There’s a reason everybody freaks out when someone’s about to get married.
Families get involved, venues are booked, banquets are planned, gifts prepared, invitations sent, dresses tailored, decorations, music, cakes, photos, friends you haven’t seen in three years, and oh my word thank God there’s an open bar.
It’s a freakin’ big deal. But why? Why do we spend so much time, money, and energy on a single day of rituals when couples nowadays can simply get a marriage license and elope? Why do we all care so much?
Contrary to popular belief, a wedding isn’t all about the soon-to-be-married couple.
In a traditional nuptial, after the bride and groom have exchanged their vows, the celebrant asks the wedding attendees this question:
“Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?”
To which the congregation responds,
The presence of this question, or at least the spirit of it, conveys the prime reason that nonaffirming Christians often refuse to attend same-sex weddings — whether or not that’s what they might be consciously thinking. When asked to formally voice their support for a gay union, answering in the obligatory manner would be simply dishonest.
It’s interesting to note that we often don’t think about this passing formality in weddings while it’s happening. We only subconsciously note it when we have something to be opposed to, like a same-sex marriage. In the last wedding I went to, I was too busy keeping myself from crying because my cousin looked so beautiful in her wedding dress to really dwell on the gravity of my affirmation.
But lately, especially in juxtaposition to gay unions, I’ve been beginning to realize that the public commitment of a marriage is one of the most inextricably important elements of a wedding. It is what holds the couple accountable in faithfulness to one another, and holds the community accountable to recognizing and nurturing that relationship.
In a sense, the marriage covenant solidifies the ties between each individual and the community — formal recognition forces the bride and the groom into the public eye, almost as if they have become full-fledged members of the world at large.
Which is great, except that it’s kind of a problem.
If a person needs to be married in order to be fully accepted as a member of the community, where does that leave singles? What kind of connection does the unmarried have to the rest of their group?
Ideally, this vow of commitment to the community, in Christian circles, is baptism. The sacrament marks a formal covenant of dedication to growth with and in the family of God, among other things. Most importantly, a baptismal ceremony requires one or more witnesses to affirm the promise and swear to uphold that vow — much like as in a wedding.
But for a number of reasons, the baptismal vow has taken a back seat to the marriage vow. One probably has to do with the Syndrome Effect (“if everyone’s super, no one will be”), and a second has to do with life circumstances.
The fact of the matter is, most people do get married. As young adults enter their mid-20s, the number of friends getting married rises exponentially. Friends start to couple up, bear children, and turn into families. Families bond as parents talk about parent things together and children do children things together. The group of friends that once held everyone as an equal starts to become a collection of families with a few spare tires.
For straight or Side A singles, the pressure to get married starts to amp up. Once their peers begin a trend, it feels strange not to follow it, especially with such a commonly instituted arrangement such as marriage. The biological clock begins ticking louder, inspiring an insecurity over lovelessness rather than a contentment with God’s plan. Distance begins to grow between the bachelor(ette)s and the married couples, who now have a new circle of friends who better understand their married lives.
In some ways, the same applies to celibate gay Christians; but there are some key differences as well.
The first is the absence of hope in marriage. Celibacy, as a conscious choice, opts not to pursue romantic opportunities even when they present themselves. The biological clock loses significance because the capacity for conceiving a child in wedlock is voided. This also means that we will never be able to identify with our married friends on the same level as someone who is also married. We are liable to losing common ground with our peers and easily becoming third, fifth, and seventh wheels. In my worst nightmare, we become that friend who everyone only keeps around because they feel like they have to — because interdependence is apparently only acceptable in a romantic relationship.
To quote one of my pastors, “the modern evangelical church has been plagued by individualism.” Paradoxically, this individualistic mindset has made it nearly impossible for single people to thrive in the evangelical community.
At the heart of individualism lies a simple question: “what can I do to live the best life I can?” Which is a completely valid concern that most life philosophies attempt to answer, but the way in which this question is framed leads to the problems we face today — the assumption that the world is ultimately about me and my fulfillment. And since humans are social beings, the happiness of the individual flows from relationships with other people — more specifically, a significant other.
Taking a page out of the Sexual Revolution’s book, the modern church has followed the instinctive yearnings of the collective human heart to the idolization of sex as a means of self-fulfillment. But because we’re good Christians, you have to get married first. To someone of the opposite sex. Then you’ll be happy.
We’ve normalized marriage to the point where it has become expected — almost mandated — in the Church. You’re either married, are eventually going to be, or are some kind of hideous freak. So even if people can get past the fact that I’m gay, the “celibate” part puts me right back in the “hideous freak” category. Yay for progress.
Years of inadvertent idolatry have crippled the evangelical church’s ability to properly minister to anyone who isn’t straight and married with kids. We haven’t got a clue about how to handle the “blessing of singleness,” and when we think we do it’s usually a half-assed attempt to try and get rid of it by preparing singles for marriage. The idea of lifelong celibacy is seen as exotic and admirable from a distance, but rarely does anyone bother to get up close and personal with this heavy cross that can at times be abrasive and even deadly.
Singleness has become a nebulous thing that teenagers and young adults want to escape as soon as they can, and that older married adults either see through rose-colored hindsight glasses or as a frightening idea they don’t want to fathom from the other side. Monks and nuns are fascinating characters who aren’t actual people with actual human desires.
This might not be such a problem if there were no one living in the proverbial Friendzone. Some of us live here by choice, while others just never found the opportunity to leave. Either way, our current culture has abandoned what used to be a fertile ground for human flourishing and turned it into a desolate wasteland where only the unfortunately “blessed” find themselves relegated to.
Loneliness is a tangible illness innumerable people face that should never be seen as the same thing as singleness (married people get lonely too, by the way). But our society has tied the two concepts together so tightly that nowadays, to be single is to be alone. Accursed be the one who dies a virgin, else you be not fully human.
This is the context in which LGBT+ Christians are told, often forcibly, that marriage is not an option for them. The world we live in does not offer celibacy as an easy choice, where we can just shrug off the possibility of romantic love without any objections. Many straight Christians severely underestimate the weight of such a demand, and far too often it results in overwhelming burdens that individuals and communities are not prepared to handle.
We look around us and see the concept of the nuclear family so readily edified by the Church, the husband and wife and children flourishing in love with one another — and then we look in the mirror and see someone who never loved, never lost, and never will. We’re told to deny ourselves and take up our crosses; that all Christians have their own to bear — ours just looks a little different, weighs a little more, and seems to be the only thing people can see when they look at us. It becomes very easy to believe that the cost of discipleship for an LGBT+ Christian is markedly higher than for everyone else.
God Himself said that “it is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18) — humans made in His image are designed for community, as God Himself is perfect communion of Father, Spirit, and Son. And while it’s certainly important that Eve was female (that’s another topic entirely), I’m much more interested in the fact that she was human.
Even in the original, unfallen Creation, the man had a void in himself that God filled by creating a companion. When he first sees her, the first thing Adam focuses on isn’t how she is different — he calls her “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23) — before all else, he celebrates the significance of human community between them.
Since then, sin has shattered the relationships between individuals, the rest of creation, and God. The relational Body has become a collection of pairs with nowhere to put the singles, having so exalted marriage but having neglected other forms of community. We have alienated the unmarried from the Church, supplying no easily accessible vocation of celibacy for the common congregant. Yet we command LGBT+ Christians to pursue an option that does not seem to tangibly exist.
There’s no really getting around this for those of us who hold traditional stances on marriage, and while it’s nice to get sympathy on this subject, pity will not improve anything. Communion will.
I mean this in both senses of the word — the coming together of the Church with Her Christ, pointing towards the eschatological hope of reconciliation between the relationships currently broken by sin. The celebration of community, each member of the Body being intimately involved with the other, no holds barred. This is what the Church needs to foster in order to offer even the semblance of hope to those who do not find their personal fulfillment in a marriage — and despite the lies we’ve been told, marriage will not fulfill us either.
This can only be accomplished — and it must be — by snuffing out the deadly individualism in ourselves and looking to the community of Christ as our cornerstone. Intentional involvement is required on the part of everyone if the Church wants to become the kind of place She should be: a family for all sinners, no exceptions.
Perhaps, also, it’s time we start taking our vows more seriously. As I noted earlier, the sacrament of baptism should be a lifelong commitment for both the baptized and the witnesses. Or maybe we should even revive forgotten traditions, such as vowed celibacy or vowed friendship, to promote more formal affirmations of a community to nurture all individuals.
Singleness is a blessing to the family of God (1 Cor. 7:7-8, 32-35), but we have smothered it in our current age by venerating marriage beyond its proper place and championing its value over most else. In addition, we have forgotten the importance of true friendship in community — singleness in and of itself is not helpful. This union of the Body, I believe, is paramount — while friendship is by no means a substitute for marriage, it is arguably more important to the flourishing human soul.
In the end we’ll all get married, and then it’ll be understandable to freak out. But in preparation for that grand day, we have a more important job than “me and my happiness.” Let’s keep the Bride together, and let’s keep Her whole. Let’s strengthen the bonds of the Body, eliminating any reason for a beloved disciple to leave over impossible burdens. Let’s carry each other’s crosses and walk with each other, because after this life passes and the New Creation comes, that’s what will truly matter.