Better to lose one part of your body than the whole body go to hell” — Church discipline, pastoral authority, and schism

church-disc

One of Jesus’ most extreme instructions to his disciples was this one in the Sermon on the Mount:

If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:29–30).

That was instruction to anyone committing adultery or even looking at a woman lustfully. Most Christians have tended to take this in the same way: figurative and for our individual bodies.

We usually read this as hyperbole, intended to make a point but not to be followed. Surely Jesus wouldn’t ask us to gouge out our eyes! I still have both eyes and both hands, despite the sins that have come by them.

But even if we take this as hyperbole, we dare not miss the point: avoid sin at all costs. Because sin leads to death, eternal death, hell. What’s worse than going through life without an eye or a hand? Losing your life for all of eternity—the whole body going into hell. And if willful sin persists, that’s our trajectory.1

This is usually where we stop when it comes to this passage, if we even make it this far, but I wonder if its application can be broader.

What if we read this in a different way: literal and for our corporate body—the church?2

It is better for you to lose one part of your (church) body than for your whole body to go into hell

The early church practiced this kind of instruction about cutting off parts. We see it from both Jesus and Paul.

Jesus’ instruction

Jesus instructed his disciples to cut people off, if necessary. For a “brother or sister” who sins, he gave a whole process for trying to turn them from their fault. The goal was restoration, not punishment! The last step: bring it before the church, “and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matt 18:17).

We know from his other interactions that Jesus didn’t treat pagans and tax collectors with scorn. He treated them with love. But he also didn’t treat them as “brothers and sisters” in the faith.3 He treated them as sick, as sinners, as those he was calling to be healed through repentance and faith.4

Paul’s instruction

Later, the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth. He was apoplectic.

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this?5

His final instruction to them was a quote from Deuteronomy, “Expel the wicked person from among you.” That line occurs seven times in the book of Deuteronomy, where my version translates, “You must purge the evil from among you.” 6 Seven repetitions—that’s enough to be taken seriously.

(A note for those who ask why the church should be so obsessed about sex, the passages we’ve looked at above were both about sexual sin. Sex is not, and should not be, our only issue. But it is one of the most prominent issues of morality in Scripture, which warrants our attention.)

On church discipline

It is better for you to lose one part of your (church) body than for your whole body to go into hell. This was part of Paul’s rationale in the situation above. He asked, “Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?” 7

When we tolerate outright sin in the church among “brothers and sisters,” we aren’t just doing them damage because we’re unwilling to have the hard conversation. We also risk potential damage to the whole church—devastating damage. We teach the church that we don’t really believe avoid sin at all costs. We treat sin not as our menacing enemy, but as a minor nuisance—or even less, as something we shrug off and tolerate.

When we tolerate outright sin in the church, do we risk the whole body being thrown into hell because one part caused it to sin? A little yeast leavens the whole batch.

John Wesley longed for preachers who “fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God.” 8 When we treat sin with anything less than fear, as anything less than cancer, we have treated it as too little. When we fear offense, impropriety or misperception more than we fear sin, we have treated sin as too little.

Brothers and sisters, we must flee from sin. We flee not just for ourselves, but for the sake of the whole body. A little yeast leavens the whole batch.

The Protestant Distortion

In the earliest Protestant tradition, the church was defined by three practices, as the community where (1) the Word of God is preached, (2) the sacraments are administered, and (3) church discipline is observed, all according to Christ’s institution.

We have largely abandoned the third part of that definition. This may be the logical end of Protestantism, at least in its cheapest form.

Where we have emphasized above all else the private reading and interpretation of Scripture, what place is left for church discipline? What place is left for anything but someone’s private reading and application of the Word of God? What authority does anyone else have to tell a Christian brother or sister that they’re in the wrong?

As we abandon the authority of the church and the authority of the pastor, no space is left for church discipline. Though I don’t believe my doctor is infallible—or in perfect health himself!—I generally trust him when it comes to my physical health. I give him authority to tell me where he sees problems in my health, to tell me where things look good, and even to prescribe new things for me.

Pastors today rarely hold that same kind of authority regarding people’s spiritual health. This isn’t to suggest a domineering relationship (just as our relationships with our doctors tend to avoid that extreme), but a relationship that recognizes the pastor as a spiritual authority, someone who should be expected to examine, diagnose and prescribe, as needed.

Instead, American religion today is more akin to that sad observation in the book of Judges: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” 9 That line makes Phillip Tallon’s remark in my interview with him especially interesting: “We’ve leaned hard into pastor-as-teacher, but while neglecting the authoritative element. Especially in Wesleyan circles, I think we’ve emphasized the pastor-as-prophet and pastor-as-priest, but overlooked pastor-as-king.” 10

How can we flee from sin when we give no one permission to name it? How can we help the church to flee from sin when we go on tolerating it in our midst?

If the church is a body, and if it is truly better to lose one part than for the whole body to go into hell, then we must restore the practice of church discipline.

On Schism

The largest form of this “cutting off” members of the body comes in the form of schism. This is an extreme form of church discipline.

We should avoid schism at great pains. Because God loves unity. Because Jesus prayed for unity among his followers. We demonstrate that unity most specifically at a common table, at shared Eucharist. When any church comes to the point that it can no longer share at the one table, schism has already occurred. All that’s left is the crying, and perhaps the lawyers.

We avoid this schism at great pains, but we cannot avoid it at all costs. Namely, we can’t avoid schism at the cost of tolerating sin. Because we must avoid sin at all costs, even at the cost of losing a member of the body.

In times of severe strife in the church, our best option is to compromise and be faithful to one another while we work for a way to reconcile. But this is a solution only if the presenting issue is anything less than sin.11 If a minority group believes they would have to sin to submit to the church’s authority, then they have no options but sin or schism. And they must not choose sin.

Similarly, if the dominant group in a church believes the other is willfully practicing or endorsing sin, they have no options but to condone the sin or expel the group12 (i.e. create schism). And they must not choose sin.

If we’ve come this far, let’s be honest about what’s happening. Each side believes the other is in sin or heresy. They’ve already stopped believing the other is truly Christian. They’ve stopped treating them as “brothers and sisters” and begun to treat them as pagans or tax collectors. Schism has occurred in spirit, only institutional trappings remain. In those cases, we would be better to acknowledge that schism and treat each other as pagans or tax collectors—but this in the best possible sense: not with scorn, but with love, gently but persistently calling the other to repentance and faith.

In marital counseling, I tell people that I’m biased toward reconciliation. I will go to great pains to avoid divorce. But I won’t avoid divorce at all costs. Namely, we can’t avoid it if there has been violence in the relationship (in the form of infidelity or abuse, in any of its varieties) and there’s reason to believe that violence will continue.

In the church, schism becomes necessary at the same point. We should take great pains to reconcile, even if it means tolerating anything less than sin. But when violence has occurred (in the form of infidelity to our mutual covenants or abusive behavior toward each other) and there’s reason to believe it will continue, it’s time to separate. In fact, a relatively amicable separation may offer the greatest hope for future reconciliation.

Postscript: A note on judging “outsiders”

The church in recent times (maybe always?) has done pretty well about identifying immorality “out there” among the pagans. This is exactly the opposite of what we see in the passages above. Paul specifically said that when he wrote about not associating with sexually immoral people he was “not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral… In that case you would have to leave this world.“13 He asked, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.“14

For those who don’t claim faith, we don’t judge. We go to them as they are. We love them as they are. And we gently but persistently call them to repentance and faith.

Some people don’t like the first part of that—they prefer to keep their distance, and perhaps hurl some stones. Others don’t like the last part—calling people to repentance implies that they’re sinners, which could be offensive and seem intolerant. Jesus did both without apology. If we have the same love for others as Jesus, then we will go and do likewise.

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  1. Many balk at this. “We all sin. We’re human!” First—by that very statement, you deny Christ’s humanity or his perfection. Be careful. Second—passages like 1 John 3:6 say the opposite: “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.” Third—see my article “Why I Love Wesleyan Theology” for more.
  2. I’m not suggesting that Jesus intended this statement for that purpose. But I am suggesting that it properly applies, as Jesus’ and Paul’s later words demonstrate.
  3. Unless they had come to faith, at which point they would no longer be pagans and no longer keep the unscrupulous practices of other tax collectors
  4. See Matt 9:12–13
  5. 1 Cor 5:1–2
  6. Deut 13:5; 17:7; 19:19; 21:21; 22:21, 24; 24:7
  7. 1 Cor 5:6
  8. From his letter to Alexander Mather on August 6, 1777
  9. Judg 17:6; 21:25
  10. emphasis mine
  11. I could also say “sin and heresy” here, but I’m allowing heresy to come under the broader umbrella of sin.
  12. assuming, of course, that they have first attempted to correct and restore them
  13. 1 Cor 5:10
  14. 1 Cor 5:12–13

In the Name of God, or Worship as Primary Theology

the LORDYou may notice that the Old Testament spells out “Lord” in all caps in several places. Other times, it uses “Lord” without the capitals. Why the difference? This is to represent a special word, the personal name of God: “jhwh.” The people of Israel considered this name so holy that they neither spoke it nor spelled it in full[1]—a sort of “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named,” but this out of reverence not dread.

This name has such significance throughout the Old Testament that when people do or say something important, they do it “in the name of the Lord.” The priests minister and pronounce blessings “in the name of the Lord.[2] The prophets prophecy and even call down curses “in the name of the Lord.”[3] David goes to battle against Goliath “in the name of the Lord.[4] And David, though he is king of a great and powerful military, writes songs about trusting in this name, not his military: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”[5]

Before we move further, let’s reconsider this word, Lord. When our Bible translations turn “jhwh” into “Lord,” it creates a different meaning for us. Most people who hear or read “the Lord your God” take it as two roles—Lord and God. This suggests something quite different than hearing it for what it is: God referring to himself by personal name. Because Jews refrain from speaking that name, they have used adonai as a popular substitution throughout history. Out of respect for that tradition and the Name of God, we’ll do the same here.

What’s in a name? Why does it matter that God should say, “I am adonai, your God,” and not simply, “I am your God”? God could even announce himself with more grand titles, “I am the Lord, the Creator, the King of all the Earth, your God!” Any of these titles command total devotion. So why “I am adonai”?

When we move from titles and roles to personal names, we change categories—from objects of devotion to subjects. A man named Martin Buber suggested that either we relate to others as subjects, as I and Thou, or we experience them as objects, I and It.[6] We speak about an object; we speak to another subject.

You’ve seen the ways that we treat objects and subjects differently. Doctors may speak about the diabetic patient being considered for surgery, an object of discussion. But when they speak to her as “Marjorie,” she becomes more. She becomes a real person, with a personal name. She becomes a Thou and not merely an It.[7]

And so God speaks to his people as adonai. A king is to be obeyed. A god to be worshiped. A deliverer to be praised. But someone with a personal name is to be known.

If we go only so far as to talk about God, to study God or think about what God must be like, we’ve done a small part of theology. If we go that far and stop, we may know about God as an object of study, even of devotion, but we will not know God, the Eternal Thou.[8]

Most “theological writing” can only do the objective work. It can serve only to point to God, to consider God in all his glory. It can help us to know more about God, a good and important pursuit, but a far lesser pursuit than real knowledge of God. For that greater task of theology, the church will help you more than any book.

In the church, we turn from speech about God and address the Eternal Thou in prayer and praise. In the church, we not only announce to each other God’s love, but we pray together, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” In the church, we not only proclaim God’s might, but we sing to God himself, “How great Thou art,” and “I’ll worship your holy name.”

When we worship and pray, we do primary theological work. All the rest––all the discussion about God––is secondary work. It can (and should!) enhance our primary work of worship and prayer. But it can never replace them.


Note: This is adapted from a larger piece I’m working on. It’s a portion I thought I could use your help with. I always enjoy hearing your feedback, but especially on this, I’d love to hear your thoughts.


[1] Thus no vowels. This is still the case for many Jewish believers today.
[2] Deuteronomy 21:5
[3] Deuteronomy 18:22; 2 Kings 2:24
[4] 1 Samuel 17:45
[5] Psalm 20:7
[6] See his brilliant book, I and Thou.
[7] As seen in Patch Adams (1998)––see the scene here.
[8] As Buber refers to God in I and Thou.

On the Myth of the Soul Mate

I don’t run guest posts on this blog. I occasionally point you to an article or interview I’ve found helpful, but that’s all. I’m breaking that rule for this post.

I’ve written occasionally––here and here, for example––about our theology of sex and sexuality, or a lack thereof in most of the protestant church. Those were, as I said then, only a running start.

Taylor Zimmerman is doing some of the best work and thinking that I’ve heard on these topics. He has helped me think with more depth and clarity about friendship, celibacy (or people who may instead call themselves unmarried or single), marriage and sexuality.  I think he’s accomplishing exactly what he names below as his goal: providing “a more cohesive, comprehensive and gospel-centered message about human relationships that the world desperately needs.”

I hope you’ll take the time to read and consider, and then share, what Taylor says below. For more from him, see his blog site. Taylor promises me more to come there on these topics.

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On the Myth of the Soul Mate

In The Symposium by Plato, Aristophanes begins a large discourse answering the question of Erotic love. Aristophanes tells a story of the origin of humans, that humans were created male and female together before Zeus split them in half. That is why, explains Aristophanes, a man or a woman must spend time seeking out their other half so that they might be whole again. He rather poetically writes:

Suppose Hephaestus, with his instruments, to come to the pair who are lying side by side and to say to them, ‘what do you people want of one another?’ They would be unable to explain. And suppose further, that when he saw their perplexity he said: ‘Do you desire to be wholly one; always day and night to be in one another’s company? For if this is what you desire, I am ready to melt you into one and let you grow together, so that being two you shall become one, and while you live a common life as if you were a single human, and after your death in the world below still be one departed soul instead of two — I ask whether this is what you lovingly desire, and whether you are satisfied to attain this?’ — there is not a man of them who when he heard the proposal would deny or would not acknowledge that this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of his ancient need.

Although Socrates later criticizes Aristophanes’ portrayal of love as finding one’s other half, it seems as though Plato might have had a word our modern culture is all too happy to receive––that we were created to be ormeant to be with our soul mate and now we must be constantly searching for this elusive man or woman who will satisfy all of our needs.

From How I Met Your Mother’s Ted Mosby who is constantly seeking out “the one” and praying to the Universe to provide her to him to Disney Pixar’s Lava Short where Uku, the volcano, has no one to love and almost dies without a romantic partner,1 we see this philosophy present in almost every form of popular media. Think even in our popular culture how we perpetuate this idea with our language and conversations. When a friend expresses his loneliness to us, we are quick to respond, “It’s okay! You’ll find someone soon!” or “Don’t worry! There’s someone special out there for you!”

When we say things like, “Wow, Susan [or Bobby or Steve or Mary] is so great! She is smart, kind, physically attractive and a great business woman! I wonder why she’s not married?,” we imply that Susan is incomplete and lacking love. Or worse, we imply that despite Susan’s great accomplishments and relationships, there’s ultimately something fundamentally wrong with her as to why she isn’t married.2

The cultural philosophy of having a “soul mate” is one that has slowly worked its way into the Church, creating perhaps even more devastating results. We have exchanged a more traditional, historically Christian understanding of sex, marriage, and love for our culture’s view (albeit while jamming it into our traditional forms). Now, the triune God wants me to be in a relationship (e.g. “God wouldn’t have put this in your heart to never satisfy it” or “God just gave me a word that you have someone special in your future“3).

www.christianmingle.com

This philosophy of romantic relationships is eroding our sexual ethic and crippling our witness to the surrounding world. In the words of Robert Webber, Evangelicalism has suffered an “evangelical amnesia” by forgetting its past.4 We have all the forms of our faith, yet very little of the deeper meanings.

When it comes to marriage, we understand that adultery is bad, porn is bad, marriage is good, and sex, well, we don’t really know how we feel about sex. Yet, we don’t really know why we believe this. We might be able to appeal to certain proof texts or a few principles we heard growing up, but we largely lack a robust, cohesive theological system to root our beliefs in. Thus, we end up creating our own meanings to these ancient beliefs about sex and marriage, and what we end up with is a sexual ethic that looks no different than the surrounding world’s, with just as many casualties.

Often our only draw to not engage in sinful behavior is to promote how great sex will be when you get into marriage. www.xxxchurch.com

In this essay, I will show how the protestant church’s shifting beliefs about erotic love have affected not only sexual ethics (including the common occurrence of premarital sex, pornography use, adultery, and divorce within our congregations), but also our interactions and ministry to/with LGBT persons in and outside of our church, our treatment of unmarried men and women (the “spares” if you will), and our support of the opposite-sex marriages within our churches. Yet what I ultimately hope to prove is that by putting marriage and sex in its proper and historically-Christian place, Evangelicals can begin to reorder other aspects of their theology and provide a more cohesive, comprehensive and gospel-centered message about human relationships that the world desperately needs.

The Shift

In a recent article for the Gospel Coalition, Trevin Wax lays out several arguments for why Evangelicals have been “‘holding the line’ on same-sex marriage while adopting virtually every other wrongheaded aspect of our culture’s view of marriage.” Wax argues that Evangelical marriage has been far more revisionist from the traditional Christian understanding of marriage than Evangelicals will readily accept. While Evangelicals are quick to affirm that same-sex marriage would change the fundamental definition of marriage, many are blind to the ways that they have appropriated the surrounding culture’s view of marriage with their large acceptance of no-fault divorce, birth control, and hyper-emotivism as the sole reason to marry.

Ron Belgau, a gay celibate Catholic and editor of Spiritual Friendship, remarked on his blog about this state of Evangelical theology. “From time to time, my friend Justin Lee––founder of the Gay Christian Network––and I give joint presentations about how Christians can disagree charitably and civilly about homosexuality,” Belgau writes, “Sometimes, someone who has seen our presentation will ask me why I think Justin ‘changed his theology’ to support gay marriage, while I stuck with conservative theology.”

In a somewhat surprising twist, Belgau admits that it was his own theology that changed. “I did not hold onto the theology of marriage I learned in Southern Baptist Churches growing up. If I had, I would support same-sex marriage. When I listen to Justin’s presentations, what I hear in his arguments for same-sex marriage is simply the logical outworking of the theology of marriage we both grew up with.” He concludes, “The connection between marriage and procreation––which is the most important basis for distinguishing between same-sex and opposite-sex marriages––was rejected if not mocked by Evangelicals who regarded the Catholic teaching on contraception entirely backward.”

Abigail Rine, who wrote the First Things article that prompted Belgau’s reflective blog post, described this Evangelical marital understanding. “While the ideal of raising a family is ever-present in evangelical culture, discussions about sex itself focused almost exclusively on purity, as well as the intense spiritual bond that sexual intimacy brings to a married couple. Pregnancy was mentioned only in passing and often in negative terms, paraded alongside sexually transmitted diseases as a possible punishment for those who succumb to temptation. But for those who wait, ah! Pleasures abound!”

So what is this Evangelical view of marriage that Belgau fled from and Rine and Wax lament? This syncretic view of marriage asserts that the deepest, truest love is erotic love — the love that exists between romantic partners. I like to call this pervasive philosophy Existential Romantic Dyadism. ERD is the wide-spread belief that there is one romantic partner “out there” for a person that will fully satisfy him or her on a deep existential level and is his or her raison d’Ítre. Once brought into the Christian realm, ERD synthesized with shoddy sexual ethics, lingering prosperity theology, and perhaps a little antinomianism to produce a litany of sexual issues within the church that, to be very frank, the least of which is same-sex marriage despite what many loud Evangelicals would have us believe.

Let’s look at some examples.

Perhaps one of the clearest ones is how our churches treat unmarried people within the church.5 Many people in our pews suffer from Noah’s Ark Syndrome — this strong desire to see all of your unmarried friends coupled off. We like to talk among ourselves about who is going to date John or who is going to be a good fit for Sue. We just want them to find love, we tell ourselves. It’s just harmless fun, right? Yet, inherent in this sort of system is the underlying philosophy that someone is incomplete unless he or she has a romantic partner. Thus, by attempting to couple up all of our unmarried friends, we’re disincarnating them and treating them as incomplete halves who need our guidance so that they can be just like us — married. It tells the unmarried in our churches that they will never truly be respected for who they are until they’re married.

But perhaps worse is the more corrupt version of this where instead of viewing an unmarried man or woman as someone to pity for their incompleteness, unmarried women are viewed as temptresses within the church who are dangerous to happily-married couples and unmarried men are seen as sexual deviants who cannot control themselves sexually and are sex scandals waiting to happen. It’s often difficult for unmarried pastors to find work because of this. Some evangelicals even argue that unmarried men are spiritually immature and shirking their call from the Lord to be Biblical men.

In that vein, ERD has exponentially killed our ability to love deeply in multiple relationships. Since the underlying philosophy behind ERD is that the person that I’m married to (or romantically involved with) is my soul mate/other half/existential satisfaction, then should I find myself sexually or romantically attracted to another person I must either cut off any contact with this person or actually pursue a relationship with this person because clearly I chose wrong. Adding onto the issue, if the created intent of human beings is to be in a romantic/sexual relationship, then the deepest intimacy must be sexual intercourse. Therefore, any relationship that begins with sexual feelings must end with a sexual act. Thus, for example, if a heterosexual man finds himself attracted to a woman, he cannot simply be friends with her. He must either cut off the friendship or choose to act on his sexual feelings because those feelings aren’t going away.

Ask any Christian about sexual boundaries, and you’ll begin to hear very rigid sexual ethics (i.e. “a man is never allowed to be alone in the car with a woman,” “married men cannot be friends with single women,” or “while married men can be friends with married women, they better not get too deep.”) and someone’s bound to bring up the unproven fact that Billy Graham never rode in a car with a woman (quick answer: you’re not Billy Graham).

This is partly out of a fear of how other people will perceive the relationship but also out a fear that a man or a woman might become sexually attracted to someone they are not married to. If sexual attraction doesn’t go away and we must either cut the relationship off or consummate it, should the man or woman decide to cut off relationships, this tragically leaves couples with shallow friendships or no friendships at all. Should the man or woman decide to consummate the relationship, marriages might end in divorce because they “fell in love with someone else” or “someone else was ‘the one’.”

There’s obviously a ton more we could say about this including prize language to describe women (e.g. “Winning” the race to find love), purity culture, and much more. I will end, however, with perhaps the most devastating (at least in this writer’s opinion) result of ERD within our churches and that is the denigration of friendship.

Classical friendship used to be a big deal in the history of humankind. Aristotle spoke of the friend as one who is “intertwined with one’s own soul.“6 Cicero described friendship as an “agreement in things human and divine, with good will and charity.“7 St. Aelred of Rievaulx wrote, “Though challenged, though injured, though tossed into the flames, though nailed to a cross, a friend loves always.“8 C.S Lewis described friendship as the relationship that “is born at the moment when one man says to another “What! You too?“9 Of course, Scripture also affirms this high view of friendship where Proverbs 17:17 describes the nature of a friend as one who “loves at all times” and Christ, when speaking to his disciples exclaimed, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

http://www.artofmanliness.com

To the ancients (and mostly throughout Church history for that matter), friendship was often seen as the highest of all the loves. To love someone who was not your family member or your marital partner in a disinterested fashion (without some ulterior motive or obligation) was seen in many ways to be far more pure and far more altruistic than any other love.

It’s unfortunate then that in our contemporary world we have largely disregarded the role of friendship. We view friendship as something that might be nice to have but is in no means necessary to us. Friendships rarely if ever make it on the priority list for us. We want a great job, a nice house, a spouse and 2.5 children, but friendship, well, if I never have a close friend, it’s no real loss. With the prevalence of ERD, if you recall, erotic love is the superior love that no other love can match. Well, if we believe that our romantic relationships will always succeed our friendships in intimacy, then we subject our friendships to superficiality or perhaps worse, don’t bother to get to know anyone on a deeper level at all.

Perhaps the clearest, most tragic indicator of this is in a series of studies done by sociologists from the University of Arizona and Duke University. Researchers found that while in 1985, the modal number of confidantes for American adults was three, the modal number of confidantes in 2004 was zero, “with almost half of the population (43.6) now reporting that they discuss important matters with either no one or with only one other person.“10

All of this leaves us isolated. We feel incomplete if we have no spouse. We feel like we shouldn’t feel incomplete if we do have a spouse. We wonder if we married the right person or if the right person got away. And if we’re gay and trying to remain faithful to the Church, we are ostracized, isolated, and without meaningful intimacy of any kind.

So where did we go wrong? And, more importantly, how can we fix it?

When Did We Lose Our Way?

Although our culture says that marriage is primarily about two people who love each other, in Marriage, A History, historian Stephanie Koontz describes the only recent belief that marriage is for love. “In this Western model, people expect marriage to satisfy more of their psychological and social needs than ever before… Individuals want marriage to meet most of their needs for intimacy and affection and all their needs for sex,” Coontz writes. “Never before in history had societies thought that such a set of high expectations about marriage was either realistic or desirable…The adoption of these unprecedented goals for marriage had unanticipated and revolutionary consequences that have since come to threaten the stability of the entire institution.”

According to Coontz, historically, marriage was predominantly an economic and political institution and many cultures actually criticized marrying for something as “irrational as love.” George Bernard Shaw described the state of modern marriage quipping that marriage brings two people together “under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive and most transient of passions. They are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal and, exhausting condition continuously until death do them part.“11 Political philosopher Ryan T. Anderson speaks about contemporary marriage as “the adult relationship of my choice” centered around the emotions and self-actualization of the adults in the marriage. However, according to Anderson, the reason the government has historically been involved with marriage is not on behalf of the adults but rather for the sake of the children. The reason why marriage must be exclusive, involve one man and one woman, and be permanent is for the benefit and well-being of the child.

And this is very consistent with traditional Christian theology. St. Augustine wrote “For they are joined one to another side by side, who walk together, and look together whither they walk. Then follows the connection of fellowship in children, which is the one alone worthy fruit, not of the union of male and female, but of the sexual intercourse.“12 The Catechism of the Catholic Church states “the matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring.13

According to Christian tradition, the greater purpose of marriage and the sex act is not solely pleasure, is not solely companionship, and is not solely about the emotions of the people involved but rather is primarily oriented around procreation and the care of children. Holding this definition of marriage at the center of any theology of marriage and sexuality then makes everything else fall into place. Therefore, sex before marriage is sinful not because one should save herself for her spouse and be pure on her wedding day but, rather, because it is the covenant of marriage that protects the child. Divorce is sinful not just because it is antithesis to Christian love but also because it harms the child. Same-sex marriage and same-sex genital sexual behavior are not sinful because God thinks that gay people are icky or that gay couples are trying to destroy the family (on the contrary, they frequently want families) but because their union can never naturally be open to the vocation of child-rearing.14

Under this traditional Christian view of marriage, marriage is not the highest expression of love but is rather a loving relationship that has a vocational purpose. Where ERD says that a person must seek out his or her other half to be complete and loved, the conjugal view of marriage argues that marriage is far from that important. It serves a purpose, it is an expression of love, and it does reflect the self-sacrificial love of the trinity, but it is also one good among many — one vocation among many.

What does this mean then? It means that the problems I mentioned earlier with ERD can be put in perspective. For the unmarried men and women in our churches, they are not halves or spares seeking out their significant others to be made whole, but rather are whole persons in themselves. Instead of wishing that so-and-so would get married because he or she needs to find love, we can rather celebrate the friendships this person already has and already receives intimacy from. If also the deepest of intimacy can be experienced in a non-sexual way (contrary to ERD but very pro-Christian), we need not fear experiencing sexual attraction. We are not given two options regarding our sexual attractions––flee or consummate––but rather we can intimately love despite our sexual attractions, pursuing a chaste relationship without consummating it sexually.

But perhaps most importantly, this proper view of marriage allows us to have deeper, more fulfilling relationships with our friends. As stated previously, friends through the history of humankind have served the need of intimacy (until very recently). There’s a reason for this. God did not create us to be in dyads. He did not create us to couple off and be satisfied in human intimacy with just one person. We were created as multifaceted human beings; therefore, it stands to reason that one would need deep friendships and multiple ones at that. Again, in his book on love, C. S. Lewis writes it so eloquently when he says:

In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s [Tolkien’s] reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him ‘to myself’ now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald… In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious ‘nearness by resemblance’ to heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each of us has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ to one another (Isaiah 6:3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall have.

Lewis argues that two people cannot truly satisfy one another (a fact that most couples tragically learn into their 3rd or 4th year of marriage after they’ve walked away from deep friendships). There are simply going to be things that one person cannot provide for another person. It is in this friendship relationship that Christians most demonstrate the beauty of the Gospel in that their love for one another is disinterested (in that it doesn’t rely on the special interests of one party) and is deeply cruciform. In a friendship, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and to be known by another.

Friendships provide us with intimacy and love. If they are spiritual friendships, they reflect the love of our creator via our neighbor. Friendships not only challenge us to grow, but they support us with guidance, safety, and love. The woman who goes it alone is not the more free because she is unhindered by the people in her life but rather, she is severely handicapped, unable to love her neighbor and thus love her God. But for the person who is surrounded by deep, loving friendships, this is a servant who is doing the will of the Father.

Our Way Forward

It’s not enough to simply critique the current state of life — suffering under the current cultural regime and lamenting that the Church just isn’t good enough. Identifying problems is easy, and often becomes a means to avoid doing the real work of changing the culture. Eve Tushnet in an article on lay celibacy has this to say, “The fact that our churches so often fail in their communal eschatological witness doesn’t excuse you from your individual eschatological witness.”

The real work comes in opening one’s eyes to unBiblical systems within the church today and challenging a lot of the deep presuppositions about our relationships. For Christians, it means investing more deeply in our friendships. It means inviting people over for dinner regularly to socialize. It means making yourself emotionally vulnerable with a few people on a regular basis (small groups anyone?). It means inviting your friends on a family vacation, opening up your home for people that aren’t in your family to live with you, and it means loving people even (or especially!) when it’s uncomfortable.

I aspire to have a Church where unchurched people don’t ask, “What makes you different than me?” but rather, when acting in holy love, the Church is perceived like the Early Church where unchurched men and women look at us with unrighteous disdain. “Why are those people living together?” “It’s really weird how deeply you love that man or woman.” “Why are they all so close?” I aspire to have a Church where we can give rest to the heavy laden and all come together to the table where there are no tables for one, there are no tables for two, but rather, we all have a seat where we feast with one another at the Lord’s wedding banquet.

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  1.  For a fuller treatment on this, check out my longer blog post about it.
  2.  We do this with men, too. However, where women get accused of having something fundamentally wrong with them, men get accused of immaturity and laziness.
  3.  While I have no doubt that God could give a person a prophetic statement on anything including one’s romantic prospects, I personally find this version especially troubling as I hear this quite a bit, and I’m a vowed celibate man.
  4.  Webber, Robert. Common Roots: The Original Call to an Ancient-Future Faith
  5.  There’s a great conversation to be had here about what language is appropriate to describe this group of people that is not married. In many ways, I loathe the word “single” simply because there are no single people in the Kingdom of God. Too often the word single is associated with solitude and loneliness, and this word is often used to draw lines between those who have won and those who haven’t. Colloquially, we use the word single to mean someone who is alone and someone who has no connections with another human being. I’m in favor of using the word “celibate” more often because it describes a positive vocation, does not imply a lack of relationship, and is historically Christian. This word can also be used to describe someone who is divorced or is separated from his or her spouse for one reason or another as it describes their current sexual behavior and spiritual practice. Unfortunately, celibacy carries an odd social baggage which might prevent it from catching on. While I also have issues with the word “unmarried” because it describes a person by what he or she is not, I will use it for the rest of this essay.
  6.  Pangle, Lorraine Smith. Aristotle and the Philosophy of Friendship
  7.  Cicero, Marcus Tullius. De Amicitia
  8.  St. Aelred of Rievaulx. Spiritual Friendship
  9.  Lewis, C.S. The Four Loves
  10.  Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and Mathew E. Brashears, “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades,” American Sociological Review 71 (2006)
  11.  As quoted in John Jacobs, All You Need Is Love and Other Lies About Marriage
  12. Augustine. Of the Good of Marriage
  13.  CCC 1601
  14.  For the sake of time and writing space, I’m leaving out quite a bit more that I could say on this. No doubt some readers might ask questions about barren couples, adoption, etc. For a really good treatment of this, I recommend the book What is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert George. These authors really parse out the conjugal view of marriage and answer the frequent objections.