How the Unmarried can Reveal the Vocational Character of Marriage

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.

GrandparentsLetter

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.

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Assorted Thoughts on the Unmarried State from One Still in It

Thoughts on Graham’s post, in no particular order.

  1. God’s statement that it was not good for the man to be alone is often misread, I believe. Rather than the emphasis being upon Adam’s supposed loneliness, where many Christians place it, aloneness describes a much broader issue. The aloneness of Adam is a problem because alone, Adam cannot fulfil the purpose for which God has created him. He needs a commissioned counterpart for his purpose to be realized, not just a personal companion. Read this way, the point of Genesis 2 is not that every man needs a woman, but that the human male is quite insufficient to fulfil God’s creational purpose for humankind without the assistance of the human female: the male and femaleness of humanity is integral to the purpose for which God created us. While marriage expresses this truth in nuce and has an iconic significance as a result, it is far from the only way that this truth can be lived out and expressed in human life and society. Also, it is important to recognize that some of the loneliest people in the world are married.
  2. While ‘singleness’ may be an appropriate way of speaking about the behaviour of the culture, is it helpful Christian terminology? While in our culture we are tempted to go through life as ‘singles’—even to approach marriage as ‘singles’ (concerned with maximizing individual life satisfaction, sex life, etc.)—the Church should be a place where no one is ‘single’, but where we are all caught up in a rich web of relationships in the body of Christ.
  3. The welcoming of the unmarried in the early Church was radical, but perhaps not in quite the same ways that it will be in our society. The radical step in the early Church was forgoing offspring and the social place accorded by family role. Those who took this step trusted that their posterity would be secured in the kingdom of God and that it was within that family that they found their place. In our society it will typically be sexual relations and personal lifestyle fulfilment that we forgo (both of which we idolize). Both steps can be practical declarations of eschatological imminence, that a new creation is at hand and that this creation and its orders will pass away. This has a lesson for the married among us too.
  4. As our society has ceased to be a robust familial culture, the Church has often set itself up as a site for the defence of ‘family values’ (the privileging of families within the Church often contrasts with the way that the wider society can privilege ‘singles’). While such defence is important, this can make the Church forgetful of its distinct calling and identity as a new family formed of peoples of all backgrounds and can trap it within the parochialism of the nuclear family (which no longer is even connected to an extended family or to a larger ‘household’). The Church takes on the weaker character of a sort of social club for families and assorted others, rather than a family in its own right. The unmarried will always tend to be marginalized in this order.
  5. Can a biblical foundation for honouring the unmarried state be made? About ten years ago, I attempted to make one (part 1, part 2, part 3). I would change several things were I to write that today, but I still roughly agree with the ten years younger version of myself. Barry Danylak’s Redeeming Singleness—which I review here—is also well worth a read on this.
  6. Many of us who are unmarried aren’t the slightest bit angst-ridden about our state, nor are we lonely. Being verbally ‘affirmed’ or assured that we ‘belong’ is of little interest to us. What we would appreciate is avenues for service and a Church that thought more seriously about the sort of society it is called to be.
  7. There is definitely a bias towards married clergy with children in my experience.
  8. There are also differences between men and women’s experience of singleness in the Church, I believe. The widespread gender imbalance in churches is a big issue for many women, I suspect. As an unmarried guy (though now in a relationship), I have faced accusations of not stepping up and doing my bit to address this problem and have also encountered more than my fair share of well-meaning but unhelpful matchmakers!

Marriage, Singleness, “Family Values”, and the Church

I’m married. I have 3 children. I’m a pastor. I drive a minivan.

By the standards of “traditional Christian family values” I have all the boxes checked off. When my wife and I were expecting our third child, we had to trade in our dependable, much loved Toyota Corolla for a minivan. I hated the thought of being a minivan dad. I felt like pleated khakis and a fanny pack were not far behind. But one lady in our church actually said something to the effect of “I’m glad you have a minivan now, it sends the right message”. By that I assume it was meant the image I project by driving a minivan is that of a “family man”, and a pastor should be a family man. Anything I can add to that image is to the benefit of my ministry. Apparently some people want their pastors to be dads who drive minivans, have a flock of children and a homemaker wife. But on what is that based? There seems to be the assumption that Christians are supposed to get married and make babies and have perfect nuclear families.

Since this post is meant to get a conversation going I won’t try to be comprehensive or conclusive, but I just want to throw out a few ideas on the subject of marriage, singleness and the Church’s assumptions about the ideal of family life. Most of the PTSS contributors are married, and have children. Sadly, Lore Ferguson had to drop out of this due to time constraints, but she has done lots of thinking and writing on this subject of singleness. Alastair and Hannah M will have to bear the load of the single perspective. But here’s a few of my own thoughts.

When building a case for Christian marriage, many turn immediately to Genesis 1 & 2 (a section which I’m sure will play a significant role in our conversation moving forward). “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.'” (Gen. 2:18 NRSV). And in the previous chapter, we read that after making male and female in his image God commanded them “Be fruitful and multiply” (1:28). So does this mean all humans are meant to be in covenantal partnership with a spouse and make babies? Is there room for singleness in this vision for humanity? A few thoughts which should add nuance to our reading:

Is this descriptive of Adam and Eve or prescriptive for all humanity? There are all sorts of interpretations of the historicity of Genesis 1-2, and our purpose here isn’t to tackle that, as fun as it may be. But my own 2 cents is to read Adam and Eve as representative of humanity at our origins, not literally historical people. Thus, God’s creation of humanity in two genders for the sake of partnership and fruitfulness is for the purpose of human flourishing. But if a specific human doesn’t procreate are they failing to obey God’s command? Or is humanity collectively in view here?

I am not prepared to push beyond the text, and impose this as commanded to all individual human beings; that each and every single person must have a spouse and produce children. Marriage was prescribed for the benefit of humanity, but is it a requirement of all people? We as humans are better off as image bearers in community, but does that specifically require the community of marriage? In other words, is being unmarried the same as being “alone”?

In the New Testament, there is a bit of tension on this front. In a unique passage, Paul gives his own personal advice on the subject: “ To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am.” (1 Cor. 7:8, throughout 1 Cor. 7, Paul specifies that he is giving his own opinion, not binding divine commands) It seems there is, according to Paul, some advantage for Christians in remaining unmarried. Paul honours singleness. However, 1 Tim. 3 (which many say isn’t actually by Paul of course, but both texts are accepted as canonical) we read that

Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way— for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?

Not a popular passage among egalitarians or singles, since on the surface it certainly seems to insist all bishops must be males who are married and have well behaved children. So do we conclude singleness is good, unless you want to lead? But that would obviously be problematic for Paul, who was unmarried. The marital statuses of many of the apostolic community is shrouded in mystery. Peter had a mother in law, and Philip had daughters. There is some consensus that there are married couples in the leaders listed in Romans 16. But it is quite difficult to ascertain exactly what the Apostolic community envisioned with regard to marriage in the Church, and how it played out it the formative years of the Christian community. There seems to be honour given to both singleness and marriage. Paul assumes marriages will take place. Some (or perhaps even most) Christians will marry, and likely have children and ought to conduct themselves in the context of marriage in ways which reflect Christ (how the remarks like those in Eph. 5 are best interpreted is a discussion which I am fairly sure will come up in the future). But Paul makes significant room for singleness as a viable, or even preferable way.

So, what do we do with that in the here and now? The Christian cultural bubble seems to prefer marriage. There certainly seems to be a significant push on young folks in the Christian community to “pair up” and make babies for the glory of God. The “family values” ideal of dad, mom, 3 kids, a house, a dog, a minivan, etc. has become assumed as the vision for Christian life. Those who remain unmarried sometimes receive some funny looks and strange questions (“when are you going to settle down?”, “haven’t met the right person yet?”, etc.) There is pressure in Churches to build ministries to young families. But how many ministries to young singles exist? And are the ones that do exist mainly focused on creating opportunities for singles to meet potential spouses? I suspect that part of the reason I was called to my current pastoral role was because I was married and expecting a second child when I interviewed. A young family man will attract the young families to Church. But this of course denigrates singleness. We certainly wouldn’t consciously exclude singles, but what part do they have in the overall vision of the Church’s mission? (Also, it’s bizarre that folks in the congregation I pastor emphasize young families, when our building is located in a neighbourhood which is mostly made up of folks who aren’t young families).

Also, it’s worth asking, is there a double standard? Are single men finding a different experience from single women? I’d certainly be curious to hear the experiences of both sides on this front. Are single women honoured in their singleness or is it viewed as strange? Do men receive similar pressure to find a nice girl to build a family with? The demographics of my own congregation suggests that singles are not flocking to Church (at least not this one). We have a few, but they are far outnumbered by married couples, widowed folks, and even by divorced people. The number of never married folks is a very slim percentage here. Is that because of the assumed expectation of marriage?

So to summarize and suggest some ideas to cover in our conversation:

1. What assumptions do we see at work regarding the relationship between Christianity and marriage?

2. Can we establish a biblical foundation for honouring singleness in the Church?

3. Has the Church over-emphasized the ministry to the young families demographic?

4. Do we see a conscious or unconscious bias toward having clergy be married?

5. Is there a difference in the experience of men and women towards singleness?