Marriage and Family: a radical theology?

Tuesday, 5th October 2010 at 23:39 UTC 13 comments

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 Experience shows that all to often, the Church simply replicates the isolationist values of the most uppity, withdrawn parts of secular society, focusing on a few laudable values and missing the bigger picture entirely.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.


Entry filed under: Church, Community, Faith, Religion, Theology.

A reaction to Ed’s speech Tazers: In the public interest?

13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Chris  |  Wednesday, 6th October 2010 at 8:38 UTC

    Not quite relevant (though I guess it still ties into Chirch perspectives); what’s your view on gay marriage?

  • 2. cathi  |  Wednesday, 6th October 2010 at 8:40 UTC

    With you til the end bit – if church functions like close family the dangers are first, too clear a demarkation between in and out, which in this age of faith outside the church doesn’t make sense; and secondly a christian’s time totally taken up with the church family and no time left to be salt and light. Perhaps it is different if church is your only family but for a busy working family there is little spare time for anything other than work and children so not helpful to the kingdom if that precious spare time is all taken up with the church

    • 3. Graham Martin  |  Tuesday, 12th October 2010 at 14:36 UTC

      First, apologies for leaving this thread unanswered. These are certainly major issues, and there are no short answers – do we look like Salt and Light if we don’t demonstrate radically different relationships inside the church to outside it? Is it OK for the church as a family to accept that some of its members are working such long hours, and how do we lighten the load?

      How do we maintain an outward looking community, particularly given many Christians are not living in the deprived areas of their cities, and never open their home to strangers, some for very genuine reasons.

      One question I would throw back, though: how many of these families are sharing the load with the kids? Could others within the church be providing child-minding? I wouldn’t want to go down the road of hippy communities where children pretty much forgot which were actually their parents, but I benefited hugely from a fair dose of moving between church families’ houses, and the other result was that Mum spent a lot of time being able to make contact with people.

  • 4. Greg  |  Wednesday, 6th October 2010 at 11:36 UTC

    We should marry “only if really necessary”? Whatever happened to “It is better to marry than burn with passion”? I also have some quibbles with your broad brush of “the conservative church”, as if there was ever such a monolith, but I do basically agree with you about the theological significance of marriage. There are some funny ideas going around some Christians’ heads on this subject, but then that doesn’t make us different from anyone else.

    As for the state’s role, I’m afraid I disagree completely. You talk about “imposing” – what on earth is “imposing” about something that is voluntarily decided between two people? Without state recognition of marriage, how do you propose to protect the rights of unpaid carers (usually women) in a marriage breakdown without a legal recognition that the earning spouse has shared everything they (usually he) has with them? Paul’s words on divorce in the same chapter (1 Cor 7) were precisely because the state’s laws were too liberal, leading to wives being cast aside.

    I’d also not be so quick to “utterly” trash the church. Yes, there’s a massive amount of work to be done but no, the churches haven’t “utterly” failed; there are plenty of ways in which they have supported and do support each other, have prayed and do pray together and have been there for me when I’ve needed that. Unless you’ve been a member of every church in the country, how about being a little less quick to judge, especially if it involves having gratuitous dig at the middle classes and resurrecting a ‘1950s stereotype’ that only exists in the minds of some activists. Don’t do that next time, use the time you save by putting more into your cell group.

    • 5. Graham Martin  |  Tuesday, 12th October 2010 at 15:00 UTC

      Some of us can control the passion just enough we don’t burn up! /sillyness

      The conservative church may not form a monolithic bloc, but its messages and their impacts on young people both outside, and more especially inside, the church do have a very similar effect.

      The legal argument is far too big to discuss here, but I am in favour of ending the role of the church in state marriage none-the-less, much as I’m very glad the church no longer performs the function of registering births and acting as a gateway to government services. What about ways of legally tying non-marriage relationships together? The churches have utterly failed in the sense that all they have done is become the conduits for state ordering of personal relationships.

      And as to the 1950’s stereotype, perhaps its not just activists I’m hearing about it from? If people trust you to listen their concerns, you might well hear that its something many women get stressed about.

  • 6. Heather  |  Wednesday, 6th October 2010 at 12:12 UTC

    Interesting ideas Graham. I don’t know much of the time if I agree or disagree with your comments but one thing that is clear is that there seems to be, in much of Church society, (regardless of denomination) a warped view on the ‘need’ for people in Church comminities to get married and thereafter what marriage should entail and how that integrates back into the society. It would be good to look back at the bible to go back to basics to persue a greater understanding of marriage (and it’s place in community). I am glad you have brought the subject up, as I think a lot of people in Church communities can and will often follow the tradition of their church communities with regard to marriage rather than asking what is right for them, for God, and for their future and community.
    Don’t know if this rambling makes any sense, but there we go.

  • 7. Joe  |  Wednesday, 13th October 2010 at 0:35 UTC

    The church is hung up on sex; it never could deal with the strong sex drives of younger singles. There are sins, but a young woman having sex outside of marriage seems to be the greatest sin of all. So the church pushes early “marriage” as the solution. But as Heather pointed out above, marriage may not be right for all or even for the majority of single people in their church community. And not everyone desires to have a family. This “one size fits all’ solution actually contributes to failed and miserable marriages. The church is quick to offer marriage counseling in such situations, but is blind to acknowledge that its push of marriagemay actually contribute to the need for counseling. The church provides no other option other than celibacy. The celibacy option may work for awhile for teenagers, but all bets are off for young adults in their 20’s. Any man that claims to have the “gift of celibacy” is nothing more than Christian speak for saying he is “gay” Basically, he has announced to the church community that he is not interested in women. So the option of marriage may not be appropriate for all and the option of celibacy may not be realistic because it can merely set up young Christians for a life of sexual frustration and failure. Unfortunately, the church has no answer and hopes that unmarried people eventually leave the church and go their separate ways.

    • 8. Graham Martin  |  Wednesday, 13th October 2010 at 11:14 UTC

      “Any man that claims to have the “gift of celibacy” is nothing more than Christian speak for saying he is “gay” Basically, he has announced to the church community that he is not interested in women.”

      I do find this somewhat offensive – and also unhelpful. I know many men and women who have chosen to remain single. Some have married in later life so setting this up to be a permanent state of affairs is damaging for then. Some have been interested in women but have very felt the need to stay single because of whatever role they have assumed (Dr John Stott if I remember rightly was very open about being in this category as he moved around teaching and preaching so much). You are basically tying lack of interest in women to interest in men. You’re also taking a very male-centric approach to marriage/relationships. What about women who decide to stay celibate? Are only women allowed to stay celibate without people spreading rumours about them and trying to arbitrarily out them?

  • 9. Joe  |  Thursday, 14th October 2010 at 0:55 UTC

    Paul set it up as a permanent state of affairs. He said that some individuals have the “gift of celibacy” and others don’t have the “gift of celibacy”. He didn’t say you can have the “gift of celibacy” this month, then next month don’t have the gift, but the following month again have the gift. Yes, I’m tying lack of interest in women to interest in men or lack of interest in both women and men. Women who stay celibate may very well have a lack of interest in men. Finally, its quite possible the church’s teaching about the “gift of celibacy” may be incorrect and warped.

  • 10. Greg  |  Thursday, 14th October 2010 at 22:17 UTC

    So Joe, after saying that marriage isn’t right for everyone, you basically say that if someone doesn’t achieve a sexual relationship with someone, they’re gay? Surely that’s inconsistent, it’s you who limit people’s options for relationships, because you remove celibacy as a genuine choice.

    As for the church being hung up on sex, you’re the one who speculates on people’s sexuality if they’re not getting any! I think that says it all, really. Christianity differs profoundly with modern society on a number of issues, the shrill response when the issue is sex just goes to show that it’s society that really holds the obsession.

    • 11. Tom  |  Friday, 15th October 2010 at 17:29 UTC

      Completely with Greg on this one.

  • 12. Keith  |  Saturday, 16th October 2010 at 20:17 UTC

    Can I put a shorter version of this in Pinch for this issue? It fits the theme nicely.

    • 13. Graham Martin  |  Monday, 18th October 2010 at 13:46 UTC

      Apparently I had to approve this comment before answering. Yes, you certainly can, though would be nice to see the shortened version first.

      For those who don’t know – Pinch of Salt is a journal of Christian/Anachist thinking, and has existed at various levels for several decades.


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