This post is really not about singleness. Although, by way of getting to something that has me increasingly troubled, I will use singleness as the spring to launch into what I believe is the root of a problem, particularly in American evangelical Christianity. In contending with my own issues related to singleness, I note this as an objective observation, which actually prompted my thoughts on this matter along with other things related to ecclesiology that have come across my radar.
The single person who longs to be married, is generally told to be content in their present circumstance. That single person should not express too much their desires for a partnership otherwise it gets labelled as idolatrous. So the burden on their heart to be loved, accepted, to belong to a union with another is supressed lest the desire turn into an idol. Now, I am not saying that we should not learn contentment for there is biblical support to do so, such as Paul says in Philippians 4:13 that he has learned to be filled (content) in whatever circumstance he is in. Although I would contend that the contentment in this case based on his argument is more related to material comfort. There is also the idea that we must endure hardship. That doesn’t mean we are not impacted by it, but in consideration of our life not being our own, we consider the prize more worthy than our loss or pain.
Nonetheless, I have noticed the extent to which we celebrate love when it does happen. From the time that special person is realized, each successive step in the relationship is met with announcement and fanfare. The no longer single person can rave about their significant other. They can publicize how wonderful it is and begin including their significant other in with every conversation. The engagement is announced and every one celebrates. This is just the beginning as the lives of these two people are intertwined, so is the display of the union.
So what is interesting to me is that the single person who desires this kind of celebration is told that it can be idolatrous. But when it actually happens, it is not. What is missing and longed for when it is not there must be supressed, but not so when it actually happens. It is celebrated and encouraged. Why is the partnered person not told that they are being idolatrous? I don’t know about you, but this seems awfully hypocritical to me.
Ok, so like I said this post is not about that (and I wanted to get that off my chest). But it occurs to me that there is a reason that longing exists in the heart and the reason it is celebrated with joy when found. There is a reason that the single person feels its absence. And this does not just happen with singleness, but a lack of relationship in general. Although there may be exceptions, for most of us, the difference between having relationship vs not having relationship on any or many levels impacts us. There is a difference when we belong, are accepted and have community vs. when we are alone, isolated and missing important relationships. That is because we are created to be in relationship with others. I believe that when God said it is not good that man should be alone and created woman, this set the precedent for our human experience – to be in relationship with others.
But more importantly, how much more should relationship exist among members of the body of Christ. It is one thing to experience love with one individual, but for members of the body to love one another is how Jesus said the world would know we are his disciples (John 13:35). That does involve relationship and support in meaningful and tangible ways so that we accomplish what is commended in Ephesians 5:19-21. No Christian should experience isolation.
But I have been increasingly dismayed to the extent this is downplayed and particularly in American Christianity. Our rugged individualism is fostered through exhortations concerning our Christian experience. Our language is peppered with isolationism and individualized supremacy. We make a “personal decision” for Christ. We encourage alone time with God. We tell the weak to be strong in the Lord and realize they can do all things through Christ who strengthen them. We promote the idea that it is just me and God, as exemplified in this song called Me and God.
Now before you protest, I am not saying that we don’t include the importance of a corporate component in the quest to have some kind of body life. But even when we do that, it is so our own life can be strengthened so that we by ourselves can make it. The occasion of the Lord’s Supper is typically marked by isolation as I reflect on what Christ did for me. (Although I do note that some traditions encourage a more participatory focus). In our corporate worship time, we sing in isolation. We close our eyes to have our own personal experience with the Lord and sing about how we don’t need anyone else but Jesus, like this song.
I contend that this is still individualism in a corporate guise and I fear that we are losing sight of what it means to be the body of Christ, to experience community with each other and have the mindset that it is not just me and God, but God and His people. This is the existence that members united together in Christ are supposed to have. The Christian life must mean more than just God meeting my needs, being strengthened for myself so that I can go out and be a witness for him. The biblical evidence suggests that it is the corporate makeup that witnesses to the world (Ephesians 3:10-11). It is the body loving, serving and tending to each other that causes growth and the ability to witness (Ephesians 2:21-22; 4:15-16). Again, that means interacting with one another in meaningful and tangible ways that entail more than just a handshake or hug on Sunday mornings.
Going back to the Philippians citation, the context of his letter heavily weighs on body life, where members are encouraged to concern themselves with something more than just their walk with the Lord but how they may support one another. When Paul says he has learned to be content that is not for the purpose of be strengthened apart from body life. I also contend that in Paul’s apostolic ministry, he was called to bear a more isolated existence such as those who serve in that apostolic function, i.e. missionaries may have to endure the same thing. But I don’t believe that is meant to be the brunt of our Christian experience.
Now, I am not saying that we are escape responsibility of our Christian growth by relying on others. It is our responsibility to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12) and bear our load (Galatians 6:5). That does mean spending time alone in prayer, in study, and in reflection. Under divine discipline, there might be times where God wants us alone to experience the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings and purge sinful orientations. But that is for the purpose of providing support to body. How can we grow up in Him, supporting one another if our Christian experience is so focused on how our own personal experience? It is fine that we have individual mission fields but there has to be a concerted effort in how we engage with one another and foster relationship.
But as long as we promote this rampant individualism, we will likely to be impatient and possibly neglectful to the concerns of weary, troubled, lonely or isolated saints. Is it any wonder that the single person is expected to be happily content on their own? Should we not be surprised that an overburdened saint is offered prayers to be strengthened instead of calls for assistance? Or that the isolated saint is encouraged to pray harder, read more and get closer to God, as if there problem is they need more of Jesus. Maybe they don’t need more of Jesus, but more of His body.