Iain Duncan-Smith and the Theology of Singleness

I have found a sure-fire way to confuse a secular lefty.

I tell them that churches don’t encourage their women-folk to get married.

“But…but…but…what about family values!”

Well, yes precisely.

“Don’t churches support tax exemptions for married couples because they want to encourage marriage?”

Well, yes that would be a logical conclusion to reach.

But, no. Churches do not encourage their womenfolk to get married. They encourage them to be content being single.

There’s a whole industry of self-help on this issue. Just do a search on “Christian Singleness” in Amazon and see what you come up with. You don’t have to buy anything: just browse.

Women are pointed to passages of scripture such as 1 Corinthians 7 where St. Paul says:

Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do.  But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

….

Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.

….

 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband.  I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.

Now, you’re probably wondering why this is an issue for women and not for men. Because, normally women outnumber men within church congregations – sometimes by quite significant amounts. And since churches would prefer it if their congregants married fellow churchgoers, it ends up being women who are confronted most forcefully with the prospect of lifetime singleness.

To be clear: St. Paul’s teaching to the Church in Corinth contains an extraordinary amount of wisdom. It is true that not having a spouse or children leaves people free to dedicate more of their time to serving people beyond the boundaries of the nuclear family. I see this every day in politics in the lives of people of all religions and none. Really making an impact in the political sphere takes hours of dedication. Evenings, weekends, annual leave. Even when I’m not being a parliamentary candidate, it is quite normal for me to use up more than half my annual leave on politics-related activities.

Our individualist modern world has lost sight of the concept of public service. Of people dedicating their lives to a cause without giving thought to self-interest.  The writings of Amy Carmichael are littered with the concept of “self-abandonment”. It’s challenging to read through 21st century eyes. But here was a woman who spent decades serving hundreds of the poorest children in India – as a single woman and without the support of a family network. Yet her legacy is greater than many – if not most – married women

But, as is often the case, great truths get sugar-coated. “As a single person, I challenge you to lead lives of service and consequence” becomes “being single is wonderful: what’s your problem?” As if there are no practical challenges to being single. As if our housing market didn’t shut them out. As if the decline in community and the dispersal of extended families didn’t create a culture of loneliness. As if “contentment” was the same thing as “happiness”.

And as if “contentment” should result in “inaction”. Where a version of Hyper-Calvinism creates havoc with the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. After all, if God has a plan for our lives, He also has a plan for whether or not we marry. So therefore the correct approach is to do absolutely nothing to widen our social circle and wait for Him to bring someone into our lives in His perfect timing. You have no idea how widespread this belief is in Christian circles. Yet, the tragedy is that so many Christian women make life choices on the basis of this teaching.

But we don’t apply this to any other area of life. The correct response to unemployment is to apply for jobs. The correct answer to the landlord serving notice is to go househunting. “But singleness isn’t a problem to be fixed”. Well, no. But there are lots of circumstances that don’t require fixing that we’re quite happy to give people the freedom to change. You’re expecting your third child and you’re building an extension because you only have three bedrooms? My great grandparents raised ten children in a two-up two-down farm house: three bedrooms is perfectly sufficient! You aren’t getting a promotion at work so you’re looking to move employers: why can’t you learn to be content in your current role? Nobody ever says these things within church circles. Maybe they should.

But, for me, the real problem lies in the conflict between “Christian Singleness” and “Family Values” teaching. You cannot tell your single members that they are valued while simultaneously campaigning for tax breaks aimed at married people. You cannot bemoan the decline in marriage in our modern world and not expect your single members to feel that they are part of the problem. You cannot “celebrate marriage” and expect your single members to celebrate their singleness.

This is why Iain Duncan Smith’s recent speech denouncing unmarried men is so insidious: it exposes the hypocrisy of the Christian Right on this issue of singleness. Of course, Iain Duncan-Smith is talking about unmarried cohabiting men with children. But references to “multiple parenting” aside, the following must also apply to the single and childless:

They are out, no longer having to bring something in for their family, so they can be released to do all the things they wouldn’t normally do and shouldn’t do, so levels of addiction, levels of high criminal activity, issues around dysfunctional behaviour, multiple parenting – all those things are as a result of the un-anchoring of the young man to a responsibility that keeps them stable and eventually makes them more happy.

Yet, this is directly at odds with the Amy Carmichael school of singleness. And  - as any good “Christian Singleness” self-help book will tell you – marriage will not solve any of it. Choosing to live a responsible life of service and sacrifice is open to all people – regardless of their marital status.

But, how many church leaders and preachers will be quoting Iain Duncan-Smith in their sermons on Sunday? More than a few, I’d guess.

There is an answer to this – and I believe it comes from the Christian Left. Christians need to celebrate singleness in the public square. They need to champion those who dedicate their lives wholeheartedly to the service of others. And they need to have policy ideas that support and encourage public service. THAT, I believe, is New Testament faith in action.