When Martin Luther composed his treatise The Estate of Marriage in 1522, he gave it the same dialectical structure he had already discerned in his new theological understanding of the gospel. The truth, Luther insisted, had to be set over against the pope’s errors and obfuscations; the gospel reasserted in the face of the law’s condemnation of guilty consciences. So when it came time to address the topic of marriage, he couched his remarks in a “not-but” formula.
The world says of marriage: “Brief joy and long sadness.” . . . But Christians believe that it is God himself who instituted marriage. It is he who brings a man and wife together and ordains that they bring forth children. For God does not lie and he has given his word in order that men might be certain that the estate of marriage is well-pleasing to him in its nature, works, suffering and everything that belongs to it.
Where the world of Luther’s day often rued marriage as drudgery and where his fellow Christians usually treated it as a spiritually inferior concession to human weakness, Luther saw the hardships and opportunities of marriage as one of God’s primary ways of making disciples.
What Luther came to understand with unprecedented clarity is that Christian faithfulness isn’t a matter of preserving the status quo because the skewing effects of original sin will always ensure that the status quo will be in need of reform. (Semper reformanda became the rallying cry of Luther’s heirs: in practice as in doctrine, the church is always required to swim upstream.) Christian marriage—just like Christian preaching or worship or politics, or Christian celibacy for that matter, to which I’ll return—is something that ought to make its practitioners different. (Might we even say queer?) It should set them apart from the world, inculcating in them distinctive habits and virtues and aiming them toward uniquely Christian ends. In short, Luther came to see marriage as transformative for those who entered into it. Designed by the God of the gospel, marriage is meant to heal, sanctify, and redirect spouses toward God’s coming kingdom.
Marriage Means Martyrdom
Throughout Christian history, Luther’s vision of marriage has had many forebears and offshoots, though many of us in contemporary cultures have ignored them. In Eastern Christian weddings, for instance, the bride and groom are each offered crowns, rather than the rings that are customary in the West, which bear a multilayered symbolism. Just as Adam and Eve were given stewardship over the earth as God’s vice-regents, so the wedding crowns signify the married couple’s inheritance of that original blessing. But in the Christian tradition, crowns are also given to martyrs, and marriage, the liturgy suggests, is as much about the mutual surrender of life, the reciprocal death to self and ambition that makes lasting love possible, as anything else: “Remember [the bride and groom], O Lord our God, as You remembered Your Forty Holy Martyrs, sending down upon them crowns from heaven.” Crowns are appropriate for man and wife, in short, because marriage is a kind of holy dying.
Likewise, in the great 1662 Book of Common Prayer of the reformed Church of England, marriage is viewed as something that is to be entered into “reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God.” Making vows to a life partner “is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites.” A sexual and romantic free-for-all marriage is most certainly not. Rather, as one of the later portions of the service indicates, marriage is for the enjoyment of a “holy love” in which “ye may so live together in this life, that in the world to come ye may have life everlasting.” Marriage, in this picture, is about training in the holiness that is preparation for heaven.
These glimpses of marriage-as-discipleship—of what the Episcopalian theologian Eugene Rogers has called “the ascetic, sanctifying discipline of marriage”—are ultimately traceable back to Jesus himself who, when questioned about the import of marriage, upped the ante in his day by forbidding divorce. His appeal to Genesis with its teaching that marriage is an indissoluble union of male and female garnered the incredulous response from his disciples, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10 NRSV). I picture Peter shouting that sentence in the original Aramaic. If marriage is so demanding, in other words, if it requires this depth of fidelity, then maybe it’s better to opt out! In response, Jesus brooks no softening of his demand. “Not everyone can accept this teaching,” he says laconically (19:11). The world may view marriage as too hard or too sad or too confining, but no matter: What marriage means for Christians is a cross, and if you want to be his disciples, Jesus implies, you will shoulder it with eyes wide open.
And Singleness Means Ascesis
On the heels of this demanding vision, though, Jesus goes on to discuss the matter of singleness, on which topic he is equally stringent. Don’t make the mistake, he seems to say to his followers, of thinking that if you opt out of marriage, you are thereby exempted from martyrdom. Whether one is unmarried due to a biological incapacity for spousal union or prevented from it by circumstances or embracing that state voluntarily, Jesus imagines the unwed as those whose lives are to be lived “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (19:12). Christian singleness too, like Christian marriage, is not about “brief joy and long sadness,” to return to Luther’s quote above. It is instead one more way in which we begin to unlearn selfishness, to embrace a kind of spiritual martyrdom, and find our desires redirected toward the city of God. Singleness too is about holy dying, about the sanctifying transformation of desire and belonging.
Like Luther’s teaching on marriage, this is a perspective that flies in the face of many contemporary understandings of what the single life entails. In her recent journalistic memoir Future Sex, writer Emily Witt reflects on the intermittent singleness of her twenties and thirties and how, looking back, she realizes what she was looking for in those years was a way to “stop thinking of marriage as the only feasible resolution to the question of what my sexual future might look like.” She wanted to explore a world—one which is increasingly more present reality than futuristic sci-fi dream—in which “there are no such entities as ‘men’ and ‘women,’ just spectrums of behavior and of being the world, that can be shifted by technology and synthetic hormones.” She wanted, in short, a reliably satisfying and clear-eyed way of practicing the fabled “free love” of the sixties, thinking of her unmarried state not as a waiting room but as a kind of permanent station with its own integrity. There exists now, says Witt, “a new kind of person . . . whose place apart from the householder is assured not by celibacy but by contraception. Is this not also a vocation?”
In Jesus’s vision, the short answer to Witt’s question is: No. The singleness the Gospels imagine, along with that of the subsequent apostolic and catholic tradition, is one in which sexual abstinence is non-negotiable. But equally, it’s one in which the single person’s quest isn’t so much for new experiences or self-discovering experimentation or a gentle determination to meet one’s own specific needs, discerned through sensitive introspection. Rather, singleness exists as a vocation for the sake of what Jesus calls, in Greek, God’s basileia—God’s redeeming reign, his peace-giving sovereignty, over his world. Singleness is an intentional choice to live without marriage, children, and even sexual intimacy in order to be freer to pray, more available to serve others, and more directly poised to bear witness to the soon-to-appear realm in which the risen saints “neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30 NRSV).
But all this raises a question. If marriage and singleness alike are about this sort of holy death to self, then the urgent question facing the church is what sort of practices, routines, and regimens—what sort of “jigs,” to borrow Matthew Crawford’s useful designation of a device or procedure that helps make a repeated action habitual—ought we to put in place so that married couples and single Christians alike come to resemble the status quo less and less and start to illumine God’s kingdom more and more? What kinds of things ought we to be doing, in other words, to help each other along toward the holy martyrdom of either self-giving marriage or self-giving singleness?
How to Die in Marriage
Dying, in the Christian sense, is entirely different from its physical counterpart in one main respect: It isn’t guaranteed. Wait long enough, and your physical body will betray you, leading you inexorably to your last breath regardless of whether you’ve prepared yourself for it or not. But sit back and wait in a similar way for your spiritual “death to self,” as Christians call it, and your waiting will lead you anywhere but death. Entropy of the body is a given; but the crucifixion of “the flesh”—our death to ourselves in their fallenness and sinful disorder—is eminently avoidable. Dying to our old, pre-baptismal ways of life, in Christian terms, requires daily attention. We receive the gift of spiritual death first when we are sprinkled with the waters of baptism, by God’s effectual promise, but our daily appropriation of that gift involves us in a strenuous effort. As Paul puts it, we are to “put to death whatever is earthly in [us]” (Colossians 3:5, my translation). If we want to practice this daily death in marriage or singleness, we have to think carefully about the kinds of concrete practices through which that dying can happen.
Perhaps the first thing to say with regard to marriage is that we need to think carefully about the sorts of practices that will remind married couples that their love is to be turned outward, not so much away from each other (there is plenty of daily dying required in that singular relationship of spouse to spouse) as much as through each other to form a haven for others. Marriage isn’t for self-indulgence, nor does it authorize a cozy respite from community. It is, rather, for receiving love from God and channeling it to others. In the first place, then, Christian spouses will look for ways to resist the easy embrace of contraception, the habit of viewing their love as a license to hold themselves back from hospitality, and all the ways that they are tempted to retreat from the needs of widows, divorcés, and other single people.
Several years ago, Rodney Clapp made a link between the procreative character of marriage and the way marriages can open out into a wider hospitality. If this link isn’t intuitive to us, it should become so.
Christian parenthood . . . is practice in hospitality, in the welcoming and support of strangers. Welcoming the strangers who are our children, we learn a little about being out of control, about the possibility of surprise (and so of hope), about how strange we ourselves are. Moment by mundane moment—dealing with rebellion, hosting birthday parties, struggling to understand exactly what a toddler has dreamed and been so frightened by in the night—we pick up skills in patience, empathy, generosity, forgiveness. And all these are transferable skills, skills we can and must use to welcome other strangers besides our children. We become better equipped to open ourselves to strangers, especially to those strangers who are not our children but our brothers and sisters in Christ.
One of the primary ways I’ve seen this kind of marital hospitality fleshed out is when married couples have welcomed me, a single man, to the table—literally, to the dinner table—alongside their children. I’ve had many married friends over the years who have been happy to book sitters for their kids so they can meet me, childless, at the cinema or concert venue or so that we can carpool to the same adults-only dinner party. Those times have been pleasant enough and occasionally even memorable. But they fade in significance when compared with the times I’ve been invited into the chaotic rhythm, happy or otherwise, of a family’s regular routine. While I was in graduate school in England, an American couple began to include me in their dinner and post-dinner evening routine with their children on several nights of each week. Jono, the husband in this couple who was, like me, a postgraduate at the university, and I would finish a day at the library and together take the bus back to their flat. Once inside, I’d be greeted by the cacophony of his and Megan’s toddlers and whatever messes they’d managed to make in the course of the day. Sometimes I helped Megan cook dinner. I would sit beside high chairs smeared with mashed green beans or dotted with uneaten bits of scrambled egg. Usually I would do the dishes afterward as the kids were bathed and put to bed, and the three of us, along with other friends sometimes, would try to unwind with a bottle of wine in the living room and episodes of Friday Night Lights. I wasn’t so much a guest as I was an uncle, an expected face in their normal, unprettified lives—a relational status that was eventually sealed when I stood as a godparent for their second child’s baptism.
Theological ethicist Amy Laura Hall has spoken of Christian marriage as an “open banquet,” a site of mutual care at which a couple are always prepared to add an extra chair. Hall has recommended that we start experimenting with having weddings on Sunday mornings and cutting back on the glitz and expense of the wedding industrial complex as we’ve come to know it: “I think the image of the banquet where the blind and the lame are invited, and those who cannot repay us . . . would be one in which to start a marriage.” Occasionally advice like this is accompanied by uncompromising critiques of the Christian idolization of the nuclear family, but as the conservative political journalist Ross Douthat has pointed out, while the “nuclear family isn’t the only Christian family model imaginable, . . . it is a great achievement of Christian civilization.” Rather than scouting for new configurations of family life, Christian couples could help each other form the habit of harnessing the family’s structural readiness to embrace the lonely and fold them into its routines. An open banquet is something every Christian marriage can offer, regardless of how pedestrian or frugal the fare may be.
My friend Matthew Loftus, who has worked for several years in inner-city Baltimore as a medical doctor and been a member of an intentionally interracial church in his neighbourhood, has urged families to go beyond including singles and others in regular dinner plans and take the extra step of sharing their living space with single people.
More families—yes, even families with small children—should open their homes to single adults. . . . My wife stayed with a family after she finished high school; the time with a stable family was invaluable for her growth as she watched how a husband and wife dealt with conflicts and learned to raise a child together. We’ve since taken on several single housemates in our five years of marriage, finding them to be a blessing to our growing family and an opportunity to be changed as we learn to love one another. Other friends of ours have intentionally made space in their home for the homeless and other people in crisis. There’s a whole movement to intentionally relocate to neighborhoods in need. Such commitments aren’t to be entered into lightly, but they do need to be considered more often as a means of fellowship, witness, and working for justice.
Having lived this option myself—I currently share a house with a married couple and their daughter, my goddaughter—I concur with Matthew’s recommendation.
How to Die in Singleness
If sharing meals and even living spaces may be a jig for Christian married couples in their pursuit of Christian cross-bearing, it may equally be so for the single Christians to whom they hope to minister. Sharing food and homes is just that—sharing—and it requires of singles not only that they accept beneficence from their married neighbours but that they offer it in return.
A few years ago I had dinner in California with a group of Orthodox Christians, two of them priests. We had planned to meet to talk specifically about the challenges facing gay and lesbian Christians, and I tried to speak honestly about what I felt I needed as one of these Christians, as a believer pursuing a life of intentional celibacy because of my theological convictions about marriage. I told my dinner companions that I worried about my lack of a “thick,” stable community, not just because it made my loneliness more acute but also because it gave me too much freedom to indulge my own natural self-centredness. I told them I didn’t just need to be loved by my dear friends who live a thousand miles from me, as precious as those friends are to me; I also needed the embodied presence of friends who could witness my daily “moments of being” (to borrow Virginia Woolf’s resonant phrase) as well as hold my feet to the fire when they see my selfishness take concrete, observable form. My Catholic friend Chris often reminds me that single people need accountability as well as camaraderie—”How are you not just choosing to be your own abbot?”—and I said as much at dinner that night. After listening for a while, one of the priests replied, “It sounds to me like what you’re looking for is what we might call ‘parish celibacy.’ You don’t feel called to take monastic vows, but you do want to attach yourself to a community.” To this day, I haven’t been able to improve on that designation: “parish celibacy” is indeed what I’m after.
Eve Tushnet, one of my fellow celibate gay Christians, has written about some of the uncomfortable questions she’s had to ask herself about living on her own.
Are there ways I could get a little closer to offering the on-call love my married and parenting friends so often must provide? Are there times when I hold myself back from others because I’m too attached to my own freedom, the pleasure of my own company, and the security of my own plans and preferences? Do I choose ways of helping and giving that are more gratifying to my ego, such as giving advice or selecting presents I know they’ll enjoy and praise, but avoid the boring or gross tasks of love like making casseroles and learning to burp infants? Could I live the more demanding and chaotic life of the person who has a duty to love?
One of the ways of answering these questions is by accepting the invitation of married couples with children to enter their chaotic spaces, not as guests but as family. Choosing not to eat or live alone, we single people can make our routines interruptible, our preferences and schedules violable. By committing to a particular parish and tethering ourselves to its members, regardless of how unlike us they may be, we can practice the kind of singleness that looks more like John Stott’s or Pope Francis’s and less like that on display in HBO’s Girls. We can choose to practice hospitality—babysitting the godchildren for whom we’ve taken vows, preparing meals and shouldering the more thankless task of cleaning up after them—instead of simply assuming it’s our married friends’ job to provide it.
Recently, I met a man who had gone to the priest at his Anglican parish and asked if he could take a public vow of celibacy in the context of a Communion service to which the whole parish would be invited. His priest happily assented, and they began to work together on a liturgy, drawing on some Orthodox and Catholic sources and adapting them for their particular purposes. Not unlike a wedding party, the arrangement at the altar that day consisted of my new friend flanked by his “sponsors” who dressed like groomsmen, ready to witness and celebrate their friend’s promises before God to live a chaste life in service to the church. When I asked him why he did it, he spoke about not wanting to be a spiritual “lone ranger.” He said he didn’t want to drift through adulthood as if in a holding pattern; he didn’t want to be defined by an absence or a negative appellation like “unmarried” or “unattached.” He spoke about wanting instead to have a destination for his love (the parish), a vision for his flourishing (community, friendship, hospitality), and a name for his vocation (“vowed celibate,” unlike “single,” is a designation with a Christian pedigree). My friend had made a plan for how he would die, how his daily life would be one of bearing his cross and crucifying his fleshly desires for the sake of loving others. “Brief joy and long sadness” is not what he’s counting on in his future, but the contentment and honour and hope that come from embracing a life “for the sake of the kingdom” are.