Marriage is on the decline, at least in the United States, but whether you see that as a crisis or an opportunity depends on how you frame ideal life and community. As two recent books show, it’s possible for Christians to reach very different conclusions about the current state of relationships. That’s a good thing.
Those who lament declining marriage tend to focus on what it means for families and children—and rightly so. Less-committed relationships produce well-documented challenges for the children born and raised in such pairings.
But declining marriage doesn’t just mean weaker family structures. It also means more entirely uncommitted people: more singles. As theologian Lina Toth argues in Singleness and Marriage after Christendom, “today’s surge in the number of single people is actually an opportunity for the church to reconsider both singleness and marriage as distinctly Christian ways of living.”
Authors John Van Epp and J. P. De Gance take a very different view in their book Endgame: The Church’s Strategic Move to Save Faith and Family in America. “If [churches] want to turn the tide of a declining Christianity,” the authors write, then they “must build intentional communities anchored in championing healthy relationships that lead to and revitalize God-affirming marriages.”
Singleness then and now
Toth anticipates such views. Her largely historical work puts the prevailing Christian view of singleness and marriage in a much-needed and often fascinating context. Whereas Van Epp and De Gance focus mainly on changes in the 20th and 21st centuries, Toth goes back to the start of the church.
What she finds is both predictable and surprising. Not surprising: laments about the family’s decline, which are nothing new. But surprisingly, those the Romans “accused of destroying family and … society were none other than the Christians” (emphasis mine).
If you’re thinking that’s because Romans saw “family” differently than we do today, that’s true, Toth says. But so, too, did the Christians they found so threatening. She cites the early believers’ “insistence that, for the followers of Jesus, their primary community was to be the new creation called the church,” which posed a radical threat to perceived norms.
This view of the church held significant appeal for women, many of whom had few options for adult life outside marriage and little agency within marriage. As Toth recounts, singleness in Christian community enjoyed several centuries of esteem, especially for the widows and never-married women, for whom it offered many benefits.
With the advent of increased legal standing and birth control, modern women of all faiths and none now expect freedoms that once existed mainly for single Christians. (For a fascinating take on this that, importantly, breaks the near-monopoly of white, European/American commentary on singleness, see Amia Srinivasan’s collection of essays, The Right to Sex.)
Toth does not reckon with the church’s reduced role in empowered singleness, perhaps because she’s trying to challenge Christians’ frequent binary (and nonbiblical) approach to partnership, which deems marriage good and singleness mostly bad.
It would be just as faulty to deem singleness better or worse depending on a person’s faith (or lack thereof). Christian singleness can be agonizing. Secular singles sometimes have a better handle on what their season of life allows. But secular singleness can also bring deeply painful relationships, especially those that produce children. And Christian singles are often caught in the middle of different cultural standards.
To this practical challenge, Van Epp and De Gance have devoted much of their lives—work that deeply informs Endgame. Van Epp, a Protestant, has developed and taught the relationship curricula that figure prominently in the book. De Gance, a Catholic, helped found the initiative now called Communio, a nonprofit that helps churches strengthen marriages in their communities.
In the first third of Endgame, the authors describe the problem their book addresses, drawing on original research that found a surprising connection between parental marriage and adult church involvement. The second third turns to healthy relationships, arguing that “most Christian churches fail to offer relationship skill training as a counterpart to their emphasis on virtue development.” The final third lays out a plan for churches to develop relationship ministries as a way to engage their communities and strengthen their congregations.
My first impression of Endgame left me skeptical, despite a positive previous encounter with Van Epp’s writing on relationships. (His then-titled How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk gave me significant help in moving on from a painful romantic disappointment; it remains one of the wisest dating guides I’ve seen.) The cover of Endgame depicts a church sinking beneath the sands of an hourglass. The title and subtitle strike an ominous note. With a sinking heart, I braced for yet another piece of Christian handwringing over marriage that ignored the church’s quite substantial sex gap.
Thankfully the book proved more than that. While some of their ideas for celebrating marriage will likely deepen the pain of singles (based on my conversations with 300-plus Christians in nearly 40 countries), Van Epp and De Gance repeatedly acknowledge those of us without partners. And they do not ignore older singles, like widows and divorcees.
Endgame also notes the sex gap and encourages churches to think about outreach likely to draw more men into their community. (I’m not convinced that evangelism will change the sex gap much, but at least they acknowledge it exists! Many Christians could learn from them.)
Perhaps Endgame’s most significant contribution, however, comes in a finding that even Toth could stand to reckon with. De Gance describes how, in his role at Communio, he commissioned sociologist Mark Regnerus to conduct a survey on American religious affiliation. Initially, the findings echoed what many other surveys have shown: a seeming correlation between religious attendance and age. But when De Gance asked Regnerus to filter responses by family of origin, “We had a pretty big ‘Aha!’ moment,” he writes.
Their discovery? “Differences between age groups in church attendance vanish if you control for just one variable: parental marriage.” When adults’ parents have stayed married, people attend church at a fairly similar rate, regardless of age. In addition to all their other well-documented challenges, children of divorced or unmarried parents also seem to struggle with or be less interested in church commitment.
Because both these books come from smaller presses, it’s likely that many readers haven’t heard of them. But if I had my druthers, most readers of these books would encounter them like I did: together.
As much as they try to acknowledge singles, Van Epp and De Gance seem to hope that a combination of effective men’s outreach and relationship ministries could reduce a lot of singleness in the church. Toth serves as a strong counterbalance to this. But in trying to avoid common problems around discussing sexual activity, she errs on the side of addressing its role in singleness too little.
Toth gives many compelling examples of how vibrant Christianity community has helped singles since the time of Jesus meet nearly all their needs. In doing so, she positions singleness as a viable life season that can be just as meaningful as marriage and sometimes richer. But for Christians who try to follow the traditional biblical ethic, sex remains the one area for which singles have no alternate provision.
For most Christian singles, this leads to some combination of sex outside marriage, struggles with pornography and masturbation, and lots of guilt and shame around our bodies and sexuality. It doesn’t help that churches’ attitudes toward marriage tend to sanction married sex and sexuality as inherently obedient and therefore mostly sinless, as opposed to the primarily sinful sexuality of singleness.
Van Epp and De Gance don’t address the challenge of single sexuality directly, but their book consistently frames relational training as something all Christians could benefit from. This significantly destigmatizes it and, in its own way, helps bring a measure of the equality Toth aims to advance. Their emphasis on relational skills also provides ample support for single Christians whose struggles with sexuality affect their relationships. (And how, as an inherently relational act, can sexual intimacy not affect relationships?)
One of the greatest challenges of Christian singleness for most of us is its uncertainty. During my four years at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, Katherine Leary, as she was then named, served as a powerful example of an older Christian single woman.
Though I never learned much of her story, I knew that she’d had a vibrant career, discovered Jesus, and found a meaningful full-time role helping Christians of all life stages think about how their work could help further God’s kingdom. Hers wasn’t exactly a life I aspired to (I really wanted marriage), but I admired the kind of work to which she’d committed her midlife singleness. It gave me a picture of the purpose my own life could find, even if God continued to withhold marriage from me.
Then one day, I noticed her name had changed. She had married—a story I’d someday love to hear. Another friend has told me of a now-dead woman who spent all her life doing missions work alone … and then married unexpectedly in her 80s.
No single person knows what the future holds, any more than any married person does. (Most singles are likely more aware of our uncertain future, however.)
We will all be single at least once, if not twice. For that reason, all Christians need the vibrant picture of the church as our ultimate family to which Toth’s book calls us. But we also all live with the broken and imperfect relationships that De Gance and Van Epp want to help us improve.
Churches and pastors that want to read these books would gain much from a group discussion engaging both texts. And importantly, these two books provide ways for single and married Christians to talk with each other about what kind of community we’re all called to. Becoming the integrated body Jesus intended starts with more integrated conversations.
Anna Broadway is the author of Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity. She lives in Alaska, where she is working on a book about the global experience of singleness, due out from NavPress in fall 2023.