Some time ago, a mutual friend shared with me some tragic news about a girl (I will call her Hannah) with whom I had been friends but had lost track of in recent years as our paths had diverged. I knew Hannah to be a committed Christian. She had graduated from a prominent conservative Christian college, was extremely involved in her church, was passionate about evangelism and service to the poor, and was in an active Bible study with our mutual friend when she, Hannah, announced that she was expecting her boyfriend to propose within the month. What’s so tragic about that? you ask. What’s tragic is that Hannah, my Christ-loving sister, was planning to wed a non-believer.Now, I know that there are Christian women out there who are married to unbelieving husbands—often because these women came to Christ only after taking sacred marriage vows. Yes, God can sustain these wives, sanctify them and their marriages, and bring their husbands to Himself. But, each and every one of those ladies would tell you that, if they’d known then what they know now, they would have married a Christian.
You might be wondering what a committed Christian girl was doing even pursuing a romantic relationship with a non-believer. She didn’t run into him in a coffee house and fall head over heels in an instant, I can tell you that. She was smart, rational…and desperate. Not for sex or babies or even marriage. Hannah was desperate for an identity.
Her 30th birthday was looming up before her, and in all her years of Christian training she had been taught, like so many conservative Christian young women before her, that life—and self—begin and end with marriage. Being a wife and mother was the only paradigm in which she understood herself to be a complete, whole woman who could serve God with her entire being.
Ladies, this is wrong. This is the beauty of complementarianism taken out of context and out of control. We, as members of the Body of Christ, are partially to blame if a Christian sister feels so detached, denied, and desperate that she would look outside the Faith just to get a husband at any price. Notice that Hannah’s decision was not made due to lust or pride (at least not primarily). She did what she did out of a genuine belief that marriage and motherhood is the ONLY way in which she, as a woman, could serve the Lord.
Please do not misunderstand me. I hold firmly to the words of Genesis, and I draw profound inspiration from them. I believe that the Lord created humanity imago Dei, in His own Image. Male and female He created them. I believe that men and women were and are divinely created to be unique, different, and glorious in the way that they complement each other. I believe that this complementation is most marvelously realized in the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. What I do not believe is that a woman—or man—must marry in order to fully realize their potential in Christ or in life.
Marriage is a vocation, not a “right” of passage nor a prerequisite to Christian maturity. Marriage is a gift, not a prize. Yes, we can work for it and toward it, and all are called to honor it. Furthermore, most people, regardless of gender, will marry. It is right and proper for both young men and young women to prepare whole-heartedly for that potentiality and to pray for it in hope and submission to the Lord. However, we should always do so with the understanding that it is only a potentiality. It is right for a young woman to keep her heart open to God’s call for marriage whenever it might come—but only because it is right for a Christian to keep her heart open to God’s call for any vocation whenever it might come, and whatever it might be. To think we can write God’s plans for our lives—or anyone else’s—just because we know of a good—dare I say, an excellent?—plan is wrong. However good and glorious the paradigm of marriage may be, it is only meant to be the paradigm for those whom God calls. God and not man—or woman, for that matter.
If we uphold matrimony as the only paradigm for Christian women, then we denegrate and belittle the lives of all unmarried Christian women but particularly those who will remain unmarried. In such a paradigm, young, unmarried women may be tempted to rush into marriage with the first man who comes along, even as Hannah was. Divorced women may be tempted to remarry against the mandates of Scripture. Widows may feel pressured to seek another husband before they have fully had time to mourn and rebuild their lives. I do not believe any of us would intentionally place such burdens upon the shoulders of our sisters, but if we do not help these women find their place in our midst, then we make the path they tread a lonely, desolate Calvary. If we lose the ability to relate to unmarried women as unmarried women—not as prospective brides and future mothers only—we fail our sisters in fellowship. And, we fail our Lord in faith.
As Christians, we can believe fully in the Providence of our Loving Father in Heaven. Do we truly believe that our Father gives some of His daughters stones when they have asked for bread (Matt. 7:9)? For some, perhaps He has asked them merely to trust and wait, but not all. For some women, banging their heads against a wall that the Lord never intended them to come against, the husband will never come. The womb will remain bare. The same Good Providence smiles on these women as on their married, child-bearing peers. For His own good reasons, God blesses some women with a life that does not include marriage (1 Cor. 7:17). Blesses, not curses. To say that these women are blessed does not degrade marriage. It elevates Christ. Because all lives lived in Christ are blessed and because Christ, not matrimony, is always the goal of life.
Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will grant you the desires of your heart.”
Notice that the Psalmist does not say, “Delight yourself in the desires of your heart, and the Lord will grant them.” He says precisely the opposite. Delight yourself in Him. He must always be the deepest desire of your heart. The rest will follow. When you put the cart before the horse, you are setting yourself up for heartache. When you shape your walk of faith around the pursuit of marriage and motherhood rather than submission to God’s Will, you are committing idolatry. As with my friend Hannah, this sort of paradigm will lead you to folly and sin. It will not grant your heart’s desires.
Marriage is a sacred mystery, a parallel of Christ and His Church, and for those women like myself who are blessed to be wives and mothers, these will be our primary vocations on earth. Even so, a Christian wife is not first and foremost a wife. Nor is a Christian mother first and foremost a mother. All Christian women are first and foremost Christians. And all Christian women, genuinely endeavoring to serve God and others, are pursuing and realizing mature Biblical Womanhood, married or unmarried, with children or without. And, to God be the Glory.
Image credit: “The Harvester” by William Bouguereau
N.B. As a final footnote, I would like to point out that throughout this post, I have used the word “unmarried,” not single. This is for a reason. Scripture is clear that God’s desire is for all people to be not only in community but in a particular community, what we call “family” (Psalm 68:6). Just because a woman is unmarried does not mean she is or should be without a family. If she has no biological family of her own, then it should be her prayer and effort to find an adoptive family within the body of believers. God knew that it was “not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18), but surely it is no more so for the woman to be. Women are, by nature, nurturing and relational among other things: qualities which stand them in excellent stead in marriage and as mothers–and in many other areas of community and family life.