Guarding and proclaiming the unchanging truth in a changing world

Jesus on Marriage and the Single Life

21st September 2020
Audio: 

The Book of Common Prayer has no liturgy for any “manner of life” outside Holy Matrimony. Yet most people live a large portion of their lives outside marriage: before and after in their youth and old age; separated and divorced; single by circumstance and single by choice. This week we shall survey what Scripture and the church teach about these ways of life outside marriage.

Although the Lord Jesus worked his first sign at a marriage in Cana of Galilee, he had more to say about being outside marriage than about marriage itself. To begin with, Jesus Himself was single by choice in a Jewish culture where marriage was considered a religious obligation. On several occasions, He portrays family ties as a threat to following Him, sometimes shockingly so:  “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26; cf. 9:59-60). Even with His own mother and brothers, Jesus is uncompromising when they seek an audience: “My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21; cf. 11:27-28). Even from the Cross, Jesus commended His mother to the Beloved Disciple rather than to a sibling.

So what do we make of His positive teaching on marriage? Note first that the single most comprehensive account (Matt 19:1-12) is found in a block of teaching (catechesis) authorized by the Risen Lord’s in His Great Commission to make disciples of all nations, “teaching them to observe all things that I have taught you” (Matt 28:18-20).

The setting of this teaching arises in a dispute with the Pharisees about divorce. Jesus overrides the provision in the Law of Moses of divorce “for any cause” – a right exercised by men only – by citing the creation account that in marriage “the two shall become one flesh”; and He concludes: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 

While Jesus’ language here is familiar from the Prayer Book service, it was clearly shocking to the disciples, who said to Him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” Jesus replied to them: 

“Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”  (Matt 19:11-12)

What are we to conclude from this striking teaching? I would suggest the following:

  • Jesus upholds the Creator’s original purposes in marriage but clarifies and strengthens them by saying that holy matrimony is to be monogamous and lifelong. This cuts across the practice of most cultures, including that of the Old Testament and Judaism. 
  • Jesus challenges disciples to choose a single celibate life as “eunuchs for the Kingdom of God” but concedes that only some will be able to accept the challenge.

The scarlet thread connecting Jesus’ teaching on marriage and the single life is the exclusive call to discipleship, which comes at a cost. Husband and wife are called to absolute fidelity to each other for His sake; single-by-choice disciples are called to forgo the pleasures and responsibilities of marriage and family and to identify a wider community of brothers and sisters in the mission of the Gospel.

There are temptations and perils accompanying each of these choices. The Protestant Reformers responded to the abuses of celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church by promoting marriage, but they themselves may have introduced a pro-family, easy-divorce conformity which has watered down the radical nature of Jesus’ call to follow Him. 

If the Church in our day is to recover and witness to marriage and the single life, it can only do so as a response to Jesus’ radical call to “come, follow me.” “And with that obedient response comes a His promise: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20).

Prayer: 

This kiss is not a touching of the lips that may be insincere, but a union of spirit, a wonderful companionship of divine light with a prepared mind. It imparts the great joy of privately whispered secrets.
Bernard of Clairvaux, on Song of Solomon 1:2: “Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth.”

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