Friday, July 24, 2015

How Evangelicals Ruined Marriage

(Painting: "Wedding March," by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1919, oil on canvas)

 Amid the massive public debate about gay marriage, a few things have slipped through the cracks. Like the fact that much of our modern view of marriage is an over-romanticized daydream, and the fault lies in large part with evangelical Christianity. 

Here's what I mean. In the vast majority of cultures throughout the scope of human experience, marriage has been an arrangement between male and female for the purpose of raising up the next generation and for providing society with a stable base unit on which to build itself up (particularly helpful in questions of property, inheritance, and the legacies of family honor). In some of these cultures, a certain ideal of marriage would be favored above and beyond these most basic functions, an ideal which believed that marriage at its best should also be a union of love, of mutual affection. But in many cases, this was seen as just that: an ideal which all should pursue, but which few would ever fully realize. 

And even in those cultures that magnified love as the primary virtue of marriage, it was a rather different notion of love: a love that is mostly defined by self-sacrificial giving, by acts of other-centered grace, rather than by a feeling. This is the view of marriage that St. Paul takes in Ephesians 5, when he parallels the union of Christ and the church with the union of husband and wife--he doesn't talk about the love of marriage in terms of pure emotion, he talks about that love in terms of sacrificial action.

But somewhere along the way, our culture has transmuted this practical and realistic view of marriage and turned it on its head. Now, instead of viewing marriage primarily as the basic unit of society, brought together for the rearing of the next generation, it has become an icon of personal fulfillment. An emotive, romanticized notion of "love" has taken center stage over self-sacrifice and a fruitful brood of little ones. 

The romanticizing of marriage is not all the fault of evangelical Christians; Western culture has actually been working on that since about the 13th century. But modern storytelling has pushed that trend to a whole new level: from children's fairy tales that all end with a "happily ever after" wedding between prince and princess, to romantic movies that all end in exactly the same way: a wedding driven by emotive, feelings-oriented love, with a blissful sense that this plateau of fulfilled personal sentimentality will never wane. Now, of course it's to be hoped that couples going to be married will have some of the interpersonal joie de vivre  that "falling in love" accords, but the dangerous myth of modern marriage is that it will always be like that. Everyone who's ever been married can testify that that's not the case. Feelings come, and feelings go. Deep mutual affection can remain throughout all the seasons of a life, but this takes hard work and careful cultivation. The myth of over-romanticized marriage, unfortunately, has so poisoned the well of modern relationships that many couples give up when their initial wave of fond feelings subside. They have built their house on the sand, rather than on the firm bedrock of marriage as a divine institution, as it was meant to be--a covenant of male and female, sharing the strengths of both of the great complementary halves of our race, all aimed at serving one another sacrificially and building up our society through the begetting of children. As a pastor, unfortunately, I've seen and heard many stories of marriages breaking up, and it's almost always because couples have bought into the sham mythology of perpetual romance.

But, again, that's the overall culture's fault, not evangelical Christianity's. Evangelicalism, actually, has done a moderately good job, through pastoral counseling and marriage seminars and Focus on the Family, at making sure that Christian couples are not deluded by the over-romanticized cultural notions of marriage. Where evangelicals are to blame, though, is in the fact that we have magnified marriage as the supreme relational state, the union of humans that stands at the utmost center of God's plan for his people, and we have preached this message through pastoral counseling and marriage seminars and Focus on the Family. Most large evangelical churches will have something called a "family pastor." And many, just to make sure no one slips through the cracks, also have a "singles ministry." It's worth wondering why a large church might have this kind of a "singles" ministry that caters to young, unattached Christians (and often results in a fair crop of marriages), but I've never yet heard of a "celibates" ministry that honors the vocations of single people of all ages who have devoted their lives to the Lord. "Family ministries" are so much the focus of evangelical Christianity that single people have learned that they must adjust to living life on the margins. I've heard too many young Christian women say, "I know God has someone out there for me," and put their hopes in a future divine-sent Galahad rather than the possibility that God might have something even better in store for them.

As important as marriage is, as important as the nuclear family is, evangelicalism has gone astray in making these things the centerpoint of social ministry. We've elevated marriage into being the paramount relational accomplishment in a Christian's life, the social climax that everyone wants. Marriage is supposed to be where you're joined forever to your "best friend," and no other sort of one-on-one relationship is given the same sort of prominence for fostering depth and mutual spiritual growth. And, unsurprisingly, the wider culture has followed evangelicalism in these trends. If marriage is the ultimate relational accomplishment, the place you find the best social intimacy that is available to humans, then of course everyone will want in on it. It is we evangelicals who have raised up a myth of marriage to the point that our highest court has seen fit to enshrine it as a basic human right--after all, who are we to disqualify anyone from the experience of the greatest social intimacy in the world?

The trouble is, that pedestal that evangelicalism has built under the edifice of marriage--it's all ridiculous tripe. Marriage is not the supreme relational accomplishment in a Christian's life (that honor, I would think, ought to go to "loving one's neighbor"); nor is it the greatest social intimacy in the world (Christian tradition has always honored "spiritual friendship" above marriage for that particular purpose). What I'm saying is, we've actually lost the substance of the biblical message about marriage, singleness, and relationships by putting such an unwavering focus on marriage and family. A good case can be made from the New Testament that singleness is to be preferred to marriage (see Matt. 19:10-12, Luke 20:34-36, and 1 Cor. 7:6-8). Some streams of early church tradition took these words so much to heart that they developed their own Christian subculture of heroic renunciation of marriage--the stories of Thomas' first converts in India and of Paul's famous convert Thecla are both stories of fiancees being persuaded to renounce a future of matrimony in favor of celibacy. This trend became so popular that the early bishops had to keep it in check with pronouncements of anathema on anyone who tried to teach that either marriage or sex was unholy. Within the mainstream of early Christian culture, celibacy really was the honored vision of the truly great Christian life--the single man or woman who chose not to pursue marriage or family, but instead, like Paul, gave themselves completely to the Lord. This, not marriage, was considered the centerpoint of Christian society. In the early church, it was the "singles" at whom everyone looked up as being the paragon of Christian piety, not the happily married couple with well-behaved kids who practice family devotions, "daddy dates," and never miss Sunday School. 

Further, there is a broad stream of Christian thought and experience that has consistently shown that the very deepest level of intimacy--that of spiritual friendship--is best and most easily obtained between friends, usually of the same gender, rather than in a married couple. One ought to read Aelred of Rievaulx's classic, Spiritual Friendship, and then see if one can still make the claim that marriage alone represents the most intimate social connection a person can have. 

All in all, then, our culture--both secular and Christian culture--has so muddled up the historic view of marriage that it ought to come as no surprise that everyone wants in on it. Unfortunately, the view we've painted is a mythology. It has hints of truth in it--marriage, the union of self-sacrificing servants of Christ bonded in mutual affection for the raising of children--is a glorious, almost an incomparable thing. But even the Bible would tell us that it's not something to be glorified over all other vocations and relationships. And in forgetting that we throw ourselves into three tragic consequences: (1) We end up selling marriage as "cheap grace" to anyone in our culture who might want it; (2) We're failing to call and affirm the gifts of celibates in our churches, and thus losing out on the radiant strength of their ministry; and (3) many of us are foregoing the very real possibility of building deep, powerful "spiritual friendships" with our brothers and sisters in Christ beyond our spouses. So, fellow Christians, it's time to rethink marriage.