This is my first Sabbath as a married woman in my own home. It’s no small feat—and I'm not talking about the home-owning part. Growing up in a British-Caribbean Adventist culture that promoted marriage as an essential requirement for every woman, I have now officially fulfilled my obligations (albeit two years later than the stipulated age of 30) and joined the Fellowship of the Ring.
Growing up in church as young women, we were always quietly aware of the fact that if we didn't find our potential partner by age 30, we would end up like the many single and—according to church lore—unsatisfied older women in our congregation. Fifteen-year-old me was confident that I would meet my husband in medical school, be married by 26, have my first child by 30, and go on to enjoy an illustrious career as full-time mother and wife and part-time neurosurgeon. I didn't understand why so many women in my local and surrounding churches in their late 20s and 30s were still single—what was their problem? Unsurprisingly, my well-planned timeline didn’t pan out exactly as I had intended.
It wasn’t a disaster. I did become a doctor but quickly realized eight-hour operations and rotating across the country well into my late 30s weren’t my thing, and I happily settled into general practice instead of following in Ben Carson’s footsteps. On the marriage front, when by age 28 no husband or even close-to-husband—especially of the Adventist variety—had materialized, it dawned on me that I had become the woman 15-year-old me had scorned. Perhaps I would have judged less harshly if I knew then what I know now. First, the shaming of these women is rooted in patriarchy. And second, many who desired partnership had, like me, internalized deeply that any romantic experience with someone who was not part of the Adventist denomination was a sin, and hence their singleness was not a consequence of personal failure but rather a consequence of isolationist and harmful theology.
Complaints from young women about the lack of decent, single, gainfully employed, basic-hygiene-having men are nothing new. New research suggests that women are increasingly less likely to choose singleness over what they consider to be subpar relationships—but most young women at least have access to a minimum of three dating apps and a couple of local bars to trawl through potential candidates. Not so for the Adventist woman. According to traditional Adventist theology, not only is the requirement that the young man in question have a thriving relationship with Jesus, but further that the relationship must only thrive within the confines of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs outlined in the Adventist Church Manual. This generally takes your local dating pool from a few thousand to 50—if you're lucky. Of that 50, you'll be attracted to 20, 10 of whom will be married; and of the 10 remaining, 5 will be heavily invested in fringe Adventist apocalyptic conspiracy theories they discovered on YouTube. That leaves five men for you and the other women in the congregation to cast lots for. This is especially compounded for Black Adventist women in the UK and the US, where statistically we are already less likely to get married, and those of us who do get married marry later than our white counterparts.
In her 2016 thesis on Black Adventist women in the UK and singleness, titled “It Is Not Good To Be Alone: Singleness and the Black Adventist Woman,” Dr. Val Bernard Allen explores the reasons for Black Adventist women’s singleness and the resulting impact mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. She notes:
Seventh-day Adventists view singleness as a transitory identity leading to marriage. This view is reflected in the way the church is set up to meet the needs of its members. . . . The presence of a ministry for single Seventh-day Adventists . . . generally receives limited financial support from the church administration. (22–23)
Although we should interrogate the church’s treatment of singleness being a transitory state—especially given that many biblical characters were single for extended periods—it is obvious that for the vast majority of us, permanent and prolonged singleness is not desired or ideal. This being the case, one would think that the church would actively encourage and facilitate ways for its single members to meet prospective partners, as well as limit barriers to meeting these partners.
Why then have we limited heterosexual Adventist women to dating only Adventist men? On what basis? In a denomination that includes Western countries in which the number of young women in the church far exceeds men, is this a necessary or even theologically reasonable demand? Many Adventists would argue that it’s “biblical” for Adventists to marry only within their denomination, eschewing all romantic relationships with Anglicans, Pentecostals, Baptists, and any other Christian tradition. While I am increasingly becoming wary of the phrase “it’s biblical,” which often translates as “here is my personal very specific interpretation of the biblical canon,” I think it's worthwhile exploring the main Scripture passage that is used to support this.
2 Corinthians 6:14–18 states:
Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,
“I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
Therefore go out from their midst,
and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch no unclean thing;
then I will welcome you,
and I will be a father to you,
and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
says the Lord Almighty.” (ESV)
Most scholars and theologians disagree with the commonly taught view among laity that this text is primarily, if at all, referring to marriage. Although, of course, many of the principles in the Bible, including this verse, would lead us to believe that marriage to a non-Christian may not be the wisest course of action nor indeed God's will for most believers, is it accurate to claim that Paul was focusing on marriage in this passage? Even more traditional analyzers of the text, such as reformer John Calvin, agree that marriage was not Paul’s aim. He states “Many are of opinion that he [Paul] speaks of marriage, but the context clearly shows that they are mistaken. . . . When, therefore, he prohibits us from having partnership with unbelievers in drawing the same yoke, he means simply this, that we should have no fellowship with them in their pollution” (Commentary on Corinthians, v2).
If, for argument’s sake, this text is explicitly counseling against marriage to non-believers, are we seriously trying to suggest that Methodists are unbelievers? That Pentecostals are in concord with Belial? That our friendly Baptist neighbor is part of the temple of idols? Not only would this be a wildly offensive interpretation, but it's also completely at odds with our history as a denomination. Our founders were a motley crew of Methodists, Baptists, and other Christian faiths, who believed many different things throughout the history of our becoming a denomination. They were not afraid to hold fellowship with each other despite this, believing that the Holy Spirit was able to lead people into truth.
Two hours before my first date with the man who would become my husband, I descended into a mild panic attack and almost cancelled the date. It was reminiscent of the hour before the only other date I had been on in four years, also with a non-Adventist. I had walked to the train station crying on my way to the date because I believed I was being sinful by even going in the first place, but also because I wanted so much to have a meaningful romantic connection with someone.
I fidgeted as I travelled down the escalators at London Bridge and saw my now-husband standing at the bottom in a bright red coat. We greeted each other with a slightly awkward hug and made our way to the Italian restaurant overlooking the river Thames where he had made reservations. His lilting Trinidadian accent skipped over the lap of the water, and I quickly felt comfortable with him. Twenty minutes into our meal as I laughed for the hundredth time and looked into his kind eyes, I felt something I had never felt before: the knowledge that the man was going to be my husband. It couldn’t be true, though—he ticked all the boxes except for the most important one: Adventist. His Anglican background meant that he was automatically disqualified.
Strangely, it was my conservative Adventist mum who encouraged me to wait and see, keep praying, and trust that God had a plan. Three years later, we’re married and—though I’m hesitant to mention it—he is officially an Adventist. But even if he hadn’t decided to choose this denomination, I would still have chosen him, and our story would still have had a happy ending for us.
There are so many women like me that are fearful of taking the step of exploring outside of the rigid man-made walls that have been created for them. There are so many women who have missed out on people and experiences that would have enriched their lives because of unnecessary angst around choosing a partner outside of Adventism. It’s time for the church to let go of theology that is not only insulting to our Christian brothers and sisters but is preventing so many of our members from living in the fullness of the abundant life that God has for them.
Notes & References:
“Why are increasing numbers of women choosing to be single?” The Guardian, 2021.
R. R. Banks & Su Jin Gatlin, “African American Intimacy: The Racial Gap in Marriage,” Michigan Journal of Race and Law 11 (115), 2005, 115-132.
Shade Henry-Thompson is a proud Jamaican-Londoner currently living in the Channel Islands with her husband and a growing collection of house plants. Outside of her work as a general practitioner (family medicine doctor), she enjoys reading, singing, and lifting weights.
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