Church and the marriage idol

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The bouquet toss at a friend’s wedding, Oct. 2019. Photo by Melissa Jill.

We sat around a warm fire that crackled softly beneath a dark canopy of night and the first early stars of autumn.

Nine of us, from five different churches, talked and laughed and sang hymns as if we were all back at our presbytery’s high school winter camp where most of us met for the first time. We would build on those friendships for a decade during backpacking trips and missions teams. Now we found ourselves together again – this time for the wedding weekend of a dear sister in Christ. 

Perhaps it was the reason we all found ourselves in Dewey, Arizona or perhaps it was simply because this is an oft-spoken of topic, but we spent much of the evening following the ceremony talking about marriage and singleness. 

We had two young married couples in our group and a smattering of people who were dating. And then there was my friend, who like myself, was very, very single, but younger by a few years. 

Over the course of our discussion, I watched her wrestle to describe her frustration, confusion and discontentment to the rest of our friends. She ran the gauntlet trying to put into words – to explain to people who married young – why it is frustrating to find yourself single beyond the years you had expected to remain so. 

When one of our friends finally referred to her frustration as “angst,” I decided to speak up – not to scold or to chide, but to gently describe a problem the single Christians in our pews are facing (one I know well) and how the body of Christ can better extend the love and care of God to these sisters. 

While I am certain single men struggle with their own issues, for my purposes here, I will be drawing on my experiences as a woman in the church. I think it is important to understand that the pressures facing single men and single women are different. Understanding that singleness in the church is an enormous topic is also important, and I am only going to address what we talked about at the campfire that night: the effects of prioritizing marriage above God’s calling to singleness, be that calling for a season or a lifetime.

I have been single for nearly three decades and marriage has been a fervent desire since my earliest memories (as a girl, I used to design my own wedding invitations, and every stuffed animal in my collection witnessed ‘pretend marriage ceremonies’ on a weekly basis for…a long time). I understand that the desire for marriage in many cases – certainly mine – is a natural inclination of the heart. 

But by the time I had begun college, marriage had become an idol for me. Something good and godly had been twisted into something vain and self-affirming. I wanted to be married to a good man because it would show that I was a good woman, that I was gifted and talented and worthy. Instead of finding my worth in Christ, I looked for it in a ring. I didn’t recognize this in myself at the time and I wonder how many other women don’t see it in themselves either. 

In 2013, I moved to the Czech Republic to serve as a missionary associate. I struggled with the idea of never getting married – a notion not helped by people in the church who said all the good young men would be gone by the time I came back to the U.S. 

God, however, took those two years and used them to fill my cup with purpose and joy and, eventually, I surrendered my idol of marriage to him. I promised God that I would be content in the work he gave me to do, even if it meant living a life very different from the one I had pictured for myself, and in return he gave me a peace I had never known. It was a peace that passes understanding, but one that was nestled in purpose and revealed in opportunities to serve his kingdom.

Upon returning to the US in my mid-twenties, I found my resolution difficult to stick by – not because of a change of heart, but because of the change of scenery. 

I do not blame the church for my sin of idolatry, but reentering the Christian community brought into sharp awareness a blindness the church has towards its daughters. 

Within a week of my return, four people in the Christian community had asked after my romantic prospects. The years that have followed have been full of set-ups and suggestions that I get to know so-and-so or visit this church or that because of their youth groups full of other singles. It all came from good intentions, but it created a bubble of pressure around an area of my heart that I knew was weak from sin already. 

If a wife of noble character is her husband’s crown, I wanted to be that crown. Who wouldn’t?

But more than that, I felt overlooked by the workers in the harvest field. Why weren’t people asking me about how I could continue helping our church or our community? Why weren’t they encouraging me towards service instead of always towards the nearest single man? Why was I seen as someone to be married off rather than someone who could help the church right now with my available time and talents?

For girls especially, growing up in the Christian community can have a very one-directional effect on our values – and not necessarily the right direction. 

From our earliest days at Sunday school, we are taught about Abigail and Ruth, women who were rewarded for their faith with godly (as well as rich and powerful) husbands. The Proverbs 31 woman is a frequent topic at Bible studies – “An excellent wife, who can find? She is worth far more than jewels.” Our mothers diligently prepare us to take care of homes and children, never assuming that we might not ever be blessed with such, or that God would ask us to wait a long time before giving us families of our own. 

All of these can be sewn together under the common thread of what I like to call “marriage prep,” and growing up, that’s certainly what it felt like. 

But they could also be tied together with another thread: service. Somehow, that message tends to get lost in the telling. Abigail wasn’t rewarded with a husband (any woman who has read 2 Samuel can attest that David was no award-winning spouse) – no, her reward was an opportunity to continue serving God and his kingdom as the wife of the king of Israel.

Even the well-intentioned efforts of friends and family to bring young people together can be misconstrued – “it’s only because we think so highly of you.” (As an important side note: I’m not saying that we can’t introduce godly Christian singles to each other, only that the manner in which it is done is important.)

Marriage to a woman in the church can look like affirmation, like achievement of some grand goal. It can look like finding approval from family and friends and finally having a visible role to carry out in the church as a wife and possibly as a mother. 

If a wife of noble character is her husband’s crown, I wanted to be that crown. Who wouldn’t?

It’s no wonder my friend sounded “angsty” as she tried to express her frustration. She has been taught, though by no means on purpose, that her worth in the church and her calling in life is to be a wife, an easy-to-believe message when it lines up with the natural desire of her heart.

I am not the only one who made an idol out of marriage. The Christian community has put marriage on a pedestal as well. 

“But marriage is a good thing,” one of the young married men replied as we sat around the campfire. “Why not put it on a pedestal?” 

“Because nothing belongs on the pedestal but Christ,” I said.

“But marriage is a picture of Christ and the church,” he contended.

“Yes,” I agreed, “but only a picture. The picture is not Christ. And only Christ belongs on the pedestal.”

We make idols out of marriage. The world makes an idol out of singleness. And, to be fair, we sometimes make an idol out of service as well. Anything that helps us feel worthy and happy and blessed. And while God does use earthly things as channels for his blessings, our worthiness and therefore our true joy comes only from Christ’s remarkable work on the cross. 

That’s what we need to be conveying to our women, from the day they enter our Sunday school classes as little girls of the covenant. Our worth is in Christ. Our calling is to serve him.

When we die, when we draw our last breath and cross the river Jordan, when we see our Maker face to face, each of us – married or not – will be alone. No spouse, no child or family member, nor any friend will accompany us. 

This should be a comfort. It should be a comfort for single and married women alike – for women who have not yet been blessed with husbands or who never will be, for women whose marriages have ended in death or divorce, for women whose marriages are not what they hoped or expected. 

Before we were knit together in our mother’s womb, and when our eyelids close in death, before all and after all and through all, Christ is our ever-present, unchanging companion. We are his bride and he is the prize. 

I think the Christian community does a disservice to all its members by replacing Christ’s altar with the marriage altar. We should be encouraging our sisters towards kingdom work, as Paul would have done. As we teach and train young ladies in the church, the focus both in the home and in the pew should be Christ and obediently following God’s calling whatever that may look like. 

The years have still found me occasionally lonely and disappointed, but never frustrated as I was before. And that is my hope for my sisters in the church, married or single, that they find themselves filled with purpose – whether that means serving on a foreign mission field or caring for someone at home, whether it looks like being a helpmeet and a mother or an encouraging sister to the body of Christ. 

I rejoice that God has blessed me with good works to do, that my road is set before me and that, though I cannot see its every bend, Christ walks each step of it with me.

8 thoughts on “Church and the marriage idol

  1. I really enjoyed this. I think this lovingly puts to words what a lot of very single people in the church have felt… At least what I often felt. My church was always so encouragingly supportive of me as a single woman and I felt like I was a useful and cherished part of the body of Christ. However, this didn’t stop me from making marriage my idol. This was encouraging and insightful. You should really consider writing a book on the subject. I’d read it.

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  2. I’m always intrigued by your writing, and it’s not far off from what I’ve experienced as a single traveler. Is there anything else you are writing these days? I’m sure you’re busy, but I like to share good writers with my friends in China.

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  3. What a fantastic, gentle, straightforward piece on a serious issue in the church family. I’m glad you included the comments (anonymously) of the young man in the campfire who defended the holiness of a mere picture… I think it well illustrated the confusion that has ballooned into something so obstructive to so many spiritual journeys. Thank you for spending the time to write and share this, and I hope many read it.

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  4. Thank you for this post! You are so insightful and eloquently put what it’s like being single in a culture that overly values and idolizes marriage! I’ve been single my whole life and while I don’t know if I will ever get married, it would be nice to get some encouragement from my church family to pursue what God has for me right now, rather than focusing on finding a husband for the future! I also have a blog that explores singleness within the church if you’d ever be interested in collaborating on something. Thanks for putting into words what many singles have difficulty expressing.

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  5. Your words really highlight the marriage-centric focus so many in the churches I’ve been a part of hold to. There does not seem to be a developed framework for considering unmarried people who never outgrow their ‘singleness season’. Worse, to be single and serve in leadership positions in the church seems to be a rather difficult thing to pursue without a spouse to affirm your legitimacy.

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