Keith Darrell (MDiv ’03) has preached in 14 states in the past year alone. His work as an open-air preacher with the Whitfield Fellowship has taken him to campuses across the country, including California, Vermont, Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania. Attendance averages 70, with many people there just to heckle. At Youngstown State University, Keith was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. Many days he is stopped by the police after someone calls in a “disturbance.” Occasionally, campuses get crazy, like in Acts 19:32 when the group to which Paul preached was in confusion. And once, in Boston, a group of student protestors took a public and disruptive stance against Keith. He was eventually escorted off campus. This sounds more like first-century Rome than twenty-first-century America.
Keith says, “When Paul was in Athens, the idolatry provoked him. But he didn’t compromise nor did he run off, but he preached the gospel and reasoned with the people. The American college campus is the Mars Hill of today—a place where Americans and foreigners gather to tell of the latest ideas.”
Throughout much of church history, public evangelism—or what was later called field preaching—was a regular vehicle for gospel presentation. This can be seen in the Old Testament prophets, as well as with Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament, and well into the revival periods of post-Reformation Europe and the Americas.
Keith has never preached in the state of marriage. A factual aside to the complexity of who he is—Keith is unmarried. The word “single” sounds too much like a low-value denomination currency. Then again, that’s not an uncommon feeling for many unmarried people in the evangelical church, especially those with a heart for church service. Somewhere along the way of encouraging marriage as normative, the assumption crept in that being married is somehow “better.”
Kelly Maxwell (MAC ’08) says, “I think it can take longer for unmarried people to earn a seat at the table in church leadership. Marriage is often equated with maturity and development. It’s almost as if married people are viewed as having more to offer, and if you aren’t married you are unable to speak into other people’s lives because what you have to offer is somehow diminished.”
The category of “single” was nonexistent prior to the sexual revolution, both in the church and in the broader culture. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was unmarried when he entered ministry; though later engaged, he died under the Third Reich before his marriage. C. S. Lewis was in his late fifties before he married, and his wife died only a few years later. And John Stott, the late evangelical leader, never married. Still, the protestant reaction against the historic Catholic view that singleness is not just better but right, somewhere turned into the view that unmarried people are second-class citizens in God’s Kingdom.
Kelly, who earned her PhD in Family Therapy, studying the issue of singleness and boundary ambiguity, reflects, “Today, there seems to be this premise: sexuality that doesn’t have a biblical expression in and through marriage must express itself problematically in other ways.” Put simply, if there is no outlet for a person sexually, he or she must be prone to engage people inappropriately.
The paradigm of single verses married appears to be a means of reducing systems from complex to merely complicated. Kelly says, “We use stereotypes to simplify, understand, predict, and control life. The marriage stereotype—marriage equals maturity—is a shortcut, a heuristic to make decisions and interact with people. But it is neither fair nor appropriate. Being married or not being married is no real measure for maturity or emotional and spiritual health.”
Such generalized categories result in conflicting messages, Keith observes, stating, “There is this message that if you want to do ministry, be single. But if you want to be like Jesus and be really sanctified, get married.” The assumption is that an unmarried person is selfish and unsanctified, or else categorically odd. Some Christian denominations even emphasize a call to singleness for the most-faithful believers.
“I do think being in those circles early in my Christian faith affected up my views of marriage,” Keith observes. “I thought, if I need a wife, something is wrong with me and I don’t value Jesus enough. If I need marriage, that must be a shortcoming in my spirituality.” Keith sees the Reformed view of marriage as more healthy.
He says, “Perhaps the most discouraging comments married people make are about purity. Many people have said, ‘I don’t know how you do it. I would have fallen by now.’ That type of comment only encourages people to give up the fight to say no to ungodliness. Besides, that view nullifies the grace of God in the life of a believer—married or unmarried.”
So what replaces the stereotype? Kelly summarizes, “Emotional-spiritual holistic health, a robust identity, and rootedness in God as his storyline shapes how one views himself, the world, and the way he lives. We need to develop the eyes to see whole people, knowing that health and lack of health can exist equally for someone who is married or not.”
“I would love to be married and have a family,” Keith says. “But until then I am free to engage fully in my ministry passion.” That is, open-air preaching on college campuses to people who would otherwise never step into a church: a passion and calling that remains open to marriage, but neither depends upon nor waits for that state.
Joel Hathaway is Director of Alumni and Career Services for Covenant Seminary.
- Singled Out for His Glory, by Chris Garriott (MDiv ’96), RUF Campus Minister
- Single and Content: A Journey From Despair to Delight, by Jenny Hershberger
- Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity, by Lauren Winner