It was an elderly Afro-Carribbean woman who said it.
“So my dear, you’re here with your husband?” She gestured to my friend, who was actually there with his wife (not me).
“Oh no, that’s just my friend. I have no husband.”
“Ohhh!” She purred, “so you’re freeeeeee. A free woman.”
I assume that like many before her, she was referring to Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 7 about the benefits of singleness, but unfortunately, like many before her, she put the emphasis totally in the wrong place.
If you hang around a Bible college much—or just show a bit of ministry-mindedness, people will try to point out this benefit to your single-status. ‘You’re free, you could go wherever you want!’
If you hang around a Bible college much—or just show a bit of ministry-mindedness, at some point—people will try to point out this benefit to your single-status. “You’re free, you could go wherever you want! You could go on the mission field, or to outback Australia, you can do anything!”
Eventually, when this is repeated enough, what the single person hears is: “you don’t matter to anybody! You have no ties that bind! You’re perfect cannon fodder for the mission fields we don’t want to go to! You’re exempt from all relational ties!”
See how a message like that might begin to sour? Or maybe you don’t…
Why don’t single people want to hear, “you’re free” thrown at them over and over again?
Because we already feel quite vulnerable thank you. We already feel the lack of a safety net. Most of us are more financially vulnerable than married people, the legacy of children to take care of us in our old age isn’t a reality for many single people. And when we do have to make life decisions—like, “should I take that job,” “should I move”—we don’t have an automatic mini-committee to discuss it with. Yes, having multiple people in your life can mean compromise, but it also provides a stability that humans are created to crave. Single should not mean ‘alone’, especially in the family of God. But so often, that’s how it feels. Being told constantly that you’re “free” because your choices don’t matter to anyone, and you don’t need to consult anyone else, can be frustrating and isolating.
It’s especially unfortunate because it’s not what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians at all.
Paul isn’t saying, “single people don’t matter to anybody”, or, “single people don’t have to consider any relationships or relational priorities while making life decisions”. Paul’s point isn’t that single people are free but that single people can have a different focus.
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. (1Corinthians 7:32-35)
Paul isn’t saying single people are free to do whatever they want and go anywhere they want, he is saying they can be free from concerns, free from anxieties, free to focus on how to please the Lord. So, don’t just say to single people “you’re free!” Finish the sentence, “you’re free to focus on Jesus!”
But God’s word about singleness doesn’t just stop there, with Paul.
‘Widow’ was the main form singleness took in Ancient Near Eastern culture—our categories of young-single-person-who’s-not-betrothed or, middle-aged-divorcee-with-no-marital-obligation didn’t really exist. So the easiest way to find out what God thinks of single people is to do a quick search for mention of widows.
The easiest way to find out what God thinks of single people is to do a quick search for mention of widows. God makes laws for such people, so that they will be provided for.
When we do that, what we find is that, as far back as Deuteronomy, God makes laws for such people, so that they will be provided for. The tithe is not just for the Levites but is provided …
… so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) but for vulnerable people such as the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.” (Deuteronomy 14:29).
Furthermore, the Psalms and the Prophets emphasise that the cause of the widow and orphan is close to God’s heart. The psalmists call God “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.” (Ps 68:5) The New Testament continues the emphasis: James is able to say:
…religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)
When you see that God perceives the widow, as vulnerable, needing the community to care for and support her, your perception of the single people in your life can shift.
Single people don’t need to be reminded that they don’t need to take anyone into consideration when making their life decisions, that’s their daily lived experience. I love many aspects of it: I decide what I want for dinner; whether to clean the kitchen; whether to stay back at work; whether or not to join in ministry activities; just what projects I can take on at church. What Paul says about singledom is true for me—I have less anxieties to worry about in my decision making.
But, single people may need to be reminded (ok, probably constantly need to be reminded) that they do actually matter to you relationally, and to your church community. The aspect of my “freedom” that is most often a burden is that I am no one’s priority. No one else has to consult with me before they get married, change jobs, move away. Sometimes this can leave me feeling like a spinning top as everything changes around me and I have no control or say in it at all.
That’s when I need to be reminded that I’m actually someone’s priority. God’s. He sent His son for me, He knows every hair on my head, He knows what I’m going to do today, He knows the good works He’s prepared for me to do. I’m not free to do whatever I want, go wherever I want to. I’m part of a family, God’s family, Jesus is my brother, and you all are my brothers and sisters whether you remember me that way or not.