By Erik Young, Contributing Writer
The life of the college student is fraught with anxieties about one’s identity. Discovering who we are apart from our families of origin is a spiritual and emotional struggle. The attendant anxieties that come with keeping up with studies and managing a social life are immense. The added pressure of finding a mate is, for some students, too much to bear.
When I attended ONU more than 20 years ago, I didn’t date anyone. To be honest, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. I was fortunate to have great friends who taught me how to be alone and we spent lots of time alone together. Although I am happily married now, I can’t help but believe that discovering who I was as a single person, in my own right, made me a better mate. I also accept, too, that if fate had determined that I remain single, I would be happy there too.
Perhaps the pressure of our university culture to find a mate is creating stresses and anxieties by robbing the students of the knowledge of their self as an individual before God. It is a perspective that deserves to be explored and one that we have a responsibility to address.
I believe that the efforts of well-meaning Christians of all varieties to defend marriage against perceived threats (same-sex marriage, high divorce rates, etc.) has so narrowly circumscribed and inordinately elevated the institution of marriage that unmarried Christians find themselves pushed further toward the margins and, at times, become collateral damage in the skirmishes.
Put simply, the full spectrum of Christian voices in the contemporary world should be speaking to the blessedness and intrinsic value of the individual human relationship with God, and this includes the decision to remain single.
In the battle to protect the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, we have become myopic; seeing only the glory of victory and not the casualties of the battle. Consequently, marriage has not become simply an option for Christians; it is the option for Christians.
The amount of attention given by Christians to marriage in the second half of the 20th century far surpasses the extant literature from the previous two millennia. Granted, sociological research falls heavily in favor of the nuclear family as ballast for a stable culture. In short, this research emphasizes the institution of marriage as foundational to economic and civic stability. However, the fact remains that very little literature has been offered by Christian thinkers and theologians regarding the institution of marriage until the last century.
The Church has much to say about the gift of singleness. Singleness is no hindrance to the fully realized life in Christ. It could be vigorously argued that it has been beneficial to the Church that some have chosen not to marry. One need only survey the greatest theological and spiritual writings of Christian history to determine that unmarried Christians are gifted with special graces to inspire the rest of the Church to follow God’s leading more faithfully.
In regard to the estate of marriage St. Augustine portrays the gifts of the unmarried John the Baptist and the married Peter and concludes that “for both the celibate of the one, and the marriage estate of the other, did service as soldiers to Christ.” The Greek term charisma is used throughout the New Testament to describe gifts or blessings from God.
Singleness is no hinderance to the fully realized life in Christ.
In our contemporary churches we recognize the existence and necessity of spiritual gifts for the proper function of the church. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches his disciples regarding the unmarried life, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given.” (19:11) He admonishes them further, “Let anyone accept this who can.” (19:12)
Jesus acknowledges that not all are able to accept this teaching, indicating that some are so inclined to live such a way.
Should we refuse to acknowledge this gift given to some and insist that they marry? I pray not. Christian theologians and philosophers have written extensively about the gift of virginity or celibacy.
In his work, Concerning Virginity, St. Ambrose) wrote, “The state of Virginity is undoubtedly commended in holy Scripture, both by our Lord and St. Paul…”
Even St. Augustine’s high opinion of marriage demurs to the superior gift of virginity. He writes, “…by divine right continence is preferred to wedded life, and pious virginity to marriage.”
As to its character as a divine charism, St. Gregory of Nyssa) wrote, “[Virginity] belongs to those alone whose struggles to gain this object of noble life are favored and helped by the grace of God.”
Clement of Rome spoke even more forcefully, “And those who are virgins rejoice at all times in becoming like God and His Christ, and are imitators of them.”
These are but a few examples of the voices of the historic Church and Her witness to the vital importance of the unmarried to the Body of Christ.
Are the contemporary churches (of all varieties) possessed of the courage and humility to stand down from their overzealous battle for marriage?
Even the most well-intentioned apologies for the sanctity of marriage should be tempered by acknowledging that the institution of marriage, blessed as it is, is not the goal of the Christian life.
A defense against cultural stresses on marriage need not, as a consequence, unnecessarily press the single Christian to the margins.
Jesus Christ died an unwed man. He lived life with no wife by his side, and yet He still had a family. He loved and was loved. He was able to live his life according to God’s will and fulfill His plans for Him. If singleness was enough for Jesus, why is it so objectionable to us?