“The board could not reach unity about hiring a single woman to do family ministries.” This sentence was the culmination of a five month interview process with a church. The main components of the position I applied for were adult spiritual formation and pastoral care to families. The search team spoke at length with six of my references to hear stories of my ministry and they grilled me with tough questions for hours. They unanimously recommended me to their board as the candidate called to this position. And then, in a completely unexpected turn of events (for the search team, pastor and me), the elder board rejected their recommendation. The pastor had the unfortunate burden of calling to tell me why I would not be called to serve their church. He told me that, for the elders, it wasn’t so much that I am a woman as it was the fact that I am single.
None of the board members met or interviewed me. Their decision was not based on the Lord’s presence in my life, the fruit of my ministry, my character or my professional qualifications, though I am sure the search team and the pastor gave witness to all of these. They based their decision, it seems, on the belief that there is an incompatibility between the role of pastor and singleness.
This decision reveals an implicit bias widely ingrained in the evangelical community – that being married is best. I believe that because Paul uses a marriage metaphor in an attempt to describe the depth of Christ’s love for the church (see Ephesians 5:21-33; 2 Corinthians 11:1-3), and because as we interpret and apply scripture we have not understood that there are limits to metaphor, we evangelicals have allowed the Christ/Church marriage metaphor to transform our understanding of human marriage into the quintessential symbol of relational health, wholeness and joy.
The belief in the greatness of marriage has so saturated evangelical culture that our beliefs about singleness are shaped almost entirely by default. Because we see marriage as such a beautiful and whole expression of love, singleness has becomes a less-than, not-to-be-envied, even suspect, way of living. This bias reveals itself every time I visit a new church or meet a new group of believers who, when they discover that I am single, start telling me about their unmarried friends, brothers, cousins and coworkers like eager sales associates for eHarmony. It waves its banner annually when our pastors preach a multi-week sermon series promoting healthy marriage while offering (maybe) one sermon or a two-minute aside about living faithfully in singleness. (This trend is even more problematic when we consider the reality that, according to the 2012 census, singles make up 47% of the adult population in the United States.) We see the slimy underbelly of the evangelical bias toward marriage when believers speculate together about the sexual orientation of friends and family who remain single in their late twenties and thirties and beyond. (Is there a more unchristian practice than this?) And it is our unchecked, unbalanced bias toward marriage that leads even our elders to believe that single people and childless people cannot empathize with and minister to couples and parents.
I can’t help but notice that all of these beliefs and assumptions about marriage and singleness exist in riotous tension with another of Paul’s letters. In my opinion, 1 Corinthians 7 is perhaps the single-most ignored, if not disbelieved, passage of scripture by evangelicals today. I encourage you to grab your Bible and take an hour to listen to, pray through and study this passage, but for the sake of our current topic, I’ll quote only highlights:
7I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. 8Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do…17Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them…25Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. 27Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. 28But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.32I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.39A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. 40In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God.
Paul talks about singleness and marriage in a balanced way, not denigrating either lifestyle, calling them both gifts from God. How many evangelicals do you know, married or single, who really view singleness as a gift?
It doesn’t take an exegetical contortionist to pick up on Paul’s inclination toward singleness. He actually recommends that believers remain unmarried because it allows them to focus solely on pleasing the Lord. He says, “it is good” or kalos to remain unmarried. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon says that kalos was a word “applied by the Greeks to everything so distinguished in form, excellence, goodness, usefulness, as to be pleasing; hence [to be kalos was to be] beautiful, excellent, eminent, choice, surpassing, precious…”
What I love so much about this passage is that it reminds us that to marry or to remain single is a choice, and to choose to remain single is a beautiful, admirable thing. By Paul’s testimony, those of us who are unmarried have the advantage of space within our hearts and lives to devote ourselves first and foremost to Christ. The word devoted (verse 34) can be literally translated “sitting constantly by.” What a beautiful image, that being single allows us to sit constantly by Jesus. What a wonderful, perhaps even ideal, context in which to minister to the church.
I know many naysayers would ask me how I reconcile this with Paul’s teaching about overseers in 1 Timothy 3 –“the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife…he must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him…” People often read this passage as a job description for pastors and consequently believe that overseers must be men who are married and have children. I believe that Paul writes descriptively from within the culture and context of the early church, not to indicate that he sees gender, marital status and parenthood as prescribed conditions every potential overseer must meet. It seems that the main point of Paul’s instructions to Timothy is that overseers must be people of integrity and proven character. If marital status and parenthood were ‘must haves’ in leading the church, then Paul himself would not have been respected by the early church as the wise apostle and advisor that he was.
A woman recently asked me to be her mentor. She is older than I am, married and has a child. Her husband asked her why she would approach me when I am not married. She told him that she chose me because I am wise. She believes I can help her unpack the message of scripture and help her weave it into her daily life. With a conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit, I can and will.
Every day I minister to men, to married people and to parents. Our congregants respect me and seek me out for counsel not because I share the same life experiences they do (in most cases I don’t); they seek me out because they have seen consistent evidence of my character, they know my devotion to God and his Word, and they have seen me live what I preach. Bottom line – they trust me – not because of my age, gender, marital status or how many child I have or have not birthed, but because I am a faithful servant of our God.
Singleness is a good gift from God. It is a way of life that should be respected in the church, if nowhere else. It could be approached as a significant life choice to be prayerfully discerned by young adults and by those following a call to ministry. How many evangelicals believe this? How many single Christians believe this? Unfortunately, we seem to have shaped our regard for marriage and singleness based on cultural influences and our personal experiences rather than the teaching of scripture.
It’s Valentine’s Day, church. I want you to hear and believe this message, as I do: there is nothing deficient in me or my ministry because I am single. With God’s strength, mercy and love, I can do all things. I cheerfully celebrate Valentines Day and every day because I am fearfully and wonderfully made by a God whose love for me is whole and fulfilling. I wholeheartedly support and work for healthy marriages and families. Would you do the same for me in my singleness?