Superiority Complex? Is Marriage “better” than singleness?
Last week, I began teaching the marriage counseling course. I lectured on Genesis 2 like you would naturally expect a biblical course on marriage to begin. It is clear from the passage that the creation of man and woman and the one-flesh relationship of marriage is the highpoint, the beautiful crescendo of the creation narrative. Yet every time I give this lecture, I am concerned that the singles in my class may feel a bit marginalized, not just in the course, but in life itself, so I always try to take some time to talk about singleness. Last week I explained to the class that while marriage is held up as the foundation of all other relationships, that all other important forms of human relationship are there too—in seed form. We don’t just have the first marriage, but the beginning of friendship, culture, and the church itself. So while marriage is a necessary ground for image bearing relationships, God calls us into and values every form of image bearing love. Last week I think I said something like “though marriage is foundational to all other relationships, it is not ‘better than’ all other forms of relationship”. Naturally, a few students approached me afterwards to ask me to clarify and kindly disagree.
One such thoughtful student emailed, “If marriage is foundational for building a society, culture, and civilization and through the marital relationship we have greater awareness of the Christ-like attributes/character we need to take on, then by definition isn’t marriage most important?”
I replied: Great question. The language of “importance”, which I introduced into the subject, probably isn’t very helpful. It actually contributes to the very problem which I’m trying to address, which is an attitude of “higher” and “lower” callings in the church. What I was trying to communicate in class was that though marriage is fundamental to all other relationships, it doesn’t mean that it is somehow a “higher” calling than singleness. The Apostle Paul reminds us that there are very good reasons that God calls some to singleness and we need to faithfully represent this truth and not suggest to singles that they are either missing God’s call for them or have a less important calling.
What I wanted the class to embrace is the attitude that Paul commends to us in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. That is, we should accept the gift/calling that God has given us without comparing ourselves to others and accept that in whatever manner of life and ministry we are called to serve it is by God’s hand and we are not to fall into the traps of pride and fear, superiority and inferiority.
Perhaps, too, we ought to examine the way that we tend to use the word “calling” as a sort of once-for-all-time purpose in life. The truth is, whether in the area of vocation or marriage, we will have several different callings in life. With regard to marriage, we are all called to singleness for varying lengths of time. Some are then called to marriage. Then, tragically, through death or divorce some are called to another season of singleness, and depending on your convictions regarding marriage after divorce, called to marriage again. I don’t think we should label any one of these seasons as the higher or better one, because God ordains and glorifies himself in each as he sees fit.
Well, I could well be making things even more complicated than necessary. I don’t pretend to have this matter nailed down. What do you think? Can we recognize marriage as foundational to relationships and society without, at the same time, minimizing the calling God gives to others in singleness?