Marriage and Family as Idols of the Church

Graham, thank you for starting this conversation on singleness in the church!

My husband and I were relatively new to married life when we began seminary, and I remember sitting in my Pastoral Care and Counseling class and hearing my professor remark that she wondered if the western church had made an idol out of marriage and family. At the time, as a newly married person, I laughed at that idea. The truth was, however, that I had never experienced the church as an unmarried person over a “marriageable age.”

Shortly before I turned 21, I was married. At 26 I had my first child. These all fell into place within the expectations of many people in the churches where I found myself.

It wasn’t until I began interviewing for church ministry positions that I realized the noticeable slant in favor of married ministers. And even better, we were married with a newborn child. I think there are several things at play that lead to preferencing married ministers, but for this conversation, I want to address two of them.

1. For churches in numerical decline, or churches longing for more young families and children in their midst, a married minister (preferably with a child or two, or more) seems to be step one in quickly fixing a perceived void in the life of the church. If a church has no children, but calls a minister with 2-3 children, suddenly there are kids in the church again.

Unfortunately, not only does quickly adding a child or two to the congregation not create needed adaptive change in which children are actually welcome in a congregation, but a minister who is married with a family may not be any better equipped to minister to young families than an unmarried minister with gifts for children’s ministries.

2. I’m not exactly sure when this began, but it seems to me that for quite some time, marriage has been viewed as a sign that someone has successfully launched into adulthood. Those who do not get married are often viewed suspiciously, as though there is something wrong or broken with those who remain unmarried. Women might be blamed for having too dominant a personality. Men might be viewed as not stepping up, as Alistair wrote about in his response. For men and women, remaining unmarried has also contributed to speculation about their sexuality.

Viewing marriage as the point when someone has “arrived” at adulthood is problematic in so many ways. Not only does it neglect the Apostle Paul’s discussion on the calling to remain unmarried (as Graham mentioned earlier), it also defines adulthood as something an unmarried person is unable to enter into on his/her own. This view of marriage is something that comes far more from the 1st century idea of the nuclear family as the building block of society than it does from Scripture.

I also want to say thanks to Alastair for challenging the language of “singleness.” I deeply appreciate the push for viewing the church as a new family, and that none of us should be “singles” even if we are unmarried.