D&C 88:22 says “For he who is not able to abide the law of a celestial kingdom cannot abide a celestial glory.” I understand temple marriage to be an important key to this. But what of those who, though willing to live it, have a spouse who never joins the church, or who never meet someone worthy? It seems unfair that they, due to things beyond their control, should be barred/ banned from celestial glory.
You are not alone in wondering this. It was the subject of excited discussion following my remarks on this life being the time to sort such things out. This exact scenario is one that I had in mind when I addressed 3 timelines to sort out resurrection confusion. Please take some time to review that answer, as it sets the foundation for this one. For this, we’ll revisit Sunbeam (a contemporary of our time) who, through no fault of her own, was never sealed to a spouse while she was alive. For the sake of our hypothetical, she lived a celestial law (as you note, lots of our sisters do this – either they were never proposed to (in our society it is still the man’s responsibility to do so), or they joined the Church after they were already married, and their husbands never joined, or some such thing).
If dearly departed Sunbeam was married but not in the temple, then her descendants can do that vicarious work for her while she’s still in the spirit world awaiting the resurrection. If she was never married, then her work still needs to be done for her by mortals. But the those on the earth will not know who she needs to be sealed to, so they will not do any temple work for her (the Lord’s house is one of order after all). Then Christ comes and calls forth the celestial saints to rise from the graves to meet Him. Here is the mass resurrection at the start of the Millennium, so now we have a conflict: Sunbeam is celestial quality and should be resurrected at this time; but Sunbeam needs to be sealed to a husband to enjoy her eternal increase she’ll inherit in the celestial glory; and Sunbeam cannot be sealed as a resurrected being, for “in the resurrection there will be no marrying nor giving in marriage; for all questions of marital status must be settled before that time, under the authority of the Holy Priesthood, which holds the power to seal in marriage for both time and eternity.” (Jesus the Christ ch 31).
We first begin to resolve this by remembering that the first resurrection is a glory, not a time. So regardless of whether Sunbeam rises at Christ’s coming or the end of the earth it matters not. She receives a celestial body in the celestial glory in the morning of the first resurrection. President Joseph Fielding Smith further resolves this by reminding us to “keep clearly in our minds that we do not enter into exaltation until after the resurrection. We do not enter into exaltation in the spirit world…. [D]uring the Millennium – and that is the great purpose of the Millennium – we will go into the temples” (Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 2, page 167). So Sunbeam is not resurrected with the masses when Christ comes, because she is still in the spirit world awaiting her temple work.
President Smith further resolves this by combining the Lord’s justice and mercy with the work of the Millennium. “We never make matches for the dead in the temples. The Lord will bless all those who are worthy of the blessings, and they will lose nothing. The work of the Millennium will be largely work for the dead who did not have an opportunity when living to obtain the blessings, but who would have accepted the blessings if they had lived. Justice demands this. We need not worry, therefore, because young men or young women die without being married. All who are worthy will be blessed just the same as if they had lived and obtained the blessings” (Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 2, page 177).
So Sunbeam and other sisters like her will have the opportunity during the Millennium (while in the spirit world) to accept the sealing ordinance and the covenant of marriage. The power of this work for the dead is conveyed by President Joseph F. Smith, who saw the righteous dead organizing to teach vicarious ordinances to those who lacked them. Remember it was prompted by pondering on this verse in 1 Peter: “For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit” (4:6). With this organization in the spirit world, those who needed additional faith or works “were taught faith in God, repentance from sin, vicarious baptism for the remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, And all other principles of the gospel that were necessary for them to know in order to qualify themselves that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit” (D&C 138:33-34). When Sunbeam vicariously receives the sealing ordinance, it will be counted to her as though she had received it in the flesh the same as her married peers who also lived the celestial law.