Rebecca McLaughlin, in her book, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion, made an observation that inspires my article today. I make references to many people, often the same people over and over again, who inspire my thoughts. I am indebted to the many serious Christian thinkers who have plowed ground that make it easy for me to walk the paths after them.
About a third of the way into the ninth chapter (Isn’t Christianity Homophobic?), she talks about loneliness and singles in the church. She strikes some real gold – some nuggets lost in our modern culture. I’m afraid that we have developed traditions over the years in the west that have plowed under values that once informed the early church.
A tradition of rugged individualism and self determination that is, perhaps, unrivaled anywhere in the world, is inbred into our American culture. Our suburban lifestyle is uniquely American, with our manicured lawns separated from our neighbors by fences and hedges. These are, perhaps, the gentrified vestiges of the farmstead claims staked by American pioneers against world, enemies and neighbors alike.
We circle the wagons today around the family unit, which has increasingly come under “attack” from secular constructs of village-raised children and re-imagined, more inclusive family structures to fit changing societal mores. These things changes have caused conservatives and Christians to double down on the traditional, American family construct.
Traditional, though, is normative, and norms change. Not more than 150 years ago families looked different than they do today. In fact, they looked a little more like the modern family than the average person might realize.
From not long after the first generations of New World immigrants came ashore, families and communities of families began to migrate, drifting south, west and sometimes north, clearing areas for homesteads. The ever changing family compositions can be traced from one decennial census to the next. Not may households remained static from one census to another.
My father, who researches genealogies, shines some historical light on the norms of the frontier movement in writing books about those migrations. From census to census to census, the story is told.
Family units were ever changing in combination of husbands, wives, children (both minors and adults). Family often included a grandparent, niece or nephew, neighbor or border. Children were born; children died; children moved away and moved back. Spouses died. They we replaced by new spouses or neighbors who helped with the children and then became spouses… or not.
One of the main challenges of doing genealogical research through the 19th Century is in determining the relationships of all the people in those from one decennial census to another and tracing the changes from decade to decade.
The Industrial Revolution began to change the composition of family units into more static and defined structures that eventually became the “traditional” American family.
What we assume to be the traditional family unit today is of relatively recent vintage. The Little House on the Prairie is more of a sentimental, re-imagining of the way it was than history. Even then, we get a hint of the interdependence of community that was much more intimate than our anemic sense of community today. This is true even with greater distance separating homesteads than a thin veil of fences and hedges distinguishing suburban lots.
The distance that separates people in modern western life, however, might as well be miles. We live as if we don’t need our neighbors, and we largely don’t even know them. Those fences and hedges might as be walls.
In that sense, the observation that McLaughlin makes reveals the back-filled soil of modern western culture that covers an ancient value that has been plowed under in the process of all those years of western development.
My inspiration today comes from McLaughlin’s comment about a friend who lamented to her the unfairness that same-sex-attracted Christians should be “sentenced to loneliness”. McLaughlin was reading through the Book of Acts at the time when she made the observation: the first Christians faced every kind of suffering, even being stoned, but there was one struggle they didn’t face: Loneliness.
In response to that comment, McLaughlin says,
“If we reduce Christian community to sexual relationships and the nuclear family, we are failing to deliver on biblical ethics. This point is underlined by the Bible’s view of singleness. Jesus, himself, never married. While he commends marriage, he values singleness more. (1 Cor. 7:38) Single people are vital to the church family, which is the primary family unit in Christian terms, and should experience deep love and fellowship with other believers.
“Where church culture inhibits this by overemphasizing marriage and parenting, Christians need to fight for culture change and embody the biblical reality that the local church is truly their family. Enabling same-sex-attracted singles to thrive in church means becoming more biblical, not less.”
(McLaughlin, herself, is a same-sex attracted person who has chosen not to act on that natural inclination. She describes herself as happily married to a man now.)
Some values evident in the original church family, as revealed in Scripture, have been lost over the years, even as we rue the changes in the modern view of a “traditional family”. The original church family was far more communal and far more communally-focused than the modern church family. Out modern church with its emphasis on what we call the traditional nuclear family results in loneliness for singles, regardless orientation.
Whereas the Apostles urged the early church communities to be mindful and inclusive of widows and orphans, singles have become, in some sense, widows and orphans of the modern church community, separated from the most intimate of church life by an emphasis on the “nuclear family”. The value of singleness has been trodden under the hard, rutty ground of our modern development.
Paul said, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (1 Cor. 7:1). He conceded that sexual relations in marriage may be necessary to protect against a lack of self-control (1 Cor. 7:2-6), but Paul considered his singleness a “gift”. (1 Cor. 7:7) Thus, he encouraged the unmarried to remain unmarried, unless they can’t control themselves. (1 Cor. 7:8-9) Paul says the person who marries “does right”, but the one who doesn’t marry “does better”. (1 Cor. 7:38)
Can we say that today?
While the Catholic Church turned the gift into a command for men devoted to ministry, Paul was clear that singleness was not his command (1 Cor. 7:6); rather it was a gift to be desired. It wasn’t wrong to desire to be married, but singleness was the better course for the person wanted to be wholly devoted to God, so singleness was embraced as a truer and purer lifestyle and valued in the community of the church.
McLaughlin notes that people are free to develop greater intimacy in relationships with purer and greater outcomes when not constrained by passions that could not be controlled. Unmarried men and women are “concerned about the Lord’s affairs” without divided loyalties and the “many troubles in this life” and complications that come with marriage. (1 Cor. 7:28, 32)
“For this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31), Paul reminds us. People who choose to remain single to give greater attention to God and the things not of this world are essential influences needed in the church today. They have a unique contribution to give to a robustly intimate church community that is devoted to God and His kingdom.
We have lost that value in our modern traditions that exult marriage as the greatest prize. We do singles a disservice. We do the church community a disservice. I believe we have lost the personal intimacy that under-girds a healthy church community in the process of emphasizing the nuclear family to the exclusion of the gift of singleness. Perhaps, a person wouldn’t consider singleness a “sentence of loneliness” in the church today if we valued the gift of singleness like the early church did.