Complementarianism and Singleness

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I want to engage a little bit further on the question of complementarianism and its implications for church life.  I want to pick up particularly on a question raised by someone on twitter  which was to the affect of “what does complementarianism have to say to single people?” They used themselves as an example, they stated that they were aged 60, single and childless. Their perception of complementarianism was that those who hold to it are cagey about its implications because it in effect subjugates young working single women under the headship of married men.

Well on one level, my first response is to say that complementarianism has nothing directly to say to single people in so far as it is dealing with issues about marriage relationships.  You see, complementarianism is simply a label, an umbrella term if you like for an interpretation and application of some specific Bible passages.  It is not the sum total of what I believe or teach, it is simply convenient short hand for my understanding of Genesis 2 and Ephesians 5 regarding marriage and 1 Timothy, Titus and 1 Corinthians 11 in terms of church leadership.  There is therefore much more to be said about our life together as part of the church than what those Bible passages have to say. 

However, on an other level, it is extremely relevant and has much to say because God’s Word is relevant to all of us, even if through more indirect routes at times.  So, for example I think it is important that single people are present from sermons on Ephesians 5 in order to know what God’s Word says about marriage, just as it is important for those of us without children to hear sermons on Ephesians 6. There are two important practical reasons for this.

  1. As a Christian without children I want to be better informed about what the Bible says to those with children so I can support them and pray for them. Similarly, I want those who are married to hear what the Bible has to say to single people in 1 Corinthians 7. So, likewise I want those who are unmarried to be informed of what the Bible says about marriage to be better friends to those who are married.
  2. I believe that marriage is given as a good thing not just for the couple but for the wider society and so one of the best things that married couples can do for single people in the church is ensure that they have healthy marriages. 

Furthermore, there is relevance because Paul is keen in Ephesians 5 to emphasise that he doesn’t just want us to see earthly marriages in our teaching but to see that he is pointing us towards Christ’s relationship to the church.  That’s why I think it is so crucial that we get it right and why I am a complementarian because complementarianism in my opinion gives the best fit for how we talk about that relationship between Christ and his bride.  So, what is the application of Ephesians 5 to a single person? Well, it is meant to be a deeper understanding of and appreciation for what Christ has done for them and the right response to that. We all, whether single or married need to know that Christ is the head of the church, that he has loved us, giving his life for us and we are called to submit to him in reverence as we are united to him.

This is important because it relates in to another spin off conversation I had, this time on Facebook in response to my articles looking at church leadership from the perspective of church as family/household. In that article, I argued that church families need “mothers” as well as “fathers.”  What I was doing there was using the household analogy to get us thinking more about life in the church together.

Someone asked me whether elders’ wives might play that role in some church cultures. My response was that “Yes, they possibly could but we should not assume that they should or would or that it was down to them alone. I gave three reasons for this.

  • First, there is the risk of creating an unofficial hierarchy. I shared the example of an OM team member who was part of our church for a while. They were from a deference culture but began being able to engage directly with me and other church leaders. However, when they returned back to their home church they were quickly put in their place, as a young woman she was to always defer not just to the pastor but to the pastor’s wife.  Her gifts were silenced in order to serve a hierarchy.
  • Second, there is the risk here that informal conversations between husbands and wives end up subverting the decisions made by leaders together which hinders plural leadership and removes transparency.
  • Third because we need to recognise the place of single men who are called into leadership as elders and deacons and the place and role of single women. Indeed, I want to suggest that some of the most wonderful church “mums” have been single women who haven’t had physical children but have been spiritual mums to many.

So, what does complementarianism have to say to single people? Well on the one hand it looks like nothing. However on the other hand as part of the whole package of Biblical application it should encourage each of us to see and to enjoy the wonder of our relationship to Christ and our relationship to one another in the church so that each can flourish in their gifts for the benefit of each other and the glory of the Gospel.