I’m reading this book right now that is really good. Well, the entire book isn’t really good, but the past few chapters have been fantastic. It’s Earthen Vessels; How our Bodies Matter to our Faith by Matthew Anderson.
The chapters that I’ve just finished are on tattoos, sex, and homosexuality, respectively. Anderson does a wonderful job thinking about those topics and raising pertinent points that are often overlooked. In particular, his chapter on sex is superb in pointing out the tendencies of the church today in glorifying sex and sexuality beyond the biblical bounds. Anderson points out that evangelicalism shows this tendency by the way we minimize the value of life-long celibate singleness.
We implicitly convey to young people that sex is a need by marginalizing those who are single or cordoning them off in singles groups so that they hopefully will get married….No wonder young people struggle to say sexually pure: either sex is essential to their flourishing as humans, or it isn’t. And if everyone who is married thinks it is, then young people will too – regardless of whatever else we tell them.
Oh, that’s so rich. He also quotes Oliver O’Donavan, who says:
“[The NT Church] conceived of marriage and singleness as alternative vocations, each a worthy form of life, the two together comprising the whole Christian witness to the nature of affectionate community. The one declared that God had vindicated the order of creation, the other pointed beyond it to its eschatalogical transformation”
In other words, as Anderson summarizes:
“Marriage points to Genesis, singleness to Revelation”
He then adds this gem of a paragraph:
The “communion of persons” that marriage exemplifies is, in this sense, a temporary reality. Paul tells the Corinthians in the same passage where he commends singleness, “For the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31). The New Testament’s basic contention is that our human flourishing is not found in marriages or the natural families that they inaugurate, but in bearing each others’ burdens in love within the church. The only alternative is to minimize the humanity of Jesus by treating his celibacy as an aberration rather than a possibility for our lives.
A church without singles has lost one of its main ways of warning against a sexual idolatry that has driven the whole world mad.
What I want to point out is that while I have felt like a valued and valuable member of my local church community, there is an underlying and perhaps dangerous message that is communicated often – “But you will get married.”
After all, I’m young, right? I’m statistically likely to get married**. I’m relatively cute, pretty domestic, and I love Jesus. According to everyone I know, I’m a “catch”. So they often speak of this someday where a man will come and we’ll love Jesus together and I’ll see the gospel in these new dimensions through our relationship. We’ll have babies and I’ll learn more about being a child of God through that. And then I’ll learn to be a woman of God by having crazy faith that He can handle my children’s lives better than I can. Then I’ll die old and full of years, with a life that reflects God’s goodness and faithfulness, right?
Now there’s nothing wrongwith that picture. It is one of those beautiful displays of the goodness of this world, a sign to unbelievers that although this present world is passing away, God has not abandoned His creation. I am thankful for the displays of Christ and the church I see in the marriages of those I know.
But I have a problem with the suggestion that this has to be the future God has ordained for me. There is, implicit in all these conversations, the idea that marriage and earthly family is the ultimate good for our earthly lives and the ultimate way to know God more. I don’t want to put words in the mouths of, well, everyone I know. None of them would say those words directly, nor would they agree that the idea is biblical. In fact if I asked, these dear friends would probably disagree with that idea.
The way they encourage me in loneliness, in ministry, in bouts of romantic opportunity, and in decision-making exposes blind spots, however. I fear, as Anderson says, that evangelicalism in general has lost a high view of singleness, and so have the people I know. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:7 – “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am.”
He says later on in 7:34-35 – “And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.”
The highest good in life isn’t marriage. It isn’t children. It isn’t a Pinterest-worthy life where “we do mistakes, hugs, family, bad grammar, etc“. It isTHIS:
“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
– Philippians 3:8-10
Yes, these good things like marriage and kids can point us to Christ, as all good gifts can. But they are not the only way that we can know Christ. In fact, suffering seems to be woven throughout the NT as the means by which we come to know Christ more, even more than marriage (and yes, I do realize that much of marriage and having kidsis suffering).
Ultimately my greatest goal in life should not be to get married, to have kids, or even to pursue those things. It should be to follow hard after Christ, to yield my life to Him to do with as He pleases. He may say “I want you married for my glory” or “I want you single for my glory” just as He may say “I want you as a teacher for my glory” or “I want you as a waitress for my glory”. All things are from Him and through Him and to Him. He decides what my life is about, not cultural norms, the desires of my friends, or even my preference. He decides how He wants my life to be, and I trust that He will orchestrate it as He wills for His glory – “it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. (Philippians 1.20)”
I don’t want this post to shame anyone who has encouraged me (or others) toward marriage. But what I want is to point us closer to the “center of biblical tension” (to quote Dr. McQuilkin). I want to live in a community that don’t just affirm the goodness of marriage, but the goodness of singleness – not just the goodness of Genesis, but the goodness of Revelation.
If we can somehow successfully affirm both marriage and singleness as callings and gifts from God, we will a people who reflect God’s goodness to a world whose only hope is this Creator King who has better plans for us than we have for ourselves. May we live (whether single or married) with Him as our ultimate good, and His salvation as our only hope.