Joan is one of the many impoverished urbanites I know. As a single mother, she and her five kids have tried to get through life on her paycheck, whatever governmental assistance they can find, and the charity of others. After she had burned through the charity of her closest friends and family members, she decided to reestablish a relationship with me. Her financial requests come in relatively small doses, rarely exceeding twenty dollars. She was even desperate enough once to ask for one dollar to help her finish her chores. While much work has been done on how helping people too much can hurt them,1 Joan’s issues have seemed so impossible to overcome that it often feels in those moments as though my wallet will either save or destroy her.
There are many issues at play in this single mother’s life that are keeping her paralyzed. For one, some of her kids are too young to leave at home alone, making her ability to work quite difficult. Her youngest has been expelled for bad behavior so she can’t even hope that schooling will serve as free childcare. She can’t afford childcare otherwise and she’s burned most of her bridges to people who might have offered to watch her kids.
Even when she has managed to get a job, she has also managed to lose them for various reasons. In one instance she became unreliable and eventually lost the job. And then her manipulative, abusive ex-boyfriend stalked her to her other job, which got her fired for safety reasons. She often has had to resort to selling her plasma, which she couldn’t do recently because that same ex-boyfriend assaulted her and left an open wound on the back of her head. He has also manipulated her big heart into giving him her money, somehow convincing her to buy him a $200 pair of shoes. It is this same big heart that decided to take out a $7,000 loan so her daughter could go to a college of her choice, when she already had a free ride elsewhere.
At one point Joan had fallen so low that she had become homeless. Even then she struggled to make good decisions and refused to go to any shelters that would provide for her. To try to get by, she signed up for unemployment, but the government has yet to approve it and it has been months. I don’t know if this delay is on the government’s behalf or if it’s simply related to how hard it is for the average American to fill out governmental paperwork. To make sure she could survive, we sat down together and went through her budget. We found that if she considered her internet bill a non-essential item and canceled it, she would bring in just enough money in governmental assistance that she could pay her primary bills.
Joan’s issues are great: abuse, parenting, childcare, schooling, homelessness, predatory loans, food, poverty, governmental assistance, relationship building, poor decision-making, and more. It often feels very hopeless. But while writing this article, I received an emotional text from her, explaining that she just finished orientation for a new job and that she was going to work harder and harder to grow and raise her family—and of course, she needed thirty dollars.
Stats and Figures
Seeing as how “30 percent of all female-headed households in the United States fall below the poverty line,”2 Joan is hardly alone in her story. Even if Joan were to make wiser decisions down the road, she would not be able to escape her poverty. In Michigan, minimum wage is $10.10. If by a miracle she were able to find support for her kids so that she could work 40 hours a week, all of her efforts would rake her in a measly $21,008, still leaving her in the poorest quintile of Americans.3 Joan is proof that “getting a job” is not a solution that will fix all her financial problems. In the pursuit of money she will have to sacrifice other important and essential things.
The injustices committed against her might even lead to other injustices. For example, what might Joan do if she were to get pregnant again? Having faced the impossibilities of caring for her family of six, will she consider growing to seven if she were to get pregnant? Perhaps not, since 86% of women who get abortions are unmarried, 75% are impoverished,4 and many of them already have kids.5 With these facts in mind, those who get abortions clearly have a fear of providing for another child. While most Christians seem to assume that women get abortions simply because they don’t want to have a baby, only 4% of women have voiced this as their reason, with more of their concern being connected to their finances, and the quality of life and focus they could give to another child.6
That being said, abortion is more of a symptom of other injustices than a standalone issue. The church can hardly fight abortion with picket signs. What they need is to address the underlying causes of abortion. They must preemptively fight abortion by caring and advocating for single mothers. If they do not, then they should expect abortion numbers to grow. They must be pro-life through and through, and not just for the baby.
While abortion is not the focus of this article, it is a topic the church has traditionally cared very much about, while single mothers have often been treated like scarlet letters. Many Christians might point at them and tell them that if they just stopped sinning and having sex outside of marriage, they wouldn’t be in the mess that they’re in.
But with all of these statistics in mind, perhaps we might find some empathy for single mothers as we speculate why some, like Joan, continue to get pregnant in the midst of desperate situations. Has life been so hard for them that being loved and wanted releases them of their fears and drives them more quickly to sex? Are they freer of meeting social expectations because they have already been judged by the world? Are they, in their brokenness, connecting with broken men who are adding extra dimensions of brokenness to their lives? Do they wonder if having a child with their boyfriend might cause the boyfriend to fully commit to them, creating more security for their family? Are they unable to afford protection? Did they get pregnant because their partner was sexually abusive?
Whatever the case, the church is called to help single mothers, even if their children were born out of pure erotic desire. Jesus’ command to care for the poor is a blanket statement and does not come with conditions. Certainly, we will have to ask him for wisdom7 as to how to care for the poor around us best, but we do not have to ask him if we need to take care of them. If we are to be allegiant8 to Christ then we are to be found faithful on this issue, for ignoring the poor is to ignore Jesus which is a sin worthy of judgment (Matt. 25:31-46)—and single mothers in our culture are the poor, just as they were in Bible times.
Single Mothers in the Bible
We might go so far as to correlate single mothers today with the “widows” of the Bible, for they were the poor women that were up against all odds in the ancient world. We may not even have to consider this an analogy since, “The Greek and Latin terms for widows expanded to include any woman who did not have a husband through death, divorce, or never marrying” and “the Hebrew term may carry this same ambiguity.”9 If we’re willing to make this cultural connection which seems more than appropriate, then single mothers fall within the trifecta of God’s poor: the orphan, widows, and strangers.
God has seen the plight of such people and takes up the title “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows” (Ps 68:5). God expected his people to take care of the widows, so laws were put in place to reinforce his concern (Deut 10:18–19; 14:28–29; 16:11–12; 24:17). Despite this, Israel was often found oppressing (Mal. 3:5), ignoring (Is. 1:23), wronging (Job 24:21), and killing them (Ps. 94:6). God’s intensity toward such injustice is great, as seen in his proclamation: “You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn” (Ex. 22:22-24). With this in mind, even if we decided not to draw lines between single mothers and widows, we should be willing to recognize that the poor and oppressed of any given society are crying out to God and he is listening. We must therefore respond to their cries on God’s behalf.
When God became incarnate in Jesus, his concern for the poor continued. This included the widows of his time who were still quite poor (Mk. 12:42). Jesus explicitly called out and condemned the scribes of his time for some kind of practice they employed to devour widows’ houses. Even worse, these scribes tried to cover up this oppression by adding long prayers to their practice, making their devouring look like a good and religious thing they were doing (Lk. 20:47).
While justice was sought out for women in the Old Testament,10 their plight was great. While “the status of the woman had definitely improved”11 by Jesus’ time, women were still among the marginalized. But Jesus treated women differently than his society did, “not because he was ‘gallant’ or ‘nice,’ but because the restoration of women to their full humanity in partnership with men is integral to the coming of God’s egalitarian order.”12 Indeed, Jesus’ simple countercultural interactions with one woman led his disciples to “marvel” at him (Jn. 4:27), and this was just one interaction among many. He interacted with both poor (Mk. 5:25-26) and rich women (Lk. 8:3) throughout his ministry and treated them well, ultimately elevating women to be the first witnesses of the resurrection in a culture where they “were not regarded as credible witnesses.”13 They were the first ones Jesus sent out into the world with this good news.
Women would continue to be elevated in the church where there “is no male and female” but all are “one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Paul labored side by side with Eudia and Syntche in ministry (Philip. 4:2-3). Mary supported the Roman church (Rom. 16:6). Tryphaena and Tryphosa were “workers in the Lord” (Rom. 16:12). Priscilla was close enough to Paul for him to call her Prisca and he did ministry with her and her husband (Ac 18:2, 18, 26; Ro 16:3-4; 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19). We also find women in leadership positions in the church, including a minister named Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2), unmarried prophetesses (Acts 21:9), and an apostle named Junia (Rom. 16:7).
While women were progressively starting to find equality within the church, many were still stuck in circumstances that kept them amongst the poor and the oppressed. For example, a group of Hellenist widows were in need of the church’s daily distribution of food (Acts 6:1). In 1 Timothy 5:1-8, Paul gives Timothy a few ideas on how to take care of widows in need of such assistance. Before the church jumped right into taking care of a widow, Paul first had the expectation that her Christian relatives would take care of her. Perhaps the care of one’s parents in their old age was even how Paul even interpreted the commandment, “honor your father and your mother” (Ex. 20:12). Indeed, for a family to ignore their own widows was particularly grievous to Paul in light of what Christianity was all about. To such people he said, “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim 5:8). Taking care of widows is a part of a “religion that is pure and undefiled before God” (Jam. 1:27), therefore it makes no sense for an individual Christian to ignore the poor of their own family and expect the corporate church to do their job for them.
While many widows would naturally face hardship without a partner, their social lowliness didn’t equate to lowliness in church leadership. There is much debate over 1 Timothy 5:9-16 as to if church widows were enrolling for assistance or enrolling to join an order of widows in church leadership.14 If we frame this passage with the prior verses, it seems Paul is talking about assistance. However, he could simply be changing gears to talk about another issue related to widows—that is, widows in church leadership. Adding to this possibility is the fact that Paul lays out a list of spiritual expectations that widows should have before they enroll. It feels a bit odd to put such expectations on people before they receive assistance from a church, but these expectations make perfect sense for someone going into church leadership. Furthermore, earlier in 1 Timothy 3:1-13, Paul laid out a list of spiritual expectations for bishops and deacons, as well as a list for elders in Titus 1:5-9, so it may be that Paul is doing more of this when he refers to the expectations of widows.
So far we’ve been operating under the idea that widows and single mothers can be synonymous with one another, but we may not be able to follow this analogy out perfectly in regards to widows and single mothers in church leadership. The widows of the Bible who wanted to enroll were supposed to be sixty or older. Single mothers would likely fit into Paul’s prohibition against enrolling younger widows (1 Tim. 5:11), because he generally figured that young widows would eventually want to remarry for sex, children, or other reasons.
The Church and Single Mothers
Single mothers are up against a lot. Indeed, some may feel as desperate as Hagar, setting their child under a bush to die because they feel they have nothing left to offer (Gen. 21:15-16). But so long as the church exists, no person should feel the need to sink into such hopelessness. The body of Christ is mandated to take care of the poor all throughout the Bible, and God-in-flesh illustrated the importance of this with his life. This is why the church was so quick to build ministries around the oppressed and marginalized on a corporate level and expect families to take care of the oppressed around them on a personal level. Christian family members were the first line of defense before the oppressed became the responsibility of the wider church.
Part of the problem is that family members may not be Christian, or if they are, they may not follow through with their faith in this way, keeping their daughters feeling helpless. Furthermore, some single mothers come out of families of poverty and their parents may not be able to support them either. We also live in a culture where kids are expected to age out of the need of parental help and parents are expected to age out of a child’s concern and be put in a retirement home. The American desire to move into seasons of isolation and remove relational responsibilities from ourselves does not make us feel very responsible for our families.
If the church were to redirect the energy of its anti-abortion initiatives to supporting single mothers, two injustices would likely be addressed at the same time: (1) single mothers would be better able to thrive and (2) abortion numbers would go down because of it. A number of initiatives could be put into place to help parents feel secure: pantries that offer essential toiletries and food; free babysitting or childcare; free car maintenance; job-finding assistance; housing assistance; legal assistance that makes sure they’re getting all the help they’re eligible for; laundromat assistance; free counseling; and more.
Outside of corporate efforts, individual Christians should become more willing to serve the single mothers around them. This will require a great amount of discernment as the need of single mothers is great, but Jesus says, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matt. 5:52). This verse has often convicted me when Joan asks me for money. If I keep that money, I know I’ll spend it on a nice meal, a movie, or a video game, whereas I know she’ll spend it on something essential. I understand that if I keep giving her money every time she asks, she won’t face the kind of pressure she needs to encourage her to make a new decisions, but then again, no one should be facing the kind of pressure that she is under in the first place.
Outside of these movements, the church can also look to advocate politically for single mothers. When the government is trying to pass a law that will support single mothers, we should be open to learning more about the bill and advocating for it. While single mothers are receiving some political help currently, it is not the kind of help that is causing them to thrive. Rather, it’s a help that maintains their existence within the lowest quintile of American society. Unfortunately, the church is often known for fighting against bills that help the poor. It’s time to change that for single mothers everywhere.
Like all justice issues, serving single mothers is a tricky one. There are many dynamics at play and we cannot control all of them or fix all of them. But if every Christian gets prayerfully active in the lives of the single mothers around them, they will begin to feel safer and make other decisions that fall in line with the kinds of things the church cares about. May we continue to meet with the Spirit of Wisdom so that we might understand the right thing to do in each dynamic we encounter; for single mothers are people, not an issue.
1 For more information, see Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor – and Yourself (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014).
2 Daniel K. Williams, The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2021), 295.
3 Ibid, 294.
4 Ibid, 143.
5 Ibid, 147.
6 Ibid, 143.
7 In Proverbs and intertestamental literature, wisdom is considered a person, often referred to today as Lady Wisdom. Throughout the New Testament there are several places where Jesus is made synonymous with Lady Wisdom, as though the Bible writers are trying to say that Jesus and Lady Wisdom are the same entity. Therefore, we must listen to the Spirit of Jesus (Acts 16:7) to better understand how to deal with each situation of poverty we encounter. For more on Jesus as Lady Wisdom, see Sally Douglas, Jesus Sophia: Returning to Woman Wisdom in the Bible, Practice and Prayer (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2023).
8 It has been proposed that the Greek word pistis, which is often translated faith, is better translated as allegiance. With this in mind, it is much easier to understand Jesus’ judgment on those who don’t take care of the poor. For more on this topic, see Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017).
9 Michelle J. Morris, “Widow,” The Lexham Bible Dictionary, edited by John D. Barry, et al (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
10 While some of the laws of the Bible may seem stifling to us, they were actually quite progressive in their own time. As David Instone Brewer points out in regards to marriage and divorce, in comparison to the Ancient Near East, women in Israel “had greater rights within marriage, and a greater opportunity to remarry after divorce. The divorce certificate, which gave women the right to remarry, was unknown elsewhere in the ancient Near East.” (David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002), Kindle Locations 239-240, Kindle Edition.). Remarriage was incredibly important because it was dangerous to be a single woman in the ancient patriarchal world where “economic security was often based on a husband’s income and work.” (David Witthoff, ed, “Widowhood,” The Lexham Cultural Ontology Glossary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014.). Though this didn’t mean that women in the ancient world didn’t do anything. Indeed, women were quite busy and could be found doing agricultural work, tending flocks, childbearing, prepping and preserving food, cooking, making clothes, fixing the house, educating children, and other things. (David W. Baker, “Economic Realities of Family Life,” OT204 The Social World of the Old Testament (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), Logos Mobile Education.).
11 Hazel W. Perkin. “Family Life and Relations,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1:773, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988).
12 Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), Kindle Locations 1980-1982.
13 N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 55.
14 Douglas Mangum and E. Tod Twist, “1 Timothy 5:3-16,” Lexham Research Commentaries: 1 Timothy (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013).