Singleness, Transformation & the Age of Branding

It is not news that women and men are constantly barraged with messages telling them exactly what to do to change into the kind of man or woman that appeals to the opposite sex. It is impossible to spend time watching TV, walking in the grocery store, driving on the highway or checking your social media sites without a seemingly never-ending stream of how to be sexy or what it means to be truly masculine or feminine. The right make-up, the greatest six-pack, all to attain the attention (and singular commitment) of the opposite sex.

In addition, the days of social media we have become accustomed to putting forward a ‘brand’. It is quite easy to get confused about who we really are. Indeed, not only are we told how to change, we are constantly reading things like: “Real women have…” and “Real men do…” Our identity is being challenged, often for things that are beyond our control.

What should our response to this be as Christians? How much should we let these cultural norms and ideals impact the person we put forward as our true self? If we believe, as many Christians do, that the Bible is meant to transform us, what impact does, or even should, it have?  Do we believe that the bible is meant to transform us? our culture? our mind? our relationships? our dating? What do we think as we read:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect.
(Romans 12: 1-2)

What are we thinking as we read this? How are we meant to apply this to our lives? Where does this passage fit when are finding just the right filter to use when we post just the perfect picture, or when we find the cleverest level of snarky to get many likes on Twitter. I imagine that those who were raised in a purity culture will immediately think of how we were taught to “save ourselves for marriage”. Although this is not at all what this passage is talking about, it has been used for that agenda often in my experience. However, this passage is all about relationships, which is easily noted if you read on in chapter 12 and 13.

I once read a book A Jewel in His Crown by Priscilla Shirer. In it she talks about the kind of transformation that has a more biblical emphasis. In her quest to become a godly woman she was seeking to be transformed from the loud, bold person she naturally was into a quiet, feminine woman. I appreciate what Priscilla brings to the table. She is a talented teacher and writer (and preacher, although I am not sure she would own the label) and I do not want to do her any disservice, but this part of her book is troubling. What do those women who are naturally loud do? Are they supposed to make themselves smaller? How about if they hate make-up and dresses? Does that make them less of a woman?

I have a good friend who struggles with deep insecurities. He is drawn to strong women and would likely do well in a relationship with one but instead, his masculinity is constantly threatened. It is threatened largely because he has bought into a particular idea of what it means to be a man and it is almost completely the opposite of him.

The thing is, I don’t see these kinds of ideas in the Bible. We are told to be transformed by the renewing of our mind, but nowhere does it say that we need to fit into gender stereotypes that are very fluid anyway. (After all, men in the bible wore dresses, something that would be considered female only dress by many in Western culture. Just a very easy example or something much more complex.)

Let’s look at the examples where we see transformations played out.


He is the picture of brashness and passion. If John Eldredge had a particular biblical character in mind when he wrote Wild at Heart it was likely someone like Peter. Yet Peter has an undisciplined brashness and passion. It pushes him to think of himself and the power (and prestige?) he could attain by aligning himself with the Christ. How does God transform him? Take away his passion? No. Make him into a man who is no longer brash? No, not really. Jesus begins by challenging Peter’s quest for power. He does not challenge Peter’s passion; he challenges the focus of that passion.


            She was a successful businesswoman. Then she finds Jesus. He transforms her passion and drive and focus. She works alongside her husband, but her husband is never the focus. We never hear of her being chastised for taking a dominant role. We never see Paul saying, “No, you must ask Aquilla’s permission to support my ministry. You must let him make those decisions, you must let him step forward; don’t get in the way of him living out his godly masculinity. You must let him deliver (and interpret) my letters.

The thing is, God has created us, without mistake, exactly as we are and he uses the very qualities that he has given us, our personalities, our gifts, our talents, even the accident of our privileged birth or our singleness or married-ness and He takes these very things that are just a part of who we are, and he forms them into tools useful for bringing glory to God and honor to the name Yahweh. God uses it to transform and impact the world around us.

The truth is, when we deny and squelch how we are created we are working at cross-purposes with God. But when we embrace it and let God shape it, we live full and impactful, glorious lives that are being transformed in the image of God.

Being Single in a Married World

For a long time one of my favorite movies was When Harry Met Sally. Although it is no longer my favorite movie, I still enjoy it, but one line has always reverberated in my head. It is when Carrie Fischer’s character tells Meg Ryan’s character, “Well, at least you could say you were married…”

It can be difficult to live as a single person when those who are married are still considered to be ‘winning’ at life, and although much has changed since When Harry Met Sally first came out and people are getting married much later in life, that reality still has not changed.

Now, add to that reality being single in a church context. Over and over, we hear of the church as the bride of Christ. Marriage is a biblical analogy that is used to depict our connection as humans, especially the church, with God, particularly the person of Jesus. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how the institute (some would still say the sacrament) or marriage can attain the level of godliness.

The problem is, where does that leave singles? And how does it impact our way of talking to even the very young in our communities (by this, read children, babies, even toddlers). I am dismayed to see two and three year olds encouraged to talk about the opposite sex as boyfriends or girlfriends. This is done in a sexualized way. “Do you want to kiss them?” etc. This way of speaking to even very young children does not exclude the church, in fact I hear much more  of it in the church than outside the church with people who would not claim any particular Christian affinity.

Youth groups can easily descend into dating opportunities and adult singles groups become just a bare step up from the local bar meat market as a way to find a partner. Please don’t misunderstand me. I have zero problems with people meeting and dating in the context of their church community. My issue is that from a very young age we are socialized, even in the church (especially the church?) to only think of the opposite sex as a potential partner. This has a way of objectifying them, making them less than human, and destroys the capability to create healthy relationships and friendships between the genders. More on this later.

In church singles groups, Bible studies, meetings, any new person to the group is ‘fresh meat’, and they feel like ‘fresh meat’. And it is not much better outside of the singles scene. I could go on for quite awhile on how hard it can be to be friends with married people. How lonely. How awkward. But I have the privilege of having a couple people who are married and are my friends. Simple. No weird dating questions. No jealousy. No being friends with just the wife and the husband resenting the time we spend together. I am welcomed into their growing family and I am simply their friend.

I wish I had more examples of this. More cases where I am welcomed with open arms. But it is extremely rare. And they are not friends with me because they are taking pity on the poor single person. They love me because I am me. Actually, I was friends with the husband long before they started dating, and she loved me because he did. At first. Now she loves me because she knows me, and I return the feelings. But when I consider how most of us have been socialized, it should not be a shocking that this is a rare thing.

I remember having a somewhat heated discussion about who has it worse as a single person in the church, men or women. My friend maintained that men did. His reasoning? Well, if a woman is single, people feel sorry for you and just think you couldn’t get anyone to marry you. (How awful is this?!) If you are a man and unmarried, they question your masculinity: either you are gay (and don’t even get me started on that) or that you aren’t man enough to 1. Ask in the first place or 2. Capture a woman’s heart. His reasoning speaks volumes.

I remember when I was first getting to know a male friend. He seemed to delight in sending me articles like “Experts Say The More Intelligent a Woman is, the Less Likely She is To Get Married”. Of course, his idea was that men would not marry someone they thought was smarter than them. This particular man was (and is) impressed with my intelligence and these sort of statements were often meant to be a compliment. So, what do we do to change this?

First, I think the church needs to begin to reframe and rethink the way it socializes its children. The world would be so much better off (and the church) if they didn’t tend to think of people in overly sexualized ways. When we have a habit, from a very young age, of thinking of people as potential sex partners, either lovers or the enemy of purity and godliness. We come up with things like the “Billy Graham Rule”. We make it extremely difficult to work together in the real world because the other is just a sexual object.

We must stop sexually objectifying little boys and girls (most understand how bad that is, when I put it that way) and start encouraging them to learn how to value friendships across the genders. We must help hormone filled teenagers (both girls and boys) learn to control their thoughts and actions instead of inadvertently teaching them that they are slaves to these things. After all, the Bible teaches us that part of the Good News, the gospel, is that because of Jesus we are no longer slaves.

Purity culture pits male against female (and treats anyone who doesn’t fall within a strict ideology of what that means as not quite human). Girls are inadvertently taught that their self-worth and identity comes from being able to capture a male. Guys are taught that their self-worth and identity comes from being able to capture a girl (or even as many girls as possible). Purity culture rises from this ethos.

Second, stop playing with pornography. This is not just a man’s problem. Addiction to pornography is on the rise among women too. It is destroying our ability to interact with the opposite sex. If we are only sexual beings, then even the most innocent of touches will be misconstrued if it comes from the opposite sex. (Actually, that is an oversimplification. Touch becomes more and more complex and fraught with danger in general.)

Third, start reframing our way we talk about God and the church. Yes, it is absolutely ‘biblical’ to use the marriage analogy. But I think we miss the point because we get caught up in the word ‘marriage’. Ultimately it is about deeply personal intimacy.

Fourth, talk differently about marriage. These days, in our highly sexualized world, it has become about sex and procreation, and while these are parts, even important parts, of marriage, they are not the most important parts. The best sex in the world and the most beautiful kids will not, on their own, keep a marriage together. If the intimacy, and I mean so much more than sex, if the intimacy and relationship and communication disappear, the marriage will crumble. We see the same thing in a close friendship and we see the same thing in the church. If I stop listening to my friends, I stop caring about what hurts their hearts or uplifts their soul. If I stop sharing parts of myself, the relationship will ultimately die.

Changing how we interact as humans, single or married, will have the potential to change how we live in the church, deepening our understanding of the relationship between God and the church.



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