This study guide is intended to initiate the opportunity to study and strengthen the ministry of the church to single mothers; a group of vulnerable women in our society and in our churches who need the hope of the Gospel and tender care as sisters in Christ.
Specific words tend to carry experiential baggage in these types of discussions wherein the same word has different meanings and nuances to each party e.g. spiritual, leadership, headship, head, household etc. Further, when addressed within full context, this is a rather deep and in some ways, complex matter. Biblical principles are interwoven and thus, a full treatment of this subject would necessarily include a broader discussion on eldership, households, sanctification, divorce/remarriage, and of course the role of the gospel. The following is an attempt to clarify some basics involving a biblical church based approach to ministry to single mothers that provides redemption, hope and restoration. Since discussions frequently focus on the subject of “male headship” I will begin there.
A classic passage addressing headship is 1 Cor. 11:3ff which, in essence, also teaches the principle of male headship (leadership). As Christ is head of the man, so the man is to be the head of his wife. The nature, therefore, of the man is to be like Christ including the fact that he is a male. God in describing Himself as our heavenly father pronounces male attributes for leadership. “And I will be a father to you” (2 Cor. 6:18).
Flowing from that, spiritual headship is presented consistently, normatively, throughout scripture as being a male role. The Trinity, Adam, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David, Jesus and passages such as Mal. 4:6, Eph. 5:22-33, and 1 Tim. 3:1-5 are a few examples where this central leadership role in the church and home is clearly male in character.
In addition to being a male role, the head of household is a representative role. The headship (leadership) of the father is crucial to helping those in His household come to know God as their Heavenly Father (Gen. 18:19, Eph. 5:26, 27; 6:1-4) and to becoming conformed to the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18).
Throughout scripture, we see a clear pattern wherein God deals with his people through representative headship (see two paragraphs above for examples). Under Adam’s headship, we fell into sin and therefore have the curse of eternal damnation upon us. Under Christ’s headship, we receive redemption (1 Cor. 15:22).
The head of household therefore is to lead those under his care to Christ for salvation. This is of course within the realm of the work of the Holy Spirit. Sadly, some (parents) falsely assume they are responsible for the salvation of their children and suffer undeserved guilt when their children rebel. Our place is to be faithful and let the Holy Spirit work through us and if God would be so pleased, see our children called into the kingdom and develop a walk with the Lord and be such agents of the Holy Spirit in the lives of their children (Ps 78:3-8).
This brings us to the matter of how a single mother can be a spiritual head of household when scripture clearly defines it as a male role.
I have found that “Household” (Hebrew word, bayith) communicates God’s broad concern for His household; His Church; a covenant community bound together in His Son, Jesus Christ (Eph. 4:15-16). “Household” helps us maintain balance in understanding God’s broader redemptive concerns by focusing not just on nuclear families, but includes widows, empty-nesters, singles, and single parents, etc.
Given the absence of a father the single mother must fulfill the role of spiritual leadership for her children -as imperfect as it is (1 Cor. 7:14). In cases where she is unequally yoked, she is still to fulfill the role of spiritual head of household (2 Tim. 1:5). Without her fulfilling that role, there is no leadership pointing toward Christ within that household. This would be devastating for multigenerational faithfulness.
Some examples of women exercising spiritual leadership include: Naomi, Lydia, Lois and Eunice. In each case there is clear spiritual leadership being practiced: Naomi counseling Ruth (Ruth 1:8), Lydia (marital status is unknown) leading her whole household to be baptized (Acts 16:14-15), and Lois and Eunice teaching Timothy where his father was not involved (2 Tim. 1:5). God is honoring the spiritual leadership principle to bless and point others to Christ although it is considered as “non-normative”.
Encouraging and equipping a single mother to recognize her responsibility to exercise the role of spiritual leadership for her children does not mitigate against the clear teaching of scripture on male headship. In one sense, it actually reinforces its importance. The role must be honored in order to achieve God’s ends in redemption whether God’s ideal (male headship) is in place or not.
Expanding on this line of reasoning, a single mother is not to accomplish this role in isolation. Heb 13:17 establishes the role of the spiritual leader in the church “… for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account…” A single mother is encouraged to execute the role of the spiritual leadership of her household (children) as she places herself under the spiritual leadership of her church (elders). Consider that Heb 13:17 describes an elder’s calling to include spiritual oversight of everyone in the body including fathers. Their oversight for single mothers (and others) has similar although not identical dimensions as to fathers. The elders as under-shepherds (or heads under Christ) of the local church provide a covering to these single mothers and are to be involved as a group (never individually) and with their wives (Titus 2:3-5) in equipping these single mothers to perform this responsibility while providing a model of a Christian marriage observable up close. In such a case, they are exercising their spiritual leadership responsibility under the headship of the elders which offers them protection and counsel.
The argument can be made that the role of the single mother as the head of her own household, particularly a younger woman, should be viewed as a temporary position with remarriage in view (1 Tim. 5:13-15). The story of Ruth would be an excellent example of how the temporary fulfillment in the leadership responsibility by the single woman (widow) can be used by God to re-establish God’s pattern of male headship. Naomi’s counsel to Ruth effectively accomplished this through God’s provision of Boaz. How blessed is the church where the elders pray for God to provide a mate for a single mom while assisting her development to be a godly wife.
The understanding just presented honors the position of male headship and exhibits the grace, mercy and glory of God much more completely.
His grace and mercy does not depend upon our perfect execution of His plan to bring about His redemptive ends. He works through our best efforts, failures and overcomes the results of sin to bring about His redemptive purposes in the lives of His people. He does this so that He receives the glory (1 Cor. 1:30, 31; Eph. 2:8, 9). What is done for His glory is done from faith. If God depended upon our perfect execution, then He would be at our mercy to accomplish His plan and would also mean that He is not sovereign which, of course, He is.
Consider what role faith (without which it is impossible to please God- Heb. 11:6) would have if every detail of our lives was clearly defined by God by dos and don’ts. We would not need faith, just a checklist. Paul spoke strongly against the checklist approach to the Christian life in Colossian 2:6, 20-23 and Galatians 3:1-3. Faith is the result of God working in us so that everything we do may work for God’s glory and His alone by obeying His Word, in faith and applying his principles to the best of our understanding in our walk Ps 119.
With all of the foregoing in mind, God does work through single mothers as the spiritual leaders of their own households under the elders of the church. IUCH sees this as valuable opportunity for ministry in many congregations to bring glory to God.