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Published Date: May 25, 2023

Published Date: May 25, 2023

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Women and the Sanctity of Singleness

Editor’s note: This is a CBE 2022 Writing Contest Honorable Mention!

Many churches and individual Christians view marriage as a normative step in Christian life. They quote Genesis 2:18 (“it is not good for man to be alone”) as if marriage were the only valid form of companionship. They boast of the spiritual growth that happens in sharing one’s life with a spouse as if sanctification does not begin until one walks down the aisle. They list the ways marriage has strengthened their ministries as if single people have little to contribute to the ministry. Meanwhile, in some churches, singleness is rarely mentioned from the pulpit. Single people are left wondering if marriage is the highest—if not the only—means of character development and service to others.

Of course, marriage is beautiful and good. Overall, though, the church’s view of marriage as the ultimate form of Christian living is at odds with Scripture’s emphasis. Many Christians appear to see marriage only in terms of how it can contribute to spiritual growth and ministry effectiveness. Rarely does one uphold singleness as an equally godly lifestyle. More sparse still is any mention of the ministry benefits being single offers, which is exactly what Paul emphasizes in 1 Corinthians 7. He saw remaining unmarried as an asset in living “in undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:35). Singleness, in fact, can be a sacred calling to devote oneself uniquely to God. This article will put forth practical ideas for how the unmarried (and unmarried women in particular) can joyfully steward their singleness, whether temporary or life-long.

Marriage and Biblical Womanhood

The expectation for marriage and children often falls especially on women. Complementarians speak of matrimony and childbearing as the contexts where biblical womanhood comes full circle. Too often church culture, even when not explicitly complementarian, expects a woman’s source of meaning to be supporting a husband and raising children. Mothering is often viewed as the epitome of femininity, marked by submission and self-surrender. Marriage and motherhood are good, but Scripture does not define a fruitful life in these ways alone. Nor should we. Jesus himself corrected the assumption that a woman’s legacy is the accomplishments of her children (Luke 11:27–8). Evangelical churches generally have a robust view of the sanctity of marriage and motherhood but relatively little notion of the sanctity of singleness—namely a celibate, unmarried person who devotes her life to serving God.

Marriage and motherhood are common expectations for women in the church, especially in complementarian circles. In their paradigm, mothering is the epitome of femininity, defined by submission and self-surrender. For instance, Elisabeth Elliot called Mary the epitome of womanhood, because she was willing “to be only a vessel, hidden, unknown, except as Somebody’s mother.”[1] With terms like “vessel” and “hidden,” Elliot seems to present Mary’s role as passive, implying that women receive, while men take initiative.[2] She takes Mary’s commendable example of submitting to God’s call but applies this lesson to women specifically rather than to people as a whole. Humble surrender to God, however, is the call of every believer. Applying this lesson uniquely to women subtly reinforces the complementarian notion that women can only teach children and other women. While mothering is certainly one form of surrender to God, it is by no means the only one. Honoring God as a single woman is a journey of surrender in itself, as she sets aside spousal companionship and relative stability for the sake of the kingdom.

A Theological Basis for Singleness

Evangelicals often imbue marriage with profound meaning as a picture of the relationship between Christ and the church (Eph. 5:21–33). Scripture indeed uses this metaphor. We go beyond Scripture, though, when we cite it to imply all people should marry. Some also see the one-flesh union of marriage as a metaphor of the Trinity, casting husband and wife in the role of God the Father and God the Son, respectively.[3] Some take this further, comparing children to the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son. This imagery, however, risks obscuring the significance of godly singleness as Paul and Jesus himself modeled. The very fact that the greatest human being was single should lead us to question expectations that make marriage an essential component of a full life. Jesus is our example and guarantee that marriage is not a prerequisite to flourishing: knowing God is.

What the emphasis on marriage as a symbol of Christ and the church often fails to mention, however, is that all believers are Christ’s bride. This is a missed opportunity to highlight the symbol of our union in Christ for everyone—single and married. Those who are single may miss one possible symbol of that relationship (earthly marriage), but they certainly have what it points to: union with Christ. Sometimes the church seems more enamored with the symbol than the reality it represents. This reality is especially meaningful for single Christians, who do not have an earthly spouse to fall back on for emotional support. They may have to rely heavily on the Lord to satisfy their needs.

The Sanctity of Singleness in Practice

As Paul himself noted, a single person’s attention is less divided than that of someone who is married (1 Cor. 7:32–34). This lifestyle, stewarded well, can enable a person to contribute more of their resources—especially time, money, and emotional energy. While every person’s temperament, gifting, and schedule differ, living sacredly as a single woman presents several practical opportunities.

For example, since a single woman does not have obligations to a husband or children, she may have more time and flexibility to devote to public ministry. This case is by no means true of all single women. One should never assume that an unmarried woman has a lot of spare time on her hands—but neither should one ignore how single women may be able to accept opportunities that those who are married, especially those with children, cannot. It is no coincidence that many notable foreign missionaries, such as Amy Carmichael, have been single women. If this is the case, why don’t we see more single women serving in the church? Perhaps because motherhood (and marriage in general) is often assumed to be the pinnacle of discipleship for women in evangelical spaces.

Single women are overlooked as potential ministers. Nevertheless, a childless woman does have the capacity and potential gifting to disciple others, as she may redirect the money, time, and emotional support she would have devoted to physical children to her spiritual children. One of my college professors, who would often treat students to a free meal or book, sometimes explained her generosity with “no husband, no kids, no pets.” That is, money and presents a person would often give to their spouse, children, or even pets, she was able to give to her students and friends. The warm hospitality of this single Christian woman provided an anchor for many students going through difficult times.

Scripture depicts singleness as a good and viable option for followers of Jesus (Luke 11:27–28; 1 Cor. 7:25–40). Our primary purpose, whatever our gender, age, ethnicity, or marital status, is to glorify God in all of life. Single women have a worthwhile role to play in that grand story—and can even contribute in ways that others may be unable. As Paul emphasized, single people might enjoy certain freedoms since they do not have obligations to a spouse. Many unmarried women have taken full advantage of singleness’s benefits to honor God and serve the church.

This is a call for the church to affirm the unique contributions of single women, and for single women to live boldly for the cause of Christ. Most churches have a robust appreciation for the sanctity of marriage. Let us treat the sanctity of singleness with the same seriousness and joy. Singleness is not a plague to avoid but a gift to embrace. Whatever our marital status, we as believers are the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:21–33). Whether we marry in this life, we are united to Jesus and to fellow believers. Our purpose is to cultivate ever greater intimacy with God and serve others. Unmarried people are equal partners in this calling. Not only that—they can bring unique gifts to enrich the whole body of Christ. Let us follow the example of Paul who valued both marriage and singleness (1 Cor. 7).

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

[1] John Piper and Wayne A. Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, Revised edition (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 466.

[2] Amy Peeler, Women and the Gender of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2022), 103–08.

[3] For more on complementarianism and the Trinity see: The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity by Kevin Giles.

Related Resources

Audio: Paul’s Radical Call for Mutuality in Marriage (and Singleness): 1 Corinthians 7:1–40

Book Review: The Significance of Singleness: A Theological Vision for the Future of the Church

Audio: Singleness And Community: Glorifying God in the Church Body

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