Category Archives: On the Care and Feeding of Spinsters

On the Care and Feeding of Spinsters, Part 5: The So-Called Gift

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unwanted gift 2The Bible nowhere speaks of a “gift of singleness,” but this has become common parlance in recent decades. Singleness is a gift only in the sense that something like chronic illness is a gift—we can trust that hard providences come from the Father’s hand and that He will use them for our good and for His glory. But that doesn’t magically turn afflictions into rosy times.

The Bible does speak of a giftedness for celibacy, though it doesn’t use those words. Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 7 (bold for emphasis is mine):

1It is good for a man not to touch a woman. 2Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband…. 6But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment. 7For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that.

See here Paul is noting that a special giftedness is needed to remain celibate, and that it was a gift that he himself had.

8But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; 9but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

And here we see the nature of the gift—that it is a superabundance of self-control. And it is by no means a common thing. Being single doesn’t mean you have the gift of celibacy any more than being in Latin class means you have the gift of tongues.

Now we go on to look a bit at the context in which Paul is urging those who do have this gift to exercise it:

25 Now concerning virgins: I have no commandment from the Lord; yet I give judgment as one whom the Lord in His mercy has made trustworthy. 26I suppose therefore that this is good because of the present distress—that it is good for a man to remain as he is: 27Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28But even if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. Nevertheless such will have trouble in the flesh, but I would spare you.

In the face of impending persecution, life is going to be far more difficult for those who have family responsibilities. Doug Wilson writes,

It is one thing to be told that if you don’t deny Christ you will be thrown to the lions. It is another to be told that if you don’t deny Christ you, your wife, and three little children will be thrown to the lions. But this emergency situation was just a temporary one; the “time is short” (v. 29). Reasoning by analogy, we can conclude that the same counsel is good for comparable situations down throughout the history of the church. But even then, even in times of impending persecution, the encumbrances and cares of marriage are to be preferred to trap of fornication (v. 2).[1]

We are not in an analogous time. No one should be urging anybody to remain celibate, especially in a culture where the temptation to sin is so pervasive. Of course there are places in our world today where severe persecution is happening, and a call to celibacy might be in order. But as for 21st century America, show me a man with the gift of celibacy, and I’ll show you a man who, like Paul, is called to life-threatening missionary service. I believe that sort of man is who Jesus is referring to in Matthew 19:11-12:

11But He said to them, “All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given: 12For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it.”

Notice how similar this is to what Paul said—this isn’t for everyone.

I also want to draw attention briefly to the celibacy of Jesus Himself. Some might conclude that men should emulate Jesus by staying single, but step back and remember what He came for—to find and free and save and sanctify a bride for Himself. His example is of premarital celibacy. While this passage is mostly addressing men, and their self-control must be significantly greater to endure celibacy, it can be pretty maddening for unmarried women, too, especially in a hypersexualized culture.

APPLICATION

1) I’ve said that protracted singleness is analogous to a chronic illness. How would you serve a chronically ill friend? You’d sympathize with her, though not in a way that encourages her to wallow in misery. You’d pray for her. As wanted and appropriate, you’d help her get access to effective care and healing. Likewise, help spinsters connect with potential suitors.

2) A little more on how to pray: you wouldn’t just pray that a sick friend would be content in her suffering; you’d pray that she’d be delivered from it, right? As you’d pray for healing for your sick friends, pray for spouses for your unmarried friends, not merely for contentment. What would the rest of your prayers sound like if you came at them with that attitude? “Dear Lord, please bless Sadie Schnickelfritz, who just got diagnosed with somethingorotherosis. Make her content with her pain and slow descent into death. And bless the Christians in Killemallistan. Make them content as they face torture and slaughter for Your sake. And bless Aloysius Arbuthnot, who has been out of work for six months. Make his family content with their new home in their ’83 Chevette.” Of course you wouldn’t pray like that. You’d pray for healing for the sick, deliverance for the persecuted, and provision for the poor. You might pray for contentment on top of that, but you wouldn’t pray merely for contentment.

Note: I once had my head taken off for analogizing singleness and cancer. If you are experiencing a ruffling sensation in your feathers, please make an effort to understand my analogy: I am not saying that the suffering of singleness is the exactly the same as the suffering of acute illness or violent persecution or anything along those lines. I’m saying that our response to any hardship should have the same basic outline: a) prayer by and for the ones afflicted and b) efforts by and on behalf of them to alleviate their trouble.

I’d also love to see those who pray publicly in church including prayers for the unmarried in their midst. By my most conservative calculations, I’ve attended over 1,700 services of worship in my life. If I counted the number of prayers I’ve heard for singles in those services, I don’t think I’d make it above double digits. And of those times, maybe a grand total of two or three prayers were for spouses rather than just for contentment and purity.

4) Women who have been previously married or previously sexually active will have an even tougher time with celibacy, so show them particular compassion and keep a particularly sharp eye out for opportunities to help them along the way to marriage or remarriage as appropriate.

5) Encourage single men you know to be like Jesus by getting out there and finding a woman to lovingly lead, protect, and provide for as her husband.


[1]Touching a Woman and the Present Distress

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Other posts in this series (I’ll add links as I post them):

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Jephthah’s Daughter

Part 3: The Little Sister

Part 4: The Widow and the Orphan

Part 6: He Sets the Lonely in Families

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On the Care and Feeding of Spinsters, Part 4: The Widow and the Orphan

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James 1:27

Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.

“Orphan” is sometimes translated “fatherless,” and that is most accurate in most places. We can see in some places that fatherlessness is clearly intended:

Exodus 22:24

and My wrath will become hot, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless.

Obviously a man can’t leave a widow and orphans if “orphan” means without either parent.

Job 24:9

“Some snatch the fatherless from the breast,
And take a pledge from the poor.

Obviously a completely parentless child can’t be nursing from his mother.

Throughout Scripture we see widows and orphans paired together and held up as the epitome of those who are particularly vulnerable and therefore in need of particular care and attention. But this is not so much because they lack means as that they lack men. In that time and culture of course that also meant they had very limited access to means, but in all times and cultures it means they are vulnerable and need protection.

Fatherlessness is rampant in our world—and not just for those whose fathers have died. Divorce, abandonment, abuse, and neglect have made orphans of many. And while both sons and daughters suffer from father hunger, as fatherless boys grow up to become men, they become protectors themselves,[1] but as fatherless girls grow up, they will have the same vulnerability that widows have without male protection.

Jim Wilson says, “A woman was made by God to be loved, protected, provided for, and made secure.”[2] All women will experience some degree of insecurity, and we must all ultimately seek to have that need fulfilled in Christ. But the Bible’s directive to the stronger is to have compassion on the weaker, so the church’s response to widows and the fatherless of any age should take the form of meaningful assistance.

APPLICATION

Thumbing over to the next chapter of James we read in verses 15 and 16, “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?” A few years ago I wrote a little verse paraphrasing that passage:

Go in peace, be warm and be fed
Without any blankets, without any bread,
Without anyplace to lay down your head.
Be so well provisioned you’ll soon be quite dead.

The church must not dismiss single women’s need for protection as a merely spiritual matter, but recognize it as a practical need. We must not buy into the feminist lie that insists that “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” There are some ways in which the church shepherds, in particular, can play a protective role, especially in regard to courtship. And the church should help unmarried women fulfill their need for a husband just as the church would help a naked or destitute brother or sister find the things that are needful for the body and not just send them off with a wish.

And there are other practical, brotherly ways that men in the church can care for unmarried women—moving furniture, helping out with car issues, and things of that nature. These are all examples, of course. They are not prescriptions, but illustrations of a principle.

Another principle that needs to be mentioned here, ever so gently, is Don’t be stupid. This sort of brotherly help, if done carelessly, runs the risk of turning into something other than brotherly. After 9/11, many New York firemen came forward to help the widows of their comrades who had died at the Towers. And within a couple of years, a number of them had abandoned their own wives and children to marry the widows![3] You can see how it happened, can’t you? A lonely, grieving woman; a man whose own wife doesn’t understand the impact of the tragedy as well as this widow does; big, strong help that makes her feel cherished; vulnerable gratitude that makes him feel respected…and then disaster.

Again, don’t let fear of this sort of thing keep you from helping, but don’t let foolishness make you careless in the way you help.


[1] This is simplistic, of course, as fatherlessness is a tremendous hindrance to boys’ maturation, but that issue is outside my scope here.

[2] James I. Wilson, How to Be Free from Bitterness (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 1995), p. 59

[3] “Firemen Divorce for 9/11 Widows”
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Other posts in this series (I’ll add links as I post them):

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Jephthah’s Daughter

Part 3: The Little Sister

Part 5: The So-Called Gift

Part 6: He Sets the Lonely in Families

On the Care and Feeding of Spinsters, Part 3: The Little Sister

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Song of Solomon 8:8-9

We have a little sister,
And she has no breasts.
What shall we do for our sister
In the day when she is spoken for?
If she is a wall,
We will build upon her
A battlement of silver;
And if she is a door,
We will enclose her
With boards of cedar.

These brothers have a clear sense of responsibility for their sister. They’re planning ahead for the day when she will be of marriageable age. They foresee two scenarios: She may be a wall, that is, she may have a closed, reserved, character, or she may be a door, having a more open, inviting nature. In both cases, they foresee the need to defend and protect her.

If she’s a wall, they want to build a battlement (a protective tower) of silver. Silver’s not a typical first choice for military architecture, but what they’re defending her from is being overlooked. So they beautify her, promote her, make her more attractive. They know all of her good qualities, and they want to make sure the rest of the world knows about them, too.

If she’s a door, they want to barricade her with planks of cedar. Cedar is a beautiful and valuable and fragrant wood, so they’re not uglifying her, but they are protecting her from unworthy suitors in a way that honors her.

APPLICATION

For unmarried women, especially those who don’t have a protective family, there are practical ways the church can play the part of the brothers. Much of that role will fall to the elders, who can play the in loco parentis role in vetting suitors, but other folks can help, too. First, be discerning enough to know what kind of sister she is—a wall or a door. If she’s a wall, she could likely use some matchmaking help. Some folks from this congregation have been instrumental in making a few “love connections.” Keep up the good work! Most women in situations of protracted singleness are probably in this category. Be their fan club to cheer about them. Be their agent to promote them. If she’s a door, she might need a bit of caution about how some lunkheads are reading her outgoing personality, and the lunkheads might need to be told to back off.

A couple of cautions: 1) I don’t think either of these personality types is intended to fall under our criticism–there’s nothing wrong with being either a “wall” or a “door”–but they will need different kinds of protection. 2) There’s a fine line between being helpful and being a busybody, so proceed carefully, but don’t let the fear of getting it wrong keep you from acting at all. That would be burying your talent rather than investing it.

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Other posts in this series (I’ll add links as I post them):

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Jephthah’s Daughter

Part 4: The Widow and the Orphan

Part 5: The So-Called Gift

Part 6: He Sets the Lonely in Families

On the Care and Feeding of Spinsters, Part 2: Jephthah’s Daughter

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The first passage I want to consider may seem to be an odd choice, but that’s largely due to a poor translation that appears in most English Bibles. The story of Jephthah appears in Judges 11:

29 Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh, and passed through Mizpah of Gilead; and from Mizpah of Gilead he advanced toward the people of Ammon. 30 And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord…

Let’s stop there for a moment and note that all of the things in this list were done by Jephthah under the influence of the Spirit. There is no indication that he was acting rashly or speaking foolishly.

30 And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If You will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, 31 then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.”

And there we have the muffed translation. “Burnt offering” would be more accurately rendered “ascension offering.” Although at some places in Scripture, ascension offerings were burnt offerings, the word does not necessarily imply burning. Other sacrifices were burnt, but the special thing about the ascension offering was that it was given wholly to Yahweh. Nobody else got a portion; it all went straight up to the Lord. So Jephthah isn’t vowing to burn anything, he’s vowing to entirely dedicate something to God. Joel Garver writes, “‘I will offer up as a burnt offering’ could as easily be translated as ‘I will send up as something sent up,’ that is, up to the tabernacle.” [1]

32 So Jephthah advanced toward the people of Ammon to fight against them, and the Lord delivered them into his hands. 33 And he defeated them from Aroer as far as Minnith—twenty cities—and to Abel Keramim, with a very great slaughter. Thus the people of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel.

34 When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, there was his daughter, coming out to meet him with timbrels and dancing; and she was his only child. Besides her he had neither son nor daughter. 35 And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he tore his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low! You are among those who trouble me! For I have given my word to the Lord, and I cannot go back on it.”

36 So she said to him, “My father, if you have given your word to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, because the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the people of Ammon.” 37 Then she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: let me alone for two months, that I may go and wander on the mountains and bewail my virginity, my friends and I.”

38 So he said, “Go.” And he sent her away for two months; and she went with her friends, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. 39 And it was so at the end of two months that she returned to her father, and he carried out his vow with her which he had vowed. She knew no man.

Notice it doesn’t say she was dead, it just says she was a virgin.

And it became a custom in Israel 40 that the daughters of Israel went four days each year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.

OK…that was a fairly long journey to get to the main point: perpetual virginity is something to be grieved. To face the rest of her life without hope of being a wife or mother was simply devastating to Jephthah’s daughter. And key to her grieving was the presence of her friends, who grieved with her, “weeping with those who weep.”

Unfortunately, there are few in the church today who consider perpetual virginity all that big a deal, and fewer still who are willing to enter into the grief of unmarried women. For Jephthah’s daughter, the future was clear—she would never share a man’s bed or tuck his children into theirs. Perhaps that decisive clarity helped her to put a time limit on her grief. But there is no such clear answer for most unmarried women, so as hope waxes and wanes, grief continues to come in occasional waves. Of course singles must not allow this grief to characterize their whole lives, but nor should they be made to feel that they’ve sinned if they ask for a shoulder to cry on every once in a while. (Not a perpetual pity party, mind you.) The church is much too quick to start firing the contentment gun. If “Be content!” is the trigger-happy response to every mention of sadness or hurt or need, it sounds a lot like “Shut up, because I don’t want to have to care.”

APPLICATION

1) Recognize that unwanted protracted celibacy is suffering, and weep with those who weep over that particular suffering.

2) Keep the contentment gun in its holster.


[1] While I can’t remember where I first heard this passage explained, the most succinct list of arguments I’ve found in favor of this reading came from Dr. Joel Garver. This list originally appeared on a private discussion list. I have used it with the author’s permission, and have shortened and slightly edited it for smoother readability:

  • Jephthah’s vow was not a rash vow.
  • The vow was made in the power of the Spirit of Yahweh (Judges 11:29-30; the phrases are all connected by a series of “ands”).
  • The vow is thus to be taken as a prophetic judgment by an empowered judge of Israel (Judges 3:10; 6:34; etc.; Numbers 11:24-29).
  • Vow-taking in general seems appropriate (Genesis 28:18-22; 31:11-13; 1 Samuel 1:11).
  • Vow-taking before battle seems appropriate (Numbers 21:1-3).
  • Jephthah was a man of faith (Judges 11:9, 11, 21, 27, 29; 1 Samuel 12:11; Hebrews 11:32).
  • Jephthah was not a rash man, as seen in his negotiations (Judges 11:7-10; 12-28).
  • Jephthah knew the law (Judges 11:12-27 and Numbers 20-21).
  • Jephthah went on to serve as a judge for six more years despite the vow (Judges 12:7).
  • The vow implies tabernacle service, not human sacrifice.
  • The vow does seem to envisage a human coming “to meet” Jephthah from his “doors.”
  • Human sacrifice was forbidden (Genesis 22; Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10).
  • There is no other indication of human sacrifice in Israel prior to the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6) and those are offered to idols, not Yahweh.
  • Priests and public opinion wouldn’t have allowed literal sacrifice, especially after two months of public mourning in which to put a stop to it (1 Samuel 14:24, 43-45).
  • The essence of the vow was for the person to be “to Yahweh” (Leviticus 27:2 and Judges 11:31)
  • “I will offer up as a burnt offering” could as easily be translated as “I will send up as something sent up,” that is, up to the tabernacle.
  • People were “vowed” to tabernacle service (Numbers 8:14-19; Leviticus 27:1-8; possibly Judges 21:20-24; 1 Samuel 1:11; 2 Samuel 15:8; Psalm 116:14-18).
  • People were vowed to the tabernacle parallel to animal offerings. The description of people vowed to the tabernacle in Leviticus 27:1-8 is precisely parallel to the description of animals vowed as offerings in Leviticus 27:9-13.
  • The bringing of Samuel to the tabernacle is paralleled with the offering of bulls (1 Samuel 1:24-28).
  • The firstborn of Israel—animal and human—belonged to God (Exodus 13:11-15), which meant sacrifice for animals, but religious service for humans (Exodus 24:5; Numbers 8:13-18).
  • The firstborn of Israel were replaced by the Levites with their perpetual tabernacle service (Numbers 8:13-18) and sacrificial terminology (“wave offering”) could be applied metaphorically to the Levites.
  • Women “served” at the tabernacle as consecrated virgins. Exodus 38:8 speaks of women who served at the tabernacle.
  • Their hand-mirrors were used to make the laver of cleansing. This could symbolize their giving up any concern for personal glory or marriage and thus a commitment to celibacy
  • 1 Samuel 2:22 again mentions these women.
  • Eli’s sons sin by “laying with” these women. The aggravated nature of this sin might lie in part in that these women were (to remain) virgins.
  • The violation of the women is connected to the theft of the Ark and the rape of Israel.
  • Judges 21 speaks of the “daughters of Shiloh” where the tabernacle was. These “daughters” are engaged as a group in leading festival worship at the Feast of Booths, thereby indicating a special connection with the tabernacle. They are assumed to be unmarried virgins simply in virtue of being “daughters of Shiloh” (unlike the singling out of “virgins” from non-virgins in 21:11-12).
  • Jephthah’s daughter bewails her virginity. If she were to die, she would have mourned her death.
  • She assumed it was a matter of virginity simply at the mention of being “vowed” to Yahweh.
  • The fulfillment of the vow is explained as “she knew no man” (Judges 11:39).

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Other posts in this series (I’ll add links as I post them):

Part 1: Introduction

Part 3: The Little Sister

Part 4: The Widow and the Orphan

Part 5: The So-Called Gift

Part 6: He Sets the Lonely in Families

On the Care and Feeding of Spinsters, Part 1: Introduction

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In February 2012 I was asked to present some thoughts to the ladies at my church (Christ Reformed Evangelical Church in Annapolis) on how the church can better serve unmarried members. It was a tricky subject, as I wanted to be frank, but also careful not to come across as too self-serving or whiny. I had about thirty minutes to present, and six topics to touch on, so it was quite the rushed spewing of thoughts. Also, some of my thoughts are things I’ve never heard elsewhere, so if they sound crazy…they just might be! I pulled out a quote earlier today to include on my About page, and thought I’d share the rest of my notes with you. I’m going to republish them here in six installments.

ImageSeveral years ago, I was invited to contribute an essay or two to a book on singleness written by singles. The book never came to be, but I kept the essays stashed away in my files. One was entitled, “On the Care and Feeding of Spinsters.” Since it wasn’t published, I’ve plagiarized the title and some of the content, and tweaked a bit, and added a bit more to create these notes.

First, I want to defend my use of the word “spinster.” It just doesn’t sound very nice, does it? It’s too much like sinister, and it evokes the image of a nasty spider setting about to weave a snare. But the etymology of spinster is really quite innocuous. Before the industrial revolution, when thread still had to be spun by hand, the task fell almost exclusively to never-married women. And if that sounds like a terrible, drudgery-filled lot, just remember that everybody had to work very hard in those days just to provide for daily necessities. So I suggest that we reclaim and redeem the word. It speaks of usefulness, productivity and fruitfulness. It portrays a needed and expected role of steady industry. It reminds us of our call to be faithful, diligent servants even when the tasks at hand aren’t very glamorous.

Second, I want to note that this is a two-way street. Several years ago Nancy Wilson wrote on her blog, “I have sometimes told unmarried women to make themselves indispensable” to the church. My reply at the time was, “I’ve been aiming for useful, but indispensable sure has a nicer ring to it!” So…single women need to be about the business of serving the church, which I think is an important thing to say before I go on to talk about how the church can better serve single women. The topic might seem self-serving for me as a single woman to take up, but I was asked to address it, so here I am.

Third, although some of what I have to say will also apply to widowed and divorced women, my main focus will be on never-married women. And just as there are all types of personalities and interests and experiences among single women just as among folks of any status or stage or life, so the details of application will vary greatly. There are as many ways to apply the principles of love as there are people to love, so I’ve tried to paint in broad strokes. It’s up to you to get to know the individual spinsters in your life and figure out the details of how to serve them.

The most important way anyone can help unmarried women is to understand what the Bible has to say about us, and to base any applications on that, rather than going with the cultural flow or holding on to sentimentalism or assumptions. To that end, let’s look at some Scripture.

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I’ll add links to the other parts of the series as I post them:

Part 2: Jephthah’s Daughter

Part 3: The Little Sister

Part 4: The Widow and the Orphan

Part 5: The So-Called Gift

Part 6: He Sets the Lonely in Families