As the church, it’s clear to us that the world is confused when it comes to marriage and singleness. But, in our own hearts, have we let its ideals become indistinguishable from or interchangeable with truth? Are we steadfastly teaching each other what marriage actually is, what God requires in it, and highlighting that He will still be perfectly pleased with singles if they thoughtfully walk the celibate path He outlines in scripture? Or are we letting Disney and social expectations do the cajoling, while the church only then moves into the aftermath to pick up the shattered faith of our misinformed marrieds and hungry singles?
Bible-loving Christians as a whole value marriage, which is indeed what God intends (Hebrew 13:4). However, the original Reformer’s critique of the Roman Catholic practice of forbidding marriages for clergy seems to have spread into the Protestant church as a libertine suspicion of celibacy itself. For centuries, many good Christians have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, heaping on social pressure for all to marry (not simply the majority who need sexual respite and also can accept biblical marriage teachings), and the fruit is unsettling.
Consider your own church. Could it be more effective if the Christian husbands and wives who are consistently sexually defrauding their spouse realized that they had little appetite for tending to earth-bound concerns before marrying? What of the marrieds who chronically feel their spouses, roles, and children are hindrances to enjoying the Lord? What about the single average Joes and Janes who personally desire all the responsibilities contained within God’s design for marriage, but remain unnoticed because his or her eligible sisters or brothers in Christ would rather have a more temporally attractive, but less enthusiastic spouse?
God is sovereign over all situations, and His power to transform is not limited by the ingrained issues ignored before a couple’s wedding, nor is He even bound by the dreary statistics and numerical discrepancies for singles in His church who know they want to be subject to marital vows. We absolutely need to provide compassionate, biblical guidance to those currently experiencing non-ideal situations, teaching all to be faithful and joy-filled where they’re at; however, if we could prevent some of the hurt, the drained resources, the lost productivity, and the poor examples provided to the mocking world around us, wouldn’t we? Journeying forward, how can we be happier by pursing His glory and obeying His Word?
Prior to marriage, it would be beneficial to stand firm on scripture and take our martial temperature. Do we want it for what God says it actually is? Yes? Wonderful; marriage is a good thing, so pursue it while relying on Him. But what if we could do without it? Then proceed in that state without shame, embracing undivided service as a gift from the Lord.
For contemplation and evaluation, here are reasons to not get married:
- Don’t care much for sex and its natural results
“Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth.” (Malachi 2:15)
If the thought of an ongoing sexual relationship with our future spouse fills us with dread or apathy instead of giddiness and jubilation, we ought not to brush those feelings under the rug. God designed marriage to be a complete package, not a la carte; overall, we can’t take the relationship without the sex, nor can we take the sex without the relationship. If we have a personal disregard for sex and still want to marry, wouldn’t we be knowingly undermining a primary purpose for marriage? Sexual desires are the reason Paul strongly advocates for marriage, after all, and he makes clear that marriage would hinder a non-sexually needy person’s potential for productivity (1 Corinthians 7:32-34).
If we do crave legitimate sex and we’re currently considering marriage to someone who has the attitude that they can take or leave it, we need take heed and ask them clarifying questions; if we were to insist on marrying a brother or sister who would feel more fulfilled living a celibate life for God’s own purpose, wouldn’t it be a disservice to both? Wouldn’t marriage then only provide a distraction to their Christian service without one of its primary benefits? Not, of course, that the struggle of marriage couldn’t still serve to produce virtues of patience, self-sacrifice, and loving-kindness in their life, but those same virtues could also be developed through other rich relationships while still enabling them to undividedly serve. It’s clearly advisable to marry a brother or sister who can humbly and frankly admit that marriage is a good concession they personally need to utilize for the flourishing of perseverance in their life (1 Corinthians 7:9).
Likewise, think about children, an end God designed sex for (Genesis 1:28). If we are not excited by the possibility of children, we should take time to be thoughtful. Consider how sex being ordered toward and open to creating family is integral to the institution of marriage, and to divorce it from that potential is to refuse what God has called a blessing (Psalm 127; Psalm 128:3). If we do not have a desire for this blessing, we must ask ourselves why. Do we think the possibility of bearing or siring a child of our own would hamper our ability to serve God and be a parental presence in His family? Maybe it would, and that would thereby lead us to abstain from marriage.
We may need to wrestle with God and work through any or all of our sexual misgivings. But consider also that those same misgivings might be God’s redirection away from the path of marriage onto an alternative trail, the same one that Christ and Paul tread, that’s of utmost importance for the Kingdom of God.
- Don’t want to allow someone ownership
“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21)
Marriage makes one flesh out of two (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:6), and from a biblical standpoint, you will belong to your husband or wife about as much as their own arm does. When a limb receives a signal from the brain to reach out and grasp nourishment, it’s taken for granted that the limb will be cooperative, and the collaborative effort is for the limb’s good also. To fight against this mutual ownership in marriage is as unfitting and tragic as a body suffering the limitations of paralyzed legs.
Our spouse would have a right to make demands on our time and resources, as well as the right to their sexual desires being met. While neither a husband nor wife becomes chattel in marriage, it is absolutely a form of ownership we would be obligated to work within should we enter it.
This principal is present in the Old Testament (Genesis 2:21-23; Exodus 21:10), and is confirmed in the New:
“The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.” (1 Corinthians 7:3-4)
This oneness is again highlighted in a more general sense in Ephesians 5:28-31:
“In the same way [as Christ loves the Church] husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’”
If the thought of being intimately owned by another (beyond belonging fully to the Body of Christ and our Heavenly Father) feels troublesome, perhaps we ought to not pursue the ownership that is tied to marriage. The desire to flee any relationship expectation and claim can be a cause for correction and concern. However, God does find it beneficial that some of His people allow Him to be the only one who can make demands on their service. Remaining unmarried can certainly free us for a greater variety of fulfilling gospel-obligations.
- Don’t find the hierarchy of marriage appealing
“However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” (Ephesians 5:33)
Christ and His Bride, who is the collective of all Christians, are described as having a both a husband-wife (Ephesians 5:25-27, 32; Rev 19:7) and master-bondslave relationship (Matthew 13:27, 25:21; Luke 12:43; Acts 2:18, 4:29; Romans 6:16; 1 Corinthians 7:22; 1 Peter 2:16; Revelation 1:1, 7:3, 19:5, 22:3). In action, those roles are comparable, and exhibiting the hierarchal love of Christ and the church is a primary purpose of marriage. Uncomfortable yet?
Women are certainly given a pretty tall order when it comes to submitting to their husbands as a bondslave: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands” (Ephesians 5:22-24).
The thought of yielding to a broken husband as if he is our perfect Christ is naturally unsettling to us women, even though it’s a requirement for a God-glorifying marriage. Peter also emphasizes this principle by highly commending Sarah for calling Abraham master (1 Peter 3:1-6). You likely recall that Abraham wasn’t a blameless husband. In fact, he twice put her in a kind of moral and physical peril (allowing her to be separated from him and taken into the households of powerful men who wanted to have sex with her!) that would have earned him in some serious church discipline today. However, Peter explains that in revering her husband, she is ultimately putting her trust in God, who protected her and also can enable us to “not to fear what is frightening”! Women can show this deep strength by breaking rank with Eve and remaining unshakable, instead of grappling with men to steer the ship.
Lest anyone think submission is a bum deal for women, and that men reap only benefits, it’s important to note that God has made a husband’s leadership role require every bit as much obedience and self-sacrifice. Like Adam, men naturally wish to abdicate and absolve themselves from duty to their wives who are in their charge. It’s easier to be equal in hierarchy to her, so when things go south, he can tell God that it’s the fault of “the woman whom you gave to be with me!” (Genesis 3:12) in hopes the responsibility will fall on her head and not his. However, God is clear about a man’s significant spiritual culpability:
“ Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Ephesians 5:25-27)
Peter even gives a threat of disconnection from God if a husband does not rise to his assignment to love and be considerate toward his wife, the weaker vessel (1 Peter 3:7).
A similar model of male headship operates in church families as well (1 Timothy 2), though its roles are not as pressing as the minute-by-minute work of being husband and wife. Since all believers are subject to God’s beautiful concept of human hierarchy, neither singleness nor marriage makes us more or less man or woman.
Some might be averse to taking on God-honoring marriage roles and instead choose God-honoring celibacy, perhaps from experiencing the abuse of either role, or simply feeling the up-close-and-personal innerworkings of it in their life would be an obstacle to the mission for which they have been sent. They have equal value to those who are called to shoulder the roles of husband or wife, and single saints are still fully man or fully woman.
- Don’t want to adhere to marriage confines
“If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” (Matthew 19:10)
Following Christ clarification of God’s intentions for marriage, his disciples accuse him of being stringent. Why? Because He is.
Our Father has a demanding design for marriage. The Bible defines it as a husband and a wife, who are exclusively committed (Hebrews 13:4), ought to serve one another in their roles (Ephesians 5), have regular sex (1 Corinthians 7:5), and that death is the circumstance under which their union should be dissolved (Romans 7:2); God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), thus it is only permitted in cases of adultery (Matthew 19:9; Mark 10:12) and abandonment (1 Corinthians 7:15). It’s a covenant, as John Piper says, with “no backdoor”.
While it’s vital that all Christians agree that the Bible’s constraints on marriage are good and true, it in no way obligates all Christians to marry. Marriage is costly, and we ought to approach it solemnly, not with half-baked intentions and an eye for escape clauses, but resolving to be fully obedient within it.
So, should everyone just get over their apprehension and marry? “But [Jesus] said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” (Matthew 19:11-12)
If we don’t think we can confidently welcome on ourselves His confining commands for marriage, it’s no shame to be a eunuch for the Kingdom of God. Christ clearly never intended for every Christian to take on the good, yet difficult, restrictions of earthly marital vows.
Marriage for All, Singleness for All
All of the church can reap the benefits of wholeheartedly believing that who marries does good, and who abstains does better (1 Corinthians 7:38); if we agreed with scripture in this, then perhaps Christian marriage would never again be the drab result of social ambition, illegitimately-sought entanglements, or the desire for an Instagram-worthy wedding. Instead, it would be the fruit of honest evaluation of one’s own passions, the heeding of wise advice, and thoughtful acceptance of God’s tough marital commands.
The mystery of marriage is for all (Ephesians 5:32), but holding its shadow is only for some. Through Kingdom-purposeful couples, the world will be gifted with the clearest picture this side of Heaven of the Lamb and His bride, working in tandem with the single’s visible completeness in Christ, a gorgeous for-now realization of every Christian’s coming angel-like state.