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It's Us. Hi. We're the Problem. It's Us.
Last week’s Christian metaverse theme song was a duet brought to you by megastar Taylor Swift and megapastor Andy Stanley.
I suspect very few of us can help but know who Taylor Swift is. I hear she’s now playing for the NFL. Geesh, is there anything that woman can’t do?
However, Andy Stanley may be a little more of an unknown quantity, especially to some of my fellow non-US readers. But don't tune out if you don’t know who Andy Stanley is! As the title suggests, this piece is far more about us than it is him. However, in order to bring the focus rightly onto us, I first need to draw your attention to something Stanley recently said.
To cut a long story short, Stanley gave a talk at his church, explaining his (and so also his church’s) approach to Christian sexual ethics and especially same-sex marriage. This sermon came on the heels of some concern about a conference Stanley had been involved in that seemed to promote—at least passively so—an ‘affirming’ position on human sexuality (i.e., accepting same-sex relationships/marriages as morally permissible for Christians).
Much has been said about Stanley’s talk and the conference that motivated him to give it. However, I want to zoom in on just one part of it. At 41:40 in his talk Stanley said:
“Many [same-sex attracted Christians] are convinced that traditonal marriage [i.e., marriage between one man and one woman] is not an option for them. So they commit to living a chaste life […] and for many men and women who put their faith in Christ they just decide ‘Ok, I’m just going to buckle down, I’m just going to bear down, I’m just going to be by myself, I’m not going to have family, I’m going to be sexually pure.’ And many, many, many, many do that for long seasons of time. And for some it’s their whole life
But for many that is not sustainable. [NB. bolded emphasis original].
And so they choose same-sex marriage—not because they’re convinced it’s biblical. They read the same Bible we do. They chose to marry for the same reason many of us do: love, companionship, and family.”
Now, there is a lot that we could delve into in those comments. And by the end of this article, we’ll come full circle back to some of them. But for now, I want to draw your attention to Stanley’s comment that living a life of chaste singleness is not sustainable for many same-sex attracted Christians. It’s not doable. It’s not workable. It’s not realistic. It’s not possible. It’s not something they can keep “buckling and bearing down on”.
The single, celibate, same-sex attracted, and all-around awesome Sam Allberry has responded to Stanley in this Christianity Today article. While I’d encourage you to read the whole thing, one particular comment in it really grabbed my attention. Sam writes:
…when any leader suggests to me that chaste obedience to Christ in singleness is not sustainable, he is saying the very same thing to me that the Devil says.
Those familiar with my work will not be surprised to hear that I greeted this with a hearty “Amen!”. I was so thankful for Sam’s unapologetic testimony that chaste obedience in singleness is sustainable. After all, that’s not something you often hear in contemporary evangelicalism, is it?
Which is why I was surprised to see numerous other commentators highlighting, reposting and applauding that exact same quote from Sam’s article. I counted nearly 20 posts featuring that one comment alone in my Twitter (I mean, “X” 🙄) newsfeed. Those 20 posts were then retweeted or quote-tweeted well over 200 times. That quote was the quote commentators were sharing from Sam’s excellent article.
When I realised that, I started hearing Taylor Swift warming up in the background.
Well, Ain’t That Something?
Let me be clear. I absolutely, fundamentally, and foundationally disagree with Andy Stanley’s comment that faithful, chaste singleness is not sustainable for many Christians. On the supremely remote chance that he ever stumbles across this article, I’d encourage him to consider the countless opposite-sex attracted single and single-again Christians who have always existed in our midst as living, breathing, walking, talking, sustainable examples of faithful, chaste, long-term singleness. Most (not all) are women, and they’ve been there all along.
So, yes, I disagree with Stanley. But, gee whiz it was something to see a rash of evangelical commentators act as if any conjecture about singleness’ sustainability for the contemporary Christian was an obvious lie of Satan.
It was something to see them behave as if all of us were (or should be) totally on board with the idea that Christian singleness is absolutely doable.
It was something to see them comment as if singleness and chaste obedience to Christ naturally go hand in hand in today’s evangelical church.
Spoiler alert: They don’t. And I can prove it.
At the very same time my newsfeed boasted some big-name commentators celebrating that exact excerpt from Sam’s article, my newsfeed was also home to some other big-name commentators posting other stuff. Stuff like this.
And that’s just a couple of tweets from this week alone. Those two examples don’t even begin to blow a gently rippling breeze across the surface of decades upon decades upon centuries of evangelical teaching about the deficient, deviant, destructive, tragic, meaningless, spiritually ill-formed, relationally unfulfilled, sexually oppressed, value-compromised and belonging-impaired situation that (supposedly) is Christian singleness. Those two examples don’t begin to touch on all the ways we evangelicals have made singleness into something we very clearly do not consider sustainable, liveable or doable.
They don’t touch on the way we define singleness not primarily as something with its own dignity and meaning, but as the lack of something else—as being Not-Yet-Married. The way we so frequently but incorrectly take God’s pronouncement that it was not good for Adam to be alone (Gen 2:18) and use it to justify our assertion that being single is ‘fundamentally tragic’.
The way we typically portray single Christians as deviants set on attacking marriage. The way we are told, and tell ourselves, that ‘Satan dishonours marriage by fooling us into believing that singleness is okay’ (p. 43). The way our prominent preachers insist that ‘Scripture is clear that God will sanctify us largely through our marriages’ . The way our prominent authors write that ‘marriage is the preferred route to becoming more like Jesus’ (p. 17).
The way single Christians are characterised as obsessed with ‘escalating self-preoccupation, personal ambition, personal development, personal promotion’. The way we believe that singleness ‘by nature caters to and cultivates [selfishness]’. The way we depict single Christians as only ever being concerned about themselves, as opposed to married people for whom it is ‘totally different; you’re asking this question: ‘Sweetheart, how can I love and serve you?’.
The way some of the biggest names in contemporary evangelicalism insist that the primary marks of becoming an adult have to do with getting married and having kids. The way our articles claim that while ‘Scripture at no point condemns singleness, it does pity singleness, particularly for women.’
The way key Christian leaders endorse and recommend books that talk about God having made each of us with a “spouse-shaped hole” and that ‘this is why spinsters often come in pairs. They are clogging up each other’s spouse-shaped hole’ (p.36). The way we run conferences where speakers teach that singles are walking lust bombs, captive ‘to sexual sin, at a rampant level [. . . because] you’ve got all these people with these pent-up desires that can’t be normally met and they are about to explode’. The way authors insist that marriage ‘is such an important part of honoring God as sexual beings [. . .] I don’t know how people can make it morally without getting married’ (p.32).
The way we’ve subsumed the ideal of friendship into marriage, such that now ‘the most vital of human friendship of all [is] with our very best friend, our spouse’. The way that women who are friends with men they aren’t married to are consistently depicted as seductresses out to lure married men into emotional affairs. The way we so easily pronounce that ‘emotional adultery is having as your close friend someone of the opposite sex who is not your spouse’.
Oh, and the way that in recent months it has become de rigueur to post tweet, after tweet, after tweet, after tweet, after tweet, after tweet, after tweet, after tweet, after tweet, after tweet, after tweet about how unmarried and childless individuals are doomed to a far more miserable, unhappy and more suicide-prone existence than their married and procreatively fruitful counterparts… all without any recognition of what a self-fulfilling kind of prophecy such a move actually is. Nor that correlation does not imply causation.
Can you hear Taylor’s vocals getting louder?
(Pssst. For anyone concerned that I’ve just curated a handful of exceptionally unfortunate quotes from within a much more positive and biblically-faithful evangelical discourse on singleness, I’d encourage you to grab a copy of my book and read through chapters 3 and 4.)
Oh… So Now You Tell Us
Look, don’t get me wrong. I was glad that all of these individuals were retweeting Sam’s brilliant comment. But I was also stupefied at what seemed to me to be the rather large dose of self-delusion involved in the process.
I could imagine single Christian after single Christian, reading those retweets with a raised eyebrow and thinking to themselves, “Oh, so now you tell us? Now, this is the story you’re running with? Now the single Christian life is totally doable, totally sustainable? Huh. I guess you learn something new every day.”
Come on guys. Is it any wonder that someone like Andy Stanley, and plenty of others, have come to the conclusion that a chaste, unmarried life requires the single person to ‘buckle down’, ‘bear down’, ‘be by myself’ and ‘not have any family’?
Is it any wonder that he, and plenty of others, have come to the conclusion that this kind of miserable, lonely, isolated, grinding existence is ‘not sustainable’ for many?
Is it any wonder that he, and plenty of others, have come to the conclusion that it is understandable why many will choose to forgo their biblical convictions in order to chase the thing they’ve been told over and over again is the only real way they will ever be able to experience ‘love, companionship, and family’?
No. No, it is not any wonder.
And the reason it is not any wonder is that singleness as a life of isolated buckling down and bearing up under; singleness as a life lacking in genuine intimacy, companionship and family; singleness as a life of existential unfulfillment and loveless loneliness is precisely what we have taught, insisted upon and promoted in our evangelical churches for decades upon decades.
It’s Us. Hi. We’re the Problem. It’s Us.
And with that, Taylor Swift bursts onto the stage in full musical flight. To unapologetically appropriate the lyrics of her hit, Anti-Hero:
It’s us. Hi. We’re the problem. It’s us.
Yes, I have significant disagreements with Stanley’s argument (again, read Sam’s article for more on this). And yes, I deeply lament that he seems to endorse same-sex attracted Christians turning their back on biblical conviction to chase the world’s version of personal fulfilment and existential realisation.
But before we point our fingers at the problem over there, we first need to own up to the fact that, actually, the real problem lies much closer to home.
It’s us. Hi. We’re the problem. It’s us.
We need to own up to the fact that we have constructed a narrative that prizes (idolises) one thing above all other things. We have written a story that idealises (idolises) that one thing as necessary for true human flourishing. We have crafted a context that necessitates (idolises) that thing as the way to truly become a spiritually mature Christian who is genuinely committed to the kingdom of Jesus and living their best life at the same time.
We need to own up to the fact that, just like Taylor’s Anti-Hero, we evangelicals are really good at staring ‘directly at the sun, but never in the mirror’, even as ‘all of the people [we've] ghosted stand there in the room’.
Because, yes, we have indeed ghosted innumerable single Christians.
We have made it seem unsustainable for someone to “buckle and bear down” on living the tragically-pitiable, second-rate, sin-prone, spiritually-stifled, intimacy-starved, love-less, family-absent, unmarried Christian life.
We have turned unmarried Christians into invisible spectres in our churches, such that the very possibility of long-term faithful singleness has become nothing more than a fable.
We have been holding the exit doors open for them, all while subtly curling our lips up at them for not having the staying power to refrain from walking out across the threshold.
It’s us. Hi. We’re the problem, it’s us.
Friends, it is time for us to stop staring into the sun and start staring into the mirror.
It is time for us to stand up and take responsibility for idealising and idolising marriage in ways incompatible with Scripture.
It is time for us to acknowledge our culpability in turning singleness into a life situation consistently depicted as cruel, oppressive and unsustainable.
It is time for us to recognise our own liability in urging single people to buy into the lies that Satan wants them to believe.
It is time for us to take God at his Word when he says that we have life, and have it to the full, not in marriage or sex or romance… but in Jesus Christ the good shepherd (John 10:10).
It’s us. Hi, we’re the problem. It’s us.
And so, what an amazing, wonderful, awesome thing it is for us to know that Jesus Christ is always and ever the solution we all so desperately need.
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