Peter and Ginger Wallace
This is the first thing that the church needs to say to singles, repeating words of the apostle Paul: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am” (1 Cor. 7:8).
Certainly marriage is an honorable estate, and, as Paul puts it, “if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Cor. 7:9). Marriage is a fine thing, but “finding a spouse” should not be the focus of how singles function in the life of the church.
Notice how we said that: “how singles function in the life of the church”—not how “we” should incorporate singles into the life of the church (as though singles were somehow outsiders who need to be “brought in”).
At the same time, it is appropriate to talk about the church’s ministry to singles—just as we talk about the church’s ministry to those who are married. The purpose of ministry to singles in the church is to equip and strengthen them in their single-minded devotion to Christ. If God should happen to call them to marry along the way, that is fine (and we have helped some of our singles find spouses!)—but that is not the goal that Paul gives us.
Paul is very clear that “the unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:32). He can serve Christ with undivided focus—something that a married man cannot do. Let us repeat that: a married man cannot be single-minded in his efforts to please Christ. As Paul says, “the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided” (vv. 33–34). Notice that Paul does not say that this is wrong. It is right for a married man to have divided interests. And Paul says the same thing for single women: “The unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit” (v. 34).
Do our churches have this attitude toward singleness? Do we value the contributions and gifts of singles in the life of the body? Some of the most faithful and dedicated members of our congregation have been our single men and women who understand and practice this to great effect.
The key is for the whole people of God, whether single or married, to live as the body of Christ together. Since we tend to gravitate toward “people like us,” the constant temptation is to separate into cliques. When we give in to this temptation, we fail to love one another as Christ has loved us. The solution is rather simple: repent and believe the gospel—and demonstrate our repentance and faith in our love for one another!
While there are lots of specific issues and challenges related to the various types of singleness (those who are widowed, those who are divorced, and those who have never married), we believe that these basic principles can be applied to each particular case.
One way that the church can utilize the gifts of single men is by ordaining them. At Michiana Covenant Presbyterian Church, we had a lifelong bachelor, the late Rolf Caylor, as an elder for twelve years. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he had spent sixty-six years in the PCUSA, watching as his church (in his words) “downgraded the role of Christ, and upgraded the role of the human race in the work of salvation.” When he found MCPC, he found a home, and within five years he was ordained as a ruling elder. Psalm 113 speaks of how God gives to the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. There is a very real sense in which God gave Rolf Caylor a home, making him the joyous grandfather of the dozens of children in the church.
In the same way, five of the sixteen men who have served as deacons at MCPC were single at the time of their ordination. In the words of one formerly single deacon, “Singles should be treated like married people who happen to have more time on their hands.” On the one hand, the church needs to identify and train those men. On the other hand, single men need to pursue these opportunities to serve.
Likewise, there have been several single women whose gifts and service have profoundly shaped the life of our congregation. Our Women’s Ministry Team has often included single women because they have the time and energy to devote to this work. One of our divorcées has devoted herself to teaching a children’s Sunday school class for twenty years. She found a place where she was needed, and she filled it—and so generations of children have called her blessed.
We don’t pretend that we have figured out some special way to minister to singles. Quite frankly, there is nothing special about it. Indeed, our goal has always been not to treat any group with special privileges—which requires us to be careful not to privilege our own “married with children” group! We highlight this because when the leadership of the church is all married with children, the tendency is to privilege families with children and orient church programs around them.
So how does the church organize her daily life? First, we need to decenter the family. If Jesus has broken down the walls between Jew and Gentile and established one new family in himself, then the nuclear family should not be the center of church life. Rather, the family of God is the center. As Paul says in Ephesians 5:31–32, the whole point of Genesis 2:24 (“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”) is that it speaks of Christ and the church: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” Too often we become obsessed with having “family time,” by which we mean only the nuclear family.
One formerly single deacon describes it well: “I really liked the way Michiana tended to basically bring kids along for the ride for whatever the adults happened to be doing. If it was corporate worship, there they were. If it was a fellowship meal or cookout, the kids were basically left to their own devices, which seemed to bother them not at all. This both keeps the focus away from catering to kids’ activities all the time, and treats kids as junior members of the church rather than alien potentates who must be catered to at every opportunity. That’s good for everybody.”
Here are some practical tips for married people: Include singles in what your family is doing! Invite them over for dinner, and ask them to stay for family worship. Welcome them into your household and treat them like just another adult in the family. To quote another MCPC single, “The main difference [between singles and married folk] is a heightened risk of loneliness, and heightened temptation to self-absorption, leading to selfishness. The cure for both of these is hospitality and incorporation: being invited to participate in everyday life, and being expected to contribute to everyday life—in the church and in particular families in the church.”
And two tips for singles:
(1) Look for ways to serve in the church. Can you take charge of such things as organizing church workdays or organizing the church’s ministry to a soup kitchen or food pantry? What are some ways that you can serve because you are single?
(2) Seek out families that you would like to be part of. Take an interest in the children around you! We will never forget two of our single men who came over for lunch one day. We went to the kitchen to get lunch ready, and when we came back to the living room, we found them reading books to our preschoolers! These children will be the singles of the church in a few years.
The point is that the church is the family of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is the church (not married people) that provides a home where all of us find the stability and rootedness that we need.
Peter Wallace, an OP minister, serves as stated supply for Michiana Covenant Presbyterian Church, PCA, in Granger, Ind. Ginger Wallace is his wife. New Horizons, January 2016.