Conversations on Paul II: For The Single Ladies
“So when are we coming for your own?” My Aunt asked me. A friend I knew from my church in Nigeria was getting married in the Washington, D.C. area* the next day, and several members of the church, including this Aunt, had flown in from Nigeria for the wedding. We had all been busy prepping souvenir bags and other items for the wedding when she teased me. I was in my early twenties and had begun to make my rounds in the bridesmaid circuit, so I was used to the marriage questions and comments. At Nigerian weddings, upon inquiring my marital status, well meaning guests would pray: “Your own will be next in Jesus name!” and “God will soon do it for you!” It always amused me that the assumption was I was eager to get married, when at that point all I cared about was surviving law school and passing the New York bar exams.
“Ah, Aunty leave that matter for now. I’m not ready!” I replied. (While we were not related, in Nigerian culture, anyone older than you is generally addressed as Uncle or Aunty).
“Haaaa Blessing you will not become a prayer point for us, please!” she joked. “Can’t you see God has saved your friend?” The bride, a very successful accountant, was a few weeks shy of thirty.
In Nigerian society, an unmarried woman of a certain age is often deemed to have failed on a personal level. She was too picky/not polite enough/too career focused in her twenties…and so the gossip goes. In Nigerian church circles, such women are often accused of failing on spiritual levels as well: “She didn’t serve God faithfully when she was younger” or “She missed her season.” This phenomenon—the focus on the married woman as the Christian ideal—is not Nigeria or Pentecostal specific. It’s a phenomenon I’ve observed at the interdenominational Christian university I attended in mid-west America where girls raced to have a “ring by spring” and in dozens of ‘how-to-be-a-Proverbs 31-wife’ books by diverse authors to name a few. While I have nothing against marriage or marriage-centric ministries (I mean, I’m married)—I find the focus on marriage as the Christian ideal interesting, vis-à-vis the history of Christianity.
Matrimony wasn’t always considered holy by Christians. In her book Committed, an insightful collection of research and personal reflections on marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert humorously notes: “for the first thousand years or so years of Christian history, the church regarded monogamous marriage as marginally less wicked than flat-out whoring—but only marginally.” One of the most prominent opponents of marriage during the early Christian movement was…you guessed it: Apostle Paul. While Paul made it clear that he didn’t consider marriage a sin, he strongly appealed to the early church to refrain from marriage and to commit to lives of celibacy. In his letter to the Church of Corinth (part of modern day Greece), Paul writes: “So I say to those who aren’t married and to widows—it’s better to stay unmarried, just as I am.” He then concedes, “But if they can’t control themselves, they should go ahead and marry. It’s better to marry than to burn with lust” (1 Corinthians 7:9).
What was Paul’s qualm with marriage? For starters, Paul, like many of the early Christians, believed the end of the world was coming very soon. He warned: “…those who get married at this time will have troubles, and I am trying to spare you those problems…For this world as we know it will soon pass away” (1 Corinthians 7: 28-31). Additionally, Paul considered marriage to be a distraction from serving God. Paul argued that whereas an “unmarried man can spend his time doing the Lord’s work and thinking how to please him” and “a woman who is no longer married or has never been married can be devoted to the Lord and holy in body and in spirit;” married persons were often consumed with fulfilling their earthly responsibilities to their spouses (1 Corinthians 7: 32-35).
Like Paul, many protestant Christians today believe the end of the world could literally be any day now. Yet, in the dozens of sermons I’ve heard over the course of my life about preparing for the ‘rapture,’ I’m pressed to remember one that urged the audience to remain single. I’ve heard countless sermons premised on Paul’s instructions about the virtues of marital submission, but virtually none about the virtues of lifelong celibacy. Why are we hearing only half the sermon?
Married, is not the only way to be an ideal Christian woman. Having been both single and married, I am clear that there are pros and cons on both ends of the stick. Yet, I don’t think the virtues of singlehood get preached about as often as they should. I see marriage as a personal choice—not a life accomplishment. On the basis of marital status, I am no better or worse than the next woman in the church pew. The entire religion of Christianity spread largely because Paul, a man free from the responsibilities of a wife and children, could travel freely. To say that a life is less valuable or that a legacy is less rich because of one’s marital status, is to forget his story.
Sometimes, I think society as a whole forgets the value of its unmarried women. I wrote this thinking about some of my aunties in Nigeria: the aunties who over the years became a part of my family, or who by blood always were. The aunties who in their 40s and 50s remained unmarried. I wrote this thinking about the times their lives were referenced as cautionary tales, and the times they referenced their lives as such. I wrote this remembering how their lives have been anything but tragedies. In the years when my parents worked round the clock building their church in Nigeria (and later on, traveling America to seek treatment for my father’s cancer) it was my unmarried aunts—free from the obligation of their own children and husbands—who stepped up and made sure my siblings and I were taken care of, in a way the people paid to do so could have never done—in a way my Uncles never did. They washed plates, ironed school uniforms and swept floors—so my parents could write sermons, bury the dead and pray for the sick. With their time and income, these aunts helped build a church, and continue to help it thrive. My family is not unique: many families and communities have been sustained by the sacrifices of its unmarried women.
And so, I dedicate this to one of my favorite Aunts. In her 30s, she often said: “Blessing, I am ready to marry ANYTHING that comes my way. ANYTHING.” In her 40s, something did come her way: a man who wasn’t right for her. One day, she had an epiphany and decided not to settle. My Aunt chose herself and hasn’t looked back. Today, she serves God with her whole heart and runs a successful business with passion. She is fifty. She is single. She is fulfilled. She is happy.
*I changed the location and a minor detail of this story.