For Christian singles — an ever-growing group within the church — the prevailing message in culture and from the pulpit is often “Get married! As soon as possible!” If it wasn’t already a pressure that single people naturally felt, it is certainly a pressure exacerbated by a society that seems to equate happiness with finding a mate.
But for some Christian singles who are in their 30s or older and find themselves unmarried, the question sometimes shifts away from “Who am I going to marry?” to “What if marriage isn’t in God’s plan? What does that mean for me as a Christian in the church?”
These are questions that authors Bonnie Field (’91) and Christine Colon (’90) ask in their new book, Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must Be Reinvented in Today’s Church (Brazos, June 2009). In the book, Field and Colon — who were roommates and fellow English majors at Biola, and both single — explore the place of celibacy in contemporary Christianity and attempt to offer a more positive discussion of Christian singleness.
Recently, Biola Magazine spoke with Field to talk about the challenges and misunderstandings of Christian singlehood, and how the church might think differently about celibacy and the single life.
Bonnie, you and Christine talk in the book about reframing the discussion for singles away from words like “abstinence” and “chastity” towards the word “celibacy.” Why is this word preferable?
We chose the word celibacy because, for one thing, it has a long history and tradition in the church. The focus of celibacy is on your relationship with God rather than on your future marriage. With the term abstinence, so much of the focus is on holding out until you get married — and the assumption that that is going to be a short period of time. The focus is on what you are doing without, rather than what you are focused on. And chastity is a discipline that certainly applies to single adults as well as married adults — but we felt that there were certain issues involved in the single life that really weren’t covered in the idea of chastity because so much of the discussion still focused on marriage as the end goal. In a church that is so focused on the nuclear family, we really felt like there needed to be a discussion that acknowledged that singleness has a place as well.
What advice would you give to Christian singles who feel like they don’t fit in at church?
It’s a hard place to be for single adults. Unfortunately, a lot of single adults have chosen to leave the church because they don’t feel like they really fit in. My main advice would be to hang in there. Focus on your own relationship with God, developing a spiritual maturity, seeking relationships with families and seeking to be more active in the church.
How important is community in the life of a Christian single adult?
It’s very important. We all desire community. We all seek relationships with other people. And, unfortunately, so many aspects of our society force people to seek that community in the nuclear family rather than in the church, and single adults really need that community within the church because so many times they don’t have a nuclear family. But more than that, church community is something that nuclear families need as well. I have so many friends who are stay-at-home moms with young children and they also feel isolated. So none of us, even if we are married, can exist only in our nuclear families. We need church community.
You make the point in the book that marriage and family should really be secondary to the church.
Right. Throughout the New Testament, the focus is on the church family — on that community supporting each other. There really is very little emphasis on the nuclear family being the first line of support. Rather, it’s on the church being our primary family. If you think about the advice given to widows to not remarry and that the church should take care of those widows — that was something unheard of in that society. Back then, you received your support from your extended family, but in Scripture that role is given to the church.
The book is really great about using pop culture references (everything from The 40-Year-Old Virgin to Sex and the City) to make points about how singlehood is portrayed in the media. Why do you think there are so few positive portrayals of celibate lifestyles in the media? And how should we react to that?
First of all, we have to remember that it is a secular media. And the secular world really doesn’t have a strong understanding of celibacy and doesn’t really have the moral code to promote celibacy. But as Christians viewing this, we unfortunately start to accept so many of the world’s messages regarding relationships. So many times we take secular ideas and put a Christian spin on them. We put it in terms of marriage vs. singleness rather than sexually active vs. not sexually active, for example. And so the emphasis becomes, “Well, there’s no way for you to resist sexual temptation, so therefore you have to get married and you have to get married young.”
Is marriage the only healthy solution for singles who struggle with sexual desire?
I would say definitely not. There are a lot of people who say that it is, but the problem of that comes when it’s not necessarily your choice if you get married or not. If you are avoiding marriage because you fear the commitment or because you want to play the field, that is very different from desiring to get married and it just not happening for you. And there can be a lot of different reasons why it doesn’t happen for you. It’s becoming more and more common among singles, which is another reason why we need to have a more positive view of celibacy in the church.
What does sexuality mean for Christian singles? Is there a difference between sexuality and “being sexually active”?
Yes, there is a strong distinction between the two. Even if you are not sexually active you are still sexual. You are sexual just by being a human being. I think the difference is how you experience that sexuality. One of the things we look at in the book is how our sexuality draws us to relationships with other people, and not just sexual relationships, but just the desire for community with other people. Our sexuality influences how we view ourselves as men and women, how we interact with each other. We can’t distance ourselves from it. It’s something that we need to reframe in a way that draws us into Christian community with one another.
We must also recognize that when we do have sexual desires it is ultimately reflecting our desire to have complete union with God. As long as we’re on earth, we will always be restless. We will always have a longing for union with God that doesn’t go away if you’re married or if you’re sexually active. I would challenge singles who have sexual desires to think about what it is they’re really craving, to redirect that energy toward God rather than a physical relationship. With so many of the spiritual disciplines — for example, fasting or giving something up for Lent — ultimately the point is to take the hunger that you have as a reminder of what you should really be focusing on. It’s not just a physical hunger for food. Every time I feel that pang I need to be thinking about God, and you can do the same thing with the spiritual discipline of celibacy.
Are “College and Career” classes or singles groups helpful?
Well, those of us who are older than 30 often have a hard time going to a singles group full of college students. Especially those of us who may be college professors. It’s kind of awkward to go to Sunday school with your students. So that is difficult. Unfortunately so many churches just have one singles group that is a catchall for everyone who is single. But these days there are so many different types of singles. There are your traditional never-marrieds, there are divorcees, widows, those with children and those without children. So it’s hard when you’re trying to lump everyone together.
Different single adults have different feelings about singles groups. Some really love them, and others feel like they are being excluded from the rest of the church by being put in a singles group. So much of it depends on the focus of the singles group. Is the focus on the teaching of the Word of God and providing community? Or is the focus trying to get everyone married? Personally I’d prefer to be integrated with the rest of the church. I have learned so much from the Bible studies I’ve been in with married adults and people of various generations.
So you don’t think it’s a good idea to look for a church based on “probability of finding a spouse?”
[Laughter] Personally, no. That is advice that I and most of the single adults I know have received at one point or another: “If you can’t find a spouse at your church, maybe you should find another church — one that has a big singles group maybe.” And I’ll admit: I tried that for a while when I first moved to Atlanta. But I ended up at a small church that has very few single adults. For me, it just came down to finding a church that preaches the Word of God, with the focus on your relationship with God rather than finding a spouse. I could go to every singles group in the country, but if it’s not in God’s plan for me to marry, I’m not going to find anyone.
You talk in the book about the dangerous message that to be truly happy, one must be married. How do you answer that?
Well, I think if you asked any married person if being married made them truly happy, they would answer no. You can look at this on so many different levels. On one hand, nothing will make us truly happy until we get to heaven. It’s problematic to look for ultimate satisfaction in any earthly thing. And also, it puts a lot of pressure on marriage if you go into it expecting that it will make you truly happy. I think we can see this pressure reflected in the divorce rates these days, even within the church. So often the justification for divorce is that “I deserve someone who is going to make me happy.” But even those who are happy in their marriages still don’t find that they are completely satisfied. They still have to search for happiness in other things. So I think it’s problematic to have the expectation that any relationship is going to provide ultimate happiness.
Bonnie Field (’91) is an educational consultant and curriculum specialist in the Atlanta area. She is currently working on her high school teaching certification in hopes of becoming a high school English teacher.