I am a liberal Christian woman with giftings that lean in the direction of teaching and prophetic wisdom, and that doesn’t always go over well in the church. I have preached to groups of men and women and have taught seminars on prayer. God equipped me with words for those situations beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I have been blessed to find community that is incredibly supportive of this and has challenged me to grow immensely in these areas over the past couple of years. But this has not always been the case.
You see, I don’t fit into the tidy little box that much of the mainstream North American church has constructed for young Christian women. This is the first of two little pieces of that story.
The church I grew up in was, and remains, quite conservative on many matters, including women in leadership. It was just a passive understanding that most people held. Even as a child and young teenager it didn’t sit quite right with me, as I had a sense that my gifts didn’t seem to line up with the church’s position on the role of women, but I never openly questioned it. After all, it was never said with any kind of malice, but it was stated as just a matter of fact. So I quietly wondered how I was supposed to affect change in my church community if my voice was seen as an unwelcome, unbiblical intrusion rather than a valued contribution. It was discouraging, but because I didn’t know any different, because I had never heard a woman get up and preach a fiery sermon on a Sunday morning, because I had never seen a woman allowed to be an elder, I thought that it was just something I would have to accept.
The first time I was asked how I would feel about the possibility of being a pastor’s wife someday, I was around thirteen years old. It was a casual conversation with someone I’d known for years, more a question in passing than anything else. But I remember it vividly because at that point I genuinely didn’t know any eligible young men whose future pointed towards pastoral ministry. I remember shrugging it off at the time, unsure what to say.
When I turned eighteen, someone from my church gave me a book about being a godly wife and mother. It seemed laughable at the time, to give such a gift to me. After all, I was very much single, having not dated at all in high school, and was heading off to university within a few months. But it was assumed that the book would become useful when I inevitably got married and started having children within the next couple of years, because that’s what good Christian girls do when they graduate from high school, right?
The book contained all the usual Christianese tropes about submitting to (read: obeying, in this case) your husband’s wishes, and never making work outside the home a bigger priority than your obligations to keep your house in tip-top shape, even if you’re not currently married. It went so far as to suggest that making dinner for a friend who had just had a baby was wrong if it even mildly inconvenienced your husband, and that wives should consider asking their husbands to give them a letter grade in obedience, so they could gauge where they needed to grow. I was concerned that this was considered sound spiritual advice, and I was concerned for the woman who wrote this book and truly believed that the only place a woman was safe and accomplishing her life’s purpose was under the protective wing of a man. And most of all, I was incredibly offended that this was being handed to an eighteen-year-old who had barely graduated high school.
Don’t get me wrong – I think that homemaking is a beautiful calling for those who have it. I think that marriage is a wonderful gift and the relationship requires mutual respect and understanding. I think that children are an incredible legacy, and that we should never diminish the important work that stay-at-home parents do by investing in future generations.
But what about those of us who don’t get married by 19 and have children by 21? What does it say about our church communities when we are teaching our girls that their primary (or only) function is to get married and make babies? What does it teach them about the value of their ambitions? For those who find themselves without even the prospect of a husband, what does that say about their place in the church, if they aren’t living up to the ‘standard?’ Are they defective? That’s sometimes how it comes across.
When I returned home from university to visit family and attended the church I grew up in, almost every conversation I had included some question about whether I was currently seeing anyone. Not “How’s your relationship with Jesus?” or “Are you managing to stay physically and mentally healthy while you’re at school?” or any number of other more important, more interesting things about my life. I know it was never asked maliciously, but it stung every time my relationship status took priority over my faith, over my academic achievements, over the fact that I had found a community of my peers that I had never had before. It hurt because it reinforced the notion that I was not living up to the expectations of the church because I wasn’t actively dating, and implied that my current place there hinged at least partially on whether or not I would be joining the ranks of the moms coffee group.
Because every time I responded to their question, telling them that I wasn’t seeing anyone, people got awkward. I got the pity look, the “oh, I’ll pray for you then,” or possibly the worst: “I know that there’s someone just wonderful out there waiting for you and God will bring them along in his own timing,” as a rather condescending pat on the head. People tend not to respond well when they find out that you don't fit into the tidy family unit structure that they have built in their minds and assume that everyone is going to be a part of.
Single adults in the church communities I have seen are not often celebrated. Most of the time, they end up being treated as the unfortunate square-peg-round-hole of the church, because if we’re honest, we don’t know what to do when people don’t fit neatly into boxes that help keep our understanding of the world from becoming too chaotic. We like it when everything makes sense. But it doesn’t always make sense; we ask questions like “what’s secretly weird about them that’s kept them from getting married?” We make jokes about setting them up with people we know (even if we rarely actually do it). And we're not really sure where the best place is for them to serve.
We as the church tend to venerate marriage and children as the highest calling, but I think it's quite misplaced because the highest calling that any of us can have is to chase after Christ with everything we are and to love others well. Whether we bring a spouse and half a dozen children with us, or run a solo race is completely unimportant compared with whether we are actively seeking God. Because the calling of Christ starts the moment you know Him, not when you're standing in front of your friends and family all dressed up for a marriage ceremony, and our lives will actively pass us by if we live in waiting for a relationship to save us.
I have not written this because I am bitter about my singleness – I don't view it as a curse. I think that life is too short to be bitter, and I actually really like my life. I have friends and family who love and support me, and a God who is bigger than anything I will face. This piece comes out of a season where I’ve noticed the ways in which the things we are taught as children come up in strange places in adulthood, where I've been processing the places God is actually calling me. These days that looks like being reminded again and again where my identity is truly found.
I write this as a declaration of freedom over us all. I write this because the boxes we have constructed telling people that they must be married with children to fit in the church are not boxes constructed by God – they are not mandates of the Kingdom. Not even close. Jesus was all about living outside the lines, and if I can be even just a little more like him, if it provides me with opportunities to love the people around me, I will happily take it.
My heart is for marriage and a family someday, but that is not the reality in which I currently find myself. And I refuse to believe that my purpose as a Christian woman only begins when I have a ring on my finger and a man at my side. I refuse to live in a state of limbo. So I’m choosing to live under the truth that I have all I need in Christ, that that is the only relationship that is able to define my purpose and my identity.
Know that this is true for you, too. Know that you are celebrated and seen, no matter where you find yourself or what box you don't fit into. Know that there is a place for you. Know that whether you are single, married, or anything in between, you have permission to stop waiting for someone to come along and give you purpose, because Jesus already did that. No matter how it may feel, you already have all the purpose you really need.
Stay tuned for the second part of this story next week!