Is Singleness a Sin?

Camerin Courtney

Christian Singles Today

August 11, 2004




In a moment of melodrama a couple years ago, I joked with a single friend that at times voices within Christendom have been so silent or so judgmental about singleness, that I suspected they thought the s-i-n at the beginning of the word was no mistake.

Now, unfortunately, one Christian leader has made that bit of humor-laced conspiracy theory a reality. At Joshua Harris's New Attitude Conference for singles this past January, Dr. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, said:

"I'm going to speak of the sin I think besets this generation. It is the sin of delaying marriage as a lifestyle option among those who intend someday to get married, but they just haven't yet. This is a problem shared by men and women, but it's a problem primarily of men."

He cited many reasons he thinks this "failure to marry" is problematic, primarily the fact that there's now a big gap between sexual maturity and sexual fulfillment: "We've created this incredible span of time where sexual passion is ignited but there is no holy means for it to be fulfilled." For this reason, he encourages marriage at a young age: "If you're 17, 18, 19, 20, in your early 20s—what are you waiting for?"

He also spoke of the "holiness of marriage as the central crucible for adult-making" and of the ill of single women putting off wife- and motherhood to establish their careers. He urged the singles in attendance at that conference to make getting married their top priority. "What is the ultimate priority God has called us to?" Mohler asked. "In heaven, is the crucible of our saint-making going to have been through our jobs? I don't think so. The Scripture makes clear that it will be done largely through our marriages."

Joining this bandwagon, Dennis Rainey and Bob Lepine of FamilyLife Today, a national radio broadcast of Campus Crusade's FamilyLife ministry, aired the tape of Dr. Mohler's talk. Afterward, the hosts voiced their absolute agreement with Mohler's message. Rainey added a personal anecdote about how excited he was when his sons popped the question to their respective wives, "because I knew life was about to begin in earnest."

I debated over whether or not to share all this. But it was when Dr. Mohler's broadcast went national on the radio, and was heralded by respected Christian leaders, that I had to chime in. If this one message is being championed and spread, I can only imagine that similar messages are being preached at churches and conferences nationwide, if not worldwide.

I appreciate Dr. Mohler—as well as Rainey and Lepine—pointing out some current troubling trends affecting singles and the state of marriage in our culture. It's good to have Christian leaders at their level addressing the sometimes-overlooked demographic of single people and the cultural and demographic forces affecting us. However, I take issue with the gross overgeneralizations they make about single people. Their comments make me wonder how many actual Christian singles they interact with on a regular basis, or whether they're basing their understanding of singles from viewing a few episodes of Friends. Most of the singles I know and hear from aren't delaying marriage due to selfish motives. Rather most of them earnestly desire to be married, are surprised and/or frustrated that they aren't yet, and are prayerfully trying to figure out how to get from here to there.

Mohler seems to assume that all still-single women are such because we chose to climb the corporate ladder first, and that all still-single men are such because they first chose to sow their wild oats. But this simply isn't the reality of singleness I've witnessed and experienced. Now, I know I haven't met all the single Christian women out there, but I've certainly talked with quite a few at singles events and heard from literally thousands more through e-mails in response to this column. I'm sure there must be some Christian women somewhere who pursued a job/career to the exclusion of marriage, but I have yet to happen on even one. For the vast majority of us, a vocation is a way of finding an outlet for our God-given gifts, being a responsible member of society, and, most importantly, paying the rent.

Admittedly, I've interacted with less single Christian men than women over my 30-some-odd years, but I've yet to meet any who are choosing singleness in order to live a wild life while the getting's good. No, most of the single Christian males I know are rarely dating, let alone sowing any oats, wild or otherwise.

I agree that the gap between what Dr. Mohler calls "sexual maturity and sexual fulfillment" is challenging. I appreciate him pointing out this resulting danger from the trend of first-time marriages happening at older and older ages. Trust me, as a still-waiting 30something, I know what a tall order it is, especially in our sex-saturated society, to stay pure year after year after year. But there's another truth I know that prevents me from rushing into marriage in order to quench these desires: Sexual temptation doesn't stop with "I do." Even with a ring on my left hand, there would still be men who would catch my eye and lure my heart. I can only hope the self-control and sexual integrity I'm learning now will help me better handle those temptations should I marry someday.

Sure, the Bible tells us it's better to marry than to burn with passion (1 Corinthians 7:9). But surely it's not telling us to marry the next person who catches our eye simply to avoid temptation. That would fly in the face of other biblical injunctions to learn self-control, to respect others, to flee temptation—as opposed to simply finding an acceptable outlet for our desires.

And as for the assertion that getting married is synonymous with becoming an adult, I agree that making that caliber of life-long commitment grows you up in many ways. But, I would add, so does having to fend for yourself for decades of adult life. Does this marriage-as-adulthood argument imply that I and my 40something, 50something, and beyond unmarried counterparts are somehow still children? Wouldn't character issues such as righteousness, goodness, faithfulness, and the other fruits of the Spirit be a better gauge of maturity?

Dr. Mohler seems to imply that singles today aren't taking marriage seriously enough. In his talk and in Rainey and Lepine's response on the radio, they chastised singles for their passivity in not making marriage a greater priority. Sure, singles today are taking a good, hard look at marriage prospects before settling down—sometimes too much so. As we've been talking about here in recent weeks, we're often guilty of taking too good and hard a look at dating prospects before even going out for dinner or a movie. Yes, the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of caution and fear when it comes to romantic interests.

But let's look at the factors to which the caution is a reaction. We're the first generation of the no-fault divorce. Many of today's singles have lived with the consequences of young, perhaps-not-so-well-thought-through marriages of generations before. So of course many single people today are a bit gun-shy about entering an institution they saw, from a front-row seat, fail. We're also renegotiating romantic relationships in light of recent gender role shifts in our society. Others still are healing from their own divorce, coping with widowhood, rethinking relationships after becoming a Christian later in life, or simply waiting for a healthy, God-honoring mate possibility to enter the picture. And what about those of us who feel like God is using us right now as singles? Aren't these all logical, healthy reasons for "putting off" marriage? I wish Mohler, Rainey, and Lepine had mentioned these segments of the singles population in their comments along with the arguably smaller segment who are delaying marriage out of selfish motives.

Perhaps many of us are slower to marry not because we don't take marriage seriously, but because we do take it seriously. Because we've seen and experienced the consequences of hasty unions, because we've seen the statistical evidence that older first-time marriages have a better chance for survival, because we take very seriously the words "til death do us part." If anything, I think rushing to marry and preaching a gospel of marriage for marriage's sake devalues it more than our generation's hesitancy and seeming passivity.

When Mohler calls marriage the "ultimate priority God has called us to," I cringe. Not because I'm anti-marriage, but because I don't find backing for this in the Bible. I don't see the place where marriage is called a requirement. It's called a blessing many times, but then so is singleness. The only list of Christ-follower requirements I find in my Bible is in Micah 6:8—"He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." These things, not marriage, should be our ultimate priorities.

So singleness as sin? No way! If the reasons for delaying marriage truly are selfishness, childishness, and a purposeful denying of God's will, as Mohler, Rainey, and Lepine assert, then those things are the sins—not the resulting singleness. And throwing around the s-word like that, especially toward a group of individuals who already sometimes feel devalued by the church, our families, and sometimes even ourselves, seems not only unscriptural but also irresponsible.

Yes, the institution of marriage has taken many hits in recent years and we who follow the One who created it should do all we can to uphold it. I share Mohler, Rainey, and Lepine's desire in this regard. I only wish that their comments about and to those of us who have yet to enter that institution had been made with an understanding of the many cultural shifts, demographic trends, and other intricacies affecting our lives and decisions—and with respect for those of us who are earnestly trying to navigate all of these in a God-honoring way.

Sure, some selfish or passive singles need a kick in the pants. Sure, we're all sinners—married or single. But we're also sons and daughters of the Most High God. It is with both truths in mind that I hope we all go forward toward our real main goal in life—doing our best to follow Christ in whatever stage of life he has us.