I write on a regular basis for a Christian column of young writers. Recently I wrote this piece which continues to sit with me as I ruminate on friendship, home, love and marriage these days. Within a Christian culture where women are still largely defined in relationship to their husbands and children, when ideas of ‘godly womanhood’ are overflowing bookstore shelves and womens’ events are all the rage – if the traditional church’s answer to singledom is ‘Trust in the Lord and wait..”, I’m not convinced that the liberal church has a better answer either. In fact, I’m not sure what the Church is really saying at all.
Is It Really Ok To Be Single? – originally published here
These days, it’s rare to find a mainstream media commentator that raises their voice in a way that resonates with the church– but I read an opinion article by Shelley Bridgeman a couple of weeks ago that did just that. The writer asked the questions “Is it really ok to be single?” from the premise that society by and large still discriminates in many ways against those who are unmarried, either by choice or circumstance.
Just a few days later, I was at a tv shoot, filming a discussion around the role of women in the church with both egalitarian and complementarian perspectives represented.
The conversations collided for me, as I realized in all the conversations and discussions of passages in Romans, Ephesians and 1 Timothy, the role distinctions on the table were discussing how women relate to men and leadership in the church through the lens of marriage. I asked a question of the complementarian theologian, wondering where I, as a single woman who is planning my own financial security, living independently and responsible for myself, fits into the church under a complementarian view.
The answer was less than satisfactory, as I was encouraged to sit under the headship of a local pastor, find an older woman to mentor me and ‘wait patiently’ for the Lord to provide a suitable husband. Unfortunately though, the math just doesn’t add up for us all to ‘wait’ for husbands to come along. Women outnumber men in every denomination of the Church.
Bridgeman recognizes the same. When the framework for normalization in society is still marriage (or partnership) and motherhood, it’s incredibly difficult to find your place as a single woman in society, let alone a single Christian woman.
Let’s be honest; there are some single stereotypes: the ‘I’m too independent, no man can handle me’ type, the ‘I’m so busy travelling the world and having adventures’ type and the ‘I just don’t feel the need to settle down’ type. Perhaps they lull us into a false sense of security that those who are single, and single long-term are managing ok, or there by choice. Bridgeman identifies some of these stereotypes.
But there is another person, who is deeply lonely and grieving the loss of a fairytale we’ve been promised, the dream of how life is meant to turn out for those who love and follow Jesus. A person (male or female) who suffers their own type of infertility as prime child-bearing years pass by without a potential mate. There are many churches where the qualifications of womanhood in your 30’s become the state of your house and your children. At women’s events and church family camp, these single people can feel more isolated than ever, loneliness enhanced and their value within society questionable.
Finding A Place To Be Wholly Accepted.
Is it any wonder that single women find themselves more often in egalitarian churches, whereby marriage isn’t a qualification for meaningful participation in community?
In my own life – theologically trained, a youthworker and devoted surrogate aunty to the half dozen children in my life; I’ve changed nappies, cleaned up vomit, bathed, played, comforted, disciplined and loved children. I’ve comforted parents at the end of their rope, counselled men and women in marriage and relationship strife and earnestly prayed for a husband of my own to enter into the chaos with.
Still, I was once told I’m not relevant enough to speak or lead at a women’s event and whilst I’ve spoken at many churches, never to the “adult service” of the church I trained in or ministered in for years. Why? I’m not alone. I once led a seminar for female youthworkers on how to do youth ministry with teenage guys. The room reverberated with echoes of insecurity and a sense of disenfranchisement; that somehow to be a single female youthworker meant you couldn’t minister as effectively as those who were married or served alongside another man.
“People want to feel that you can relate to them, that you know what they’re going through,” is what I’ve been told.
A friend of mine recently married in her mid-30’s and we spoke about the grief that enters into a woman’s life (and I’m sure, a man’s) as the years pass. It’s not just a grief for lack of children, but loneliness and isolation from societal norms. In years past, the Church would’ve encouraged women like these to the mission field, to find meaning in serving God. We don’t do that so much anymore, so the grieving are still with us. Add to that aging parents who fear for the future companionship and care of their children, who grieve grandchildren hoped for but never arriving.
Yes, this is a deep, unspoken pain in our communities. A woman struggling with fertility issues might receive encouragement and support openly from many – but the woman who experiences the same childlessness outside of marriage – who prays with and for her?
We no longer keep the list of widows to care for, as Paul instructed Timothy, but I see amongst some of the single people in our churches a similar poverty of spirit. A suffering and perseverance largely unseen and a people group in society that ought to be loved and made to feel whole and wholly accepted as full functioning members of our communities.
And for my part, the issue is also pride. It feels somehow selfish and ungrateful for the blessings in my life to dwell or speak too often of what is missing from my sense of completion. The feminist in me wants to reject the idea that partnership is part of a theological completion. However, I am aware my weaknesses would be better matched by the influence of another. That I, being a social creature at least, benefit from the impact of quality time and relationships in my life. Relentlessly, I’ve told myself that the main thing is to ‘seek first the Kingdom’ and trust that God will provide.
I am blessed to be part of a diverse community, whereby I’m gifted children I can love as my own and friendships that are deep and intimate. I still wrestle with living out a responsible sexuality – but so far my desires have not overrun my values. I am committed to a life fully lived, without hanging on a wire waiting for life to begin. Thus, I’ve had amazing relationships with both men and women in my life that stretch and expand my horizons.
I’ve had remarkable freedoms to travel and engage the world – but I would trade it all for the opportunity to build a family. Still – who can I talk to about this? Who comforts me? Who engages that part of my soul? Is is really ok to be single? When I get old, who will care for me?
Who will I leave my legacy to?
Someone said recently that that the voice of cynicism will drown the voice of hope at every opportunity. The two are not ying and yang opposites; they cannot exist in sight of each other. Thus – I am battling the voice of cynicism. As friends’ marriages crumble and my own intimate society becomes even more fragmented; it’s difficult to maintain a sense of hopefulness. There’s no place in the world that will make you feel your other-ness than the American South. Every second question is “are you married, do you have kids?”. So, is it really ok to be single? We say it is, but I’m not sure any of us are convinced.