Marriage, Singleness, and Sin part III

Here’s a summary of what I’ve tried to say so far, and if I didn’t say it, here’s what is at the root of what I am planning to say:

  • Sin is about identity, not about the law or rules.

  • Christian conversations about singleness and marriage have tended to emphasize the role and place of sex, with a longtime assumption that the body is lesser or even evil defining what theology has said about these topics.

  • Singleness was seen as a higher calling, when the body is seen as lesser or evil. Because a single person is not, presumably, caving into their physical weaknesses and is pursuing a supposedly higher calling.

  • With the Protestant reformation, all things Catholic were opposed, and this included monasticism. So, marriage was seen as a higher calling, almost from the very beginning, because it contrasted with the Catholic position. This did not necessarily, however, bring with it any new or profound reflections on the role of marriage. Being married was enough of a statement it seems.

  • This means that while Protestants certainly emphasize the place of marriage, they keep up the tradition of not having a lot of depth to what it means to Christian spirituality to be married.

  • Having rejected the spiritual priority of singleness in the Catholic Church, Protestants have, as far as I can tell, absolutely no theology about the role of singleness. It’s not quite a sin, but to be single is, in essence, to be lesser. Something singles know even if they’re not explicitly told this. That’s why the goal of so many singles, and singles groups, is to find someone to marry.

  • The role of theology is to reflect on the practices and on the received teachings in order to find a more coherent understanding of God’s call in our life and to learn how to integrate this call into our lives.

  • In my mind, on the topic of singleness and marriage, theology has almost entirely failed at the above task. There is, really, no coherent theology about marriage and singleness, that I feel reflects what we are supposed to think about this topic. It’s not coherent.

  • Because it’s not coherent, when we try to apply fixes to perceived problems of marriage, singleness, or sex, we run into a huge problem. We only see the symptoms of the deeper problem, but have nothing to really address the underlying issues. When we only see the symptoms, we almost always revert to a very law based position. Marry because its right and God’s plan. Singleness is a curse, a social barrenness which is silently judged. Sex is only allowed in marriage. Thems are the rules.

  • The trouble with the law is that the law has limitations. It either runs out of things to say when new challenges arise. Or, it tries to say too much when new challenges arise. The best, Biblical, example is in the Gospels, where Pharisees accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath because he healed someone. They built a hedge around the Law, and made all sorts of added rules about what is and what is not specifically allowed within the stated Law. Jesus disputed them. He told them that they didn’t get the underlying goal of the Law, they just cared about the rules. Jesus was right.

  • Marriage was discounted by the Catholic Church, and not allowed to clergy, because it was seen as a lesser state, essentially if not explicitly. The emphasis here is on the sin of the body, the weakness that the flesh demands, something that truly spiritual people are able to overcome. This is wrong.

  • Singleness is discounted in the Protestant Church because it is understood as a lesser state of life–following society’s embrace of status as an indicator of reality. This attitude of prioritizing marriage is, in essence, at the root of consumerism in the church. Don’t let anyone fool you. There’s all kinds of signs that are assumed to be indicators that God loves you more and that having more, doing more, of these things, means you’re more in tune with God. Being married is high on this list. Single people are also suspect because it is assumed they are much more susceptible to sinning–especially sexual sins. The temptations of the flesh are once again a defining part of the theology on marriage.

  • Sin isn’t about the law. That’s missing the point. Marriage and singleness are not issues of sin or holiness. That’s also missing the point. Instead, the Biblical teachings on singleness in the passage from Paul I quoted below, makes singleness and marriage an issue of calling and priorities.

  • In other words, it’s all about identity. It’s finding our identity in ways and thoughts and perspectives that are not grounded in God’s call for our lives. Sin is that which is not God. Sin is an expression of finding meaning in that which is not God. Sin is, in other words, misplaced identity.

  • What is our identity in God? That’s a huge question, but one that does have a distinction when it comes to marriage and singleness.

  • What are the other ways we can establish our identity? We can seek to establish our identity through violence, trying to dominate others forcefully. We can try to establish our identity sexually, by absorbing the identity of others into ourselves or by giving ourselves over to the identity of others. We can find our identity through possessions, money being a tool to give us meaning.

    We can try to establish our identity through food, or drink, or accomplishments, or even through depression or lack. If we use any of these to give us meaning and identity, we fall into sin. Married or not, rich or poor, whatever we are, if these things serve as the basis of our identity, we’re outside the calling of God.

So, what should Christian theology think about marriage or singleness and all the other associated issues? What could serve as the basis of a coherent theology of sexuality, singleness, marriage? I think 1 Corinthians 7 is a good place to start, so I’ll be talking more about that in the next post, and finally–finally!–getting to what I’ve been hoping to say all along.

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