Revoice, Idolizing the Nuclear Family and Bachelorhood

Singles are capable of discerning the purpose of their singleness; the Bible is clear that it is to be used to devote oneself to God and to pleasing God.

One final point I’d like to make addresses a very specific complaint launched by the Revoice set. It’s the idea that celibacy is some great burden or sacrifice that churches are laying on homosexuals in a pharisaical manner. First and foremost, this is utter poppycock. Churches who demand that homosexuals and the unmarried live a celibate life are faithfully pronouncing the truth: “Thus saith the Lord.”

 

In the wake of the Revoice conference in St. Louis on July 26-28, 2018, a host of issues have found their way back into the forefront of the Evangelical/Reformed world. The vast majority is familiar with the debates, but one particular point seemingly has stuck in the craw of many; and that is the charge by a couple of Revoice speakers, specifically Nate Collins, that American Protestantism today has raised the “nuclear family” into an idol. Numerous people objected to this on Twitter and Al Mohler and Denny Burk have addressed the issue on their own blogs. But I find myself in a strange sympathy with Collins. While I disagree with the doctrinal basis for Collins’s condemnation, coming as it did in the context of Jeremiah, I do believe that the rhetoric and actions of Evangelical/Reformed churches lends credence to his ultimate conclusion.

First, let me state that I do not agree at all with the thrust of the Revoice conference and the goals of its organizers and attendees. I am not homosexual and I do believe homosexuality, as a predisposition, desire, and acts, are condemned as sin in Scripture. However, as a single, celibate, millennial I would agree with the contention that the family as normative has pushed the pendulum between the two biblical modes of sexual conduct too far in one direction. In other words, churches, in their actions and rhetoric, push the family to the exclusion of a holy celibacy.

The Bible is very clear that there are two types of members in the church: Those who are married and have the right to conjugal relations within that marriage, and those who are single who are to remain celibate (1 Cor. 7:2; 7:7; Mat. 19:4-6; 11-12). But from my experience the latter option is frequently treated as a consolation prize or presented as merely temporary.

We should be careful not to extrapolate too much from one person’s experience. But anyone familiar with the Christian satire site Babylon Bee will know that multiple posts have been published lampooning the different treatment singles receive in churches compared to married couples. The fact that it can satirized on such a popular site is evidence that this is a common issue.

Different churches will manifest these tendencies in their own ways but there are some common themes. Large city and college town churches will have single ministries. Such “ministries” heavily imply 1) that singles are to be treated and see themselves as different; and 2) that bachelorhood is not to be preferred.

As to the former point, this isn’t entirely bad. After all, if singles are capable of being on a different rung of church membership then they probably ought to be. But since married couples and families are the predominant segments of church members I don’t think it’s controversial to suggest that the onus is on them to ensure singles are treated as full members of the church.

There are definitely shortcomings to this critique I admit. Pastors and elders don’t have a biblical warrant to say families and couples shouldn’t talk about the things they share in common – married life, kids, school, etc. – when singles are around. But this does show how awkward it can be for singles, especially men, to integrate themselves into the life of the church outside of worship. Being a passive observer in conversations one knows nothing about and inapplicable to their life is awkward no matter the context but, hopefully, from this point of view one can better appreciate how single ministries are often seen as merely shuffling singles off to their own little corner, out of sight and out of mind, to be weird together.

In small churches things are definitely different. For one thing, a singles ministry isn’t going to exist since it might only have a handful or less of attendees. And, again, there’s little that can be done from the pulpit or in the exercise of authority. It simply comes down to a matter of being more aware.

When I first came to my small town church a frequent topic of conversation was my bachelor status and what I was doing to find a girl and settle down. I certainly appreciated the sentiment and sincerity this came from. And we Southerners know how old ladies love to gossip and play matchmaker. But the experience of singles in the church shouldn’t be commensurate with Thanksgiving trips home where people talk about your relationship status as if you aren’t in the room. Mom and Grandma remind us plenty to find a wife/husband. It’d be nice if the church didn’t add to that.

One big counterpoint to all this is that certain singles lament their singleness. This doesn’t make sense to me. We believe that God is sovereign over all things and works all things to his glory and our good. Why should bachelorhood be different? Read the Bible, folks. “Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife” (1 Cor. 7:27). And if that isn’t good enough there is a wealth of resources in books and parachurch organizations discussing the issue of bachelorhood. The idea that one is struggling with singleness comes off as special pleading to me. Singles are quite capable of discerning the purpose of their singleness because the Bible is quite clear that it is to be used to devote oneself to God and the things pleasing to God (1 Cor. 7:32; 34).

Personally, when I got tired of being asked about my relationship status I simply made clear that Jesus says some are called to be eunuchs for the Lord and that, as far as I was concerned, that was my calling. Does this mean that I don’t occasionally long for a wife to curl up with at the end of the day? Of course not. But it’s hardly a struggle, and in light of the Bible’s teaching for singles I find it hard to take anyone seriously. But perhaps that only goes to show that the church has overemphasized family to the exclusion of singleness. If being single is weird, not to be preferred, and not normative in the life of the church then is it not reasonable for people to lament their single status?

One final point I’d like to make addresses a very specific complaint launched by the Revoice set. It’s the idea that celibacy is some great burden or sacrifice that churches are laying on homosexuals in a pharisaical manner. First and foremost, this is utter poppycock. Churches who demand that homosexuals and the unmarried live a celibate life are faithfully pronouncing the truth: “Thus saith the Lord.” If you think living a life without sex is somehow unfair or unduly burdensome then take it up with the Holy One of Israel. I’m sure he’ll have some things to say about your worldly idea of fairness. He might even mention how it was unfair that he had to die for your sinful sexual desires and acts, among other things.

But secondly, such a complaint stems from the wrong point of view. Again, the Bible is clear that singleness/celibacy is honorable since it allows people to devote themselves to the Lord. It is not a deprivation but a means of sanctification. Jesus tells us that in heaven we will no longer be given in marriage as we will be like the angels (Mark 12:25). This has always been interpreted to include the idea that there will be no sex in heaven. People who are celibate ought to look at it as a foreshadowing of the things to come in their present life rather than a loss.

So here’s what everyone needs to keep in mind:

  1. That heterosexual marriage between one wife and one husband is the only context in which sexual relations is approved.
  2. Families are a normative experience for the church. But the Bible also teaches that celibacy is expected and ought to be encouraged as well. Teaching elders ought to devote more time to this in the pulpit and in private counseling with singles.
  3. Churches, elders and laity alike, have commonly emphasized marriage and family to the exclusion of celibacy so, in that sense, there is something to the charge of idolizing the family. While I think the Revoice people cross a line by actually calling it an idol I do think it can be overemphasized to the detriment of singles in confirming the calling of bachelorhood/singleness in the life of the church.
  4. In light of Paul’s teaching, elders ought to seek out the singles in their church for more active participation. Paul is clear on this point so not only is it biblical to give responsibilities to singles but, frankly, it’s just good leadership.
  5. Singles overemphasize the magnitude of their struggles with celibacy even to extent of lamenting it rather than celebrating it as a grace gift of God for their sanctification. Such persons should use their singleness as God intended, to devote themselves to the Lord, in so doing they will come to understand how misguided their consternation over celibacy really was.

P.S. In editing this I found that I occasionally used single/singleness interchangeably with celibacy. While there is a potential for confusion I think it would take a bad faith reading to say I’m conflating issues. All singles are required to be celibate whether you’re hetero- or homosexual and while celibate people aren’t always single or heterosexual they are nevertheless expected to refrain from sex outside of heterosexual marriage, so I believe the post is coherent.

Timothy J. Glass, J.D. 2017 University of Kentucky College of Law, is a member of Sandlick Presbyterian Church (PCA) in  Haysi, VA.