Single women in the Church: some portraits
How might churches respond to the growing number of single women in their midst? By Lina Toth
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We are witnessing an unprecedented change in the make-up of both society and the churches: the numbers of single people keep rising.
I will not bore you with numbers, but try to calculate what percentage of your church members are single, and compare it with the records of a few decades ago. Find out also the percentage of single people within your village, town and city, and compare the two sets of numbers.
There is another factor to bear in mind: the majority of the singles in the church are likely to be women. Exploring this gender imbalance in detail, or working out feasible strategies to change it, would be a different task. Here I simply raise a question of how the churches might want and should respond to the implications of this phenomenon.
Yet these single women are not one category. They carry different experiences and interpretations of their singleness. Below you will find four sketches of singleness as it is perceived by single female believers. As all sketches, they are true only to a degree, but they are gleaned from a wide range of writings by single Christian women as well as numerous personal conversations held over the years since I embarked on the subject. They are not static; one sketch may interchange another. Yet they point to at least four different perceptions single women may have about their life.
The state of singleness understood as ‘temporary’ is the starting point of most young people. They may also be experiencing numerous episodes of moving from a ‘single stage’ to that of ‘in a relationship’, as exemplified by the changing statuses of our Facebook friends.
Understood in this sense, singleness is often associated with ‘preparation’ (for ‘real’ life which will follow once one gets married, of course). Such single life is a state of waiting; a postponement of personal dreams or of an exploration of the call to a particular area of service. There is much encouragement in the contemporary culture to pursue one’s passions regardless of whether one is partnered or not, but the habit of saving things ‘until I have someone to share this with’ still lingers.
Singleness can also be perceived as a temporary stage by those who find themselves, in an unplanned or unexpected way, single by divorce or death, and it is to this experience of singleness that I turn next.
Even though many would prefer not to think about it, unexpected singleness will, at some point, be the lot for many women. For a number of them, the loss of a spouse comes through death, bringing a disruption of personal identity as one is no longer a married woman. Although such a loss can be extremely painful, it nevertheless carries with itself a certain air of dignity and invites a deserved sympathy.
Another route into unexpected singleness—divorce or separation—makes the initial stage of grieving a rather different experience. Indeed, instead of memories to treasure, even whilst mourning their end, here one needs to deal with those memories in some other way—either by trying to blot them out or by learning, through pain, to accept the past with all the good that was in the marriage which has now been lost.
Regardless of how this unexpected singleness is perceived by the believing community, dichotomy may remain between good intentions to provide support on the one hand and instinctive detachment on the other. Thus, both a widow and a divorcee may find themselves abandoned, not even because of the church’s theology, but because those who she thought were their friends simply cannot cope with their being ‘partnerless’. It is too much of a reminder of a fate that one day may come our way.
The pain of not being married in some cases may be a defining interpretation of one’s identity. Such sense of ‘losing out in life’ can often be associated with the lack of physical intimacy and/or sexual frustration—an area which not many dare to discuss openly. However, perhaps the most sensitive area, for some childless single women at least, is the various reminders of the absence of children. For some women, coming to terms with childlessness may be the most painful struggle with singleness.
There would be few single women who have never experienced at least some periods of regret about being single. But for some, this becomes a dominant motif – usually not without some unhelpful comments from their fellow Christians.
There are women who have always known that they wanted to be single; there are also those for whom getting married did not matter much. Still for others, preference for singleness has come after a time of struggle and anxiety about being single. This does not mean that there are no occasional times of frustration or loneliness, often felt more acutely in the church than in other circles more used to relationships not based on coupling. Nevertheless, even such moments can be welcome, for they stand as challenging reminders of the search for meaningfulness and integrated life—something which can otherwise be rather easily forgotten, and perhaps is more easily forgotten in the routine of married life.
The journey for meaning-making implies, for many of these women, a context of community: and not just any community (for many of them enjoy strong and deep friendships, are fulfilled in their work, and have plenty of social life), but a community which may be called the church.
My worry, however, is that the social reality called the church may not correspond to that deep belonging which these women are seeking. The quest for such community, its theology, and its expressions, should be at the core of our own thinking about the church’s mission.
Lina Toth (Andronoviene) is Assistant Principal and Lecturer in Practical Theology at the Scottish Baptist College, and an author of Transforming the Struggles of Tamars: Single Women and Baptistic Communities (Oregon: Wipf and Stock 2014).
Picture: RGB Stock