Sep. 20, 2020
Valentine’s Day can be one of the most difficult days of the year for singles as it often evokes an awareness of loneliness rather than love. Biola Now asked Matt Jenson, a professor in Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute, and resident expert on singleness in the church, to talk about just that — being a single in the church.
Jenson, a systematic theologian specializing in the doctrine of sin and ecclesiology, has found that his studies in sin and the church directly relate to the single life. Here, he shares some of his experience, the falsehoods of rom-coms and how the church can better address the changing landscape of the church family.
In recent years, you've become an expert on singleness in the church. How and when did you start studying the topic?
Call it the wisdom of experience, I kept on being single, much to my — and my family and friends' — surprise. We all figured I'd be one of the first to go, as I'm a real romantic and have long wanted a wife and kids. But that's not how it's worked out. The beautiful thing about the Lord is that he can take anything and use it to shape a person. With me, more than anything, it's been my singleness with all the hunger, hope, disappointment, promise, patterns, and expectations that brings.
In my job as a real, honest-to-goodness theologian, I've studied two things that directly touch on the single life. My doctoral work was on sin, specifically the sinner as one "curved in on himself." I've known just such a posture at times in my singleness whether it's in brooding melancholy, introspective wondering at why-oh-why something didn't work out, or self-protective blame and withdrawal from conflict and pain. Having had enough of studying sin, I turned to study the church. And my academic research rhymed with my personal experience in teaching me that man cannot live by romance alone but that every believer — single or married — is called to devote themselves to God's family in the church. This is good news for single people — for married people, too.
In light of Valentine's Day and romance, can you talk about that and its impact or detriment to those in or out of relationships?
I've often thought, and told my students, that romantic comedies are bad for their discipleship. Now, I'll be honest, I love a good rom-com as much as the next guy — well, probably more than the next guy. But if St. Augustine is right that we are what we love, and if Jamie Smith is right that our loves are formed, reformed, and deformed through the firing of our imaginations, then the vivid promises that the modern myth of romantic love makes can be toxic for those seeking to be conformed to the image of Christ.
That's a hard word, I know. But it’s needed because so many of us are oblivious to how trapped we are by stories we have drunk in about how life is supposed to work. I remember waking up one day in my 30s to the reality that I wasn't a soccer dad. I hadn't gotten married and I didn't have kids. The pattern of romantic love, followed by having as many children as I wanted when I wanted (the myth of painless, problem-free child-bearing and rearing is a whole other can of worms!), well, my life couldn't be shoehorned into that pattern. So what then? Well, what if the very best life isn't the Disneyfied "happier-ever-after-life" but the life that we live together in the fellowship of God's people by the power of the Spirit in the hope of Christ's return? And some of us get married, some of us have kids, some of us don't. But the point is this fellowship, and its mission to publish the good news of Jesus as we travel towards the New Jerusalem.
How do you believe the church handles Valentine's Day? How should the church handle the "holiday"?
What holiday? A holiday is, traditionally, a holy day. That is something Valentine's Day is not. Of course, we could rehabilitate the story of St. Valentine; but that would require some serious rehab. There's a parallel with Christmas here, only at least with Christmas the back-story isn't entirely lost, as it tends to be on Valentine’s Day (though it is sleazily co-opted by what a friend of mine calls "the corporate pig").
On the one hand, I wouldn't mind mid-February being a time when the church, in concert with broader society, celebrates faithful love and encourages married couples to rejoice in the gift of one another. The rest of us could babysit. (I'm not kidding. I think that'd be a great idea — though like a lot of great ideas, people might not be as happy to hear it coming from the mouth of a married person.) Or, and this is a serious second option, we could ignore Valentine's Day altogether. Leave it be as a secular special day. Like Groundhog's Day. If you are shocked at that comparison, consider that you might need to take an intentional fast from this year's Valentine's festivities. A third option would see the church hearing the testimonies of married couples around this time of year, but hearing real stories, ones that carry the story beyond the wedding day into the doldrums, delights, and disasters of married life. This could be a time to pray, to re-affirm our commitment to bear burdens together. Why in the world are married people so quiet about their domestic difficulty? Please, honor me as a single brother by letting me stand with you in prayer and friendship.
What is the significance and importance of the Christian community understanding singleness?
First of all, there's a profound demographic urgency. For whatever reason (and it's not a simple matter of extended adolescence, no matter what they say) people are marrying later, and many of them won't marry at all. Back in the day (say, the 50's), you might be able to gloss over singleness, talk a lot about courtship and marriage, and trick yourself into thinking you were speaking to everyone. Now that's laughable. Plus, people are divorcing and becoming single. People are living longer, but some of them are dying, and their spouses are becoming single. For the church to meet people where they're at, it's got to make sense of singleness.
That's a good thing, too, because in the days of marriage and 2.5 kids (though I wonder if those days ever really existed), there was such a rigid sense of expectation for the shape of adult life. Singleness evokes for us the diversity of lived experience, and so it opens up for us a richly varied account of discipleship. There's no script--not even an "I know I'll get married" script — and so we have to, and get to, listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd's leading as we follow him together. Turns out, following Jesus is highly improvisational. It takes listening long to the Bible as we read it together as God's people, walking in the Spirit and responding together to all the twists and turns of our lives.
How does the Christian community need to grow in its understanding of singleness or its approach to singles in the church?
One theological lesson the church needs to learn again and again is that marriage and kids are not what life is about. Sorry, but that's how it is. Life is about Jesus and the kingdom he brings and our mission to announce, embrace, and wait with eager anticipation its arrival. Singleness and marriage are two valid forms of life filled with gifts, tasks, and temptations. But their worth is measured by how we turn them towards God's kingdom. A single life or a married life that is curved in on itself rather than spent in love of the Lord and service of the kingdom … well, that life is ugly — a squandering of a gift. The church needs to find ways to remember consistently that the point of life, the thing which we are to seek first, last, and always is God's kingdom.
It would probably also help to stop spending so much time interrogating the causes of singleness. Figuring out the cause of anything is a thorny business. I don't know if I'm single because it's God's will or because I just haven't met the one or because we're in that sort of socio-cultural moment or because I'm picky or because — well, you get the picture. We won't find a good answer to that question any time soon, and my guess is it's a cul-de-sac anyway. Let's look forward instead of backward, at the ways the Lord might invite us to use our singleness for his sake.
In a chapel message you gave at Biola, you talked about the significance of Paul's use of the terms brother and sister. Can you share about that here?
Here I simply, and happily, steal from Joe Hellerman, my friend who teaches in the Talbot School of Theology at Biola. Joe points out that, in Jesus' time, expectations for emotional intimacy were placed on sibling relationships, not spousal relationships. I don't think abstaining from sex is the biggest challenge for singles — far from it. It's particularly difficult in seasons, but far more challenging is the hunger to be seen, known, and loved, to belong, to be intimately included in another's life, to be special. Many single people I know so crave being the person for someone else — the default person they call. All of this speaks to our need (and it really is a need, no mere wish) for emotional intimacy. The good news is that, when Jesus and Paul speak of believers as "brothers and sisters," they are drawing a picture of the church as a community of marvelous emotional intimacy. Because of that, the church is also, like marriage, capable of doing massive damage. There's no getting around that.
I love Joe's point because it tells me that, as a single person I don't have to leave emotional belonging to my married friends. There are forms of belonging that I wish I shared — forms like marriage — but there are forms of belonging that my married friends miss. But it's not like I'm left out in the cold, looking in on the warmth of hearth and home, while my married friends get all the benefits of belonging. Or, if that is the case, it's because something's gone wrong. It's because we are not behaving like brothers and sisters are supposed to behave.
How can the church love those who are single well?
Perhaps surprisingly, I think the first thing the church can do is call single people to worship and mission. Tell us that we are no different from anyone else in the church, that our dignified calling is to delight in the Lord and to joyfully be about the work of Christian mission. Sometimes this will amount to telling us to get over ourselves, to stop stewing in our discontent and start stirring up our hearts to love and good deeds. More often, this will be a matter of helping us see the wonder of God's love and the role he invites us to play in spreading that love abroad in the world.
Another thing that would help is to expand the discussion of singleness beyond the challenges of abstaining from sex and navigating the dating world. These are important issues, but hardly the only things worth broaching. Notice that both abstinence and dating conversations assume that the real goal, still, is married sex. Really? Is that all we've got to talk about? That's about as absurd as making a ministry to married people that only ever covers married sex. Again, important. But only one of a number of issues that need addressing.
Think of all the discipling that can be done through the lens of singleness. My singleness has taught me so much about the church, as I've learned to ask God's family to be my family. It's taught me about prayer as I've learned what to do with what I want by naming, offering, and entrusting my desires to the Father. It's taught me about sin as I've learned to confess selfishness, unforgiveness, self-pity, lust, pettiness, anxiety, and jealousy. It's taught me about hope as I've learned to rejoice in the coming resurrection and place my very real but secondary hopes for life here and now in the hands of the One who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
Of course, and here more practically, none of this discipleship is liable to stick if the church fails to fully and faithfully include single people in all aspects of its life. That some people I know can't get church jobs because they are deemed less trustworthy as single is shameful. (How many times do we need to remind people about the singleness of Jesus, Paul, Augustine, etc.?) Even more to the point, can you imagine if every Christian family had a vision for building a close friendship with at least one single person they considered part of the family, someone who would come over for regular meals, be another model of godly manhood or womanhood?
Paul Spears [director of Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute] is one of my best friends. He befriended me early on at Biola, and he, his wife Lisa, and their kids Ian and Lexi have become family. I'll never forget the solemn pronouncement: "Mr. Matt, we have decided to promote you ... to Uncle Matt." Seven years later, Ian calls to talk about girls. Lexi leaves notes in my office. I know the joys of family eating dinner with them, playing Mario Cart, singing loudly and dancing silly. Would that all Christian families were so faithful. Would that all Christian singles were so blessed.
Watch Matt Jenson’s chapel message, “The Church Is Your Family: Reflections for Singles and Those Struggling with Homosexuality.”
Find out more about Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute.
Matt Jenson holds a BA in literature and philosophy from Wheaton College and a Ph.D. in systematic theology from the University of St. Andrews (Scotland), where he was part of the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts. He is the author of The Gravity of Sin: Augustine, Luther and Barth on 'homo incurvatus in se' and, with David Wilhite, The Church: A Guide for the Perplexed. Jenson is a happy and grateful part of Fountain of Life Covenant Church in Long Beach and a licensed minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church.
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