Does true love wait, and wait, and wait some more? Christine Colón and Bonnie Field, friends at Biola University in the '80s, did not begin to think seriously about singleness until their 30s, when they realized this marriage thing wasn't happening. Frustrated by several churches where marriage and family life were framed as spiritually optimal, both women turned to each other and to other singles for constructive ways to interpret their singleness beyond, "Just hold on, he [or she] will come along soon."
Thankfully, the book borne of Colón and Field's experience does more than vent. Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must Be Reinvented in Today's Church (Brazos) looks at common assumptions about marriage in popular culture and the church, critiquing the latter from taking too many cues from the former. Drawing on biblical motifs and the church fathers, Colón and Field envision singleness as a witness to radical dependence on God — and to his expansive love for those outside the church. Assistant editor Katelyn Beaty spoke with Colón, who is associate professor of English at Wheaton College.
What prompted you and Bonnie to write Singled Out?
The two of us have been friends since college. As we went on with our lives and earned degrees, we had long conversations about our frustrations of being single in the evangelical church. So we started to look for good advice for older singles, because much discussion about abstinence [is for] high schoolers and college age people. But once you're out of college, once you are working, there really wasn't much of a discussion.
Much of the discussion around singleness is, "Just have enough faith, and God will provide a spouse." And we started to worry about what that says about God. This idea of, wait a second, God hasn't provided a spouse. What does that mean? Does that mean I'm not a good Christian? Does that mean God is not faithful? When you start going there, that's dangerous. So we started to look for a better discussion.
What are the sociological factors leading to so many Christians, particularly women, remaining single?
One factor is that we just have more singles in the U.S. The most recent statistic is from 2006, which says 46 percent of Americans are single. There's just not the assumption that you will marry, you will marry young, and you will stay in that one marriage for life. But many churches have reacted to this by focusing on the nuclear family, and because of that, a lot of singles are uncomfortable in the church.
There have also been discussions about the feminization of Christianity, and how men don't feel comfortable in the church. So when you have those factors working together, from our experiences and our friends' experiences, single women in churches look around and are not finding anyone. The other dilemma is "marrying down" — what does it mean to marry someone who isn't as spiritually mature? That is a dilemma for many single Christian women.
I don't want it to sound like we are ragging on all the single men in the church. Yes, there's a problem of immaturity in the church, for men and women, but a lot of writers say, "It's the men's fault, and if they would step up and do their job, we wouldn't have this problem." And it's far more complex than that. I feel for men in the church who say, "I also have reasons why I'm single, and it's not because I stay home and play video games all the time."
Might part of the problem be that Christians are being too picky?
I'd phrase it this way: We have learned the importance of thinking before getting married. We've seen a lot of broken marriages. We've seen people jump into marriage and realize "oops," in both the Christian and secular worlds. So a lot of Christian singles are pausing to say, "Maybe I shouldn't just jump into marriage, because I want it to be a lifelong commitment and I recognize how serious that is."
You reference Christian thinkers who say marriage reveals particular spiritual truths that might not be available to unmarried persons. What are the spiritual truths that celibates may uniquely enjoy or reveal to others?
Celibacy can be a radical testimony to God's love and provision, because it reminds us that our ultimate fulfillment has to be union with God. That is equally true for married couples, but oftentimes marriage is seen as, once you have that partner you will be fulfilled. And that's a lie. With celibacy, you have to come to grips with that early on, to say, "My fulfillment lies in God, and there are always going to be these longings unfulfilled here on earth," but that's a good thing — if everything were fulfilled on earth, we wouldn't need God.
Marriage is the metaphor for God's exclusive love for his church, and it's a good and powerful metaphor. But singleness is also a metaphor of God's love — the aspect of God's love that extends to everyone. Oftentimes church communities become so ingrown and focused on, "Let's build up our families, let's build up our community." Wait a second, what are we here for? Singles don't have that exclusive relationship, so we need to build relationships out. And the church itself needs to as well.
Celibacy usually conjures up images of nuns and monks taking vows and living in monastic communities. That's either undesirable or unrealistic for many Protestants. What might celibacy look like in an evangelical Protestant context?
Bonnie and I decided early on that abstinence didn't work (not the message, the term), because it conveys waiting: "Just hold on. Be patient and eventually you will get married, you will get mind-blowing sex, and life will be perfect." So we thought about chastity, which is a really good term, but it can apply to both singles and marrieds. Celibacy applies just to singles, and it carries a long tradition of singles serving God. So yes, you think nuns. You think priests. You think a devoted vocation to God. We liked that aspect, because it says we're not refraining from sex just because we are odd. There's a purpose: we are serving God.
We wanted to look at celibacy as a state in which we are content with where God has called us, and are also willing if God calls us to a different state. We're not eliminating the possibility of marriage, but we're not put on hold until marriage comes. It's not, "I vow to be celibate until I die." It is saying, "God has called me to this state; I am going to serve God right here. If he calls me to marriage, great. I will serve God there. If he doesn't call me to marriage, fine. I'm going to serve God as a single person." With celibacy, we're trying to draw from the past but not be wrapped up in, "You've made your vow, and you're done."
Much of Singled Out read as a deconstructive work, a critique of the contemporary church's attitudes about marriage, family, and singleness. Where would you like to see the conversation about singleness and celibacy go now?
We would like our book to start to broaden the discussion beyond singles — to see it as a discussion the entire church needs to have.
Also, one of the issues we talk about it in the afterword is how we view church community and outreach. Unfortunately, much of the world sees the church as irrelevant, and we aren't having the impact in the world that we desire. So we need we think of how we demonstrate God's love outside the church. That's a really important conversation we to have in order to have a wider impact in the world.
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Christianity Today's earlier coverage of single living includes:
Choosing Celibacy | How to stop thinking of singleness as a problem. (September 12, 2008)
Practicing Chastity | A lifelong spiritual discipline for singles and marrieds. Lauren F. Winner reviews Dawn Eden's The Thrill of the Chaste. (March 15, 2007)
Sex in the Body of Christ | Chastity is a spiritual discipline for the whole church. (May 13, 2005)
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)
Solitary Refinement | Evangelical assumptions about singleness still need rethinking (June 11, 2001)
Two Cheers for Celibacy | People who expect a sudden reversal of the century long clerical requirement show an inadequate understanding of why the Vatican is committed to this policy. A Christianity Today editorial (June 10, 2002)
A Singular Mission Field | There are more single people in America than ever—and they need the church as much as ever. (June 4, 2001)
Sex and the Single Christian | What about the unmarried in their postcollege years? (July 7, 2000)
Women Churchgoers 'Face Growing Difficulty in Finding Partner | British magazine says church is out of single men, especially older ones. (June 7, 2000)