I often wonder how we would treat Jesus, as a single celibate man, if he took up attendance incognito in our churches.
Would we badger him about his unmarried state? Would we wonder what was wrong with him? Tell him he had “mommy issues” or call him a misogynist? Would we scold and disdain him for forsaking his biological function?
Would we act offended that such an eligible man refused to produce offspring? Tell him that He owed society children? Would we tell Him we were praying for His mate? Or would we tell Him He was too choosy and would probably die alone?
Is this how we would treat Him? I imagine not.
With some exceptions, these are more commonly the attitudes and comments that single women face inside (and outside) the Church. Neither sex has an easy time in the Church as an unmarried person, but there has been a recent uptick in the disproportionately negative treatment of single, childless women, spurred on by sharply-worded rants from politically conservative commentators like Matt Walsh and Ben Shapiro.
Walsh recently used his million-follower platform to invite a scathing critique of a relatively obscure 29-year-old single woman’s attempt to find the positive in her circumstances.
Shapiro followed suit with similar sentiments that underscored the widely believed thesis: Single, childless women are undermining the familial foundations of society and are destined for a life of meaningless misery.
Does singleness relegate one to meaninglessness that can be filled only by vapid entertainment? If we could situate every person within a traditional marriage, would society be magically fixed?
I am a single, childless, never-married Christian woman of 40. So, you might say I have some skin in the game. I also realize I am not the real target of Walsh and Shapiro. Clearly, their target is left-wing feminists. However, the attack on singleness has jumped the conservative political realm into the conservative evangelical world, largely because there is often an unholy overlap between the two.
Evangelicals comprise much of the fanbase of people like Walsh and Shapiro. It is likely they were among the followers who harassed the young woman, telling her she would die alone.
But singles do not owe society an explanation for why they remain single as if it were a criminal charge in need of a defense. There is no shame or crime in singleness.
Due to my situation, I’m especially attuned to what the Scripture has to say about celibacy, but I am baffled by the seeming biblical illiteracy demonstrated by married Christians. Have we forgotten that Jesus, the central figure of our faith, came to earth and lived as a single, celibate man?
Do we just sweep away the Apostle Paul, who penned the majority of the New Testament, writing in 1 Corinthians, “I wish that all of you were as I am (single). But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” (I Corinthians 7:7)
Did you catch that? Paul refers to celibacy as a gift. Marriage is a gift from the Lord, and celibacy, too, is a gift from the Lord. There is no need to pit one against the other, nor treat one as an assault on the other. Yet that is increasingly the tenor of the conversation today.
Critics of singleness seem to forget that singles like me didn’t spring fully formed on the earth as a malignant species hellbent on destroying families and society. We come from families ourselves and are part of families. I am a sister, a daughter, an aunt, a cousin, a grand-daughter, and a sister-in-law.
Still, in some conservative minds, there is no positive to being single — personally or societally. The message is clear: marriage is the only acceptable state, and all else is feminist folly. It sounds like a decree straight from the Roman Empire. But wasn’t that the empire Christianity helped to dismantle?
Conservatives like to think of themselves as realists who burst the naïve kumbayas of liberals, but there is a stunningly naïve conservative narrative that continues to elude hard conservative realism. It goes like this: Once upon a time a Golden Age of peace and prosperity and righteousness existed … until feminists came and ruined everything. If we could just eliminate the feminists this Golden Age would return.
As Christians, we don’t look backward to a mythical golden age and pretend it wasn’t riddled with sin and injustice. We look forward to the resurrection life in the new creation, a place where, ironically, there is neither marrying or giving in marriage (Matthew 22:30).
Family is a good gift from God. And family suffers in our culture. But do we strengthen family by idolizing marriage or taking degrading shots at women who are not even believers? And why would any woman on earth want to come into the family we represent, when our brothers and fathers shame and devalue them?
We will not fix society by merely re-instituting something called the traditional family. We will not fix culture by ridding it of feminists. Indeed, abuse and injustice, selfishness, rebellion, and unrighteousness also occur in traditional families.
To imbue the family with that kind of power is to idolize it. So, take it off the pedestal. Honor it as something good God has created, but don’t endow it with the mysterious power to repair a broken culture.
I serve the church as a worship leader, and as such, care deeply about the health and purity of the Body of Christ. Single, celibate people may not have a family birthed from their own bodies, but we are still members of a significant family. We are members of the body of Christ, and the entire health of that body is affected by our treatment.
I am fortunate to serve in a church where the worst we experience as singles are frequent public prayers for mates, a persistent un-acknowledgment of celibacy as a calling, and some unawareness of our need for a consistent community. But we are not treated as second-class citizens; many of our key ministers are single.
So, what do these single people bring to the Body?
We are living prophecies of the age to come, the resurrection life. We embody hope. Even the condemnation brings us to share in the earthly experience of Jesus, the Isaiah 53 sufferings, the rejection, the lack of esteem, the sorrow.
And like Him, we too will see offspring, fruit from our lives laid down unto death, a memorial and name better than sons and daughters (Isaiah 53:10, Isaiah 56:3-5). We bring zeal, passion for the Lord, and victory hard won through surrender.
We more easily cultivate uninterrupted time spent in His presence, total trust and reliance on God as our everything. And we also minister to the body just as any married people do — as human beings, the image of God, prayer warriors, deacons, prophetic voices, worshipers, pastors, teachers, elders, and as spiritual mothers and fathers.
The true foundation of everything is Jesus, who lived his life on earth as a celibate man, and who calls us into a spiritual family in which married and single people both play a part. It is a family where offspring are not born exclusively through human intention, where out of the stones God can raise up children for Abraham, where the children of the desolate woman are more than she who has a husband, where Mary was with child by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit.
It is a family where single members are welcome.
Elli Seifert is a worship pastor who loves calling all of creation to magnify the King. She is also an artist with a BFA in Visual Communication, and a friend to all dogs. She loves Jesus with all her heart.