By Amber Noel
Fiddler on the Roof always makes me wonder why I’m not Jewish. Trying to date in the 21st century is a mess, and since I was a preteen I’ve romanticized the role of the matchmaker.
Now I’m over romance. It’s practical: I want to find a spouse. Many of my friends and I, from our late 20s to mid-40s, are in the same boat. We have a hard time meeting compatible people, and we dislike dating.
Have we tried those new dating apps? Have we heard about so-and-so who found a spouse that way? Yes. And dating apps do sometimes work. But they are, for the most part, underwhelming. Scrolling through hundreds of faces to reject or accept is a strange, disheartening, and often painful experience. You wonder where these people are coming from. Advertising oneself romantically can be an embarrassing enterprise, and it’s difficult to own the process, to not feel (or appear) adolescent doing it. The cost of personal matchmaking services on the other hand, guaranteed to be professional and promising high-quality results, come with a correspondingly high pricetag.
Here’s what I’m getting at: clergy, lay leaders, sensitive readers, please consider a ministry of matchmaking.
Think about it for a minute. Single people in your church who would like to be married need your help. They need people with gifts of prayer, hospitality, and discernment to pray for suitable spouses, organize parties with guest lists, and pass our phone numbers around.
Those of us hoping to find suitable mates within the Church may have work to do, too. We may need to become a little old-fashioned, a little less independent, and less shy and private about the whole business. We need to encourage our trustworthy networks to help us. If online profiles give me the heebie-jeebies, there’s nothing stopping me from passing some nice photos and a little blurb through family, friends, and pastors to ask if they “know someone.”
If this purely practical plea isn’t enough to move you, allow me to present some theological arguments.
1. The community of God is public.
The privacy of dating (and the dating business) has become suffocating. Even in the Church, the seriousness and privacy surrounding dating can be stuffy, uninviting, and lacking in imagination and energy. The art of public flirtation among many Christians is replaced — among grown adults, mind you — by high fives, side hugs, and a lot of hesitation. How can I be an open, vulnerable, desiring being in the community of God? I have to be willing for that side of me to be seen, and for people to know my business. I may also have to be willing to “risk the friendship” by seeing if it could go anywhere, even if that means it doesn’t. The community of God is public. It shares burdens, joys, and holds accountable. Singles need support and encouragement to avoid keeping the joys, fears, and messes of their romantic lives totally private and cut off from the life of the body of Christ.
2. The sacraments are earthy.
“From dust you are” is good news. To be humbled adam in God’s hands is also to be set free: from pornography, inappropriate primness, prudery, disordered loves, too much solitude, embarrassment about “earthy” matters (food, sex, money), and other gnostic tendencies. Dating is one of these earthy matters. It is about mating, which is about bed, babies, and a lifetime of breaking bread. The blessed sacraments are God’s way of uniting our earthy and earthly life with his. And it’s no mistake that he uses the stuff and metaphors of household economy to do it.
Many good Christian men, or so I’ve heard, are not sure how to allure women without feeling lustful, wrongfully motivated, or creepy. And many, many good Christian women are trying their best to put ourselves out there, but are frustrated, coming up short, and ticked off. Is it possible that brothers and sisters in Christ, without a little help, can stagnate in their ability to desire one another and instead remain brothers and sisters only? Our safety with one another is a refuge, and our unity in Christ is a miracle. But this is also the God of the Old Covenant we’re talking about. Where is the God who not only sanctifies and orders the libido by his Holy Spirit, but also creates and provokes it?
3. Celibacy is a serious ask.
Scripture, tradition, and the living, collective discernment of God’s Church around the world are clear: Celibacy is not optional for singles within the sanctified people of God. The human body doesn’t seem to be so clear on this.
Because here’s what celibacy also is not: it’s not equal to religiously sublimating the libido. Our bodies still function as in all mammals. Celibacy and an utter lack of sexual liberation have taught me that:
- A lot of Christians are marrying later, remaining celibate during peak reproductive years.
- It’s a massive thing to ask Christians who, statistically speaking, probably don’t have the gift or command to celibacy to wait so long to have sex and children.
- Many, many Christians on dating apps explicitly state that they are not seeking to be celibate until marriage.
My point is this. If the Church is concerned with the implications of sexuality, marriage, and family to sanctity, church identity, anthropology, society — you name it — then it is a matter of urgent pastoral importance to help move young adults to be ready to marry during peak reproductive years, and to give unmarried adults some compelling, positive reasons for celibacy. Chronic loneliness and disconnection can lead to weariness with a moral code that no longer makes as much sense as companionship and a warm bed. You’re fighting biology and real, God-given need with what, in the teeth of desire, feels like little more than an idea.
For me, discovering links between sexuality and deep prayer and reading about the lives of saints who were virgins have helped me understand some of the benefits of celibacy. Asking trusted people to pray with me, adopting a pet, and fostering my Christian friendships have enriched my life as a single in countless ways.
There are bad days, too. I’ve turned off animal documentaries, incensed because lions and Rhesus monkeys seem to have more of an intimate home life than I do. God provides for them! Why not me? And yet single folks can live for years, for decades, this way.
When you consider singles pastorally, consider some of the deeply practical needs that intersect with our spirituality, physicality, sexuality, and need for relationship. Ask what sustains us. Put together a dinner group. Give away coupons for Massage Envy, spas, and old-fashioned barber shops. Encourage therapy, healing prayer, gym memberships, good food, and time with nature and animals.
Single people, to remain celibate in the right way, need sustained, visceral engagement with reality, ways of healthy physical and emotional release, a good sense of humor, and licit, earthy comforts, or you will have churches full of young adults finding connection and meaning (compelling, visceral experiences) in sexual partners and pornography.
Comfort in singleness is not the goal — for most, anyway. Neither is sexual neutrality or lukewarm lack of good pursuit. Celibacy, at its best, is not an extinguisher, not an excuse for over-absorption in career or inordinate love of being alone, or disobedience to Adam’s first commandment. It’s a fire-stoker. It’s meant, as hunger provokes the labor that earns daily bread, to move us toward enjoying one another.
4. He still “sets the lonely in families” (Ps. 68:6).
Certainly this Scripture is fulfilled in the family of God. But its literal meaning hasn’t been lost. The liturgy, Law, sacraments, and the communion of prayer and the saints have always instructed us not to leave this world, but like the exiled Jews in Babylon (at worst) or the first couple in Eden (at best), to remain, plant, cultivate, listen, bless, expose God’s image, and be fruitful.
Marriage is not the gospel or the kingdom. Marriage, like any other blessing, can become a stumbling block. Some are permanently celibate out of circumstance, and some for the sake of the kingdom. And in eternity, we “neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matt 22:30). So why make a big fuss about this? Jesus is coming soon. Our eyes need to stay on the prize.
Well, before he returns, our king is very concerned about our welfare, and with the welfare of our neighbors. We have a great high priest who is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Heb. 4:15). He knows how difficult it is. He won’t resolve all our longings on this side of heaven, but we know they’re accounted for carefully by the Lord of Hosts.
And, more to the point, he wants to know how we’re responding to the infirmities of others. If the kingdom of God is not family and stability, it’s not “meat and drink” either (Rom. 14:17), but Christians are given crystal-clear injunction to feed the hungry. And when Christ returns, that’s one of the first things he will ask us about (Matt. 25:35).
God’s kingdom is not substantiated by marriage, food, or drink, but faithfulness and generosity in earthly gifts have great and eternal consequences. This is entirely consistent with the God who reserves olives and wheat for Israel’s poor, who heard Leah and Rachel asking for children, and provided Rebekah for Isaac out of the middle of the desert.
When we look back on these difficult times in the church, what will we see? Did we help “set the lonely in families,” feeding hunger for companionship and sexual partnership as we can, according to God’s law? Or did we just keep telling more and more people not to have sex and wish them luck?
Church leaders can help provide for both single women and single men:
- Deep mentoring relationships
- Permission to be a virile/sexual being in the very practice of celibacy
- Permission to be raw, vulnerable, and real
- Help to find and attract potential partners (if appropriate)
- Dates and set-ups (if appropriate)
- Things to do for fun
- Physical activities (sports, swim parties, etc.)
- Training in prayer and community
Along with the widow and the orphan, go ahead and list the single. We’re not looking for pity (most of us are doing very well for ourselves), but we are looking for assistance. We simply don’t want to do everything on our own. We need skilled friends to help us wait on God and, if we think we might be called to marriage, we need skilled matchmakers to help us. L’chaim!
Amber Noel (MDiv, Duke) provides consultation and event support for the Living Church Foundation. She is also a writer, teacher, and party-thrower. She lives between Columbus, Ohio, and New York City.