“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…” (1 Cor. 7:34, TNIV)
I graduated from a wonderful Christian college about a year ago, and it was a great experience overall. However, one thing that really bothered me was the pressure felt by many of my friends—especially my female friends—to get married. There was a sense that a woman’s life would be most spiritually fulfilled when she found a godly Christian man to marry and start a family with, as though a woman on her own would always be unfulfilled or not enough.
My friends’ discussions about being “called to singleness” often sounded a lot like being “called to martyrdom”; it was something you would suffer through if God called you to such an extreme experience, but it was not something anyone would choose or desire. Actually, singleness seemed even worse than martyrdom because it involved marginalization and a stigma of failure among other Christian men and women.
Misunderstanding singleness is a particularly prevalent problem when our churches are influenced by patriarchy. Patriarchal cultures tend to define a woman based on her function or role rather than her personhood. If she does not fit easily into the role of wife or mother, she must be defined by another role. And since a positive portrait of a woman who does not “belong to a man” would be incomprehensible—and even challenging—to a patriarchal society, single women are often stereotyped negatively as “crazy old aunts” or “emotionally-stunted career women.”
We often do not realize that these negative views of singleness are a product of our patriarchal culture. Despite the fact that most of us espouse the belief that singleness is part of God’s plan for some people (and for all people at some point in their lives; after all, no one is born married!), we may still harbor a secret dread of remaining single or a secret disdain for (or ignorance of) those who are single.
However, God’s view of singleness is actually quite positive! Paul writes that “he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better” (1 Cor. 7:38, TNIV) and that single men and women are free to focus on the Lord’s affairs rather than on the needs of their spouses (1 Cor. 7:32-34). Of course, this does not mean that marriage is wrong; it simply means that singleness is not a second-rate lifestyle inflicted on a few poor souls on the fringe of our Christian circles.
A lot of us have trouble envisioning what a single life fulfilled in Christ looks like. After all, we are constantly bombarded with stories in which singleness is the primary conflict or tension which is resolved through a “happily ever after” marriage or a significant relationship. We have come to believe that every person wants to be married, that single people may have a deep flaw they need to overcome, and that single people are fundamentally alone.
We need to rewrite our personal and cultural narratives about singleness so that they align with God’s view. Let us stop picturing middle-aged single women sitting alone in ratty old bath robes, thinking wistfully about what might have been. Let us stop imagining career women as seemingly put-together professionals who secretly long to get in touch with their sensitive sides. Instead, can we see single women participating in genuine Christian community, feeding orphans in Africa, leading book clubs, starting nonprofits, and preaching on Sunday mornings? Dare we look outside the box of our preconceived notions and believe that God gives abundant life to single people who seek to follow him?