Family in the rWorld

Family isn’t easy.  In fact, for a lot of people, family is a source of tremendous grief and emotional weight.  We began this series by talking about love—which one writer described as a feeling of “rootedness” to the world and people around you.  And as we pointed out, we live in an era of the “homeless mind”—a world of alienation and estrangement. While we might look for “rootedness” in our families, the years of broken relationships only magnify our sense of fragmentation.  We may spackle up these pieces with forced smiles, but end up leaving our holiday get-togethers feeling as if we’ve committed some strange form of emotional treason.

This, I think, is why the gospel’s message of “reconciliation” is so powerful today.  John Stott once called reconciliation “the opposite of alienation.”  Reconciliation is about putting a broken relationship back together again.  So, says Stott, “reconciliation, peace with God, adoption into his family and access into his presence all bear witness to the same new relationship into which God has brought us.”[1]

ADOPTED AS SONS

The promise of the gospel is a new family.  To the church in Ephesus, Paul writes that God “predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:5).  Now, before we try and add in “and daughters,” we need to understand how radical Paul’s words are.  To be adopted means to be the rightful heir of the adopting parent.  The rights and privileges of living in the parent’s kingdom are now transferred to the adopted child.  Culture, however, historically favored the male heir.  So for Paul to write a letter to a church that included women and tell them that they, too, had been “adopted as sons” is radically counter-cultural.  Christianity says that men don’t enjoy special privileges in God’s new family.

For all of us, this means that the gospel transforms our understanding of “rootedness”—away from strictly earthly connections to God’s greater kingdom.  Paul tells us that we are “children of God” and “fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16-17).  Twice Paul tells us that this new standing grants us the privilege to cry out “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6).  The term “Abba” was a term of respectful endearment (though not as casual as “daddy”[2]), a term used only in the context of relationship.

The gospel, therefore, promises us a new story, a better story.  No matter how bizarre our family background, we have the promise of a new family in Jesus.

NEW SPIRITUAL FAMILY

This “spiritual family” refers not only to our vertical relationship in Christ, but also our horizontal relationships with other believers.  This is why Jesus would tell the crowds that obedience to God created a whole new family system:

And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35)

Reflecting on this text, Christian blogger Jared Wilson says that this has profound implications for us when our biological family members embrace values that conflict with ours.  Wilson’s example is of a Christian father who agrees to perform a same-sex wedding for his son.  There’s a good chance that each of us might be faced with similar circumstances.  But, says Wilson, even though our views may leave us at odds with—or even estranged from—our biological families, we can rely on the new connections we have in fellow followers of Christ.  Wilson writes:

“Christ would have us focused on him, loving him above all else. And when all else, including our beloved families, asks us to betray Christ and his word in order to serve them, we face Abraham’s excruciating dilemma. But pledging our hearts to heaven, we will not look back to Egypt or Sodom, trusting that true mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters are those who follow Jesus and that obeying God is worth any cost, including hurting the feelings of those we love.” [3]

Let’s make no mistake: there are some communities in which you are expected to not only accept a person’s identity, orientation or lifestyle, but to greet it with full-throated celebration.  Anything less than that is dismissed as bigoted and oppressive.  There’s a chance—a strong chance—that in the years to come, your Christian values will place you at odds with your family members.  But the gospel says that the “rootedness” we may lose in our biological families we regain in our spiritual family—the church.  I realize that doesn’t deaden the pain of family brokenness, but it at least helps us understand that our truest value lies in Christ, not in the approval of our families.

FAMILY AND HOME

Finally, we must recognize that as much as Christianity offers a place of spiritual “rootedness,” Christianity equally points our gaze forward.  In his obscure novel Demian, Hermann Hesse uses one of his characters to tell us that “One never reaches home.  But where paths that have affinity intersect, the whole world looks like home, for a time.”[4]  Christianity says that our truest home is not the earth of the present but the earth that becomes reborn at Christ’s return.  We long for this home, though we do not ever reach it this side of the resurrection.  But God’s family, this spiritual community called the Church—well, this is as close a picture of “home” that we’re ever going to have.  Yes, it’s still messy, yes it’s still difficult.  But in the winter of our discontent, Possibility unfolds like Spring’s first blossoms.  Church is an institution that focuses our eyes on Christ, but in so doing we begin to see our fellow believers as fellow travelers on our journey steadily homeward.

 

 

[1] John Stott, The Cross of Christ, p. 191.

[2] James Barr, “Abba Isn’t Daddy,” Journal of Theological Studies, vol. 39, 1988.

[3] Jared C. Wilson, “When our children ask for stones, let’s give them bread instead,” http://ftc.co/resource-library/blog-entries/when-our-children-ask-for-stones-lets-give-them-bread

[4] Hermann Hesse, Demian, p. 145.

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Family in the iWorld

The late 1980’s gave us a television sitcom called “My Two Dads.”  The premise centered on two single men who had been tasked with raising a 12-year-old girl.  Her mother had passed away, and she had awarded custody to Michael and Joey—two of her former boyfriends.  As you might expect, the humor arose from watching two single guys try and be parents.  After all, in the late 80’s, no one would expect two men to be effective parents.  And while each episode had a happy resolution, the whole concept was farfetched enough to remain confined to the airwaves.

Times have changed.  Even before 2015’s court ruling on same-sex marriage, same-sex parenting has become increasingly common.  Coupled with the changing face of marriage in general, we’ve re-defined family entirely.

“So what?” we might ask.  “If family stability is so critical, does it matter if there are two loving mothers or two loving fathers instead of a ‘traditional’ mom and dad?”  In other words, isn’t the stability of families more important than the composition of families?

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE AND FAMILY STABILITY

The research on this is highly controversial—so much so that at the university level, sociologist Mark Regenerus has been sharply criticized for some of his recent research in this area.  He summarizes his findings in an interview with Slate:

“One notable theme among the adult children of same-sex parents, however, is household instability, and plenty of it. … While we know that good things tend to happen—both in the short-term and over the long run—when people provide households that last, parents in the [study] who had same-sex relationships were the least likely to exhibit such stability.”[1]

Mark Regenerus has barely hung onto his career after publishing his findings.  In most circles, his name has become tarnished.  Some question his data based on his research methods, but still others label his research as “intentionally misleading.”[2]  The problem, of course, is that there’s simply not enough data on the opposing side to fully counter Regenerus’ argument. Still, more research is ultimately needed to settle this issue.  We can, however, listen to the voices of those raised in same-sex households.  Brandi Walton is one such voice, recently publishing her story in an article entitled “The Kids are Not Alright:”

“Growing up without the presence of a man in my home damaged me personally. All I wanted from the time I was a little girl was a normal family. …I had a desire unlike any other to create my own family and have stability, and this led to two extremely unhealthy relationships…. Shortly afterwards, I met my husband, and everything clicked. For the first time, I felt alive and complete. Having children and seeing a man parent a child for the first time was beautiful and awe-inspiring. It only reinforced my belief that a child needs a mother and a father, and that same-sex parenting and single parenting are far inferior to heterosexual parenting when done correctly….The effects of growing up the way I did still plays a part in my life today. I was beyond self-conscious as a child, and constantly worried about what others thought of me. I was always terrified of someone finding out my mom was a lesbian and then wanting nothing to do with me. For most of my life, the perceived opinions of others have dominated, and only recently have I been able to let that go.”[3]

THE NEED FOR MOMS AND DADS

Walton highlights something quite basic: Children need mothers and fathers.  Ryan T. Anderson suggests that this is rooted in our complementary design as men and women.  Therefore, he says, “there is no such thing as ‘parenting.’  There is mothering, and there is fathering, and children do best with both.”[4]

This isn’t merely a product of moral alarmism or religious bias. Anderson cites a report published by the (left-leaning) research group Child Trends.  The report concludes:

“[I]t is not simply the presence of two parents…but the presence of two biological parents that seems to support children’s development.

[R]esearch clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps children the most is a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage. Children in single-parent families, children born to unmarried mothers, and children in stepfamilies or cohabiting relationships face higher risks of poor outcomes.… There is thus value for children in promoting strong, stable marriages between biological parents.”[5]

Anderson suggests that the parenting styles of fathers help their sons develop into mature men—and the absence of strong fathers leads to what he calls “compensatory masculinity” in the form of violence, abuse, and crime.  Fathers also assist their daughters’ maturity.  Daughters raised by caring and affectionate fathers are less likely to pursue sexual relationships at early ages.  Anderson even cites President Barack Obama, who at one time said:

“We know the statistics—that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and twenty times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from home, or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it.”

Anderson points out that President Obama is “a tremendous example” of someone who grows up in a non-nuclear family only to “defy the odds.”  But exceptions do not prove the rule—and Mr. Obama is right: our communities become weaker in the absence of strong family ties.

THE SOCIAL NEED FOR FAMILY STABILITY

Recently I’ve seen a number of articles, videos, speeches all devoted to a singular topic: teaching men not to rape.  In the United Kingdom, Thames Valley Police have begun using a video comparing sexual consent to offering someone tea.[6]  Though clever, the video left me wondering: why do we need to “teach” men not to rape?  Why are we also not teaching men not to murder, or commit acts of arson?

If we understand the research compiled by Anderson and others, then we are left to conclude that a fatherless generation will ultimately wreak havoc on social stability.  The “compensatory masculinity” that Anderson observes in fatherless sons can lead to such crimes as abuse and even rape.  It’s ironic, then, that a culture would simultaneously endorse the seeming meaninglessness of the nuclear family while at the same time struggling to “teach men not to rape.”  While I would hope that ad campaigns are successful, the better solution is not education, but family solidarity.  Families matter for society?

Christianity would see this as another reflection of God’s “common grace:” that families are a gift for all people (not just Christians) and that these families have a vital role in the preservation of God’s creation.  But the erosion of traditional families also offers Christ’s followers a unique—and ironic—opportunity: to be counter-cultural by being traditional.  We may show the value of traditional, nuclear family systems in the way we raise children and conduct our lives.  And ultimately these examples display God’s love to a fatherless world.

 

[1] Quoted from William Saletan, “A Liberal War on Science?  Don’t Bury Mark Regenerus’ Study of Gay Parents.  Learn What It Can Teach the Left and the Right.”  Appearing online at http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/human_nature/2012/06/don_t_let_criticism_of_the_new_gay_parents_study_become_a_war_on_science.1.html

[2] See the joint statement of “GLAAD:” “Flawed Paper Claims to Overturn 30 Years of Credible Research that Shows Gay and Lesbian Parents are Good Parents,” appearing online at http://www.glaad.org/releases/flawed-paper-claims-overturn-30-years-credible-research-shows-gay-and-lesbian-parents

[3] Brandi Walton, “The Kids are Not Alright: A Lesbian’s Daughter Speaks Out,” The Federalist, April 21, 2015, http://thefederalist.com/2015/04/21/the-kids-are-not-alright-a-lesbians-daughter-speaks-out/

[4] Ryan T. Anderson, Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom, Kindle edition, loc. 496.

[5] Quoted in Anderson, loc. 496-553.

[6] “Police launch Youtube ad campaign comparing sexual consent to fixing tea,” The Guardian, October 27, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/oct/27/police-youtube-ad-campaign-sexual-consent-tea

Family in the iWorld

The traditional family has become something of an endangered species—even in the realm of public entertainment.  In former years, television brought us the “family sitcom,” shows like Leave it to Beaver or My Three Sons or—most recently—Home Improvement.  These shows depicted traditional family systems—two biological parents, one or more children in the mix—as well as the value of family stability in the face of personal or social change.  Though the changes were gradual, it really wasn’t until the 1990’s that we saw the development of programs like Seinfeld and Friends that completely upended the family system.  Now, our favorite characters were young singles who hopped in and out of bed but skirted commitment—if not avoided it altogether.  Children were a distant dream for some, though for others children represented an unwanted interruption in their personal goals.   Fast forward a bit further to today, when the glut of reality TV programs have virtually decimated traditional family sitcoms.  When families are depicted on television, it’s usually something like the show Modern Family, whose premise rests on non-traditional families becoming an increasing social norm.

I’m not throwing rocks, here.  This isn’t about labeling certain programs as “good” and others as “bad” depending on the way they depict families.  Rather, we must see the way that the world of entertainment shapes us in unconscious ways. The ancient church had a slogan, in fact: lex orandi, lex credendi—the Church “believes as she worships.”  What we look at shapes our beliefs.  Where individual values dominate in media, family stability deteriorates.

This isn’t moral alarmism.  The same sentiments are expressed by Jonathan Chait, an analyst writing for New York Magazine.  Chait points out that in Brazil, family structures came to mirror what was shown on television:

“Brazil had, over the course of four decades, experienced one of the largest drops in average family size in the world, from 6.3 children per woman in 1960 to 2.3 children in 2000.…What could explain such a steep drop? The researchers zeroed in on one factor: television….It was not any kind of news or educational programming that caused this fertility drop but exposure to the massively popular soap operas, or novelas, that most Brazilians watch every night.…Novelas almost always center around four or five families, each of which is usually small, so as to limit the number of characters the audience must track. Nearly three quarters of the main female characters of childbearing age in the prime-time novelas had no children, and a fifth had one child. Exposure to this glamorized and unusual (especially by Brazilian standards) family arrangement ‘led to significantly lower fertility’—an effect equal in impact to adding two years of schooling.”[1]

Sometimes art imitates life, and other times life begins to imitate art.

THE MORALITY OF CHILDLESSNESS

Earlier we’d pointed out that the decision to have children is a deeply personal one, though it has a substantive impact on society as a whole.  For years, sex has been directly linked to families and children—primarily because reproductive technologies had not advanced to today’s degree of functionality.  Now the range of available birth control options means that men and women can enjoy the benefits of sex without the responsibility of family.

Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Seminary cites an article from Salon entitled “To Breed or not to Breed.”  Among the contributions to the article were several whose decision of childlessness was motivated by a different set of goals:

One woman wrote that parenthood just isn’t a part of her plan, regardless of cultural expectations to the contrary. Motherhood just doesn’t fit her self-image or her schedule. “I compete in triathlons; my husband practices martial arts; we both have fulfilling careers; we travel the world … we enjoy family and friends; we have a fun, intimate relationship.”

For others, the bottom line is simply financial. One woman asked: “What would the return be on the investment? Are there any laws that would require my children to pay for my nursing home when I am old? Are they going to be a sufficient hedge against poverty and loneliness?” A return on investment?[2]

Lest you assume that Mohler cites the most extreme examples, we might look at some data coming to us from the United Kingdom.  A recent poll found “that women’s top priority in life was to travel the world while living in another country was third on the list.  Getting married fell in fourth behind these aims…Meanwhile, getting married was also not a main concern for men…It came in ninth in their top ten to do list behind more rock and roll dreams to ‘drive an F1 car’ and ‘record an album.’” [3]

Obviously, this isn’t to suggest that there are never times or seasons when a married couple should delay children or even place limits on their total number.  Nor is this an argument against the selective use of contraceptives.  But we must recognize that God’s design for joy within traditional families can be subverted when we look for satisfaction in attaining our own personal hopes and dreams.

CARE FOR NON-TRADITIONAL SYSTEMS

But what about men and women who have no choice?  It’s easy to talk about “traditional marriage” as if it’s the only game in town, and that if we don’t have one we need only hitch up our bootstraps and get right with God.  I can personally name countless individuals—men as well as women—who exist in circumstances that fall outside the lines of “traditional family.”  Their spiritual integrity doesn’t always match the brokenness existing in their marriages and their families.  And still others may experience things beyond anyone’s direct control: infertility, widowhood, becoming orphaned through the loss of one’s parents.

While we would label the deliberate childlessness above as an emblem of the “iWorld”—the focus on the individual—we would suggest that many other circumstances reflect a broken system that we must learn to trust Christ in the midst of.  The Bible is hardly silent on this issue, either:

“Just as God is the God of the orphans and the widows, God’s heart goes out in a special way to single parents who shoulder the load of being both mother and father to a child or several children.  The Bible portrays God as the defender of the fatherless (Deut. 10:18; 27:19; Pss 10:18; 82:3), as their sustainer and helper (Pss 10:14; 146:9), and as their father (Ps 68:5).”[4]

The gospel offers us a standard to uphold, but the gospel also promises us that God’s plans and God’s care are far greater than we can fathom or invent.  Even as we gather around family tables in seasons such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, we are reminded of the incredible gift of family even as we feel the twinge of pain at the burden of family—or even lack thereof.  God gives us grace for both circumstances.  If “blood is thicker than water,” then the love of the Savior reveals a love that flows deeper still.

[1] Jonathan Chait, “The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy is On Your Screen,” New York Magazine,  http://nymag.com/news/features/chait-liberal-movies-tv-2012-8/index2.html

 

[2] Albert Mohler, “Deliberate Childlessness: Moral Rebellion with a New Face,” October 13, 2013, http://www.albertmohler.com/2003/10/13/deliberate-childlessness-moral-rebellion-with-a-new-face-4/

[3] Lucy Waterflow, “There Goes the Bride…Women say they would rather travel the world than get married,” The Daily Mail,  May 4, 2012. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2139482/There-goes-bride-Women-say-travel-world-married.htm

[4] Andreas Kostenberger, God, Marriage, and Family God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation, p. 142

Family in the tWorld

I realize that for many people, talking about “traditional families” conjures up a lot of bad memories. Many people now live in the shadow of families that fell apart or—in other cases—stayed together in some political sort of way though the love had ebbed away like dirty sinkwater.  If you’ve lived through something like that than the whole idea of “family” might seem an unattainable dream at best or an unwaking nightmare at worst.

Without being insensitive, can we at least agree that no one throws out an entire brand on the basis of one lemon?  Even our bad experiences might generate within us a yearning for the “Real Thing”—elusive though it may be—just as a shadow might prove the sunshine.  So families have enduring value even when our experience fails to match God’s design.

This is why the Psalm-writer can say that “children are a gift of the Lord…Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth.  How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them; they will not be ashamed when they speak with their enemies in the gate” (Psalm 127:3-5).  In the ancient world, children were not a distraction, but an incredible blessing.  And children also reflected a profound responsibility, calling mothers and fathers toward a deep commitment to raising a family based on God’s design.

FATHERS

Though the Bible has relatively few prescriptive commands concerning family systems, though the Bible also gives us a glimpse into the “tWorld”—the world of tradition—in which we see how family systems operated within the Bible.  In his study of ancient family systems, Daniel Block of Wheaton College points out that the families of ancient Israel were deeply patricentric.[1]  What is “patricentrism?”  Block tells us that in ancient Israel, families were “centered around the father.”  This differs from strict patriarchy, where the father rules the family.  The difference is subtle, but “patricentrism” helps us escape the abuses assumed to exist within patriarchal cultures.

What did this mean practically?  The Bible gives us a host of specific duties related to the father’s role within the family:[2]

  • Personally modeling strict personal fidelity to God (Dt 6:4-9; cf. Noah—Ge 6:9; Abraham—Ge 17:1-7; 26:5; Joshua—Josh 24:15; Hezekiah—2 Ki 18:3)
  • Leading the family in the national festivals, nurturing the memory of Israel’s salvation (e.g. Passover—Ex 12:1-20; Festival of Weeks—Dt 16:9-12; Booths—Dt 16:13-17)
  • Instructing the family in the traditions of the exodus and the Scriptures (Dt. 6:4-9, 20-25; 11:18-25)
  • Managing the land in accordance with the law (Leviticus 25)
  • Providing for the family’s basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, and rest
  • Defending the household against outside threats (e.g., Judg 18:21-25)
  • Serving as elder and representing the household in the official assembly of citizens (Ruth 4:1-11)
  • Maintaining family members’ well-being and the harmonious operation of the family unity
  • Implementing decisions made at the clan or tribal level

Block goes on to note that fathers had a whole set of related duties toward their sons and daughters—helping to establish their children as functioning members of the Israelite community according to their respective gender roles.

MOTHERS

It’s true that in the ancient world mothers had a smaller status in contrast to their husbands.  But we must never neglect the tremendous influence mothers had over their children.  As other authors have pointed out, even though fathers would help shape their children particularly in adolescence, the mother had the lions’ share of time with the children leading up to that point.

Andreas Kostenberger summarizes the mothers’ influence as follows:

“At a child’s birth, mothers would cut the umbilical cord, bathe the child, and wrap it in a cloth (cf. Ezek. 16:3-4).  During the first decade of the child’s life, he or she was the special concern of his or her mother.  Since in ancient Israel the home was the primary place for education, the mother’s example and instruction were vital …Mothers would also train their daughters for their future roles as wives and mothers.  This was even more important since daughters upon marriage would leave their paternal household and join that of their husband.  Nevertheless, mothers would continue to follow the course of their daughters’ lives, and being able to witness the birth of grandchildren was considered to be a special blessing and delight (e.g. Ruth 4:14-16).  Mothers also bore responsibilities toward domestic servants and slaves.”[3]

We must therefore not neglect the influence of mothers over their sons and daughters.

PARENTHOOD AS SPIRITUAL SHEPHERD

We should also note that there is one important instruction given to Biblical families.  We find it in the context of the “revival service” represented by the book of Deuteronomy.  If you recall, the whole book of Deuteronomy was about a re-affirmation of the promises God gave to Israel, as well as Israel’s commitment to enjoy those promises through a commitment to God’s character.  This would apply not only to the present generation, but for generations to come.  In Deuteronomy 6 we read:

4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

God’s people are called to spiritually mentor future generations—most pointedly the generations that live within the home.

“‘These words,’ [Moses] says, ‘are to be in your heart’ (Deut 6:6).  That is, they are to become part of the mental inventory of the people, the basis upon which life decisions must be made…For the Word of God to be retained and to be effective, it must be committed to memory, ‘incised,’ as it were, on the tablets of the mind (v. 7).  So vital was this that parents must constantly, by word and deed, repeat the words of the covenant to their children and reinforce the learning by the display of mnemonic devices on their person and on the doorposts of their houses (Deut 6:7-9).”[4]

This hasn’t changed in the present era of the Church.  Parents today have the joy-filled task of teaching their children the promises of God made through Jesus.  Understanding the gospel—and learning how to live in it—is an indispensable part of Christian parenting.  Are all parents good teachers?  Actually, yes; I believe God would never have issued this command were this not true.  Every parent has a unique style of teaching—just as every child has a unique style of learning.  But the most enduring lessons will no doubt come not from an explicit lesson, but the example your children see modeled in their parents’ lives and in their homes.

 

[1] Daniel I Block, “Marriage and Family in Ancient Israel,” in Marriage and Family in the Biblical World, Ken M. Campbell, ed., p. 41.

[2] Ibid., 43ff.

[3] Andreas Kostenberger, God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation, p.  89-90.

[4] Eugene Merrill, Everlasting Dominion, p. 357.

Why family?

New parents need all the help they can get.  Not long ago, new parents could lean on older relatives for help and for guidance.  But one thing I’ve noticed—even vicariously—is that in recent years there’s been a tendency to look for the latest “expert” advice.  Previous generations didn’t have access to our state-of-the-art forms of “prescription parenting,” so if you’re a new mom or a new dad chances are you’re just as likely to ask Google as you are to ask Granddad.  But even a casual internet search reveals the various ways that parenting advice can often seem contradictory.  Fed up with the baffling array of conflicting advice, one parent took to the internet in a post that quickly went viral.  Here’s her advice on raising a newborn:

“You shouldn’t sleep train at all, before a year, before 6 months, or before 4 months, but if you wait too late, your baby will never be able to sleep without you…. Naps should only be taken in the bed, never in a swing, carseat, stroller, or when worn. Letting them sleep in the carseat or swing will damage their skulls. If your baby has trouble falling asleep in the bed, put them in a swing, carseat, stroller, or wear them.

Put the baby in a nursery, bed in your room, in your bed. Cosleeping is the best way to get sleep, except that it can kill your baby, so never, ever do it. If your baby doesn’t die, you will need to bedshare until college….Don’t let your baby sleep too long, except when they’ve been napping too much, then you should wake them. Never wake a sleeping baby….Sleep when the baby sleeps. Clean when the baby cleans. Don’t worry. Stress causes your baby stress and a stressed baby won’t sleep.”[1]

“It takes a village,” right?  Well, sure; a generation or so ago we were able to draw from the collected wisdom of family and close experts.  But now we’ve cast our nets so widely that the village can’t even agree on when or how or where your baby should do something as basic as sleep—can you imagine the confusion over questions of moral development?  What does it mean to raise young men and young women these days?  Sadly, the “village” can no longer speak with a unified voice on these or other issues.  Like everything else, “family” has come to be defined by the eye of the beholder, rather than the design of God.

THE NECESSITY OF FAMILY

Yet for all our insistence on personal liberty, family remains the primary—and essential—means of social functioning.  It is through family that the human race presses on; we need families to fill the roles of social institutions and form the basic infrastructure for human societies.  This is why God told man and woman to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28).  While this can be accomplished through using our creative gifts and transferring our knowledge and experience to others, the primary way we can understand this command is in the context of procreation.  In fact, when procreation ceases to happen regularly, society suffers.

This isn’t just religious hysteria; this has a measurable impact on social stability.  In 2012, The Economist published an article that described the decline in American fertility rates.  Those who analyze this data speak of a “replacement rate” at which human populations remain stable over time.  The article notes that “for years, American was unusual” for having a “relatively high” rate of 2.1.

“So it comes as something of a shock to discover that in 2011 America’s fertility rate was below replacement level and below that of some large European countries. The American rate is now 1.9 and falling. France’s is 2.0 and stable. The rate in England is 2.0 and rising slightly.

American fertility reached its recent peak in 2007; its fall has coincided with the economic crisis that began at the end of that year.”[2]

Do you understand why this matters?  This means that at present rates, Americans are not having enough children to sustain the population long-term.  Now, these rates rise and fall and—if we understand the above data correctly—seem to correspond with economic conditions.  But other countries have seen the consequences of declining birth rates. Lee Kuan Yew—former prime minister of Singapore—writes an article for Forbes magazine in 2012 detailing the challenges that had been raised by declining birth rates in his own context:

“To have babies is, of course, a personal decision, but for a nation’s population that decision carries considerable consequences. The education of our women and their ability to be high-income earners have altered social behavior and led to marriages later in life. But when women put off having children until their mid-30s, they have fewer children.” [3]

This had a measurable impact on their economy.  Yew writes:

“In the future we will have to depend on immigrants to make up our numbers, for without them Singapore will face the prospect of a shrinking workforce and a stagnant economy. Fewer young ­people means fewer new cars, stereos, computers, iPhones, iPads and clothes will be sold, not to mention that there will be fewer customers to partake in fine dining—and all the ancillary businesses.”[4]

The Singapore government has addressed this problem by offering financial incentives and entitlement programs to encourage the development of families.

GOD’S PLAN: THE FAMILY

Yew says it best: family planning is a personal decision, but we cannot make the mistake of assuming that our plans have no social impact.  God’s plans for marriage and family begin with two people—but their loving commitment radiates outward to weave into the rest of society.  This is why we must never say that “what goes on between two consenting adults is no one’s business but their own.”  Because their personal decisions are never merely personal; our sex lives have profound influence on the rest of society.  So why family?  Because we literally cannot survive without it.

 

[1] Ava Neyer, quoted by Rebecca Dube, “Exhausted new mom’s hilarious take on ‘expert’ sleep advice goes viral,” Today.com, April 23, 2013. http://www.today.com/parents/exhausted-new-moms-hilarious-take-expert-sleep-advice-goes-viral-6C9559908

[2] “Virility Symbols: American Fertility Now Lower than that of France,” The Economist, August 11, 2012. http://www.economist.com/node/21560266?fsrc=scn/tw_ec/virility_symbols

[3] Lee Kuan Yew, “Warning Bell for Developed Countries: Declining Birth Rates,” Forbes, October 16, 2012, http://www.forbes.com/sites/currentevents/2012/10/16/warning-bell-for-developed-countries-declining-birth-rates/

[4] Ibid.

Marriage in the rWorld (John 2)

So how do we understand marriage now?  Yes; the “tWorld” elevated Biblical tradition as a supreme value, but we must admit that not all marriages look the same even if they attempt to reflect the covenant that God established.  How do we understand marriage in terms of the broad story of the Bible?  We find our answer in the “rWorld,” the world of relationship.

MARRIAGE AS A SIGNPOST

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we find Jesus performing miracles.  These miracles reflect Jesus’ authority over the natural—and even supernatural—world.  But in John’s biography of Jesus, Jesus’ miracles are called “signs.”  Think of them as sort of supernatural performance art.  Jesus’ miraculous works “make a statement,” if you will—pointing beyond the signs themselves to a greater and deeper reality.  So when we find Jesus at a wedding in the city of Cana, the sign he performs points us beyond the earthly meaning of marriage to a greater story unfolding in the life and saving work of Jesus:

“On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples.” (John 2:1-2)

We need to pay careful attention here.  If we were to read John’s original Greek, we’d see that his opening line could be just as easily read: “Three days later.”  Three days later from what?  If we rewind the tape a bit, we see that throughout the first chapter, John gives us a series of events that take place over a span of four days—each day marked by John’s repetition of the phrase “the next day” (John 1:29, 35, 43).  If we do the math, that makes four days in chapter 1, and the “three days later” gives us a total of seven days.  And if we go back even further, we note that John cribs his opening lines from the pages of Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word…” (John 1:1).  So in both Genesis and John, we find a similar pattern: “In the beginning,” seven days go by, and there is a wedding.

Genesis John
“In the beginning…” (Genesis 1:1) “In the beginning…” (John 1:1)
Seven days go by (Genesis 1:3—2:3) Seven days go by (John 1:15-2:1)
There is a wedding (Genesis 2:22-25) There is a wedding (John 2:1-11)

Granted, John’s parallels to Genesis aren’t precise, but they’re hardly accidental.  It’s as if every so often John is trying to tell us that God is writing a new story, not through Adam but through Jesus.

“3 When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

6 Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it.9 When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him. (John 2:3-11)

When I was an undergraduate student in chemistry, I had a professor who came to the classroom to discover her table covered in a fine white powder.  Intending to clean it up, she spritzed it with water—and it immediately burst into flames.  The powder had been pure sodium metal.  Mix it with water, and the reaction is violent—even explosive.  The same is true here.  A wedding, stone purity jars, wine—these things were all seemingly ordinary parts of Jewish culture, but mix them together in the presence of Jesus and the whole scene explodes into unprecedented joy.

Wine, you see, was a powerful symbol of the end of exile.  “I will bring back my people,” God promises.  “They will plant vineyards and drink the wine they produce” (Amos 9:14).  Ultimately such promises point us toward the day when God restores the heavens and the earth—a day when the law will be written on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33), leaving stone purity jars obsolete.

What is Jesus saying?  He’s saying that the promise is being fulfilled through him.  His first sign points far into the future.  It’s as if Jesus is giving us the “happily ever after” in the same breath as “once upon a time.”

What does this mean for marriage, then?  It means that marriage is a signpost.  It points beyond itself to a grander story, one that begins with the marriage of man and woman, and culminates in the marriage of heaven and earth—when the heavens descend “like a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2).  The Church now stands as the bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:25ff), awaiting the day when we participate in the celebration known as the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:6).

Because marriage reflects and points toward this greater reality, we treasure this signpost for all that it is—but also for the reality to which it points.

LOOKING TOWARD THE SIGNPOST

What does this high-minded theology mean for us practically?  Paul seems to understand marriage as something of a “signpost” when addressing the church in the city of Corinth.  There, he addresses several distinct groups of people—we ourselves will use his text to address the single, the married, and the dating.

  • To the single:

We must remember that Paul was single—at least at the time he wrote 1 Corinthians.  Though Paul stops short of issuing a “command” (1 Corinthians 7:6), his advice is that for singles, “it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:8-9).

Marriage and family—though a joyous design of God himself—represent an obligation that single adults lack.  Therefore singles have unique opportunities to be devoted to the Lord.  As a single person, I can attest to times when well-meaning adults have made me feel less than complete for lack of a marriage partner—an experience to which many single adults are currently nodding their heads in agreement.  Being single in the church is a unique challenge.  If you are single, I encourage you to stop looking to church expecting to “fit in.”  Not to say you won’t, but these times will often be punctuated by many other experiences where you find yourself surrounded by married couples wondering if their dinner invitation was somehow doing you a favor.  So I understand fully well how difficult it can be to be a single Christian without others questioning your maturity.  Come to church anyway.  Love anyway.  Serve anyway.  You may find there’s joy there you never expected.

  • To the married:

Married life can take on all sorts of interesting variations.  One of the most challenging is a relationship where the partners do not share a faith commitment.  Paul says that “If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy” (1 Corinthians 7:13-14).  Marriage is about nurturing one’s spouse and one’s children toward devotion in the kingdom of God.

And we should also remember that marriage isn’t forever.  Even diamonds decompose eventually to graphite—to pencil lead.  Jesus tells us that in God’s future kingdom, men and women “neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30).  Marriage is a temporary, earthly institution.  We must look beyond its borders, and fix our identity as citizens of God’s greater kingdom.

  • To the dating:

Finally, to the dating: there is no greater relational decision than the person you choose to marry.  This person will be the most immediate shepherd of your heart, and the most influential shepherd in the lives of your future children.  I’ve never met anyone in a spiritually mixed marriage who regrets marrying their unbelieving partner, but one can only imagine the nights spent wishing and yearning for their partners’ heart to turn to Jesus.  Don’t let that be you.  Find the man or woman who—like the signpost—points you to Christ and his gospel.  Find the man or woman who will do the same for your children.  If you are dating and that person does not match this description, if that person leaves you to your own devices on Sunday mornings, in prayer, in Bible study, it is time to move on.  The temporary pain you feel now is nothing in comparison to a lifetime of grief.

  • To all:

Jesus is the true and better Bridegroom.  No one can ever know our hearts like he can; no one can ever nourish our souls like he can.  Marriage is a signpost.  Let’s value it for the greatness that it is, and let’s also ache for the kingdom that it promises.

 

 

Marriage in the iWorld (Part 2)

Does anyone remember the tradition of the “hope chest?”  It was a box, given to young women, in which they would store things like clothing and dishes and so forth to use when they got married one day.  Even in modern America a young woman might squirrel away some items in the attic in the hopes of one day getting married.

But in recent years, the idea of placing “hope” in such a fragile thing as marriage seems outdated—maybe even harmful.  Freedom, experience—these have formed the new “hopes” for many young adults.  Consider the following:

  • In the 1940’s, the average age of marriage was roughly 22—though a larger gap existed between men and women. It actually remained fairly steady until the 1960’s—even dropping to around 21 for a brief period in the 1950’s.[1]
  • In 2008 the average age was 26.5.[2]
  • By 2010, the average age was 27 for women and 29 for men.[3]

Reasons vary widely.  Some might suggest that millennial generations are fearful of rising divorce rates, and not wanting to repeat the same mistakes of their parents.  Others, however, cite the fact that rising marital ages allow for young adults to “settle down” before making this kind of commitment.  For instance, college-educated women find greater economic and relational security when they marry later—though we should be cautious not to assume that they have this stability because they marry later.[4]

Christianity would say there’s nothing wrong with delaying marriage—though the prolonged years of singleness present an unusually long window of sexual temptation.[5]  And before we make assumptions that this delay in marriage is due to financial considerations, let’s remember that the average age for evangelicals seems to be a good bit lower—possibly around the young age of 22.[6]  So we might suggest that at least some of the delay in marriage reflects a lack of value of marriage.

THE iWORLD AND “WEDLEASES”

Marriage therapist Susan Pease Gadoua has an unusual idea: that couples enter into a probationary contract called a “wedlease” before taking the ultimate step of marriage.  The British newspaper The Daily Mail reports:

“…instead of promising ’til death do us part’, couples in a Starter Marriage agree to be together for ‘two, three, four or more years – whatever works for you and your partner’. At the end of the stated contract period, the couple decide whether they want to go their separate ways, or continue with the marriage, at which point they should draw up a revised contract.”[7]

Gadoua compares this to other short-term contracts, saying:

“We have learner’s permits for driving, we have internships before starting careers and we have probationary or modifiable contracts in many other business negotiations, yet the greatest and most in-depth legal contract that most of us will ever enter requires that you commit to one person forever with precious little information about what it will entail.”[8]

The fear is palpable here—the fear that this ultimate decision could be wrong, or—perhaps worse—that the marriage might outlast our love for one another.  After all, who wants to be shackled to a spouse who ceases to make us happy?   Writing for The Atlantic, Sandra Tsing Loh writes:

“In any case, here’s my final piece of advice: avoid marriage—or you too may suffer the emotional pain, the humiliation, and the logistical difficulty, not to mention the expense, of breaking up a long-term union at midlife for something as demonstrably fleeting as love.”[9]

But are such fears valid?   According to research from Stephen Nock of the University of Virginia, married men report having greater social stability and overall health and happiness than their non-married counterparts.[10]  One of Nock’s fellow researchers also reports that women have greater stability in marriage.[11]  So the idea that marriage has to dissolve after a period of years is simply not the case.  Sure, we can all bring to mind marriages that resulted in bitter struggles and divorce, but we needn’t throw out the entire brand for the sake of a few lemons.

MARRIAGE FOR COMMITMENT, NOT HAPPINESS

But perhaps there’s something still deeper at work.  Maybe our happiness can’t be so closely tied to that one person.  Often when I perform a wedding, I borrow a quote from Duke professor Stanley Hauerwas—a quote I borrow from Tim Keller’s book on marriage.  Hauerwas says that “we always marry the wrong person….Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change….The primary problem is…learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.”[12]

Hauerwas isn’t being cynical.  He’s not saying that you can’t be happy with your husband or wife.  He’s saying that the person who stands across from you on your wedding day isn’t the person you’ll wake up to 10, 20, or—Lord willing—50 years from now.  People change.  Their interests shift; their patterns of communication evolve (or devolve).

If marriage is primarily about my happiness, this is devastating news.  Enter the world of the “no-fault divorce,” enter the world of couples lamenting that “my needs aren’t being met” or “I’m just not finding fulfillment in my relationship.”

But if marriage is primarily about mirroring the love of Christ and the Church, then that changes everything.  We can find joy in learning to—in Hauerwas’ words—“love the stranger” in our homes.  We can learn to extend grace when grace is needed, to make love when love appears absent.   No one said this was easy—and I suppose it’s easy for me to say as a single guy.  But the picture offered in Scripture is of Christ loving a bride that doesn’t always respond to his leadership with love, and in homes we find husbands who don’t always reflect the sacrificial love of the Savior.

This, I think, is why Solomon’s words are so helpful.  “Rejoice in the wife of your youth” (Proverbs 5:18).  Somehow I doubt that Solomon meant that husbands should only find happiness in young women (though Solomon had a few trophies, himself).  Instead, perhaps we should see this as a way of nurturing the love from our wedding days, and applying it to the men and women we turn into with time.  Because it seems to me, from my own observation, that men and women struggle with different expectations in the context of marriage.  Men might look wistfully at their honeymoon pictures, mourning the fact that their wife’s bikini body now has a scar from a caesarean section (you know, from the small task of birthing your child).  Meanwhile the wife is looking at her husband, surrounded by empty bags of potato chips while playing X-Box on the couch and wondering: “When is he ever going to grow up?”  If men are frustrated when their wives change, women are frustrated when their husbands don’t.  What better opportunity for love and grace?

No human relationship can ever fully satisfy our deepest longings.  If you recall, we even pointed out how Yale professor Simon May cautioned that our world could not replace its faith in God with a faith in human love—not without profound personal and social consequences.  Look to human love to bring you happiness, and you aim only at disappointment.  Model your marriage on God’s love, on Christ and the church, and you aim at lasting joy.

 

[1] Mike Bell, “Increasing Marriage Age and its Implications,” posted online at The Internet Monk, January 9, 2008.  http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/increasing-marriage-age-and-its-implications

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Barely Half of U.S. Adults Are Married: A Record Low,” Pew Research Center, December 14, 2011, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/12/14/barely-half-of-u-s-adults-are-married-a-record-low/

[4] Eleanor Barkhorn, “Getting Married Later is Great for College-Educated Women,” The Atlantic, March 15, 2013.  http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/03/getting-married-later-is-great-for-college-educated-women/274040/

[5] See Mark Regenerus, Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers.  Regenerus advocates that men and women pursue younger marriages to curb the cost of sexual temptation.

[6] Emily Hales, “The national marriage age is increasing—but not for this group of people,” Desert News National, July 13, 2014.  http://national.deseretnews.com/article/1893/the-national-marriage-age-is-increasing-but-not-for-this-group-of-people.html Regenerus’ work (see above) calls this assumption into question a bit, but regardless of the exact average it can’t be ignored that evangelicals emphasize marriage over such practices as cohabitation.

[7] Sophie Freeman, “Would YOU sign a short-term marriage contract? Renewable ‘wedleases’ would work better for couples that a traditional setup, claims relationship counselor,” The Daily Mail, April 20, 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-3046917/Would-sign-short-term-marriage-contract-Renewable-wedleases-work-better-couples-traditional-set-claims-relationship-counsellor.html

[8] Ibid.

[9] Sandra Tsing Loh, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” The Atlantic, July/August, 2009.  http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/07/lets-call-the-whole-thing-off/307488/

[10] Stephen Nock, Marriage in Men’s Lives.

[11] Eleanor Barkhorn, “Getting Married Later is Great for College-Educated Women…”

[12] Stanley Hauerwas, “Sex and Politics: Betrand Russell and ‘Human Sexuality,’ Christian Century, April 19, 1978, quoted in Timothy and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, p. 38.

Marriage in the iWorld (Part 1)

Not long ago, the central question people had in approaching the Bible was: “Is it true?”  Now, the question has increasingly been: “Is it good?”  To appeal to a “Biblical definition of marriage” must seem—to many—to be disingenuous.  A casual reading of the Bible reveals multiple examples that contradict the whole idea of “one man and one woman.”  It seems almost as if the people of the “tWorld,” the world of tradition, are imposing artificial values on those in the “iWorld,” the world of the individual.

But does the Bible contradict itself on the subject of marriage (or any subject)?  Is the Bible “good”—does it offer a consistently meaningful portrait of marriage?  To help answer these questions, we can look at a series of “street-level” questions about the Bible’s definition of marriage.

WHAT ABOUT POLYGAMY?

What kinds of marriages are described in the Bible?  A variety, really.  Let’s name a few:

  • Polygamy—one man, many wives
  • Levirite marriage—a brother marries his deceased brother’s widow (Genesis 38:6-10)
  • A man, woman, female slaves (Genesis 16)
  • A man, his wives, and some concubines (Judges 19)
  • Man and female prisoners of war (Deuteronomy 21:11-14)
  • Rapist and his victim (22:28-29)

All of these are “Biblical” definitions of marriage, right?  So why are Christians so quick to insist that marriage is simply “one man and one woman?”

First, let’s remember that when Moses recorded the creation story, he was already writing in a culture that was seeking to re-define marriage as, well, many of the examples above.  Even if other forms of marriage existed, the Bible describes heterosexual monogamy as God’s original design.

Second, we should note that the Bible describes many things that it never prescribes.  In fact, there are some practices that the Bible describes in a way that goes against the culture of the day.  Some years ago Robert Alter—professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkely—published an influential work called The Art of Biblical Narrative.  Though not a believer, Alter sees great literary value in the text of the Hebrew Old Testament.  Alter points out that when we read the Old Testament (and here he particularly focuses on the family conflicts in Genesis), we find that polygamous relationships never work out for the family system.  So, he says, the Bible often describes things in a way that is culturally subversive, showing the way(s) that going against God’s design ultimately leads to destruction.[1] So polygamy might be said to be more of a “cautionary tale” than an example to follow.

Third, while it must seem barbaric for women to marry foreign soldiers or (worse) their attackers, we must remember that such proscriptions were given to a primitive, agrarian society.  Without such provisions, women may have been further victimized.  No; it’s not pleasant, but in a way this may have served as a means of protecting women from an even worse fate.  And let’s also keep in mind that these commands existed only for ancient Israel, and are not operative today.  Why not?  This leads us to our next question:

WHAT ABOUT THE LAW?

The Old Testament indeed does contain commands against same-sex behavior (Leviticus 18:22).  But wait—the Bible also contains several other laws that Christians don’t follow:

  • Don’t eat shellfish (Leviticus 11:9-12)
  • Don’t harvest from corners of fields (Leviticus 19:9)
  • Don’t mix fabrics (Leviticus 19:19)

No Christian practices these laws today.  Why pick and choose which laws to follow and which ones to ignore?

First, the design of marriage comes from the text of Genesis, and—as we noted earlier—this pre-dates the giving of a single law.  So even if the law was never written, the Bible would still emphasize heterosexual marriage.

Second, Jesus is both the fulfillment (Matthew 5:17) and end of the law (Romans 10:4).  This means that if Jesus fulfills the law on my behalf, then I don’t fulfill the law by trying to follow it on my own.  Instead, I fulfill the law by following Jesus.  What this means is that, for the Christian, it would be inconsistent to follow both Jesus and the law.  In fact, this was the central problem of the Galatian church, where some were trying to insist that to be a “true” Christian you had to follow the teachings of the Jewish law, including circumcision.  Paul tells them that yes, “the law was our guardian until Christ came,” meaning that the law’s purpose was to reveal sin and righteousness before the arrival of Jesus.  But once Jesus arrived, “we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith” (Galatians 3:24-25).  So no; Christians don’t “pick and choose” which laws to follow.  Christians follow Jesus, which also includes adhering to God’s design for marriage (see our last question, below).

WHAT ABOUT WOMEN AND SLAVES?

Some simply acknowledge that the Bible does, indeed, contain strong language concerning homosexuals.  But perhaps we should adopt what Robert Webb calls a “trajectory hermeneutic.”[2]  Don’t mind the scholarly language—Webb is saying that the Bible takes a hard stance on many moral issues, but the Bible also establishes a loving God.  Webb says that in time, the love of God would supplant the strict rules of primitive culture.  So, says Webb, the Bible contains language that (1) oppresses women and (2) endorses slavery.  But we can trace a moral “trajectory,” that in the future we might come to recognize women as equals and slavery as immoral.  Webb concludes that it’s time we do the same thing for homosexuals.

Before you dismiss Webb’s remarks as intellectual jargon, I’ll point out that this same argument often surfaces in non-religious publications, such as Lisa Miller’s 2008 piece for Newsweek:

“The Bible endorses slavery, a practice that Americans now universally consider shameful and barbaric. It recommends the death penalty for adulterers (and in Leviticus, for men who have sex with men, for that matter). It provides conceptual shelter for anti-Semites. A mature view of scriptural authority requires us, as we have in the past, to move beyond literalism. The Bible was written for a world so unlike our own, it’s impossible to apply its rules, at face value, to ours.”[3]

Do we need to follow the Bible’s “trajectory?”  Absolutely not.  The flaw in this reasoning is twofold.  First, let’s talk about women.  Yes; the Bible occasionally describes women in a less than enlightened manner.  But the Bible also ascribes dignity and worth to women unlike any other religion of its day—perhaps even today.  Jesus himself treated women with unprecedented care.  So we needn’t see a “trajectory” to our understanding of women’s rights; the Bible already embeds the value and worth of women into its pages.  Second, the Bible never endorses slavery in the sense we might be thinking.  In the Bible, slavery was probably closer to indentured servitude: you might pay off a debt by volunteering to be someone’s servant for a period of time.  And unlike the slavery of other ancient cultures, the Bible placed high value on preserving these servants’ rights. As just one example, the Biblical law commanded that the master who injured his servant had to let him go free (Exodus 21:26-27).  One Jewish commentator points out:

“This law-the protection of slaves from maltreatment by their masters-is found nowhere else in the entire existing corpus of ancient Near Eastern legislation. It represents a qualitative transformation in social and human values and expresses itself once again in the provisions of [Exodus 21:26-27].”[4]

Further, when William Wilberforce worked toward abolishing slavery in the eighteenth century, he did so through a literal interpretation of the Bible.

If we have no need for an ethical trajectory for women or slaves, why would we expect to find one for homosexuality?

WHAT ABOUT JESUS?

Finally, we might be tempted to simply “follow Jesus,” and didn’t Jesus preach a message of love and tolerance?  Jesus never mentioned homosexuality so much as once in his ministry—so why should we?

It’s true that Jesus never mentioned homosexuality during his ministry.  But Jesus also affirmed God’s original design for marriage. When challenged by the religious leaders of his day, Jesus quotes the creation story (Genesis 2:24), saying that God “made them male and female” and “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Matthew 19:25). So Jesus affirms the design for heterosexual marriage.

CONCLUSION

Even if we choose to disagree with the pages of Scripture, we can’t claim that Scripture is inconsistent.  Christianity would see this unity—connecting more than 1500 years of literary tradition—as consistent with the idea that the Bible originates not from cultural ideals, but a God whose design transcends all cultures, all peoples, for all time.

[1] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, pp. 9-11.  Alter also makes a key focus the law of primogeniture—that the firstborn sons would receive a disproportionate amount of family blessings.  Alter says that much of Genesis is about the “reversal of primogeniture,” meaning once again that Genesis is meant to be seen as culturally subversive.

[2] Robert Webb, Women, Slaves, and Homosexuals. 

[3] Lisa Miller, “Gay Marriage: Our Mutual Joy,” Newsweek Magazine, December 5, 2008, http://www.newsweek.com/gay-marriage-our-mutual-joy-83287

[4] Nahum M Sarna, ‘Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary Series: Exodus’, 1991, note on Exodus 21:21-27, as quoted by Glenn Miller, ‘Does God condone slavery in the Bible?’

 

Marriage in the tWorld

Fewer lies have ever been spoken than: “one size fits all.”  Not only is it not true, but for some the statement is insensitive or insulting.  So the idea of offering a one-size-fits-all definition of marriage must seem equally backward and oppressive.  So much so that for Masha Gessen—a self-described “gay activist”—marriage shouldn’t exist at all, because family systems have become too complicated to fit into any definition we can come up with:

“It’s a no-brainer that [same-sex couples] should have the right to marry, but I also thing equally that it’s a no-brainer that the institution of marriage should not exist…I have three kids who have five parents, more or less, and I don’t see why they shouldn’t have five parents legally…And really, I would like to live in a legal system that is capable of reflecting that reality, and I don’t think that’s compatible with the institution of marriage.”[1]

It must be hard to talk about a “definition of marriage” when so many people experience this level of relational complexity.  But this only assumes that a definition needs to encompass all forms of relationships that human beings can muster.  We can be sensitive to the experiences of others, even as we seek to articulate what Christianity says about the meaning and definition of marriage.

MARRIAGE AS A SOCIAL INSTITUTION

As we’ve noted in previous discussions on gender and sexuality, marriage is embedded in the story of creation.  In Genesis 1 we’re told that men and women bear the “image of God” (Genesis 1:26), and because we’re created in the image of a divine community (Father, Son, and Spirit) we are likewise created for relationship.  So in Genesis 2, we see the way that God creates and sanctions marriage between one man and one woman:

18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” … 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”

24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:18, 21-24)

The “one flesh” hints at a unity between man and woman at the level of both body and soul.  One writer puts it this way:

“Moses reasons that marriage is the re-union of what was originally and literally one flesh…This is why ‘He who loves his wife loves himself.  For no man hates his own flesh.’  Becoming ‘one flesh’ as husband and wife is symbolized and sealed by sexual union, it is true.  But the ‘one flesh’ relationship entails more than sex.  It is the profound fusion of two lives into one, shared life together, by the mutual consent and covenant of marriage.  It is the complete and permanent giving of oneself into a new circle of shared existence with one’s partner.”[2]

Andreas Kostenberger therefore defines marriage as “a sacred bond between a man and a woman instituted by and publicly entered into before God (whether or not this is acknowledged by the married couple), normally consummated by sexual intercourse.”[3]

Marriage, first and foremost, serves as a social institution.  Marriage was created before the nation of Israel was created, before the giving of any law.  Marriage is therefore an institution reserved not just for God’s people, but all humanity.  Marriage and its subsequent family systems become the means by which men and women populate the world (cf. Genesis 1:28).  We should also note that Moses was dictating these events during an era when yes, there was also a widespread attempt to “redefine” marriage—after all, even the Jewish “heroes” of the faith practiced things like polygamy.  This means that if marriage is only a social invention, why didn’t Moses construct a definition of marriage that better reflected the culture of his day?  The fact that he didn’t is consistent with the idea that marriage is bigger than culture can define.

The fact that this system is given to all people—and not just Christians—also means we rejoice that the government is involved in sanctioning marriages.  But this also means we lament that the government would move away from a Biblical definition of marriage.  Even in the Old Testament, alternative approaches to marriage (such as polygamy) had profound, negative effects on both the individuals and their communities.  Ryan T. Anderson cautions that if “marriage  is whatever consensual relationship you find most emotionally fulfilling, people will…be more receptive to sexually open relationships, or temporary ones, or multiple-partner ones, as their appetites and fancies dictate….The result will be less family stability, which hurts children and women and especially the poor….”[4]  We need traditional marriage, for it is within the context of heterosexual marriage that we find stability for families and, by extension, society as a whole.

MARRIAGE AS A SPIRITUAL INSTITUTION

Secondly, we recognize that marriage is a spiritual institution.  While marriage may be enjoyed by all people generally, it is within Christianity that marriage may be understood most fully.  We find the “one flesh” language of Genesis weaving its way into the first-century world’s understanding of marriage.  Paul tells the Church in the city of Ephesus that marriage is a mirror for the love of Christ and his bride, the Church:

22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Ephesians 5:22-33)

Marriage, we’ll note, is the arena in which we see the application of our earlier point that men and women bear God’s image equally, yet asymmetrically—they have different roles to fill.  Here in Paul’s letter, we see two things emphasized: (1) authority and (2) submission.  John Piper offers us a helpful definition of each:

  • Authority: “refers to the diving calling of spiritual, gifted men to take responsibility as elders for Christlike, servant-leadership and teaching in the church.”
  • Submission: “refers to the divine calling of the rest of the church, both men and women, to honor and affirm the leadership and teaching of the elders and to be equipped by them for the hundreds and hundreds of various ministries available to men and women in the service of Christ.”[5]

Note that submission is present in a variety of relationships: yes; even men submit to the authority of church leaders, for example.  But Paul says here that in marriage, wives are to submit to their husbands.  But what might this mean?

In the broader landscape of the Biblical story, we see the Bible describing these roles as follows:

Husbands [Authority] Wives [Submission]
Love your wife (Ephesians 5:25) Supporting husband (Proverbs 31:11-12)
Lead your wife (Ephesians 5:26) Homemaking (Proverbs 31:15, 27)
Provide for your wife (Exodus 21:10) Motherhood (Proverbs 31:28)

Ok.  So let’s be careful, here.  During World War II, men went off to fight the war.  So who was doing their jobs here at home?  Women had to step up.  Remember “Rosie the Riveter?”  She became a symbol of women taking on tasks in factories and other formerly male-dominated jobs.  When the war ended, women were reluctant to leave the workplace.  So they stayed.  How do we understand this?  Should we be bothered by this?  Absolutely not.  What we should see is that the world of late modernity creates a bit more complexity than the agrarian world of the Bible.  There’s far more overlap between women’s professional and domestic tasks.  This also means that some women feel forced to enter a career field, out of fear of being looked down upon for being “just a homemaker.”  Or, conversely, some women become stay-at-home moms, constantly updating their mommy blogs with Pinterest images of cloth diaper designs, recipes, and Lisa Terkeurst quotes (no hate; Lisa Terkeurst is awesome)—feeling a sense of pride for being truly devoted to their family.  We need to recognize that both approaches can be ennobling to women, and that spiritual attitudes run deeper than our professional pride.

That is, true womanhood can’t be reduced to a career choice or the number of items you have on Pinterest. But what do we do with this language of “submission?”  At worst, it sounds like a horrible master-slave relationship.  At best, it sounds like a way to turn women into June Cleaver.  Perhaps it’s better to understand submission based on what it is not.  John Piper and Wayne Grudem note:

“Submission refers to a wife’s divine calling to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts. It is not an absolute surrender of her will. Rather, we speak of her disposition to yield to her husband’s guidance and her inclination to follow his leadership….Christ is her absolute authority, not the husband….She should never follow her husband into sin. …She can show by her attitude and behavior that she does not like resisting his will and that she longs for him to forsake sin and lead in righteousness so that her disposition to honor him as head can again produce harmony.”[6]

So submission does not mean:

  • That a woman surrenders her brain in favor of her husbands.
  • That a woman obeys her husband’s every command (that only works when guys confuse the words “wife” and “golden retriever.”
  • That a woman submits to an ungodly husband—this is especially true in cases of domestic abuse. Suffering verbal, emotional, or sexual abuse is not a mark of biblical submission, but enabling an abusive husband and presenting a danger to one’s children.
  • That a woman’s will and body are at her husband’s discretion. It was this kind of perverse thinking that led—at least at one point in our nation’s history—to the belief that a husband could not rape his wife: as if marriage was a blanket consent.

No; biblical “submission” means a tendency to trust and honor a Christlike husband.  It also means that women can ferociously challenge and support their husbands—to provoke him to be the kind of Godly man he always dreamed he could be.

That’s why, if you recall, researchers at the University of Virginia discovered that contrary to what we might expect, men and women did not flourish in marriages where equality meant a uniform distribution of roles.  Rather, men and women flourish in marriages where there is a strong sense of male leadership. [7]  International novelist Anaias Nin once wrote that she longs for a man “with the courage to treat me as a woman.”  It’s within marriage that we find men and women exhibiting their true, God-given roles.

 

[1] Quoted in Ryan T. Anderson, Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom, Kindle Edition, loc 672-687.

[2] Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr., “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship—Genesis 1-3,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., p. 101

[3] Andreas J. Kostenberger, God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation, p. 73.

[4] Anderson, Truth Overruled, loc 731.

[5] John Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity: Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., p. 53.

[6] John Piper and Wayne Grudem, “An Overview of Central Concerns: Questions and Answers,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., p. 61.

[7] W. Bradford Wilcox and Steven L. Nock, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?  Equality, Equity, Commitment, and Women’s Marital Quality,” Social Forces 84, no. 3 (March 2006): 1321-45.

Why marriage?

One of the more peculiar aspects of living in today’s digital democracy is the broadcasting of our lives to the world.  Social media sites overflow with “status updates,” news articles, and photo albums.  Among the more ubiquitous electronic posts are albums of engagement photos—where happy couples hire professional photographers to document their love in a series of tasteful-though-mildly-cliché poses and settings.

Like anything else, somebody always finds a way to take a culture trend and use it ironically.

  • Exhibit “A:” David Sikorski, a writer from San Francisco, had an engagement shoot featuring himself and his favorite burrito. No; seriously—this actually happened.  In an interview with The Huffington Post, Sikorski said: “I’ve reached the age where my Facebook is now filled with engagement and baby photos; [once] it was filled with incriminating photos of my friends’ weekend escapades…I already had a strong burrito love so I called one of my music photographer friends and naturally she jumped at the idea.”[1]
  • Exhibit “B:” In October of this year, 19-year-old Nicole Larsen had her own food-based engagement shoot—only not with a burrito but with pizza. She told The Huffington Post: “I wanted to do a spoof of other couples pictures because I am single and in my opinion pizza never lets you down…Everyone seems to be caught up in trying to find a partner but I would just encourage others to find/do anything that might brighten their day!…If that is a boyfriend, great! If it’s eating a full box of pizza to yourself, that is also great!”[2]
  • Exhibit “C:” Yasmin Eleby didn’t waste time with an engagement at all. She invited her family and friends to the Houston Center for African American Culture.  Once they got there, they discovered that she’d planned an elaborate wedding ceremony—complete with a wedding party, a minister, and a lovely white dress—only there was no groom. Ms. Eleby had decided that she’d had enough dating: she was going to marry herself.  John Guess Jr., CEO of the Houston complex, said that “Once she hit 40 she figured if she didn’t find someone who loved her as much as she did, she would marry herself.”[3]

There’s no need to throw rocks.  I, for one, choose to take these things in the spirit they’re intended.  There’s worse things, after all, then to celebrate one’s passion for food—and certainly worse things than to celebrate the positive aspects of oneself. Yet at the same time, these “exhibits” reveal at least two things about modern conceptions of marriage.

MARRIAGE AND THE AGE OF INDIVIDUALISM

To share one’s life with one’s friends is truly a gift from God himself.  But sharing one’s life with near-strangers—well, that’s the curse of the digital world.  Social analysts describe this as “expressive individualism,”[4] the need for constant self-expression.  Technology fuels this cancer: it creates a vehicle—actually, multiple vehicles—through which we are able to constantly shout “look at me, look at me, look at me.”  This strange form of digital pride can be seen every time someone posts a “selfie” (a slang term for a cell-phone self-portrait), or a picture of their latest meal or—yes, even their engagement photo shoot.  Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to preserve such memories—but there runs an equal danger of romantic intimacy becoming co-opted by expressive individualism.

But that’s actually not the real problem.  The real problem is deeper than that—and darker.  The real problem is self-interest, the assumption that marriage is ultimately a means toward self-fulfillment.  What did our “exhibits” all have in common?  They (jokingly?) asserted that a burrito or a pizza would bring the same kind of happiness as a long-term relationship.  So is that what marriage is ultimately about?  In his book Marriage Go Round, Andrew Cherlin puts forth two reasons why divorce rates are so high in America.  First, marriage remains a high value—and the more people are married, the more people might also get divorced.  But secondly, Cherlin says that most people enter marriage seeing it as a means to ultimate fulfillment.[5]  When this fails, they get out and get out fast.

If marriage can’t bring you lasting happiness, what can marriage be for?

MARRIAGE AS A SOCIAL CONSTRUCT

In recent years, discussion over the “definition” of marriage have led many to conclude that marriage is merely a social construct.  And like all human inventions, its definition is subject to reinvention by social custom.  So while marriage had historically been defined as existing between a man and a woman, now we’re free to re-define marriage as existing between two consenting adults.

Even if we agree that such a re-definition is justified, surely we must see the slippery slope.  After all, why stop there?  If all truth is at the discretion of a culture, than why limit marriage to only two adults?  And many cultures define “adults” very differently—could we extend this to young, teenage girls?  If not, why not?

During the recent Supreme Court discussions, Justice Alito raised a crucial question: if marriage is merely a social invention, why haven’t more cultures historically permitted same-sex unions?

“How do you account for the fact that, as far as I’m aware, until the end of the twentieth century, there never was a nation or a culture that recognized marriage between two people of the same sex?  Now, can we infer from that that those nations and those cultures all thought that there was some rational, practical purpose for defining marriage in that way, or is it your argument that they were all operating independently based solely on irrational stereotypes and prejudices?”[6]

Granted, some of these same cultures have endorsed such practices as polygamy (or worse)—but even that begs a similar question: whose cultural standards should we appeal to for our definition of marriage?

Put differently, if marriage is defined by culture, then why could culture not define marriage any way it wants to?  Why not broaden a definition to include marrying yourself—or your favorite fast-food indulgence?

Let’s not be insensitive.  Let’s take these questions very seriously. After all, these questions speak to the deep feelings and emotions of real people.  So let’s explore what Christianity has to say about the creation and meaning of marriage—and discover an answer to the question of “Why marriage?”

[1] Brittany Wong, “This Man Took Engagement Photos with a Burrito—And it was Burrito-ful,” The Huffington Post, July 13, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/this-man-took-engagement-photos-with-a-burrito-and-it-was-burrito-ful_55a4268ae4b0a47ac15d27d1

[2] Alanna Vagianos, “This Woman Who Took Engagement Photos With Pizza is All of Us,” The Huffington Post, October 29, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/this-woman-who-took-engagement-photos-with-pizza-is-all-of-us_56325c12e4b00aa54a4d3414

[3] Craig Hlvaty, “Houston woman marries herself in elaborate ceremony,” The Houston Chronicle, January 29, 2015, http://www.chron.com/life/weddings-and-celebrations/article/Houston-woman-marries-herself-in-elaborate-6040944.php

[4] See Robert Bellah et. al, Habits of the Heart.

[5] Andrew Cherlin, Marriage Go Round. 

[6] Quoted in Ryan T. Anderson, Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom, Kindle ed., loc. 438-45.