What God has joined…
A conversation on singleness and marriage (Matthew 19:1-12)
by John Buchanan, Chapel Hill, Hamilton
3000 years ago, around the time of David the King of Israel, marriage was held in high esteem. God’s command to be fruitful and multiply1 was taken seriously and marriage was the right way to go about it. If you were not married by the age of 20 (unless you were a student of law), then you were seen to be breaking God’s command. The plan was simple: get a mate and create.
In contrast to marriage, women were held in low esteem. Women were chattels; a woman was the possession of her father and then of her husband and she had no legal rights. Divorce was allowed, but only for men.
Go forward a thousand years to when Jesus walked the land of Palestine. The old ways were changing, as echoed in Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce2. In the old days, it was OK for a man to divorce his wife.
Not any more, says Jesus. The status of marriage has been elevated. Later he went on to say: …from the beginning “God made them male and female.” And (Jesus went on to say), “This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one. Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together3.
The status of marriage has been elevated. There is also a change in the status of women, as per Paul’s pastoral counsel: The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife4.
Married couples are indebted to one another sexually. To whom does the wife’s body belong? It belongs to her and also to her husband. Roman and Jewish men would have questioned this. “Of course my wife’s body belongs to me. But what do you mean, it also belongs to her?”
Then comes the shocker! The husband’s body does not belong to him alone, but also to his wife. In first century Jewish and Roman culture, this was outrageous. Women were things and men called all the shots – that’s how it has always been.
Not any more, says Paul. The status of women has been elevated, along with the status of marriage.
Moreover, marriage is no longer an obligation for all of God’s people based on the “be fruitful and multiply” command. It is a blessed option, but it is no longer an obligation – because singleness is also a blessed option.
After Jesus elevated marriage and its permanency the disciples get the idea that marriage is now a painful obligation, so they cynically suggest that perhaps it’s better not to marry.
Not so, says Jesus. Singleness is an appropriate alternative to marriage – for those who can accept it. For those who are so gifted5. Singleness is a gift, as is marriage. Thus it is not God’s will that everyone should marry.
There are definite advantages of singleness. In Paul’s time, persecution was part of life for the Christian. Being married and having family ties made life a lot harder. A married person has other concerns – for spouse and children. Such concerns can and often do dampen the sense of urgency in serving the Lord. Many Christian preachers, from John Wesley through to some of the workaholics of today, would likely have been better off unmarried rather than seeing their marriages fall apart after years of neglect6. Michael Green asks the right question: Could I be equally useful to the Lord if married, or would it eventually curtail my usefulness to him?
Every church has responsibility to their single people. It is this: to affirm that singleness is a healthy, legitimate lifestyle, in the same way that marriage is affirmed as a healthy, legitimate lifestyle. Singleness is not the second best option; neither is marriage. The second-best option is to go against the gift of God for you.
A word from us who are married to those who are single. Forgive us when we have not dignified you or when we have marginalised you in some way because you are single. That is not God’s view. Forgive us if we have pressured you to be married.
Picture this wedding scene as the celebrant speaks:
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to celebrate the marriage of James and Sarah.
Today you will give yourself unreservedly to each other.
Today you stop living for yourself.
Today you give over your right to your own life, never to take it up again.
Sarah, I hope you are not looking to James to meet your needs. He is going to be unreliable at best and he will disappoint you.
And James, I hope you don’t expect Sarah to validate you and meet all your needs. She will fail you.
Tell me Sarah, what will James be like in 15 years? Will he still choose the same direction as you?
James, Sarah won’t always be this beautiful you know. She may experience post-natal depression after your second child and be a changed person. Would you stay with her?
I think that if it wasn’t for romantic love – which is a good thing – I don’t think you would even entertain the thought of getting married and embarking on this risky arrangement we call marriage. It is almost as if love coaxes you into it.
In getting married, you are gifted with a unique and wonderful opportunity to learn how to live for another person. You are entering a covenant for life where you are required to uphold your end more or less regardless of what your spouse does.
I believe you will go well because God himself is joining you in marriage. If it wasn’t for that, then I’d be worried about how this could turn out. But you can count on the Lord’s help.
And so James and Sarah are married and leave the service with joy and expectation. And everything works out for them in their married life together. Yeah, right. The romantic pictures of marriage from the media may play out for a short time, but soon the honeymoon is over. Often when people marry, it is about what this relationship will do for me. And if it stays like that, it will fail. It may not end in divorce, but it will be a mere shadow of what God intends.
The high calling of marriage is modelled on the relationship that Jesus Christ has with his church. Jesus loved the church and gave himself up for her. That is the high and radical calling. A calling so impossible that were it not that God did the joining, it would be doomed.
By the way, it is arrogant to assume that God only joins Christian marriages. God desires that all marriages succeed and last. And he is at work, helping us live out this high calling, this covenant we have made with our spouse and (if we are followers of Jesus) also made with God.
So what does it mean that God joins two people? There are two bonds in this joining: the bond of betrothal and the sexual bond. Betrothal is the covenant that two people make to each other publicly, and often before God.
Sexual is the sexual union of a man and a woman. But sex alone doesn’t do it. When two people (who are unmarried) have an affair are they then joined by God? No. There is no commitment. But where both of these come together, there is marriage in God’s sight and he does the joining. He is involved, even if you don’t know him.
To you who are single
Singleness is not a second-best option. It is a legitimate, healthy lifestyle fully approved by God. As a single person you have opportunities that simply do not exist for married people. If you desire to be married, that is a good desire.
To you who are hoping to marry
The exhortation to not be unequally yoked7 makes it clear that a Christian is not to marry someone who is an unbeliever. However, a mistaken corollary is that it is OK for a Christian to marry any other Christian. But can two people walk together without agreeing on the direction?8 It is not enough just to marry someone who is also a believer. Are you heading in similar directions?
Pete was in Asia involved in mission work, and loving it. He returned on furlough to New Zealand, was married and after a time went back to Asia with his new wife, Jean9. Within two years they had returned to New Zealand for good as Jean wasn’t cut out for such work. Different directions. Try and be on the same page. You can have a lot in common or a little in common – I don’t believe it matters much. If you’re on the same page, heading in a similar direction: that’s what makes a difference.
Finally, if you ask people for their counsel about getting married, make sure that you haven’t already made up your mind.
To you who are married
If I were to get you alone and ask you, “How is your marriage going?” what would you say? What would be your truthful response? Would you talk about what’s wrong with your spouse? Perhaps you would speak of your desires that are not met?
All marriages struggle at times. That is how it is. I urge you to have a realistic picture. Embrace the struggles. Here is some advice I was given. A man told me that for the first 15 years of his marriage he focused on his desires and his wife’s faults (both things he had little control over). Then he changed to focus on his wife’s desires and his faults (both things he had control over) – and their relationship continues to improve. Give attention to your own faults and your spouse’s desires.
Marriage is a high calling, a covenant, a lasting relationship that is to be modelled on Jesus and his love for his church. But things do fall apart. Marriages break up. What then?
1. Gen 1:28
2. Mat 5:31-32
3. Mat 19:4b-6
4. 1 Cor 7:3-4
5. 1 Cor 7:7
6. Blomberg, Craig, The NIV Application Commentary: 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 156.
7. 2 Cor 6:14
8. Amos 3:3
9. Names changed