The Table Podcast

Being Single in the Local Church

In this episode, Dr. Darrell Bock, Dr. Abraham Kuruvilla and Kari Stainback discuss singleness, focusing on how the church can better minister to singles.

Timecodes
00:16
Kuruvilla and Stainback share their stories of singleness
04:50
The church’s struggle to minister to singles
08:16
Singleness comes in different forms and different circumstances
15:30
1 Corinthians 7 and practical implications in the local church
21:57
Advice for pastors and church leaders in ministering to singles
Transcript
Darrell Bock
Welcome to the table where we discuss issues of God and culture and our topic today is singleness, singleness in the church. It’s a very neglected topic in my view. It’s an important topic especially with how much discussion rotates around issues of gender and sexuality, so I have to very ? how can I say ? admired guests in my presence. I’ve known both of these people for a while and I’m really please that they are able to be here. Abe Kuruvilla teaches in our Homiletic Department in Pastoral ministries and has been here at the seminary for eight years full-time and ten years if you count part-time. So he’s a veteran of foreign wars here on the campus and please to have you with us Abe.
Abraham Kuruvilla
Thank you.
Darrell Bock
And then Kari Stainback is here and she’s in ministry at Park City’s Presbyterian Church, is that right?
Kari Stainback
That’s right.
Darrell Bock
And how long have you been there?
Kari Stainback
You know if you count the part-time, 16 years.
Darrell Bock
16 years. That’s a long time. And if I remember correctly, early, early on very involved with the spiritual formation effort that we did here at the seminary back in the formative days when we were just getting launched is that right?
Kari Stainback
That’s right. I helped lead the arm that began the Women’s Spiritual Formation groups.
Darrell Bock
So Kari is also a veteran of foreign wars on the campus. So I really appreciate you all being here with us to discuss a topic that I think actually is often neglected, under-discussed, under-appreciated. I don’t know how many descriptors I can put around this and that is the issue of being single and being in the Lord. So Abe why don’t you start us off and tell us about singleness as you see it in particularly your own choice with regard to being single.
Abraham Kuruvilla
I think I know exactly when I decided to become single. I was with my friend Rick who was married to Jen told me once, “Abe, I didn’t know what the secret of happiness was until I got married and then it was too late.”
Darrell Bock
Now we’d have to do another podcast on marriage and it’s not that bad but go ahead [laughs].
Abraham Kuruvilla
Many years ago about 20-25 years ago I was serendipitously thrown into a church plant situation in Houston where I was working on medical training. And I ended up being the teacher and the interim pastor for that organization without any theological training whatsoever.
Darrell Bock
Now that sounds like an exciting prospect.
Abraham Kuruvilla
It was exciting. It was being thrown into the deep end of the pool but that forced me to sit back and throw myself into an intense study of scripture just because I had to preach it weekly and I realized that this was a lot of fun. My heart was in it, my passion was to totally throw myself into scripture and that’s when I started thinking about singleness as a lifelong choice. I looked back at what God had done in my life, his fingerprints, personality-wise, I was very content with solitude and didn’t need to be around people. My passion was to have undistracted focus on ministry and it was bearing fruit. So that’s what led me to thinking along these lines.
Darrell Bock
And Kari what about you? What’s your story in terms of how this has emerged in your life?
Kari Stainback
Well it’s probably just the opposite. I have a twin brother and grew up playing dolls and thinking that I would get married and have kids. In fact when my parents had us twins, they knew a week before we were born they were going to have twins. And I don’t know if it was because they just couldn’t come up with four names but I only got two and I remember my mother saying, “Well girls really don’t need their middle names because they’ll get married and they’ll drop that.” So for God’s sovereignty and his love for me that hasn’t been given but I always thought it would. And dated and loved that and in fact was engaged here while I was a student and had a broken engagement. But for whatever reason in God’s mysterious ways that are good. It hasn’t been given.
Darrell Bock
So two very different stories, two very different approaches. Let’s talk a little bit about singleness in the church. And I really think the church struggles with people being single in some ways. I’m reading that as a married person. So, now I get the chance to ask two singles, is that really true? Does the church struggle with presence of single people in its community?
Abraham Kuruvilla
I think the Protestant church does. I think when that German monk ran away with a Catholic nun I think we Protestants generally threw the baby out with the bath water and forgot the importance of celibacy to the church. And I think we’ve been living in that shadow ever since. And yes I think you’re right. I don’t know if I want to call it a bias against singleness but I think there is a certain amount of naivety as to what constitutes celibacy and singleness. Maybe not over it bias but it’s probably coming out of a sense of ignorance, “I don’t know what to do with these people” kind of thing.
Darrell Bock
And you almost sense sometimes at least in regards to ministry and almost I would say almost a fear of the single person and the risk of having a single person on staff. I know a lot of churches when they post for a position will say ? almost assume that the person should be married to go into certain positions in the church. It’s almost a throw off in terms of the way someone is viewed as a single person.
Abraham Kuruvilla
I think my own students experience validates that. Whenever they have applied, many of them, if they are single are immediately struck off the list for that matter. I’m not sure what the fear is. Though I had a conversation with a friend of mine many years ago who doubted whether single men in particular could remain content. I wasn’t very happy with his remark. Ever since that time, whenever there has been a fall for moral reasons in the pastorate, I email him a link to that article and I ask him, “Was that person married or single?” 99 percent of the time the person was married.
Darrell Bock
Yes. Yes. Fair enough. What do you find Kari in terms of the church and the way singles are received or understood or misunderstood? What do you find?
Kari Stainback
Well the first thing that comes to mind is that most structures of churches programs assume family structure.
Darrell Bock
That’s exactly right.
Kari Stainback
And that just by virtue of how we are structured singles are usually the minority or thought to be. Not in every single church but for the most part. And leadership is usually deacons, elders are almost always married. And so I don’t think it’s purposeful to leave singles out but just by virtue of who your friends what you’re thinking about you just go, “Oh. Oh yeah the singles.” And that it’s a separate entity and a separate identity that probably has too much emphasis.
Darrell Bock
Now my sense is, as I think and wrestle about this particularly in the world that we’re finding ourselves in today that being able to deal with people as individuals whether they’re married or single is a very, very important part of ministry. There are so many ways in which families are broken today to begin with and you have single mothers who have been divorced or single fathers who had been divorced. So you have a lot of people who live in a context of singleness whether they’ve been previously married or not. And as you mentioned with the assumption of many programs that we assume the family, we preach the family, we talk about the family and certainly the family as an important unit to ignore the individual walk or the individual person or to understate it actually doesn’t do the church many favors theologically. Would you find that to be the case Abe?
Abraham Kuruvilla
I think you’re right. Just to backtrack a little bit. You might remember, Darrell, several years ago our dean here at DTS had a program whereby faculty members living in a particular geographic area would get together for a meal. The dean would provide the meat, the rest of us would have to provide the carbs, and the sweets and the rest of it. Do you remember what the program was called? Dinner for Eight. Except when I was there it was seven or nine.
Darrell Bock
Well maybe they were providing the possibility that you might bring a date. I don’t know. [Laughs]
Abraham Kuruvilla
On that note I might add, what I call my singleness is ecclesiological singleness. So it’s by choice, it’s for life, no dates, unto Christ and in community. By choice, for life, unto Christ and in community. Not hiding under a rock somewhere but fully entrenched in community.
Darrell Bock
Yeah. That last point is something we’re going to develop because I actually think that’s a very, very important point that comes with what you’re talking about. But fair to say that the church finds the single category sometimes a little awkward. And by the way that’s not unusual because if you talk to people who get divorced and I almost apologize for having to constantly make these comparisons.
Kari Stainback
And there’s widowed too.
Darrell Bock
Widowed, that’s right exactly. So there are lots of ways people ? some people are single by choice, some people have fallen into singleness, if I can say it that way, and in the midst of that particularly with divorced couples what you hear is people get surprised about which of their friends stay in contact with them after they get the divorce. It’s almost as if in the social circles in which they were very naturally invited and be a part, the moment they broke up and seized to be a couple how they are related to socially changes automatically because of their new found single status. Which shows that in some ways we’ve made it awkward for people regardless of how they fall into the singleness in many ways.
Abraham Kuruvilla
I think one other factor in that is that the church has not had many models of singleness and I think the primary model has to be an ecclesiological singleness, by choice for life. I think if there were enough models of that kind of singleness, how we treat the other kinds of singleness would actually fall into place. And the fact is that we haven’t had many models. I searched for one when I decided to be single and apart from knowing John Start from a distance I could not name a single person who was by choice, for life, unto Christ and in community.
Darrell Bock
That’s exactly right. Yeah.
Abraham Kuruvilla
And so left me adrift. I had to rethink this or create this on my own. And I think the church does not have enough models for that. I remember when in our church our pastor was going through 1 Corinthians from Chapter 6 he jumped to Chapter 8.
Darrell Bock
He skipped Chapter 7?
Abraham Kuruvilla
He skipped 7 and I asked him about it. And he said, “Hey would you like to preach that next Sunday?” [Laughs] It seems like the married person is afraid to touch on some of these issues for fear of hurting somebody I suppose. I don’t know.
Darrell Bock
Yeah. It’s interesting I’m actually planning on discussing a little bit of 1 Corinthians 7 in a little bit so I’m glad you’ve brought that up. And Kari, what do you find in terms of how the church relates to people who find themselves in a single position. Do they feel like they do struggle with it?
Kari Stainback
I definitely think it depends on the church. And yet within leadership I think it’s the seminary level that’s the kind of thing we’re thinking of that there is some hesitancy, some fear for the single person. When a young married man gets a job at a church I think sometimes the church thinks, “And he’s married. We got two for the price of one.” You’ve got that going for you. And you know, I’ve heard in our church even some leadership say, allude to the thinking you’re not really complete unless you’re married or you’re not really receiving the kind of sanctification that really, really gets to your self-centeredness unless you’re married. As if God couldn’t work in your sanctification in both ways. Sometimes that happens but what I think is the most important thing is whatever the status is in life that God is giving you that it’s just one slice. I mean our identity is in Christ. And that he chose us and he loves us and that he keeps us for all eternity and to live in that, that’s where the greatest freedom is and the greatest identity is.
Darrell Bock
Yeah. And I think that one of the problems kind of hovering around this and you’ve already alluded to it Abe, is there’s a lot about identity in our culture that’s defined not just by social status but by gender and sexuality and that tends to overwhelm this area and this conversation in some ways. And so, so much defining goes on in that area in the culture at large and really the church has an opportunity to make a statement, a contrastive statement in the context of singleness that’s very, very important in that regard it seems to me about identity.
Abraham Kuruvilla
Luther in a rather interesting essay called the Estate of Marriage once said, that what’s celibates do can never be pleasing to God, not as much as a woman in child birth, even if that child was born out of wedlock. Fornication is better than celibacy.
Kari Stainback
Wow. Luther said that?
Abraham Kuruvilla
Luther said that. And I can quote others who have said and I won’t name names, contemporary leaders, presidents of seminaries who have said that scripture teaches us that saint making primarily occurs in the context of marriage. I don’t know how far the church can go with leaders making statements like that because we really counter that with ?
Darrell Bock
Scripture?
Abraham Kuruvilla
Morals and scripture.
Darrell Bock
Well you’ve done a wonderful job of introducing us to what I think is a primary passage that I think a lot of pastors do find awkward to handle and preach, that’s 1 Corinthians 7. So let’s talk a little bit about that passage and what it has to say to us about singleness. It seems to me that Paul, if I can say it this way, has a very positive view about singleness. Since you quoted Luther I’ll trump you with Paul
Abraham Kuruvilla
What is that the new perspective on it?
Darrell Bock
I think it’s the old perspective in relationship to Luther but any way as we think about that Paul actually has a lot very positive to say about singleness doesn’t he?
Abraham Kuruvilla
I’m going to trump your Paul with my Jesus. Matthew 19. It’s given to certain people to live that way. So there’s a sense of giveneness to that. Which connects very well with what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7. I think they’re both gifts. The gift of bring in marriage, the gift of remaining celibate. I think they’re both gifts. They’re both valid platforms for ministry.
Darrell Bock
They’re calling in very many ways.
Abraham Kuruvilla
And to great extent so what I tell people or even my students is I’m not asking you to go one way or another just to ask yourself what your gift is, your calling is, and go accordingly because I personally believe without any statistics to support I believe that there are more people with the gift of singleness who end up being married because that’s the default pathway of our culture and the church, than the people with the gift of marriage remaining single. And therefore I think the church has lost out.
Darrell Bock
Interesting. Now Paul says several things in 1 Corinthians 7 that are of value is that he talks about and you’ve talked about this some as well, the undistracted way in which people conserve who are single which might suggest that Paul thinks that marriage introduces distractions, I have no idea where he came up with that idea. [Laughs] So that certainly is one positive is that someone can be completely and totally dedicated and focused on the Lord and I think if I’m hearing you correctly that’s one of the elements that you found attractive about the choice to be single.
Abraham Kuruvilla
I think there are a number of freedoms if you want to call it that. I’m not completely endorsing that term but there’s the biological issue of physical engagement with another person, which we are free from. There is a sense of freedom that there is no security. I think Pope John Paul II who said that celibacy is a series of self-sacrifices, sacrifices of sex, of family, of security that comes from family, of companionship and I’ll add to that there’s a freedom to suffer as 1 Corinthians 7 does seem to imply.
Darrell Bock
Suggest. Exactly yes.
Abraham Kuruvilla
Because I’m not responsible for a family and I have to be careful where I lead them if I am the husband. I’m free from that responsibility. Also free in a different sense, free to engage in or demonstrate an inclusive love. A love of mine that is not restricted in a constricted circle primarily for family then to others but it can be more of an inclusive love. So there are several freedoms like that in addition to that of time. Which clearly is there of course.
Darrell Bock
And Kari what do you find to be ? if I can shift questions a little bit ? the challenge of being single in the church if I can put it in those kinds of ways. What do you think is ? what space of you have to kind of negotiate into some degree. Does that question make any sense?
Kari Stainback
Negotiate? Explain. What do you mean by that?
Darrell Bock
I mean do you find ? we’ve already talked about how the Church can sometimes kind of almost marginalize the single person. So what is that like? What does that take to deal with the potential marginalization of someone simply because they’re single?
Kari Stainback
Well one of my friends he says, “When you are single you have to have scheduled intimacy.” Meaning good friendship, good talks, you have to organize it. You have to have that depth of friendship and the communication and that kind of thing and certainly when you work at a church staff like I do there’s so much opportunity to have depth of friendship. Depth of ministry and there is great freedom to be available to pick up the phone in the middle of the night, to do that. And yet and I don’t know if this where you’re going but one of the big differences is in longing to be thinking and desiring wanting to be married is there’s a lot of loneliness and in that thinking for years that I kind of had a consolation prize. Ministry is like, “Well you get to do ministry.” When I wanted my ministry to be a family, a mom and a family and a wife. So for me it’s been like surrender to God’s purposes and his goodness and his love and then that has given me so much more joy in my service that it has. Now, certainly involvement with ministry teams and where I am I do not see a limitation by being single. If it’s there I’m kind of oblivious to it.
Darrell Bock
Now do you think you kind of work through it. You said you’ve been at Park City for 16 years is that right?
Kari Stainback
Maybe I have worked ? maybe they don’t think of me but I don’t think of myself first as, “Oh I’m the single person here.” I think there’s a bigger thing that we’re talking about. A bigger thing that we’re doing. It’s the abiding in Christ for the fruit that we all produce then the fact that I come to the table being single.
Darrell Bock
Well let me ? I’m going to shift gears again. Let’s talk about ? lets’ talk to church leaders for a second. Okay because we’ve kind of spent the first third of our time talking about being single what it’s like to be single the church wrestling with singles being in the church. So if you were to give advice about how to interact with single communities, single people, and how to pull them into community because that’s certainly where we are going next. What advice would you give them and I’m going to let ladies be first this time. So Kari you get to lead off. So Kari as you wrestle with thinking about this and what you would say to pastors, particularly pastors who might be slow to admit but recognize this is an area where I feel a little awkward sometimes.
Kari Stainback
So you want me to give advice to the pastor?
Darrell Bock
Yeah. Exactly.
Kari Stainback
I think get to know them. Get to know us. On my way here I called a young woman who’s in another seminary in town and going through a hard time and she said our pastor had called her and he’s not afraid to reach out to single women when he knows they’re in a hard place and I love that. He gets to know the hearts of the single people and not with any hesitation but he’s always very appropriate. He’s always very appropriate. So that would be the first thing, is we’re trying not to think of ourselves as a special needs category. So please don’t treat us that way too.
Darrell Bock
Yeah. Exactly. And I’m going to follow up on this because you’ve actually raised something that I think can be part of the equation at least in some situations and that is the church also has tended to build up certain rules about how men and women relate to one another in general, not whether they’re single or married or whatever and I imagine that ends up potentially being another hurdle in terms of building relationships because a single woman in the context of community that has many married men can create its own sense of awkward. So a pastor who chooses to treat every individual in the church as an individual in the church if I can say it that way actually is doing everybody in the church a favor. Fair enough?
Kari Stainback
Right. Yes. I definitely think so. But I remember when I worked here in the spiritual formation team I was the only woman with 12 men. And I remember one man, I mean he had qualms about taking a woman to lunch and another young man put the woman in the back seat of his car if they ever went somewhere just to not have any question as to anything that might happen. That said, I think in today’s culture that’s so highly sexualized combined with the fact that Satan is after the local church like crazy. I think you just can’t underestimate the things that might get in by under estimating the power of a man and a woman outside of marriage, something happening. I think you just have to be on your guard. Always be on your guard. And I think women need to have great respect for men and I really don’t think you should go to lunch with someone by yourself, another man. I think that’s the wise thing to do over years and years of doing it both ways. That’s where I land and I think it’s not because of the man or the woman personally but for knowledge that Satan wants to take down the local church and I would rather I err on the side of caution. You know our pastor does a remarkable job at making me feel completely cared for and loved but in very appropriate ways. And so it can be done and there’s lots of good ways for God will give you wisdom in that.
Darrell Bock
Now Abe what advice would you give to pastors who might find ? I like the way Kari put it, “Don’t treat us as a special needs category.” Now what advice would you give?
Abraham Kuruvilla
I think again talking from my perspective of ecclesiological by choice, for life, unto Christ, in the community I would probably want to remind pastors of the valid platform that such a single person has for ministry and the fact that marriage is not necessarily the summum bonum of life. If it were it would have extended into eternity, it is not. So if anything celibacy is more eschatologically focused then marriage if I were to put it that way. And I think it’s those things that I would want a pastor to know and to respect and to be open in his dealings with people who are single to encourage them as to what their gift or their calling might be. Again I have to come back to the point that I think the Church has lost out in not encouraging people with that calling to flourish.
Darrell Bock
And how do you deal with the other issue that Kari raised that in cross relationships that inevitably exist in a community between a man and a woman in the context of the Church. Where you’re going to end up being together if you’re ministering together side by side on a team. That kind of thing. There’s going to be mixes where you end up with a group how do you view that aspect of ministry.
Abraham Kuruvilla
I make a distinction as do many and I know you do too between sex and gender. I may not be having sex but I’m fully gendered. I do need the interaction with people of the opposite gender. And God has always seen to it that I’m always in a relationship with a few couples there. There are always two or three couples that re really close, outside of family, my brother and his wife, outside of that. Couples that are very close to me and they can speak into my life and I into theirs to such an extent that even today I have the house keys of one those couples on my keychain. I can go into their house whenever I want to. God has seen fit to provide that, to keep me in relationship with a nuclear family, with their children with whom I have a great relationship. It’s not under a rock. I am fully entrenched in community and relish that and I revel in that.
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Abraham Kuruvilla
Dr. Abraham Kuruvilla is Senior Research Professor of Preaching and Pastoral Ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary. Captivated by the intricacies of the interpretive movement from Scripture to sermon, Dr. Kuruvilla centers his ministry around homiletics: exploring preaching through research and scholarship, explaining preaching by training the next generation of church leaders, and exemplifying preaching in regular pulpit engagements. He has also served as interim pastor of several churches.
Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than 40 books, including Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith, and Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence.
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