“My church doesn’t get singleness”, said Hannah, a look of exasperation on her face. “Some people keep trying to set me up with one of the single men. Others look at me with pity and tell me not to worry because my time will come – there’s bound to be someone out there for me. But very few people stop to consider that I might view my state of being unmarried as a gift from God. That I might even enjoy the freedom of being able to devote myself to serving the Lord Jesus.”
Hannah (name changed to protect her privacy) spoke to me after a seminar I’d given entitled The Gift of Being Unmarried. Her experience is not unique. I’ve spoken with a number of single Christians – including those who are widowed or divorced – who feel that their church and Christian friends just don’t seem to get the single life. Problems that unmarried people face include assumptions made as to why they’re not married, recurring suspicions about their close same-sex or opposite-sex friendships and a sense that so much of church life is geared toward support of the nuclear family rather than the wider family of God.
In an attempt to stimulate a more constructive approach to singleness in our churches, here are five ways Christians could encourage unmarried friends. Three don’ts followed by a couple of dos.
- Don’t be obsessed with matchmaking
People are unmarried for a variety of reasons. Some patiently waiting and wanting to find a suitable marriage partner. Others actively searching and desperately praying for a husband or wife, wondering if and when God will answer their prayers. Still others, like Hannah, agree with Paul that “each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another” (1 Corinthians 7:7) and are joyfully using their unmarried freedom for gospel purposes. Some were married but have suffered the pain of bereavement or heartache of divorce. And some, like myself, face an ongoing struggle with same-sex temptations and have concluded that marriage to someone of the opposite sex is not a viable option.
Whatever the reason for someone’s single status, Christians need to be much more sensitive than we generally are. It’s right, of course, for the church to teach positively about marriage. But we mustn’t put unmarried Christians under pressure. Nor must we presume to know the reason for someone not being married. One Christian said to me recently “any man who remains unmarried must be either impotent or gay”; they could see no other reason for it! Apart from lacking any pastoral sensitivity, this comment fails to take account of the fact that Jesus Christ – a perfect, complete human being – was an unmarried man.
- Don’t assume unmarried people have limitless free time
I’ve been involved in vocational Christian ministry for nearly 20 years. And in that time I’ve learnt to appreciate the freedom of being unmarried. “The married man”, writes Paul, “is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:33). But I’m free from that worry of how to keep my spouse happy (which I understand from some married friends can be tricky at times!) Instead, I can concern myself with the Lord’s affairs and focus my time and energy on pleasing him (v 32).
Being unmarried, however, does bring its own particular pressures and battles. Most people that I’ve served or worked alongside have recognised this and have been very understanding and supportive of my singleness. But sometimes I’ve had to gently confront unrealistic expectations of constant availability and assumptions that I must have an endless stream of free time (meaning that, of course, I should turn up for every single church meeting or event). The reality is quite different.
True, I benefit from the freedom of not having to care for and meet the expectations of a spouse or children. But I need to set aside time to do many of the same things as married couples. Except that I have to do them alone. Because I don’t have anyone to share the workload with. So paying bills, cleaning, laundry, ironing, grocery shopping, cooking, washing up etc. – all down to me. And caring for a sick relative can’t be shared with a spouse either. I make this point not to seek pity (please don’t!) but rather as a gentle reminder that most unmarried Christians aren’t able to share the household chores or various responsibilities of life.
- Don’t jump to conclusions about close friendships
A friend at church said recently that he would never go out for a meal, or even a coffee, with just one other man, out of concern that people would assume they were in a gay relationship. To back up his stance he quoted Ephesians 5:3: “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality.” Seriously? Is this really what Paul had in mind in writing to the Ephesian church?
Surely Paul is giving Christians an important biblical principle that needs to be wisely and prayerfully applied into our lives. He’s not prescribing a straightjacket that keeps us from living a normal, sensible life, or insisting that we live without close friendship or godly intimacy. Yes, as a Christian, I have a responsibility not to do or say anything that might reasonably be considered to suggest sexual immorality. But I can’t be responsible for those who might jump to wrong conclusions based on not even the slightest hint of immorality in either my speech or behaviour.
Interestingly, none of my close and trusted friends (Christian or not) would dream of jumping to this kind of conclusion if they saw me eating or having a coffee with another male friend. Not least because they know that’s how I do much of my pastoral work (seeking to be wise by meeting with people in a public place). And in the same way, I wouldn’t make such assumptions if I saw two men or two women out together in a common social situation. Statistically, it’s much more likely for them to be colleagues, siblings, brothers or sisters in Christ…or just good friends!
- Do ask how you can pray and offer practical support
I find it so encouraging when someone tells me they’ve been praying for me, particularly when I know they mean it. I often thank God for those Christian friends who follow the example of Paul by always remembering me in their prayers (Ephesians 1:16).
I recall some years ago one elderly woman (now with the Lord) who used to approach me regularly at church and whisper “I’m praying for you to find a nice young woman to marry.” She was such a gentle, godly woman, so I couldn’t help but respond with a smile and a polite thank-you. How much better, though, if she had asked how she could be praying for me in my unmarried state, rather than assuming that I was hoping for or working towards marriage in the future. Would I have had the courage to tell her that I was struggling with same-sex temptations? I don’t know. Maybe. But I would have loved the opportunity at least to explain my situation and ask her to pray with understanding.
Some Christian friends do ask regularly how they can pray for me, which is warmly appreciated. Others go further and enquire if there are specific ways in which they can support me practically, often responding to my needs in sacrificial ways. One such friend has now helped me move home twice in recent years, freely giving a couple of days of his time on each occasion. Another regularly places his phenomenal DIY skills at my disposal, graciously responding to my complete ineptitude when it comes to practical tasks around the home! It’s not one-way traffic though; I’m able to serve him too by lending my admin skills when needed. When we love one other practically and sacrificially, we follow in our Lord’s footsteps of course:
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18)
- Do make every effort to include unmarried friends in family life
As an unmarried man, I’m passionate in my belief that marriage is a good gift from God. One that should be clearly taught about and celebrated within the church. Sometimes I get concerned, though, that so much of local church life seems to revolve around the nuclear family, with many family units being quite insular and apparently disconnected from the wider body of Christ. But what about those in a church fellowship who aren’t married, for whatever reason, some of whom might never marry? Should we just consign them to the “singles group”?
No. In the gospel accounts Jesus urges us to think differently about family. To focus much more on the wider family of God. This is clear from a little incident recorded for us by Matthew:
While he [Jesus] was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:46-50)
Clearly Jesus is not disrespecting his natural mother and brothers here. He’s sinless. He obeyed perfectly the 5th commandment to “Honour your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12). But what he is doing is making it clear that Christians are to have an expanded view of family. Who are my mother, and who are my brothers? Well, anyone who is “in Christ” and is, therefore, adopted into the family of God (Ephesians 1:5).
Over the years, a small number of Christian families have lovingly adopted me and made me feel like one of the family. Sometimes this has involved inviting me along to family birthdays, or days out. Other times I’ve been treated as an honorary uncle to the children. In these homes I know I’m free to be me, able to be completely real. I know I can put my feet up on the sofa and snooze after lunch, without feeling awkward or embarrassed.
My one sadness is that this doesn’t happen more often in our churches. Far too many of my unmarried friends don’t have those second homes open to them. They often feel lonely and out of place, or even like second-class Christians, in churches where the nuclear family seems to dominate. My prayer is that the Lord would move more married couples to open up their hearts and their homes to those who are unmarried. To lovingly say “here is my mother, my father, my brother, my sister, my son, my daughter.”