Complementarianism and Singleness – in practice

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This is my third article responding to the accusation that complementarianism discriminates against single people.  I want to look at how this works out in practice. I want to say at the start that this is not an attempt to claim that the churches I’ve been part of as a member or as a leader have got everything right and perfect.  Rather I simply want to respond to the accusation that we have somehow completely failed in our responsibilities to single people and that failing arises out of complementarianism. There will be challenges in churches across the theological spectrum and there will be challenges for people from all kinds of backgrounds. It is probably fair to say that if you ask any young person, elderly person, married couple without children or married couple with toddlers/young kids or teenagers they will all be able to identify areas where church does not get it quite right.

It was suggested to me in the conversations that led to these articles that practically we would be failing single people if we could not demonstrate that about 50% of our attendees (I’m assuming restricted to adults) were single (either never married, divorced or widowed).  The basis was that around about 50% of the UK population is single. 

AS it happens, when I did some totting up in my mind, we could indeed say that about 50% of our Bearwood Chapel congregations were single whilst I was the pastor there, However, I am not convinced by the claim that we needed to demonstrate this. First of all, it overlooked the complex and varied reasons that go into people’s decisions to join a church. It risks creating a guilt factor if a church does not exactly represent specific demographics. Indeed, in Bearwood our immediate concern was whether or not we reflected the ethnic diversity of the area and whilst we did experience significant diversity, we did not have the exact same percentage representation from each ethnic community represented in the Smethwick area. That of course challenged us to work harder at reaching some communities and to pray for them but I hope that this did not become a matter of guilt. Far more important was our concern to reach all. In the same way I hope that a local church reflects the diverse family experiences within its community including singles, couples, nuclear and extended families. But I don’t think churches should be guilt driven to meet exact quotas.

There are two further things to consider in terms of congregation make up. The first is that some of the data on marriage in our society reflects the philosophical and religious choices of society.  WE see a higher percentage of single people and single parent families in wider society now than we did in previous generations because:

  • There are higher rates of divorce and desertion
  • There are higher numbers of people choosing to pursue relationships without commitment to marriage
  • There are significant numbers of people who do not feel  a moral obligation to commit to one partner for life.

Given that the teaching of the church remains that sexual relationships belong within the context of a faithful, lifelong marriage between one man and one woman, one would expect there to be lower numbers of single people where those are the specific reasons. There will of course, sadly be Christians whose marriages have failed and there will be people who have committed to Christ who have divorced or who have had children out of wedlock prior to coming to faith in Christ.  But those numbers should be lower.

Finally, one should expect the proportions to be different in different contexts.  The figures for not and never married include those who are not yet married but one day will be. This means that churches with a higher proportion of attendees aged 18-25 are likely to see a higher proportion of singles because they draw a significant cross section of their membership from students and recent graduates.  Churches away from University areas tend to have smaller numbers of students and graduates and a higher proportion of people in their 30s and 40s who are more likely to be married and with children. 

Of greater importance than the breakdown of attendance statistics is the question about whether or not single people are able to engage in the life of the church and the extent to what they do.  I guess that one important measure here would be the extent to which the teaching was applicable to their day to day lives. In future I might ask people to give some feedback in survey form  to give a better feel for this. However, looking back at my own teaching and preaching, I know that I gave time to apply God’s word to the wide variety of contexts people would meet. There was application to husbands and wives as well as to parents and children but also application about financial stewardship, work and relationships and work, neighbourliness and so much more.  It is worth remembering that there are only a few Bible passages that are explicitly about marriage relationships.

My personal preference has not been to break up small groups by special interests or needs. People were fairly free to join a home group of their preference. That meant that our home groups were mixed in terms of age, gender, interests, ethnicity etc. It also meant that each group would include both single and married people. Everyone was encouraged to participate, to share their views, to pray, to lead studies and to host. Indeed, as a single man in my 20s I learnt that this was no bar to giving hospitality, or receiving it.

As a complementarian, I believe that the role of elder and therefore the primary teaching role within the church is held by men. However, as per the FIEC’s statement on this I believe that with those limited exceptions that all church members should be encouraged to serve and to use the gifts given to them without restriction.  At Bearwood Chapel this means that single men and single women were involved in leading small group discussion and 1-1 studies, serving in children’s ministries, reading Scripture, praying, sharing testimony, welcoming, serving communion and playing in the music group. Two of our worship co-ordinators were single women in their 60s who had never married and the leaders of our Monday afternoon ministry to older people were single, never married.

Whilst I believe that eldership is restricted to male believers, I do not believe that elders are the only leaders in the church. Therefore, we had a wider leadership team which included one lady who was divorced due to her husband’s unfaithfulness and one lady who had never been married. In fact as my line managers were drawn from the trustees, throughout my ten years at least one of my line managers was a single female. 

As I said at the start, I would not claim that we got everything perfectly right but I am confident that where there were limitations and failings that was neither due to the complementarian position of the elders nor the marital status of the members.