A Single Woman's Place in the Church

You’ve probably heard the statistics about single women in our culture. There are now more women on some college campuses than men. In some cities there are more single women than married women. Women outpace men academically and often times professionally. In many churches, the single women outnumber the men. For all of our emphasis on marriage being a good and important institution, singleness is the reality for many people.

Some in the broader culture have even started calling this the “end of men.” With women surpassing men in ambition and position in some circles, men have taken a backseat. In fact, a few years ago New York Magazine did an entire cover story on single women who were seen as one of the most powerful voting demographics that year.

So what does this mean for us as Christians? And what does this mean for the church as a whole?

Some have said that there is greater concern with this trend because it signals a more female-centric trend in our churches. I don’t know if that’s true. There are a number of things contributing to this shift, and I don’t think we can single out any one reason for it. People and situations are too complex for that type of analysis. But my larger concern is not that men are becoming obsolete in our churches, but how we talk about and care for the single women who are left behind.

Let’s face it. We often don’t know how to minister to our single brothers and sisters. And we need to work to change that.

I have single friends. I love them. They are like sisters to me. I care about their flourishing in the local church. We all should. So as their friend, as their sister in Christ, I want to think biblically about their place in the church. I hope you do, too.

Just Marriage and Family?

For starters, we need to work to see them as whole persons, not half-persons waiting on marriage to get their life started. I’m afraid that often we have reduced our ministry to and among single women (and men) to either a form of church-based purgatory (where they are waiting on their life to begin) or as marriage-prep 101. Either they are viewed as incomplete participants in the body (purgatory) or as in need of some help in finding a spouse (marriage prep). For their sake, and our own, our ministry to and among singles must be more than that.

In our quest to lift high the great gifts of motherhood and marriage (and I’m thankful for these gifts!) we have made womanhood into something far more limiting than it was ever intended to be. In our quest to respond to the devaluing of marriage and motherhood in society, we have labeled these things as a woman’s “highest calling”, leaving every other woman not given these gifts to feel like she is living a secondary calling.

Marriage and motherhood are good things. Scripture praises motherhood and marriage, and we shouldn’t take this lightly. But we also need to leave room in our communities for women who are not in this season of life, and not as a form of pity, but with the belief that she is a fully functioning member of Christ’s bride, the Church. She has much to offer. 

So what is a way forward?

In the Beginning

We need to start in the beginning to see God’s plan for all of us, single and married alike. In Gen. 1:26-27 we see that God created men and women with equal worth and value, in his image. We are equal because we are created in his image. But being created in his image also tells us a story about who we are and who God is. God has no gender, right? But he created the genders to tell a story about himself, to show the world who he is, to show aspects of his character. Being created male or female tells us something about God.

Genesis 2 tells us a broader story about why God created the genders. God created Eve to complete Adam. After looking at all of the animals in the Garden there was no one suitable for him. There was no one in the garden who met the needs in his life, namely the need for companionship and relationship that comes with being an image bearer. There was no one in the garden who was the same as him. Together they imaged God most fully. Together they lived in community with one another. Prior to Eve’s creation, Adam was alone. Eve’s creation provided Adam with this shared humanity, this shared image bearing. They were both created, together, to image the one who made them. Together they didn’t need to walk through life alone.

But if you are reading this as a modern reader today questions inevitably come up, right? We don’t live in the Garden of Eden anymore, so we need to work a little harder to find parallels. One of the hardest things to discern about what it means to be a woman or man, and what it looks like to live it out, is that Genesis 1 and 2 is talking about the genders being united in marriage. So what does this mean for those not joined in marriage? If marriage is the focal point of Genesis 1-2, the joining together to image God, what does this mean for singles today? Can we only talk about it in the context of marriage? Do you only live out your personhood in the home? Do you only live it out in marriage? I think it is more than that.

New Covenant Purpose

This is where the complete picture of Scripture is so helpful. In the Old Testament God was making a people for himself in the Israelites and he was primarily doing it through the nation—the families in that nation. Men and women joined together told his story and spread his name to the world. The nation of Israel was his people. They spread his glory to the watching world. They were called to be fruitful and multiply within their families (Gen. 1:28, 9:7). This Old Covenant was always pointing though to something greater, something more permanent. In the New Testament, the New Covenant instituted by Christ, we have the church. In fact, Christ’s final message to his people, before he ascended to the Father, was to build his church through making disciples (Matt. 28). You could even say he was telling them to be “fruitful and multiply.”

We are under this New Covenant as believers. While the nuclear, blood family matters, the family of God is God’s primary means of spreading his glory to a watching world now. Disciplemaking is family making (and really, it was always about making worshipers and disciples, but that’s for another time).

These two realities, these two themes in the New Covenant age, what marriage points to (Christ and the church) and then also how God’s glory is spread (through the family of God, not the nation) inform how we apply our understanding of men and women to our lives today. This means that married and single believers fulfill the same purpose by being united to Christ, their bridegroom. Marriage is not abolished in the New Covenant; it is simply expanded. The family of God is the primary focus of the New Testament. This has implications for how you image God in the New Covenant age. While you can live out your personhood married, and that is a beautiful thing, you can also do it in the church because the church is Christ’s bride. You don’t need a husband to be fruitful and multiply. You only need the Holy Spirit, who makes dead hearts beat again and brings people into the family of God. You don’t need physical children to be a life giver. You only need Christ’s life filling up the lives of disciples under your care. There is a place for every single person in Christ’s family.

It’s Not Good for the Man to Be Alone

So what does this look like? God declared that it was not good for the man to be alone. I think we can apply this broadly. If the New Covenant reality of the church as God’s means to spread his glory to the world applies to how we look at gender, then it’s not good for men to be alone in the church either. This does not abolish God’s clear provisions for male eldership/pastorship in the local church that we see throughout the New Testament, but it does carry some implications for how we serve God’s people in the church and in the world. We may image God differently, but we image him equally. We may have different roles to play in the church (depending on the gifts God has given us), but we do need each other to function at full capacity. Men and women, working together, tell God’s story. Every gift a woman possesses, whether it is a leadership gift or a nurturing gift, is vital to the health of a local body—married and single alike.

This means that there is room in the nursery for the single woman and on the women’s leadership team. There is room for her casserole making skills and her accounting skills. Womanhood is no more one-size-fits all for her than it is for any one of us married women. She has a perspective and a voice that you don’t have, and as a sister in Christ, and heir of the grace of life with her (1 Pet. 3:7), you need that voice and perspective.

I love my single friends. I love that they come hang out with me when my husband travels. I love that they share their struggles with work, life, and friendships with me. I love that they love my kids and offer to babysit for me. But I love more than anything that they are my sisters. Our perspectives might be different, but we need each other. I love that they work hard in their jobs and love their roommates well. I love that they are trying to navigate singleness in a world that doesn’t understand them, both inside and outside the church.

We must appreciate our single sisters, not just for the freedom their life affords them, but for the people they are—they are part of our body, the one, united body of Christ. We need them and they need us.