Monday, March 30, 2015
Upon my graduation from university, I worked for a few years within the context of a local church. It was a thrilling experience and one of the things I find myself continually grateful for was the opportunity to practice pastoral care for those around me. However, whenever I stop and think about the issues I dealt with as a young pastor, the one that came up most often was about dating, singleness, marriage, and how to do all of them well.
Often, this tension would typically rear more heat than light. I would sit down with single men and women and hear things like, “this church doesn’t care about what I’m going through!” or “we spend so much time talking about marriage, why don’t we talk about singleness more?!” Conversely, I would sit with young husbands who would stare at me and say “surely, I’m supposed to love my wife, but I didn’t sign up for this.” Though situated differently, all were struggling. Surely things couldn’t be this hard could they?
As I continued to think pastorally about how to approach these issues, I found that instead of trying to evenly distribute time within the preaching calendar toward both singleness and marriage, it would be better if both lifestyles — single and married — recaptured a vision for vocation.
An Eschatological Vision
It is not uncommon for singles and marrieds to lament their present circumstance and long for days past — or future — which they wish for the present. Whenever I was single, I would find myself thinking that if I were only married then whatever issues I was dealing with at the time would be solved through marriage. Likewise, I remember hearing married friends speak about how good I had it, how good it was to be able to have so much free time to do whatever I pleased. Ironically, the free time my friends spoke of was the very time I wished would be consumed by a spouse.
Yet, whatever our circumstance — married or single — we have been placed there by God’s providential hand. Further, our vision of our calling must be grander than the anxieties we feel in the midst of our circumstances, married or single.
Oliver O’Donovan rightly captures the eschatological lens that should direct our vision.
Humanity in the presence of God will know a community in which the fidelity of love which marriage makes possible will be extended beyond the limits of marriage. To this eschatological hope the New Testament church bore witness by fostering the social conditions which could support a vocation to the single life. It conceived of marriage and singleness as alternative vocations, each a worthy form of life, the two together comprising the whole Christian witness to the nature of the affectionate community. The one declared that God had vindicated the order of creation, the other pointed beyond it to its eschatological transformation.
Within the Christian vision, marriage and the single life are “alternative vocations.” Each one legitimate, each one — though temporary — pointing to greater realities beyond itself. For the married person, God’s vindication and restoration of creation through the work of His Son. For the single person, the eschatological transformation in the life to come where one neither marries nor is given in marriage. For in the age to come, the “presence of God will know a community in which the fidelity of love which marriage makes possible will be extended beyond the limits of marriage.” What a glorious hope.
Circumstances Neither Trivial, Nor Imaginary
We all find ourselves then living with the tension of the attendant circumstances that accompany our vocation. And those circumstances are neither trivial or imaginary, but felt and real.
The sleepless nights a young mother feels going on into her third month with her newborn child; the daily dying a married man feels going into his second shift to help provide for his family; the sorrow a single woman who, desiring marriage, feels like it just might never come; the loneliness a young pastor feels as he endures the pressures of ministry with no marital possibilities on the horizon. All of these anxieties that accompany each vocation are real and can, at times, even feel unbearable.
Yet even in the midst of unbearable loneliness or painful, sacrificial leadership, our callings — our vocations — point beyond circumstances to a greater, more glorious, eschatological hope. For those of us who are married, this means the picture of Christ and his Church. For singles, the picture of the hope that we have beyond the grave where marriage as an institution will dissolve before the full revealing of the glory of Christ. In that place, even the eunuch will have a monument and a name that is better than the joy of sons or daughters (Is. 56:5).
Vocation & Work
What this also means is that the implied command for each of us behind the idea of vocation is a call to work.
Paul commands the church in Philippi to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). This implies agency on behalf of the Christian, behind which the power of God is working mightily. For the Christian, our vocation either in singleness or marriage is the locale where God displays his abundant grace. His power is made perfect in the myriads and myriads of ways in which we are weak.
Husbands and wives, then, see within marriage a picture and a command – an indicative and an imperative. The calling placed upon husbands and wives is not a suggestion. They must act and commune with one another in such a way that the world sees and marvels at the reckoning that God has accomplished through his son.
The same is also true for singles. Singles and singleness are not the “B-Team” of the Christian community. Singleness foreshadows and displays that even marriage has an end. Marriage is a creational good, as we have already seen, but for Paul, singleness is better (1 Cor. 7:7-8). Singles display that in the kingdom of God, there is an allegiance that is stronger than even the nuclear family. Singles, therefore, live as ones whose lives signal the coming day when marriage will be no more because:
The marriage of the Lamb has come. And his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure (Rev. 19:7-8).
All for Christ
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, after giving specific commands to specific groups of people in the church, to “let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to them. This is my rule in all the churches” (1 Cor. 7:17). In whatever circumstance, Paul writes, live as one’s who have been called according to the abundant grace given to us in Christ Jesus. “Whatever you do, do it for the glory of God.”
For Paul, all things that we do, whether we be single or married, find their ultimate end in glorifying God in the face of Jesus Christ. Brothers and sisters, what could be a more thrilling calling that that?
Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics, 70.
Scott is married to his wonderful wife Jessi, and is currently an M.Div. student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He studied History at Texas State University in San Marcos, TX. Follow him on Twitter @scottacorbin.
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