Can Singleness Make Sense When Evangelicals Focus on the Family?

Perhaps evangelicals will fully embrace the idea of the church itself as the default family for God’s people.

Not much is new in the recent furor over soccer-star-turned-pastor Gavin Peacock’s tweets championing conservative Christian gender roles. Neither is it surprising that complementarian intellectuals like Owen Strachan, a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, have come to his defense.

However, what we don’t usually see is conservatives invoking the virtues of Christian singleness. But this is precisely the move that Strachan recently made. After backing Peacock with references to his biblical faithfulness and the pragmatic value of complementarianism, Strachan drops in a quick aside about how “the church offers singles a beautiful outline of their lives” and how it must counteract an over-sexualized fallen world that “robs singles of their purpose.”

When I first read this I was puzzled as to how these sentiments fit into Strachan’s broader defense of Peacock. On second reading, I saw how Strachan was framing godly singleness as another Christian foil to the sexualized secular culture (along with the difficult-yet-faithful call to gender complementarity). But then I realized that my initial confusion was more deep-seated.

This apparent aside was baffling because it is something I have rarely — if ever — heard from an evangelical leader or layperson devoted to complementarianism or family values-style social conservatism. A call for singleness does not easily compute in a subculture that helped create and sustain Focus on the Family, church “family life centers,” the American Family Association, and families’ orphan adoption.

It is hard to know exactly how to interpret Strachan’s comments, as he does not define what he means by this “church” that is supposedly supporting singles everywhere. I certainly hope that he’s not referring back to his home base of contemporary American evangelicalism, which constantly talks about sex and marriage.

Amy DeRogatis’ new book Saving Sex is instructive on this point. Though I (and others) think she overstates her case at times by focusing too much on outlying subcultures within conservative evangelicalism — think purity ball attendees and the “quiverfull” movement — I do think she is correct in her general characterization of contemporary American evangelicals as obsessed with sex, and with that, marriage and family.

Sex, family values, marriage, and the Christian faith weren’t always so linked in the American evangelical imagination. In the early nineteenth-century revivals, a representative portrait of the faithful evangelical “doing God’s will” was probably something like a celibate Methodist circuit rider or a female exhorter sneaking to class meetings behind her husband’s back.

Indeed, as Christine Leigh Heyrman has shown, the evangelical adoption of “marriage” and “family” as ideals to aspire to is linked to their capitulation to a respectable, genteel southern culture that aided in domesticating their gospel-driven, supernatural fervor. This helped modern evangelicals recalibrate their theological lens, as the drive for a radical, countercultural way of Christian life was exchanged for a “focus on the family.”

The contrast with evangelicalism today could not be starker. Contemporary evangelical theological treatises, self-help books, sermons, pastoral job descriptions, and political advocacy all point to nothing other than a full-on “fetish of the family.”

But maybe Strachan is referring to a different church. He could be alluding to Catholics, with their long tradition of priestly celibacy. Or perhaps he’s referring to the emerging lifestyle of gay celibate Christians, chaste believers who are uncomfortable with the “practice” of homosexuality even as they embrace their same-sex orientation. I doubt it. Maybe, flying in the face of his own subculture, he is actually referring to some evangelical somewhere.

Strachan could also be writing in an aspirational tone, looking forward to a future evangelical movement. Maybe a movement will arise where singleness is lauded and defended by evangelicals with the same rancor as marriage and family values. I don’t see that happening anytime soon, though — the family fetish seems too deeply rooted.

But perhaps a shift could occur if evangelicals flip some tables in their theological imagination and fully embrace the idea of the church itself as the default family for God’s people. This might mean tempering their strident efforts to protect an idealized image of biological families and spending less time worrying about “saving sex” (in both senses of the phrase). It could also result in fewer tweets and treatises about family gender roles. There’s little time for that when the more fundamental family of God — the church — faces so many opportunities and challenges.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Aaron Griffith
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  • nwcolorist

    “Fetish of the family”, indeed.

    When singleness comes under assault the way the nuclear family has been in the last 40 years, then we can turn our attention in their direction.

    • NavyBlues05

      So, it’s okay to keep marginalizing the single person?

      • nwcolorist

        I’ve never heard about it. Please show evidence.

        • NavyBlues05

          Most visible is in the Mormon LDS community. Following missions, members are expected to be engaged or married in the not too distant future. Or, they’re consigned to Singles Wards.

          Catholics it comes up before, during, and after First Communion…according to nuns I’ve talked with over the years.

          Baptists… of all stripes, well, if you’re not married then something is wrong with the female. The male is just tom-catting around and needs a woman to make his settle down.

          I’ve yet to see how the nuclear family has come under assault. There are claims of such but I’m not seeing them tossed into the square and shamed or anything. If assault is that a family’s structure isn’t as described according to any particular manuscript, then that’s a narrow view of the world.

          • nwcolorist

            Thanks. I’ll look into it some more before making any further comments.

          • NavyBlues05

            Might want to read the latest report from the Vatican following the all male conference on women and their role in the church. Made me feel damned ashamed for choosing a secular, single, non-celibate life in order to pursue a career. But then they are men and the ultimate goal is conformity and control.