In Ephesians 5, the Apostle Paul uses the image of Christ and His Church to give direction to married couples and their call to submission and sacrifice. These are valuable lessons, indeed. But I think that the matrimonial language used to describe our relationship with Jesus has misled American Christians to place a burden upon earthly marriage that it wasn’t designed to bear.
Perhaps because of a misunderstanding of Paul’s words about the mystery of the union between Christ and His Bride, in the minds of American Christians, marriage has taken a place that it was not meant to. As a consequence, it has become the ideological receptacle of two things: unrestricted sex without guilt and emotional stability.
Faced with the sexual revolution of the mid-20th century which persists and thrives still, American Christian culture has scrambled to express ages-long held sexual theology within our modern context. Unfortunately, instead of a nuanced and well-developed theology of the sexual part of human identity, the good use of the body, and the power of creating new life through the sexual act, the result is a condemnation of sex outside of marriage and a celebration of lots and lots of sex within it.
There is a problem with this simultaneous condemnation and celebration of sex: it takes our natural human inclination to have sex and asks us to put a rubber stamp on it that must be witnessed and performed by those with legal and ecclesiastical authority. I think the marriage debate right now rests on this.
(In addition to the Christian celebration of lots and lots of married sex, American Christian culture has left behind the procreative expectation of conjugal bliss, and we have forgotten that originally, in addition to being delightful, sex made babies, and it was good. But that’s a topic for another day.)
Chastity vs. Virginity
I adolesced at the beginning of the True Love Waits movement, and although I never signed the pledge for that organization, I knew many who did. Virginity was touted as salvation from the many evils plaguing young people (it was presented as an exclusively young-people problem…). We were taught to hold on to our virginity above all costs, but not to worry if we had already surrendered it because if we asked, God would grant to us a second virginity.
Virginity was salvation, not Jesus, the giver of chastity. (Thanks to Lauren Winner and her book Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity for her valuable insight. Read it.)
I am a witness to the harm of these well-intended but insufficient and damaging teachings. We have asked sexual human beings to lock down an integral facet of their personhood–sexuality–and save it for later.
Two problems: First, a healthy sexuality cannot be merely unlocked on the honeymoon night, nor even in the months of pre-marital counseling that leads up to the act of post-vow consummation. It takes years of conversation, prayer, self-examination, and shepherding to possess a healthy sexuality.
Second, marriage is promised to none of us. Not one. So if we press down and push aside consideration and practice of the sexual part of our identity, and marriage is not ‘in the cards’ for us, we usually see two results: 1) we will go crazy trying to control or ignore the sexual part of us and eventually go nuts or numb and transgress the call of Christ to holiness; or 2) we will live a stilted, crippled life, denying our sexuality from seeing the light of day, even though it is an integral part of our identity, and therefore submitting our souls to an unholy crucifixion.
The issue: Idolatry
To put this issue in a few words, American Christians have made an idol of marriage and have held it above almost all other goods in this life. This has limited (and even prohibited) the exploration and discussion of the sexual part of our identity as humans, setting up the expectation that true human fulfillment can only be achieved within the confines of marital bliss.
This has caused a fracture in our souls, and we are seeing it at a local and national level.
Please hear me clearly: I do not deny that “he who finds a wife finds a good thing” (Proverbs 18:22 ESV). Marriage is a powerful design of God’s love to bring healing, life, happiness, and stability into our world, into our cultures. But it is far from God’s only design to bring healing, life, happiness, and stability; it is not even God’s best and most effective design.
That, my friends, is friendship.
What is the greatest love? Jesus doesn’t say the love between a husband and wife, but rather he celebrates the love of someone who is willing to lay her life down for her friends (John 15:13 generalized).
We as American Christians have traded the highest good of friendship and substituted for it the guilt-free sex zone of marriage. We have cared more about violating our consciences in sexual activity than about cultivating deep and lasting friendship outside of marriage. We have lost the valuable years of the practice of friendship in the Church, and we have done it in at least two ways. Some of us exalted married love above friendship, and some of us have assumed that no such friendship like that of David and Jonathan could be as binding as the Scripture makes it seem without some romantic attachment or sexual foray.
A majority of our churches have been dominated by married people. Suspicion has grown up around the single life. We shun it. We avoid it at all costs. We devalue the state of being single because we have redefined the good.
Unless we change our definition of the greatest love, we will persist in our idolatry of marriage and we will continue to see rotten fruit come from it. Tragically, those who reap a lot of that fruit are our single friends.
We make promises to them, that “God has someone for you, just wait.”
We treat Christian marriage as a right, not as one of many paths in the family of the Church.
But the only right I can see in the Scripture of such a nature is the right to become a child of God (John 1:12-13).
May I be so bold as to say that in the economy of God, we don’t have the right to marry. Marriage is not a promise to any of us as we take up our cross and follow the Godman.
We have the right to become children of God.
Loneliness and Despair
In the past several years, I have attempted to navigate the rough waters of the national conversation on gay marriage, and to navigate it faithfully as a Christian. For me, this means to remember the heart of my compassionate Father who has been so kind to me on my own journey of understanding the sexual part of my identity. My experience of fractured sexuality and the experience of those closest to me have caused me to force myself to be slow to judge and quick to listen, understand, and pray. On the journey to sexual wholeness, I have found no easy answers.
At Rachel Held Evans’s suggestion, I watched the testimony of Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian. Vines is a gay man, a self-described conservative Christian, extremely articulate and careful in his speech and research. After a lot of searching, he has found himself a proponent, and a powerful one at that, for gay marriage in a Christian context.
He tells the story of growing up in a loving, supportive family where the Bible was held as the life-giving Word of God. He has a good relationship with both his father and mother, which challenges the conservative Christian position that homosexuality is always linked to a poor relationship with one’s parents.
But as Vines grew and experienced attraction not for women but for men, his despair grew. He felt sad and depressed because if what the BIble taught was true, that homosexuality was not God’s portion for humans, that he would be lonely and alone for the rest of his life. He described his acute longing for companionship and a family of his own, in tender and compelling words. He laid out his well-researched and thoughtful biblical and cultural defense of gay marriage.
As I watched him speak, I recognized myself in his story. It is true that attraction to my own gender has been present in my story, but more than just that echoed in me—the loneliness, the desire for a family of my own, the despair at the prospect of never being married—these were familiar.
I remember when I was 18 and freshly graduated from high school. I was traveling with 3 other women, all happily married, to a Christian women’s conference several hours away. I sat in the back of that Chevy Avalanche and wept, convinced that I would never have a companion to love me, and that I would be alone forever. At that time, it was the most acute pain I had ever felt, and it was miserable.
The ladies with me noticed my crying, and as I attempted to share my pain, they assured me that I would get married someday, that I would not be forever alone. Their words comforted me then, and I have indeed gone on to be married and happily so. But what if I were still single, like many of my dear friends? What place do the words of those well-meaning ladies have in the life of a lonely single person?
Effectively, we are saying this: Don’t worry…when you get married, it will be better. Wait for God’s timing in your fulfillment.
If, not when
The issue I take with this common comfort given to Christians who are single is this: For the Christian, marriage is an if, not a when. If we in the Church handle it as a when, an expectation or right for the faithful, marriage becomes a looming idol, with the hearts of the expectant sacrificed at its altar.
It is only when we handle marriage as an if that we can make headway in this necessary conversation. It is a matter that is tied up so deeply in our incarnational reality as spiritually and physically relational beings made by a good and kind God.
Perhaps you will think that mine being married disqualifies me from commentary on this issue. But I can only share my story and my observations, because they are all that I have.
In the Christian context, we have limited rights. If it is possible to separate the two, please understand that I am separating human rights and the rights of a person as a Christian before God. Our king teaches us what it is to lay down our lives and our rights for the sake of others.
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God.
John 1:12 NKJV
This situates each of us in a family, the family where God is the head and we are the children. Being His child is what defines us and identifies us. Family is the answer to our loneliness and despair, but it is so much bigger than biology. The church at its most basic expression is a family. Yes, we are growing up into a bride. Yes, there is a marriage feast coming. But dare I say, before all that – – we are a family, God our Father and Christ our brother.
And this family is held together by the love of God and the friendship of His Son.
So let us leave aside the idol of marriage and seek friendship first. We have so much to learn from friends who have gone before us.
Marriage is not for everyone, but friendship is.