What Does it Mean to Be a Woman if You’re Not a Wife?
- Bronwyn Lea Contributing Writer
- 2021 13 May
Remember the song Que Sera, Sera where the little girl dreams of what her future will be? My girlhood was populated with visions of the future, and while they might have varied in location (Paris? Narnia? Or the little suburb I lived in?), one feature was consistent: there would be a wedding, and I would be a wife. If anything, marriage (and motherhood) were the clearest indicators that I would no longer be a girl, but a woman. How do you know when you’re an adult? Is it the ability to vote? Or drink? Or graduating from college or high school? In the absence of a bat mitzvah or some other single compelling cultural rite of passage to indicate attaining adulthood, becoming a wife may seem about the strongest evidence one might get.
But what about women who don’t marry? The number of single Christians in the church is increasing, and many of these find it increasingly hard to find a place to belong as adults. “Church feels like a married people’s club,” is something I’ve heard from many unmarried Christians. Western church culture prefers and prioritizes married couples, leaving unmarried Christians feeling they’re on the margins of church life. If your youth group years were spent learning about dating-with-a-view-toward-marriage, what happens if marriage doesn’t happen but you’ve long outgrown youth group?
Christian teaching on adult relationships and sexuality (if it happens at all) is geared towards husbands and wives, and there’s a glaring blind spot for single adults. Unmarried people have legitimate needs for physical touch and relational connection, but these remain unacknowledged or unaddressed by many if we limit our thinking on adult relationships to marriage. Unmarried women can easily be overlooked and underestimated by the church; their gifts and talents underdeveloped if they don’t fall into the neat pigeonholes of wifely and motherly service. And the church suffers as a result.
A closer look at Scripture invites us to revisit two mistakes we’re in danger of making in this area.
Overemphasizing the nuclear family, and underemphasizing the family of God.
God created families, and marriage and children are rightly considered to be his good idea for humanity. However, these relationships have historically been woven into a far broader pattern in the fabric of society. In the Old Testament (and still in much of the world today), extended family groups lived and worked in close proximity. The New Testament “household” we see described in Colossians and Ephesians was similarly far bigger than the mom-dad-and-two-and-a-half-kids vision of the mid-twentieth century. In fact, for most of history, the “nuclear family” based on one husband-wife pair being independent and on their own wasn’t really even a thing. There were always other relatives in the mix. Both history and scripture challenge us to rethink our expectations and assumptions that the tight inner circle of the nuclear family is a good way (much less the best way or only way!) to live.
Rather than focusing primarily on the nuclear family, those belonging to Jesus are invited to focus on the family of God: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” asked Jesus in Mark 3:33. Looking at the crowd of disciples seated around him, he answered his own question: “Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:34-35). Jesus honored his family of origin from birth to death (see John 19:26-27), but his focus was on his brothers and sisters by faith (Hebrews 2:11-12).
The New Testament addresses us as adelphoi—brothers and sisters—more than 135 times; most of these in the context of instruction on how we are to live together and love one another well. God our Father wants us to do more than just “be nice”. “Let us do good to all people,” advises Galatians 6:10, “especially to those belong to the family of believers.” Our family in Christ needs special attention and care, and this is true whether we have wedding rings on or not.
Overemphasizing bedroom sexuality, and underemphasizing everyday womanhood
The very first thing I learned about my unborn baby was that she was a girl. At our twenty-week ultrasound, our Ukrainian technician pointed to the fuzzy image on the screen and decoded the sonar for us: “it is girl” she proclaimed.
Our maleness and femaleness lies at the core of our being, from (before) birth to death. We were created in God’s image, male and female. In other words, there is no way for me to be human without being female. Female sexuality isn’t activated like a magic button on a wedding day: it’s woven into our DNA. God created us with intrinsic sexuality. Our bodies are not like Amazon boxes: disposable and recyclable packages transporting the really valuable spiritual contents inside. Our bodily packaging is an integral part of the gift. We need reminding that when God created men and women in bodies, he called it good. Our maleness and femaleness—wrapped in bone, muscle, nerves, sex organs, and skin—is “very good” in his sight.
This matters a great deal in a world where messaging to women and about women often has to do with how women’s bodies look and how they work when it comes to childbearing and breastfeeding. But Scripture affirms the goodness of bodies—all female bodies—no matter how they look and whether or not their breasts ever delight a man or feed a child.
Sexuality in the bible is concerned with much more than what happens between a husband and a wife when they’re naked. Sexuality is about us, as men and women made in God’s image, living with and loving the men and women around us in every sphere of life. Adam and Eve were showing they were made in God’s image as man and woman not just when they were naked and unashamed being “fruitful and multiplying”, but when also as they were working in the garden, preparing meals, naming the animals, and talking with God at the end of the day.
Jesus, the second Adam, invites us to live as unashamed men and women all the time, even if clothes are now de rigeur this side of Eden.
This truth brought such joy and freedom to my friend Carrie when she realized it meant she didn’t need a husband and lingerie to “feel like a natural woman,” as Carole King sang. She belongs to a family even if she never walks down an aisle in white. She can be a whole woman—fully female—as a single person in her workplace, watching movies with friends, taking an art class, or serving on a mission trip. And she can wear red lipstick for the sheer joy of celebrating being a woman.
Whether or not one ever becomes a wife, God says being a woman is very good in his sight. Let’s be people who celebrate God’s good gift of womanhood.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/splendens
Bronwyn Lea is the author of Beyond Awkward Side Hugs: Living as Brothers and Sisters in a Sex-Crazed World. She and her husband are from South Africa but now live in Northern California, where they and their three kids count their church community as family. Find out more at www.bronlea.com.