Evangelicals have been writing about marriage for many years. We still are, 10 years after same sex marriages became a legal reality in Canada. Still, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Ogberfell decision has once again put marriage on the front burner for evangelicals and other Christians across North America. And we are writing, writing, writing at least with greater ferocity than before.
Having been asked what I think, I submit that this is a great time NOT to write about marriage.
I think the controversy has provided us evangelicals with an opportunity to write about Christendom’s higher calling: celibacy. Sadly, however, it has also demonstrated to some of us that we can’t talk with people about celibacy because the popular evangelical understanding of marriage is so feeble.
First the opportunity. How might our singles react were they to hear that the celibate life was a vocation, a calling (Matthew 19:11)? That this vocation was not so much a gift from God as the gift of one’s whole self to God? How might they react were they to hear that this gift was a sacrifice, and like any sacrifice, it involved pain? To give one’s self entirely to God means sacrificing the possible life of spouse and children. What if we were to teach them that the inevitable pain of singleness is not a sign that their lives are incomplete, but the sign of a gift offered to God?
How might some of our singles respond were they to hear that the calling of celibacy, while painful, also freed one for service entirely to God and his church by laying aside a family’s inevitable demands (1 Corinthians 7:32-35)? Goodness me, we’ve heard lots about people surrendering marriage and family for the sake of career goals and the acquisition of wealth. How about for the sake of God’s mission in the world? That would be radical!
Or, finally, how might some of our singles respond were they to hear that their life anticipates the kingdom in a way that marriage does not? Marriage, as the union of male and female, points to God’s union with creation, to YHWH’s union with Israel, and to Christ’s union with the Church. When the full divine-human union of the kingdom comes, the sign will pass away (Matt. 22:30). If marriage brings the future into the present as a sign, celibacy brings the present into the future through anticipation. As a chosen vocation, celibacy is the wager of one’s self that the blessedness of the future kingdom will exceed the blessedness of family life now, and so is embraced in the present. Celibacy is not some sort of “failure to launch” but uniquely points to the Kingdom in a way that marriage cannot.
Now the challenge. When I worked at a Christian bookstore in the early nineties, an entire shelf was devoted to “marriage and family life.” We even sold Christian sex manuals. I don’t know a couple my age who didn’t survive an excruciating exposition of The Act of Marriage or Intended for Pleasure. People like me, older and unintentionally unpartnered, tended to fall into one of two camps: super-apostles “gifted with celibacy” or failing in our Christian vocation to marry. Holy freaks, or just freaks. Either way, we weren’t popular. Church was for the married or the on-the-way-to-be-married. Far too often in my experience, marriage was caricatured as the license to have sex. In hindsight, pretty thin gruel.
If the evangelical view of marriage really is that which surrounded me twenty-five years ago, we don’t have the resources we need to preach those sermons I mentioned above. We need a robust theology of marriage to help us flesh out an equally strong theology of the celibate life.
With the conflation of sexuality and identity thrust upon us in our culture’s marriage-and-sex-obsession, we have a chance to recover the deeply Christian language of celibacy. Are our pastors and leaders, men and women, married and celibate, up to the challenge?