Discover more from That GirlBoss Theologian
A 'State of the Union' on Singleness
I recently presented a talk at a Single Minded event here in Australia. One of the event’s co-presenters described it as a ‘State of the Union’ type talk on singleness. While my Aussie knowledge of ‘State of the Union’ speeches are basically limited to the West Wing, it did strike me as a fairly apt description of my goals for the talk. What follows is an edited-for-Substack version of what I presented on the day.
One thing I regret not doing better when I gave the talk was explaining why I think it’s so important for us to have an understanding of this ‘State of the Union’ (so to speak). I suspect some of the singles in attendance (most of whom were never-married and in their 30-40s) may have been wondering how what I presented was directly relevant to their present experience of being single. If I had the chance again, I would seek to explain that the current trajectories of the singleness convo (which I describe below) may not feel entirely relevant to them right now. However, if those trajectories continue unabated (as I fear they may) then it will become very relevant to them in their singleness. Indeed, it will determine for them how they, and others, will be “allowed” to think about the value, significance and purpose of their singleness in years to come.
For centuries the majority of unmarried Christian voices have largely been written out of the Church’s conversation about singleness. I don’t want us to realise, too late, that we’ve become immersed in a new conversation about singleness which has also (albeit inadvertently) silenced many of those same voices.
A Changing Conversation
I embarked on my PhD research into a Christian theology of singleness back at the beginning of 2016. If I was beginning my PhD studies now, in 2023, I’d be entering into a very different landscape. There have been so many changes to the Christian singleness conversation across the last five to six years in particular. I’ve watched them unfold in front of my eyes.
Some of those changes have been ones I’ve delighted in. Even just the fact that we now seem willing to actually talk more openly and frequently about singleness is a massive win. That’s something that really has changed over the last half a dozen years or so.
The tenor of that conversation has also changed in some wonderful ways. Not only is the church talking more about singleness, but we’re talking more positively about singleness than we have for, well, hundreds of years. Another massive win.
Even more, there are voices entering into and even guiding the conversation about Christian singleness who, until fairly recently, have not been welcome to have a seat at the table. When singleness has been spoken about in recent centuries, it has mainly been married men – pastors in particular – who have been doing almost all the talking. But now, ordinary, everyday single Christians from a variety of circumstances and contexts are taking part in the conversation. Indeed, the conversation is no longer one primarily about us. More and more, it is becoming one with us.
There have been lots of things to delight in about how the conversation about singleness has been changing.
But—you knew it was coming, right?—in my view, the change in the conversation about Christian singleness hasn’t been entirely constructive.
Essentially, I’m concerned that we’re having a rushed and reactionary conversation about singleness, rather than a careful, deliberate, intentional and most importantly, faithful one. I’m concerned we’re inadvertently building a new either/or trap of Christian singleness. And I’m concerned that once that trap springs shut on us it is going to be very, very difficult and painful for us to free ourselves from it.
The Old Trap: Gifted Singleness
What is this trap? Well, it is one that revolves around the way we now tend to think about choice vs circumstance in the single Christian life.
But to see how and why this “new trap” is being laid, we first need to go back in time a little bit and look at the “old trap” that has characterised the conversation about Christian singleness for a long time now.
Since the time of the Reformation, singleness in the Christian life has been seen as the rare and abnormal exception. Marriage and kids have not just been considered normative for Christians, but really, a key and essential goal of the spiritually mature Christian life. If a person did not attain that goal then the church generally considered them to be, well, abnormal
Now to be abnormal as a single Christian hasn’t always been seen as a bad thing. In fact abnormal singleness even has a special place in the church’s perspective! But only so long as someone is the right kind of abnormal single. That is, only so long as they have been given the “so called gift of singleness” — that special spiritual booster shot of sexual self-control, that special empowerment to contentment in singleness, that ability to totally focus their singleness on gospel ministry.
If you were that kind of single—the gifted kind of single—then by and large your abnormality has generally been seen as an acceptable abnormality. Your singleness has typically been considered (at least semi) legitimate.
But here’s the thing. This old school approach isn’t universally accepted anymore. While a lot of people still hold to it (shockingly enough, including many male pastors who got married to their childhood sweetheart in their early 20s) more and more voices in today’s singleness conversation today are speaking out against it.
Why? Well, because it has entrapped the vast majority of them.
You see on one hand it has insisted that if I struggle with sexual temptation or feel discontent in my singleness then God hasn’t given me the gift of singleness and so I should be married.
Ok. Fine. I should be married. So then God, where’s the husband I need? You’ve withheld from me the gift I need to make my singleness acceptable, but you’ve also withheld the spouse I need to escape from my unacceptable singleness.
And so the “ungifted” single Christian has usually been left thinking:
Either, God isn’t powerful. He doesn’t have the power to give me either the gift or the spouse that I need
Or, God isn’t good. He could give me either the gift or the spouse, but he’s cruelly withholding both of them from me.
Can you see how we’ve laid a trap for countless of our brothers and sisters in Christ? We’ve created a situation where they essentially need to either believe God is weak or God is unloving… all while we condescendingly pat them on the head and telling them to keep trusting God with their singleness.
Knowing that God is neither weak nor unkind, has meant more and more singles are recognising the “old trap” for what it is. More and more of us have refused to put our finger into it in order to have it spring back on us and leave us wounded, scared, isolated, fearful and distrusting of our heavenly Father.
And yet, in refusing to become ensnared by the “old trap”, in recent years we’ve unwittingly been busy creating an entirely new one.
The New Trap: Either Choice, or Circumstance
What is this “new trap”? It’s the strict paradigm of either choice, or circumstance in Christian singleness.
The thinking behind the either/or trap goes something like this:
If there isn’t a problem with God’s power or his goodness when it comes to my singleness, then perhaps the real problem with singleness lies with how I approach it, how I think about it? Perhaps it comes down to my attitude towards it, how willing I am to own it and embrace it?
Maybe the key to seeing my singleness as legitimate and even good—and so having others see it the same way— is located in how willing I am to actively step into it, to unapologetically say this is my unique calling?
Perhaps that is when God blesses my singleness? When I chose it.
This new paradigm that’s particularly been developing over the last half a dozen years or so is far less about God’s gifting than it is about my choosing.
It’s about whether I discern a “call” to being single long-term. It’s about whether I’m willing to proactively embrace my singleness, even as I know it will often be hard. It’s about whether this is a life situation which I am actively choosing for myself, rather than one I feel like I’m circumstantially stuck with.
This new approach requires the unmarried Christian person to step away from uncommitted, temporary singleness into committed, permanent singleness. Such a commitment is something that the individual does. They are the one making the call. They are the ones “choosing”.
There is often still a sense in which “chosen singleness” is considered to be a gifted state. But the order has been turned upside down. The gift comes to us as confirmation from God after we’ve fully stepped into our singleness. The gift comes in response to our choice.
In the old trap, God is the one who decides who he gifts. We simply receive it in response. In the new trap, we are the ones who make the choice. God then responds to our choice.
In the old trap, singleness is only legitimate and valuable if it is gifted to you by God. In the new trap, singleness is only legitimate and valuable if you have stepped into and embraced it.
Some of the clearest evidence that there has indeed been a conversational shift from old to new, is the corresponding shift in the language being used within the conversation.
When I started reading and writing about singleness in earnest back in 2016, the language being used until and at that point was simply that—singleness. People overwhelmingly wrote and spoke about single people. They wrote and spoke about being single, about being in a state or season singleness.
But now, more and more that’s not the term being used. Instead we’re increasingly talking about celibacy instead of singleness. Why? Well, there are a few reasons for this. But one of the key ones is that the term celibacy has very strong historical links with chosen singleness.1 In our contemporary thinking, celibacy lines up well with singleness that is being intentionally embarked upon and entered into. It’s seen to be synonymous with the unmarried life proactively and voluntarily committed to.
Here is where we see the choice vs circumstance binary of this new trap most clearly.
The celibate person has chosen their unmarried state. The single person has been circumstantially stuck with it. The celibate person’s choice imbues their unmarried situation with a dignity and significance it otherwise would not have. The single person is stuck in a kind of uncommitted, tragic limbo.
The shift in language from singleness to celibacy is one of the clearest indicators of the fact that the conversation itself is shifting. Perhaps you may not have observed the change in language, but I’d encourage you to keep an eye out for it. Once you see it, you won’t be able to unsee it.
Now, it needs to be said that the old-to-new shift has brought about some good and important changes to the ongoing conversation about Christian singleness.
For one, it has rightly exposed the inadequacies of the old “gift of singleness” approach to the conversation. The shift has also allowed those who don’t anticipate that marriage might ever be an option for them—or who really do feel a strong sense of conviction that they ought remain unmarried—to have a valuable seat at the table. It’s allowed their voices, their unique experience, challenges, griefs, opportunities to be heard, acknowledged and help shape the ongoing conversation.
Exchanging One Trap For Another
But unfortunately the shift in the conversation has disarmed one trap only to set another in its stead.
Singleness as either noble choice or tragic circumstance has its own problems. Indeed, there are a whole bunch of implications arising from this new either/or approach to singleness which I just don’t think we’ve fully grasped the significance of yet.
For example, while the either/or trap gives validity and positive meaning to the person who can say they have chosen their singleness, it leaves the unmarried person who hasn’t chosen it—the circumstantial single—still back in that same impossible situation we saw in the old trap. They don’t feel like they can proactively commit to lifelong singleness in the same kind of way. But here they are, stuck in the circumstances of it. This can leave them feeling stranded, isolated, invisible. It can also leave them doubting God’s power and his goodness.
The either/or framing of singleness is also now beginning to create a two tiered hierarchy of Christian singles. On the one hand you have those who say they are called to celibacy, the ones who have boldly chosen their fate. The conversation depicts them as embarking on the costly endeavour of the unmarried life. And then you have the circumstantial singles, the ones whose singleness is not bold or courageous. Far from embarking on a costly endeavour, these people are increasingly considered inert, lazy or even self-indulgent victims.
These two different “types” of Christian singles are increasingly being regarded with different levels of superiority, recognition, maturity and value. The men and women who have chosen celibacy are said to be really willing to count the cost and trust Jesus deeply. But, the circumstantial single, who always has the possibility of marriage open to them, are said to have an easier road to tread. They don’t need to trust Jesus to the same degree, with quite as much.
Friends, I’ve been immersed in the theological and pastoral discourse about Christian singleness for enough years now to be able to see where this is all heading. And I’m really concerned.
I’m really concerned about some of the pastoral implications that are coming down the line. In fact, which are already happening.
I’m really concerned that rather than seeing unmarried people as individuals who all have unique and different challenges, experiences griefs and sorrows, but who are standing side by side in their singleness, that what we are doing is creating different classes of unmarried Christians. This is a deeply ecclesiological issue.
I’m really concerned we are categorising unmarried Christians into those whose singleness is really faithful, really costly, really genuine and those whose singleness is not actually any of these things. This is ultimately a soteriological issue.
I’m really, concerned about the wounds this either or trap is going to leave behind on people who already hurting, who are already feeling invisible, who are already feeling like they don’t have a voice. This is a massive pastoral issue.
But even as I have all of these pastoral concerns about the either/or trap of singleness, what I’m just as concerned about is the way the conversation seems to be increasingly displacing God from its centre. This is a fundamental theological issue.
The conversation is becoming more and more about me, about what I choose, about how I feel about my singleness. It is becoming more and more about my (psychological) control over and perspective on my situation, rather than my call to trust in God’s goodness to me in all situations and circumstances.
The Bible presents a much more complex, but also a much more wonderful story about the relationship between choice and circumstance. It presents a much more rich and challenging story about the relationship between God’s sovereignty in our lives and our gospel freedom to live faithfully within that sovereignty.
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will - Eph 1:11
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. - Rom 8:28
Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand - Prov 19:21
Neither the old trap nor the new trap provide the answers we’re looking for about Christian singleness. Neither of them comprehensively celebrate the freedom that is ours to serve God in each and every situation of life. Neither of them rightly locate the dignity and value of singleness where it belongs—in God’s purposes for it, rather than our feelings about it.
It’s time for us to stop laying traps for each other. It’s time for us to stop having a reactionary conversation. It’s time for us to ensure our theological thinking about singleness is unapologetically and comprehensively informed by Scripture. It’s time for us to start putting Christ back at the centre of our thinking on all this.
I’m up for it. Who else is in?
Thanks for reading That GirlBoss Theologian! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
That such strong links exist in our thinking between the term celibacy and chosen, committed, permanent singleness is more a result of contemporary reimagining than the actual etymological and definitional history of the word “celibacy” itself. But that’s something to explore further some other time!