April’s second point—about the way that marriage features in our cultural scripts about adulthood—is an important one. Within such scripts, perhaps especially in evangelical Christian circles, marriage is a matter of course. The question is not if but to whom you should be married. We all steadily pair off and settle into suburban lifestyles with a couple of children. Those who don’t marry are like the sorry kids left unchosen for a class team. We try to extend sympathy to them and to dull their disappointment. We speak about God’s purpose for ‘singleness’ as if it were a sort of consolation prize.
Yet the New Testament treats the unmarried state as one that Christians can purposefully pursue and one that is even preferable in certain instances, allowing one to devote oneself to the service of the kingdom of God in a fuller manner (e.g. Matthew 19:11-12; 1 Corinthians 7:6-9; 25-40). One of the things that this does is to disrupt the cultural script of marriage as a matter of course. Marriage ceases to be something that we just do because that is what everyone is expected to do and becomes something that we need to think about as a particular Christian vocation among other vocations.
In 1954, my grandfather, a missionary in Nigeria, read a book on the Christian family. This book made such an impression upon him that, although he had previously been strongly inclined not to marry, he was convinced that he needed to find a wife. After prayer for guidance, God put my grandmother on his heart. My grandmother, for her part, had felt that the verse ‘For your Maker is your husband’ (Isaiah 54:5) had been given to her by God. She resolved herself to remain unmarried in God’s service, packed up, left the UK, and went out to serve God in Africa. It required struggle on both of their parts to come around to the idea of marriage. The following pictured prayer letter describes the way that they finally did so.
Marriage is typically treated as a matter of course, yet Jesus’ teaching on marriage led his disciples to wonder ‘if such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry’ (Matthew 19:10). As someone who, like my grandparents, has given serious thought to lifelong celibacy—even when marriage was an option—marriage has always appeared as one particular—albeit naturally the most common—mode of Christian vocation, rather than just the presumed script. Once this is recognized, rather than where I will enjoy the greatest happiness in my personal lifestyle, the primary consideration becomes the form of life in which God would have me serve him.
Viewing marriage primarily as one possible mode of Christian discipleship, rather than the presumed script that merely awaits my finding the ‘right person’ has led me, like my grandparents, to reflect at length upon the particular character and significance of these modes of discipleship. It has led me, like my grandfather, to a very pronounced sense of the immense importance of Christian marriage as a form of vocation and to a similar sense about various vocations that exist for the unmarried. It has also led me to a strong realization of marriage’s character as a project and institution that exceeds and places limits upon the ends and desires of the couples entering into it. Marriage does not principally exist to serve our personal self-realization, but brings two people together as one to serve God and their neighbour, most notably in the next generation.
When the Church and society becomes forgetful of unmarried vocations, it risks losing sight of marriage itself. People walk blindly into marriage in pursuit of personal satisfaction or because everyone is expected to get married, without ever being prompted to reflect deeply upon just how awesome a vocation they have committed themselves to. The pause that a strong doctrine of unmarried vocations can give us—is it ‘better not to marry’ or what reason do we have to believe that God would have us marry?—may help people to understand marriage in a way that they never would have done otherwise.