For years my parents’ church supported a missionary in Nepal who, by all accounts of her ministry, was the definition of badass. But — and I’m not sure where or how I learned to think this way — even as a young girl, I distinctly remember praying that I would never end up like her.
Why? Not because she was a spiritual powerhouse who was doing amazing work among the young girls of a developing country. Because she was single.
Flash forward a couple of decades to the present day. I was babysitting a family of outrageously adorable children and as we walked to the park, one of the girls asked me if I had a little girl of my own. I said I didn’t. The other sister asked if I was married and I admitted I wasn’t. The first girl stopped dead in the middle of the sidewalk and exclaimed, “You mean you don’t have a man?” It took everything in me not to burst out laughing — largely because, as most of us realize when we get older, having a partner often complicates, rather than simplifies your life.
I am a Christian woman in my mid-30s, and I am single. And though I enjoy a life that I would consider abundant — full of friends and family, great professional opportunities, a decent level of financial freedom, and above all else, an extremely deep spiritual relationship with the Creator of the Universe — I recognize that to many younger women, I’m a cautionary tale. Because I am single.
Some of these thoughts came to mind as I read the New York Magazine excerpt of Rebecca Traister’s book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. According to the piece, we are living in a new era in our country in which there are more single women (defined as never-married, widowed, divorced, or separated) than married women.
“Perhaps even more strikingly, the number of adults younger than 34 who had never married was up to 46 percent, rising 12 percentage points in less than a decade. For women under 30, the likelihood of being married has become astonishingly small: Today, only around 20 percent of Americans ages 18–29 are wed, compared to nearly 60 percent in 1960.”
Curious about the percentage of single women in churches, I decided to look into the numbers myself. According to the Pew Research Religious Landscape Study conducted in 2014, the percentage of unmarried women (including never married, widowed and divorced/separated) amongst evangelical Protestants was 42 percent. Those numbers were similar to that of women in the Catholic Church (40 percent) and among mainline Protestants (45 percent). Those numbers increased in Historically Black Protestant churches to 59 percent.
If I had more time and access to some stats software, I would crosstab these percentages with age in order to get a more complete picture. But as a professional church lady, I’ve also seen these demographics to be empirically true. And any church leader worth his or her salt (pun absolutely intended) knows that communities of faith reap tremendous benefit from having single women — and men — in their congregations.
Single women tend to serve more in churches than their married counterparts. The apostle Paul’s argument for singleness — that it allows men and women to be more available for God and the church — is borne out time and again when church ladies like me put together service schedules. Church would not happen were it not for the dedication of single people (and to be fair, married couples without children).
And though there tends to be a suspicion of unmarried women and men — at least in the evangelical church (I can’t speak for other branches) — and a stigma that somehow we are less spiritually mature, this has not always been the case. For centuries, the church has seen single men and women join monastic orders or convents and devote themselves to God and to service.
I recently discussed this with an Episcopal priest who spent years in a monastic community. He pointed out that the reason for celibacy in these communities is largely to make oneself more open to divine intimacy with Christ. Certainly this bears out in his life.
I’d never heard a pastor speak more tenderly and passionately about knowing Jesus until I heard this man.
Which brings up an interesting conundrum. I can say from my experience as a single woman in church (again, mostly evangelical branches) that there is much stigma around singleness. Despite the fact that Jesus himself was single and childless, that Paul was single and childless, and that women (many of whom were unmarried) were active in the early church, marriage still seems to be a preferred status.
We don’t look at single women — or men — and think, “How amazing it is that God has given them the freedom to know the Divine more intimately.”
And we certainly would never look at married couples and say, “It’s a shame that they’re married because they don’t have the same space or time or energy to devote to knowing Jesus intimately.”
Instead we think about ways to help single people become married. In doing so, we fail to celebrate the unique calling, however temporary or permanent it might be, that they have now, at this moment, in the church.
The delay of marriage for many of us in our 30s or 40s has little to do with being unmarriageable. For most of us, we have wanted to have husbands and families, but have also wanted to make use of our God-given gifts and talents. For many of us, it has not made spiritual sense to marry. I’ve personally never dated a man who could be a true partner with me in faith.
Many of us would like to have husbands who would say this about us:
"Who would be willing to let his wife go through one street after another to other men’s houses, and indeed to the poorer cottages, in order to visit the brethren? Who would like to see her being taken from his side by some duty of attending a nocturnal gathering? At Easter time who will quietly tolerate her absence all the night? Who will unsuspiciously let her go to the Lord’s Supper, that feast upon which they heap such calumnies? Who will let her creep into jail to kiss the martyr’s chains? Or bring water for the saints’ feet?" (Tertullian, in a letter to his wife in case of his death, charging her not to marry a pagan)
In fact, the trend that Traister lays out may in fact prove more beneficial and more humanizing to both men and women. For too long women have been fed overly romantic — and unbiblical — ideas about a husband’s role, just as men have been fed overly romantic and unbiblical ideas about a wife’s.
Instead of looking to a man to confer status, wealth, and security, women are now more free than ever to view men as partners and fellow human beings.
Instead of looking at women as acquisitions meant to confer status and value, perhaps men will now feel more free to evaluate a woman based on her character, instead of her looks.
And instead of looking to fellow sinners in need of grace, perhaps we will look to God, our Maker and Husband, the only one who can truly give us worth, security, beauty, or value.