I have sometimes been accused of focusing too heavily on
marriage, and not paying enough attention to those who aren’t married.
After all, the majority of young people are in dating relationships,
and the number of single people is on the rise.
The single folks often complain that they have been viewed as second
class citizens of the evangelical Church, a complaint not without some
merit. As for most high schoolers and
college students who are dating, I have been told that I shouldn’t talk to them
about marriage much because they’re not thinking about it yet.
The concern is legitimate.
After all, there are questions that are unique to both groups (questions
which I have opinions about, but haven’t gotten around to sharing yet!). But there is a single principle to which I
adhere which prompts me to focus (first) on marriage. Here it is:
Our vision of marriage
determines how we will lead our romantic lives, whether we are single, dating,
married, divorced, etc.
Is it controversial?
Yes. Is it true? I think so.
Fundamentally, the idea hangs on the notion that we have
been created to be married. To defend
this claim, I could point to the Garden of Eden. Or I could point to G.K. Chesterton’s
humorous take on the issue in his novel Manalive. I’ll choose the latter.
(The scene: Michael
is proposing to Rosamund. And, action!)
what else is there to do?" reasoned the Irishman. "What other occupation
is there for an active man on this earth, except to marry you? What's the
alternative to marriage, barring sleep? It's not liberty, Rosamund. Unless you marry
God, as our nuns do in Ireland, you must marry Man--that is Me. The only third
thing is to marry yourself--yourself, yourself, yourself--the only companion
that is never satisfied--and never satisfactory."
As Professor Leon Kass has put it, “To be married or not to
be married: that is the question. Absent a positive answer to this first
question, in favor of marrying, all the other questions of real courtship pass
away, as one opts instead for chance
encounters, hooking up, and shorter or longer relationships."
That is, when we don’t answer Kass’s question first, we lose
our romantic bearings.
If you are in a relationship, it’s hard to know what you are moving toward, and hence how you should move there, if you don't understand marriage. If you’re
single, living a flourishing, intentional life depends upon acknowledging, understanding, and embracing your single state. Try doing that if you don't think hard about what marriage is, what it entails, why it's awesome, and why it might not be for you (right now, at least).
However, here’s the problem:
culturally, almost no one has a
robust, deep, and compelling vision for marriage, including the evangelical
Outside the church, this is pretty obvious. Hook-ups, relationships, perpetual singleness
and cohabitation dominate. Marriage is
for those too boring to keep up with the scene.
Within the church, the claim is less obvious. But I would point to two pieces of
evidence: First, the ‘second-class’ status that many single people report is an indication that Christians misunderstand
the nature of marriage. A robust view of marriage doesn’t denigrate
singleness—it elevates it, seeing it as either a necessary and enormously
beneficial pre-requisite for a healthy marriage or a life-long covenant to
serve the Church. The fact that single people feel like
second-class citizens of the Church is an indication that our churches don’t
understand and appreciate the role of singleness within the economy of romance—which
means they probably don’t understand the other aspects of romance (marriage!)
as well as they claim.
Second, as in the secular world, most ‘relationships’ on
Christian colleges are more like mini-marriages that drag out two, three, and sometimes
four years before culminating in marriage, just as they do in secular
contexts. While there are some good
reasons for this (economics), this is partly due to an anemic view of marriage
that takes its cues more from the divorce culture that surrounds the Church
than from Scripture or tradition.
Getting our understanding of marriage right is the first
step toward leading healthy, flourishing romantic lives. It’s not easy, but the sooner we know where
we are headed—or what we are giving up—the sooner we can know how we’re going
to get there.
Exit question: what
does it say about our relationship to God that we have been created to be