The Idolatry of Family: Christianity and Singleness Part 2

12 February 2010

Christopher J Wiles

pastor | writer | speaker

Yesterday I lamented the way that singles are stigmatized within the Christian subculture. Among my whiny protests was the fact that prospective employers have turned me down for jobs based on the fact that I’m single.

Which kinda raises the question of whether or not this is lawsuit territory (Frankly I’ve been half-tempted to start a second blog that simply lists the names of churches and pastors who have turned me down in the hopes of shaming them into changing their minds).

Because this truly is discriminatory in the purest sense, because no other career field can use your marital status as a basis for employment, unless of course you’re applying to be a White House intern (cheap shot).

Ah…but that’s the real key issue, though, right? What are the proper credentials for working in full-time ministry?

See, for most people, they assume that applying at a church is the same as applying anywhere else. You put together a good-looking resume. Maybe even draft a cover letter. If you get to the interview phase, you put on your best clothes and try to put on a good impression. In this scenario, being “qualified” is determined on the basis of your education and experience.

Church? Not like that. No; instead of presenting your credentials, you’re presenting yourself. The church is more interested in your life story. Your convictions. Your personal “testimony” (churches like this are big on testimonies…but that’s another issue for another day…). And so if you’re presenting you rather than a resume, then it’s only natural that your family would have a significant role in the hiring process.

Now let me first say that I get that, and admittedly I’ve set up an unfair dichotomy between qualifications and character. Given the real threat of scandal within the church, I affirm the need to hire men and women whose character matches their resume.

But there’s a significant problem in the way this is carried out. Character is judged based solely on one’s marital status. Like we observed yesterday, marital status is often seen as a mark of spiritual maturity, and aging singles are often weeded out as being immature or incapable of handling the demanding role of Christian ministry.

These unfair (and unChristian) standards reveal something dangerous about the evangelical church, what I will simply categorize as “the idolatry of family.”

FAMILY FIRST

Idolatry is serious business. Pun intended.

D. M. Lloyd Jones defines an idol as

“…anything in our lives that occupies the place that should be occupied by God alone. Anything that… is central in my life, anything that seems to me…essential… An idol is anything by which I live and on which I depend, anything that… holds such a controlling position in my life that… it moves and rouses and attracts so much of my time and attention, my energy and money.” (D.M.Lloyd-Jones, “Idolatry” in Life in God: Studies in 1 John)

Within Christianity, morality often supplants the place of God. This is where the business end comes in. The average Christian bookstore (I hate that phrase…since when did “Christian” become an adjective?) is overflowing with books and pop-culture remedies designed to scratch us right where we itch (2 Timothy 4:3, gentlemen).

The end result is what I recently referred to as “justification by association.” Our spirituality is contingent upon our ability to conform to the idols set up for us by the Christian subculture. Christian radio? Check. Homeschooling? Check. Christian college? Check. Looking good in front of others? Oh, you better believe that’s a check.

And among these idols we have family.

Now don’t misunderstand me. Family is a good thing, and a precious gift of God. But it becomes an ugly, festering idol when we make it such a priority that God is not enough. Stephen Charnock observes that the problem with idolatry is not the idol itself, but the fact that when idolatry has its say, everyone “acts as if God could not make him happy without the addition of something else. …All men worship some golden calf, set up by education, custom, natural inclination and the like…”

To that list we may certainly add “family,” through which one is made complete. Whole. “When are you getting married?” “Are there any guys/girls in your life?” To this extent I doubt seriously that such idolatry is isolated to the Christian subculture, but part of a larger cultural demand for social conformity.

But the problem is more than simply this, because with idolatry comes boredom. Thomas Oden observes that “To be bored is to feel empty… To the extent to which limited values are exalted to idolatries…boredom becomes pathological and compulsive…”(Thomas C. Oden, Two Worlds: Notes on the Death of Modernity in America and Russia). So idolatry is in a constant, uphill battle of one-upsmanship.

In the idolatry of family, this means a continual lifestyle of pleasing others. You get married, sure. But the pressure doesn’t stop there. Now, “friends” (and I use the term in the same way you might call Job’s accusers “friends”) are tapping their watches reminding women that their biological clocks are ticking. It’s time to have a baby. And another. And another. Then, as the children age, there is the dichotomy of being a stay-at-home versus career mom – both of which have their detractors depending on the social circles you run in (as if there were superiority in one over the other rather than dignity in both). Then, once the kids are grown and in their teenage years, the cycle starts all over again, albeit vicariously.

AND THE JOB MARKET

So back to my employment woes (I’m my own favorite subject, by the way. You can deal.).

First, I can’t sue, at least not really. Churches are largely exempt from the hiring standards you might expect (whether officially or unofficially). Even if I could, would it really get what I want? A church that makes an idol out of marriage probably has enough golden calves sitting around to start their own petting zoo.

I’m admittedly a very calm, gentle person (perhaps to a fault), but on issues like idolatry God has also blessed me with a hint of a mean streak that’s about as pleasant as biting into tinfoil. I doubt significantly that I would fit into that kind of environment without turning over one too many temple table.

But churches will nonetheless insist on their small-minded standards to an unsettling degree. Since I wish to educate as well as entertain, I will address the two key arguments central to my employment woes.

Argument # 1:

“To speak effectively to people experiencing ‘A’, you must yourself experience ‘A.’”

In other words, if I want to speak to married people, I must myself share in the experience of marriage. It kinda makes sense; experience is often a good (though unforgiving) teacher.

But wait a second. I’m also (whether I want to or not) going to be speaking to people experiencing sexual immorality of every, unprintable kind. By the above logic, I should also experience these things. Yet strangely (and fortunately), no has ever suggested “fornication” as a job prerequisite.

Besides, why is it so important I speak about marriage anyway? This brings me to…

Argument # 2:

“Marriage is God’s plan. Most of the congregation is married. Therefore you must be equipped to address the issue of marriage.”

Ok. Jesus? Dr. Phil? Different.

Does the gospel speak to the subject of marriage? Of course it does; Paul addresses marriage in a significant way in letters to the Ephesians and Colossians (as well as other letters in the Greek Testament).

But the gospel is assuredly not exhausted in the subject of marriage. The church is about the gospel. The great commission (Mt 28:19-20) should be our first love, but like the church at Ephesus (Rev 2:4), it has been lost by any church that allows its focus on family to distract from living out God’s mission.

“STEREOSCOPIC VISION”

I borrow the phrase “stereoscopic vision”from Philip Yancey, (who himself borrows from St. Augustine’s language of a “heavenly” and “earthly” city) and suggest that our vision encompass both the world we live in as well as the world to come.

Family? It is an important institution of this world. But not the next. Jesus taught that “In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mt 22:30). While there is much more to come tomorrow, I close with a brief excerpt from John Piper’s book This Momentary Marriage (available for free by clicking here):

“I am not sentimentalizing singleness to make the unmarried feel better. I am declaring the temporary and secondary nature of marriage and family over against the eternal and primary nature of the church. Marriage and family are temporary for this age; the church is forever. I am declaring the radical biblical truth that being in a human family is no sign of eternal blessing, but being in God’s family means being eternally blessed. Relationships based on family are temporary. Relationships based on union with Christ are eternal. Marriage is a temporary institution, but what it stands for lasts forever. ….“Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel,” Jesus said, “who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29–30). Single person, married person, do you want children, mothers, brothers, sisters, lands? Renounce the primacy of your natural relationships, and follow Jesus into the fellowship of the people of God.”

12 February 2010

Christopher J Wiles

pastor | writer | speaker

Chris is a writer and speaker. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship and as a research writer for Docent Research Group.

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