It is a truth universally acknowledged that February 14th must be in want of a multitude of Christian articles about love, romance, and marrying your best friend.
Gosh. I’m such a cynic, aren’t I?
And yet, it’s true. Christian publishing platforms love themselves a Valentine’s Day article. Or ten. Indeed, this year I even wrote my own! You can check it out here.
But this V-Day, there was one article to rule them all, both in terms of its word count (3250 by my reckoning) and the word count of the comments it appears to have generated (at least on my various newsfeeds).
It was this one: Megachurch Marriage for the Bachelor Pastor: A Story of Love that Lasts, by Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra.
After reading it late at night on Valentine’s Day (Aussie time) I immediately WhatsApp’d my friend this message:
”I have so many mixed feelings about this article”.
But then, as I headed to bed, I started wondering if all those mixed feelings were actually nothing more than cynicism. Had I spent so long reading, writing and speaking in this singleness space that I now just expect every mainstream evangelical article that has anything to do with singleness to be disappointing? Am I, in the words of a ministry colleague, unhelpfully creating “a hermeneutic of suspicion that finds anti-single sentiment under every rock, even when none is there”?
I woke up the next day and realised, nah. Just… nah.
I’m not an embittered and twisted single woman creating reasons to be offended. This article is actually problematic in a whole bunch of ways. And I know it. How?
Well, firstly because through his ways and means, God reminded me that he’s been hard at work so that I don’t become that embittered stereotype whose concerns can be easily dismissed for precisely that reason. For the 8 years I’ve been researching and ministering in this space I’ve been praying God wouldn’t allow that to happen. And I believe he’s been faithful in answering those prayers. So far.
But I also realised that my problems with the piece weren’t simply a result of cynical suspicion when that next day (Valentine’s Day, US time) my newsfeeds were populated with multiple comments from other Christians—married and single alike—who, after reading it, were pulling the equivalent of these kinds of faces right along with me:
🤔😦🙄🥴 🧐 😩 😠 🤨
OK. So look. It wasn’t all bad. In fact, there were parts of the article that I found wonderfully encouraging and God-honouring (more on that in a moment). But, in the end, I believe this article is another example of what I wrote over here. It’s another individual part of the evangelical conversation about singleness and marriage, that is formed by and propagates the dominantly problematic tone, content and nature of that conversation as a whole.
I’ll explain more about why I say all that in a bit. But for the moment, let’s recognise there are things to be encouraged by and to rejoice over in this article.
All The Good Stuff
For me, the strongest parts of the article were some of the direct contributions from the two protagonists themselves, Steve and Jennifer DeWitt. Especially Jennifer. Here are some things I really, really appreciated.
I appreciated that they shared both the vulnerabilities they each experienced in their singleness alongside the blessings and joys their single years provided them.
Steve: “I was able to pour energy into the church in ways that it would be wrong for a married man to do.”
Jennifer (after her first fiancee broke off their engagement): “I can vividly remember an appetite for the Word, and tear-soaked journal pages of pain and faith. Now I can say, looking back, that was the sweetest time.”
I was deeply encouraged by Jennifer’s reflections on how the gospel of Jesus was her lifeline in both singleness and marriage. I mean, this ⬇️ is just beautiful.
Jennifer: “My main point was that you can be lonely as a single person or a married person—your marital status doesn’t matter,” she said. “You have to find your satisfaction in Jesus.”
I loved the way Jennifer acknowledged that it was the spiritual growth she had undergone as a single woman that powered her through her first year of marriage. It’s so rare and refreshing to hear someone talk about unique opportunities for spiritual growth in singleness (more on that later).
Jennifer: “I think I lived off the fumes of the spiritual growth I had during my single years, but you can’t do that forever.”
I really appreciated the way that Steve acknowledged an unhealthy and even shameful part to his side of the love story.
Steve: “To my shame, that caused me not to think too seriously about commitment,” Steve said. “I think that’s an unhealthy part of my story. There is no doubt I overlooked or passed on some excellent Christian women who would have been wonderful wives.”
I must admit that I had been puzzled about how Steve could a) have a clear desire to marry, b) spend years actively dating c) be faithfully praying for the provision of a wife and d) have the advantage of there being far more single women looking to marry than there are single men ready to marry them … and yet still struggle to “find her”. I mean, my goodness, I could have given him the names and numbers of at least 20 wonderful, godly, ministry-minded, spiritually mature, servant-hearted single women in 60 seconds flat. Frankly, the author’s designation of Jennifer as “A unicorn” made me roll my eyes. There are oodles of us out there.
And so I was thankful that Steve was willing to acknowledge that having the advantage of many “candidates” (my word) meant that he had been unfair (if perhaps only in his own mind) to any number of wonderful women who he had done a disservice by not thinking seriously enough about commitment or overlooking them for little reason.
I was thankful that both Steve and Jennifer acknowledged that marriage is wonderful, but also difficult—that while their “ever after” is a happy one, it is not a happily ever after one. I was encouraged by the way that they spoke about the initial adjustment to marriage being particularly difficult while also putting to bed any notion that it has all been smooth sailing since then:
Steve: “We have struggled like everybody has to, making it work by applying the gospel in the midst of our sinfulness in day-to-day life. While we are grateful God brought us together, we need God’s grace every day.”
And finally, one of the article's strengths was that it celebrated marriage. Simple as that. Marriage is a good gift from a good God. It is right to rejoice over marriage. It’s right to pray for marriage. It is right to celebrate marriage. It’s right to honour marriage. This article sought to do that.
(I will add, that some married friends have also helped me to see that as much as the article sought to honour marriage, in some ways it also seemed to promote some unhelpful ideas about marriage. But going into those here would blow out the word count of this article more than even I could tolerate. So, I’ll leave that for someone else to write about).
It’s the Vibe of the Thing
We Aussies have a few favourite cult-classic movies. None is more beloved to us than The Castle. It’s the story of Aussie battler, Dale Kerrigan, who is trying to save his home (a man’s “castle”) from being compulsorily accquired by the government. Kerrigan heads into court with Dennis Denuito at his side. Denuito, a local solicitor who normally defends low-level petty criminals on misdemeanour charges, suddenly finds himself a little out of his depth. Which brings us to this this magical moment:
“It’s the vibe of the thing… No that’s it. It’s the vibe. I rest my case”.
That’s the line that was going through my head as I read Sarah Eeekhoff Zylstra’s article on Steve and Jennifer DeWitt’s “story of love”. It was the vibe of the thing that I just found so problematic.
And that vibe started in the opening lines:
“This is a message that I have waited 44 years to give,” pastor Steve DeWitt told Bethel Church in Crown Point, Indiana. His congregation immediately knew what he was talking about and started to cheer. He told them anyway, to shouts, claps, and whistles: “This is my last sermon as a single man.”
Ok. Pause for a moment. Rewind.
The sermon that line was taken from was titled The Bachelor Pastor: Premarital Reflections on Singleness, Purity and Ministry. The description of the sermon says:
For his last weekend as a single pastor, Pastor Steve DeWitt shares testimonies from his years of singleness and examines our central identity in Jesus that trumps any marital status.
That alone tells you something important about the intention behind Dewitt’s “last sermon as a single man” comment. It was intended to introduce an almost hour long reflection on singleness, purity and ministry. It was intended to honour his decades of fruitful singleness as he moved into this new season of marriage. It was intended to emphasise that being found in Jesus is the thing we celebrate the most.
But that’s not the vibe of how the article’s used that line, is it?
In the article, DeWitt’s comment about this being his last ever sermon as a single man is met with whoops and cheers and celebrations. The way the author frames her article is with a congregational celebration that comes not simply because DeWitt is getting married, but because DeWitt is no longer going to be single. I doubt it was the author’s intention to imply this. But nevertheless, this is the implication of the way she chose to frame it.
If you yourself are married then there is a chance you may have missed that subtle distinction. But I can assure you very few of us singles missed it. No siree. Those opening lines slapped us right across the face. We immediately knew what the vibe of the rest of the article was going to be. It was going to be a vibe of graduating from singleness and embracing the real deal of Christian life and ministry—namely, marriage. It was going to be a vibe of kissing singleness goodbye knowing that, in times to come when you’re busy with the more significant work of marriage and family, you’ll be able to “look back at on [your] single days with fondness”, just as you might do with a nostalgic childhood toy—something beloved at the time, but which you rightly outgrew and have very little use for now.
And unfortunately, we were proved right in our reading of the vibe. Not so much by any specific comment from Steve or Jennifer DeWitt themselves, but rather by the author’s framing of the article, the narrative she wove and particularly the congregational comments she chose to include.
Let me draw your attention to some examples.
1. An unmarried pastor? How is THAT going to work?
“We wondered how he was going to teach us about marriage,” [congregation member Kurt] said. “But we could clearly see he was dedicated and loved the Lord,” [Kurt’s wife] Kelly said.
Leaving aside the fact Jesus seemed A-OK with teaching on marriage despite a lack of lived experience, the answer to Kurt’s question is right there in his wife’s answer. How was Steve, a single man, qualified to teach them about marriage? Because he loved Jesus, he was dedicated to serving the flock faithfully, and he was gifted, trained, experienced and qualified to handle the word of God properly. All of that made him eminently qualified to teach on any matter pertaining to Christian living—marriage included.
In the quote above the acknowledgment of just that truth is presented as a mitigating “but…” factor (i.e., “We were not convinced he’d able to meet this very important requirement, but… we could see he clearly loved Jesus so…”). Yet in reality, it was the very reason why the single DeWitt was qualified to teach them about marriage though he was not married. It was the very reason why he was qualified to apply God’s word to women though he was not a woman. It was the very reason why he was able to pastor elderly congregation members though he himself was not elderly. It was the very reason why he was able to love disabled members of his church though he is not himself disabled.
You’d hope that after Steve’s hour-long “last sermon as a single man” in which he reflected on years of faithful service as a Bachelor Pastor, the congregation might have realised “Ah. We see now! He didn’t need to be married to able to be an effective pastor. His singleness bore great fruit for and amongst and in us. In fact, we’re probably going to miss out on the nourishment of some of that fruit now that he’s getting married”. Sadly, the author of the article didn’t tell us whether that was or was not the case.
(As an aside, have you noticed that people are rarely concerned with the flip side of this objection? When was the last time you heard a congregation member ponder how their pastor who married at the age of 21 was possibly going to be able to teach the never-married, the divorced or the widowed members of the congregation about singleness?)
2. An unmarried pastor? How do we fix that?
The congregation was clearly willing to take the risk on this Bachelor Pastor, but a common thread throughout the whole article was their consistent attempts to see him become a Bachelor no longer. The article speaks about how congregation members began trying to matchmake him with their unmarried daughters, granddaughters, nieces and friends. And then… well then we come to Jennifer’s first (undercover) visit to the church:
the family seated next to her welcomed her and began a conversation. When they found out she wasn’t married, their first question was “Hey, have you met Pastor Steve?
Think about that for a moment. A woman nobody has set eyes on before turns up at a church for the first time and as soon as they find out she is single, the very first question they ask her is whether she has met their very single pastor yet.
Again, if you’re married you may be chuckling and thinking “that’s kinda sweet”. But if you’re single what you are hearing is that there is really no legitimate place for long-term singleness in Christian ministry, especially for a man. You’re hearing about an unmarried pastor whose desire to get married was so deeply embedded within the consciousness of the congregation that they appeared to be ceaselessly trying to matchmake him. You’re also hearing that the copious number of unmarried daughters, granddaughters, nieces, friends and first time visitors to their church are seen as a solution to their (and his) singleness problem.
Here’s what one single commentator had to say on this:
I also found it strange that the way his church’s congregation was painted in the article is that a key focus of theirs was on finding Steve a wife, instead of supporting him in what appeared to be a very fruitful and dedicated ministry. I don’t think it’s wrong that they were excited for Steve when he got engaged/married, but I almost got this weird idea that they considered the pastor/church/ministry team “complete” upon this happening.
In fact, the author said precisely that:
For many church members, it felt like a royal wedding. Their joy was complete.
Cross-reference that with Jennifer’s glorious comment elsewhere that her singleness had taught her “You have to find your satisfaction in Jesus.”
3. Marriage makes for greater maturity… and a better pastor
The congregation’s concerns (as narrated by the author) weren’t simply that an unmarried pastor couldn’t discharge the full range of his pastoral responsibilities properly. The author also seems to suggest that a married pastor makes for a better pastor.
“Many pastors are able to grow into ministry, into increasing responsibilities, with their spouse,” Steve said. “They start off younger and can mature and get seasoned together.” Steve, on the other hand, was stretching into his 40s and was leading a church that had grown to thousands of people.
Goodness. An unmarried pastor “stretching” into his 40s? How could he possibly be mature and seasoned enough to lead a church of thousands? His singleness surely couldn’t have equipped him for that!
Ok. Tone it down, Dani. Let’s give that comment a generous reading. Let’s assume the author is simply suggesting that there are challenges to being an unmarried pastor and those challenges are scaled up when you are an unmarried “megachurch” pastor.
But then, we get this:
“His marriage has enriched his pastoring, his preaching. Now he has some experience and can tell us about his version of marriage and raising kids” [said Kurt].
“He’s softer toward people in general,” Kelly said. “I think becoming a husband and parent has humbled him in a good way. Now he has to dig deeper within himself and the Bible to navigate his wife as well.”
Firstly, “Navigate his wife”?! 😳
Secondly, don’t get me wrong. I have no doubt that Steve’s marriage enriched his pastoring and preaching and was a vehicle through which God has been working for his sanctification. Praise God for that! But pay attention to the comparative adjectives used in those comments.
Not only does he now actually have some experience, but he’s become softer than he ever was before. He’s become more humble than he ever was before. He has to dig deeper within himself and God’s word than he ever did before. And he’s become all these things because he’s married. My objection isn’t to the suggestion that he has grown in personal and pastoral maturity as a married man. My objection is to the author's (and congregation members’) framing of that growth—namely, that it only happened because he got married. That he wouldn’t have grown in these ways, wouldn’t have become more these things, if he had remained single.
How do they know that? How do they know that a wonderful growth in relational sensitivity, personal humility and a deeper immersion in God’s word wouldn’t have happened if he had remained single? How do they know that this wasn’t the work God was going to do in his life regardless of his marital status? For that matter, how do they know that Steve wouldn’t have grown more sanctified in these and indeed other areas had he remained single? Put simply, neither the author nor the congregation members nor Steve or Jennifer themselves nor us the readers were or are in a position to know any of these things. Only God is.
Again, married readers might be thinking I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. But single Christians have heard it all before. And a million times at that. We know the deal. Singleness by its very nature caters to and cultivates selfishness. Marriage is the preferred route to sanctification. The way to become more like Jesus is to get married. Yes, those are real lines said by popular Christian authors and pastors. (Shameless plug: come along to this Single Minded webinar on singleness, sin and sanctification to hear what the Bible really has to say about all this.)
It’s just so discouraging to consistently be told that marriage is where the real deal of sanctification happens. It’s just so discouraging to consistently have the Spirit’s faithful work in and through your singleness rendered comparatively lesser than his work in and through your friends’ marriages.
4. Marriage is for the “great” people
I’ll try and keep this one short and sweet. When she first connected with Steve, Jennifer:
was asking herself this: If Steve is so great, why isn’t he married already?
Why on earth would a great person—and especially a great man—still be single? It’s a seemingly innocuous comment that—let’s admit it—we have all thought many times ourselves (myself included). Jennifer is not alone in thinking it.
But friends, It. Is. Poisonous.
Think about what it implies. Marriage is for the people whose greatness makes them deserving of it. Those who aren’t married, well either:
Something’s gone wrong somewhere and the people around them have not accurately perceived just how great and deserving they are
They can’t really be that great or deserving after all.
Friends, that last implication is gutting for those of us who have spent decades watching the people around us couple up one-by-one, all while nobody ever picks us or (perhaps worse still) picks us and then rejects us. So many of us are plagued with self-recrimination about how “not-great” we obviously must be. Some of us are crippled by it.
Marriage is not for the great people who are worthy of it.
I know lots of pretty awful married people.
Singleness is not for the not-great people who are not worthy of marriage.
I know lots of amazingly awesome single people.
Sure, we might wonder why someone is still single. Like Jennifer, we might even ask them why they have not married. Chances are there are a whole lot of reasons. But we should never presume that any of those reasons have to do with their worth or dignity as an individual or as a potential spouse.
Look, I could keep going. But I’ll shut up and let the comments of a bunch of other commentators do the final talking:
A few compensatory paragraphs at the end doesn't allay the general thrust of 'if you are patient and godly, God will provide you with a spouse'.
I think what I struggle with is an underlying assumption […] that if you desire marriage more than your faith that it won't work out for you but once you get your priorities straight God will bless you with a partner.
Why is his age obsessively traced in this but hers is never mentioned once?
There’s a beautiful thread running through this article of people who’d like to be married waiting and pursuing the kingdom in the meantime [but] the overwhelming vibe, however, is still that singleness is simply a precursor to marriage and satisfaction and wholeness.
“It should’ve been easy. Steve was theologically solid, a gifted speaker, and popular in his growing congregation.” This is a very odd description of what makes someone attractive for marriage.
Changing the Vibe
Of course you might have gotten to this point (well done for hanging in there this long!) and still be asking, “Look, I just don’t get what the big deal is?”. You might be thinking, “It’s just one not-so-great article. Why not just shrug your shoulders and move on”.
As I wrote in this piece a few weeks back:
If you are thinking that, then I get it. No, I really do. That one individual comment might seem innocuous to you. Insignificant. Nothing to get worked up about.
Except, remember… one passing evangelical comment about marriage, children, singleness, sex and so on is never just one passing comment. Instead, it is part of a larger discourse. It needs to be read in the context of the bigger story. It needs to be understood as something that both flows out of that broader narrative while also reciprocally informing and shaping that same narrative’s future.
In other words, “It’s the vibe of the thing… No that’s it. It’s the vibe. I rest my case”.
This one article is simultaneously both an outworking of the existing vibe of the thing and a contributor to the ongoing vibe of the thing.
And yet, it is eminently possible to tell the love story of a Bachelor Pastor (though ideally in less than 3250 words) and to celebrate the gift of marriage that God has blessed him with, without buying into and continuing to generate an impoverished, pallid, insipid, problematic view of singleness itself and of single Christians themselves.
Yep. It’s time to change the vibe.
Who’s with me?
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Really helpful reflections. As a 37 year old single pastor I heartily agree with these critiques.
"This one article is simultaneously both an outworking of the existing vibe of the thing and a contributor to the ongoing vibe of the thing."
This is golden; thank you! You've put into words all the passing thoughts I had (as a happily single woman) when I read this article. I felt the uncomfortable "vibe of the thing," dealt with the stings of the little phrases implicitly slighting singles, and moved on with my day, mildly discouraged. But your response has left me *en*couraged.