For the Christian parent, on top of sleep habits, picky eating, socialisation and development milestones, on top of fear of stranger danger, bullies and medical needs, on top of developing a work ethic, empathy, resilience, strength and gentleness, Christian parents also have to worry about a heart for Jesus. How do we guide them the right way? How do we help them grow up with strong theological foundations? How do we ensure they don’t drift away as they get older? And so we chew through parenting books, mommy blogs, dad groups, Facebook chats and podcast series at a rate of knots.
I know many godly parents trying to live intentionally for Jesus in their parenting. But how does that work if you are a single parent?
I know many godly parents who have read and thought and prayed, and are now (as imperfectly as all parents!) trying to live intentionally for Jesus in their parenting. They try to model godly relationships. Those who are complementarian try to live out a pattern of relationships which illustrates the equal dignity and value of men and women—as well as their functional differences. It is in these relationships that I see the mutuality talked of in the Bible: how men and women fit together.
The Single Complementarian
But how does that work if you are a single parent? Set activities (devotions, Bible reading and so on) become so much harder when there is only one person to do the working and the housekeeping and the parenting—just logistically it becomes harder to find the time. And how do you model a complementarian relationship when there is only one of you?
If this is you too, please bear with me because there are answers for us in the Bible and in God’s great grace. If you have single mums (and dads) in your congregation, it would be great if you could follow along because we really need you to pastor to us. I want to also acknowledge the parents who have a non-believing spouse and so effectively trying to do the Christian side of parenting alone. These are important thoughts in here for you too.
This issue is important to me. As a mother of young boys it is important to me that they become men of strong Christian character—and that includes a foundational understanding of how to relate to women and how women relate to them. This relationship is usually modelled by the mother and father. But how do I do that when it’s just me?
Complementarianism in relation to parenting, I read, “is the intentional structuring of family life … in the way that God has ordained through his word.” Without one of the key elements, what is it that my boys are missing from this picture?
The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood notes that the biblical man is the leader, provider, and protector and that “They need dads who lead sacrificially as Christ led and served His Church, who work hard to provide for their family, and who model courage by protecting their family at all cost.”
This is problematic for me. With no husband, I am the leader in our house, and I work full time to provide for my children. Does that mean that my very existence teaches the boys about subverted relationships?
The first thing to note is that no family models God’s pattern perfectly. When I first started thinking about this, I was looking to what I thought was a perfect ideal and trying to work out how to meet that. But that is impossible for all of us.
There are elements of complementarity that I just can’t model. This was a bitter reality to accept because you always want the best for your kids. The fact is, unless I go and find a husband for the sake of modelling an ideal picture (which I am not going to do) our situation will remain as it is. That means that I will continue to be the primary provider and protector of our house. What I also can’t show my boys, is how a Christian mum and dad relate to each other on a daily basis. They are not growing up seeing the nuances of a Christian parental relationship.
A Gendered Image
So then, I started to look at what I could do. Bobby Scott in 9Marks noted “Teach them that to biblically understand their identity, it’s necessary to view maleness and femaleness first as expressions of the imago dei and second in juxtaposition to each other.” Now obviously, he is speaking in relation to mother and father together, but I found this a useful overriding principle to base my thinking on.
I can teach the first principles through our devotions—Bible reading and daily discussions. My children are junior school-aged, but old enough to have conversations about what God intended for them as men and how they should understand God’s intentions for women, and men and women in relation to each other.
Modelling proper relations between men and women—at least in the context of marriage—is more complicated. Yet, I can point to others—to friends and others in our church community—who provide godly examples. This is where pastors and married couples in the church can provide ministry support. Providing one on one help between women is a great support for a single mum emotionally. However, a profound love can be shown by fellowshipping with a single mum and her kids, with a married couple. This allows the kids to see more examples of godly relationships and these moments of home-style hospitality increase the kids’ moral imagination by displaying complementarity as normative behaviour. They can see mutuality in action, they can see the couple toiling together, laughing together, loving together and expressing their inter-dependency in the most mundane and beautiful of settings.
Beyond that, the boys also see how I interact with men at my work. I work in an office environment but most of the time remotely from home. That means that I get to pick the boys up from school and then go back to work as they eat their way through every snack in the kitchen. That means they see and hear how I interact with my male colleagues. Complementarity in the workplace, though obviously different from marriage, is also something I have worked through so this is another area when the boys have access to a working model of godly male-female interaction.
The last working model is me interacting with them. I don’t mean that I put them in the place of the husband. What I mean is that I am the first important relationship with a woman that they have so this will set the foundation for the way they relate to women both now and in the future. So even though they cannot see a working model of mum and dad, they can understand the principles of a biblically thought out male-female relationship.
And what are those principles? Hagar is usually highlighted as the single mum of the Bible and, while her story does not tell us anything specific about single parenting, her story does show us of God’s love for her and her son. Ishmael is not the chosen line of God, but he and Hagar still had a part to play and he loved and protected them (Genesis 16:1-13). Similarly in the New Testament, the Syrophoenician woman approaches Jesus about her daughter who has an impure spirit (Mark 7:24-30). We don’t know this woman’s domestic situation, whether she was married or not, but as a Syrophoenician, her religion probably aligned with the Greeks. What we see is a woman however coming to Jesus believing that he can heal her daughter. And she doesn’t take no for an answer. Her request, and demeanour, mark her as faithful and humble. If she was married, it could be that he was not Jesus-believing and she took this initiative for this faith journey alone.
What Hagar’s story teaches me is that my God sees and understands me and protects me, just as he did with Hagar. What the story in Mark tells me is that the mother took the initiative to seek, in faith and humility, salvation from Jesus.
What I can model for my boys is this faithfulness and humility. I can live modelling a knowledge of God’s protective care. Further, while I might be logistically the protector and provider of my family, I do not (and should not) assume the position of a man but show that the blessings of our good life come from God, not me. God is our protector and provider. I can also model godly obedience and humility in Jesus, taking the initiative to bring them before God.
My responsibility is to seek to faithfully live-out that reality as a woman in the best way I can, in the situation that I am in.
My responsibility is not to assume the imago dei as a man. My responsibility is to seek to faithfully live-out that reality as a woman in the best way I can, in the situation that I am in. That means there are some things I simply cannot do or model. But that should not mean that I try and take on the persona of a man to try and show them. That would not be a wise thing to do and would work against laying strong biblical foundations for my boys.
And there are many things I can do to help my boys see the complementarity and interdependency that God has built into our species. I can point to, and try to set, good examples that will help them become strong, godly men. If they see such examples as they grow, perhaps these godly relationships will not feel like an ill-fitting coat that they need to squeeze into—but a natural and normal expression of God’s pattern for relationships that they might delight in for God’s glory.
This is an ongoing process of thought, prayer and practice. But it is worth the effort to give my children the strongest possible foundation for their faith journey.