“But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.”
– Genesis 2:20-25
““For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.”
– Ephesians 5:31-32
“Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this. What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away. I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord. If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better.“
– 1 Corinthians 7:25-38
The Census Bureau recently reported that the rate of marriage among Americans 18 and older was 50.3% in 2013. This is the lowest ever recorded rate and is down from a peak of 72.2% in 1960. Interestingly, last year was the first in which same sex marriages were included in the figure, but that did not stop the downward trend in marriage. So it seems inevitable that in the very near future, unmarried adults will outnumber those who are married. Even so, the concept of marriage is a preeminent one in our society, whether culturally, politically, or even religiously. In every day society, dating and marriage preoccupy much discourse and angst, which is reflected in popular culture. The classic and modern fairy tales of the happily ever after are ingrained in our consciousness from our earliest years. The recent marriage of the long-term bachelor George Clooney was headline news across the globe, and marriages of other celebrities are followed with keen interest by many. Politically, marriage is a hot-button issue today because of gay marriage, but marriage has been a political concern for a long time. Governments promote marriage by providing institutions that create and enforce it and provide many benefits to married couples, including tax and social benefits. Many religions consider marriages to be holy and have creeds and customs that shape marriage. Christianity too has had deep involvement with marriages with some traditions viewing it as a sacrament. In the midst of the tremendous focus on romantic relationships and marriage, singlehood has been viewed in a decidedly less favorable manner. The broader society views a single life as abnormal, pitiable, and even unhealthy. This point was brought home in a recent sketch on Saturday Night Live that noted the increase in the rate of singles and made fun of a desperate, lonely, and looney single character. The clear message of the skit, which reflects societal views, was: “you can’t be happy unless you are in a romantic relationship”. Politically, in the midst of the debate about gay marriage, there is no recognition of the value of singlehood and very little political, economic, and social support for singles. The same neglect can been seen in many religious communities, including unfortunately evangelical Christian communities. But if that is how marriage and singlehood are viewed in the world, what does scripture have to say about it?
At the outset, I feel that I need to address whether the exalted state of marriage in the evangelical church is warranted. I have heard and read countless sermons and articles by evangelicals that extol the virtues of marriage. The typical presentation is that God set up marriage in Genesis because it is not good for a man to be alone and God designed us to become “one flesh” with our mate. Some emphasize the children produced by this union while others emphasize the spiritual and social roles of the husband and the wife. Singlehood is typically viewed as a stepping stone to marriage, a period in which we seek to maintain sexual purity all the while praying for our God-ordained mate. A lifelong singleness is viewed as aberrant and even unspiritual, with suspicions of internal problems including homosexuality. Of course, some evangelicals take a more nuanced view and recognize the possibility of a godly single life. Even so, most evangelicals view the married life as the “norm” and even “normative”, if perhaps subconsciously, and view the lifelong single path as a very rare exception for those who have a supernatural gift of celibacy from God. In contrast to this prevailing view, Apostle Paul lays out the godly vision of marriage and singlehood in 1 Corinthians 7 quoted in part above. The overriding message is that both marriage and singlehood can be godly but that one who chooses singlehood “does better”. This is because singlehood allows a follower of Jesus to be fully devoted to God in body and spirit while marriage unavoidably leads to some division in devotion. This is consistent with the rest of the New Testament that views wholehearted pursuit of God and His will to be the most blessed state. As Paul notes, this does not mean that one sins by marrying, and to be clear, one does not earn brownie points with God by being single since God’s blessings are solely by His grace. Rather, we can choose that which is “better” as a grateful response to God’s grace in our lives. It is important to recognize that nowhere in this passage or elsewhere is a single life devoted to the Lord considered an aberration or rare. Indeed, Paul encourages us to seek the greater gifts of God, and he encourages all single believers to follow His footstep and the footsteps of Jesus in leading a single life of faith. What this single life looks like is something I’ll address in a future post.
While singleness is the better option for many Christians, marriage will be the godly path for others. Most Christians view the essence of marriage as being described in the Genesis passage quoted above. The male and the female are viewed as incomplete in themselves and find oneness and community in a spouse. An influential theory among evangelical Christians is the concept of complementarity, which states that God created men and women with complementary features that allow for the ideal oneness when the two come together. The complementarity is manifest in many dimensions including physiological, psychological, social, and spiritual. Physiologically, the male reproductive organs are viewed as complementing the female reproductive organs, with the insertion of the penis in the vagina viewed as the paradigmatic example. Psychologically, the masculine traits that men are supposed to have are viewed as complementing the feminine traits that women are supposed to have. Socially, the husband’s vocational work and protection is viewed as complementing the wife’s homemaking work and nurture. Spiritually, the husband’s spiritual headship is viewed as complementing the wife’s support and submission. In support of the complementarity theory of marriage are cited the Genesis 2 passage, Paul’s teachings on marriage roles, and other passages that describe marriage among people in the Bible. It is important to recognize, however, while scripture indeed describes certain complementarity between the male and the female, nowhere does scripture actually proclaim complementarity among genders as the primary reason for human marriage. Complementarity proponents also rely on natural law, which states that human beings and parts of human beings are governed by universal laws about what things mean and how they should function. With regard to sexuality and marriage, the human sexual physiology is viewed as mandating use of human sexual faculties for their “natural” purpose, which is procreation. As such, heterosexual marriage is both normal and normative because such marriage fosters the “natural” purpose of our sexuality. The problem with reliance on natural law is that natural law is merely human philosophizing about what things should be like and is not based on scripture. Furthermore, the “natural” purpose of any object is highly debatable and cannot be used as a reliable basis for theology. Hence, complementarity theory, while having some descriptive merit, does not provide a sufficient scriptural basis for biblical marriage.
Instead of complementarity, the true basis of biblical marriage can be seen in Ephesians 5:31-32 quoted above. Apostle Paul quotes the Genesis 2 passage and notes that the two becoming one flesh is a profound mystery, but that this mystery is about Christ and the church. This is not surprising given that Jesus stated in John 5:39 that the scriptures are first and foremost about Him. The marriage of Jesus with His bride the church is a tale repeatedly told in the New Testament from the gospels to Revelations. The Genesis passage, rather than defining marriage, is an image of the ultimate marriage of Christ and the church. It is often taught in evangelical churches that Christ’s work of salvation was foretold when God said to the serpent after Adam and Eve sinned that “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel”. Indeed, “offspring” refers to Christ and this Genesis passage shows that God’s work of salvation was already in the works. But the foretelling of Christ’s salvation actually occurs earlier in the Genesis 2 passage quoted above. Just as Jesus fell asleep and His body was broken, so did Adam fall asleep and a rib was removed from him. Jesus’s broken body allowed the birth of His bride the church as Adam’s broken body gave birth to Eve. Just as Jesus longs for His bride the church and will be united with her in the ultimate marriage, Adam longed for Eve and became united with her in human marriage. Consequently, just as Adam and Eve’s marriage points to Christ and the church, so does every other human marriage point to the ultimate marriage. The true meaning of marriage is therefore not retrospective but rather prospective. So what can we learn about human marriage from the ultimate marriage? There are many facets, but I’ll cite just a few. First, marriage is about sacrificial love. Jesus loved and died for His bride before she was beautiful, and He continues to love and care for her after she is redeemed. Second, marriage is about purity and fidelity. Both Jesus and the bride are virgins prior to the consummation in marriage and are faithful to one another for eternity. Third, marriage is about complementary roles, not in some historically or societally constructed ways but rather in the image of Jesus’s relationship with the church. The husband is the head and the wife is the support, but both of these roles are expressed in submission and love. Gender plays a critical role in these complementary roles, as Jesus is the male groom while the church is the female bride. While gender will be explored in greater detail in a future post, gender plays an important role in marriage because the ultimate marriage is a union of the male and the female.
In the end, singlehood and marriage are both ways of living out one’s faith in Christ. Singlehood mirrors the life of Christ as a single person while awaiting His bride and allows one to devote one’s heart and life to our ultimate groom Jesus. Marriage mirrors the marriage of Christ and the church and allows one to have a foretaste of that marriage and serve Christ from that marriage foundation. Either way, the faithful path of a Christian is to follow the example of Christ and to experience a true representation of His life.