“I’m a Single Lady” (Missionary) and John Piper

John Piper recently was asked about single women missionaries.

Two-thirds of active missionaries are married couples. Another third are single women. The rest are single men. Well, if that went by too fast, two thirds plus one third don’t leave any room for single men. And it is only a joke in part because it is almost that way.

To be more accurate, the actual situation among most evangelical faith missions is that between 80–85% of all single missionaries are women. It is a rare thing, like two out of every ten, for a single man to make missions his life’s vocation, which results in the overall statistics being that one-third of those in evangelical world missions are married men, one-third are married women, and 80 percent of the last third are single women. Which means that something just less than two-thirds of the total missionary force are women.

The big question is Why are so many missionaries single women? and Do single women pursue missions for other reasons not mentioned by Piper? Anyone know of any studies of Why single women are in missionary work?

Here is John Piper’s two-fold answer, which he admits is not strong conviction.

Now, why is that? And I think the most honest answer would be: I don’t know. And if the research has been done to get the answers, I am not aware of it. So, let me just give two opinions. Everybody should know these two things are flying under the banner: opinion, not strong conviction. And then I will end with a challenge to men.

1) Opinion number one: Let’s start with the observation that many single women in missions would like to be married, not all. Some regard it as a divine calling to serve as a single woman, and they have no intention of even hoping or praying toward marriage. And I thank God for that and for them. But many would like to serve in missions side by side with a similarly called and devoted husband. But by and large, it is men who propose marriage. Women have less control over being married than men do — they can always say no, but I mean taking the initiative in a positive way. Therefore, the single missionary woman who would like to be married is not exactly in the same position as a single missionary man who would like to be married.

His second reason examines why there is not a proportionality between single men and single women missionaries.

2) Here is opinion number two: Many, it seems to me, of those single men probably avoid missions out of the same personal dynamics that keep them single. Among Christian men who do not get married, say, in their 20s and 30s, they are probably held back from that relationship of marriage by — here are my opinions — a sense of inadequacy that they could be a spiritual leader or a fear that they might be rejected as they pursue a relationship or a lack of purpose in life that would give support and meaning in a marriage relationship. Any of those hindrances to forming a long-term commitment of marriage would also explain why he may have a sense of inadequacy about missions or a fear about missions or a lack of purpose about missions.

But there is another dynamic at work that needs to be mentioned. This goes back to my childhood where I was regaled with missionaries-on-furlough telling stories of missionary work, and a number of our missionaries were single women. On the mission field women got to teach, got to preach, got to plant churches, and got to exercise gifts not permitted to be exercised in the home field of the USA.

But let’s not be too jumpy here. Anyone who thinks all 80% are on the mission field because they are frustrated preachers, pastors, teachers, or church planters is mistaken. Most — and probably more — are on the mission field because they believe they are called by God to do just that.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.