In a recent appearance on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday to promote his latest book, The Zimzum of Love, Rob Bell made remarks on marriage that are causing consternation among some and receiving applause from others. In the interview, the Pastor Emeritus of Mars Hill Bible Church expressed his sentiments that the church is “moments away” from affirming same-sex marriage, following the broader cultural consensus along those lines.
Here’s part of Bell’s rationale for his position: “One of the oldest aches in the bones of humanity is loneliness. …Loneliness is not good for the world. And so, whoever you are, gay or straight, it is totally normal, natural and healthy to want somebody to go through life with. It's central to our humanity. We want someone to go on the journey with.”
I think he’s right on here. As relational beings who image the Trinitarian God, we were created for community. But what’s interesting is that Bell assumes - along with many defenders of traditional marriage - that marriage is the solution to the problem of loneliness. This “you complete me” mindset is symptomatic of how Christians all across the theological and political spectrum think about marriage. If loneliness is a problem solved only by marriage, it does seem cruel and unusual to say that people can’t experience this and so condemn them to a life of loneliness.
But is that the Biblical view of marriage? Marriage can and does address loneliness. But is marriage the only path to friendship, companionship and family? Can a spouse alone bear the burden of solving one’s loneliness problem? If people get married to solve their loneliness, it won’t be long until those same people are getting divorced because they’ve realized it didn’t entirely work. Some who get married find themselves lonelier than ever, discovering that physical proximity to another person can still leave us light years away from real connection. Worse, we may become so focused on being the sole solution to our spouse’s loneliness (or obsessed with how they can do so for us) that our marriages become black holes, ends in themselves that fail to shine the light that bears witness to God’s kingdom.
We should also question whether Bell’s sentiments capture the Biblical view of singleness. Does Scripture teach that singleness means you are doomed to loneliness and unhappiness? If medieval Catholicism denigrated marriage in favor of celibacy, Bell’s remarks are unfortunately representative of modern Protestantism, where single Christians are often seen as second-class citizens. But passages like 1 Corinthians 7 make clear that marriage is not an economic, social or relational necessity for any Christian. The church is called to be a family in which some - perhaps many - members are called and empowered to be single, but never lonely or alone. In fact, Jesus promises that those who leave their earthly family will gain family by the hundredfold, even in this life.
Jesus (single, by the way) doesn’t say, “Follow me into a life of loneliness.” Rather, He offers friendship and family beyond measure! Furthermore, if marriage will no longer play a significant role in the resurrection, then we need to be clear that it is not the pinnacle, but one possible stepping stone on the path to the glory of the true community for which we were created.
Bell may have intended to criticize churches that are non-affirming of gay marriage, but I think his remarks should cause all churches to do some soul-searching. Our confusion about marriage and singleness has an underlying root: confusion about our call as the family of God. Amazingly, when God first said, “It is not good that man should be alone,” what He ultimately had in mind was the new Eve, the church. When that calling is foremost in our lives, then we - single or married - will be the faithful bride of Jesus and the solution to the loneliness that plagues our world.