Editor's Note: This is one of our Top 15 2018 CBE Writing Contest winners. Enjoy!
I was sitting at the kitchen table sipping coffee on the morning of my seventeenth birthday when a parcel arrived on my doorstep. Excitedly, I ripped open the box to find half a dozen Christian books on sex, dating, and relationships. It was a gift from my sister, who knew this was an area of my life I had yet to explore through the lens of my new-found faith.
I consumed the books with my usual zeal and sincerity. A few weeks later, I broke off my current dating relationship, began writing letters to my future husband, and made deep and determined promises to God to save myself for marriage.
The books rightly taught what Scripture says about sex and love, explained God's original intention for marriage, and outlined the consequences of sex beyond just the physical. They fueled my determination to do the “right thing” by remaining celibate until marriage and allowing God to “write my love story.”
You’d think these books would have created a healthy perspective on singleness—as they no doubt intended. However, they missed the mark despite having a somewhat solid biblical foundation.
The problem wasn’t the advice itself but rather my inability to reach the ideals that the books presented, and the consequences of such a failure. I say “ideals,” because I no longer believe that the majority of Christian books on singleness and dating present realistic or healthy standards.
Fast-forward seven years and my romantic history is a smattering of near-misses, a couple of momentary lapses in moral thinking, and a whole lot of emotional walls, guilt, and insecurity. As a result of my perceived failures, I’ve experienced overwhelming shame.
I don’t blame these well-meaning books for my own application of their teachings, but I know I’m not alone in thinking the church needs a fresh approach to faith and singleness. The books we publish are just one example of where we can improve. Many Christians are frustrated and disillusioned by harmful views surrounding dating, gender, and healthy male-female relationships for single people.
Our theology of singleness and the "not-yet-married" has gone unmonitored, unchanged, and unimpressive for too long. Much of it is built on outdated gender roles and unhelpful clichés that don’t apply easily to today’s dating world. For example, many of these books assume that sexual attraction is the “burden” of men and not something women struggle with. Or, many of these books assume that men will lead a dating relationship and women will follow. Others encourage men and women to avoid and fear each other to avoid “stumbling.”
And so, over the past couple of years, I’ve been in the process of unlearning impossible standards surrounding gender roles, romantic attraction, sexual desire, and healthy relationships.
In my experience, there are too many books written by those who once struggled with singleness or sexual sin, had a revelation, set boundaries, and then met their soulmates. Their audience is those who want to get married, so the content is aimed at bringing hope into issues like loneliness, sexual purity, and discontentedness.
These topics are all good; they’re just disappointingly narrow. Men and women don’t fall into the boxes we try to put them in and neither do single people. There’s also very few resources out there for egalitarian singles. The struggle is real, my friends.
More often than not, the black and white, picture-perfect tone of these books leaves the reader with more questions than when they began. For example: Are there really universal rules to follow when it comes to physical touch? What’s a healthy view of sexual desire that acknowledges attraction and also doesn’t unfairly penalize or sexualize women? How do we retain it? Am I really guaranteed to meet someone if I get all of this right? What if I just want to get the most out of my singleness and not marry at all?
Then there are questions from older singles, widows, and divorcees. Do they really have the same guidelines as young people or the unfortunately named "not-yet-married"? And if we fail at following these set ideals, does that mean we’ll never meet someone? And even if we do, what does that guarantee?
Many Christian books fall back on an overly simplistic answer to these complicated questions: we should just treat all people like brothers or sisters until marriage. But how can you treat someone like a sibling when you desire them romantically? Doesn’t that pose a strangely Freudian view? After all, a relationship with a brother or sister has entirely different boundaries than a romantic relationship—especially when it comes to the physical.
The advice to simply “treat others like siblings” can also easily become an excuse to exclude and isolate others when we struggle to see them that way. A theology of singleness that allows for fear or ignorance of sexual attraction leads to sexual repression and unhealthy, anxious male-female relationships in the church.
Ultimately, many books on dating frame singleness as a temporary, unwelcome season for Christians, and especially for women. They perpetually place single women in the shadow of married women and imply that all women are either princesses waiting to be stolen away by men or spinsters with a looming expiration date. Further, they suggest that it’s easy to replace one’s desire for marriage with love of Jesus, assuming that we must all choose one or the other. But in reality, it's possible to both desire marriage and love Jesus.
I’ve pondered these things over the years, and concluded that much of the advice coming from Christian books and church pulpits is either inconsistent or incomplete. It can’t be helpfully applied to our complex, real lives. Some of the ideas, concepts, and teachings are still quite right and it’s always refreshing to read books on relationships and singleness with a faith foundation. But I still believe we can do better.
Based on my own experience and my own observation of those I’ve ministered to over the past few years, I think young people are desperate to live godly lives. But they’re trying to use principles addressed to a completely different set of young people in a completely different cultural context (think 90s purity culture and traditional, complementarian gender roles).
Sex and dating are rapidly changing and rapidly distorted in our world. The church must provide biblical clarity on these topics, but it must also acknowledge that the world has changed and we face new questions and new challenges:
- How can we use Scripture and godly wisdom about being single and developing romantic relationships to create accurate, realistic applications for modern Christians?
- How can we reflect the complexity of romantic relationships and the complexity of being solo?
- What’s a proper hermeneutic for interpreting Scripture and applying it to our present day that doesn’t lazily use principles for singleness from a completely different era?
- How can we be both knowledgeable and prophetic in a rapidly-changing dating culture?
- How do we encourage godliness and self-control without resorting to graceless legalism?
- How do we give space and freedom for healthy male-female relationships without creating an environment where immorality can fester?
- And most importantly, how do we ensure that young people can interact with each other with generosity and respect rather than guilt and shame?
Singleness isn’t a problem to be fixed. Single people (and especially single women) aren’t sexual threats to be neutralized. We need a theology of singleness and dating that celebrates singleness in and of itself. By focusing only on singles’ someday-potential for marriage and the (still real) challenge of sexual sin, we miss something real, beautiful, and significant in the present.
Singleness is not just a step along the road to true peace and joy. For some, it’s a season. For others, it’s a welcome destination. The church must learn how to honor single believers as they are, without the expectation that they may someday be united with another.