I was single for a lot longer than I’ve been married, so I have firsthand knowledge about the level of indifference some churches can exhibit when it comes to honoring single womanhood. A good portion of the subtle shade I received about my own marital status, which should be no one’s concern but my own, I received from “churched” folk who seemed to equate not having a husband with being in a state of sin, and therefore something to be delivered from. I cannot tell you how many times I heard comments that suggested being single was being on the non-receiving end of God’s favor. Try this little experiment. If you want to know how a particular church feels about the state of singlehood, just take a quick glance at the announcements section of the church bulletin. It will probably show you that a good chunk of church activity is geared toward the families of the church. You might also note that there isn’t very much going on for the singles in church, even though single women and single mothers are the largest demographic in churches most of the time.
The culture we live in seems obsessed with marriage. I think a lot of this is influenced by what we watch about marriage, particularly where Black Christian woman are concerned. I’d like to start a real discussion about reality shows and church mandates about marriage. Let’s go on and admit that we watch them, because those ratings are coming from somewhere. I believe a lot of church folks watch reality shows, and Tyler Perry Productions, both of which speak a tremendous lot about the black and married church life…for women. There are several reality shows that prominently feature ‘churched’ Black women: “Mary, Mary” featuring the lives (and marriages) of gospel singers Erica and Tina Campbell, “Braxton Family Values” and its spinoff, “Tamar and Vince” which both center around the lives and marriages of the Braxton sisters, “The Real Housewives” franchises, specifically of Atlanta and Potomac, both shows feature Black women who make plenty of references to biblical marriage, and also the “Preachers of” franchises in L.A., Detroit and Atlanta; they also have quite a bit to say about women’s roles in both the church and marriage. Will Bishop Noel Jones marry Loretta or nah? However, these popular shows don’t delve too much on matters of being single and Christian, and the Christian views often discussed on these shows are often very conservative and patriarchal.
I think these shows can be both stressful and problematic for women who simply cannot afford the lifestyles presented. For example, there is a lot of language about men being the head of the household, which of course is easy when the man and the woman are multi-millionaires. I think it is safe to say the majority of Black Christian wives do not have the benefit of a wealthy spouse, and these wives work out of necessity. Many households depend upon the woman’s paycheck and credit rating to maintain the family budget, so that “head of household” argument quickly loses some steam. It actually becomes an ‘interesting’ argument when you consider how quickly some parents will remind their children that when they start paying bills, then they can have a say but when two parents work and pay bills, well…apparently that is a different story. This is precisely why I think some churches are not fully addressing the lived realities of their non-married members.
Family constructs are changing, particularly for women. Many women are choosing singleness. Many women are divorced, or have children they are raising alone. Even the women of the dominant culture resist and reject the designations that define their marital status—there was a time when a woman’s marital or womb status determined whether or not she was an adult. Have you ever noticed that whether a man is married or not, his address is always ‘Mr.,’ but there is a subtle yet obvious distinction between a ‘Miss’ or a ‘Mrs.?’ Why is a woman’s marital status so important that it gets its own salutation? Could it be to let men know who is married and who isn’t?
A lot of the views about marriage presented on television geared toward Black women uphold a conservative, evangelical train of thought…theological mandates that focus on moral superiority, sex before marriage, homosexuality as sin, abortion, etc. There is nothing wrong with the attempt to live by one’s interpretation of biblical mandates. However, many of these biblical mandates tend to exclude single women from the conversation. And not only does it exclude them, it makes them feel as though their single lives aren’t legitimate. (Random confession: I still miss “Living Single.”)
When I graduated from college, I was already working full-time at a television news station. I was the only black producer there at that time. Even though I was well over the age of 21, I was not married, and many of the older women of the church I belonged to at the time talked to me as though I were living in a train station, waiting on the ‘adulting’ train that would take me on to marriage and motherhood. Even though I had a great career, the way I was perceived was as if my life was on hold, just waiting to start. Starting my life, by their logic, would happen when I ‘found the right guy and settled down.’ Never mind the fact that the majority of women in this particular church were either not married, divorced, single moms, or living with their significant other: pretty much ALL of the church conversation about marriage was guided by the model of traditional, biblical marriage as the desired end goal.
We should talk about biblical marriage for a minute because that is important too. Biblical marriage is often presented as one man, one woman, and any children produced from their union. This is apparently the holy grail of lived reality, that thing all women are supposed to strive toward. But this traditional model of marriage and family is not even the dominant model of marriage in the Bible. There are many different models of biblical marriage, and most of them would likely offend our sensibilities today:
First and foremost, there is the privileging of husbands to the extent that wives could be punished by death for not being able to prove her virginity while his virginity was of no consequence;
Biblical marriages were more arranged than based on romantic love (believe it or not, romantic love as the basis for marriage is a modern construct—there was a time when people thought that love as the foundation for marriage would destroy marriage!*)
A husband could have as many wives and concubines as he could afford;
A husband could seize his wife’s property, including her servants (Genesis 16);
A wife who lost her husband before she had the opportunity to provide him with a male heir could be forced to sexually submit to her brother-in-law (Levirate marriage, Genesis 38:6-10);
A woman/girl who was raped could be forced to marry her rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29);
A woman who was living in a region that had been captured in war by outsiders could be forced to marry a male soldier (Numbers 31:1-18);
Since women were considered property, female slaves could be forced to marry anybody (Exodus 21:4).
Now I know there is the temptation to say hey, that is all Old Testament stuff. What about the New Testament? Resist that temptation, gentle reader. Because even though Apostle Paul argued “it is better to marry than to burn” and to “flee fornication,” there are a lot of born-again virgins in the contemporary church. I’m just saying. This is not to dismiss abstinence, or to knock anyone who is saving him or herself for marriage. I am saying more of us miss that mark than hit it, no pun intended.
Today, women in the church are still encouraged to wait on, pray for, and arrange their entire lives around the hope for nuclear marriage despite the fact that most black churches have very few single men. And do not get me started on how many church leaders take full advantage of that disproportionality. But I am telling my own story right now. In all of my church attendance, membership, and ministerial servitude, rare was the occasion when there was an offering of workshops or special Sunday for singles. Never mind those that focused on singleness as a lived reality; being single was usually always treated as though it were just a bump on the road to marriage. However, the fact that many women in all age groups choose to live single should also be addressed in the church. But it isn’t.
But back to reality shows. There is a lot of talk about women being “real” women once they have children. I have watched more than one scene in a reality show where a woman with children will say something condescending to a woman without children. (Think Karen and Ashley on “The Real Housewives of Potomac.”) Sure, reality television is scripted for dramatic effect but sadly, a lot of women in church buy into this notion as well: that all women should want children, and should not be counted as grown women until they do. Reality show characters often talk about the joy and satisfaction of motherhood, and many of them have the luxury of being the primary caregiver for their children and not having to work outside the home. We’ve also seen working mothers like Tamar Braxton and Erica Campbell have moments when they stress about their workloads and their guilt for not being home more for their children. I am still waiting on a scene when Vince or Warryn have a moment when they stress about fatherhood in like manner. But I digress. A Christian women is often made to feel bad about herself if she chooses not to have children. Actress Joy Bryant wrote a piece about her epic level of annoyance when people ask her “so when are you going to have kids?”
Here is what I know for sure. When I talk to young women under the age of 30, many of them say they do not attend church because they do not like to be made to feel like crap for their life choices. If churches have low attendance in the under 30 crowd, it may be because of how they are made to feel when they do show up. Not all women want marriage and children, and it is not an act of love to make women feel badly about their choices. Instead of being overly concerned about bringing children into the world, maybe we could be a bit more concerned about doing what we can to decrease the ever-increasing costs of childcare. Or provide free home repairs to unmarried women who are also homeowners. If low church attendance is a real concern, one sure way to combat it would be to place value on all segments of womanhood, and not just the married with children segment. If the church writ large wants to maintain its relevance and growth, this mindset of treating all women as though we all think the same way, want the same things and have the same goals must be squashed. As a woman (sidenote: most tithers are women), whether you want children or not, or want a husband or not, should be of no consequence to the church you choose to attend. If we are to be the church of Jesus the Christ, the church should be more like a place where you feel like you matter, and a place where you can get help when you need it. Perhaps we could do much better by the black church’s largest constituency: unmarried women.
*to read more about the notion of romantic love in marriage, consult Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy