My sweet, encouraging sister-in-law and I had a really good conversation last week, in which she said something I don’t think I’ve ever heard a married person say, at least not quite in that way. She actually told me that singleness was sanctifying me, not just in one area, that of patience, but in my whole life as a Christian. Single folks don’t really hear that a lot. Sojourn does a better job at addressing this than many churches, but I imagine it’s tough to work in a lot of exhortations to singles, especially single women, when you’re a married guy like all our elders are. So this isn’t a post where I call people out and tell them to get on the ball or anything. It’s just thoughts. Thoughts: I has them.
As is typical for me, I’m finding it helpful lately to see the whole concept of how we talk about sanctification as single people on a continuum, with error at each end, and a range of orthodoxy in the middle.
So: at one end, you’ve got the idea that singleness is a less-than-ideal circumstance for sanctification, and that marriage is not just normal but normative. Few people actually teach this (although… I can tell you from experience, they’re out there). But a lot more people sort of accidentally teach it, or at least imply it. The error here is reading the Scriptures and seeing marriage described as sort of socially and culturally normal, as well as good, and that probably most people described in any detail in the Scriptures are married, and drawing from that something that’s normative. It’s a common interpretive problem, confusing descriptive and prescriptive aspects of Scripture. Plus, marriage “has a verse on it” as we say in the South, the lovely and oft-read-at-weddings passage about the mystery of marriage referring to Christ and the Church. We seem to think that means that singleness is just one tiny step down from marriage, because singleness doesn’t have a verse about Christ and the Church attached to it.
Here’s where you get marriage just hammered on from the pulpit, and talked up, and praised, and presented as the furnace of sanctification, without any notion that we’re failing to give people a vision of what godly celibacy (which, in case we’ve forgotten, is our eternal future state) looks like. Instead we’re telling people to direct all their energies toward something that’s temporary, and discouraging single people from pursuing sanctification because we’re implying that it all will just happen automatically and effortlessly once they get married and start having kids (insert collective snort of disgust from all my married readers).
(Incidentally, and just as a little side rant: why are we ok with denigrating the lives and experiences of single people by constantly saying that marriage/child-rearing is “harder” than singleness? I’m positive that it’s harder in some areas, and it’s definitely a different kind of hard, but, married folks, please. Stop telling us that we’ve got it easy. /rant.)
At the other end of the spectrum is a view that’s totally foreign to us Protestants, that celibate service is spiritual and, in fact, that married folks (basically, in most cases) disqualify themselves from vocational ministry. We can’t get our brains around this. So because we can’t get our brains around it, we mostly don’t provide a path for celibate service, and we retreat all the way to the other end of the spectrum.