I have spent a lot of time here railing against what I have called the Church’s Nuclear Family Idol. What I’m realizing is that there are a lot of people in certain corners of the church that are railing against that idol but in a different way. Therefore I feel the need to clarify two things – 1. What I’m speaking against and what I’m not and 2. What is the rightful place of the nuclear family in the church.
I’ll be honest. When I started writing this blog four years ago, I thought I would share some thoughts about my experience as a single for over 20 years of adulthood and specifically in the Church culture. Somehow in my mid thirties I had a sort of awakening that a whole lot of what I thought I knew about singleness, what I’d be taught and even what I had taught others was wrong. But I had no idea how wrong we were.
This is why now and then I’m responding to some posts from prominent leaders in our church culture. They represent what we teach and when it comes to this context, they come up almost unbelievably short. It’s astounding really.
In a post on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Page, they share from a speech from Al Molher (whom Time called the “reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement in the U.S.” – Yikes) in which he addresses the “sin” of delayed marriage. I know you’re getting excited already. . .
When I think about family, one of the first things that comes to mind is dinner around the table. Kids grow up there. Couples grow old there. It’s where the day is reviewed and the world’s problems are solved. What’s amazing is even if there isn’t much to eat, you still do it together. There is something about it.
A mentor of mine (father figure is more accurate) lives in a beautiful large home. In that home he has a dining room table. Interestingly the table is round, not long, so there is no head of the table so to speak.
Let me describe what happens when you go to dinner there. When you pull up in the driveway you set off the driveway bell. They have that bell so that by the time you get the door they are already there to greet you – usually with a hug, not a handshake. Then you go inside. Typically there are some drinks and often even some sort of good snack. This is followed by the choicest of meals. You eat this while seated around the round table. My mentor will then have some sort of question that he wants each person to answer. (By the way, this is the furthest thing from fast food possible – you could be there for three hours – but it won’t seem like it). He genuinely wants to know about the people around his table.
All sorts of people have sat around that table. Politicians, dignitaries, business partners, business competitors, refugees from third world countries, people from a bunch of different walks of life, and even me. And every one of them is welcomed and listened to. “Now wait, we haven’t heard your story yet. Tell me about. . . . ”
It’s a picture of family – God’s family. It’s a picture of The Kingdom.
We live in a time where it seems like the nuclear family as we’ve known it is being blown apart. There’s the divorce rate. There’s the fact that more women in America have their first kid out of wedlock than in it. More and more people are choosing to not actually get married or if they do it’s much later than ever before.
This actually hurts our society in several ways (shrinking middle class anyone?). And the Church has seen it and often has become focused on changing it. But the problem is, focusing on the nuclear family won’t turn the tide.
First, it leaves out and alienates too many people. Families go to church. Single people don’t. 50% of Americans are unmarried. And guess what, most of them aren’t going to church. Part of the reason? Focus on the nuclear family.
Secondly, Jesus wasn’t focussed on it. Jesus said things like, “unless you hate your mother and father, or brother and sister, you are not worthy of me.” He said, “I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, . . . a man’s enemies will be members of his own household”. Once when he was teaching, his mother and brothers came and he says, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” He points to his disciples and says, “Here are my mother and brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Try preaching that one on Mother’s day.
None of this is to say that family is bad or that the church shouldn’t speak to what marriage and family should look like. It should. People who are married need to know it and people who aren’t need to know what it would mean if they did get married. Not only that, but marriage and family are set up by God. Marriage happened pre-sin in the garden. It’s not a concession, it’s a gift. But the problem with focusing there or calling the family “the foundational institution of human society” is that God never said that. God’s Family is the foundational institution of humanity – not my family – thank goodness!
The point of marriage, family, or for that matter celibacy, is to point to God, how he loves us, and the Kingdom, not the other way around. When we lift one up over the other, we limit the picture of the Kingdom and we leave people out – the exact opposite of God’s picture.
You know what the safest, most welcoming place in the world for the single person should be? The Church. It should be the place that calls them family, not the place that makes them feel like they dont’ have one. You see the Church should be a place where you can find fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters. Maybe if we could figure out how to do that, we’d have less to worry about on the back end. What we need is for the Church to focus on the Kingdom Family.
Which family is your church focused on? Who are your brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters?
I believe this: There is a family dinner table – and you are invited. When you show up the Master meets you at the door – with a hug, not a handshake. He serves the choicest of meals. It doesn’t matter what your story is, how “important” your earthly role is/was. Married, never married – whatever. It won’t matter except as part of your story. Everyone has a seat. He wants to hear everyone’s story – your story – even though He’s knows it. There’s no hurry. You’ve got an eternity – and after all, this is family.
The first thing you are required to answer if you are dating someone and you go to church is this, “So are they a Christian?” Then if you answer yes, your next goal is to date in a Christian way, and then of course have a Christian marriage, and raise Christian kids. But here’s my question – what does that actually mean?
One of my favorite scenes in the Bible happens in John 6. Jesus starts out by feeding the 5000. For an encore He walks on water. Now the crowds figure this out and so they show up to greet Him and the disciples. The conversation goes essentially like this.
Jesus says, “You are here because of the miracle yesterday.” They say, “Um obviously.” Jesus says, “You need to work for the stuff that lasts, not the bread that you need more of.” They then ask what they need to do. Jesus says, “The work of God is this, to believe in the one whom He has sent.” In other words, “Stake your whole life on me.” Their response is classic. “Give us a sign that we may believe.” He of course refuses and they all leave.
Here’s what’s funny. If Jesus would have answered the work question with any sort of job, they would have done it. If He would have said, “Stand on one foot and dig a ditch 100 meters while saying the levitical code backwards,” they would have tried to do it. But actually staking their life on Jesus, not so much. They didn’t want much to do with Him.
This is a constant battle as we think about singleness, marriage and the Church and really any other area of life.
It is easy to get wrapped up in formula and for that matter religion. The real question is, what is your identity in? Are you, your relationships, friendships, singleness, marriage and church about Jesus?
We end up with the wrong goals. We want a family centered church. Everyone wants a Christian marriage and certainly to have a Christian household. And if you’re single, then your job is to not have sex (because that’s not Christian) and if you do date, do it in a Christian way.
But this can be a trap for all of us. It doesn’t matter what you call it, or if you follow all the rules, if you don’t actually walk with Jesus. It gives us the wrong identity and it can make us come up short.
I’m not saying all the rules or ideas are wrong. For example, not having sex outside of marriage is right. It’s Biblical. It’s from God. And the truth is that if I’m following Jesus, He is not going to lead me to have sex unless I’m married. But the problem is that I can abstain from sex and still not follow Jesus. It’s not the having or not having of sex that makes me about Jesus.
This is so important as we are seeking a spouse. We can’t just say, hey that girl/guy goes to church so it must be good to go. We can’t just date, go to church, be in a small group, not have sex, and call it good (although again, those are all good things). The real questions are more like, “Is this other person really trying to follow Jesus?” “What is the fruit of this person’s life?” “Does it seem like Jesus is in this?” “Am I brought closer to Jesus by the relationship?”
But this goes way beyond who to date. What do we want our marriage to look like? There are so many marriages that are “Christian” more in name than in action. Marriages without fruit and growth. Marriages where we are “good people” and “plugged in” but yet don’t really seem to be about Jesus.
And finally, the Church get’s wrapped up in this too. They get so concerned about the nuclear family, marriage and single people not having sex, that pretty much that’s all they are about.
We end up with our identity being in a religion, self-righteousness, our kids, family or marital status that we miss actually walking with Jesus.
Our first call is to know and love Jesus. This is true regardless of literally anything else in our lives. This is what brings us together. It’s what makes US the family that matters most. It is what keeps things like marriage and family from becoming idols (whether we have them or not). It’s also the hardest thing to do. Which is why Jesus calls it work.
My thought is this. What if we didn’t worry about Christian singleness/dating/marriage. What if we worry about trying to follow Jesus and all of that will take care of itself. I get the dangers of that statement, but that doesn’t make it wrong.
Are your relationships Jesus centered or just “Christian”? What kind of marriage or singleness do you want?
Here’s the truth about our culture right now. Close to 50% of marriages will end in divorce. Stats show that nearly one third of first marriages will end in divorce within the first 10 years. When you add in out of wedlock births, close to 60% of kids in high school don’t live in their “nuclear family”.
The Church has seen this and tried to respond. . . mostly by talking about marriage and family. But as an unintended consequence we have sometimes made family an idol. And for all of this attention to family, we are not winning.
We have this idea that if we do enough teaching on marriage and family that everything will turn around. We have hundreds of books. We hold seminars and conferences. We have Focus on the Family, we have churches named the Family Church. We have outreach to families. We say, “We are going to be doing a sermon series on marriage so invite your neighbor.”
We’ve created this idea of the Biblical family. This is a little crazy when you consider that there probably isn’t one marriage in the Bible that you would want to emulate.
Now to be sure there are great principles in the Bible for marriage. But really they are mostly the same principles for all of life. How do you love another person? If you’re married, that should be the number one example of that. It’s your number one covenant relationship.
But the Bible isn’t about family. It’s about God and us, mainly God actually. Jesus says unless you hate your wife and children, you can’t follow me. How do we reconcile that with how we teach all this stuff? Jesus is obviously not saying to hate anyone. He is however saying that He comes first – and that is true regardless of marital status. So the real question is regardless of my context how do I follow Jesus? Seems to me we ought to talk to the other half of the peoples’ context.
Now before you rip me, let me say that I’m not against any of this. I think it is vital the Church talk about these things. I know that I have been impacted, even as a single, by these teachings. I’m for it and I’ve encouraged us as singles to learn from it for a variety of reasons. I’ve seen marriages and families be saved by it. But this focus on the family will not turn the tide because singles aren’t there to listen to it.
Married people already go to church. Most of the people that don’t go to church are not married. According to Barna 37% of them have never been married at all.
What used to happen is the Church would lose the young 20 somethings and then when they got married they would come back. The problem is that now they are not getting married. Only 20% of those 18-29 have ever been married. That means that we are losing the late 20 somethings. It means that the neighbor you are supposed to invite to the marriage sermon series – they are single.
We can’t just say let’s save marriages because if we’re not careful, there won’t be any marriages to save. We need a theology of singleness to go with our theology of marriage. We need to offer some practical help for single people. We can’t just say get married and then we will help you. We need to help people figure out if they are called to celibacy or marriage and then help them do it.
Let me give you an example from my own church (which I love). At my church we have what we call position papers. These are “brief” papers that say where we stand on certain things. So for example we have papers on baptism, communion, the end times, etc.
So of course we have a paper on marriage. We also have one on divorce and remarriage. We have one on Christian sexual ethics. We even have one on “dating” (we’d be better off with a position paper on how to get a date). But we do not have one on singleness or celibacy. And our church at one point was 50% single! If we don’t have it, who does?
I’m not mad, bitter or whining. That’s not my heart at all. But, we are losing and this is part of the reason why. We need to deal with it.
Catch this: Most of the battle for sexual purity, Godly marriage and family, and even the hot button issues like homosexuality and abortion, cannot be won without a right theology of singleness. People are lost and confused.
You CANNOT change this without a right theology of singleness. And that theology has to go WAY beyond what not to do on a date. Until it does it’s going to get worse, not better.
What is your church’s theology of singleness? What is yours?
Ever since I was a little kid it seems like there was always ONE girl that I liked. And this didn’t have to be a girl I knew well, just the one that I wanted. This lasted all the way through high school, kind of changed in college (I mean target rich environment right?) and then returned for my twenties.
In a lot of ways this is similar to what I talked about a few months ago about there not being THE ONE. This idea that if I can just get “this girl” to like me or be with me then everything will be right. This is not good. That’s called an idol. The idea that if I can just get this or that, things will be right. Bad news.
It also crushes any hope of actually dating that person because you end up caring too much which in turn makes you unattractive. It also keeps you from seeing other potential people around you, because you are so focussed on that one person. If I could change anything about my high school (and to some degree later) dating experience it would be that I wouldn’t get so focussed on one person, that frankly I usually didn’t even know that well. Looking back there were other just as attractive people that would have gone out with me.
You shouldn’t get focussed on one person until you are actually dating that person (obviously at this point you should be). It puts too much pressure on you and them. It distorts the image of this person and makes them more of a goal or object than a person to get to know. Even if you “got” this person you’d be in trouble because they’d have all the power, and you can’t love someone who you need constant approval from. It also can make you pass on others that you should not be passing on.
Here’s what we need to get in our head: There Is Always Someone Else. Always.
Now you would think that I would have figured this out a lot earlier than I did. I mean in middle school I was obsessed with one person. Then in early high school there was a different person, and in later high school yet another. There’s always been another. Hmmm.
Look, I don’t care how hot she is, how much you like her, how perfect you would be together, there will always be someone else. To have a chance you have to keep this in mind, otherwise every time that you meet someone you like you’ll try too hard, push too much and/or not know when/if to walk away. But if you know there will be someone else, then you can relax and be yourself because if it doesn’t work out, you guessed it, there will be someone else.
I don’t care how old you are either, or how long you’ve waited, or how tired you are of being single – there will be someone else. If you get this in your head, there really is no fear. Go get rejected, no big deal, there will be someone else. Seriously. I know it sounds kind of cold but it’s actually vital. Even if you find someone you want to marry. This is what makes you free to choose to marry that person. If I know that there would be someone else then I can choose not be with anyone else but instead to be with only this person (sounds kind of like a wedding vow huh?). Be sure you understand that you’re not choosing this person because they are THE ONE. You are choosing to make this person the ONLY ONE.
Gentlemen, this is why I keep urging you to get in the game, to get out there by any means necessary, to engage with women, to learn how to quit being nice and learn how to be attractive. The more you know that there will be someone else, the more free you are to pursue anyone you want. The more you think there is not someone else, the less you will be able to pursue anyone at all.
There’s a flip side here obviously. You can use this knowledge to treat people how you want, or wait for someone “perfect”, or figure why commit all because there’ll be someone else – I get that, and that post is coming asap. But I think any honest assessment of most single guys I’ve known (including me) would show this is a huge deal. It is killing us. It leads to chasing instead of pursuing, not being able to get out there at all, or even marriages that are set up to fail.
If you’ve been single a while (and heck maybe especially if you’ve been married a while), you know this is true intellectually. You’ve lived it – but do you live out of it? Most truth is that way. We know it but we don’t live out of it. That’s the battle, but it’s one we have to engage.
When I was a kid, my dog died chasing a car. Great opening right? Ha. But seriously this dog always wanted to chase cars but usually was tied up. But one day somehow she wasn’t and off she went. Apparently she “caught” the car. I don’t know all of the reasons dogs chase cars but I do know it never turns out well. One of two things are going to happen. They either fail to catch the car or they get hit. It’s a lose lose.
The same is true when a guy chases a girl. Let me explain what I mean.
First of all, the idea of chasing involves someone running. Someone is running away and someone else is chasing that person. That’s the whole set up. So if you are chasing a girl that means that she is not moving towards you.
Now this is different than pursuing a girl. Pursing someone essentially means (in date speak) getting to know someone. In other words, showing interest or asking questions or asking them out. That’s not what I’m talking about here.
I’m talking about chasing someone. It’s this thing guys (and sometimes girls) do when they like someone and they are convinced that this is right even though the other person is not interested.
Perhaps we ask a girl out and she says no – or some equivalent that means no. But that doesn’t stop us. Instead we keep going. It might be that we went on a date or two and the person says they just aren’t feeling it. But we keep trying, keep calling, keep trying to talk them into it.
This is bad on so many levels it’s going to be hard to list them.
For one thing it makes you look like a total wuss. And no one wants to date a wuss. I’m sorry but that’s the truth. It makes you even more unattractive. It makes you desperate. It will not change her mind! It’s also kind of disrespectful. She has said no. Leave it alone. Walk away. If you’re not careful you will become a punchline in her life at best and a stalker at worst.
It’s also bad because it makes the whole thing about you and it makes her an idol. It becomes something that you are trying to “win” or “attain” which turns her into an object. At that point you are like the dog in that even if you miraculously (and it would be miraculous) caught her you’d be dead. You’ve given up all of your power and leadership. You’ve given her total power over your life. You’re dead.
Sometimes it can be hard to see and even harder to admit that you are chasing someone. So here are some keys to look for. If any of this is true you are probably chasing:
- You try to find all sorts of ways to be around her or angle to be with her but you have never asked her out
- You have asked her out, she said no and you still follow her around (this includes social media) and keep trying over and over again.
- She says things like, I just want to be friends, you’re a great guy, I just don’t feel that way etc and yet you keep working towards getting her to like you
- You think you can somehow earn her liking you
- You have ever or are getting ready to try to talk her into liking you.
- You buy her gifts even though you are not in a relationship
- You have all sorts of pretend conversations with her in your head – where you “lay it on the line”
- You actually have a conversation where you “lay it on the line”.
- You don’t go on other dates because you are waiting for her to like you and you don’t want to “mess it up”.
- You are down or depressed over her not liking you
- Most of your prayer life is about her
These are all really, really bad signs. I know because I’ve lived it and it has cost me time and for a while some of my manhood.
We as guys have to understand that chasing the girl doesn’t work. If anything it makes her run further away. The truth is that if you ask someone out and they say no you may still have a chance – if you can walk away. But if you can’t she’ll know. And she won’t be attracted. She might like the attention but she won’t be more attracted. The only chance you have is to walk.
There are a lot of things you can do to never get in this spot to begin with and we’ll talk more about that. But for today I want to encourage you to examine yourself.
Are you currently chasing someone? Do you usually chase the girl you like? How’s that working out? Is it time for something different?
My junior year in college, I dated a great girl. We were good for each other if only for that season. The truth is I didn’t make her enough of a priority (not unusual for a 21 year old guy). I just wasn’t at the “get married” stage yet and she was.
It still hurt to break up and it made me realize that I really did want this marriage thing. I remember sitting on the side of a mountain in Colorado, telling God that I was ready and asking Him to send me someone.
That didn’t happen but something else did. This idea of meeting THE ONE and getting married began to dominate my prayer and thought life. In my mid twenties I dated some but only really had one person who I thought could be it. When that didn’t work out, I was in a tailspin. I just kept praying and really begging God to send me someone.
This would be what I call the Marriage Idol. It is the idea that if I can get married to THE ONE that everything will be right. How do you know if marriage is an idol? Here are some signs.
- Your prayer life is wrapped up in it.
- Whenever anyone asks you what they can pray for – your answer is a spouse
- You’re pretend life involves marriage or hurt from relationships you thought would lead there.
- Your identity is wrapped up in being single
All of this can dominate us. For many years it did me. It has different effects. It leads some people to constantly be in dating relationships and trying to make even the worst relationship work. For others it means they can never have a dating relationship because they have to figure out if they could marry them first before they go on a date. Haha – I’ve done both!
Some people want to say that the decrease in marriages means that people are idolizing marriage less or holding it with less value. While I think on one level that might be true, I would submit that actually marriage as an idol can delay marriage because it has to be just right. I mean if this is the ultimate thing in my life then I have to be absolutely sure that you’re THE ONE. Having it as an idol puts incredible pressure on dating. Being scared of marriage is just another version of the same marriage idol.
Marriage is good. It was instituted by God. But when it becomes the thing that drives us or dominates our thoughts and prayers we are in trouble. Even if we get married. Actually getting married might be the number one way to kill the marriage idol. However that leads to hard stuff in marriage. If however we can kill the marriage idol while we are single – we are set – whether we get married or not.
So how do we kill the marriage idol. It’s not easy for many of us but here are some thoughts.
- Fight to have your identity in Christ not in marital status.
- Don’t lead with your desire to be married in every prayer request situation. Have some other things to pray for.
- Kill the Pretend – I keep saying this but we HAVE TO do it.
- Have deep friendships with married people. This is so huge. You need to have an inside view of actual marriages.
- Get a right theological view of marriage. This is why we need to actually listen to the sermon on marriage and read the books. We need to have a realistic view instead of a romantic one. We need to have a biblical view of marriage instead of a secular one.
- If you never go on a date because you have to figure out if you’re going to marry them first – go on some dates – seriously.
- If you have never not been dating – take a break from it – seriously.
Look here’s why the marriage idol is so powerful. It’s the idea the if I just had the right relationship with the right person in perfect union then all would be alright. Read that last sentence again. Do you see it? That’s God’s spot. What makes the marriage idol so dangerous is that a relationship with another person is the next closest thing to a relationship with God. We are created in God’s image. If I’m looking for fulfillment in my life then another person will be the next best thing. It’s a trap – and it’s one that not only kills us in singleness but also in marriage. If I’m married and looking for fulfillment in that person, my marriage will suffer.
Only if I get my fulfillment in God can I be really free to love anyone, let alone someone I would marry.
So how about you? Have you ever had marriage as an idol? Has anything helped you kill it?