Passion and Purity, Chapter 1: Me, Lord? Single?
Elliot begins the book by describing her personal situation in college–deciding between medicine and linguistics, feeling called to the mission field, making important life decisions, and struggling with singleness. This is a sympathetic introduction–haven’t we all felt that desperation at some point? I know I used to pray the same things. Dear Lord, I know you’re in charge and everything, but…isn’t there someone for me? Where is he? In my opinion, Elliot’s writing is strongest when it’s sympathetic like this: I have been there, too. I have felt that way, too. But then we take a sharp turn:
I am perfectly sure that for all three of us [referring to herself and her two single female roommates] singleness meant one thing: virginity. If you were single, you had not been in bed with any man. If you were permanently single, you were never going to be in bed with any man. [Emphasis mine.]
I understand that Elliot is using the phrase “singleness meant one thing: virginity” to introduce the main theme of her book; we already know from the preface that “this is a book about virginity.” She wants to explicitly establish the”proper” relationship between singleness and virginity: singleness is virginity.
But this statement is troublesome because singleness in the church often does means that one thing and that one thing only–to the neglect of many other wonderful and important aspects of singleness and personhood that the church ought to be talking about.
The American evangelical church does not know what to do with single adults. Churches often give lip service to the “desirability” of singleness, as per 1 Corinthians 7. But it’s no secret that implicitly, and sometimes very explicitly, marriage is considered the ultimate and preferable state. There are conferences and books about how to get married, how not to get married, how to be married, how to stay married, how to have a godly marriage, how to keep the spark alive in your marriage. Complementarian sermons especially tend to emphasize “head of the household” duties for men and submission for women, which leaves single women high and dry–to whom should they submit? Who are single men to lead as “head”?
Sermons about singleness usually focus on how to make the most of it, biding the time until you get married–sometimes singles are even called “not-yet-marrieds.” Young adult groups focus overwhelmingly on dating do’s and don’t’s and navigating relationships with the opposite sex. Single adults have an extraordinarily difficult time being approved for leadership positions in the church. Al Mohler, evangelical gatekeeper and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, admits as much outright, sliding easily over the fact that both Jesus and Paul were single and that Paul says explicitly that singles are in an ideal position for ministry.
Moreover, singles are assumed to all be struggling with the same types of temptation–porn, if you’re a dude; emotions if you’re a girl. It is simply assumed that everyone is struggling with the desire to be married and have sex (or at least one of those!) This becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy: if you weren’t concerned with these things before, you certainly will be after hearing countless sermons on the topic. If you aren’t really worried about marriage and sex, after a few dozen sermons on “making the most of your time of singleness” you start to wonder if maybe it’s weird that you aren’t that concerned…maybe you should be looking for a spouse!
So being single in the church is often defined by two things: not having sex–yet! and not being married–yet! It’s an overwhelmingly negative identity: if you are a single in the church, you are more often defined by what you are not than what you are. The message is therefore that if you are single, you are incomplete.
It’s fine and good, if you’ve decided to be celibate, to find like-minded people to support you in that decision. The church can and should play a healthy role in that. What a healthy role is is another post altogether, but suffice to say that it is a valid topic for a gathering of believers.
But here’s the problem: single people are already whole. Singleness does not mean one thing and one thing only. We should not think about singles in terms of sex, just as we should not think about LGBTQ individuals in terms of sex, just as we should not think of married people in terms of sex. We should think about people in terms of personhood, not sexuality. Sexuality is a part of personhood, not its whole.
Singleness should mean much, much more than virginity.