If there’s one thing that I find mildly annoying in Christian circles, it is Christians trying to be Jews. There’s something about the way that that comes off that tends to be, well, a caricature of what Jewish culture really is all about. Not that I mind people being interested about Jewish culture or traditions in as far as such things help shine light on the context in which Jesus lived and taught; but sometimes Christians getting into “Jewish roots” ends up kinda scary for a whole host of reasons that I won’t go into in THIS blog post. (Stay tuned for another one, though…)
But there is one area where I think it would be great if the body of Christ in the West would take a page from the Jews – and this is in how the community relates to unmarried adults.
An Orthodox Jewish Story
A Jewish friend of mine (we’ll nickname him Benjamin) decided to take his religion more seriously and become an orthodox Jew in his early thirties. He moved to New York City and joined a Yeshiva (a place to study Torah.) A few months after he had settled in and made friends, his rabbi approached him and asked, “Why aren’t you married?”
Now, to a single person who doesn’t want to think about marriage, I can imagine that this would be a troublesome encounter (and I have written about respecting those folks here.) But for my friend, this was a Godsend. Benjamin had long wanted to be married and prior to getting involved with the Orthodox Jewish community, he had struggled to find a spouse. The rabbi, upon hearing that Benjamin was not single by his own choice, was immediately excited about introducing him to some eligible single women in their community.
Benjamin explained to me, “Heather, all of the confusion and uneasiness of dating just doesn’t exist here.” Benjamin was introduced to some women, and one by one they went out to dinner. At dinner, they didn’t dance around the topic of what they were there for: to find a spouse. Instead, very directly, very matter-of-factly, they laid all their cards out on the table: I’m planning on doing this and that with my life, I’m looking for this or that in a spouse, my personality and bad habits are like this and that, my hobbies are this and that.
Benjamin went out to dinner with each girl once or twice, and in his case by the third woman, they decided they had a lot in common and would make a good match. Thus, they thanked Hashem (the name of God) for bringing them together, and got engaged. And to the joy of their community, they were married two or three months later.
In the orthodox Jewish world, this is how they believe God blesses people with a spouse – with a completely open, honest, intentional search – facilitated by leaders and the surrounding community.
Look, but don’t look like you are looking!
Now I’d like to compare that with the typical Christian mindset about finding a spouse. First, for some reason, it is considered a virtue to “not be looking.” To keep with this virtue, when single people encounter each other, it is generally considered entirely inappropriate to tell another single person when first meeting them that you’d say, want to sit down and talk with them about whether or not you might be a good match with each other the way that Orthodox Jews do. You need to hang out in some way in which that card is tastefully and skillfully kept off the table, even while both parties are checking each other out surreptitiously.
You try to see if “something might evolve” and if perhaps you might be friends first. Sometimes a particularly bold person might ask the other person out, but even then, in order to not appear “too desperate” or “too eager” – which are very bad qualities in the Christian single world – they may generally downplay what they are doing, with expressions such as, “Let’s just see if we hit it off – nothing too serious here.”
There are definitely exceptions to the rule, but generally it takes weeks, months, sometimes years – before it is safe for either person to really bring a frank discussion of “Are we a good match?” to the table. Often, the two people have built a good friendship first, and now the immediate concern of the parties is, “If I bring up an honest discussion of my interest, will I destroy the friendship?”
Internet dating has messed with this a bit, because meeting on a dating site means that some discussion of compatibility has already been handled up front, by the website itself. But the qualities that websites are using to match people usually aren’t terribly tailored to the unique concerns and questions that Christians generally have when looking for a spouse.
“How do I find a mate who feels called to do missions in Botswana?”
“How do I find someone who feels the same way I do about tithing?”
“How do I find someone who wants to homeschool their kids?”
“How do I find someone who has a passion for fasting and prayer?”
Most dating websites, even Christian ones, don’t cover the nuances of Christian culture that really exist out there in the body of Christ. And for older single Christian women, websites will almost always doom them to failure – as most men in their age bracket will never even SEE their profiles.
When a woman is just a set of statistics on a website, most men in their 30s and 40s tend to set the age filter quite a bit younger than themselves – thus leaving eligible single women who have waited “on God” up until their late 30s or even 40s out of the filter. This can be quite a bit different than what happens when a man actually MEETS a woman who is his peer, however – thus the importance of actually introducing people to one another and not leaving it all up to a website filter.
Current Christian Culture is Less Practical
When it comes to meeting other Christian singles, the church tends to turn a bit more mystical than it does about other things. Singles are told to just trust God, told to work on “being the right kind of person”, told that maybe they’re not meant to be married, and often told that their spouse will come when they give up wanting one – etc., etc. In other things in life no one would be this mystical; a single person who can’t find a job would never be told to just trust God and wait, or that maybe they’re not meant to have a job, or that they will find a job when they stop wanting one.
We also understand from the book of James that if a brother or sister is struggling with some material need, that it’s inappropriate to send that person on their way with nothing but well-wishes. But for some reason when it comes to marriage, we get all mystical in these ways. When people are called upon to introduce a single in their church to other singles they may know, or to network with other folks who may know singles, often there is a certain squeamishness involved. For some reason there is a taboo on “getting involved” – it’s really sort of embarrassing to try to connect single people to one another. If any one single guy or girl in their group was turned down by the single person in question, often the label “too picky” gets applied to that person, and no further introductions will be forthcoming. When practical advice does finally come, people most often will tell singles to sign up for a dating website.
Most single people have spent a lot of money on dating websites – money that could have been spent on the Kingdom in other ways, too. Occasionally you will hear the praise report of the couple that found each other that way – thus reinforcing the idea that this really is the new way to find a spouse in the church. But while there are sites like jdate.com for Jewish folks – I can say this is not the predominant approach the Orthodox Jewish community is taking towards their singles. Why?
For the sake of community posterity…
The Jewish community has only survived for 2000 years because as a community, they took matches and marriages seriously. Jews have always been well aware in every place they sojourn that they were minorities, and that they generally could not easily take spouses from the majority community if they wanted their culture and life to survive. If they wanted to continue as Jewish families, and as Jewish communities, it was really important to make sure that single folks could get married (at reproductive ages!) and reproduce. Thus marriage was *not* looked at as something that single folks were responsible to do all on their own because it was understood that there was more than the individual single person’s happiness at stake.
The entire community – from parents, to leaders, to neighbors – stood behind helping their young people find matches because their survival as a culture and community hinged on marriage. And this mindset of marriage and community survival being intertwined continues in the Orthodox Jewish community today. Other forms of Judaism did not take this so seriously, and in one generation American Judaism outside of the Orthodox are facing unprecedented intermarriage rates, rampant closings of synagogues, and the dwindling of their culture. Christians today may chuckle at the mention of “matchmakers” but the matchmaker of yesterday and those in the Orthodox communities even today, represented an earnest attempt to make sure that the single folk in the community could and did find people they could marry – and have been responsible for the survival and continuation of a people.
Can the Church Succeed Without Being Pro-Marriage?
With Christianity declining in Western nations, can we really afford to be so disinterested in the plight of Christians singles who want to be married, want to have children, and can’t find spouses? We pray for revivals and conversions, and this is a huge part of our mission, but let us consider: Christian believing community continuity is build both by evangelism, and by families who raise their kids in the faith of Jesus Christ. Evangelicals by and large do fairly well at retaining their kids in their faith – 60% of children raised in an evangelical home in the USA will grow up to keep their parents’ faith. But sadly, I was recently at a conference where there were sessions devoted to the importance of the church having influence in the societal sphere of “family” – but no mention is made of helping those families form by bringing singles together seems to be considered as the first step, nor implemented in Christian culture.
Most churches out there know that to thrive and grow, they need a good children’s ministry. They know the future of the church is in families, and in children. It is only a small step of logic away to realize that helping singles get married and have kids directly contributes to this dynamic. Instead, many churches are extremely family-focused, yes, but in such a way that drives singles right out the door, rather than helping them join in on the party. Some singles want to stay single – and they should be honored and supported – but many, if not most, really want to be married. Should they not be honored and supported as well?
Like the plight in the Jewish community where among all the types of Jewish groups out there, only the Orthodox seem to take an intense corporate responsibility for creating families, it seems the only Christian groups who generally concern themselves with this sort of thing in a very direct way are the extremely fundamentalist, ultra conservative groups – who admittedly do matchmaking in some creepy ways, most of which are particularly hard on women. But at least – at least they care about getting involved! Can the broader Christian community do a less creepy, and healthier job at caring for the singles – and potential matches – in their midst? Can pastors and lay leaders network with leaders from other churches to make introductions and hold events, particularly for older singles? In a very real way, caring for singles who wish to be married profits the entire believing community – it is one place where realizing that if the foot is needy, the eye profits by helping the foot find the other foot to partner with so the whole body can be benefited by that partnership.
Remove the shame of singles’ pain
There is no shame in the Jewish community in being a single person who announces to their leaders and community, “I would like to find a wife / or husband.” In fact, the community celebrates that the single person is ready to take this step and rallies around them with introductions to eligible singles of the opposite sex. However, in the Christian community, talking about wanting to be married is sometimes almost considered indecent, like something that is shameful and needs to be hidden. Joining a church or a parachurch organization and going to the leader to say, “Would you help me find a spouse?” as one could easily do among Orthodox Jews, instead might be looked at as exceedingly desperate – and even possibly could get one kicked out of a group with the epitaph, “That’s not what this group is about! We’re not a dating service!”
Yet several instructions of Scripture are really hard to fulfill without being deliberate about marriage. For instance, Christian widows under a certain age are encouraged to be married before they fall into sin. I’m not even sure today how a widow would go about making sure she could do that. Paul also said in 1 Corinthians 7:2 that “every man should have his own wife” and every woman a husband. This is even while he held up the virtue of being single to people who had a unique calling to live that way. But his message overall is clear – unless you have some supernatural ability to be unconcerned about sex, companionship, and marriage – get married.
Today I know handfuls of single people in their late thirties and forties that were the emblem of sexual purity and zeal for the Kingdom for their entire lives, and who now have done things they never imagined they would do a few years earlier – because they have been consigned to an unending singlehood beyond their giftedness, in a church culture where chastity is honored but matchmaking isn’t. Paul saw the problem of peoples’ weaknesses in this area and prescribed marriage as the solution, but for many single folks, this solution is hard to achieve without others helping out.
Corporate concern, corporate realms of responsibility
I’m not saying singles who stumble from the patience and virtue of their earlier years should blame the church – but I do notice that Jesus considered some sins to be the responsibility of other people. (For instance, if a husband puts away a wife for no good reason, her remarriage and “adultery” is considered his fault, according to Jesus. And elsewhere people are told that they can be a stumbling block to cause others to sin.) The same church which turned a deaf ear to failing singles’ prayers and concerns about marriage in their 20s and 30s will now easily lament their weakness and loss of “purity” if they knew what they are doing now. But is it the single folks’ moral failure alone? I know the Lord provides everything we need for life and Godliness, but with the exceedingly corporate nature of the Holy Spirits’ ministry, I have to wonder aloud if some of the provision that God wants to bring to singles in their distress has a lot to do with the support and interest of the broader body of Christ.
This type of extended adult singlehood probably didn’t exist much in Jesus’s day – so most of the Bible’s concern with people who are on their own in life comes down to “orphans” and “widows.” But I believe if the Bible was written in this society – there would be a third category that is not really all that different than what an orphan or a widow experiences – and that would be, “long-waiting singles.” Will the church ever turn an ear to their concerns, or continue pretending that all of these people are just pathetic, unspiritual whiners who just need to join Christian Mingle? Actually, that might not be the worst case scenario, as I’ve run into folks who don’t think even Christian Mingle is a valid idea as it panders to those self-seeking people who think they need to be married.
Sometimes there are undercurrents in discussions too, that if these unmarried singles were attractive, healthy, solid people, they would have been married long ago – and of course, God gives the gift of singlehood to those who aren’t yet picked as marriage partners, anyway. It appears at times to single folk that the rest of church just trusts that all matchmaking occurs sovereignly by God with no human interference, and so even though the church IS the hands and feet of Jesus, it would be amiss for the church to get involved. Even though many are married and enjoying children and grandchildren, the idea seems to be that we will affirm that there are a couple of verses where singlehood is held up as a really great calling – so who are we to interfere in those single peoples lives, and why should we consider this to even be a problem?
It is a problem, but it’s a problem that believing communities can go a long way towards solving together. (The problem is disproportionately a female problem, too, which means that women particularly need as much help as the church can give them. There is a stereotype of women ‘investing in career instead of marriage’ as the reason she finds herself single late in life, but in my experience, single women often very much want marriage even more than career, and their careers are just the way they are surviving and paying for the single life they don’t want – and also the groundwork for the financial contribution they would make to their families as wives.)
It’s a problem the Orthodox Jews started tackling a long time ago, and unlike other Jewish groups, their numbers continue to grow. Other communities (Amish, Hindu, Muslim) that are pro-helping singles find mates have grown rapidly too. I wish I could see the body of Christ start to take the cries of its singles seriously as well – creating a culture where community matching is encouraged, and dating can become frank and honest and thus much more marriage-centric. And as the body Christ, as the hands and feet of Jesus, are implemented to do the Lord’s kind work of “setting the solitary in families (Psalm 68:6) I believe that the entire body will benefit and flourish as a result.