It’s a dangerous thing for a married person to review Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must Be Reinvented in Today’s Church. After all, singleness is not ‘my’ issue and many singles would say that someone who got married at 23 couldn’t possibly understand the struggle. But I’m actually passionate about this topic. Many of those I love and many in the Christian community are single and, as Christine Colon and Bonnie Field argue, the church has neglected or devalued them for too long.
Field and Colon are both single and neither of them by choice. They describe the assumption that they would always marry, but the ‘I want a man’ of their twenties turned into the ‘What’s wrong with me?’ of their thirties. Neither of them want to be nuns, and the message of “Just wait until you’re married” wasn’t cutting it any more (what if they never marry?) so they went looking for a positive understanding of singleness. This book is not a manual for living as a Christian single or living a pure life until you get married. It’s a call for singles to see themselves as whole people, and for the rest of the church to see them as an integral part of itself.
Almost half of this book is taken up with diagnosing the problem. Field and Colon discuss positive and negative views of sex in society. These chapters are quite fun, littered with references to Gilmore Girls, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Buffy, Superman, Sex and the City, Friends and Seinfeld. After that, they take on the church, reviewing a number of books about singleness and dating, everything from Josh Harris’s I Kissed Dating Good Bye to Piper’s Sex and the Supremacy of God. They then move to discussing wrong or dangerous messages about sex. Here are some of them.
- Sexual desire cannot ultimately be controlled. While Christians emphasise not having sex before marriage, often the way that we do this suggests that you just have to ‘hold on’ until marriage and the shorter that time period is, the better.
- Sex is the ultimate human experience. Society portrays those who don’t have sex in negative terms, as repressed, immature or neurotic. At times, Christians have bought into this, arguing that marriage is God’s best tool for curing selfishness, for example. The implication is that single people are more selfish. Additionally, in an effort not to be prudish, Christians may have gone to the other extreme, talking about how good sex is, especially if you ‘wait’. Song of Songs is about how to ‘knock his/her socks off’ because that’s what sex is like.
- Singleness is an aberration in the kingdom. ‘Family values’ are prized in the evangelical church. We’re told that raising a Christian family is of utmost importance. Those who are single clearly do not value marriage and family.
- People who don’t have sex are asexual. This is the flip side of sexual desire not being able to be controlled. It’s the idea that everyone who has sexual desires is married and that God gives the ‘gift of singleness’ to the others: he takes away sexual desire. So if you have sexual desire, the clear implication is that you’re meant to be married.
Colon and Field respond to each of these strongly.
- To ‘sexual desire cannot ultimately be controlled’, they quote John Stott: ‘We Christians must insist that self-control is possible. We have to learn to control our temper, our tongue, our greed, our jealousy, our pride: why should it be thought impossible to control our libido? To say that we cannot is to deny our dignity as human beings.’
- To ‘sex is the ultimate human experience’, they point out the obvious, that Jesus didn’t have sex. Also, they remind all of us that sex is more often routine than mind-blowing because sex is part of a covenant relationship. Ultimately, though, to elevate sex as the ultimate human experience is out and out idolatry. Knowing God and being known by him are what make us truly human. It doesn’t get any better than that.
- To ‘sex is an aberration in the kingdom’, they point out that God does not need Christians to reproduce to grow his kingdom. This is the age of evangelism! Stanley Hauerwas: ‘As Christians we believe that every Christian in one generation might be called to singleness, yet God will create the church anew… Singleness reminds the church we grow not through biological ascription but through witness and hospitality to the stranger.’
- To ‘not having sex makes you asexual’, they firstly point out that God’s call is not based on our desires. Plenty of married people don’t want to be married any more: that’s not God’s call for them to divorce. Similarly, sexual desire doesn’t necessarily indicate God’s call to marriage. Secondly, they argue that ‘Rather than receiving “special graces” from God at one point in their life to remove all sexual desire, [singles] receive God’s grace on a daily basis as they struggle and cope with the difficulties of being a human being in a fallen world.’
This section is by far the strongest part of the book. It’s layered with some excellent exegesis and insightful critiques. The next section looks for positive models of celibacy, drawing on the church fathers and monastics before moving on to make some suggestions for churches today. It’s not quite as developed as the first part. I would have appreciated a greater discussion of how you tell when God is calling you to a different state, as from celibacy to marriage. However, it does include an excellent section on sexuality for singles. The authors argue that sexuality is broader than sex: it’s about men and women enjoying each other which means we need to create space for inter-gender friendships. There’s also an interesting section on dealing with loneliness. Following Ronald Rolheiser, they argue that the solution may not be to fill life with distractions from loneliness but to acknowledge it and see what fruitfulness might be borne out of it under God.
One of the best things about this book is the maturity of its authors. Both single, they write from their own experience. Yet, this isn’t an angry rant against the church for marginalising singles. It’s gracious and well thought through, insightful and direct. For a married person, it has some good suggestions for how to get beyond thinking in ‘nuclear family’ terms and start seeing church as a family. For singles, it both validates their experiences and encourages them that God can use singleness to grow them as well. It never suggests that singles ought to stop desiring marriage but it asks them to consider how they will pursue God in their current state. This isn’t a book for singles. It’s a book for the whole church.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.