We are currently working through a series at Hope in Exile that examines the modern American Evangelical views on singleness, marriage, and the family. The first post of the series was a brief overview, and can be viewed here.
The second post was on my own story, and the story of others who have been “alone on Valentine’s”. Those stories revealed that certain views the church holds can be alienating to singles, and might overemphasize marriage. You can read that second post here.
The third part of this series examined the idea behind the nuclear family, and especially asked if consumerism, as opposed to unity in Christ, might be the major factor behind this overemphasis. You can view that post here.
The series has two major conclusions:
- The Church has wrongly viewed itself as a voluntary association whose ultimate allegiance is at times to the nuclear family, headed by a married couple.
- Our ultimate allegiance is to God, in Christ, through the fellowship of the Church, by the Spirit of God.
This post marks my turn from the problem (overemphasizing marriage) to the solution (a right understanding of our Triune God and His people the Church). Marriage is an incredible witness to the Gospel, but it is not the goal of human life. It can be part of life, but must be held in the light of God’s desire for His own people as His Bride. As we will see this decenters understandings of marriage and the family that we might assume correct.
The Most Important Institution on Earth
The modern American Evangelical churches’ hearty embrace of the modern conception of family is inadequate in light of a Triune understanding of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom in history. “The family is not God’s most important institution on earth,” says theologian Rodney Clapp. He is willing to do so because of his reading of the story of Israel and Christ. This story centrally concerns the obedience of faithful individuals-in-community and their reliance on God. While marriage is an important part of this story and can be an expression of faith, it is not the central element of Israel’s creation and calling. Instead, we should see the Exodus event as constituting Israel’s creation. When we reflect on the Exodus event we recognize that non-Hebrews left with the people they had enslaved (Exodus 12:38).
God formed a people for Himself in the Exodus and along with the Church they are the most important institution on earth.
Outside of blood/kin relationships, a slave people and some of their masters move out of Egypt, covenanting with God for their survival in the world. Marriage and the family were not a central element of this covenant; the covenant could be kept by anyone through obedience. The story of Christ continues this formation of God’s people. He forms his group of disciples not around familial lines, but obedience to God’s word. Jesus de-centers the concept of family. For Christ, family is not about biological or social association (think about what he says about being “sons of Abraham”), but in those who have encounter him as individuals and join his community through repentance and baptism, declaring commitment to Him and His community. Let’s now examine that encounter between Christ and the individual.
Christ Mediates Marriage (and Everything Else)
I love Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I recently told a friend that when I get to heaven, after probably a “century” or two of just staring at Jesus, I am gonna go talk to Dietrich about life.
In his book “Discipleship”, Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the encounter between Christ and the individual believer. When Christ calls a person, he asks that their natural ties to reality be broken so that He would be the mediator (the intervening person, interpreting reality) or them: “He wants to be the medium; everything should be seen only through him. He stands not only between me and God, he also stands between me and the world, between me and other people and things.” Discussing Luke 14:26, Bonhoeffer goes on to say, that if the immediate demands of marriage or family keeps the individual from having Christ as their mediator, between them and the world, then those demands must be hated.
Individuals, with their reality mediated through Christ, are then called into the community of God; they “enter discipleship alone, but no one remains alone in discipleship. Those who dare to become single individuals … are given the gift of church-community” says Bonhoeffer. The individual who is willing to give up their family-community receives back the church-community. Bonhoeffer’s words excellently describe the individual’s encounter with the Kingdom reign of Christ, but need further explication as to how the church is constituted as the new family of the Triune God, which I will get to in my next post.