Saturday, July 22, 2006

Divorce effect on evolving attitudes of never-married singles

I have a stack of books on my desk at the office that came out in the 1980s and ‘90s for churches trying to address the growing singles population in their church. In these books I see the beginnings of the ideas on singleness and marriage that have become today’s conventional wisdom. Ideas such as:
  • Single people can be more spiritual because they don’t have the distraction of family responsibilities
  • Singles shouldn’t feel pressured into marriage
  • Marriage can’t complete you
  • Churches shouldn’t be so family-centric
  • Singleness is a gift that is scripturally-affirmed, reasonable alternative to marriage
All these concepts have elements of truth. But I believe they’ve now been taken too far. Consider, we have people believing:
  • Single people are actually spiritually superior to married people—a boast that Paul refuted in his day
  • That any encouragement or motivation for singles to consider marriage is undue pressure
  • That marriage does not play a God-given role in meeting some of our primary needs
  • That any effort to hold up God’s plan for family in a church is a slam on singles
  • That all singles have the "gift of singleness" and can carry around a spiritual trump card excusing them of any and all lifestyle choices and attitudes against marriage on the basis of the affirmation afforded to them by the Christian community
How did we get to this point?

How did we get to such a standoff between singles and families in churches? A key thing to remember is that the spike in singleness over the past 30 years came not only from a delay in marriage by young adults, but also by a spike in singleness due to an explosion in divorce.

Churches crafting messages to singles during the ‘80s and ‘90s were most often trying to respond to both categories of singles: divorced singles and never marrieds. My concern is that the needs of young adults who have never married have often been addressed with a script too similar to the one prepared for those who were “single again.” In too many circles the script for those who are single again include negative comments about marriage that create an extra level of anxiety and skepticism among never marrieds.

I’m having a hard time tracking it down, but I read an article by a twentysomething girl in Australia a while back who said she and her friends were hopeful about marriage but felt that her parents’ generation was trying to weigh them down with all kinds of warnings and weariness about marriage based on the hurt and bitterness they experienced from divorce.

While it’s understandable that parents would feel the need to warn young adults about the pain that can come from failed marriages (as if the kids of these breakups don’t already feel it), you almost get the sense that some are turning the old cliché on its head and saying that it’s best to never love at all than to go through the experience of love and loss.

Singles who are already surrounded by an anti-marriage culture and anxious because of the divorces they grew up around are finding even more pessimism and caution from churches who are aching from divorce wounds and don’t want to risk the hope that their young adults just might have the potential to forge good marriages.

17 Comments:

At 6:26 PM, Blogger Tidy Bowl said...

Here's the thing about semantics: We can argue all day about them. Paul meant this, Paul meant that. The Bible says this, the Bible says that. But I see a few gaping problems with this.

I just finished a survey class teaching exegesis, in which the professor insisted that the only way to study the New Testament was in the original Greek. However, this professor had some strong opinions - some of which even I cannot fully embrace without further research. This is the problem, even with the original Greek, I think. I can choose a Greek word and say it means X, while my professor says it means Y, while my pastor says it means Z. Even within the Greek we are likely to disagree on the exact meaning of words.

So, in my humble opinion, I think the most important thing is NOT to focus on this-or-that as a calling, or the meaning of this-or-that word. Rather, the most important thing we can possibly do is to obey the laws: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Luke 10:27)

Personally, I think if we are pursuing these laws, everything else will fall into place.

 
At 9:01 PM, Blogger Firinnteine said...

The Church needs to quit being wishy-washy and start condemning divorces -- "it just didn't work out" is not a Biblical reason for marriage, and while TidyBowl has some good cautionary words, I'm going to stand on this one till someone shoots me. (Actually, I don't intend to quit then, either.)

By the way, the transposition between the two sets of bullet-points is very helpful; thank you. I am mildly uncomfortable with several in the first list, but thought to myself, "well, there's something in it..." -- then the second list showed up, and I understood why aspects of the first made me uncomfortable.

So the question is, besides refusing to allow the "escape-hatch" to poison our own marriages, and exhorting other singles to consider marriage when appropriate, what can we do about it?

 
At 11:14 PM, Blogger gortexgrrl said...

Tidy Bowl,

I couldn't agree with you more on the importance of pursuing those laws and not getting caught up in semantics. Only problem is that the semantics we have been talking about have been used (misused) to create messages to Christian singles that have been unhelpful. As Steve was pointing out today, a lot of those concepts have some truth to them, but they have been taken too far. In order to sort things out, we've got to ask ourselves, what does the bible REALLY say about singleness?

Going back to the original Greek is a good start, even if it is kind of cumbersome. Having looked at 1 Cor 7:7 (the passage used in the past few years to support the idea of singleness as a gift or calling), I found out that it doesn't really say that (see my other posts), and that marriage and singleness were considered in the bible to be largely an ordinary matter of personal choice and volition.

It's all well and good if you as an individual want to say that your singleness is a gift (just like my friend said that getting fired from her job was "a gift"). But it's not okay when leaders insist that if you are single you have "the gift of singleness", as Elisabeth Elliot did when she wrote, "If you are single today, the portion assigned to you for today is singleness. It is God’s gift." Who is she to say what God's gift or intention is, now or at any point in time? Especially for those who are dealing with unwanted long term singleness, which we are realizing now has to do with many sinful influences at work in the world right now.

It's an understanding of singleness that's insensitive, uninformed and not as biblically based as originally thought. And it seems to be discouraging for some people who aren't sure if it's OK with God if they take action to seek marriage. With our current low birthrates, that's the last thing we need!

 
At 1:29 PM, Blogger gortexgrrl said...

tidy,

I couldn't agree with you more on the importance of pursuing those laws and not getting caught up in semantics. Only problem is that the semantics we have been talking about have been used (misused) to create messages to Christian singles that have been unhelpful. As Steve was pointing out today, a lot of those concepts have some truth to them, but they have been taken too far. In order to sort things out, we've got to ask ourselves, what does the bible REALLY say about singleness?

Going back to the original Greek is a good start, even if it is kind of cumbersome. Having looked at 1 Cor 7:7 (the passage used in the past few years to support the idea of singleness as a gift or calling), I found out that it doesn't really say that (see my other posts), and that marriage and singleness were considered in the bible to be largely an ordinary matter of personal choice and volition.

It's all well and good if you as an individual want to say that your singleness is a gift (just like my friend said that getting fired from her job was "a gift"). But it's not okay when leaders insist that if you are single you have "the gift of singleness", as Elisabeth Elliot did when she wrote, "If you are single today, the portion assigned to you for today is singleness. It is God’s gift." Who is she to say what God's gift or intention is, now or at any point in time? Especially for those who are dealing with unwanted long term singleness, which we are realizing now has to do with many sinful influences at work in the world right now.

It's an understanding of singleness that's insensitive, uninformed and not as biblically based as originally thought. And it seems to be discouraging some people who aren't sure if it's OK with God if they take action to seek marriage. With our current low birthrates, that's the last thing we need!

 
At 10:41 PM, Blogger Tidy Bowl said...

Let me preface this statement by saying that I am not trying to devalue or disrespect anyone in any way.

I see two types of people within the church. The first type of people are ones who tend to focus on specifics. They're most concerned with fulfilling the laws perfectly.

The second type of people are "big picture" people. These are the people who are most concerned with spreading the Gospel to as many people, in both near and far places, as possible.

I also believe that, somewhere between these two, there is the "ideal" Christian, the one who God desires.

Personally, I believe that I am definitely a "big picture" person. I have such a burden for the lost, especially those in foreign countries. It's both my thorn and my gift.

I think there's a time and a place for exegesis and semantics. I think the Bible should be translated as closely as possible. I also think that Biblical debate within intellectual circles (and within other circles as well) is important for spiritual growth and such.

However, I'm awfully concerned that we can get too bogged down in exegesis. Let's be frank: There is no Biblical commandmant that we should all learn ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, in order to read the Bible in the original languages. Further, it's also true that while you or I might be able to go to the local seminary and take a course in Greek (or whatever language), or we might be able to pick up a book and teach ourselves, there's a lot of Christians who can't do that. There's many Christians worldwide (including the US) who are illiterate. There's even more Christians who have to work many, many hours, all day, 6 days each week, just to support themselves and their family. Learning Greek is not an option for them.

If I had to learn Greek to understand the Bible, I would. I'm not worried about the "cumbersome" task. But I think getting bogged down in semantics is exactly what got the American church into this mess to begin with. In the church, passages are debated, interpreted, reinterpreted, and misinterpreted.

In the Bible, Jesus tells us to approach Him like a child. I think this means we can quit asking questions about what this means or doesn't mean, and just trust Him. Just trust, and love, and have faith. It's not easy but God is in control and He knows our future. No matter what happens, it's all gonna be ok.

 
At 9:35 PM, Blogger Tidy Bowl said...

Steve and Candice~
This is lame but, could you publish the comment I made yesterday (I think)?
I'm writing a couple of papers for a seminary class and I think I made some good points in that comment. :) So if I could see it, I think I could build on that to write a paper.
Thanks!
~TB

 
At 12:45 PM, Blogger A. LaLande said...

Yes, the concepts that Steve highlighted definitely have been taken too far. I’m sorry, but I can’t think of one single person that I know who is more spiritual than anyone else. Family responsibilities are simply replaced by school and work responsibilities – and many more leisure time distractions. Not having received a conventional education, I find the age-grade segregation at all levels to be rather distasteful and not at all useful. How are the young men and women to learn from the older ones if they are constantly shepherded into the young adults' Bible study down the hall?

*Controversial Position Alert* I believe that the situation that today’s singles are in is inherently selfish and that living outside of a family unit is not the best plan for growing and maturing. I have a friend (a little younger than I), who believes that she’ll be better prepared for marriage if she stops living at home with her parents and brothers and sisters, and goes off to live on her own. But in my own (limited, I will admit) experience, men and women who have lived alone have a much harder time giving up the pleasant and carefree lifestyle to share their life in a selfless manner, and thus have more difficult early years of marriage, or decide simply that the emotional and sometimes even physical gratification they are getting without it are enough. Those who are called by God (or gifted by Him, or however you choose to put it) to be unmarried are the ones you do find in spiritually strong positions – not kicking back and enjoying companionship without commitment.

Somehow, I believe that my constant interaction with a sometimes grumpy father, a very communicative mother, and five marvelously boyish brothers is a much better preparation for a life of marriage and motherhood than living by myself and avoiding much responsibility and practice. And I do believe God has “called” me to marriage. My goal is to have one that is as much like the picture of Christ and the church as possible. (And besides, since there won’t be marrying or giving in marriage in heaven, I figure I might as well experience it here while I have the chance! :)

 
At 1:21 PM, Blogger Corrin said...

Hi Steve.

I thought you and the others reading this blog might enjoy this article, "Marriage: Is There a Place Between Cynicism and Idolatry?" by Mardi Keyes who writes for Critique Magazine.

Blessings,
Corrin

 
At 9:21 PM, Blogger MandyMaria said...

I don't have an intelectual thesis or long winded response to what you're writing except to say, I don't want to marry someone who is lukewarm about their faith (see my blog) and what have you/do you have to say about that? My grandmothers and mother urge me to find a nice Christian boy, but my father urges education and career. In the end, I want to have both, and a large family.
And as far as singleness goes, yeah its a gift, but not for everyone! People glorify being alone because it means that they can schedule when they have to give of themselves, instead of being "on call" 24/7

 
At 9:24 PM, Blogger MandyMaria said...

I'm just sick of our generation (the kids in their 20s) being so lazy! Many claim that they are called to singleness out of selfish ambition, I believe. To be married and have children is to be "on call" every second of your life to give of your self, and many people would rather just schedule their selflessness instead of living a lifestyle of giving.

 
At 9:28 PM, Blogger MandyMaria said...

We all talk about being called to singleness or not but what about the people who use this idea of being called to singleness as an excuse to act like perpetual children? Those who see marraige as a ball and chain instead of an opportunity to grow in the Lord and to benifit the church?

 
At 3:22 PM, Blogger Mike Theemling said...

Not really related to the discussion, but after reading Candice's Boundless article "Plenty of Men to Go Around" and reading some rebuttals out there (not directly but challenging the stats) like this one http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/125/32.0.html

I did my own research and found the following:

According to the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey (not as comprehensive as a complete census but statistically very close), in 2004 here is the breakdown of single, never married (Note: It did not include those who lived in institutions, college dorms, or other group quarters).

http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/STTable?_bm=y&-geo_id=01000US&-qr_name=ACS_2004_EST_G00_S1201&-ds_name=ACS_2004_EST_G00_&-redoLog=false

- Males (20-44): 20,073,988
- Females (20-44): 16,529,949

Now combine this with the Barna numbers (2006). 43% of people in the "Buster" generation (ages 23-41) are regular church attenders. So we adjust these numbers to get an estimated:

- Males (20-44): 8,631,814
- Females (20-44): 7,107,878

Again, be aware the numbers will be a bit off because the ages don't completely overlap (age 20-44 vs. 23-41)

However, women (any age) are more likely than men to attend church on a regular basis (50% to 44%, respectively). If we use the Census Bureau numbers alone we get

Males (20-44) who attend church regularly: 8,832,555
Females (20-44) who attend church regularly: 8,264,975

Now we don't know who of these men/women are BOTH regular churchgoers AND in the "Buster" generation, but I think it's reasonable to conclude that the number of women who fall into this category would still outnumber the men.

CONCLUSION: Single never married men in that age group (20-44) outnumber women at church.

QED

So ladies, all the single never married men are right there in church with you, and there are more of them than you.

 
At 3:17 PM, Blogger gortexgrrl said...

Mike (and Candice),

As much as we were due for a break-down of Barna's 11-13 million man shortfall stat in terms of never married, married, divorced, widowed BELIEVERS (not nec. "AT CHURCH"), you can't just splice together two sets of data, willy-nilly, this set from Barna, that set from census, etc. Statistics just don't work that way. Besides, after Barna's 2000 man shortage stats, anything he has come up with since then that suggest the reverse is true should be HIGHLY suspect.

There's an overwhelming amount of evidence that there's a shortage of young, marriageable Christian men, compared to their female cohorts. ChristianCollegeGuide.net shows imbalanced male/female ratios that average around 40% male (secular colleges are leaning in this direction too, but many Christian colleges are starting to take an "affirmative action" admissions tack favoring men to create more balance). Internet dating resources that serve Christians, such as eharmony have more women registered. What's more, Candice admitted that Barna's data attested to more women than men ATTENDING church at the end of her Boundless article, which is the fine print that says it all.

The anecdotal evidence allows us to quite confidently estimate that in most young (mostly never married) Christian singles populations, there are about 1.5 to 2 women to every man, and that's a conservative estimate. This is not just a bunch of North American women sitting around "bemoaning"-- it's a GLOBAL phenomenon, as written about by Camerin Courtney in O Brother Where Art Thou, after conferencing with women in Eastern Europe.

So, if there's a surplus of single never married men aged 20-44 ANYWHERE (not there's been ANY report of such a phenomena other than this recent Boundless article), it does NOT amount to more young, never married men outnumbering women AT CHURCH.

 
At 9:01 PM, Blogger Jake said...

It's kind of odd that the comments on this blog focus so much on defining the "gift of singleness" and showing that we are misinterpreting that passage, while all other topics fall by the wayside. I have personally not encountered many people who use the "gift of singleness" argument, but I have encountered many people who seem swayed by exactly the kind of thinking Steve is describing here, and he makes some great points; namely, that:

1) Most of the conventional wisdom about marriage in churches today comes from a line of thinking that arose to console divorcees, many of whom emerged from failed marriages bitter and were looking for a reason to say "marriage--who needs it anyway", or who wanted to remarry, and the church really wanted to make sure that this time, things didn't go wrong, so they urged extreme caution. Also, many divorced persons who wish to remarry, especially women, have difficulty finding someone, hence the need to talk up singleness--it's kind of like a pep talk, helping them whistle past the graveyard of yearning for companionship but having no prospects.

2) This attitude of extreme caution, and the offshoot belief that singleness should be the "default" and one should only get married if one feels one is hearing a strong, direct, unmistakeable command from God to do so, really does lead to the practice of turning Tennyson's line on end and believing it's better never to have loved at all than to have loved and lost. This leads to a "better safe than sorry" policy which leads many to reject perfectly good opportunities to get married, because they feel, deep down somewhere, an ever so slight suspicion that there might be a faint possibility that maybe, just maybe, it could turn out someday that maybe possibly this person might not quite be "THE ONE".

I think these two ideas are a lot more significant in the Christian psyche today, when we are talking about why people are avoiding marriage, than the notion of the "gift of singleness."

 
At 2:00 PM, Blogger gortexgrrl said...

Why rethinking "the gift of singleness"? Thank you for bringing that up!

It's because just about everything you talk about here: "talking up" singleness ("really, it's a gift!!") to the divorced, as well as "default singleness" unless you hear "a strong, direct, unmistakeable command from God" to marry (ie. get "called" to marriage or you've got "the gift of singleness"), these notions didn't just pop up out of nowhere. They are both rooted in the calling of singleness "a gift", which began after the Living Bibles of the 70's started calling it that in 1 Cor 7:7. I have been trying to put forth a case that this has created a rogue doctrine on singleness that sews seeds of discouragement about marriage. You can see for yourself the development of "the gift of singleness theology" when you review old books and sermon tapes over the last several decades. Previous generations of Christians never called singleness "a gift" and they didn't have these kinds of issues. Sometimes you've got to pull out the weeds to get the root of the plant to flourish again.

 
At 8:38 PM, Blogger Jake said...

gortexgrrl, I think this is where we disagree. Those things didn't pop up out of nowhere, but rather than being caused by the phrase "gift of singleness," I think they simply arose from the influence of the secular world. For example, as it became socially legitimate to have sex before marriage, nonbelievers began to see it as "weird" to get married before one's late twenties, so pretty soon Christians started to think it's weird too. They then needed an ex post facto Christian rationale for that belief--hence, cautiousness about marriage lest you marry "the wrong person," "gift of singleness," etc.

I say this because outside of the blogosphere I don't see the phrase "gift of singleness" quoted very often. I'm aware things may vary by denomination, geographical region, or other factors, but in my experience, the Christians delaying marriage don't claim to have the "gift of singleness." Instead, bewildering as it is, they claim they want to get married even as they turn down opportunties to do so. If you ask them why they're not married yet even though they want to be, they'll tell you it's because they haven't received a clear enough signal from God that any person they've had the opportunity to be with yet has been "the one." One might think that if they really wanted to be married, they'd drop this "the one" stuff and be willing to be a bit more practical and say yes to any man or woman who'd be a decent husband or wife as soon as one comes along. But this is where the overcautiousness about marriage that's been preached for the past 30 years comes in; those of us under 30 have grown up being told by Christian leaders that "settling" is what we absolutely must not do, that in fact it is the cardinal mistake in choosing a spouse and the main reason behind divorce being so rampant today.

This is why I'd much prefer to see Christian teachers devote their energies to combatting the notion of "the one" and the general lack of pragmatism in the mate-selection process, than to debunking the "gift of singleness."

 
At 11:01 PM, Blogger gortexgrrl said...

Jake, I agree that the age of first marriage among Christians has been rising along with that of the secular world, for the reasons you mentioned, but even if that's the main reason, it's not the only reason.

The church teachings that you've also mentioned-- that God "gifts" you with a spouse, "calls" you to marriage-- have an opposite side, which is that if you don't get the gift of marriage, you've got "the gift of singleness". The trend of delaying marriage and the "gift of singleness/gift of marriage" teachings appeared CONCURRENTLY throughout the late 70's into the 80's and 90's, reinforcing this trend among Christians. And those teachings are rooted in the idea that the bible speaks of "the gift of singleness", when in fact it doesn't (as I said, it's only in modern bibles like the Living Bible and The Message).

Maybe the biblical origins of church teachings doesn't interest you, in which case, fine. But those involved with singles ministries (I think a number of future pastors read this blog) have a responsibility to know this stuff. Everything they teach has to come from the bible, and when they are mistaken about the biblical foundations of their teachings, things can go seriously wrong, for example, the "overcautiousness about marriage" thing you're talking about. You wonder why people can't just drop "the one" stuff but how can they, when they have been told that God gives you one or the other and who are you to refuse his gift?

Calling singleness a gift may not seem like a big deal to you, but it has been a pernicious influence in the foundation of the most unhelpful of church teachings on marriage and singleness. In order to convince those leaders to abandon those teachings, you have to show that they are biblically unsound (that nowhere in the bible does it mention the "gift" of marriage/singleness, being "called" to marriage/singleness, or divine, pre-determined spouse assignment). It really is a matter of human volition.

 

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