(1 of 8 in a series for National Marriage Week)
In kicking off a series of posts on marriage, I’m keenly aware of a tension: some of you may feel left out or disregarded, because you’re not married. Perhaps you were married or engaged once, but aren’t now — and the memory stings. Perhaps you want to be married, but for whatever reason it just hasn’t happened. And perhaps you’re perfectly content to be unmarried, but feel pressure from people around you. In churches and especially in families, you get the message: You’re old enough to be married; you don’t have two heads; you’re not criminally insane — so why aren’t you married yet? (Even if you do marry, the expectations ratchet up: So, how long are you going to wait to have kids? You’re not getting any younger, you know.)
Here’s a particularly egregious example. An unmarried youth pastor once spoke of how the parents at his church were pressuring him to spend more and more of his free time with their kids: evenings, weekends. It wasn’t always said in so many words, but the attitude was: Why can’t you spend more time with them? It’s not like you have anyone to go home to yourself.
So let me apologize from the outset if, as a married person, I say anything in these posts that even remotely alienates the unmarried. I want to uphold marriage in such a way that doesn’t suggest that everyone should be married.
And personally, I don’t think it helps to promote singleness itself as a “gift.” As I’ve suggested in a previous post on 1 Corinthians 7:7, while it’s possible to read the verse that way, it seems more likely that Paul is referring to a spiritual gift of self-control. And ironically, Paul is writing into a situation in which it’s the married people who are being made to feel second-class.
When reading Paul’s words about marriage and singleness, we need to remember his primary concern: “I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor 7:35, NRSV). What matters most, married or not, is a single-minded devotion to God and the gospel.
It’s unavoidable: our life together in the church, our relationships, will to some extent be colored by social expectations that derive more from the surrounding culture than from the Bible itself. The awkwardness that unmarried Christians sometimes feel is a symptom of this. So whatever we do in the name of marriage ministry, let’s make sure as a community that it serves the kind of single-mindedness that the Christian life demands.