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The Idol of Marriage

Photo by Jeremy Wong from Pexels

Some of Jesus’ most famous words are recorded in Matthew 6:24. If you are drawing a blank, it’s the verse where He says, “You cannot serve both God and money.” Christians have heard this quoted countless times as a reminder to not give into consumerism and materialistic desires. What I find amusing is that many who remind us that we ‘cannot serve two masters’ are obliviously blind to one of the biggest idols in the church today – marriage.

I will be so bold as to say that marriage is the most honoured of all golden calves in the twenty-first century church. While pursuing wealth is seen as greedy, wanting marriage is seen as godly. This allows marriage to easily lend itself to be valued at the cost of true communion with the Lord. Desiring marriage is not sin, and it’s even encouraged in Scripture (Proverbs 18:22), but the church has taken this to sinful extremes. A hodge-podge of misunderstood biblical principles, Hollywood-esque romantic ideals, and sexual frustration characterize the landscape of many Christian relationships.

The intention here is not to outline what defines a godly marriage, but rather to demonstrate that marriage is glorified beyond its due limits in the church to the point of idolatry. Single Christians, especially women, are often treated as damaged goods for not marrying before a certain age. We all know at least one person who left or visited a church for the sole purpose of searching for an eligible partner. The vigour with which believers oppose any challenge to the “sanctity of marriage” such as homosexual relationships speaks volumes, especially when these same people are more subdued in their objection to direct attacks on Christianity itself. Marriage is engraved in the subconsciousness of mainstream evangelicalism as a near-compulsory criterion of true faith. This type of thinking is not only misguided, but unbiblical.

Many Christians argue for the necessity of marriage because of Genesis 2. Before creating Eve, God mused to Himself that man should not be alone. Christians conclude that this must mean that marriage is part of God’s plan for all His children. This interpretation is problematic for a couple of reasons. To begin with, the Hebrew words used for “to be alone” (badad; [le·vad·dov;]) are not referring to singleness or relationship status. The phrase means isolation, and appears in other places in Scripture to denote being alone, even in a physical sense. Adam was the only creature of his kind and therefore alone, not just single. God’s provision of Eve shouldn’t be seen as His desire for all of His children to wed. After all, without a mate for Adam, the human species would have died with him. There was a more practical reason for giving him a wife.

God told Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28), as He did with the Noahic remnant (Genesis 9:7). Many use these orders from God as a reason to oppose the use of birth control, but as with interpretation of anything in Scripture, context is key. At the time God gave this instruction to Noah’s family, there were only eight people on Earth due to a global purging of creation. Without their offspring, the human race would have gone extinct. Again, there was a practical reason for this mandate from God. Besides, there are several instances in Scripture where married couples could not have children because God closed the woman’s womb (Hannah) and later opened it (Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel).

These are the two verses that are frequently used to argue that marriage and procreation are required of Christians. When analyzed more critically beyond face value, they cannot be interpreted to suggest either of these things. Jesus didn’t tell his followers to go forth and multiply to propagate his church, but to make disciples of all nations. In fact, it’s Jesus’ words that are the most scathing indictment against the argument that all believers should seek to marry.

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?”

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’[a] 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’[b]So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given.” – Matthew 19: 3 – 11 (NIV)

In this exchange, the disciples postulated that it would be better to remain single rather than to wake up one day and realize you are married to someone you no longer want to be with. The only way to excuse yourself from such a toxic relationship would be if your partner was unfaithful. Jesus doesn’t challenge this position, but rather adds that this particular word is only given to some. The implication is that singleness is a special gift for a remnant of believers willing to receive this teaching. Therefore, the view that all Christians should seek marriage doesn’t square with the words of our Saviour.

Another incident, this time with the Sadducees, presented Jesus with the opportunity to speak more to this point.

23 That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. 24 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for him. 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. 26 The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. 27 Finally, the woman died. 28 Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?”

29 Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. 30 At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. 31 But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’[a]? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”

33 When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching. – Matthew 22: 23 – 33 (NIV)

As Jesus said, the Sadducees were refusing to believe in God’s power by denying the resurrection (v. 29). In their view, all that mattered was the physical body, not the soul. This indicates that their question was not coming from a place of sincerity or devotion, since they were asking about something they didn’t even believe in. Jesus admonished them for their blasphemous views and also pointed out that there is no marriage in eternity. Instead, people in heaven will be like the angels (v. 30).

God gave marriage to mankind in order to produce children (although not exclusively), as we see in Eden. Angels are created beings (Psalm 148: 2, 5), not the result of sexual reproduction, thus nullifying the requirement for marriage in the afterlife. Marriage is mortal, but spouses are not. If spouses, and children resulting from their union are saved, they will all see each other in eternity. Their relationship will transform from lovers and parents to fellow children of God. In saying this, Jesus was reminding his followers and naysayers not to place supreme value on temporal things, just as He did in the Sermon on the Mount:

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. – Matthew 6: 19 – 21 (NIV)

As unfortunate as it is to admit, Christian marriages often end in divorce. Unless a tragedy takes both partners at once, widowhood is an inevitability. There is pain that results with the loss of a marriage, but does this mean marriage isn’t a worthwhile pursuit? Of course not, but it also goes to show you that our greatest allegiance shouldn’t be to a relationship that ends on Earth. Jesus’ reprimands in Matthew 6 should not be taken solely as warnings in regards to material wealth, but anything that we cannot take with us into the next life. The institute of marriage has only earthly significance, whereas its participants and products (children), experience heaven. Christians needs to value fellowship with God above having a happy, healthy marriage since only one of these will never end.

Furthermore, the most directly compelling arguments in Scripture for remaining single came from the apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians.

Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. 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. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

Now to the unmarried[a] and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. – 1 Corinthians 7: 1 – 9 (NIV)

The most common interpretation of this passage is a plain reading of the text, resulting in the conclusion that singleness is a nobler pursuit than marriage. Paul seems to suggest that being single is best, but that marriage is not sinful if it can provide respite from obsessive sexual desire. On the other hand, proponents of ‘marriage for all’ argue that Paul was merely discouraging believers living under persecution from hosting large gatherings as customary in Jewish wedding ceremonies. They assert that Paul was not necessarily telling people to never marry, but to delay marriage until the political situation improved. Either interpretation doesn’t negate the fact that singleness is not a curse and that marriage isn’t the ultimate prize for Christians.

All of the above shows that Scripture doesn’t mandate marriage for every believer. Sadly, purity culture ignores all of this, making it the strongest enabler of this idol. By “purity culture”, I am not referring to the teaching that premarital sex is sin, but the practice of magnifying this teaching to such extremes where children who barely understand the basic tenants of the Christian faith are indoctrinated with the false premise that God has called them to marriage at some point in the distant future. In some circles, teens are asked to sign a purity contract and wear a ring that symbolizes their dedication to abstaining from sex until marriage. Youth groups redirect their focus from study of Scripture to forming book clubs about modesty, usually with misguided devotionals as their core text. Several bloggers point to these activities as their reason for abandoning biblical sexuality and even Christianity itself.

Purity culture’s main pitfall seems to be its tendency to equate marriage with the pursuit of sex. Would as many Christians have rushed into an early marriage if the fear of committing premarital sex wasn’t instilled in them? Can these couples honestly say they married their partner for the right reasons and not just for sex? Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7 should not be taken as permission to do this, since Paul had much more to say on the topic of marriage (Ephesians 5, for instance). Moreover, purity culture espouses modesty for girls while doing little to address the issue of lust in men (see my post – Misunderstandings about Modesty). It certainly raises more questions than it quells concerns about sex and relationships.

The fact that we use the word purity in the context of sex is scathing evidence of idolatry. Purity culture posits that having sex before marriage makes one less ‘pure’ when they eventually find a spouse, but this view is not biblical. All men are born into sin (Romans 8:3), which means nobody, not even untouched virgins, are pure. That is, nobody is pure until they place faith in Jesus and realize that the penalty for their sin was His atoning blood. One’s purity is not contingent upon the commitment or abstinence from sexual acts, but solely upon the gracious work of Jesus on the cross (Ephesians 2: 8 – 9). By conflating virginity with purity, participants in this view may have a low view of their own sin. In this way, purity culture devalues Christ’s sacrifice and the gospel message, perhaps inadvertently.

Another tenant of purity culture is the idea that entering marriage as a virgin increases the likelihood of, or even guarantees, sexual satisfaction. This errant view bears much resemblance to the prosperity theology that often pervades charismatic and Word of Faith churches. The “prosperity gospel” is heretical in its suggestion that if you do X, God gives you Y. This false ideology reduces our Heavenly Father to a cosmic genie who exists simply to cater to our every whim. What is given graciously without obligation is seen as a reward for obedience. The difference between this and the purity camp is that one demands material wealth and physical health from God, whereas the other seeks improved intimacy and marital bliss. Did Jesus die on the cross to give His children a happy marriage and satisfying sex life? If you agree with this absurd assertion, can you explain why He Himself didn’t have either?

Some of the most influential leaders in the Bible remained single: Nehemiah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, the apostle Paul, and of course, our Lord Himself. If Jesus, the sinless lamb of God who lived the perfect life didn’t marry, why do we think this is a necessary part of the Christian life? Some may argue (as my father once did) that, “Marriage wasn’t part of God’s will for Jesus.” The same argument can be used for some singles in the church today. If God is Sovereign and His will cannot be thwarted (Isaiah 14:27), then we need to stop consoling believers who never marry as if they missed their window of opportunity.

Anything one seeks in place of Christ for satisfaction is an idol. If a believer is unmarried, they should not seek marriage with a desire for completion, but churches do very little to mitigate this problem. Single Christians often suffer from loneliness because there isn’t always a seat for them at the table. Churches offer specific programs targeted at children, youth, and families, while often overlooking believers who are neither parents, nor married. Instead, these individuals are often the subject of malicious rumours that seek to pinpoint reasons for their supposed unattractiveness. Their relationship status is usually viewed as a problem that needs to be fixed, rather than a gift or season of drawing closer to the Lord. Marriage is almost always pushed upon those in their twenties and when they recoil, their sexuality or even devotion to God, is questioned. Celibacy is almost never presented as an option to the former as well as to those who have been previously married and now find themselves unexpectedly single. This is especially concerning considering the fact that Scripture is quite clear in stating that the single person is able to do more for the Kingdom:

32 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34 and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord. – 1 Corinthians 7: 32 – 35 (NIV)

Needless to say, contentment in singleness and dedication of one’s life to the Lord in favour of domesticity are not popular sermon topics. Rather, these subjects are frequently reserved for crisis management scenarios when a church feels plagued by those who find themselves still unmarried in their mid-thirties. Instead of touting the high value of virginity and the necessity of finding the right partner, perhaps churches need to do more in teaching singles to be satisfied with their current lot. While everyone may not experience marriage, we all experience singleness. If the man who was whipped, beaten, and imprisoned for doing the work God called him to do can find joy, then so can the single young lady or man in the church.

“I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” – Philippians 4: 11 – 12 (NIV)

A Christian’s greatest desire should not be for partnership, but for God Himself. One’s entire heart, soul, mind, and strength should yearn to know the Lord and to be known by Him. Believing, single Christian – if you never have a wedding on Earth, do not be discouraged. Find hope in the one that awaits you when Jesus the bridegroom returns for His bride. That celebration will last forever.

Let us rejoice and be glad
    and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
    and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
    was given her to wear.”

(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)

Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.” – Revelation 19: 7 – 9 (NIV)

New International Version (NIV)Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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Debi

I am the admin and founder of www.beautyofhope.ca

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