How Should We Then Marry

Reprinted with permission from Baptist Bulletin Jan/Feb 2013. All rights reserved.

A few months ago I was serving in my church’s nursery during an evening service alongside a single woman who attended a Christian college, is now employed in the secular workforce, and faithfully serves Christ in ministries such as Awana, VBS, teaching, music, and hospitality. I’d been reading up on the challenges that marriage-minded Christian singles face, and I wanted to pick her brain regarding what she has experienced as a single in the church, as well as what she desires and hopes—things like, does she hope for marriage and family? If so, how does she meet Christian men? Has the church been a help to her as a single—has she felt cared for, encouraged, understood? Were believing friends, family, or those at church missing anything in their care for her during this season of life? My friend and I had just two little ones in the nursery that night, so as we cared for them, we had some time to talk.

“Most of my friends are married or dating,” she said. “With friends getting married and having kids, the shape of those friendships is changing. Everyone in my Adult Bible Fellowship is great, but sometimes I feel awkward as the only single person, although this is probably just me.

I do want to be married and have a family, and I pray for my future husband, but as far as meeting someone…” Her voice trailed off. “Where would we meet?”

Good question. Even though ours is a good-size church (attendance runs about 400), there aren’t too many singles; and, as in many churches, single women outnumber single men—although that doesn’t mean Christian men don’t consider it difficult finding someone to date, let alone marry. Meeting someone at work is an option for some singles, but, of course, the majority of those in a secular workplace are probably unbelievers. And while sometimes friends and family will set singles up on a date, if friends and family attend their church and generally know the same people they do, they’re back to square one!

So, if singles who’d like to marry find it difficult to meet someone at church, what can they do? What should they do? Anything? Nothing? And is my friend’s experience as a marriage-minded Christian single an isolated one, or could this conversation have taken place between two believers in the nursery—or at the outreach, music practice, or VBS—at your church?

If singles who’d like to marry find it difficult to meet someone at church, what can they do? What should they do? Anything? Nothing?

Counselors like Job’s

Journalist Julia Duin prompts a similar question in her provocative book Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do about It. In a chapter called “The Loneliest Number: Why Singles over Thirty-five Are Saying Good-bye,” Duin notes that even while churches promote marriage and family in their teaching, preaching, small-group focus, fellowship, etc., often churchgoing singles who express a desire for marriage are met with a lack of compassion, wisdom, and full-orbed Biblical counsel, which can lead to discouragement. For example, marriage-minded singles are often given counsel that while true is also flat, one-dimensional, and without mercy: “Be content”; “Don’t make marriage an idol”; “Jesus is all you need.” Sometimes singles receive counsel from those who, like Job’s counselors, mean well, but speak without knowledge regarding what God is doing in a person’s life, saying things like, “If God wants you to have a spouse, He will bring you one,” or “You’re not married because you want it too much.” While people mean well, such “help” is not helpful, often leaving singles feeling frustrated and ashamed of their desire, and leading some to quit seeking counsel at church or date unbelievers or quit church altogether.

As an example of the counsel that some singles receive, Duin tells the story of a man who sought and prayed for a wife through his 20s, 30s, into his 40s—this man attended several churches through the years, and at each one asked for prayer, help, and counsel from pastors and other leaders regarding marriage. But every time, the men whose counsel and prayer he sought discouraged his desire. One time he was told to “stop whining,” that if God wanted him to be married He’d bring someone into his life. Another time he heard a sermon in which the pastor said that if a person hadn’t married by his or her 40s, “this was God’s calling of celibacy.” The man recounts, “I was rebuked by the elders because, according to them, the Bible says it is better to be single to serve God better. They, obviously, were married, and I didn’t understand, if they felt so strongly about being single, why they themselves weren’t single. When I would ask for prayer, I would get a lecture about being content, and was told I needed to stop focusing on self and serve God better.”

Why Singles over 35 Are Saying Good-bye

  1. Teaching ministries directed toward couples with children
  2. Church activities and fellowships that disregard singles
  3. Few opportunities for single women to develop ministry gifts
  4. An unrealistic expectation that singles have more time for service
  5. Few opportunities to find a Christian mate
  6. Neglect of those who are divorced
  7. Lack of compassion when counseling singles

—Julia Dunn, Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do about It

Single for a season

Elisabeth Elliot defines suffering as either “having what you don’t want” or “wanting what you don’t have.” According to that definition, being single when you’d like to be married is a form of suffering—minor, yes. But suffering nonetheless. When marriage-minded singles open up to other believers and “ask for bread”—share feelings of discouragement, loneliness, and despair in hopes of receiving counsel, prayer, encouragement, and understanding—we cannot give them stones! Christ is not exalted, nor is He glorified.

Certainly the church works hard to serve many groups well—parents, married couples, students, the elderly, widows and widowers. But what about singles?

Singleness is good

In these matters as in all, we need to think Biblically. Scripture teaches that singleness is good. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 7:32–35 that singleness is a time to serve Christ wholeheartedly, “without care,” a season during which one has the privilege of focusing solely on pleasing the Lord, serving Him “without distraction.” This is good; to serve Christ with all our hearts is good. In contrast, the world teaches that what is good about the single life is that during this season you have no obligations but to yourself. Listen to the messages that TV, movies, and music send, and you’ll hear that being single is “all about you,” a time to live it up, party, indulge. This is not living as a creature, but living as a god, living “unto” oneself, and such a lifestyle is in direct contrast to that of our Lord.

Singleness can be for sanctification

But what of the single believer who is obeying Scripture, pursuing Christ’s kingdom, seeking to live wholly for Him, yet who desires marriage? What of the believer who strongly desires marriage, yet year after year remains single, frustrated, discouraged, lonely, even while faithfully serving? What does the Bible say about that?

First of all, there is no changing Scripture due to our circumstances, desires, or disappointments. The first order in such a case is to remain faithful to Christ, to continue pursuing service to the Savior with a whole heart, and to cooperate with and submit to God by faith as He works all things together for good (including the suffering that comes with unwanted singleness) as He defines good—Christlikeness (Romans 8:28, 29). This means that in addition to wholehearted service, a season of singleness when marriage is preferred is something that God desires to use for the purpose of sanctification, even as singles pursue His kingdom and choose to trust Him. This isn’t always easy, and at times it will take a lot of grace to wait on Him and choose to trust, but to think and live Biblically, Christian singles must seek by faith to wholeheartedly pursue Christ, His kingdom, and conformity to His image.

Singleness is optional

But interestingly, that’s not all that Scripture says on the subject—and that’s where balance is needed in counsel and ministry to singles. While Paul recommended singleness on several counts, including that it is good “because of the present distress” (1 Corinthians 7:26), that it secures undistracted devotion to the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:35), that those who are married “will have trouble in the flesh” (1 Corinthians 7:28), and that he believes singles will be happier if they remain as they are (1 Corinthians 7:40), Paul also writes that if singles choose to marry, they have not sinned (1 Corinthians 7:28), that a widow “is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39), and that if the unmarried and widows lack self-control, “let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9).

In other words, even as Paul recommended his preference for singleness (and yes, he thought that he also had the Spirit of God! 1 Corinthians 7:40), the fullness of the passage teaches that the unmarried have a choice regarding whether they remain single or not. There is not a dictate or even a curse on singles in their unmarried state—God has given them freedom and He has given them choice. It would seem that as long as marriage-minded singles seek to be wise, submitted, and Biblical in their pursuit of marriage, with a motivation to love God and neighbor, and a desire to glorify God, there is freedom to pursue marriage in right ways: Again, of the widow, Paul wrote, “She is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39).

Often there is talk of “the gift of singleness,” and among singles there can be a great deal of sanctified navel-gazing to determine whether or not they have this gift. Elisabeth Elliot writes that if you are single today, well then, you have the gift of singleness!

Biblical scholars differ regarding the meaning of the verse from which the concept of “the gift of singleness” comes (“Each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that,” 1 Corinthians 7:7). I believe the context allows for more freedom and choice regarding marriage than many singles (and other believers) might gather from the discussions in Christian circles regarding “the gift of singleness.” Even as we serve a sovereign God Whose will is always done ( Job 42:2; Daniel 4:35), we also serve a God Who seeks to raise up wise sons and daughters who will glorify Him through submitted, prayerful decision-making. While ultimately it is God Who enables a man to find a wife (Proverbs 18:22), still the fact that she is found implies that he was looking—and that she was available and willing to be found!

Just as singleness done rightly achieves greater glory to God, so does marriage. Marriage glorifies God by fulfilling His creation design and order; by allowing a husband and wife to accomplish greater stewardship of the earth as they partner up; by fulfilling mankind’s desire for companionship, love, sex, and children; by providing a unique opportunity for sanctification and growth as a husband and wife seek to die to self and serve the other; and by reflecting God’s good character and plan as a husband and wife image forth a picture of Christ and the church.

If there are singles in our churches who are struggling in their singleness, perhaps God has given them this desire in order to drive them to marriage for His greater glory. Certainly the church works hard to serve many groups well—parents, married couples, students, the elderly, widows and widowers. But what about singles? How well is your church doing? How about mine? What messages are we sending regarding marriage and singleness? Are the messages Biblical or unbiblical? What challenges do marriage-minded singles face today? Is there a problem—and if so, is it the church’s problem? Is there any call to the church to help and encourage singles to marry to the glory of God?


Betsy Carlson (MABS, Central Baptist Theological Seminary) is a NANC certified counselor and a member of Calvary Baptist Church, Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.

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There are 6 Comments

Steve Newman's picture

The article leans a little hard on the "churches don't care about single people" angle. It's true in some cases, and not in others. I'm a pastor who was single until age 33, and there are definitely churches that patronize singles. We don't always know why God keeps people single for an extended period of time. However, when I think of "the present distress" today, I think more of all the mediocre to poor marriages I see. Is that really what we want for our single friends? Maybe it is better for God to do more maturing work in the meantime. 

Another complication is the amount of divorced people in the "pool" for marriage. Do we really want to recommend for the divorced to marry again if their lives have not changed spiritually from the last marriage? Aren't we condemning them to more of the same by encouraging them? Plus, what is our view on divorce and remarriage? The general view of the Lord Jesus is that it is from "hardness of hearts". This is generally from both sides. We are not to be "no-fault" about divorce, even though our world is. 

I think the question may be more about how much we assist singles in finding a wife. I have the opportunity to work with some fine single people in an isolated area. I'm looking for ways for them to meet godly singles who are sold out to the Lord. But we are to do that without "playing matchmaker" and let God have room to work or not work. 

JNoël's picture

I saw the title and was hoping for more about the question of just why there are seemingly so many faithful single Christians - both men and women.  I think there are several possible answers to that question.  Here's one possibility.

 

I do not believe in the concept of there being that one perfect person God created just for you and that if you don't happen to find him and, instead, marry someone else, you'll be stuck in misery for life, always questioning if you made the right choice.  I don't find the choice of partner to be much different from the choice of college, occupation, place of residence, or choice of church.  Sure, the marriage decision is a little different in that once one is married and the vows are made any decision to separate it cannot be done without sinning in the process.  But for many, the choice of occupation is not entirely different - once college is finished and a job is acquired and held for enough years it is really difficult to change course.

 

So for all of you singles out there who have heard an evangelist use scare tactics to convince you if you don't find that one perfect person that you're future will be lived in utter devestation, welcome to reality - there aren't any more perfect Christians in your 30s or 40s than there are at 20, and God isn't going to shine some holy light directing you to His Perfect Mate.

 

To me, marriage is about a lifetime relationship with my best friend.  Do you have any opposite gender friends in your church?  There's a good possibility one of them wants to get married as much as you.  So explore the possibilities.

 

 

V/r

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

Kevin Subra's picture

This article reminds me of a book I reviewed for SharperIron (http://sharperiron.org/article/book-review-doing-things-right-matters-of...). In the book Doing Things Right In Matters of the Heart, John Ensor points out the cultural change where men are not taught to lead, to plan for marriage, or to pursue manhood (part of which is married). Young men are aimless. He highlights conversations he had with singles at retreats he conducted, and shares that younger men no longer even get the idea of pursuing marriage. It's an ongoing adolescence kind of thing.

I do think that we need to teach what the Bible teaches on manhood, womanhood, marriage, family, etc. The flow of culture and the information of our day does not direct people in the right direction. Too often, I think, teaching is too general to be of any functional value. I would recommend such Biblically principled books as Ensor's to help close the gap.
 

For the Shepherd and His sheep,
Kevin
Grateful husband of a Proverbs 31 wife, and the father of 15 blessings.
http://captive-thinker.blogspot.com

dmyers's picture

I'm 52 and divorced (against my will) as of 15 months ago, after 29+ years.  My ex-wife has already remarried.  While I would very much like to marry again someday, I have a son living with me who is a sophomore in high school.  For his sake and because I believe it's simply wise to take a good bit of time after such a long marriage before testing the water again (to get my head and heart straight), I will be waiting several years, at least until he is out of high school, before even attempting to date.

From my position, here are a few thoughts prompted by the OP and the comments:

  1. "[B]eing single when you’d like to be married is a form of suffering—minor, yes.  But suffering nonetheless."  I disagree that this suffering is minor.  It's not the worst kind of suffering in the world, but it is a significant suffering.  This is my personal recollection from being young and single (a long time ago); it's my understanding from others who are single and would like to be married; it's my experience now, even though I'm deliberately not dating; and I expect it to be my experience if or when I do start trying to date again.  Being without the intimacy and companionship of marriage -- spiritual, social, physical, etc. -- is a big deal, not a minor deal.
  2. "Another complication is the amount of divorced people in the 'pool' for marriage. Do we really want to recommend for the divorced to marry again if their lives have not changed spiritually from the last marriage? Aren't we condemning them to more of the same by encouraging them? Plus, what is our view on divorce and remarriage? The general view of the Lord Jesus is that it is from 'hardness of hearts'. This is generally from both sides. We are not to be 'no-fault' about divorce, even though our world is."  I agree wholeheartedly that the church should scrutinize the divorcees in its midst who are seeking to marry again -- both to confirm that their remarriage is biblical in their circumstances and to confirm that they are spiritually and emotionally ready.  I would love it if, were I to become engaged at some point in the future, my church and/or the officiating minister would insist on exploring my biblical eligibility for remarriage.  I agree and disagree that the "hardness of hearts" that underlies a divorce "is generally from both sides."  The fact that the marriage is in trouble is generally the fault of both parties -- not necessarily equally, but certainly jointly.  But unless the divorce was by consent, it is emphatically not the case that the divorce itself was "from both sides."  It only takes one person to pull that trigger, thereby preventing reconciliation.
  3. "[Y]ounger men no longer even get the idea of pursuing marriage. It's an ongoing adolescence kind of thing."  There are other systemic problems besides the extended adolescence problem, and in fact the extended adolescence problem may be mostly a result of the other systemic problems, including:  the poor economy; feminism in the secular world; a pervasive "blame men" atmosphere in the church; rampant divorce among the Christian parents of the younger men, most of which the church winks at and fails to discipline; and a legal system that generally rewards women in divorce.  There are a lot more cautions about marriage that apply to my 20-something sons than applied to me at their age.
Steve Newman's picture

I agree that there is significant suffering from divorce, and that its effect not only on yourself, but also those around you ought to be considered. I'd like the opportunity to refine what I was saying based on some of the comments above. I do agree that there is not just "one person in the world for you". In fact, God encourages people who got married in all kinds of circumstances to go to work on the marriage and make it work for the glory of God. In that sense there is no "bad marriage" in God's sight (Heb. 13:4). 

I agree with David's excellent statement and pray for God's best in his situation. It is true that one side can initiate and carry out the divorce pretty much without consent of the other, and that one of the two will "pull the trigger" to make that happen. That is most unfair and causes suffering. It does not necessarily preclude the idea of reconciliation, however. His idea of having the church explore biblical eligibility to remarry makes excellent sense. However, we've made it way too easy to make an "end run" around the church in most cases. In my experience, if a couple is counseled not to get into a relationship or to marry, chances are they will just go find someone else (or another church) that will do it anyway. Often times they are already involved sexually at that point and their minds are made up by the time they come to see the pastor anyway. Much like singles who are involved sexually, it is going to be pretty tough to talk them out of it.

Barry L.'s picture

I work in a large secular office where 50 percent of the folks are in their 20's. We are in a very affordable area and when they start with us, they are making middle class income. The vast majority of them get married before they leave their 20's. I see this with both male and female.

Sometimes we discount our daughters' choice of vocation because we think they will eventually get married and be taken care of. Their chances of matrimony are greater if they have economic stability themselves. Not only will a young man feel more secure about marrying them, the young women will have an opportunity to meet more economically stable Christian men in their field.

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