“Marriage is for your sanctification.”
Sound familiar? This claim has become a reoccurring theme in Christian books and sermons about marriage. It is frequently argued that the marital relationship can force us to deal with our sin and help us become more like Jesus.
Tim Keller expresses this sentiment in The Meaning of Marriage: “What then is marriage for? It is for helping each other become our future glory-selves, the new creations that God will eventually make us.” (120)
Matt Chandler speaks even more strongly “…nothing sanctifies you more quickly than marrying another human being. You have no real depth of understanding how depraved, how selfish and how self-exalting you are until you marry another human and live in the house with them.”
My frustration with this mantra has been building. It’s not that I disagree with the message that marriage can have positive spiritual effects. It clearly can. I am, however, troubled by what this message implies about singleness.
Singleness Does Not Equal Immaturity
I fear we have allowed our cultural expectations to determine our spiritual expectations. It is generally assumed that single adults are less socially mature than married adults. This can be true. Some single adults are lazy, promiscuous, and lacking in direction. Delayed adolescence is a real thing, but this is not God’s vision for singleness. The Christian vision of singleness is active, disciplined, and relationally rich. Instead of parroting cultural expectations about singleness we should be advocating this compelling vision.
Singleness is no excuse for spiritual immaturity. If you are spiritually immature this isn’t because you are single. You may be held back by your laziness, your lack of love for God, or your unwilliness to commit to transformative Christian community – but singleness is not your problem.
Marriage Is No Magic Bullet
A Christian can have a positive spiritual influence on their spouse, and this is acknowledged in Scripture. In First Corinthians Paul even says that a non-Christian man might be “made holy” by his believing wife (7:14). While Paul is certainly not encouraging this type of marriage, he does recognize that being married to someone who loves Jesus can be spiritually helpful. But we must remember that influence is not a one way street.
Even the best marriages can be spiritually distracting. Paul warns about this later in First Corinthians chapter seven. According to the Apostle, marriage necessarily means divided loyalties (32-35).
There are spiritual positives and negatives in marriage, and yet we rarely hear sermons about marriage being spiritually distracting. When we describe marriage as a spiritual panacea and fail to say that singleness has unique spiritual advantages, we are ignoring part of God’s truth.
In our churches we must reject the notion that romance is the solution to every problem. Marriage is not the solution to your laziness, selfishness, or spiritual immaturity. Marriage won’t solve your emotional problems, your financial problems, or your relational problems, and it certainly won’t solve your spiritual problems.
Singleness Provides Unique Spiritual Opportunities
Scripture describes singleness as a spiritual asset, not a liability. According to Jesus, singleness can be experienced “…for the sake of the kingdom of heaven…” (Matt 19:12 ESV). Jesus believes that single people can serve him in unique ways that married people cannot. When speaking to the Corinthians, Paul holds up singleness as a state that is spiritually advantageous, because singleness allows for “undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor 7:35)
For those of us who are single, this should serve as an exhortation to take advantage of this state to seek and serve God in a unique way. While singles are frequently exhorted to get married, perhaps a better encouragement would be to not waste singleness.
Singleness Doesn’t Limit Sanctification
Sanctification is God’s work in the life of a believer, and your singleness is no obstacle for him as he seeks to make you more like Jesus. The path of sanctification God chooses for a single person will look different than the path he chooses for a married person, but each path provides endless opportunities for spiritual growth. Lore Wilbert, who recently crossed over into the married realm, has this to say about sanctification:
“Marriage and singleness are both sanctifying, neither one is more or less… The only difference in these sanctifying agents is that for 34 years singleness was the best way to prove, distill, and refine me, and now marriage is God’s best way to prove, distill, and refine me.”
If you are a Christian, God will continue to make you like Jesus, no matter what your relationship status. Your singleness does not restrict you to slower spiritual growth, and your lack of a spouse does not put a ceiling on what God can do in your life.
Today we have so exalted marriage that we have come to think of it as central to or even essential to Christian growth. This just isn’t true. You don’t need marriage to be sanctified, and married people are not more sanctified than single people.
Moreover, we can take steps in singleness to experience some of the relationship induced growth that frequently occurs in marriage. When we resist isolation and commit to deep Christian community we put ourselves in a place where God can use other Christians to remove our rough (sinful) edges.
Our Language Matters
I have no desire to disparage those who praise marriage and speak of its benefits. Elsewhere both Keller and Chandler have offered positive, nuanced descriptions of singleness. However, when it comes to sanctification, the words we use are important.
We must reject the idea that marriage will spiritually fix us. We must stop assuming that marriage is the best or the default path to spiritual maturity. We must also reject our culture’s idea of what it means to be single. Singleness is not the cause of spiritual immaturity, and marriage is not the solution. God is more than capable of transforming our lives no matter what state we are in. Singleness, as much as marriage, is for our sanctification.