Sunday, June 06, 2010

Gnosticism, Marriage, Singleness, Matchmaking and Martin Luther

I have been thinking a lot about Gnosticism recently because of an article I have been asked to write on the subject for Christianity & Society and this has forced me to revisit my earlier thoughts on the relationship between Gnosticism and courtship.In my book, The Twilight of Liberalism, I observe that

"The Eucharist, and indeed all the sacraments, have become especially troubling among evangelicals for whom the matter/spirit dichotomy is the uber-presupposition. Since modern evangelicals find it offensive that God’s grace would be mediated through physical means or instruments (even as classical Gnosticism found it offensive that God would be incarnated in flesh), so the sacraments are reduced to mere symbols for what goes on inside the individual. As Ollif points out, the “physical manifestations” are simply epiphenomena of a relationship that can be fully defined apart from those physical manifestations. The Protestant tendency to separate spirit from matter means that the Eucharist can become merely an appendix to the Word, a disguised sermon or an approximation for our own spiritual interiority but certainly not a rite that objectively conveys grace."
This Gnostic uneasiness with God working through physical means also manifests itself in popular approaches to marriage within the conservative evangelical community. It is not uncommon to hear statements like, "God will provide a spouse for you," or "you need to trust God to provide the right person at the right time" offered to justify inactivity on the part of a single person who might otherwise be taking steps to increase opportunities for finding a potential spouse. Similarly, such platitudes are sometimes offered as encouragement to a Dad whose grown daughters are ready to be married but without suitable mates within their particularly demographic community. The Gnosticism creeps in when such statements of assurance are given to justify functional passivity on the part of the parents or young people who might otherwise be proactively searching for potential partners. Having drunk deeply from the dualistic wells of Gnosticism, the assumption is pervasive that it is more spiritual for the will of God to happen independent of physical means, and that trusting God to do so in the area of marriage is somehow more preferable to less passive measures.

To justify such passivity, Jonathan Lindvall appeals to the example of Adam. In his Hope School Digest article "The Dangers of Dating: Scriptural Romance", Lindvall points out that when, through naming the various animals, Adam realized that he had no partner, God put him to sleep. Likewise, argues Lindvall, when we get to the age when our interest in the opposite sex is stirred up, God asks us to "go to sleep emotionally!" This is one of the arguments Lindvall uses to establish the necessity for a doctrine known as "emotional purity".

What would we say to an unemployed father who, instead of filling out job applications, said, "I'm just trusting and waiting for God to provide the right job at the right time"? We would say, "Get off your backside and DO something about it." Similarly, if there is a deficit of suitable marriage partners within one's social sphere, it is time for the parents (or the young person, depending on the dynamics of the relationship) to become pro-active, exactly as Abraham did when he wanted a wife for Isaac. And in today's world, with things like the internet and the ease of travel, that isn't hard to do. This is not a time for going to sleep and waiting for God to create Eve!

This reality is too frequently obscured by a false idea of the glories of singlenss.

As I have pointed out before, in my reading I frequently come across authors idolizing singleness or promoting it above marriage. Not infrequently, young people are urged to ‘be content with singleness’ or to take advantage of the ‘gift’ and ‘opportunity’ of singleness at precisely that time of life when they ought to be looking for potential spouses. Consider the following comments.

“...unless we are content with the Lord in singleness, we will not be content with another person in marriage.” (Bill Gothard, The True Significance of The Wedding Covenant.)

“Having been discontent while single, satisfaction in marriage becomes elusive… She should enjoy the Lord with gladness and contentment. Should God send marriage, it will be a wonderful gift. For now, encourage your daughter to serve her Savior without distraction where God has placed her; that too is a beautiful gift from Him.” (Brook Wayne, ‘Of Princes and Fairy Tale Dreams’, article available at

“Are you unmarried at thirty or forty, filled with that sinking feeling that perhaps you never will find a mate? Don’t be dismayed or despair. God’s best gifts are never rushed. Perhaps his best for you is to remain single. Perhaps you will marry when you are fifty…. Do not waste your single years pining after what is not. Rejoice for what is. Use these years to do what you could never do if you were married. …give thanks to God for such an opportunity. …He is in control.” (Michael and Judy Phillips, Best Friends for Life, Minneapolis, MI: Bethany House Publishers, 1997, p. 107.)

“For a long time I did not consider that my single status was a gift from the Lord. I did not resent it – to be frank, in my earlier idealistic period I thought that because I had chosen singleness I was doing God a favor! But in later years I was severely tested again and again on that choice. Then…it gently dawned on me that God had given me a superb gift!” (Ada Lum, Single and Human, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1976, p. 22.

“If there are singles who find the waters of singleness dark and deep, who feel, ‘I sink in deep waters; the billows go over my head; all his waves go over me,’ this is my message to you concerning singleness: ‘Be of good cheer, my brother, my sister; I feel the bottom, and it is good.’” (Margaret Clarkson, So You’re Single, Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1978, p. 11.

“…there is some warrant for thinking that the kinds of self-denial involved in singleness could make one a candidate for greater capacities for love in the age to come.” John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, Wheaton, ILL: Crossway Books, 1991, p. xviii.

While not denying that there may be elements of truth in some of the above statements, if not sufficiently balanced (and in fairness to some of the above sources, such balance is achieved in the books as a whole) they all represent a general tendency to promoting singleness as an end in itself and even, in some cases, a devaluing of marriage by implication. In answer to this chorus of voices, I suggest Debbie Maken’s book Getting Serious About Getting Married: Rethinking the Gift of Singleness. She makes a good case for the fact that it is unbiblical to be content with singleness. Also Steve Hayhow has a good article on his blog on the subject of singleness and marriage, answering those who put forward erroneous interpretations of 1 Cor. 7:1-40 . Finally, also see Let's Have More Teen Pregnancy and The Case for Early Marriage.

Martin Luther hit the nail on the head when he wrote as follows to a man contemplating marriage:

"Chastity is not in our power, as little as are God's other wonders and graces. But we are all made for marriage as our bodies show and as the Scriptures state in Genesis 2. "It is not good that man should be alone; I will make hi m a help meet for him."

"I fancy that human fear and timidity stand in your way. It is said that it takes a bold man to venture to take a wife. What you need above all else then, is to be encouraged, admonished, urged, incited, and made bold. Why should you delay, my dear and reverend sir, and continue to weigh the matter in your mind? It must, it should, and will happen in any case. Stop thinking about it and go to it right merrily. Your body demands it, God wills it, and drives you to it. There is nothing that you can do about it...It is best to comply with all  our senses as soon as possible and give ourselves to God's Word and work in whatever He wishes us to do.

"Let us not try to fly higher and be better than Abraham, David, Isaiah, Peter, Paul and all the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles, as well as many holy martyrs and bishops, all of whom knew that they were created by God as men, were not ashamed to be and be thought men, conducted themselves accordingly, and did not remain alone. Whoever is ashamed of marriage is also ashamed of being a man of being thought a man, or else he thinks that he can make himself better than God made him."

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