There was something downright traditional about Rob Bell's remarks on marriage this March:
One of the things you're seeing right now, is you are seeing God pulling us all forward into a greater realization that we need more love. We need more fidelity. We need more monogamy. We need more people who are committed to each other. It's not good for us to be alone.
At first glance, it seemed that the former Mars Hill pastor is as gung-ho about marriage as we are. From couples' retreats to ministries focused on the family to some 25,000 titles under "Christian marriage" at Amazon.com, we Christians place a high premium on love, fidelity, monogamy, and commitment. And our numbers bear it out: Across the board, such Christians show higher rates of marriage and lower rates of divorce, even accounting for variations of age, education, race, and region. "Conservative Protestants, especially churchgoing conservative Protestants, [are] particularly attached to the married state," reports sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox.
Heck, this magazine made a "Case for Early Marriage" on our cover in 2009. Four years later, it remains one of the most popular articles on our website.
But Bell was actually coming out in support of same-sex marriage, echoing over half of all Americans in the most recent surveys. And he did so in a rhetorically brilliant way, drawing on the Genesis account (2:18) to show how crucial loving relationship is for human flourishing. When asked whether he was for same-sex marriage, he simply replied, "I am for marriage."
And how can we Christians not be as well? Much of churches' and individual Christians' tacit acceptance and explicit support of same-sex marriage stems from this: We would hate to prevent anyone from receiving the gift of mutual, monogamous sexual companionship. And we know that it is an incredible gift. For why else would we devote so many sermons, books, and ministries trying to preserve and perpetuate it? As Steve Chalke, a U.K. pastor and remaining member of the Evangelical Alliance, declared this winter, "It's one thing to be critical of a promiscuous lifestyle. But shouldn't the church consider nurturing positive models for permanent and monogamous homosexual relationships?"
Except perhaps we have made too much of marriage. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, perhaps local churches have acted as if monogamous sexual unions are the closest icon of heaven in this life. That no matter how much self-giving ministry or cultural creativity we undertake in our lifetimes, they are second-best without a spouse and children in tow.
In more detail than this space allows, other writers and theologians (I think especially of Rodney Clapp and Joseph Hellerman) have deftly tackled American Christians' overemphasis on marriage. What I might offer to the conversation is the perspective of a single Christian. As I watch many fellow young Christians come out in support of gay marriage, lest they bar friends or family from finding the gift of sexual companionship, they are making it harder for me to make sense of chastity.
If my gay and lesbian peers have the right to sexual union and companionship, why don't I? If the scriptural passages forbidding homosexual behavior apply only to a particular context, then surely the passages about fornication (sexual behavior outside marriage) and Paul's praise for singleness are also culturally bound. And so long as marriage ascends into the echelons of existential imperative—you must have this in order to be a complete human being—then my singleness becomes a problem. It is no longer a unique witness to the kingdom, where people "will neither marry nor are given in marriage." It no longer reveals that the water of baptism is thicker than blood—that an entire generation of Christians could be single, and still God would renew his church. Instead, it becomes a second-class existence.