I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and 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. I 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. (1 Cor. 7:32–35)
How different these words are from what I am used to hearing! I live in an American evangelical subculture whose attitude couldn’t be further from Paul’s. Paul laments that the demands of family distract from serving the Lord; we teach that service to the Lord and the demands of family are one and the same. To us, marriage can’t distract from our calling, because marriage is our calling. And it seems to be the one calling we believe (almost) all Christians should pursue. Of course, we recognize that not everyone gets married, but we wish they could.
I’ve heard Paul’s words often, but usually only as a source of comfort. These are words I used to repeat to myself in hopes that I’d one day believe them. We turn to this passage to comfort a friend coming to terms with their unmarried state. And we should use these words to comfort; they are comforting and true. But they should be more to us than comfort. Giving God our undivided devotion should not be a consolation prize.
For too long, we’ve embraced the myth that marriage is the ultimate form of the Christian life. We’ve pieced together enough Bible verses to make our historic, patriarchal family structures into a biblical mandate for all people. Men are created to provide and lead, and this is the essence of “biblical manhood.” Women act out “biblical womanhood” when they embrace their God-given design as mothers, and when they submit to and support the leadership of a husband. It is in these roles that we are fulfilled as humans, and it is in these roles that we live out God’s ideal for human relationships.
But Paul’s words form the basis of different vision. We are created not for marriage but for service to God. Devotion to God is where we find our fulfillment. The ideal for human relationships? Women and men—married or not—empowering one another to serve according to God’s call.
I was raised in a community of missionaries, and the pillars of our community were single women—women like Aunt Viv and Aunt Lil. As young, single women, they settled thousands of miles from home, and there they served together for the next several decades. They learned the local languages, taught people about Jesus, and translated the Bible. In the world of missions, where families are often transitory, these women were not. Because they were single, they were uniquely positioned to dedicate their lives to service.
I imagine they and others longed at various times for marriage and children (in fact, Aunt Viv did marry at the age of seventy-five), but those desires didn’t define them. They never met all the criteria for “biblical womanhood;” they were too busy being Jesus’ hands and feet.
Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7 should provide not only comfort, but also inspiration. We should teach them to children and adults alike, and we should encourage our children to aspire to be like Aunt Viv and Aunt Lil. We should praise singleness as a worthy and admirable path. And we should embrace the unmarried believers in our midst, empowering them to serve and affirming their identities.
This issue of Mutuality explores singleness from an egalitarian perspective. We analyze our obsession with marriage, we rethink Christian identity and cross-gender friendship, and we hear the voices of single adults. Let us take their wisdom to heart, and together become a church known not for its obsession with marriage or gender roles, but for its single-minded devotion to the Lord.