The issue of sexuality and the church continues to occupy much space, especially in the UK just now, you would be forgiven for thinking that the all the church cares about is marriage and is busy excluding people from it.
Yet the New Testament offers both a disconcerting mix of comfort and conflict with regards human relationships whether straight or gay, married or single. There is it seems no entirely comfortable place to rest. Instead the scriptures prod you in your weaknesses and challenge you in your strengths. Here are a few examples of what I mean.
Lets take Mt 22:30 for example. In heaven there will be no marriage. This is disconcerting to those who are married. “Not married? Not married to the one I have forsaken all others for and shared my life with and have children with? Not married?!” Nope. For at death you were parted and in Christ you will be fully united. As RT France says in his Tyndale commentary,
Jesus’ reply points them to a possibility of fulfilment of these relationships in the risen life which the exclusiveness of the marriage bond in earthly life would have rendered unthinkable. Jealousy and exclusion will have no place there.
Love can be fierce and I’ve heard plenty of married people desperately seeking to soften this blow but the love of heaven is fiercer still. Yet this verse can offer strange comfort to those who are single. On the one hand they are promised an equal footing for all eternity, they are not doomed to loneliness or a sense of being on the outside from forever till forever. Opposed to that may be an increasing desire to experience the companionship that marriage offers in this life, instead of comfort for the future it increases a sense of conflict in the present or regret for the past.
Jesus wasn’t always easy on the married and quite right too, even if he did the supply the wine at a wedding. Far too often they repeat the behaviour of the man invited to a feast (Luke 14:20) because it’s date night or whatever. Jesus also provokes in his esteeming of the eunuch (Mt 19:3-12), it’s an incredibly challenging exchange. Jesus lambasted and laid into the married who cannot stay faithful, our ‘hardness of heart’ is the death of many a marriage and Jesus condemns us for it. His disciples hear this and say ‘well, it’s better if we didn’t marry then’ to which Jesus basically answers, ‘Yep’.
Likewise you will hear many a sermon that ‘it is not good for a man to be alone’ (Gen 2:18) and not so many on “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am” (1 Cor 7:8). Paul essentially accuses the couples of being weak and explicitly lacking self-control (a fruit of the spirit – Gal 5:23), our hearts and attention are divided and while getting married is just about OK in Paul’s book, he is definitely of the opinion that singleness is the better option (1 Cor 7:38) and he advises it. Paul’s pastoral counsel was: stay single. He may well have imminently expected the second coming of Christ but then so do we, don’t we? We’re happy to take Paul’s advice in other areas, why not take this one?
When was the last time you hard a preacher say that? In our age of high divorce rates, greater promiscuity and the continual decline of marriage, the church has become the chief backer and promoter of marriage. To those who are married of course, the church should be the greatest defender of marriage but the church should also be the greatest advocate of singleness, just like Paul and Jesus.
Oddly we rush to the defense of Jesus’ singleness in order to protect his divinity but not also to defend his humanity. Why should Jesus have been interested in Mary Magdalene or John for that matter (as the gay conspiracy goes)? Why could Jesus not have been perfectly content in his singleness as a young man of 33? I find it hard to believe that some of the alpha male preachers would preach that, but they should. The Bible does.
Significantly when sermons talk of ‘a cost to discipleship’ we often lay this on the shoulders of the single, that being single is a cost and a burden (which it sometimes is) but we can exempt families and couples from examining what cost they might have to pay in order to follow Christ. We can be a bit soft when it comes to Lk 14:26 so all husbands and wives can say, ‘well of course I love Jesus more than my spouse or kids’ while in no way having to change anything. This smacks a little of double-standards.
Of course, who am I talk? I lacked self-control (I genuinely did) and it was, indeed, better for me to have married. Yet I have to admit that Paul is right, I cannot give all my focus to gospel ministry, and nor does the scripture expect me to since I have taken on the responsibilities of husband and then father.
So my questions apply as much to me as any other church leader. There should be no ‘smug married’ in our churches and nor should there be lonely singles. Would those believers among us who struggle with the whole idea of a life of singleness (gay or straight) struggle as much if they heard it affirmed, promoted and encouraged as Paul affirmed, promoted and encouraged it? Instead of feeling like they’ve had to settle for less, that it’s only them that are missing out on all the goodies they might instead feel that their situation in life (be it temporary or permanent) is thoroughly and divinely and sovereignly approved. Perhaps then we can get rid of all those matching agencies and singles nights that churches run, aping the world with its aching loneliness.
I wonder whether the church has fallen short in its doctrine and fallen short in its practices. We have elevated marriage too highly and singleness not nearly highly enough. We have honoured the nuclear family and heightened the loneliness of our single family members. They don’t need our patronizing; they, I’m fairly sure, don’t want our matchmaking but instead they need to know we need them (and not just for baby-sitting) because the gospel will not advance as far or as fast without them.