“They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life. And those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him. And the LORD shut him in.” Genesis 7:15-16
We can sometimes be forgiven for thinking or feeling that there is little place in life (and perhaps especially in church) for those who aren’t part of a couple. “Two by two” seems to be rather a mantra in a lot of church families I have known. Single women and men are sometimes seen as subtly undermining the status quo, and if they have chosen to be single, looked upon as rather odd. If on the other hand they are looking for a partner, they can be frowned upon as a distraction or worse still, a threat. I have known attractive single women who have been made to feel very uncomfortable, as though they must watch their step and their dress so as not to upset or tempt any of the males in the congregation.
Widows and widowers may meet with more patience, but are still seen as different, and those who are divorced or separated (often through no fault of their own) can feel so isolated and judged as to feel almost like pariahs. Obviously this is only in extreme cases, but the sense that singleness is not quite right is subtly palpable very often, and probably partly a reflection of the way society urges us all to pair off, partly a natural inclination to want others to be the same as the majority, and partly impressed upon us by teaching from Scripture. And yet, at the same time as celebrating marriage, Scripture is actually tremendously supportive of the single life.
Many great prophets stayed single, as did Jesus of course, and his Apostle, Paul. Paul even tells us that the single life is a superior state (1 Corinthians 7: 32-35). We are told in no uncertain terms to be kind and generous to widows (and widowers by default, we must remember in Biblical times women on their own had no respectable way to support themselves) and God uses and blesses the unmarried just as often as those with spouses. In truth, though we might think of Adam and Eve, and of the animals heading into the ark two by two, there is a greater variety of comings together and fallings apart going on in the Bible, since it is, amongst other things, a history of humanity and the behaviour of God’s people is possibly more often a warning than it is a prescription!
The truth is that every kind of relationship status you can think of is present somewhere in the Bible as it will be with us, and we need to be more realistic about the different forms families can take and less prescriptive about pairing people off. Neatly two by two with the door carefully shut behind us isn’t going to happen, nor is marriage everyone’s ultimate goal.
Perhaps we would do better to embrace and celebrate singleness and family in all its forms and advantages, without perpetuating yet another divide in God’s household. I feel that diversity is something to be welcomed. I know it can feel very challenging to our dualistic mindsets, where some of our comfort and certainty comes from defining ourselves against things, or setting up norms and calling things “other,” but I wonder if part of us all becoming true community means that we need to drop our severe outlines and instead embrace the whole spectrum of what it is to be a human being, loved by grace.
© Keren Dibbens-Wyatt
photo from morguefile