This is a topic that hits close to home for me. This is something that I’ve experienced quite often within Christian circles. Especially church staffs. Especially once I hit the age of 40 and was still single, people considered me almost an object of pity and even mockery. I often wonder how the church would treat men like Paul, or…gasp…JESUS. Both men were single, and both men were essential (CHRIST more so than Paul) in the beginnings of Christianity.
Talking about singles and the church is usually awkward, sometimes controversial, and is frequently an open-ended discussion. In other words, there are thousands of opinions about how best to encourage singles who are actively involved in a local church, but not every opinion is equally helpful.
I wonder if part of the difficulty is because, in some churches, it is perceived that marriage is the chief end of ministry to singles. But according to the Scriptures, the aim of the church is something fundamentally different.
Read with me from Ephesians 4:11-16:
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
According to Paul, the church’s primary job is not to create family units through marriage. It is not to solve singleness as if it were some kind of problem. Rather, the goal of the church is to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ both in unity and in spiritual maturity, so that every saint knows Jesus and looks more like him as a result.
How then can this be accomplished? Practically speaking, how can the church aim for the total up-building of the body for Christ’s glory and the spiritual growth of each individual saint, rather than treating singles like they’re a problem to be solved?
Here are three suggestions:
1. Nourish the saints with the Word of God.
Where rich theology of the gospel is lacking in our churches, there will evidently be a lack of understanding about the primary identity of the saints. If the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ for undeserving sinners is sidelined, then how will the saints understand who they are in Christ, as redeemed children of the family of God?
However, when our minds grasp the miraculous reality of the gospel as a result of faithful, biblical preaching from our pastors, our entire perspective changes: Instead of labeling people by their marital status, we will understand that the most fundamental truth about every person is their identity in Christ. This perspective shift, then, encourages the saints, no matter their marital status, to ask, “How can I minister the truth to my brother or sister in order that they might grow up into maturity?”
Pastors have an incredible opportunity to experience the building up of the body within their congregations, but the starting point must be the renewal of the minds of the saints by the Word of God. Only when our minds grasp the truth of the gospel will our hearts be controlled and changed by its marvelous truths.
2. Provide the saints opportunities to use their unique gifts.
“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it,” writes Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:27. If the aim of the church is to equip the saints for the work of ministry, what better way to accomplish this than to encourage our people, whether single or married, to serve! Often service within the body is viewed as “something extra,” outward actions we perform because no one else will, or something we do if we find the time.
But Paul makes it clear that none of us is any less a part of the body, and that every saint has been appointed gifts for the building up of the church (vv 14-26). Serving the body of Christ has its roots in being served by Christ, himself, when he purchased our redemption by his blood. Therefore, service is our privilege, based in the freedom we have attained through God’s grace!
While some people may be gifted singers, some skilled teachers, and others prayer warriors, often overlooked are the gifts of grace as found in both marriage and singleness. Paul says that both of these are callings, each one beautiful because of God’s sovereign will (1 Corinthians 7). Rather than trying to orchestrate marriage for a single person as a chief end, the church has a chance to point the saints towards lives of service, each person’s service looking different according to their spiritual gifts and the callings to which God has led them.
3. Create opportunities for walking together in Christ.
Personally, I’ve felt some singles gatherings to be awkward, not because of the gathering, itself, but because of the emphasis on singles. I used to think, They might as well call this a speed dating event. And while some people may have no problem with this type of gathering, others do. It seems forced and its objective misdirected, as if the night is only a success should singles come away with each other’s phone numbers and a date night penned on the calendar.
Walking together in Christ looks very different than the above scenario, the key phrase being “in Christ.” Recall the aim of the church in Ephesians 4: to attain to “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” The unity of the faith results when the saints – whether single, widowed, or married – see each other on a level playing field, as family members, and seek out opportunities to walk together in the mutual bonding of Christ Jesus.
Does this mean churches should not have young peoples’ small groups? Does it mean that older singles should not have a monthly gathering? Not at all. Rather, walking together in Christ encourages these meetings by redirecting the focus from what each person might “get” from them to knowing Christ more deeply through his Word, song, preaching, and prayer. The knowledge of Christ should be our ultimate goal of our gathering together, and church leadership has a wonderful opportunity to make this theology clear to its flock.
I confess that I have not been single for a few years now, but I do remember how incredibly rich my experience with the church was when I was single. My church preached the gospel, heightening my understanding of sin, salvation, and faith and, therefore, my identity as God’s beloved saint. It called me to a life of service within the church, knowing that each of us, despite marital status, had something to bring to the table. And the church provided chances for the saints to walk together in Christ, without making marriage the end goal.
Does all of this mean the church cannot and should not encourage marriage? No! Marriage is indeed a wonderful gift, an illustration of our union with Christ, and a means of grace within the church. But marriage is not the pointof church. It is not the ultimate goal of the saints.
So, church, evaluate your primary aim. Is it to equip the saints for the work of ministry? Is it to see the body walking together in Christ under biblical teaching and fervently giving of their gifts through service?
Singles, remember that you are firstly saints. You have a God-given opportunity to commit and pour into a local church, while fixing your eyes on Christ and your fundamental identity as God’s child. So be equipped for the work of ministry, to the praise of Christ’s glory and the building up of his church!
Kristen Wetherell is a writer, speaker and the Content Manager of Unlocking the Bible. She’s married to Brad, loves exploring new places, enjoys cooking, and writes music in her spare time. Her desire is to glorify Jesus Christ and edify believers through the written word. Connect with Kristen at her website or on Twitter @KLWetherell.