I’m working on bible study guide on the topic of marriage. I’ve already posted one piece dealing with the story of Laban, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel. I noted there that definitions of marriage and family evolve over time. They are cultural/social constructs that reflect their context. Before I move into the conversation about marriage, it would be helpful to recognize that not everyone gets married. Not everyone wants to be married. There are issues of sexual propriety, which itself is evolving. Where does sexual intimacy belong? That’s a question that I’m going to leave for a different time and place.
Instead I want to ask the question of whether one can live a fulfilled human life, experience companionship, but not experience embodied sexual intimacy? Can one be single in all its forms and be fulfilled? We don’t use the terms anymore – but back in the day, at least with women, women who weren’t married were considered Old Maids. As for men, well there was always some suspicious about them – maybe they enjoyed bachelorhood too much.
As we think about this question it is good to remember that the gospels seem to suggest that Jesus was single. Did he contemplate intimacy as his Last Temptation, as the Nikos Kazantzakis novel and Martin Scorsese film suggest? The Gospels don’t speak of this, but if Jesus was truly human, then wouldn’t the concept of human intimacy be something he dealt with? After all, in first century Jewish life, marriage was expected for most men (and women).
Paul deals with this question more directly. In the seventh chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul deals with marriage and sexual intimacy. I’ll deal with this passage in more depth when we come to the question of mutuality in marriage, but in this passage, which some have taken as a negative portrayal of human intimacy. An earlier version of the NewInternational Version, translated verse 1 as: “Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry.” In the more recent version, the translators have brought the translation into line with current thinking – the message about refraining from sexual relations or marriage wasn’t Paul’s idea, it was that of a certain group of Corinthians. Since then, the translators have added the necessary quote marks.
That said, in verse 7, Paul does seem to suggest that his embrace of the idea of marriage is a concession to human lust. Paul seems to imply that he would prefer that everyone would be like him – single and celibate. But if you can’t, get married. In context, Paul is writing from a rather apocalyptic perspective. He’s assuming that Christ will return soon to bring an end to this age, and thus the need to be married and have children gets in the way of the mission. Living as we do some two thousand years later, it would seem that Paul was incorrect in his calculations. So, maybe it’s okay to get married, have a family, and live with some sense of normalcy. That is, it would seem to be the final message of The Last Temptation of Christ (at least the movie version as I’ve not read the novel).
But there is something interesting about this statement that Paul makes about celibacy. He sees it as a charism, a spiritual gift. Paul seems to suggest that this is a higher charism, than giving in to the need for sexual intimacy. That is probably the way Paul saw it, and it has influenced ascetic and monastic movements from that day to the present. While Paul may have thought this way, perhaps we can read this somewhat differently, and recognize that whether single or married, we can live in relationship with God, and be blessed by that relationship, and we can out that relationship in a variety of ways. It could involve marriage. It might not. Either way, we live in blessed communion with God and with neighbor. Singleness and marriage – are these not two charisms, two different ways, in which we live in the Spirit? Either way, we can be a blessing to the community in which we live.
It seems to me, that for Paul singleness was to be valued because it gave greater opportunity for undistracted work for God. One who is married must take into consideration the needs, desires, and welfare of his or her spouse before embarking on a work, but the single person will not have this distraction (I Cor. 7:32-35). This does not make marriage bad and celibacy good, Paul simply recognizes that there are benefits to the single life. In an age when an unmarried person was frowned upon, this passage gives great freedom. Not everyone must be married or have children if they are to please God. By the same token, one can serve God and be married. If one chooses to be married, then this relationship should be fully sexual. One need not prove one's spirituality by practicing sexual abstinence in marriage. So, whatever condition one finds oneself, let us be available to God.
Of course, I write this as one who has been married for thirty-one years. I write this as one who has shared in numerous weddings and I’ve pronounced blessings on these marriages. I’ve looked to Genesis 2 as a word of wisdom about the need for community. But, it is also clear that community takes many forms. So, whether married or single, one can be used by God.