It’s a tale as old as time. A plucky bachelor, driven by an inarticulate sense that his current life-situation is radically incomplete, navigates an increasingly daunting series of hurdles as he journeys toward the ultimate goal of intimate human connection. Of course, in the contemporary telling of the fairy tale, one of the greatest challenges the protagonist must face is a never-ending global pandemic that threatens to undermine his quest at every turn. Nevertheless, he presses forward, undaunted.
The societal pressures that gave rise to his sense of urgency are nothing new, but in some ways, the looming threat of medical isolation makes his pursuit of relationship all the more immediate and necessary. Like so many who have walked a similar path, he would rather make a hasty, if not ill-advised, decision than run the risk of being overly cautious at such a critical juncture. After all, fate rarely smiles upon the timid or equivocal. Indeed, when circumstances demand quick action and an ability to operate on gut instinct, the only thing worse than a bad decision is no decision at all.
Thus, it is only after this Prince Charming surmounts the seemingly insurmountable and vanquishes one last foe that he finds himself at the end of his journey. No longer encumbered by KN95 masks or vaccination cards, he is filled with a kind of resolute confidence. The only thing standing between him and happily-ever-after is a door that only he can choose to walk through. He knocks, knowing full well that the object of his affections is on the other side, breathlessly anticipating his arrival…
The door swings open, and our protagonist is immediately embraced by a community of celibate men living in an ecumenical monastery and building a new kind of family for men committed to lifelong, singleness for the sake of God’s kingdom.
Maybe it’s not the ending you expected, but it’s still a tale as old as time.
Whatever we make of the past two and a half years of social distancing and Zoom meetings, lockdowns and mask mandates, sickness and death, of one thing we can be certain: COVID-19 raised the stakes of our pursuit of intimate relationships. This increased intensity revealed the degree to which Christian communities idolize romance while presenting opportunities to respond to this awareness with ancient answers. To be sure, whether living through a global pandemic or not, both married and single people are affected by romance idolatry, but the consequences are unequally distributed. Case in point: single Christians have been uniquely impacted by social isolation and the accelerated coupling encouraged by the pandemic, and this is true not only for those who are straight, but also, and perhaps especially, for LGBTQ+ Christians.
Social distancing sent us retreating to our centers of exclusivity, pushing us to meet even more of our intimacy needs in a significant other. Singles felt pressured to find their significant other quickly or suffer the pandemic alone. Already-established relationships felt strained by unrealistic demands. For every hasty marriage, there’s also been an untimely divorce.
The results of this dependence on romance have been disastrous.
As a married father (Kutter) and a committed celibate living in community (Pieter), we both experienced (although differently) the pain of being cut off from a broader network of relationships because of social distancing. Married couples and nuclear families were forced to figure out life without their extended spiritual family of church friends and biological family. Parenting while working from home paired with cabin fever became a pressure cooker for pre-existing vulnerabilities, leading to countless divorces. Single people didn’t fare much better. Often faced with complete disconnection from community, many launched desperate searches for partners who would expand their COVID bubbles from one to a romantic two, leading to “wow that was quick” marriages joked about in communities of all kinds. Those who didn’t pair up (and many who did) struggled with anxiety, job and income loss, and relational atrophy. Both were tempted with the same solution—invest more in your romance.
Prior to the pandemic, researchers had already discovered that overinvesting in romance decreases women’s interest in science and technology and increases adolescents’ depression and drinking. Long before lockdowns and masking, Christians were already struggling to recognize the ways in which modern society idolizes romance and to respond by rightly ordering our loves. COVID-19 only amplified the consequences, making the 21st century idol of choice undeniably clear.
Of course, the first step in making any kind of change is admitting that U.S. Christians have a problem. To understand our problem with romance idolatry, we must define it.
While various reasonable definitions exist, let’s describe “romance” as an emotional desire for sensual love with another person, which often includes a number of courtship behaviors aimed at erotic love. From this perspective, romance is motivated by eros in that it is both exclusive and involves certain forms of physical intimacy associated with dating and marriage.
Next, let’s describe an “idol” as something we put in the place of God or prioritize over God’s priorities, often based upon the false promise that a particular way of being in the world will provide us with something only God can provide. In other words, we idolize when we allow something good to become misdirected into being something ultimate.
The Idol of Romance, then, promises us love, belonging, family, pleasure, and an escape from loneliness. At what costs? Casual connection, thoughtless contraception, abortion, codependency, adultery, and divorce. From an early age, churchgoers hear parents and pastors highlight Bible stories and holidays centering romance and marriage. “When you get married…” and “Are you dating anyone?” leave no room for stories or celebrations of singleness for the sake of Christ’s kingdom. Christian teens assume they are free to indulge in romance as much as they want, as long as they don’t cross certain lines. 72% of pastors surveyed believe that “if a person desires to marry and have kids, then God wants them to marry.”1 Other studies have found that singles struggle more with depression, anxiety, doubt in God’s existence, and rebounding from doubt.
Yet neither sex nor romance is promised in Scripture as necessary or even capable of meeting our intimacy needs. Quite the opposite. Jesus didn’t have sex. Paul was committed to celibacy. Many of the mothers and fathers of the Church have been celibate. And Jesus says that in the resurrected age to come, there won’t be any more marriage or sex: “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30, NIV).
But this just raises a question: if romance won’t address our desires for intimate human connection, whether ultimately or in the here and now, what are more life-giving alternatives?
One option is friendship. Not the kind that we develop on social media. Rather, we have in mind the kind of friendship envisioned by Jesus: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13, NIV). It is friendship, not romance, that orients Jesus’s vision of loving intimacy.
Even those who don’t know Jesus are catching on to the idea that our marriages and our communities would be healthier if we reinvested in friendship. What if married and single Christians learned to respond to loneliness and stress not by redoubling their romantic efforts, but by developing a network of friends for whom they would sacrifice their own lives?
A reorientation of this kind would require effort from both single and married Christians. For those who are married, it would mean developing healthy but non-sexual and non-romantic friendships outside of marriage that could meet the varied and diverse needs for emotional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual intimacy that every person has—relational needs that no individual human (spouse or otherwise) could meet. For single Christians, it would mean cultivativing and committing to certain relationships on a level that goes beyond mere convenience, inviting others into their lives in such a way that they are able to make demands on their time, their energy, and even their future.
A second alternative to romantic partnership—one that emerges from the cultivation of friendships—is for single and married Christians to reinvest in the community of faith as not merely a spiritual family, but as a family of choice. As Jesus reminds us (Mark 3:31-35), the family of God is not defined by biological kinship, but by a shared commitment to partnering with God’s work in the world.
Church-as-family is not a metaphor, or at least it doesn’t have to be. It can be a thick, lived reality that has the potential to address many of the relational and material needs of both single and married Christians that often go unseen or unacknowledged. Nevertheless, to live as an actual family and not simply as a metaphorical one isn’t easy, if for no other reason than most of society is not organized to make this possible, much less preferable. It is one thing to call each other “sister” and “brother” or to worship, pray, and serve together. It is something else altogether to live (and perhaps invest) in the same house together, to plan vacations with each other, and to make decisions about jobs and potential moves based upon the needs of our non-biological kin. But that, it would seem, is precisely the kind of family Jesus had in mind for his followers.
If a vision of this kind sounds impractical or overly idealistic even in the best of circumstances, then the season of isolation brought about by COVID-19 only magnified the seeming impossibility of forging such a community, especially for single parents, widows/widowers, divorcees, and those called to vocational singleness. Many of the very resources that single Christians rely on to experience family in the body of Christ vanished almost overnight. In-person Bible studies, accountability groups, house church gatherings, small groups, community groups, Wednesday night potlucks, standing shoulder to shoulder while singing with other people, and holding hands during prayer were all eliminated.
That said, the coronavirus pandemic didn’t create the problem of romance idolatry. It simply highlighted and made more acute what was already true: both single and married Christians need more family in the body of Christ than romance can offer. They’ll need to take culturally weird but ultimately life-giving steps to secure thicker family.
As for the plucky bachelor of our tale, he indeed joined a committed brotherhood called the Nashville Family of Brothers, where he prays, confesses, reads Scripture, shares meals, enjoys vacations, and celebrates holidays in a home with his brothers while discerning whether to commit to his family more permanently. At the same time, he continues investing in his local church, fellowshipping with parents and kids in his congregation, and teaching the body of Christ how to offer singles and marrieds more robust family.
So as we slowly return to a world where we can once again gather in each other’s physical presence, break bread together, hold hands, sing, and pray for one another, it won’t be enough to go back to business as usual or even to get used to “the new normal.” As followers of Christ, we aren’t called to become accustomed to any kind of “normal,” new or otherwise. Our calling is to disrupt all forms of normalcy in the same countercultural way that Jesus did—by forging a new kind of family.
1. P. L. Valk (2022). Statistical effectiveness of Equip’s Blueprint Process for church transformation. Equip.