30 and Single? It's Your Own Fault
There are more unmarried people in our congregations than ever, and some say that's just sinful.
June 21, 2006
Once upon a time, Debbie Maken found herself still single at 28 and growing in her discontent. She was "dating-wearied, lonely, depressed, frustrated, and, yes, terrified of the future." Finally giving herself permission to feel these tough emotions, she took the exit ramp from her church singles class, gave a fresh look at what the Bible says about singleness and marriage, and finally realized she had to get serious if she was ever going to get married.
Following the path afforded by her ethnicity (she's Indian), she signed up with an Indian Christian Web agency to find a suitable suitor and, aided by her parents' watchful care, started e-mailing a man in July 2001. By that October, they were engaged. Now happily married and the mother of two young girls, Maken drew a mapin the form of her book, Getting Serious About Getting Marriedto the Land of Marital Bliss. She hopes to prevent her daughters and countless single women across the country from having to experience any more "unnecessary protracted singleness."
Maken starts with a relatable description of many single women's experience: Singleness is easier to see as a grand adventure in your 20s, an unfettered time to figure out who you are and what path God might like you to take through life. Without a spouse, there's more freedom to travel and take risks, minister and invest in a burgeoning career. But, as Maken describes quite well, this can start to lose its luster around the 30 milestone. In later chapters, she addresses the well-meaning advice handed to singles in Christian circlessuch as "just wait on the Lord to bring a mate to you" or "Jesus is all you need"and deftly explains some of the erroneous thinking and theology surrounding each. At her best, in passages such as these, Maken gives platitude-battered single women needed permission to admit, "I'd like to get married, and that's okay."
Unfortunately, these bits of trend-spotting and balanced synthesis are drowning in a sea of shame and blame. Maken seems to think a vast majority of singles view their solo status as a special gift from God (a stance I've seen in only a fraction of the thousands of e-mails I've received as a columnist for ChristianSinglesToday.com, a CT sister publication), a notion the very subtitle of the book urges them to reconsider. Based on this assumption, she spends the lion's share of the book arguing a case for marriage. Unfortunately, she doesn't stop there; she also makes a case against adult singleness, going so far as to call it unbiblicaland marriage a "biblical mandate" for all but the few who have been called to full-time kingdom work that makes family life impossible (a la biblical singletons Paul, Jeremiah, Barnabas, and John the Baptist) or who have a medical condition that makes them unable to perform marital "duties."
Her case for marriage as God's will for all believers rests largely on the story of Adam and Eve. Maken argues that since God said it wasn't good for Adam to be alone and then solved that problem not with a brother or friend or neighbor but with a spouse, that must mean every other person throughout the course of history is God-designed to be married. She backs this up with a basic dismissal of Paul's extolling singleness in 1 Corinthians 7, pointing to the unique historical context as a reason his words aren't still valid today.
To those who would ask, "What about the fact that Jesus was single?" Maken summarily answers, "There are a lot of things that Jesus was and did that we are never going to be or do." Case closed. That seems like a scary, simplistic paradigm with which to view our Savior. If marriage really is a biblical mandate for all believers, why aren't there any recorded words from Jesus about the matter? Why didn't he turn to his band of brothers and urge them to settle down? Why didn't he tell the woman caught in adultery to go, sin no more, and get married? Why didn't he confront his seemingly single friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus about their failure to wed? He said so much about the needs of the poor, the way the body of Christ should operate, and the times the Pharisees missed the mark, why don't we have any words to the single people of his day, urging them to marry, as Maken asserts is "the highest calling given to men and women"?
She also employs a troubling technique common in Christian circlesmaking the descriptive prescriptive. The Bible mentions "the wife of your youth" a couple of times, so Maken extrapolates that all should marry young. Maken found her spouse by "enlisting agency" and therefore asserts that all singles will find resolution in the same manner. Unfortunately, this technique of over-prescribing doesn't allow room for one of God's best traits: his personal touch in our lives. He relates to us individually, has different plans and timelines for each of us, and such cookie-cutter theology doesn't allow room for this wonderful truth.
Maken points to many root causes of the current singleness epidemic: our culture, media, the church, single men, parents, previous generations, faulty theology. There might be truth to some of these claims, and it's certainly helpful to examine them, but making such an impassioned case against all these sources won't help the intended audience of the book, single women, the one segment she all but lets off the hook for the current state of affairs. With her angry finger-pointing at all these factors, I fear she's simply inciting bitterness. And when are shame and blame, anger and bitterness ever helpful motivators or solutionslet alone biblical attitudes?
The 30 pages of solution at the end of the book suggest that dating is a harmful, ineffective means of meeting a spouse; that single women should move home or at the very least employ a father or father-figure to find potential suitors; that we should limit men's access to single women (which apparently lowers their motivation); and that singles shouldn't take much more than three months to figure out if someone is a good marriage match. These kinds of counter cultural solutions work better in theory than in reality. I asked several single male friends what they would think if someone like me, a never-married 34-year-old woman, were to move home and/or get my father to broker my dates. Their incredulous, confused stares said it all. If we were all agreeing to work from this playbook, these practices might be effective. But going so counter cultural in a climate where dateslet alone marriagesare already hard to come by for many Christian singles seems risky and misguided.
Perhaps the most troubling thing about Getting Serious About Getting Married is its lack of understanding and acknowledgment of current realities. I, like most singles I know, find myself still-single in my 30s by surprise. I don't view singleness as a higher spiritual state I'm loathe to leave, even though I have found unique ministry opportunities in this life stage. I haven't avoided marriage. In fact, I've allowed friends to set me up on dates, signed up for Christian online dating agencies, prayed for God to open doors. I have been serious about getting married.
Seriousness isn't the problem for me and most of my single sisters. A large part of the problem is found in two statistics: According to Barna research, there are between 11 and 13 million more born-again women than born-again men, and according to 2000 U.S. Census findings, there are 86 unmarried men for every 100 unmarried women. Meaning? As a single Christian woman, there are less marital options out there for me to get serious about. I have a feeling the new growing demographic of still-single women is more due to those realities than to our viewing singleness as an amazing gift or to any lack of seriousness about marriage. As such, Getting Serious About Getting Married feels like140 pages extolling the virtues of food to hungry people, then 30 pages of unrelatable and unrealistic advice on where to find this fabulous sustenance.
For many of us, singleness is a default reality. Besides praying for revival of the single men of our generation and doing our best to meet the good, godly men who are out there, we're left trying to make the most of this life stage, trying to find contentment in any and every situation, as Paul encourages (Philippians 4:11-12). In this process of trying to allow God's redemptive work in this sometimes-unwanted life stage, voices such as Maken's in Getting Serious About Getting Married sabotage our quest for godly purpose and hope. Most of us still-singles aren't trying to glorify singleness but to redeem it from second-class citizenship, to remind ourselves and our family-centric churches that God loves, values, and wants to work through all his kidswhether married or single. If we're going to get serious about some of these difficult singleness realities, and I think we should, why can't we also get realistic, accurate, and gracious?
Camerin Courtney is managing editor of Today's Christian Woman, columnist at ChristianSinglesToday.com, and co-author of The Unguide to Dating: A He Said/She Said on Relationships.
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Getting Serious About Getting Married is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
More information is available from Crossway books.
Debbie Maken's articles, Rethinking the Gift of Singleness, available from Boundless.org and How Churches Have Failed Singles, available from Beliefnet discuss the ideas in her book.
Candice Z. Watters takes another view of the book in her discussion at Boundless.org.
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