Let me say straight up that this isn't a Mothers' Day (or, if you prefer, Mothering Sunday) sermon. And that's because we're in a series on the 39 Articles – which is the 39-point list of what a Church of England church should teach. And today's one says nothing about mothers, I'm afraid. Instead, it's about whether ordained ministers are allowed to marry – and thankfully, from my point of view, it says they are. So here's what Article 32 says:
The Marriage Of Ministers
It is not commanded by any decree of God that bishops, presbyters or deacons take a vow of celibacy or abstain from marriage. So it is lawful for them, as for all other Christians, to marry at their own discretion when they judge that this will promote godliness.
Now if I was you, I'd be tempted to switch right off, thinking, 'I'm not an ordained minister, so what's this got to do with me?' And the answer is: this isn't just – or even mainly – about ordained ministers. It's really about singleness and marriage, and about how we should view and value and use them both, and about how, if an opportunity comes, we should decide whether to pursue a relationship – and ultimately whether to marry. And that's got to do with all of us.
So to get started, let's ask: Why was Article 32 needed? And the answer is: because for a long time the church had wrongly taught that ministers must stay single. And one reason behind that was the Bible's teaching on singleness being misapplied and pushed too far.
So would you open a Bible to 1 Corinthians 7 – where the apostle Paul was answering questions about singleness and marriage. So look down to 1 Corinthians 7.8, where Paul says:
"I wish that all were as I myself am [and he was single – and, obviously, positive about it]. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. [In other words, 'I'm not saying to anyone else, 'You should also stay single.''] To the unmarried and the widows [those two words refer to those who are single again through bereavement] I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am."
So that's all very counter-cultural – and all of us who are single need to hear it. Because it's saying: singleness does have good things about it – it has certain advantages for Christian life and ministry. Of course, it has its downsides, and unwanted singleness can be difficult and frustrating – sometimes very. But Paul says: we need to understand and use the upsides. So turn over to verse 32:
"I want you to be free from anxieties [or you can translate that 'concerns']."
Now Paul knows you can't be totally free of concerns – that's cloud cuckoo land. What he's doing here is making sure our eyes are open to the extra concerns of marriage – because it's so easy to romanticise marriage as all upsides, and to look on singleness as mainly downsides. So Paul compares and contrasts the concerns of the unmarried and married. Read on in verse 32:
"The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord."
So 'the things of the Lord' includes growing as a Christian – for example, through the Bible and prayer and time with fellow-Christians. And it includes serving as a Christian – through sharing the gospel with others, and building up other Christians, including through whatever formal ministries you do. And singleness does give more time and energy and flexibility for that. So when I was single I studied the Bible and Christian books more than I can now. And I had people round for ministry meals most days. And I regularly spoke on week-long university missions. But I can't do that any more. Because I'm now in verse 33:
"But the married man is anxious about worldly things [which doesn't mean illegitimate worldly things – like feeding his wife's appetite for Gucci dresses; it means legitimate things – like making sure she and any children are provided for; and worrying how to educate them when state education is planning to corrupt them; and so on. So, he's anxious about…], how to please his wife, and his interests are divided."
So I'm now pulled two ways. And that's not wrong; it's just a fact about marriage.
So Paul's saying: 'Singleness does have certain advantages for growing and serving as a Christian. So while you're single, understand and use those advantages.' But what he doesn't say is, 'So you must stay single.' But that's what the church before the Reformation was saying to its ministers – which was disastrously wrong teaching, and why Article 32 was needed.
The other reason behind that wrong teaching was the un-Biblical idea that singleness is 'more spiritual' So this is the idea that marriage is about bodies and sex and babies and nappies and washing-up and so on – all very physical and practical. Whereas singleness is above all that – singleness is… spiritual. And that idea is wrong, as well, because the Bible says that bodies, and sex in the context of a loving marriage, and having children are all good. And it doesn't say that prayer, for example, is spiritual whereas washing up is not. But the church before the Reformation said it was only the single ministers and monks and nuns who were really living the 'spiritual' life, whereas everybody else was condemned to living the second class Christian life – of being a full-time mum, or businessman, or whatever.
And it was the reformer Martin Luther who said, 'No, that's completely wrong.' And he rediscovered the Bible's teaching that says being 'spiritual' simply means living every area of your life for Jesus – work, play, family, you name it. So he packed in being a monk, and married an ex-nun, and they had six children together. And here's what Luther wrote about dealing with nappies:
"When… reason looks at married life, she turns up her nose and says, 'Alas, must I… wash [the baby's] nappies?' What then does Christian faith say? It looks upon all these insignificant and distasteful duties in the Spirit, and is aware that they… all [have] divine approval. It says, 'O God, because I am certain that you have… from my body begotten this child, I also know… that it meets with your ... pleasure. How is it that I have come to this [privilege] of serving your creature and your will? How gladly will I do so, for I am certain that… God… is smiling – not because the father is washing nappies, but because he is doing so in Christian faith."
So let's move on and look a bit more at
1 Corinthians 7
We've already seen from 1 Corinthians 7 that:
- Singleness has certain advantages (as well as downsides) which need to be understood and used
- But that doesn't mean 'You must stay single'
And Paul is a great example in this chapter of a pastor who gives people principles for making wise decisions, but who leaves them free to make their own decisions. So look at 1 Corinthians 7, verse 25, as an example of that:
"Now concerning the betrothed [in other words, engaged couples]…"
And he says that because some of the engaged couples were questioning whether to go ahead and get married. And it seems that was because other people were putting pressure on them not to, by saying things like, 'Look, it's not wise to get married right now, with the problems in our society.' Or, 'Look, it's more spiritual to stay single.' And in response Paul says, verse 25:
"I have no command from the Lord…"
So he says, 'I'm not going to tell you to go ahead or not – because there's no command from the Lord to tell you to go ahead or not.' So for example, I searched in vain for the Bible verse that said, 'Ian Garrett should marry Tess Rishbeth' – because God doesn't give that kind of guidance, does he?
Now the Lord does give some clear commands in the Bible about getting married. He says to Christian believers: if you marry, it must be to someone…
- of the opposite sex,
- who's also a believer in Jesus,
- and who's not already married (or still married in God's sight, in the case, sadly, of someone divorced).
That's the 'right versus wrong' line which the Lord draws. But Paul's saying, 'If you're within that line, there's no command from the Lord. You're free to do what you want.' But that's not all he says, because God wants us to use our freedom wisely, not unwisely. So look at verse 25 again:
"Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgement [my wisdom on the matter] as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy."
And Paul goes on here to give principles for making a wise decision, which we need to add to the rest of what the Bible says about making a wise decision in this area. For example, the Bible says elsewhere that you need to be attracted enough: someone can be the opposite sex, Christian and unmarried – but if you're not attracted enough, it's not wise to marry them.
Well look on to verse 35 for another example of Paul saying he wants to leave people free to make their own decisions:
"I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you…"
In other words, not to pressure you one way or the other. And yet single people often feel pressure from others in this area. Not often today from people saying, 'Look, it's more spiritual to stay single.' But more likely in the opposite direction, from people saying things like, 'Well, the clock is ticking.' Or, 'He or she may be your only chance.' Or, 'Hurry up, we don't want to wait till we're 80 to have grandchildren.' There are many things you can say to single friends and children that are unhelpful, and put pressure on them. And we need to be very careful what we say.
Can I also add that if you've been going out with someone for a long time, that can also put unhelpful pressure on you. Because it can make you think, 'Well, maybe we should go ahead… because we've invested so much in this already.' To which the answer is, 'No, only go ahead if you believe it's wise and you know you really want to.'
But it's getting engaged that obviously puts the biggest pressure on you to go ahead. And I'm not saying we should treat engagement lightly. But Paul is reminding us here that engagement is not marriage. And sometimes, as I had to do in my twenties, engagements need to be broken, because you realise that going ahead really doesn't look wise any more.
So look at verse 35 again:
"I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order [literally, proper behaviour, holiness] and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord."
So Paul has now given us his two key principles for wise decision-making within those lines the Lord lays down. One is to ask, 'Is this good, or will this be good, for my Christian growth and service?' And the other is to ask, 'Is this better, or will this be better, for my holiness?' Those are the key questions to ask of any relationship you're in, or thinking of starting.
So Paul says, 'If there's opportunity to marry (within God's will, according to the Bible), you're free to take it if you want to.' And that's why he speaks against those who are trying to put pressure on people to stay single. He says, 'No, you're trying to lay on Christians something that God doesn't.' And so the general principle you can draw from Article 32 is that in any area of life or doctrine, the church or Christian teaching must not require of Christians what God, in the Bible doesn't.
So take the different example of alcohol. The Bible says we may drink, but must not get drunk – or, by implication, get anywhere near going down that road. And so for holiness' sake, some Christians give up alcohol. Which is fine and godly. But the moment, for example, a church requires you to give up alcohol to be a member, a line has been crossed away from this principle that we mustn't require of one another what God doesn't.
Well, I said at the start that Article 32 isn't just about ordained ministers. But the Bible does say particular things about ordained ministers and marriage. And to see that, would you turn on in the Bibles to:
1 Timothy 3
This was also written by the apostle Paul. And he was giving his assistant, Timothy, criteria for choosing new ordained ministers. So look at verse 1:
"The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task."
So the Bible uses the word 'overseer' for the teaching and leading role that ordained ministers play. And this says: that's a noble task – in other words, significant for the church's good. Which isn't saying that ordained ministers are more important than the rest of you, or spiritually different from the rest of you – we're absolutely not. It's saying that what we do matters for the church's good; and by implication that if we fail, we damage the church. So verse 2:
"Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money."
So the headline is, 'An overseer must be above reproach.' Which doesn't mean 'must be sinless' – that's not possible this side of heaven. It means 'must be sincere – and therefore above criticism for the kind of sinfulness which would let the side down and undermine the ministry.'
So imagine I promise to meet you 3pm tomorrow. And I'm five minutes late. And I say, 'I'm really sorry, I mistimed that – my fault.' Now that's sinfulness – because I've broken a promise. But it's not scandalous sinfulness, which lets the side down and undermines the ministry. And assuming it's not a habit, you can see that I'm sincere in aiming to be a promise-keeper, and repenting when I fail. Whereas if I broke my marriage promise to Tess, it would be totally scandalous sinfulness, and would completely undermine my ministry and damage this ministry. So as someone put it, 'This is about the difference between the 'normal sinfulness' of a Christian sincerely aiming to follow Christ, and the 'scandalous sinfulness' of a Christian who is clearly no longer doing so.'
And the first area Paul applies that to is, verse 2, that he must be:
"the husband of one wife"
Which doesn't mean the ordained minister must be married – it's good to have single ordained ministers who can insightfully pastor and plan for those who are single in the church family. So it doesn't mean he must be married, but that if he is married, he must be an example of faithfulness to one wife. Why? Well, look over to chapter 4, verse 12, where Paul says to Timothy:
"Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example…"
Which reminds us that Christian ministry – whether ordained, or Home Group leading, or parenting or children's ministry – is first and foremost by example. And that's why Paul's list in 1 Timothy 3 of criteria for choosing ministers is, with one exception, simply a list of what the Lord expects of every Christian. The exception is at the very end of chapter 3, verse 2: "able to teach" – which you have to be, to be an ordained minister, but don't have to be, to be a Christian. But everything else here is simply what the Lord expects of any mature Christian.
So Paul is saying to Timothy: to find new ordained ministers, look for mature Christians who'll be an example to others. And if they're married, they've got to be an example of faithfulness to one wife. Which is not saying divorce is the unforgivable sin – it's not; it's as forgivable as all other sins. And it's not saying the divorced are being punished by not being allowed to do something. It's just facing the sad fact that the divorced person, who may be very godly – more godly than you – and a great example in many ways, can't any longer give that example of faithfulness to one wife.
Now, obviously, you can only be an example if you let people see your example. Which is why Tess and I try to do a good amount of hospitality – especially to single people in the church family. But this is one Achille's heel of a big church – the staff can't personally give that example to everyone. Which is why those of you who are Home Group leaders and small group leaders also need to invite people into your homes and marriages and families. Which is why one of the things on Paul's list here is "hospitable" – which I have to say, from talking to newcomers and single people especially, we as a church are not strong at. People often say to me, 'There's a friendly welcome on Sundays – but no-one's invited me back to their home.'
So Paul is saying: married ordained ministers should be setting an example in marriage and family life. But he also says marriage and family life is a testing and training ground for them. Look at 1 Timothy 3, verse 4:
"He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church?"
So as well as being "able to teach", he needs to be able to manage and care for people like a father, as he looks after God's family. And his human family is the Lord's main training ground to make him better at that.
So I hope we've seen that Article 32 isn't just about ordained ministers. It's about all of us and how we view and value and use our singleness or married-ness. But those last verses remind us that the church is actually our ultimate family – that for believers here, this is the family you most deeply belong to through faith in Jesus, and it's the only one you'll still belong to beyond death – when, as the Lord Jesus said, there won't be human marriage any more. So in one sense, we'll all be single in heaven – and those of you who are single in our church family are a sign of that to the rest of us. But in another sense, we'll all be married to the Lord, in a shared relationship with him that will satisfy us completely – and those of us who are married in our church family are a sign of that.
But our relationship with the Lord is the ultimate thing, Our church family is our ultimate family. And we need to live out our singleness and married-ness together in the light of that. And we need to 'raise our game' in doing so.