All the single ladies?

I’ve written before about how men in the church should talk to and shouldn’t talk to and about women.  Sadly, there was a horrific example of how not to talk about women in an interview between Doug Wilson and Michael Foster posted recently online.

The conversation is primarily about singleness but I want to pick up on how it particularly focused on single women.  Let’s highlight a couple of things that Foster says. First, he comments about single women that:

“These women will wake up in their 40s and 50s and be lonely”

He goes on to add that:

“I’ve done ministry with people in their 60s and 70s, old women who are widows and they don’t have kids and I can’t give them enough attention. …‘I’m spending more time with you than I am with anyone.’ It’s because they have all this love to give that should be focused on their grandchildren and helping their daughters and helping all that stuff. There’s going to be all these women in the church who won’t have anything.”

I want you to notice a few things here.  First of all, there’s the suspect theology here. Notice how singleness is attached to loneliness.  As people like Christopher Ash have helpfully pointed out, in Genesis 2, when God talks about the “not good” of Adam being “alone”, the issue there is not loneliness, it’s about being alone in the context of God’s calling, blessing and commissioning. Adam needs a helper, like and fit for him who will partner with him in the commission of stewarding creation by filling and subduing it in obedient worship to God. It is theologically ignorant and pastorally insensitive to connect singleness to loneliness and to set up marriage as a cure for it.

Secondly, notice how he then defines the goods of marriage and the absence of those goods. He claims that if a woman doesn’t get married, then she will end up with nothing.  This links to a particular theological perspective coming out of that stable that singleness is not only “not a gift” but is in fact “an affliction.”

So, here, we see that the questionable theology is rooted in poor exegesis.  Wilson, Foster and others are insisting that in 1 Corinthians 7, that it isn’t singleness that is the gift but rather celibacy.  Yet, when you look at 1 Corinthians 7, Paul talks in terms of a gift in relation to his own context. He states that he wished that others can be as he is. The gift to him is not some mystical ability not to suffer sexual temptation, rather, it is that his circumstances mean that he is able to focus on aspects of ministry that he would not be able to if married.

Now, this is important because we at times risk romanticising the gift of singleness and the gift of marriage. If I think that someone is given the gift of celibacy, magically melting away temptation and frustration, then I’m also likely to falsely believe that those who are married are magically relieved of temptations, irritations and frustrations.

At one point in the video, Wilson describes how young men come to him and say “I have the gift of celibacy.” He then asks if they use pornography (it’s concerning that he seems to assume that they will be using it) and when they say yes, he tells them that they do not have the gift of celibacy. Now consider this. If the person was married, would you then say to them “ah well you cannot have the gift of marriage”?  Would you suggest that if they had an argument with their wife that this also threw into question their “gift” or what if they left the toilet seat up and squeezed the toothpaste from the middle.  No, we recognise that it is the marriage itself which is the gift and the question is whether they are going to be faithful in their receipt and enjoyment of the gift.  I would suggest that in the same way, celibacy is not the gift, it is the way in which someone is faithful to the gift of singleness.

My third concern with Foster’s interactions concerning single women is his attitude towards them which is nothing less than demeaning, arrogant, offensive, rude.  Consider how he talks about these older women. There’s a harsh mocking tone. He belittles them. He thinks the worst of them.  There’s the arrogant narcissistic attitude there of a man who sees himself as at the centre of their lives – look at all the attention they need from me. In 1 Timothy 5:1-3, we are told to honour and respect older men and women:

Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity. Honor widows who are truly widows.

Foster’s, attitude falls far short of that.  In fact, what he does with 1 Timothy 5 is to brutally manipulate and distort it to say things that it does not. 1 Timothy 5 isn’t saying that women must get married. It simply observes that a younger widow may desire to marry again (v11-12). Instead of welcoming the gift of women who have time and love to give to those needy members of the church family, Foster despises the women and despises the gift.

Notice too, the negative attitude to what these women have to offer. He says that they should have given their love to their children and grandchildren.  Given that the women described are “widows”.  The issue for them hasn’t presumably been singleness but infertility. What a graceless and unloving attitude to people who are unable to have children. But further, there are women in his church, gifted by God to the church who are free to serve, who don’t have their own children and grandchildren but do have much love to give. I would presume and hope that also in the church will be young women whose own parents are not around, teenagers without grandparents,

A little further on, he comments:

“There’s soon going to be a church full of old spinsters because men didn’t have the guts to love them and to say ‘no baby, I think you can do better than this because you’re not likeable.’ Or if they are really bold ‘you should get in better shape.’ I told my son the other day, I was like ‘you’re getting a little tubby.’ And I was like ‘I’m married. You’re not. Stop it.”

Now, notice the selfish hypocrisy here. “I don’t have to worry about my own appearance or fitness because I’ve already got what I want.” There’s no concern here for what is healthy and good, there’s no thought as to how his wife might feel about his attitude to his own appearance -and dare I say his character as well? 

Notice too, the objectivization of women. They are there to look attractive in the eyes of men. Why? So that they will be appealing to them, so those men will marry them, find that their sexual appetites are met in the church and not stray off to apparently become Muslims.  Again, do you hear the disrespect and dishonour to older women in the phrase “a church full of old spinsters…” 

Perhaps even more disturbing than the conversation was what happened when people challenged Foster and Wilson. Now, when I as a man challenged them, I was simply ignored but when a woman, Danielle Treweek wrote an open letter challenging them then the response on social media was to mock her, attack her and belittle her with disparaging comments about her as a person, her qualifications, role and her church.  Danielle is a better person than I would be in such a situation and laughed it off.  Yet sadly, I fear it is because she has had to develop a thick skin against such kinds of behaviour. Yet let’s be clear, the name calling, the personal attacks, the outright slander she was subjected to is nothing short of abuse and bullying.

Here is just one example:

What the video and the follow on comments from Foster and his allies reflect is a toxic, anti-Gospel culture where God’s teaching on how men should relate to women is flagrantly disobeyed.  If this kind of conversation happened in a church where I was a member or leader, then I would expect it to result first of all in a firm pastoral rebuke with those involved. If they continued to persist in the behaviour and/or refused to repent then it would be a matter of church discipline.

The video is not an example of godly pastoral leadership. It is not even, as I think the participants would like to pretend, simply an example of a provocative discussion. No, this is the kind of coarse and foolish conversation Scripture condemns. It is about oafish bullies mishandling God’s Word and causing hurt and harm to others.

Now, it is unlikely that Foster or Wilson will even see or respond to what I’ve said here. However, I can write to brothers in Christ that I know and appeal to us that we do better, that we don’t get drawn in by such terrible examples. That we learn to love and to value our sisters in Christ, those who are single and those who are married.

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