She is like the ships of the merchant; she brings her food from afar. She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and portions for her maidens.
— Proverbs 31:14-15

The dining table was draped with a festive Christmas tablecloth, and set with fine china and crystal, but my kitchen was a wreck.

Potato peels were strewn all over the floor, the butternut squash puree decorated uncharted realms of my kitchen counters, and dirty dishes were piled precariously in the sink. I stood in the midst of it all in my stained sweatshirt, with partially applied make-up. With one eye on the clock, I was cleaning at a feverish pace. I had 30 minutes to go – those critical last moments when the kitchen slave heroically morphs into a gracious hostess.

That’s when the doorbell rang. Like a deer caught in the headlights, I surveyed my options. There was no way to pretend I was ready. “Who in the world shows up a half-hour early to a formal dinner?!” I complained aloud.

Opening the door, I saw two of my smiling guests, their breath evident in the chilly night air. Incredulous, I announced shrilly, “You’re early!”

Their eyes widened with surprise as their smiles shrank. “I’m sorry,” the man began abjectedly. “I, um, thought you said – or, um, I at least heard you say – that it started at six o’clock.”

“No, I said six-thirty!” I replied anxiously, before looking back to the living room. “I suppose you could come in now, but I’d probably put you to work first.”

“No, no – that’s okay,” he said quickly, backing down the sidewalk. “We’ll just drive around and come back in thirty minutes.”

When this couple returned (a safe forty minutes later!), they were greeted by a calm, smiling hostess in clean clothes and immediately ushered into a candlelit room to enjoy the fire by the twinkling Christmas tree. “I’m so sorry about my cranky kitchen maid – she was completely out of line,” I told them. “You just can’t get good help these days!”

Here’s the moral of the story: Don’t make your guests feel guilty when they show up at your door. It’s the opposite of hospitable. (But I bet you guessed that by now.)

If you’ve ever tried entertaining as a single woman, you’ve no doubt felt that same wave of panic moments before your guests arrive. I have yet to successfully balance mingling with my guests and getting a warm, edible meal on the table in a timely way. We often eat at the late hour that fashionable Europeans do. I keep fine-tuning the process, but there’s only so much advance prep I can do with the Bon Appetit recipes I love to cook. I’ll start the cleaning and prep even a day ahead, and still rush around at the last moment. Over the years, however, I’ve learned my priorities needed to be corrected. But when push comes to shove, we’re always better off to be gracious to the guests and cut corners on the food.

The Free-Range Gourmet

Proverbs 31:14-15 shows the effort that the virtuous woman makes to cook: “She is like the ships of the merchant; she brings her food from afar. She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and portions for her maidens.” This wise woman ministers to many others from her home. She “is like the ships of the merchant” – ranging far and wide to obtain what she needs, but her focus is on her home and those who live and even serve there. It is a priority for her, so she rises while it is still dark to feed everyone.

Do you think “food from afar” is a pizza delivery? Do you ever range far and wide to find interesting items to cook – even for yourself? What does your kitchen pantry hold? A few cans of tuna and some cereal, perhaps? You may eat pre-packaged frozen meals when you are alone, but do you ever cook for others? If you were to get married in just a few months, would you have the skills to cook three meals a day every day for your family? Can you cook intuitively or do you have to rely on a recipe for most dishes?

In our microwave society, you can easily feed yourself without much effort. People eat in their cars and at their desks, but rarely at home. It’s not hard to find something to put down our throats as we run from event to event, but that’s not what we see in our wonderful role model. She’s not rummaging around the freezer looking for something to nuke and consume. She’s making an effort because the kitchen table is the heart of the home.

We shouldn’t wait until marriage is on the horizon to cultivate domesticity. In Titus 2:5, we find that older women are to train younger women to be “working at home.” This is one of Scripture’s commands to women. Period. Granted, this passage does assume that most women will be wives, but it also assumes that we need instruction to prepare for that role. We need training to love our husbands and love our children. We need to be taught how to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, and kind, as well as how to be submissive to our husbands. Single women are included in that training. We are to be trained in all aspects, even though we may not be called by God to fill those roles, immediately or ever. In that light, we’re no less exempt from the charge to be working at home than we are from the commands to be self-controlled, pure, or kind.

Home, Sweet Mission Field

Why does Scripture put this emphasis on the home for women? Why does the paragon of feminine virtue in Proverbs 31 invest so much of her time and resources into her home and its residents? Because our homes are a mission field. As Alexander Strauch, author of "The Hospitality Commands," notes:

Lacking sacred temples or a special class of priests, the first-century Christians naturally made the home their base of operations. … Indeed, the first Christian congregations conducted all or most of their meetings in homes because they did not own buildings. This necessitated that some members of the congregation open their homes to provide places in which the church could meet. The home thus became a hub for evangelism and teaching. … For the early Christians, the home was the most natural setting for proclaiming Christ to their families, neighbors, and friends. The same is true today. If you and/or your local church are looking for ways to evangelize, opening your home is one of the best methods for reaching the lost. Most of us, however, are not using our homes as we should to reach our neighbors, friends, and relatives. Tragically, many of us don’t even know our neighbors. Yet through hospitality, we can meet our neighbors and be a lighthouse in spiritually dark neighborhoods.

In fact, our ministry through our homes is so important that women are included in all four of the major “hospitality commands” in the New Testament:

  • Romans 12:13, written to all in the church at Rome, says: “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.”

  • 1 Timothy 5:9-10 is specifically written about widows who seek the charitable support of the church: “Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work.”

  • Hebrews 13:2 commands all believers, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

  • 1 Peter 4:9 was written to persecuted Christians scattered throughout Asia Minor: “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.”

Did you ever think of your home as an outpost for your church? You can use your home for a variety of ministry purposes – from inviting newcomers to lunch after the church service, to inviting your neighbors over for a Bible study, to celebrating milestones with your friends over dinner. Though it might be a little bit more work to do this as a single woman, it’s quite possible to do – and let’s not forget, it’s fun. There’s an immediate reward for hospitality in the relaxed smiles of our guests and their appreciation of our generosity.
  
People, Not Presentation

This Greek word in 1 Peter 4:9 for “hospitality” is philoxenos, which means “fond of guests.” Not fond of Martha Stewart ambition, a Town & Country room, or a gourmet meal. Fond of guests – even those who arrive a half-hour early! Though home design shows are everywhere on cable TV now, and our houses are getting bigger while the occupants are getting fewer, our culture is about entertainment, not hospitality. That’s why I selected the opening illustration that I did, and wrote: “If you’ve ever tried entertaining as a single woman, you’ve no doubt felt that same wave of panic moments before your guests arrive.” I suspect this is universal, but my anxiety is not due to my concern about the people coming. It’s because I’m worried about my presentation. I want the kitchen to be spotless, the candles to be lit, the flatware to be gleaming, the music to be inviting, and the aromas to be enticing. The reason I shooed my guests away that cold December evening was because I wasn’t ready for the inspection of my presentation. I was overcommitted because I wanted to impress them with an elaborate four-course meal from Bon Appetit. I wanted to entertain them, but I wasn’t acting like I was fond of them.

Cultivating a love for the home means acquiring practical skills and training so that you can intentionally make your home a mission field, not a museum nor a crash pad. If you’re single and live by yourself, this means all your ministry will be to those who live outside your house. If you’re single and have roommates, this means you minister to your roommates and to those outside your home. If you’re a parent, this means your mission field is first in your home to your children and then to those outside your home. It takes some effort and forethought to do this, especially if you’re only home a few hours out of every day. Romans 12:13 tells us to “seek to show hospitality.” The NIV translates it as “practice hospitality.” But the original Greek is better rendered “strive for” or “pursue” hospitality. Again, as the author of "The Hospitality Commands" writes:
      
Thus we are to actively pursue, promote, and aspire to hospitality. We are to think about it, plan for it, prepare for it, pray about it, and seek opportunities to do it. In short, the Romans 12 passage teaches that all Christians are to pursue the practice of hospitality. … Brothers and sisters, allow me to ask you the following questions. Do you eagerly pursue opportunities to practice hospitality, or is it something that you do only on holidays and during special events? Do you understand the important role that hospitality has within the Christian community? Do you see the relationship between brotherly love and hospitality? Beloved, only when we understand that the Spirit of God commands us to practice hospitality will we be adequately motivated to sacrificially open our homes to others.

If that sounds overwhelming, perhaps this little thought will encourage you: Some of the most hospitable women in Scripture were single. Consider the example of Martha and Mary. Their home in the modest village of Bethany was the site of several Bible accounts. We know of at least three occasions when Jesus visited their home – the famous account where Martha is frazzled, the time Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and when He ate at their home just six days before His final Passover. As one commentator notes: “… after Jesus left His natural home at the age of thirty to enter upon His public ministry we do not read of Him returning to it for rest and relaxation. It was to the warm, hospitable home at Bethany to which He retired, for He loved the three who lived in it, Martha, Mary and Lazarus – in this order – which is something we do not read concerning His own brothers and sisters according to the flesh.” Another outstanding example was Lydia (Acts 16:14). She was the first European convert to Christianity, and her home was presumably the gateway to the rest of the continent. 

With Just a Little Bit of Practice …

If you need encouragement to cultivate your domestic skills, let me assure you that I was no Bon Appetit afficionado in my early single years! I lived on happy hour appetizers and fast food. My cooking was so bad that my family called it “fish wads and pudding lumps” – a nickname earned after a spectacularly bad Mother’s Day meal. My apartment looked like New York City when the sanitation engineers go on strike. My home décor was early Goodwill with a touch of Target. No one around me ever talked about home and hearth, so I didn’t give my lack any particular thought.

When I became a Christian, I noticed how much effort the ladies I knew put into their homes. Candles in the bathrooms! Real linen napkins! Matching dinner dishes! I felt like an anthropologist in a foreign culture. But it inspired me to do the same. In short order, I was buying furniture and clipping recipes. After a few years, I was bold enough to even throw elegant dinner parties for my pastors and their wives, which I enjoyed doing immensely.

If you want to grow in your hospitality or domesticity skills, here are a number of practical issues you can consider:

  • This is a great opportunity to pursue an “older woman” in the Titus 2 mentoring model. Consider the women around you. Whose homes do you enjoy visiting? Whose hospitality has blessed you? Ask these women to show you how they do it! Don’t be shy to ask for training. It’s honoring to these women that you want to emulate their examples.

  • Start small. Have friends over for coffee or tea, and conversation. It’s not the meal you provide that makes a memory, it’s the focus on your guests. Sometimes it’s a lot easier to do that than when you don’t have an elaborate meal planned.

  • If you’re not a great cook, practice.  I bet you’ll find many supportive friends who would willingly consume your practice! A great basic cookbook to have is "The Joy of Cooking." It removes the mystery to cooking. I like "The New Basics Cookbook" for the same reason. It’s also fun to take cooking classes with your friends, especially classes about international cuisine.

  • Don’t be afraid to select patterns for your daily dishes or fine china. It’s not a jinx! If the Lord gives you a husband, he might like what you already have. If not, you’ll have fun selecting a pattern together. I chose a china pattern years ago, and my friends generously gave me select pieces at various times. Now I have place settings for ten. People enjoy knowing what you collect.

  • If you live with roommates, consider cooking for your household on a rotating basis. I have a set of friends who live in a townhouse they’ve nicknamed “The Abbey.” Each week, one of the ladies cooks for the rest. Though their different work schedules often prevent them from eating together, they’ve agreed to set aside Monday Family Nights as a household priority — a time when they eat together and catch up on the news of the week. They also regularly plan for hospitalities.

  • If you live with your family, offer to be responsible for the family meals on certain days. My friend Mindy makes dinner once a week for her family — a blessing to her mother.

  • If you’ve moved around a lot and feel like no place is home, consider buying a home. Again, it’s not a jinx! You can always sell it if you get married, and your profits will certainly bless your husband. Owning a home is usually a wise financial investment and it allows you to put down some roots and combat that lonely tumbleweed feeling. Often it is the only way you’ll be able to create a guest room, too.

  • Create a memento of your guests. Some people use guest books; I take photographs. I have photo displays of most of the people who have been at my home. They are a useful diversion for my current guests when I’m caught in the kitchen!

  • Let your pastors know that you are willing to host visitors. I know a single woman in Wales who has had numerous people from the States (and possibly other countries) in her home. Allyson cheerfully tours the same Welsh landmarks and tourist hotspots with most of her guests, cooks for them, and laughs lots with them. She seemingly knows everyone in my international church network because of her hospitality!

  • Team up to pull off larger events. My former roommate and I used to trade off being the “kitchen slave” (our joking term) for each other’s dinner parties. Or share your resources. I once threw a formal New Year’s Eve party at one man’s house because it was large enough to accommodate everyone. He supplied the house and I supplied the party.

  • Finally, don’t forget to show hospitality to those who cannot repay you, for in this way you will be emulating your Lord and following His command (Luke 14:12-14).

When I hosted that infamous Christmas dinner party, I invited three couples to thank them for their friendship and investment in my life. All three couples were members of my church, and greatly invested in the church’s ministry. Two of the men were my pastors. All three of the women were busy mothers with children ranging from pre-school to high school.  Each of them was notable for the amount of time and service they poured into other people. So I counted it a great privilege that I could invite them all over for an evening where they were served. If any thought it was odd to be invited to the home of a single woman, there was no evidence of it. All of them accepted eagerly, and remarked repeatedly that they had a great time. If any thought it was uncomfortable to seat seven people, and not an even six, at the table, they gave no indication of it. Instead, they each seemed delighted to receive hospitality – even when one couple encountered the “cranky kitchen maid”! What a joy it was to use my home to gather together these friends and co-laborers in the Kingdom for a holiday dinner.

Ladies, may we never fear odd numbers around our tables, for our Lord is always with us. And may He richly reward us as we “contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality” (Romans 12:13).


Adapted from "Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye? Trusting God with a Hope Deferred" by Carolyn McCulley.  © 2004 by Carolyn McCulley. Published by Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois.  Used by permission.

Carolyn McCulley works for  Sovereign Grace Ministries in church and ministry relations.  She is also an author ( "Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye? Trusting God with a Hope Deferred") and blogger (solofemininity.blogs.com).  Carolyn is also a member of Covenant Life Church where one of her favorite ministries is the single women's discipleship program.  She highly recommends the resources for singles from the New Attitude conference and blog.