But then there are the hard times. Times where a student is facing difficult spiritual dilemmas and I don't have answers that are adequate enough. Times when I'm walking a family through divorce or tragedy. Times when I blow through my budget and incur the ire of the Finance Committee. Times when a student or parent is mad at me and I feel like I've let them down. Times when I've allowed my need for community and peer-interaction to play second fiddle to a silly desire to be liked by my students and their families. Times when my own personal demons overwhelm my ability to minister well. All that.
And yet, I've learned to cherish even these hard times as experiences that, when entrusted to God, serve an ultimately redemptive purpose. As I think through my ministry, the good and the bad, and thank God for the chance to live through it, I've come to realize something: the level of devotion with which I minister would not be possible if I were married. Now, I confess that I endure days every once in a while when I get pretty down in the dumps about "not finding the one yet" or whatever. On the other hand, I also looooooooooooooove coming home to just my dog, no kids, and doing WHATEVER THE HECK I WANT TO (this comedian articulates it nicely). It's nice for real. I mean don't get me wrong. Being married seems nice and you get to spend your life with the person you love and all that. But man, married people make marriage look terrifying. I can't tell you how many times I've asked a newly married friend how being married is and have gotten some variant of this response:
Bro, I love it. I mean it's a lot of work. And I'm thankful for that, because God is really sanctifying me through it by revealing all of my selfish tendencies that need to change. It's like the fast lane of sanctification! I'm so thankful for it. It's good. When are you getting married?"
Umm, after that answer, never! Ha! I'm just joking around - mostly. But the part that I'm serious about is that, because my singleness has afforded me the opportunity to spend more time focused on my ministry and my relationship with God, I've come to regard it the same way Paul did - as a gift from God. Paul regarded chastity and celibacy so highly that he encouraged unmarried Corinthians to remain unmarried (I Corinthians 7:8) and commended the lifestyle because unmarried people could be focused on the "Lord's affairs" (I Corinthians 7:33) without their interests being divided among their wives and children.
However, this beautiful portrayal of singleness certainly seems foreign to the church today, sadly. It has been my experience that single Christians are generally treated like second class citizens in churches - unless they're young. The Sunday School classification model for many churches even today is based on age and marital status. From what I understand, the purpose of this (according to folks who were young when this model was popular) was to get all the single people together so that they could find their future husbands or wives. And God speed to the ones who didn't because being single past your thirties is the like kiss of death in Baptist circles! People begin to wonder. Folks start talking. Intrusive, public comments suddenly become okay. "So Stephen, when are you getting married?" I can't tell you how many times I've endured this kind of interrogation. I've had at least a dozen middle-aged to senior ladies hit me with that one. A couple have even tried to set me up on dates! One of them even got mad at me because I refused to go on the date she set up for without my permission!
Honestly, most of this has been comical, but it certainly reveals an unchecked tendency in the Church: we've made marriage into an idol and singleness into its red-headed step-sister. Sadly, this mentality has even bled into how churches hire ministers. I hope to serve as a senior pastor or teaching pastor one day, but have significant fears about that possibility because - believe it or not - marriage is a prerequisite for the great majority of those positions.
The reason for the prevalence of this mentality is probably three-fold. Part of it is that marriage has become really romanticized and some people just genuinely believe that there is someone for everyone out there and that everyone should be married. In the words of my grandmother, "Baby, I just believe in love." Another part is probably more utilitarian. It's good to have someone there for you when things don't go like they should. Someone to support you. Someone to help you. Someone to take care of you when you're sick. Stuff like that. These first two explanations for ecclesiastical marital privilege would be pretty harmless if it weren't for the third, which is hyper-vigilant fear that the person is single because "something is wrong with him/her" and they can't get married. This one bothers me because I can see that very idea go through people's minds when I tell them I'm 31, in ministry and not married. And it's so stinking unfair, too! Really? I'm unmarried so something's wrong with me? Go get a clue...and a Bible. The much uglier form of this hyper-vigilant fear is that the single person has some emotional or sexual perversion. This fear is almost certainly a knee-jerk reaction to all of the sexual abuses that have taken place in the Church in recent decades, especially among Catholics. By the way, I only mention the Catholic church because its priests are, by rule, unmarried. The most irrational part about this fear, however, is its implied insistence that sexual crime finds higher occurrence among people who haven't gotten married - despite empirical evidence to the contrary (here, here, and here if you need to be convinced).
Anyway, here's the point: singleness is not a disease. Quite often, it's a beautiful gift from God that allows the one who possesses it to minister to the Body in a manner that would be greatly compromised were he/she married. Likewise, marriage is not the pinnacle of Christian experience. It is beautiful, but only insomuch as how accurately it represents the devotion of Christ to His Body - a representation, mind you, that should benefit the Body and not merely the marriage.
It probably sounds like I've jumped up on my soapbox. Let me put the axe down and just say this: I love my job and am thankful to God for the calling that He has placed on my life. I wouldn't change it for anything. Additionally, I happen to recognize how much I'm able to give back to Him and to the Body because, for now, I am unmarried and my interests aren't divided. What a charis! A grace-filled gift! I don't want to get into the habit of taking something with which God has blessed me and regarding it as a curse.
It's interesting, really. If you asked a New Testament scholar who the most important figures were in the New Testament, he would likely respond "Jesus" and "Paul". Jesus, for obvious reason. Being the Son of God, He's kind of a big deal. Paul, because he penned most of the New Testament, inaugurated several missions to the Gentiles and laid the foundation for Christian theology. What did the two have in common? They were both unmarried. Isn't it sad to think that, in today's Church, Jesus himself might be viewed through a suspicious lens due to his marital status?
Marriage is a beautiful calling. Singleness is a beautiful calling as well. Sin can find a willing home in both. Christ can flourish in both. But at the end of the day, it is clear that singleness takes a back seat to marriage any day and that this reality is both present and perpetuated in the Church, even despite the Bible’s high view of the single person’s calling.
Perhaps the Millenials – my generation – will begin to initiate the much needed change. For my sake, I sure hope so. I’d love to be a senior pastor some day.