Single women are having a rough go of it lately. Their growing numbers are blamed for the rise of “woke” politics, millennial selfishness, and even incel culture. In some Christian circles, single women are reminded (in case they forgot) to marry and have children, even with a gender imbalance among unmarried Christians, and even though they’re discouraged from dating outside the faith.
It’s a numerical bind causing anxiety all around.
Meanwhile, the single Christian women I know are trying to make the best of a complex reality. They seek to serve God with their daily work, invest in friendships and the church, and pursue creative and educational opportunities as they arise. Many of them also try to meet Christian men, dabble with dating apps, and pray.
Their lives are both rich and imperfect. They experience cycles of hope and frustration. For most singles I know, their status is not for lack of trying, or for lack of honoring marriage as such. As sociologist Lyman Stone notes in a recent CT piece, when you ask unmarried Christians today, most of them say they want to get hitched. Even shakshuka girl said as much.
You don’t have to be a Calvinist to affirm that God is present to every person wrestling with unmet desires and quiet griefs, and that God is working out his plans in times of social stability as well as upheaval, decline, and unprecedented change. Far more, people worried about the future of Christendom—or perhaps Western civilization and its declining birth rates—are called to remember the primary way the church will be preserved through the centuries.
In sum: It’s baptism, not just babies. After all, Jesus taught it’s not enough to be born. We are all called to be born again.
History continues to be instructive. Early on, the church grew in numbers because people kept verbally attesting to the risen Christ, and others believed and trusted in him. It grew through gospel proclamation ignited by the flames of Pentecost (Acts 1:8), not by a baby boom among Jesus’ earliest followers.
Women in the early church were elevated for their witness, not their wombs. Compared with Roman and Jewish cultures, Christianity invited unmarried women, young and old, to play a crucial role. They led house churches, funded missionary travels, and studied Greek and Hebrew. Their presence wasn’t a problem to solve but a treasure to mine for evangelistic expansion.
Unmarried women continued to play key roles, even after the Protestant Reformers rightly put marriage and family on a level playing field with monastic celibacy.
If the medieval church with its virgin martyrs and mystical visions is too weird for you, then look to the unmarried women who led global missions—including Harriet Baker, Lottie Moon, and Amy Carmichael—or those like Nannie Helen Burroughs and Mahalia Jackson, who led the Black church and the civil rights movement. Florence Nightingale, Sojourner Truth, Corrie ten Boom, and Sophie Scholl all sacrificed much for the gospel and arguably changed the world.
These women not only serve as role models for single Christians today, over and against a materialistic, me-first story of fulfillment. They also remind all of us, married and single, of where we place our hope.
Paul’s embrace of chosen singleness isn’t to be brushed away as the weird fixation of an intense man who thought the end was nigh. Rather, it reminds every generation of Christians that we always live in the end times—and that marriage is a blessed but penultimate state. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas wrote more than 30 years ago:
Singleness is that practice intrinsic to the church, so that we are reminded as a people we live by hope, not biology. Put simply, singleness reminds the church we grow not through biological ascription but through witness and hospitality to the stranger—who often turns out to be our biological child. As Christians we believe that every Christian in one generation might be called to singleness, yet God will create the church anew. (emphasis mine)
In times of church decline, Christians might be tempted to forget this truth and fall back on natural means of spreading religion. If the discourse around singleness in the church is any indication, we might ask: Does evangelism even work anymore?
The renewed ire over single women speaks to the anxiety of a secular age, when sociologists and pastors alike wonder how long the church will survive, if rates of church attendance and Christian family formation are reasonable predictors of the future.
In these anxious times, single Christian women will feel pressed to take one for the team by marrying and bearing children to perpetuate the faith. After all, babies seem like a better bet than evangelism (even though parents will tell you that raising children in the faith isn’t a surefire bet, since kids are, rather inconveniently, people with wills).
But the implicit message is that single women today should downplay or ignore modern concerns that aren’t going away. Those concerns include compatibility, commensurate levels of education and spiritual maturity, and the desire for physical and emotional safety in marriage.
Women are pressured to pair up with unsuitable and/or un-Christian men, which only increases the risk of divorce. (Anecdotally, I hear many stories of Christians who, owing to purity culture and a church fixation on family, married young only to be unprepared for the storms ahead.)
Far worse, these pressures reduce women’s value to their bodies and their bodies to a religious utility. Needless to say, this approach seems like a bad way to keep single women engaged in the church.
Church leaders are right to keep honoring marriage and family. Both are blessed by God. Both are life paths that spur sanctification and provide care for the vulnerable among us. But that doesn’t mean we should value marriage and family strictly as ways to produce baby Christians.
We are audacious enough to believe that people come to faith by hearing and believing the good news. We know that Christianity grows by supernatural means. And we are confident that the gospel we preach is “the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Rom. 1:16).
What’s at stake in this conversation is more than the inclusion of unmarried people in local churches, as important as that is. Troubling data on church attendance and family formation give all Christians, single and married alike, a chance to remember the source of our hope: the Word of God, which renews hearts and minds by the power of the Spirit.
Children are more than data points, and unmarried women are more than their birthing potential. Because of our hope in God’s lordship over all eras of history, including the strange one we’re in, we can see unmarried women not as problems to be solved but as crucial players in God’s ongoing work in the world—just as the church has from the beginning.
Katelyn Beaty is editorial director of Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, and the author of Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church.