Marriage and Family: a radical theology?
I reckon that marriage and family issues are probably those in which the myopic approaches of the conservative church leave the most to be desired. Experience shows that all to often, the Church simply replicates the isolationist values of the most uppity, withdrawn parts of secular society, focusing on a few laudable values and missing the bigger picture entirely. Even a face-value reading of the bible at times contradicts this.
To me, the starting point for any theological evaluation of marriage must be with St Paul’s letters. Paul’s exhortation to marry only if really necessary has been both warped by the Catholics and entirely ignored by Evangelicals. I know churches which actually preach that marriage is imperative, even when challenged on this. I also recognise that Paul’s exhortation is only an ideal. That said, I entirely agree with Walter Wink when he states that the women in the Corinthian Church were probably relieved to hear they didn’t have to marry the men!
Whilst Paul seems overly hung up on people getting married, he has a clear point to make: whilst marriage for some is an enabling factor in building the kingdom, for some it is a clear distraction, and one should marry only where there is genuine evidence that it will build up the kingdom. I’m sure anyone who is part of a Church can think of a couple who’s marriage provides a firm basis for ministry, and someone for whom it provides a massive distraction.
Perhaps the more relevant question is not whether marriage per se will distract, but whether the marriage in question will build up ministry and kingdom building. A church that teaches its young people to “seek out their life partner” as if it is one of life’s most important functions is probably breeding a generation who’s ability to contribute post-wedding-day to ministry and kingdom building will be a matter of hit and miss. It will also encourage haste, again not a positive.
It is for this reason that I respect Soul Survivor’s “Celibacy until Marriage” message, because the emphasis is never on finding someone – only on being in a position to make the right decision if the opportunity presents itself. Above all else, it makes it clear that singleness, especially in later 20’s, is not a failure, and that marriage is not a life-goal, but rather a response to the right mix of opportunities: visions and vocations that can work together to outwork the kingdom.
I should point out here that I see no role for the state in sanctioning marriage – it is an action in the context of a loving community, not an imposing state seeking to rubber stamp certain relationships as appropriate to the functioning of economy and society. We can ditch the state’s role without ditching the church’s.
If Paul gives us the starting point on marriage, then Jesus words on the cross should point to the basis for family. The most forgotten words from the cross are probably those to James and Mary – the formation of a new family, and surely a reminder that every member of the church community is not only responsible for their fellow believer’s spiritual wellbeing, but also their physical wellbeing.
In a world where has been forced into a box and a wedge driven between spiritual and physical needs, its hardly surprising that churches utterly fail to create co-dependency amongst their congregations, refusing to build the new family and instead favouring a commodified, individualised faith that fits nicely around a middle-class atomised family life of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ and avoiding the perils beyond the bottom of the driveway.
What Jesus is doing is outworking his earlier teaching of the family, teachings that seem utterly at odds with anything many churches will teach today. Jesus words are not about quaint images of a mother cooking, nurturing and cleaning whilst a father is out working. They are of families being torn apart and betraying each other. The family is where we learn not just the seeds of love and community, but also for many where the lessons of violence and hierarchy are received [Wink, 2003]. In the book of Acts we see tales of “new families” being formed.
What this leads me to conclude is that churches should function more like complete families, with co-dependence and ability to share weaknesses – and to act as a replacement family for those who’s birth family is broken (too often the latter is neglected whilst attempting to push the former). This is perhaps especially clear when children and teenagers come from broken homes outside of the church – they are the responsibility of all, and must be parented as such. But it also continues on – forming shared community houses and sharing meals.
Paul’s image of “the body of Christ”, with all parts dependent on each other whilst having independent roles, should not be seen through the lens of a sacred-secular divide – an exhortation to preachers to tolerate musicians or administrators to tolerate creative-types who struggle with forms. It is to cover all aspects of life – a true family where strengths are brought to the fore, but everyone is taken care of, whilst seeking to realise a kingdom vision that extends beyond the simply spiritual.