Christian Handling of Prolonged Singleness & the Process of Transition from Singleness to Marriage
I need to say in starting out here that I am going to say some things which are more specific than things which are general truths for everyone- and I think you’ll know what I am talking about when we get to them, but I’ll clarify if I need to. Such things are for the Working Faith Fellowship missionaries under Jimmy whom this Bible study is foremost intended for. The missionaries should know also that in the more specific things which I’ll be talking about, I have cleared them with Jimmy the best I could. So he either endorses them or if he doesn’t, he’ll correct them to you as he sees fit- and know that any discrepancy was a miscommunication, not me trying to go around Jimmy or in any way tell you specifics on how to lead your churches. Coming from me, such things shouldn’t be taken as more than suggestions or recommendations.
This study is on the topics of prolonged singleness and the Christian’s potential transition from singleness to marriage. This is a transition which I have never made myself, yet I believe that doesn’t disqualify me from teaching about it because it is just as important to be able to handle delaying such a transition, and not forcing that transition in a manner that might involve unrighteousness, as it is to righteously handle such a transition. There are also things which it is right to teach and exhort people on in relation to prolonged singleness, even if you got married rather early on as an adult. Some things just need to be taught in principle because they are right and people need to know them even if we have never been in a situation to do them ourselves. That is not necessarily hypocrisy as long as we are not also acting contrary to them. But I do need to make the disclaimer that I have not made that transition from singleness to marriage myself. I have seen some things though. And I believe I can offer you guys some truths to help those in your fellowships who need to delay marriage, or need to recover from a failed marriage, to better do that. And I believe I can even offer some good suggestions to help you guys as church leaders to help those in your fellowships make the transition from singleness to marriage at a good time and to the best person they can reasonably marry within God’s will (i.e. within the boundaries of righteousness according to Scripture). And I thought that this is an extremely important topic to talk about as I have opportunity to do these Bible studies with you, especially because many, many, maybe most of the hindrances for Christians really being faithful to the Lord and maturing in the Lord are directly or indirectly related to glitches occurring that are related to the topics which we are looking at here.
Churches, even the relatively better churches, tend to focus on things like 1) General preparation for adulthood and for marriage, 2) Counseling for couples who are planning to get married, and 3) Counsel for couples after they have got married. These in themselves are all obviously appropriate things to focus on. Yet I believe that many fall away from the Lord, or fail to mature much in the Lord, or at least get hindered from being as useful to the Lord as possible, due to problems in a few areas which to my knowledge would be very rare for a church to even try to tackle, yet alone handle well in doing so. And these are areas where church leaders can indeed do much in to make sure those in their churches do not fail in.
I don’t have to tell you guys that the concept of dating, at least as it is usually practiced, is not a good thing. And we know that singles groups at churches tend to be places where people go to find dates and to find other people desperate to get married. I have even heard of parents, who knowing their young adult offspring was not a faithful Christian nor even interested in church for any spiritual reason at all, even pushed their young adult to go to a church singles group to find a spouse. We know that this is very ungodly, not just on the part of the parents and their lost son or daughter, but also on the part of any church who makes an environment for this type of thing to even be a possibility. I think we know that if a church were to judge that having singles groups was a good thing, and were to want to have them for godly reasons, that they’d know to have separate groups for the males and the females, knowing what they’d otherwise likely become. And we know that the concept of casual romance that is almost inherently involved in dating is not good and is a precursor to much ungodly behavior that no faithful church would ever tolerate in its membership, let alone enable and promote in more blatant, pro-active ways as so many churches do.
But then in the relatively more conservative churches which rightly shun dating there is a tendency to have a whole other realm of problems for single people who would like to go about the process of getting married (as well as for single people who want to remain single or at least believe that singleness is God’s will for them for now). The conservative environment (which I am not speaking against, only stating this as a matter of fact) generally makes prolonged interaction between single males and females something unusual and perhaps frowned upon, though usually not expressly regulated. The atmosphere in these churches is also typically one where the concept of family is such a high priority that single people, at least those single past the age of 25 or 30 or so, may even really feel out of place for simply being single (same with those divorced or widowed really). But even when the feeling of being out of place part is not necessarily there and not being married past early adulthood isn’t something too unusual, a few big problems in relation to the things we’re talking about still might exist. And here are the two which I especially see:
1) Those facing prolonged singleness may very well lack counsel and guidance in how to manage staying single as they get older, since this is something which tends to get trickier as a person passes the age of 25 or 30 or so. Complications related to this can arise and examples of those who have done what they are doing tend to get fewer as they get older and yet remain single.
2) (And you guys who are church leaders can especially do some things to help make this not so big a problem, as well as to minimize the complications related to this problem): Without the normalization of interaction between males and females in a church environment, the single adults actually knowing whom it would be good for them to marry, and the process of getting that to actually happen, can be very tricky and complicated- so much so, that without some help and guidance from authority figures in the church, it may actually seem preferable to remain single even when one would otherwise rather get married. Often the church’s inadequate solution, or lack of a solution, to the dating mess makes this problem, and its accompanying complications, much greater instead of alleviating them (like I will give you some recommendations eventually about how to do). The formality and great commitment of the style of courtship which the church exclusively practices makes an announcement of courtship almost as big a deal as the announcement of a wedding next month! If a single person does not have other family in the church who are close to other families in the church, then it is very difficult for them to even know another eligible single people in the church of the opposite gender well enough to even know whether they’d want to even begin the marriage process with them!
So that’s the introduction. I want to make this study then about how you guys as church leaders can address these problems so your church members can be saved from great damage in relation to them and navigate through them in a way that is holy and acceptable to God, in a way where He will indeed get glory as the people in your churches (and I say specifically “people” and I don’t say “young people” because limiting these problems to young people is in itself a failure to adequately address these problems) face the trials of prolonged singleness and the trial of potential transition from singleness to marriage.
So in addressing problem #1 (see above):
First of all, understand that for most people who face this, that it’s indeed a real problem. The Apostle Paul, who in spite of the fact that he was single and recommended that others remained single as an ideal, understood that this is a real problem and knew that his recommendation of staying single was an ideal that was not practical for most people.
1 Corinthians 7:1-9: “Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. 2 Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.3 Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband. 4 The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. 5 Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency (i.e. lack of control). 6 But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment. 7 For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. 8 I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I. 9 But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.”
Note that Paul recommended marriage to avoid fornication. He didn’t, as he dealt with this subject, bring up obtaining children. When God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, the populating of the world depended on them doing that! The world has been filled with people, even in the first century it had been- and much more so now! There may very well be about 30 times the amount of people on earth now as there was then. And that’s not saying that schemes to depopulate the world are not extremely evil, and that’s not to say that children aren’t a great blessing from God, even now. But the church shouldn’t be dependent on continuing through the natural increase of its membership; and if it is dependent on that, that’s a very big problem! There are many multitudes to evangelize and disciple as it is. So Paul, with his great spiritual insight, saw that prolonged adult singleness was typically not good nor practical for Christians because of the need to avoid fornication and the fact that continually burning in temptation and lack of companionship is a great problem. And even when this problem is handled well, is typically is still not the optimal state for spiritual prosperity. So this is indeed a great problem. Yet at the same time, it is a problem that can be overcome righteously for as long as someone needs to remain single.
There are rare people who either don’t have great desires in that way, or who at least have knack of managing those desires and distracting themselves from them, so that that they are able to use their single state to actually free their minds from the cares of the world and to make their schedules much more free for the Lord’s work than a married person’s typically would be. But this is not a gift that most have. Yet at the same time, even if someone doesn’t have such a gift, they can still play by the rules and live righteously before God as long they are single, despite the great challenge which they face in doing so. You want to encourage single people that this is truly the case. A very long time ago (and least what seems like a long time ago to me) I heard a man say confidently and enthusiastically say that it’s possible to stay pure and wait until marriage; and it is something I remember and it encourages me. It is very helpful to know this, because it is true; and because knowing you are not alone and that others have overcome problems related to this really does matter and it really can make a big difference. And it is also true that every Christian ought to be anchored in the fear of God so that even if it could be truly said that the temptations and trials we face are torture (in this area or in any area really), it is still much better to endure torture for righteousness’ sake than it is to relieve yourself through sin. It is very similar to where Jesus said to fear not them the kill the body but after that have no more that they can do; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell. Even though it is better to marry than to burn, it is also better to burn in celibacy than it is to yield to sin to relieve that burning- and so damage yourself and set yourself on the highway to hell!
And people facing trial in this way should be taught to use this the spiritual danger they are in to work hard, to find good projects to do, godly missions to perform, and definite goals to obtain. When they do that they not only can use their singleness to advance God’s kingdom, to do good works that are pleasing to Him, and to better themselves- they can also in these ways distract themselves from any miseries and pains they feel in their souls, as well as to tire out their bodies so that they sleep better. This will truly minimize their temptations and make it easier not to act on them. Whether someone has a special gift of singleness or not, those with definite goals and missions will likely do better being single and feel much better about being single than others. Even lost people sometimes just skip over snares related to fornication and certain other vices simply because they are taken up with their studies, their job, sports, and/or or some hobby that they are obsessed with. Though they are idolaters who are not serving God and living in sin, they are still being spared from a lot of damage (remember he that commits fornication sinneth against his own body) and they can still serve as lessons of how Christians can direct their activities towards serving God and indeed avoid the snares of sexual immorality and/or the bad habits which people often take up to compensate for the void they feel in relation to lack of romance, companionship, and pleasure associated with that. I’ve also heard the testimony of a Christian man whose wife had recently died who believed God had, in his mourning, shown him “Give me the affection that you would have given to her.” Singleness gives opportunities to draw near to God, and even opportunity for a potential increase of quality in drawing near to God, that, I don’t say are impossible for married people to find, but which the married are quite possibly less likely to find due to the distractions related to marriage.
So even if singleness is seen as a great disadvantage, like any disadvantage, it is possible to spin it, overcome it, and use it to our advantage instead. Single people who are struggling definitely need encouragement and instruction along these lines. If you got married rather early on in your adult years, you shouldn’t come across as if you know exactly what those who are single past these years are facing. Nevertheless these are practical instructions which you can give them, very similar to how we’re about to look at some practical instruction which those who are in leadership can use in helping people transition from singleness to marriage, even if they’ve never made such a transition themselves. And that is what we are about to look at since, even though it is possible to be faithful to God and live righteously in singleness like any trial can be overcome, those who are in a position to help righteously mitigate the trials and sufferings of others have a duty to do their part in doing so (i.e. love thy neighbor as thyself). So encourage the single people that they can get through this righteously as long as they need to, they shouldn’t make a vow to stay single for life (encourage those have done so to retract! too daunting and challenging, not necessary). But in the grace of God and by the grace of God, praying for His help through Jesus Christ, one day, one week, one year at a time- this can be done! And at the same time, if they are interested in marriage, here are some things which you guys as church leaders can do for them.
On to problem #2 then (see above):
In helping those in your churches make the transition from singleness to marriage, if that is what they want and see fit to do, I think it is important to keep in mind that people are not the best judges of whether they themselves are fit for marriage. Obviously a person needs to be of legal age to get married. That is definitely an area which we should submit to the authorities in; there is no righteous reason to not do so. But obviously just being old enough is a very small percentage of the equation. We’re going to talk about how mature spiritual people tend to underestimate themselves more than people who are spiritually immature and especially people who are lost and spiritually dead. Those who fear God and are really examining themselves, especially when they have some significant experience as Christians, are going to be very conscious of their shortcomings. This is not likely to be so with those who are otherwise. And though you want to do all in your power to keep the lines in your churches where they ought to be, there are always going to be the immature and the overconfident who may be walking on the right way but they truly lack experience; and you may have the people who are in the early stages of straying from the Lord, along with the people who snuck through the gate that you missed, even if you did your best to keep the gate. These are only going to be exposed as hypocrites after some testing. That might be oversimplifying it, but often those who are for whatever reason not very mature Christians are likely to think themselves better candidates for marriage than the ones who are truly good candidates for marriage. The same will also not likely be as cautious about being the center of attention and a potential distraction for the church which going through the marriage process may make a new couple. And maybe above all, a man in this category is more likely to assume that the best possible life for the Christian woman whom he is interested in is to be his wife; whereas a man who doesn’t estimate himself so highly is more likely to have reservations about this since he is at least considering her interests at least as much as his own!
So what is too likely to happen, I’m not saying this is always or even usually the case (but even once is too often and this definitely happens) is that in a conservative church environment you’ll have many of the women being courted by many of the men who are not ideal marriage candidates who probably should at least wait a bit to get married and/or be further tested. The woman who is being courted is too likely to say yes to the first guy who asks about her, quite possibly being too influenced by the fear that no one else is ever going to ask about marrying her. This fear is often fueled by anxious parents who follow either one of two extremes: a) They will fret about finding a husband for their daughter well before she is even old enough to get married; so then when she is old enough she thinks she had to be married yesterday. Or b) They refuse to even make their daughter available for marriage until several years after she is both old enough and wishing to marry. So then when she is finally made available and there is a guy whom her father will allow to court her, she thinks this is her only chance since she is already past her prime or close- and the father himself may be desperate to marry her off when he comes to his senses and understands how wrong he was to withhold the possibility of marriage from her for many, many years (after she was old enough, that is). Obviously in dealing with the transition from singleness to marriage part of that is teaching the parents in your churches moderation in this area so their children will be dealt with justly as they grow up and not be provoked into a desperate situation when it comes to how their parents handle this matter.
So obviously a Christian single person in the church who has faithful, reasonable parents who are also in the church is going to be put in a much better position than those single people without this advantage. It is best to consult to authorities in your life regarding whether you are ready to get married and how you should go about that. This can also be a great check on tendencies to be either overly forward or overly shy in pursuing marriage (and either way there is the possibility of harming yourself an/or a potential marriage candidate). Being part of a Christian family will also make a person more likely to be in a situation where they will be able to interact with other single people from the church in family type settings and get a better idea of who might really be a good fit for them without having to break convention at church (by doing things like having long conversations with those of the opposite gender) or make a high risk decision in entering into the great commitment of a courtship with someone they barely know- and thus be at great risk of the great disappointment and embarrassment which a failed courtship can bring.
So in light of that, I think it is logical and common sense to exhort you missionaries who are church leaders to consider the single people at your church without faithful Christian parents to counsel them, check them, advocate for them, and to provide opportunities for them to get know potential marriage candidates without the extremes of the ungodliness of dating or of entering into a courtship with someone they barely know. And also to teach the parents, as well as actively work with the parents of the singles, so that they will manage teaching their Christian offspring to have a right attitude towards marriage and to not be put in an unnecessarily awkward situation in making the potential transition from singleness to marriage. And these are some points which I think will help you in that (and Jimmy can add to, adjust, correct, etc as he sees fit):
- Remember that the devil will try to play matchmaker, especially with the purposes of distracting and corrupting and otherwise hindering faithful Christians. Therefore don’t think it is inappropriate for you to have some active part in matchmaking within your fellowships.
- Especially consider helping the single adults in the church without the benefit of faithful Christian parents to help them in this way.
- Also remember that those without a sibling of the opposite gender in the church are at a disadvantage here. Not only because they will lack opportunities to get to know others of the opposite gender through their sibling, but also because they are not as likely to be informed of bad tendencies and other concerns regarding potential marriage candidates. Also remember that it is just a common sense fact that (at least usually) single men in churches who are without a mother or a female sibling in the church, and who also aren’t among the leadership, will not know what is really going on often in social matters because the women will share things among themselves much more than then men do. Therefore a man without a wife, mother, or sister to tell him what she has learned from the other women will likely be very ill-informed regarding the character of potential marriage candidates. You need to fill them in on what you know (when it is relevant to the person being filled in). Such is not gossip when shared for the protection of others.
- There is nothing wrong (with you as a church leader) privately telling single people in your churches whom you think might be good fits for them and nothing wrong with you asking potentially good fits what they think about each other (working with the parents where applicable). This could not only facilitate a godly marriage happening, but it could also save someone from false hopes and potential disappointment if there is not mutual interest.
- When there is mutual interest, and you see no good reason to say you know the potential couple would not be a good fit, find creative ways for them to get to know each other if they think need to do that before committing to a courtship or engagement. This could be having them come over to your house for dinner on the same night and giving them a chance to talk in a separate room with the door open (privacy enough to talk; but not enough privacy to cause temptation to commit immorality). Or if they have parents in the church, you can and should work with the parents in arranging a situation like that themselves.
- You should be a benevolent advocate and a righteous referee as people in your churches navigate the transition from singleness to marriage
- Humans are spirit, soul, and body- so a righteous spiritual connection is most important; but having that alone will not necessarily produce a great marriage. There should be some intellectual and physical attraction, as well as shared goals for family, ministry, other priorities, etc.
- Since the man has to lead in a Christian marriage, it is more important that the man have some spiritual maturity than the woman. At the same time, it is probably not too common that it would be good for a single Christian woman to begin the marriage process the day she gets baptized (but there might be a time for that, since she might desperately need good spiritual leadership on a day to day basis and not have any unless she were to get married to a faithful Christian man).
- Dowries are wicked! They are a bad testimony and likely to root a marriage in covetousness and not in unselfish love. For the parents to voluntarily help out the new couple or vice-versa is different. But requiring dowries cannot be tolerated in a faithful Christian church.
- Pressuring to marry is not good; but to suggest that it is a good time, to suggest fitting matches, and to offer ways for those who are mutually interested to proceed in the marriage process are right and good.
- Don’t be so forceful in suggesting a marriage that you could righteously be blamed if the marriage doesn’t end up well.
- There is an element of risk in marriage and the possibility it won’t work out no matter how careful one is in getting married nor even how much they seek God about it. We can’t control people’s future’s decisions, even though we can be a good influence and we can best guess future decisions by one’s past decisions and by who they are at the moment.
- Authority figures, whether they are parents or church leaders need to be decisive in their decisions. If a man asks for permission to court a woman, he should be told yes or no. And if a decisive yes can’t be given, he should be given a decisive no. To say “maybe someday” or to give a general “we need to get to know you more” leaves him in an awkward place he shouldn’t be put in. If he needs to be known more, then that should be a short, definite process rather a long and/or indefinite process. Parents who don’t comply with this are sinning and need to repent.
- A woman should not have to answer to a man directly who wants to marry her or to begin the marriage process with her. If she wants to say yes she can voluntarily tell him in person; but she should be given a chance to think about her decision privately; and if the answer is no, she should be able to relay that to him through her father or the church leadership. Otherwise she is put in an awkward situation she doesn’t need to be put in and she is in danger of telling him yes because she is afraid to say no or because she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings. We have a responsibility to prevent people from being tempted beyond what they are able. And that is sure possible when we don’t shield people from temptation which we had the power to shield them from when no greater principle of righteousness necessitated that we let them be exposed to it (1 Cor 10:13 with Matthew 7:9-12- and these two passages actually sum up the two sides of the same coin which we analyzed in this study related to handling prolonged singleness and regarding authority figures helping those under them righteously transition from singleness to marriage).
1 Cor 10:13: “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.”
Matthew 7:9-12: “Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? 10 Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? 11 If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? 12 Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”
A short exhortation on 1 Corinthians 7:8-9: “I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I. 9 But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.”
What does “cannot contain” mean in the context of this passage? Is it teaching that someone who is defeated by sexual sin should get married to solve the problem of their inability to exercise self-control? Some definitely think that. But if that were true, that would mean that the Apostle Paul is teaching here that the person marrying them would have to compromise Christian standards in their selection of a spouse in order to marry them. That is ridiculous! There is a way to understand this without having to come to such a ridiculous (and unrighteous) conclusion.
It should be established that nobody ever needs to commit sexual sin, even if they are single and they find being single very difficult. And anyone who is yielding to temptation and lacking self-control will surely not be cured of this by getting married. They will likely still be plagued by sexual sin after marriage, and even if they are not, they will still carry habits of being impulsive and intemperate which will manifest themselves in other ways (bad temper, talking way too much, improper eating, inability to handle finances, etc). If someone does not seek God and learn to take up their cross daily to overcome sexual sin by the grace of God while they are single, then marriage will not make them a spiritual person. Marriage will only draw someone else into having to put up with their carnality in a very personal and continual way, even if their carnality can be better cloaked for a while due to some relief in one area that marriage might provide.
So what does the phrase “cannot contain” actually mean if it can only apply to faithful Christians who are righteously eligible to enter into marriage with another faithful Christian? Consider the context of the Apostle Paul’s main point in this chapter as he talked about the perspective which Christians should have about marriage.
That point can be summed up well by 1 Corinthians 7:35 “And this I speak for your own profit; not that I may cast a snare upon you, but for that which is comely, and that ye may attend upon the Lord without distraction.”
Paul had been saying throughout this chapter that singleness, when one could handle it well, is a better state to attend upon the Lord without distraction. Marriage brings a set of cares and snares related to this life which are good to avoid. If someone is happy single and prospering in the Lord while single, it is best that they stay single! And yet, going back to the opening nine verses of the chapter, for many people this is not the case. Many were already married when they came to Christ (and this chapter has instructions for these too) AND many single Christians find the weight of long-term singleness very hard to bear. They can overcome sexual sin and endure faithfully in this state as long as they need to by the grace of God- yet they may find it very difficult. They may find it so difficult that it is a weight and a care to them even greater than the weights and cares associated with marriage.
Obviously the weights and cares of an unequal marriage yoke are way worse than being single would ever likely be, but that truth only strengthens the case that “cannot contain” here is referring to finding singleness to be a notable difficulty, not as a reference to being overcome by sexual sin. Viewing it as the latter would mean that another Christian would have to compromise and enter into a marriage that would be a tremendous spiritual weight for them, in order to help solve the other’s sexual sin problems. That is a view which is not righteous nor practical. Yet when “cannot contain” is understood as singleness being a weight that might hold someone back from serving the Lord as well as they might were they to marry another faithful Christian, then that is both a sensible and righteous understanding of what Paul meant here. Such an understanding also lines up well with the main point Paul sought to drive home in this chapter related to how Christians should view and approach marriage.
For any questions or clarification on this study, contact bro Aaron at [email protected]