single life most Christians live is not the celibate vision Paul puts forth as superior to marriage. Very few are actually built for that, so they should be counseled to marry. And no, marriage is not a “concession to frailty,” the second prize for Also-Rans who can’t quite hack the single life. Marriage is *good.*
Someone might object: “what about the whole *I Kissed Dating Goodbye* craze in the 90s? Isn’t that a big counter example to what you say is and was the message on singleness in the church and the lack of teaching on dating?” Response: oftentimes in the church, we respond to excesses by swinging the pendulum completely in the other direction. That’s what I think happened here--many saw that Harris’ advice was not feasible, and rather than striking a balance and really thinking through it well, went all in on singleness. Two more snippets from Renn: "The church should also be looking at the life priorities and decisions of these singles, particularly in elite coastal cities. Even in the secular world places like New York are known as shark-infested waters for dating. People don’t come to these places to get married. They come for career and lifestyle reasons. Urban church people love to quote Jeremiah 29:7 that says, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile…” Gimme a break. Nobody was exiled to Boston. It might have felt that way to Tim Keller in 1989 when he moved to NYC with three young children when the city was still a war zone. But that doesn’t apply to 99% of Christians there now. People with college degrees are in DC, San Francisco, etc. because they want to be there, not because they were forced to be. They didn’t come to seek the welfare of the city either. They came to chase a personal dream.
If these singles don’t want to give that up in order to make marriage their top priority that’s their right. It’s a free country as I always say. But the church is under no obligation to underwrite their decisions either, especially if they have no intention of repenting (i.e., changing their minds, their priorities, and their behaviors to try harder for marriage – something I’ve never read one of the “do more for singles” advocates say that they are doing). I’ve written before multiple times about the long odds Christians face in finding a spouse in global cities as they get older. There are plenty of urban churches full of young singles who are never being told about these negative future trajectories. The urban church needs a lot less theology of singleness and faith and work seminars and a lot more real talk on marriage. There are quite a few singles in churches that if they don’t start treating finding a spouse like a 911 emergency, which might involve some major life changes, are at severe risk of spending a very long time alone. Think it’s painful to be 40 and single? How do you think it will feel at 50, 60, 70, and 80? At age 40 your life is less than half over.
I had to go through this myself. Finding myself older and single, a result entirely of my sin and personal life choices, I made a major change in direction. I realized that I myself was not marriageable, and had to set about changing that to the extent I could. Once I thought I was in a place where I could be married, I made it a top priority and fortunately it worked out. Thankfully I didn’t have to leave New York to make it happen, but I may yet need to do so in order to put family first. Marriage doesn’t guarantee a great future by any means. It comes with its own risks as I laid out above. But I’m willing to take that risk rather than doubling down on the status quo ante.
The church is ready to help people pick up the pieces when their lives are shipwrecked. That’s absolutely something it should be doing. But wouldn’t it be even better if the church could help people avoid running into the reefs in the first place? Be the lighthouse to help people reach the harbor, not just the repair yards when they don’t."
And: "As another personal example of this, when I was in my 20s and even into my early 30s, I was radically against the idea of having children. Why would I want to ruin my life – as I saw it – by having kids? Over the course of my 30s, I started softening on this point and began to see kids more positively.
Things really changed for me one year when my grandmother went into the hospital. My mother called and several family members came into town to stay with her around the clock in the hospital. She recovered, thankfully, though has now passed away.
I’d been to visit people in the hospital before. But for the first time, I could suddenly emotionally relate to my own old age. I imagined a 90-year-old me in the hospital sick, only there was no family to come to be with me. That wasn’t an attractive future.
It took several years, but I made some bigtime changes in my life (including becoming a Christian) and made an aggressive priority of getting married and having kids. As it happens, I got married last fall and my wife is already pregnant. Believe me, that’s something I’m very thankful for since by rights I blew it in life.
Luckily for me, I’m a man, so I was able to have kids later in life. Women who experience this reversal sometimes face an incredibly short runway to having their own kids.
One particularly high profile Christian woman recently posted a piece about turning 40 while still being single. In it, she talks about how earlier in life she’d laugh at people who’d hinted at her that she was on a track to spending life alone and childless. (In fact, she still doesn’t seem to realize that’s what they were hinting at).
She’s not laughing now. She’s having an emotional crisis and has talked about her fear of dying alone. At 40 there is still hope for her to have kids of her own. The Bible has many stories about God “lifting the reproach” of barren women by giving them children. She would certainly improve her odds with a major reorientation of her life, though sadly she doesn’t seem to be doing that. She’s still following the script she laid out for a very different self a decade or more ago. Still, things very much can still work out for her, but her runway is short and she is behind the 8-ball.
Younger people’s lack of meta-awareness of changes is one reason that elders were traditionally held in such high regard. And why society put guardrails in place in terms of laws and social conventions that channeled young people into good long-term decisions during the time in which they were most likely to be blind to the future consequences of what they were doing. Sadly, we’ve eliminated most of these, and the result is a lot of people blowing up their lives or prematurely closing the door on things like marriage and children that they aren’t yet aware they will deeply long for later in life when it’s too late. We live in a youth-oriented culture, where young people are held to be wiser and more moral sophisticated than their elders. Many of them will get a painful comeuppance later in life.
The church and society has to do something to restore the wisdom of the elders and reconstitute it again in functioning guardrails to channel young people into good long-term decisions. The upper-middle-class to some extent already does this, but as Charles Murray has noted, they don’t preach what they practice.
Once you reach middle age, as I have, it’s easy to see the trajectory of long-term singleness is not what it’s cracked up to be when you’re younger. I’ve mentioned before the female colleague who, after years of being the life of the party, told me at age 42 she never got asked out on dates anymore. A single male friend in his 60s talks of the greatest regret of his life being not marrying a woman he’d dated many years ago. A single 50-something person we had over for dinner spoke of a fear of dying alone. I watch the Facebook pages of my single friends and see their life trajectories. In their 40s and certainly by their 50s they are now largely isolated in a world inhabited by other singles. Their photos, for example, are often of a group of their single friends at dinner. While those who married and had kids moved on to different lives, these people are still in many ways living a life from circa age 30, played in infinite loop. Too many of the single men I know around my own age are overweight, play a lot of video games, presumably watch tons of porn, and seem caught in a holding pattern of simple existence.
As the article shows, marriage and children are far from a guarantee that you’ll be surrounded by family in your old age. But at least you’ll have a fighting chance.
That’s why we need to give the same realtalk to single people that we do to married ones. That takes courage because young people today can take extreme umbrage at anyone suggesting that they might want to reconsider the way that they are living their lives. To be clear: I’m not telling anyone how to live his or her life. It’s a free country. Whatever you want to do, do it. But I do think that pastors need to make a point of explaining the potential future consequences of life choices so that people can make informed decisions. That means doing the same thing for singleness that they do for married life.
Also missing are the joys of marriage and children. Family is not all embarrassing incidents, health scares, infidelity, divorce, sexless marriages, and troubled kids. There are actually a lot of amazing things that family brings."
This is thinking I at least try to expose my philosophy students to, minus the church/religious context. Earlier in the semester we read and discussed a few articles on Kerry Cronin and her observations about the dating scene, and we just finished watching a debate featuring four feminists, where one of them admitted that “there’s something to be said about encouraging early (read: 22-29) marriage, rather than such a strong focus on career and ‘having fun,’ putting off marriage.” Boy, the girls in class really reacted strongly against that! Given that they’ve had the reverse message practically shoved down their throats for years and identify that message with “empowerment,” a counter narrative can be a tough sell. At least they get exposed to it in my class.
All in all, I appreciate Aaron and his willingness to question common narratives.