Increased singleness among the North American adult population is bringing increased awareness of the needs and contributions of unmarried people to society. According to 1985 U.S. Census Bureau figures, 40 percent of the U.S. adult population was single as compared to 31 percent in 1975. It has been predicted that this percentage will increase beyond 50 percent by the turn of the century and that society will become single-oriented rather than couple-oriented in the process.
The percentage of Mennonites who are single is somewhat smaller than the population at large. It was reported by Kauffman and Harder in Anabaptists four centuries later (1975) that 27.3 percent of all Mennonite and Brethren in Christ members were single. In the 1982 Mennonite Church census conducted by Michael Yoder, 26 percent of all Mennonite Church adult members were single as compared to 35 percent from 1982 U.S. Census Bureau reports.
Never-married Mennonite women have tended to outnumber never-married Mennonite men. For example, Kauffman and Harder found that of those Mennonites and Brethren in Christ members 45 years and over, 1.6 percent of the men and 9.3 percent of the women never married. Apparently, single Mennonite men have found spouses outside Mennonite denominations more frequently than have single Mennonite women.
Single adults fall into many different categories. They are young, old, never-married, divorced, separated, widowed, parents, and childless. Some are single by choice and others by circumstance. Two factors which have contributed to increased singleness in the 1980s have been rising age of first marriage and a higher divorce rate.
As singleness increases in North America, denominational attitudes towards singles are more accepting; however, marriage and family-centeredness are still considered the norm. Activities, sermon topics, and special events often reflect support for couples rather than singles. Singles want affirmation that they are whole people without marriage, and they desire equal consideration of their problems and concerns.
One step toward a broader acceptance of singles would be a more clearly articulated theology of singleness. John Howard Yoder concluded an article entitled "Singleness in ethical and pastoral perspective" with the statement that singleness represents unfinished theological and ethical agenda. (This article appeared in a publication entitled Being single: resources on singleness, published as a cooperative effort of the Episcopal Church, Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, American Lutheran Church, Lutheran Church in America and the U.S. Roman Catholic Conference of Bishops, 1986.) One example of unfinished theological agenda derives from the assumption held since the Protestant Reformation's rejection of monasticism: that singleness is a temporary state before marriage. Such a concept feeds into the stereotyped opinion that older never-married women are to be pitied and that older never-married men are suspect.
Biblical support for singleness as a lifelong option is modeled by several key New Testament persons, including Jesus, Paul, John the Baptist, Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus. Jesus suggested three reasons for remaining single (Matthew 19:12) including circumstance by birth, circumstance by incapacitation or mutilation, and circumstance of religious commitment. However Jesus did not force singleness upon his followers. Paul advised against marriage because of impending hard times facing the church and the imminence of Christ's return (1 Corinthians 7:26), but he called compulsory celibacy a heresy (1 Timothy 4:13). In balance, neither the expectation of singleness or marriage have been required of followers of Jesus according to the Bible. A commitment to celibacy was required of all baptized believers in the Syriac church of 2nd century; from the 3rd to the 16th centuries the monastic vocation was a prominent aspect of church life, and continues as such for Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians. It is has been a less prominent but viable choice for Lutheran and Mennonite women (deaconesses) and for Anglican men and women.
Another area of unfinished theological and ethical agenda relates to the expectation that single people in the church remain celibate until marriage. An unstated uneasiness with lifelong singleness is that singles cannot be trusted to remain celibate even if they are committed to doing so. A clearly stated theology of sexuality that expresses trust in the never-married person would also affirm singleness as a choice.
Other issues for singles with theological implications include coping with loneliness and needing intimacy. Loneliness can be understood as the underside of intimacy. A theme which often appears in literature on singleness is the need to value friendship as a source of intimacy. Jesus modeled relationships with his disciples and others which were intimate but based on friendship.
Single people among Mennonites and Brethren in Christ began to express need for acceptance in the late 1960s and early 1970s through articles in church periodicals and books on the topic of singleness. Most of these were written by women. Books of this type included Frances Bontrager (later Frances Bontrager Greaser), The church and the single person (Scottdale, 1969); Evelyn King (later Evelyn King Mumaw), Women alone (Scottdale, 1970; and Katie Funk Wiebe, A widow's search for joy (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale Press, 1976). Another book on a related topic published in this decade is G. Edwin Bontrager, Divorce and the faithful church (Scottdale, 1978).
In the 1980s more was written about singleness and singles ministry. Single voices was co-edited by Bruce Yoder and Imo Jeanne Yoder, (Scottdale, 1982). It included contributions from seven different writers, a discussion guide, and a bibliography. A booklet entitled Ministry to single adults, edited by Ed Toews, was published by Pacific District Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Churches (Fresno, CA, 1985). Human sexuality in the Christian life: a working document for study and dialogue (Scottdale and Newton, 1985) includes a chapter on singleness. Being brothers and sisters: stories of personal need in the church (Newton, 1984) also includes a chapter on singleness.
Scattered efforts at programs for singles are developing in Mennonite denominations. Activities include single young adult Sunday school classes, ad hoc regional organizations for young adult singles, conference-sponsored activities for young singles, support groups and retreats for divorced and widowed persons, support groups for single parents, and the publication by church-wide agencies of printed resources in singles ministry.
Before it was acceptable for married women to pursue both a career and raising a family, a place was made for single women in the church to work in the mission field and church educational institutions. For example, in a booklet entitled Missionaries home and abroad published by Women's Society of the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren Conference in 1960, 36 couples and 24 single women were listed as having been missionaries for that conference between 1869 and 1960. (No single men were listed. Five of the single women married at a later date.) The establishment of the various deaconess sisterhoods in the 19th and early 20th century, mentioned above, is another example of the opportunities for single women in mission.
Stories and biographies of single women can be found in several books, including Mary Lou Cummings, ed. Full circle: stories of Mennonite women (Newton, 1978), Ruth Unrau, Encircled: stories of Mennonite women (Newton, 1986), and Elaine S. Rich, Mennonite women (Scottdale, 1983). Articles focusing on issues for single women were included in Dorothy Yoder Nyce, ed., Which way women? (Akron: MCC, 1980).
Erb, Peter C. "A Reflection on Mennonite Theology in Canada." Journal of Mennonite Studies 1 (1983): 179-90, at 186-87.
Kauffman, J. Howard and Leland Harder, eds. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: a Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1975.
Yoder, Michael L. "Findings From the 1982 Mennonite Census." Mennonite Quarterly Review 59 (1985): 307-49.
Cite This Article
Bargen, Mary. "Singleness." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 18 Mar 2019. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Singleness&oldid=162905.
Bargen, Mary. (1989). Singleness. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 March 2019, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Singleness&oldid=162905.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 828-829. All rights reserved.
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