Many single Christian women would love to be married. Sometimes marriage is an idol. It’s the thing that they think will satisfy them beyond their wildest dreams. It’s the thing that will make them unbelievably happy. They don’t want to hear that marriage isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. That doesn’t really help. They’d settle for an imperfect marriage because, as far as they’re concerned, anything’s better than being single. For them, heaven is being with a man who will love them unconditionally. Hell is being left ‘on the shelf’. As they approach their 40th birthday the possibility of marriage seems increasingly remote. Social convention, parental expectations and individual aspirations mean that being single just feels awkward and embarassing. It ought not to feel like that in church. But it does. Sustained reflection on their situation in life can lead to profound disappointment. The opportunities for sin to seize upon this disappointment and for it to become an occasion for resentment and bitterness are very real.
In these painful circumstances some are tempted to try what has characteristically become known as ‘missionary dating’. They take on an an unbelieving boyfriend in the hope that he’ll respond to the gospel and become an eligible option for marriage. Most people know at least one person who did this for whom it all worked out brilliantly. Some even married and the guy was converted. Praise the Lord. And it gives them sufficient reason to think that they might be able to repeat it. But no one really talks about the marriages that began to resemble car crashes.
I know of a number who have either tried missionary dating, are in the middle of trying it or face increasing pressure to try it. The blokes aren’t blameless. But it’s not as prevalent. How do we approach what’s a matter of great sensitivity? It’s worth remembering the following points.
1. Singleness is not inherently worse than marriage
The Bible teaches that both marriage and singleness have a central part to play in God’s purposes. Jesus was single and he was OK with that. He said that some will remain unmarried because they were born unable to marry, some will have singleness forced upon them by circumstances and still others will renounce marriage for the sake of the Kingdom [Matthew 19]. Paul takes up this theme in 1 Corinthians 7. But the point is that being single isn’t the end of the world, or the end of a life. It’s just different to being married.
2. Believers should not marry unbelievers
The Bible is crystal clear on this issue. The Old Testament didn’t permit marriage with people who wern’t part of the old covenant people of God. The New Testament applies the same standards to the new covenant people of God. The reasons for this are obvious. The believer and the unbeliever don’t share the same spiritual status, they don’t share the same spiritual priorities and they don’t share the same spiritual destination. ‘Intermarriage’ of this sort is fraught with difficulties.
3. Dating is a preparatory stage
Dating is not the same as marriage. So technically dating a non-Christian is not a sin. But let’s not be idiots. We know where it’s heading. The biblical prohibitions against ‘mixed’ marriages don’t sepcifically govern the dating period. But we mustn’t be naïve about where these relationships are going. Dating is a culturally acknowledged convention during which marriage is being considered. If there’s no intention of marrying a partner it raises the issue of why an exclusive romantic relationship has been formed at all. If it’s all a bit of fun and romance then the warning lights ought to be flashing. This is a context within which there’s increased temptation and opportunity for inappropriate sexual activity.
4. ‘Mixed’ marriages are fraught with difficulties
At the start of their married lives few people are able to look into the future and predict the problems that will arise. Paul alludes to the existence of tensions in 1 Corinthians 7 and church leaders would be able to flesh out the details from couples they’ve advised throughout their ministries. People need to see beyond the first few years of marriage and reflect on how life will operate once there are children. It’s often the case that single women don’t think beyond the first five years of marriage. When the implications of a mixed marriage are spelt out they find it emotionally distressing. As they should. But we need to help them appreciate the difficulties ‘ahead of the game’. We’re not making this stuff up. It’s striking that in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul accepts taht a ‘mixed’ marriage could be so problematic that an unbeliever wants out. And he permits divorce under such circumstances.
5. Compatibility is overplayed but wise
Compatibility has some merits. In a knee jerk reaction to the overly stringent standards that we look for in a prospective marriage partner, it’s been suggested that as long as the person is a Christian, of the opposite gender, unmarried and not a close relative then we should go for it. I’m not persauded. We need to be wise not pious. You’ve got to be clear that this is the person you’d like to have a go at spending the rest of your life with. They may fit the four criteria but if you don’t actually like them all that much, the writing’s on the wall! It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or indeed a relationship counsellor, to see where it’s heading! However, it would be worth remembering that no one is able to predict with any accuracy how circumstances will shape the development of our characters. Therefore what appears to be overwhelming compatibility in our twenties can become an occasion for disagreement and dissension in our forties.
So what do we do? These four things, at least.
Encourage repentance and faith
We need to encourage people to repent if they’ve started inappropriate relationships. They need to entrust their futures to the Lord. Most of us find it difficult to trust the Lord when our lives are not going the way we would have designed them. But that’s when trust starts. Anyone can trust the Lord when things go as we’d like. We need to help people to resist the temptations to wallow in self pity and to harbour bitterness and resentment when things don’t go as they’d choose.
Encourage compassionionate concern
Without being patronising, we ought to sympathise with friends in this situation. Most churches are not awash with young eligible men. That’s perhaps especially true of church plants. There’s a cost to staying and contributing to the gospel work of smaller churches. The bigger London churches look very attractive to a single 20 something! But let’s not create the impression that life begins when you get married and everything’s on hold till then. And let’s not allow anyone to suggest that being single is second class.
Encourage male evangelism
The statistics of male to female proportions in local churches make depressing reading. In general our churches are not reaching men. One of the ways in which we can show love to those who struggle with this is to support and encourage male evangelism. There are better reasons for male evangelism than providing blokes for our sisters in Christ to marry. But it’s not an awful one. There can be times when the emphasis given to male activities or male evangelism in our congregations is unwelcome. Usually by the women! It sounds counter intuitive but when there are so many women in church to be catered for, we actually need more male orientated activities. It won’t be popular, but it’s true. If we keep shaping the church programme to accommodate the girls we need to know what that’ll mean. It’ll mean that every bloke feels like he’s walked in on a church that caters for women but not men. It’ll mean that we don’t prioritise men’s discipleship and give this the resources and attention that it needs. And this’ll mean that we won’t reach unbelieving men with the gospel. Prioritising the women is, I would argue, short-sighted, counterproductive and unloving.
Encourage singles to keep serving
Paul doesn’t share our negative view of singleness. The ‘spinster’ may be a figure of fun, but the great Apostle thinks she’s fortunate. She has opportunities for ministry and undivided devotion to the Lord not enjoyed by those who are married. In our churches those who are single perform much of the influential ministry. It’s no coincidence that Dick Lucas, John Stott, Jonathan Fletcher and Vaughan Roberts have influential ministries. They’re currently single. I think the ship may have sailed for Dick, Stotty and Fletch. They’re not in our church, I know. But the point is that the Lord has used them for the good of the Kingdom and it’s hard to imagine that He could have done that if they had wives and kids to look after. Let’s encourage single people not to waste the opportunities that God is giving them for useful service. Obviously one potentially significant ministry opportunity for single women is to to encourage their sisters who struggle with this issue. Our churches need mature single women whose open acknowledgement of struggles, honest biblical reflection and godly example is invaluable. Imagine the transformation that could be wrought in our younger women by the support of a handful of older sisters who can help them in their struggles and encourage them to flourish in the situation that God has called them to.
The following books and articles have been helpful on this topic
‘Don’t Date a Corpse’, Tom Seidler, Evangelicals Now
Relationships Revolution, Nigel Pollock, IVP
Hanging in There, John Dickson
God, Sex and Marriage, John Richardson
The Single Issue, Al Hsu
What Could I Say, Peter Hicks