Dear married and marriage-bound Christians,
It’s me, your quirky gay celibate friend, here with a bit of marriage advice you probably didn’t ask for.
I realize I’m not the first person you come to for marital tips. My resumé admittedly leaves something to be desired. I have roughly as much experience making a marriage work as Eminem has experience in ballet.
But those of us who stay purposefully unmarried can still know a few things about marriage. We’ve been watching dozens of marriages for our entire lives: parents’, siblings’, friends’, colleagues’. We see them from the outside, like anthropologists documenting an alien culture. And sometimes, I think, this view from the outside helps us notice things that married and marriage-bound folks might miss.
Here’s what I’ve been noticing recently: a frightening number of Christians think that marriage should be about turning inward toward one another. “My spouse is my number one priority,” they say glibly, justifying their withdrawal from other commitments and sacrifices and community spaces. “I’m focusing on my marriage right now.” In the name of romance, they gaze so deeply into one another’s eyes that they almost seem to forget how to look at anyone else.
To be clear, I think dedication to spouses is wonderful and important. If marriage is indeed an earthly embodiment of Christ’s relationship to his bride, as the apostle Paul suggests, then marriage could not possibly be held to a higher standard of love and commitment. And there are even biblical reasons to suggest that specific seasons of marriage might require specific spousal attention. (See Deut. 24:5’s comments on newlyweds, for instance.) But loving your spouse is not, in itself, a sufficient gospel calling. In fact, marriages that turn inward and make marital happiness their primary concern, though they may advertise under the banner of Christian selflessness, are fundamentally selfish institutions.
If this all seems a bit much coming from an unmarried man in his late twenties, maybe you’d prefer to hear it coming from an unmarried man in his early thirties. Here’s Jesus in Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” (NIV).
It’s not that Jesus is advocating spousal hatred, per se (or other kinds of hatred, for that matter). The gospel of Luke (and the rest of the Bible) is rife with calls to love people of all kinds. But Jesus proposes that our love for God—and, by extension, our love for those whom God calls us to love—will sometimes seem to stand at odds with our wholehearted dedication to those in our own tribes. Sometimes the sentences “I follow Jesus” and “My spouse is my first priority” dictate two different paths. And Jesus proposes that, if we choose the latter path in the name of “love,” our vision of love is merely a mirage. When we use family love, even beautiful spousal love, as a hall pass to excuse ourselves from the greater kingdom work of love, then we’ve exchanged the gospel for a tribalistic, self-serving religiosity.
Part of the reason sexual minority folks like me tend to roll our eyes when married Christians insist we’re all called to self-denial is that we don’t see enough marriages reflecting that same degree of self-denial. We don’t see enough Christians making costly decisions to sacrifice family comfort and happiness for the sake of the gospel. Instead, we see far too many Christians whose “focus on my marriage” and “take care of my family” becomes a higher priority than the biblical call to love the poor, the foreigners, the outcasts, their enemies. We see too many marriages turned inward, spouses dedicated to one another’s comfort in Jesus’ name.
“He who loves his wife loves himself,” writes Paul in Ephesians 5:28 (NIV). There’s a sense in which marital love, rightly understood, is an extension of self-love. And it’s patently clear in Paul’s letter that this kind of self-love is a good and noble thing, that obedient Christians must love their spouses. But when marital love becomes our highest Christian calling, an absolution from the burden to love the Other, that’s just a slightly more PR-friendly brand of selfishness.
Another pesky question from that unmarried man in his early thirties: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” (Luke 6:32, NIV)
Answer: not much credit at all.
Perhaps all this sounds condemnatory and jaded, like I’m just peeved with the world for my own singleness and determined that no one else should have any marital happiness. If so, let me assure you that I’m a big fan of marriage. I long to see married Christians thrive and grow within the vocation of marriage.
That’s precisely why I want more Christian marriages to stop turning inward.
In my experience, the happiest couples are those who don’t see one another’s happiness (or their own) as their primary vocations. Rather than treating marriage as an occasion to turn inward, they turn outward toward others. They regard marriage as providing unique gifts and blessings which they are meant to steward in service of the body of Christ and the world around them. In serving others, they become better equipped to serve each other. In loving Christ, they become better equipped to enjoy him together.
The best marriages I’ve seen aren’t a rationale for selfishness, but a conduit toward selflessness.
I’m not asking you to stop prioritizing the health of your marriage. I’m just asking you to stop believing that your marital health is best achieved by turning inward. I’m boldly proposing that the good marriage God wants to give you is found in obedience to Jesus, and that real obedience can best be found when you stop obsessing over the goodness of your marriage.
I’ll leave the last word to a married man. Here’s Kutter Callaway on page 183 of Breaking the Marriage Idol (InterVarsity Press, 2018):
The Christian call to marriage is not about a dyad blissfully disconnecting from their community or achieving relational independence. Neither is it about the creation of an exclusively ‘nuclear’ family—a household closed off to the rest of the world. It is rather a dive into the deep end of hospitality. It is to swing wide the doors of our life and our homes to the community on whom we are profoundly dependent, whether we realize it or not.
Check out Grace/Truth!
A small group learning experience designed to help Christians engage in conversations about faith, gender, and sexuality.