For Those Who Are Uncoupled

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(This post is a slightly longer version of the blog I wrote for my church)

A Powerful Picture

If the past is any indicator, this weekend I will see a reoccurring genre of images on my social media feeds. And no, I am not talking about the pictures of flowers, chocolate, and smiling couples at nice restaurants. The exact details differ, but often these pictures depict a wine bottle accompanied by a solitary glass. Some also feature a catchy hash tag like #ValentinesDayDinner . The funny thing is, I don’t always see food in these pictures. An image really can speak volumes.

This day, though joyful for some, is a painful reminder of aloneness for many others. Singles Awareness Day provides a fitting acronym for many who long to spend the evening with someone special, but can’t.

What good can a blog post about singleness do on Valentine’s Day?

When I was asked to write about this for my church’s blog I resisted for two reasons. First, I fear that anything written about singleness to be published at this time has the distinct possibility of doing more harm than good. This can be an emotionally volatile time, and even well intentioned words can cause real pain when read at the wrong time. I also understand that simply being single does not make me an expert on the subject. While many singles have similar stories, it is impossible to describe the “single experience” with uniformity. Men and women experience singleness differently.  Being single at twenty one is far different from being single at sixty. Some people choose to be single and others are single against their wishes. All of our divergent experiences of singleness have their own particular challenges, and the last thing any single adult wants to hear is another person claiming to know exactly how they feel.

That said, I have decided to venture into this minefield with the belief that some good can come from an honest discussion about what it means to be single today. I am certainly not a sage with great wisdom to share, but I am a fellow traveler who cares about other people also experiencing singleness. My goal here is to tell you a little bit about my own experience and share a few truths that have encouraged me in this journey.

Where I Stand

I have written on singleness before in a general sense, and I plan to write about it again, but perhaps this situation calls for a more personal reflection. This is the post I almost didn’t write because there is always a danger with this type of vulnerability. You don’t want to be misinterpreted, and you certainly don’t want to come across as desperate. But I share in the hope that something I write will resonate with those who read.

I never expected to be single at twenty eight. While singleness at this age is pretty typical in urban areas, I come from a place, Northern Michigan, where marriage in the early twenties is normal – and I expected to be married for years by this point. Most of my friends back home are married, and three of my younger siblings are also married. My birth family is very important to me, and I care about families a lot. I have long desired to be a husband and father.

Romantic relationships are all around me. Within the past two months there have been nine different engagements among my friends, (including two different girls I once went on dates with) and I am excited for all these couples. I can think of five girls I once pursued romantically who are now engaged or married to someone else.

I often vacillate between really enjoying my life and really wanting to be in a relationship, but the desire for marriage is almost always there for me. It isn’t typically haunting or overwhelming, but it is usually present. And if I wasn’t already thinking about it, there are plenty of reminders.

It’s Not Always Easy

It seems like everyone has something to say about singleness, and many of them seek to remedy the “problem”.  Friends offer us well meaning encouragements to “put yourself out there”, even though many of us do all the time.  We are even told to not “be so picky” – as if desiring mutual attraction, appropriate social function, and spiritual stability is really asking too much. During the holidays we have to endure interrogation by relatives who are concerned about our relationship status. After all, they all got married before twenty five, so we must be doing something wrong. On top of all that, at this time of year in particular we are bombarded by advertisers seeking to leverage emotional connections to sell their products. (Just a side note with this one: if you honestly think the jewelry store cares about you or the health of your relationship, think again. They will sell jewelry to a man buying for his mistress, and they are just as enthusiastic about your second engagement as they are your first – at least if you buy the ring from them)

Being single can be hard, and sometimes it is even harder in the church. Single adults are accustomed to hearing spiritual, but often trite, exhortations about how God has a plan. We are regularly fed sermons and illustrations that focus on marriage and family life. Those of us who are seeking a spouse often find dating within the church to be confusing. Making the transition from sister or brother in Christ to girlfriend or boyfriend (and sometimes back again) can be difficult.

In addition to these general church/singleness concerns, I deal with other specific challenges related to my vocation. Practically, being single while serving in the ministry limits your employment opportunities. Some churches and ministries are hesitant to hire older, single men. Worries about relating to the married population and suspicions about sexual orientation seem to be the most common concerns. While I tend to think any standard that would bar Jesus and the Apostle Paul from church leadership is wrong, the reality is that a lot of churches just don’t want an unmarried pastor.

And if you think dating within the church is awkward, try being on staff and dating girls at your church.  Balancing spiritual care for all and personal affection for one is not the easiest thing to do, and you never want to be guilty of making any woman feel uncomfortable worshiping in your community because you express romantic interest in her.

What I Have Found Helpful:

At this point you know a little bit more about me. Perhaps some of you can also relate to these experiences. Now I would like to offer three principals I have learned to apply in the midst of my single experience.

1.      Surround Yourself With Community

We often connect God’s words in Genesis 2:18 “It is not good that the man should be alone” (ESV) with romance. After all, soon after God said this He created Eve. But we must remember that God wasn’t just satisfying Adam’s romantic longings, He was also providing him someone to share life with. Adam’s need for human friendship was even greater than his need for sexual fulfillment. In our western context we tend to see romantic relationships as the primary avenue for deep personal connection, but this modern attitude is far from Christian. The marriage relationship is not the only relationship in which one can experience God’s design for community. God never designed us to live in isolation, and we must be careful to cultivate godly community in whatever stage of life we are in.

I am particularly blessed to be part of a church with a large group of unmarried adults. Many of these people I consider to be good friends, and we do a ton of stuff together. I also have a great Christian roommate, and we regularly have inspiring conversations about God and life. These relationships are some of my greatest blessings, and I don’t take them for granted.

Pursuing this type of community requires intentionality. We may be required to shift our priorities and make sacrifices to develop these relationships. Practically it often starts with small decisions like planning events with your friends – not because you are looking for romance, but because you need other people in your life. It may also mean choosing those you live with carefully, and having a roommate even if you would rather live alone. Living with an older couple or a family could also help build this type of community into your life.

2.      Listen To The Right Voices

As we already discussed, there are no shortage of perspectives and opinions on singleness and relationships today. Many of them, dare I say most, are not worth listening to. We must take control over what messages about relationships we absorb. This will likely mean (politely) tuning out the over-curious relatives and learning to ignore the sappy television ads. We may need to stop reading the romance novels and constantly listening to mournful love tunes. We may even need to set aside the Christian dating and marriage books for a while.

So what voices should we listen to then? We can start by listening to those who are doing life right regardless of their relationship status.  And we should develop friendships with those who care more about the person we are now than about the person we might someday date. If your friends make you feel like a lesser person for being single you may need to find new friends.

We can also read the words of those who have navigated the waters of singleness commendably. Many church fathers and monastics wrote extensively about their single experience, and their words are a vital part of our Christian heritage. There are also current authors who write powerfully about what it looks like to live a Godly and fulfilling single life. In particular I have found the writers at Spiritual Friendship to be profoundly encouraging in their attitudes about relationships. Though these authors often write from the perspective of those who experience same sex attraction their words about singleness are full of wisdom and encouragement even for those of us who do not share their specific situation.

3.      Remember God’s Truth

I grew up in a church full of children, and every night at my home we listened to the Focus on the Family radio broadcast. It may not have been intentional, but the unavoidable impression was given was that good Christians all got married and had kids, preferably at a young age. The idea that living as a single person could be pleasing to God may have been given lip service but this wasn’t encouraged or recommended. In fact single adults were often looked at with sympathy and suspicion.

God, however has a lot to say about singleness and some of it may surprise you if grew up in a church like mine. Jesus and Paul affirm the single life by their words (Matthew 19:12, 1 Corinthians 7) and examples. Scripture also clearly teaches that human marriage is only for this earth. (Mark 12:25) For the Christian, the single state is the eternal state. Even the best, most beautiful, most God honoring marriage will not last into eternity.

It is also worth noting that Christianity stands out among other belief systems in the way it affirms the single life. This is specifically true when you compare Christianity to Judaism, Islam and Mormonism. As Barry Danylak says in his book Redeeming Singleness:

“While Christianity is similar to its Judeo-Christian siblings in its sexual ethics and value for family, it is notably different from its siblings in its affirmation of singleness as a gift and valued lifestyle within the life of the believing community.”p.17

Unfortunately, as we have already discussed, single adults may not feel affirmed in many churches today. Christians are not always good at living out our theology, and this is one of the areas where we have failed. But it is comforting to know that there will always be an important seat for singles at God’s table. Remembering the acceptance Christ showed to single adults should give us patience with those who don’t understand, and stoke in us a passion for making our church a welcoming place for those who are uncoupled.

If you are single, I hope something here has been encouraging to you, and I pray that this weekend will be different (and better) for you than it could have been otherwise. I plan to spend this weekend with friends and also attend a Valentine’s Day party. But I will certainly be glad when it’s over – at least for one reason. On Monday the candy goes on sale.

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How To NOT Be Single

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Should We All Just Get Married?

Over the past few years I have read several articles that urge young adults to marry. The reasons given for this encouragement are many. Marriage is said to promote personal maturity, encourage spiritual growth, provide a healthy outlet for sexual desire, and challenge us to sacrifice for others. (Also see: Young and In Love Challenging the Unnecessary Delay of Marriage) While Christian authors seem more likely to engage in this discussion, some secular voices have also spoken out, encouraging marriage at a younger age.

To be quite honest, I find many of these arguments to be persuasive. I spend a lot of time meeting with young, unmarried men, and I often encourage them to get serious about pursuing marriage and family. I firmly believe that many young adults should seriously consider getting married earlier in life. I am also convinced that marriage, when undertaken with God’s design in mind, has the ability to powerfully and positively shape those who enter into such a union.

But why is singleness described so negatively? Well, this is largely because extended singleness has become associated with irresponsible living. Some of those choosing to remain unmarried are also choosing to act childishly. Avoiding commitment in marriage is often associated with avoiding commitment in other areas. For whatever reason, young men seem more likely to fall into extended immaturity. This new wave of self-obsessed, overgrown frat boys has frustrated their female peers and led Kay Hymowitz, among others, to ask Where Have the Good Men Gone? While single women do tend express a bit more motivation than do single men, the fairer sex is not immune to irresponsibility. HBO’s successful series Girls depicts a group of young women who also seem content to extend their adolescence indefinitely. There is a right way to be single, but this certianly isn’t the way…

Of course there are also other reasons for marriage to be delayed. Educational and professional goals often take priority over relational ones, and many of today’s young adults are transient, making developing relationships more difficult. While these factors are certainly understandable, many cases of singleness that happen under these circumstances are also influenced by unchecked selfishness and disordered priorities.

There are plenty of bad reasons to be single, and there are also plenty of singles living badly today. I make no excuses for the poor examples of singleness in my generation, and I certainly don’t claim to have mastered the life stage myself.

That said, I am beginning to wonder if all this criticism of the single state is a bit misdirected. Is it possible that our experience of singleness and not singleness itself is the primary problem? Perhaps rather than trying to reduce the number of years people remain single we should instead begin teaching people how to correctly use their years of singleness. Maybe instead of just telling young adults to get married we should seek to help them navigate singleness in a God honoring manner.

If the core problem is irresponsibility and poor character among single adults, marriage won’t necessarily remedy this.  It may actually serve to compound the problem. Getting married does not automatically fix a person’s character flaws. In fact, if there is not sufficient maturity between the two parties, a marriage is likely to implode.

What God Has to Say

Scripture does seem to acknowledge that responsible marriage can counteract the dangers of unfocused singleness (1 Tim 5:15), but it also assumes that singleness, both chosen and un-chosen, will frequently occur (1 Cor 7, Matt 19:12).

But those looking to Scripture to support their irresponsible single lives will certainly be disappointed. The picture of singleness painted for us in Scripture is active, focused, and God centric. The expectation, even in the case of widowhood (1 Tim 5:9-10), was that those who are single would use their singleness to serve God and serve others in a special way. Both Jesus in Matthew 19 and Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 depict singleness as a state that allows for wholehearted devotion to God.

Paul notably argues for singleness saying:

“But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; 33 but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. The woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. 35 This I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is appropriate and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.” – 1 Cor 7:32-35

Yes, marriage usually occured far earlier in Biblical times than it does today, and it is also true that many people today who remain single will ultimately get married. But the Christian paradigm for singleness remains the same. There is no option in Scripture for lazy or self-centered singleness. If you are single you are called live out your singleness in a way that honors God. And no, faithful service to God as a single adult should not be an attempt to manipulate God into giving us a spouse. He must remain in the center, not the periphery, of our desire.

What If?

Marriage is one way to embrace personal responsibility, but it is by no means the only way of doing so. In fact, the very realities of single adulthood that often lead to its abuse also provide incredible opportunities.  College debt notwithstanding, many single adults have large amounts of expendable income. Since most do not have a family to care for, singles also have more time and relational energy to invest in others. Furthermore, they are often quite mobile, able to travel to places where there are great needs.

One of the deepest sorrows I have about this generation of single adults is that in spite our incredible potential many of us have failed to take full advantage of our singleness for God (though there many hopeful exceptions). Financial resources are not invested in ministry and missions but are instead spent on expensive drinks and wardrobes. Time and relational energy are not used to minister to those around us, but are instead expended in weekend bar hopping extravaganzas. Mobility has also become an excuse for remaining uncommitted to community and church. These critiques are not absolute, but any factual look at the statistics involved here will prove that many single adults have priority problems.

I believe that many Christians are intentionally remaining single for poor reasons, but perhaps a bigger problem is that many Christian adults are using their singleness so poorly. Within the church we have an army of single Christian adults, and yet we fail to see the impact such an army should have. But what if this were to change? What if millions Christian singles were to start consistently using their singleness in daring ways for God? There is no doubt that our church and our world would radically change. Then maybe instead of reading articles encouraging marriage we would read articles encouraging this passionate demographic to continue serving in their singleness.

I get excited when I think about the ways some of my peers are living out this ideal, and I pray that more single adults will commit themselves to using their singleness as God intends. When this happens, watch out!

But It’s Hard

Living as a single adult is certainly not easy, and as the years go by it can get increasingly harder. As someone who remains single at 27, I understand some of the challenges singleness can bring. There are intense seasons of loneliness, and at times the desire for companionship and sexual fulfillment can be overwhelming. While there are no easy answers to these challenges, I am convinced that living the single life as God calls us to do will actually make single life more bearable and more fulfilling than it would be otherwise. On this point John Meyendorff says:

“…the human instinct of love and procreation is not isolated from the rest of human existence, but is its very center. It cannot be suppressed, but only transformed, transfigured and channeled, as love for God and for one’s neighbor, through prayer, fasting and obedience in the name of Christ.”*

Singleness, especially unwanted singleness, can be incredibly challenging. Again, there are no easy answers here, but celibacy and singleness (temporary or permanent) work best when accompanied by intentional devotion to God and to others. Lazy and self-centered singleness will only increase sexual tension and relational discontent.

Looking Ahead

The cultural forces causing extended singleness are powerful, and in the years ahead we can only expect the delay of marriage to increase. There are good reasons to resist this development, and Christians should not blindly go along with the culture in this regard. Part of our response should be encouraging marriage earlier for God honoring reasons. But we must not blindly push people to the altar either. Instead let’s push each other toward Christian obedience in whatever life stage we are in.

We should, in some cases, encourage others to embrace marriage and not intentionally remain single, but perhaps it is even more important to understand how God does NOT intend for us to live the single life. May all of us who are single live each day actively embracing God’s powerful plan for singleness.

*Taken from Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective Page 71

The Trouble with Biblical Marriage

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Many Christians set out to defend what they call “biblical marriage”, and this term has become a lightning rod for discussion. Authors such as this one have pushed back, saying that various types of marriage are actually condoned in the Bible –many of them being abusive to the women involved. Advocates of gay marriage are quick to ask why Christians insist on preserving a particular marriage ideal when the Bible describes many different kinds of marriage.

So, does the Bible really support a wide range of marriage types? Are Christians arbitrarily choosing a concept of marriage from the many displayed in the Bible? How should Christians really go about understanding the Bible and determining what God desires for marriage to look like? Certainly, many different types of marriage are described in the Bible, but is it also true that Christians have no basis for advocating a particular type of marriage? These questions are all important.

There is a difference between a description of something and a prescription for behavior. Christians do not believe that every Bible passage carries the same weight in terms of practical application today. Every passage must be understood in its context – both cultural and literary. Taking Scripture out of context is dangerous, and will ultimately lead us to the wrong conclusion. Not all biblical examples deserve our imitation, nor were all intended to evoke it. Here I will discuss three principles I believe will help us understand God’s heart and purpose in marriage. Then I will wrap up by reflecting on the words we use about marriage.

1.      Narrative descriptions of marriage practices should not be taken as prescriptive.

The storyline of Scripture of contains many examples of dysfunctional marriage practices, and often these “marriage” stories give evidence of their own destructive results. We may think of Judges 19:22-29. In this scenario when a man is personally threatened with sexual assault by a mob he offers his concubine to the men attacking him in an attempt to save his own skin. After the concubine is raped and abused she evidently dies. Her owner then cuts her up in pieces and sends these pieces to the corners of Israel. Is this a God honoring example of marriage? No, in fact this story gives evidence of a lawless period in time of Israel’s history where “…Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25).  This story illustrates the depth of depravity God’s people had sunk to, and in no way validates the behavior it describes.

We may also think of King Solomon’s many marriages. He possessed 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). In this situation Solomon’s practice of marriage went directly against the commands of God. In Deuteronomy kings of Israel are specifically told to not take many wives because doing so would result in their hearts being led away from God  (Deuteronomy 17:17). This is exactly what happened to Solomon in his old age (1 Kings 11:4). This too is an example of marriage we are not called to emulate.

We could look at the lives of the patriarchs for other examples of marriage practices that didn’t work out so well. Abraham’s decision to take his wife’s servant in an attempt to have a son was a symptom of his shallow faith and produced very negative consequences in his family. Jacob was tricked into marrying the sister of the woman he loved, and his resulting plural marriage was thereafter fraught with favoritism and conflict. These men loved God to be sure, but we must not assume their marriage practices were condoned by God.

2.      Old Testament marriage guidelines are not necessarily prescriptive for Christians.

The fact that something is commanded in the Old Testament doesn’t imply that it is binding for Christians today. This is very clear in the New Testament in reference to dietary laws (Mark 7:19, Acts 10). Christians are not called to disregard the Old Testament, but we should allow the New Testament to help explain the Old Testament to us.[i] The Old Testament Law was good, and was given for a specific purpose during a specific time.

This New Testament priority is not arbitrary, and we don’t listen to the New Testament simply because we are more comfortable with what it says. This New Testament priority is reflected in Scripture and has been historically practiced by the Christian church. All Scripture is important and useful, but not all Scripture is applied in the same way. New Testament teaching on marriage is the final word and helps clarify what God intends for marriage to look like for believers today.

Still, many of the biblical marriage practices are troubling to us. The Old Testament includes instructions about marrying a captive woman (Deuteronomy 21:10-14), marrying the wife of a dead brother – called levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5-10), and even the marriage of a man to a woman he raped (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Each of these situations deserves a great deal of discussion, but a few comments should be made now. Firstly we must understand these situations in their cultural context.  The Old Testament was written during a period of time where women were afforded few rights. Did the Old Testament Law seek to completely overturn society and instantly create equality? No, but even in the midst of a culture with poor attitudes toward famales we see a biblical pattern of concern for women who found themselves in these horrible situations.  It is right to respond with disgust to the cultural norms of this time, but it is not fair to say that Scripture was seeking to establish abusive practices when the actual intent of these commands was to provide some protection to women suffering under an abusive cultural norm. Hebrew women were given greater protection than in other societies of the time, and Scripture, when taken as a whole, unequivocally speaks to the worth and value of women.

Many Old Testament marriage practices are not worth repeating. We must see these practices in their cultural context and look elsewhere in Scripture for further clarity on God’s plan for marriage. If we merely studied Deuteronomy to establish our marriage paradigm we might be left scratching our heads, but God never intended to leave us there. The regulations of the Old Testament were merely a shadow preceding a better and fuller reality. The Old Testament Law was an imperfect guide for a deeply flawed people. The imperfect covenant (Hebrews 7:18), put forth in the Law, would soon be replaced with a better, though more demanding covenant. This brings us to our third principal.

3.      The New Testament reaffirms and builds on God’s original intent for marriage.

While many Christians are aware of the wide ranging discussion of marriage and singleness found in First Corinthians seven, fewer are aware of another important marriage passage. Perhaps the most significant New Testament discussion of marriage occurs after Jesus is asked a troubling question about divorce. “Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (Matthew 19:3)

The question was a landmine; the Pharisees wanted to see if Jesus would concur with marriage tradition or reject it. Jesus’ reply caught everyone off guard:

4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6)

Many would have expected Jesus to reference the Law of Moses to substantiate his perspective on marriage, but Jesus chose to go even farther back, citing Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 to describe his marriage paradigm. He argues that Genesis, not Deuteronomy was intended by God to serve as the primary prescriptive passage for marriage relationships. In the Garden of Eden, before sin had entered the world, God established a pattern of marriage that involved a man and a woman uniting together. This unity was sexual and spiritual. These individuals were now considered to be one. Unlike under the Mosaic Law, this union was intended to last until death. A man could not abandon his wife.[ii] This declaration of Jesus elicited immediate protests from those listening. They asked: Why  did Moses allow divorce if it was wrong?

Jesus then spoke about a truth that helps us understand why God allowed non-ideal marriage practices in the Old Testament. Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.”” – Matthew 19:8. This shows us that at least in this instance, God allowed a marriage pattern that did not reflect his original intent. He did this because of the hard hearts of his people, not because it was best.

Old Testament marriage practice undoubtedly fell short of God’s best, but God’s original plan was still in place. This plan involved a man and a woman in lifelong commitment to each other. Jesus said that any past exceptions to this policy were now invalid. No longer would diversions from the original plan be ok for followers of God. While some like to claim that Jesus was relatively liberal on sexual issues, this passage points to the opposite conclusion. Jesus was raising the sexual and relational standard. He was calling people back to God’s original plan for marriage.

This was the pattern for Jesus. At numerous junctures when addressing questions of the Law Jesus goes deeper and asks more of people. Merely following the letter of the law would no longer suffice.  Jesus seeks to illuminate heart conditions, not just control behavior. He declares that the sin of adultery is one that starts in the heart as lust, and that the sin of murder is first experienced through hatred (Matthew 5). The new law given by Christ offered greater freedom, and greater responsibility.

In fact the entire tone of the New Testament is one of increased commitment to God. No longer must followers of God restrict their diet arbitrarily, but they must now consider the impact their eating choices have on those around them (1 Corinthians 8). No longer must God’s people offer an endless stream of animal sacrifices.  They are instead called to offer their entire selves as living sacrifices out of love for their Savior (Romans 12:1). No longer were husbands merely commanded to physically provide for their wives, they were now required to love them sacrificially – even to the point of being willing to die for them (Ephesians 5:25-28). The standard was raised and the commitment was deepened as God called his people back to his original plan.

We could continue by looking at other passages in the New Testament that further outline God’s incredible plan for marriage, but we will leave that for another time. The important point here is that while culture and hard human hearts distorted God’s plan for marriage through the years, God’s intent for marriage has always been the same. I am not sure I could sum up this point any better than Trillia Newbell does:

“For Jesus and Paul and for the Church, sexual and marriage ethics (and biblical womanhood) are not based on the historical sins against women that are recorded in the Old Testament, but from the pre-fall monogamous union of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2.”

At this point we have seen that God’s plan for marriage has been consistent through time. From the beginning marriage was intended to be an enduring physical and spiritual union between a man and woman. While some would have us believe that the Bible’s perspective on marriage is confusing or contradictory, we have clearly seen that God’s Word points toward one prescription for marriage.  I do not expect non-Christians to share my convictions about the authority of the Bible, and I certainly don’t expect them to willingly submit to its moral teachings. But I do hope the intellectually honest will acknowledge that Christians have internally consistent, biblically grounded reasons for advocating and practicing a particular form of marriage.

The Words we Use about Marriage Matter

So what then are we to say then about “Biblical Marriage”? I believe when most Christians say biblical marriage they are referring to God’s intended practice of marriage. The term is unfortunately somewhat inexact. It can be misunderstood by those hear it and misrepresented by those who desire to do so. Certainly, many different types of marriage are described in the Bible – even if they are not intended to serve as examples for us. Perhaps our language needs to be more precise.  Not all biblical marriages were honoring to God. Christian marriage, however, is the unique practice of God’s people.[iii]

Christian marriage should not be confused with Old Testament aberrations or modern day distortions. It is the unique, divinely ordained practice of God’s people – laid out compellingly in Scripture. It is radical when compared to Ancient Near East practices, and it is radical when compared to the modern American understanding of marriage. It is more demanding, more serious, and more profitable than any other expression of marriage. Christian marriage is a gift from God to his people, and those who seek to practice it will be blessed.

The words we use are so important.  This fact has been incredibly clear in the recently public debate over gay marriage. It sounds much more compelling to say that you are for marriage equality than it does to say that you support legally changing the definition of marriage. Let’s publically talk about marriage, but let’s also commit ourselves to using words that accurately communicate our meaning. This is why when I talk about God’s intent for marriage I seek to use the term Christian marriage – because I believe it better reflects the truth I advocate.


[i] For more helpful information on the question of the Old Testament authority in the life of a Christian please read Tim Keller’s helpful thoughts. http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/07/09/making-sense-of-scriptures-inconsistency/

[ii] A couple situations are given where divorce is allowed for a Christian. These two cases are marital infidelity (Matt 19:9), and abandonment by a non-believing spouse (1 Cor 7:14). In all cases, divorce should be evaluated soberly. There are doubtlessly other situations, such as abuse, where one spouse would need to separate for their safety or the safety of their children.

[iii] I am indebted to Bryan Kammerzelt for suggesting this shift in terminology. http://www.critiquebycreating.com/2011/04/the-most-eligible-christian-bachelor/

A Response to Matthew Vines

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I recently had the opportunity to listen to a presentation by Matthew Vines concerning the subject of Homosexuality in the Bible. Matthew is an intelligent, articulate, gay man who has obviously spent a great deal of time wrestling with this issue. He is also a professing Christian who understands that the question of sexual morality is central, not peripheral to this discussion. Matthew, a student at Harvard University, recently took two years off of school in order to research this topic. Vines passionately argues that each of the six passages in the Bible often cited to prove that homosexual behavior is sinful are either inapplicable or taken out of context. He presents an emotionally compelling talk that is designed to dismantle “every Bible based argument against homosexuality”.

It is certainly worth discussing his textual arguments, and others have certianly done so. here here here I have instead chosen to address two underlying beliefs that seem to drive him to reinterpret the passages on homosexuality. These beliefs are: 1. People are being damaged by the traditional Christian understanding of homosexuality. 2. It is unreasonable to ask someone who identifies as gay or lesbian to remain celibate and single. I would like to briefly address each of these claims.

Are people being damaged by the traditional Christian teaching about homosexuality?

Early on in his talk Vines lays out what seems to be his controlling principal of Biblical interpretation. He references Jesus words in Matthew 7:

“Jesus warns against false teachers, and he offers a principle that can be used to test good teaching from bad teaching… Good teachings, according to Jesus, have good consequences. That doesn’t mean that following Christian teaching will or should be easy, and in fact, many of Jesus’s commands are not easy at all… Good teachings, even when they are very difficult, are not destructive to human dignity. They don’t lead to emotional and spiritual devastation, and to the loss of self-esteem and self-worth. But those have been the consequences for gay people of the traditional teaching on homosexuality. It has not borne good fruit in their lives, and it’s caused them incalculable pain and suffering.”

It is for this reason that the speaker calls us to question the historic Christian teaching on homosexuality – because this teaching is “destructive to human dignity”. He believes it to be an emotionally and spiritually devastating position that promotes the “loss of self-esteem and self-worth”. Many individuals who identify as gay or lesbian do experience profound inner turmoil because of their attractions. This is particularly true of those who have grown up in the conservative Christian subculture. Statistics are often cited giving evidence of increased rates of depression and suicide among those who experience same sex attraction.

It is true that many heterosexually inclined Christians have been woefully ignorant of the suffering their homosexually inclined brothers and sisters experience. This remains a serious problem in the Christian church and must be addressed.

Good teaching does produce good results when it is acted upon, and Christians, above all people, should be active in doing what they can to eliminate suffering. But is his larger point – that suffering gives evidence of poor teaching – an accurate one? Does the presence of emotional turmoil always indicate that poor teaching is at work within the life of a believer?

The speaker admits that some of the teachings of Jesus are not easy, and on that we certainly agree. But at some point he seems to draw a line and say certain types of mental and physical suffering are just too extreme to be in line with what God wants for his people. I do not believe that God ever promises us that we will be spared from any specific types of suffering.

In fact, if we look at the Bible we see that followers of God living within His will for them experienced sufferings of many differing types and durations. Abraham was called to leave his extended family and home country. Jacob was given a life altering injury. Joseph spent years in prison because of a false rape accusation. The prophets were called to do extreme things involving great personal discomfort. Jesus himself was emotionally devastated in the garden as he thought about the great suffering he was about to experience. The apostle Paul gives us a large list of his sufferings in Second Corinthians eleven; discussing hunger, thirst, shipwrecks, and beatings. Paul also describes an unnamed source of suffering which he called “a thorn in my flesh” (2 Cor 12:7). Though he pleaded with God repeatedly to take it away, God saw fit to allow Paul to continue to experience this pain.

Clearly suffering, whether physical, mental, or emotional can occur in the life of someone who is living within the bounds of God’s will for their life. This suffering can be overwhelming and feel crushing as Paul describes:

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.  Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. – 2 Cor 1:8-9a

The hope Christians have is not that living life God’s way will result in an easier life; in fact, living this way will often make life more difficult. The promise Christians cling to is that even in the midst of suffering God provides comfort and purpose. “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” (2 Cor 1:9b)

The Christian life cannot be lived with the ideal of immediate gratification. It must be evaluated in the light of eternity, and in light of a loving God who has the power to raise the dead.

We often experience suffering when we try to live within God’s will, and this does not always mean we have misunderstood his will for us. Suffering may actually prove the opposite. If our understanding of homosexuality is wrong, this must be proved through the biblical text, and not by the discomfort the teaching may cause.

Does the traditional Christian position on homosexuality condemn gay people to a life of being alone?

A large portion of Vine’s argument seems to rest of the belief that it is unreasonable to insist that someone remain unmarried and celibate for their entire life. He cites Genesis 2:18 of evidence for this: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” The speaker believes that while for most men a woman is the most suitable partner, for some men a man is the most suitable partner.

He also discusses Paul’s encouragement in 1 Corinthians 7 for believers to marry if they are overwhelmed with sexual desire, saying And so if the remedy against sexual sin for straight Christians is marriage, why should the remedy for gay Christians not be the same?” The speaker clearly believes that not offering marriage to gay individuals is an inconsistency in the Christian message on sexuality. If marriage is not offered as an option to Christians who experience same sex attraction how are they to deal with their romantic and sexual longings? This is a very important and very difficult question.

Unfulfilled longing can feel overpowering and debilitating. This effect is often compounded as the years go by.  For many people, singleness can be an incredibly difficult state. We must also remember that this state is occupied by many people who do not experience same sex attraction. Many Christians in other situations also fail to experience romantic and sexual fulfillment.  The undesired and rejected have this experience; the physically and mentally disabled have this experience; the divorced and abandoned also experience non-desired singleness. Many people who don’t want to be single remain single. There are certainly unique hardships that must be faced by those who deal with same sex attraction (such as the possibility of always remaining single,) but we must remember that God intends for many people in many different situations to remain single long term.

Following God’s will can also cause someone who is heterosexually oriented will remain single in spite of their desire for marriage. For instance, a Christian woman may be in a context where she does not have contact with eligible Christian men. Although she desires marriage and is fully capable of marriage, her circumstances make it impossible for her to enter into marriage. Getting romantically involved with a non-believer is not an option because it goes against God’s loving plan for his people (1 Cor 7:39, 2 Cor 6:14).

God’s will for us and our desires are not always as aligned we would wish. I do not believe that everyone who is called to singleness is immediately aware of this; many of them may not even want to be single. A call to singleness (permanent or temporary) does not imply asexuality or a lack of desire for companionship. In fact. in my many conversations on the subject, I have never had one person in a state of singleness, of any orientation, tell me that have ceased to desire either sex or companionship. The presence of a sex drive does not necessarily mean that marriage in the direction of that drive is what God wants for us.

So, is remaining unmarried really a lifelong sentence to being alone? The words of God in Genesis two echo deeply in our hearts, it is not good for man to be alone. Most of us know this on a core level. God designed us for relationship. So what hope can be offered to individuals who experience long term singleness either because of their choices or the because of the will of God?

Adam’s loneliness was not just a romantic or sexual loneliness; it was complete human isolation. He was the only human being in the garden. Although he had fellowship and communication with his Creator, he didn’t have a human community.  Eve certainly provided Adam with a romantic and sexual partner, but this was not all she was to him. She was a friend, she was a comrade, and she was another person Adam could share his humanness with. While Scripture holds up marriage as the only appropriate context for sexual fulfillment, marriage was never intended to be the absolute or even the primary means of relational fulfillment.

For Christians, the Church is to be our primary source of support and community.  A family is a beautiful thing, but Christ, during his time on this earth repeatedly emphasized Spiritual family over biological family (Luke 8:19-21, Mark 10:28-30). While marriage is only for this earth (Matthew 22:28), the Body of Christ will exist eternally. Experiencing Christian community as a single adult is not just a poor substitute for marriage. Singleness is not something to run past as quickly as possible; it will be the eternal reality for all who follow Christ.*

The biblical truth about singleness goes against the grain in many of our churches today. But we must reclaim this truth if we ever hope to make our churches a welcoming place for those who do not share in marriage. I deeply resonate with what Christopher Yuan says on this issue: “If we don’t get singleness right, I don’t even think we are ready to minister on the issue of sexuality.”  While God may ask many of us to live in long-term singleness, he does not condemn any of us to a life completely alone.

God is neither unaware nor unconcerned about the heartache that unmarried individuals often face.  In Isaiah 56:4-5, we find a comforting promise given to a group of people who would never have their own families or children:

For thus says the Lord:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give in my house and within my walls
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.

Conclusion:

I believe that in these two areas of suffering and singleness Matthew Vines misunderstands the will of God. God does call believers to suffer, and sometimes to suffer intensely for long periods of time. He also calls some believers to be single, even when they strongly desire a marital relationship. There is no doubt that the message about homosexuality in Scripture is a hard message. All believers are called to lose their lives in order to find life in Christ (Matthew 16:25), and for a Christian with same-sex attraction this can be particularly hard.

In Matthew 13:44-46 Jesus shares two short stories about the Kingdom of God. In these parables the people involved sell all they have to gain a beautiful pearl and a buried treasure. Scripture proclaims that everything we give up to gain Christ is infinitely worth the exchange, and this is true regardless of our sexual orientation. As Sam Alberry says “Jesus is always worth it.” (How Can the Gospel be Good News to Gays?)

May God give each of us strength to choose Christ above all else.

All Scripture Quotations taken from the English Standard Version of the Bible.

*I would also encourage you to check out Brian Kammerzelt’s The Most Eligible Christian Bachelor for some great insights on singleness and Christian community.