It’s Time To Save Marriage – By Dethroning It From Its Place As An Idol

It’s tempting to think that we learn from history; we all like to think we’re wise and reflective and willing to learn. The truth is many of us don’t learn the lessons we need to; history repeats, as the poet Steve Turner wrote, because no one listens. It may not repeat with exactly the same words, but recognisable rhythms and cadences are there.

For example, there are Christian perspectives on sex, relationships, marriage and dating. In 1997 Christian writer and speaker Joshua Harris published the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, a book which advocated not dating to preserve emotional purity before marriage and a variety of steps which he at the time believed would lead to good marriage and a good sex life within marriage. No one doubted his intentions – and the book sold in vast quantities, becoming hugely influential in (evangelical) Christian culture. The problem is that it didn’t work; people became paralysed be fear of making mistakes in their relationships and they found that taking the steps he prescribed didn’t always have the promised outcome. One size, it turns out, does not fit all. This has led to a two-year process of listening, thinking and reassessing from Joshua Harris, which has resulted in him apologising for hurt caused and the book being withdrawn from publication. There’s much else to say, of course; and whilst his diligence is to be applauded, it’s true that apologies don’t necessarily fix what’s broken. However it would be hoped that we – the church  – had learned something important here.

In the last week a high-profile pastor from a high-profile American church published a blog about why people ‘put off’ marriage, and what they should do about. He (of course, he’s a he; and of course, he’s married) will follow this up with “practical steps for catching your man or woman“. He promises “God’s power will deliver you from any pain” and puts masturbation in the same (no-doubt) sinful category as co-habiting. We are made for marriage he says, paying-lip service to the possibility of a ‘supernatural gift from God’ of singleness. It all boils down to this; do this, get that. Do this and you’ll get a (very good) marriage. Do this and you’ll get the partner you dream of.

Again, no one doubts the intentions here, but let’s attempt to examine where this leaves people. It leaves the single with a set of things to do in order to guarantee a good marriage; the post may be replete with Biblical references, but there’s precious little reference to the gracious gifts of grace (not in response to works) God gives. And none of how life just happens; life getting in the way. Sin, sickness, failure. None of that – even people’s ‘blemishes are beautiful’; which they may be, of course, but it’s a somewhat romanticised way of describing someone with an anger problem or who habitually spends too much money.

answer blackboard board chalk

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The fundamental problem comes, it seems to me, with describing people (apart from the ‘supernaturally gifted for singleness’) as ‘made for marriage’. It sees marriage as something we have to do unless we have a clear calling otherwise. Amongst much else, it misunderstands the order of creation in the Genesis picture; God makes people, then He institutes marriage as a gift to them. Marriage is given by God to people, made to serve them; in that sense, it’s like the Sabbath, a similar misunderstanding of which Jesus had to tidy up. Marriage, like the Sabbath, is created by God to help and serve people in all manner of ways. It’s different from Sabbath in terms of where it stands in the 10 Commandments – Sabbath observance is a requirement from God (because we have a tendency to think work is ours to keep on doing and that our work earns us something from God); marriage is to be honoured by not committing adultery – but nowhere are we told we must get married. Just that if we’re married, we’re not to undermine it (through abuse, adultery or the like).

Two or three clicks away from the marriage blog post, I find a ministry founded by the author which seeks to be ” a company of radicals helping to define healthy sexuality”. It’s all well-intentioned; some of it may even contain good advice (I haven’t read anything like all the content on the site). The problem stems, though, from setting marriage as the goal we’re made for, and that we must have a special calling to not be married. This immediately suggests that the unmarried who have not received that ‘special calling’ are broken or in error or sinful in some way. The fault must lie with them; and God forbid they masturbate, or even think about sex in the mean time. It also says to the married couple struggling to keep the flame alive in the midst of children, bills to pay, ill-health or just the pressures of life that they too are broken and wrong, somehow short of God’s plan. The whole enterprise of human relationships and sexuality reduced to a slot-machine, a formula, a puzzle where you just have to put the right pieces in the right places.

Marriage (and the perfect, nuclear family) have become, in attitudes like these, the great evangelical Christian idol. I speak as a minister, much of whose theology might be defined as evangelical. I’m also married with (foster) children. Here’s the truth from that perspective. God doesn’t free us from all pain – I’m still chronically ill; my marriage is not perfect; every need can not be met by one relationship. I adore my wife and kids. But it’s very, very hard work. God will free us from all pain – in the new creation. For now, we all struggle and fight and sometimes get healed and sometimes don’t. I know from 19 years of pastoral ministry that many wonderful Christian people do all the things they’re told are ‘right’  – ‘guard the  heart’, keep a ‘pure thought life’, trust Jesus completely, do all the right things to catch a spouse. But they find it doesn’t work; unless they’re unusually well supported, loved and cared for, cynicism grows, love for God hardens and they drift away or tune out. Of course they do – wouldn’t you, if you gradually discover that the grace gift you thought you were looking at, made for, designed for, was in fact a carefully constructed golden calf?

To better preserve the gift of marriage and family that God has given us, it’s time for the church to dethrone it. To talk openly and freely about lust not being slaked by saying ‘I do’; by admitting that many who are married are lonely; that there’s no formula to finding the right person; that any area of our life is far more complex than the blueprint formula suggests. The longer I go on in this work, the more I find broken, hurt, saddened people fearing they are somehow incomplete without a spouse, fearing they are missing God’s ‘best for their lives’; laden with shame and fear for a sexual thought or deed because they are told that these are the worst possible sins (by men who consume far more than they need, lash out in angry words and thoughts, hold to casual racism or so much else – but remain curiously unchallenged).

Sin is sin. It’s a problem for us all; but in Jesus it’s dealt with. In Him there is no shame or guilt; yet our idolising of marriage and family and the sex we claim goes with it, leaves a trail of that shame and guilt that is rarely voiced and seldom heard. Let’s step away from the slot-machine systematisation of relationships with God and people; let’s listen to the still, small voice of God in and to those broken beneath the wheels of the Golden Calves the evangelical church loves to erect in the place of cross and empty tomb.

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The One About The Actress, The Prince And The Bishop

pexels-photo-261848.jpegIt won’t have escaped your notice that there’s a wedding on Saturday; one of the royal variety. A British prince is marrying an American actress and a lot of people are very excited about it. I’m not that bothered about it, to be honest – I’m neither royalist nor republican, and have no special interest in dresses or any of the other questions surrounding the big day. As a clergyman, however, there is one aspect of the whole thing that piques my interest, with which I shall make sure that I catch up at some point. The sermon. Clergy like checking out the sermon on a day like this, because it gives us the opportunity to do to someone else what we imagine goes on in the lounges and kitchens of our church members after every service; discuss the sermon. This was given an extra twist this week when the identity of the preacher was revealed; the couple have requested that the sermon be delivered by Bishop Michael Curry.

I’ll forgive you if his name means nothing to you. It’s true that he is an eye-catching choice; not because he’s American. That makes sense, what with the bride being American. That he’s a person of colour is perhaps more notable and welcome than has been discussed; but that’s not what I’m talking about. The issue is that the branch of the global Anglican church which he leads is on the theological naughty step for a while as a result of a decision it took (and which Bishop Michael supports wholeheartedly) to bless the marriages of same-sex couples. There were consequences to this, hence the naughty step – sitting out various meetings for a period of time.

Same-sex marriage is, to put it mildly, an explosive issue in the church these days; and people on all sides of the debate can’t help but read something into this decision; those who support same-sex marriage are delighted because this feels like a vindication. Those who oppose it are dismayed and feel he shouldn’t have been allowed to take part (ignoring the fact that in the UK, royalty outranks Anglican clergy and we have to do what we’re told). Those who oppose Bishop Michael’s presence were further enraged by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s warm statement about the news  – feeling that he should at least have taken the opportunity to highlight that Bishop Michael’s church was still in trouble.

I’ve never heard Bishop Michael preach, but everyone who says he’s pretty good at it – lively, Jesus-focussed and very passionate. I’m looking forward to checking out the sermon at some point for myself. However I find the reaction to all this disturbing – even if it is understandable. Many of us seem to think that preaching at such an event is and should be a political statement; and that this represents a not so implicit encouragement to those who support same-sex marriage. It may be that, I suppose; but what if it isn’t? What if the Archbishop’s statement was meant to be taken at face-value – that he’s pleased to welcome such a passionate and able preacher to such a high-profile occasion? What if it’s possible to disagree – deeply – with one area of a person’s theology, and yet still see that God can and does use that person?

Such a view is not regarded warmly by many of my fellow evangelicals; for many, the doctrine of marriage is a line in the sand. Change that, and we’re no longer appropriately faithful to Scripture, goes the argument. We must, it is said, take a stand on this. All this will look rather embarrassing for evangelicals if, as expected, Bishop Michael preaches up a storm at the wedding and points people to Jesus without even alluding to same-sex marriage. It’s almost as if some of my brothers and sisters are willing him to fail, to make some big mistake so that they can be proved right all along. I’m sure they aren’t doing so, but that’s how it can feel from here.

The inconvenient possibility for many of us is, though, that is may be rather less important to God than we think it is. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul didn’t seem too worried about the motivation of those preaching the Gospel – he just longed for Christ to be preached (Philippians 1:18). There’s no mention there of the details of doctrine; just the longing that Jesus is preached. Those opposed to same-sex marriage say that this is a matter of Biblical authority and interpretation; with which I agree, but I also say that this is true of every point of doctrine. As long as we’re not changing the crux of salvation, we’re free to differ. What if the Holy Spirit is big enough to use people with whom you and I disagree? What if we’re wrong? Do we hold to this so tightly that we can’t even entertain the possibility that we may be wrong? Will those angered by Bishop’s Michael invitation to preach rejoice if he preaches a Jesus-focussed sermon Saturday? I hope that he does, and that they respond appropriately.

Doctrine matters, of course. I don’t wish to suggest anything else; but over the years I’ve been in ordained ministry, I’ve been humbled to realise that God seems to bless the ministries of those with whom I disagree with alarming impunity. I hope I’m learning to rejoice in that. Knowing some of these people well has challenged my doctrine and my practice, and has put some previously closely held ideas more in their proper place. I still believe much the same as I always have done about Jesus and the cross and the empty tomb; on much else, I have my own views (some of them unchanged, some of them changed) but seek to hold them with humility and grace towards those different to me. The wind of the Spirit blows where it will; it’s not for me to dictate the direction or the force, but rather to pray and join in where I find the Spirit moving. Even if – and perhaps especially if – that means I find out that I’m wrong, or that something I felt was important is of less significance than I assumed.

So I will pray for Bishop Michael, and for all who listen to him on Saturday. That he through him, the wind of the Spirit might blow, and that many may make much of Christ. If that happens, I shall give enthusiastic thanks.

Shadow Sides 3: Hagar, used and abused

A series of posts looking at famous Bible people and how they’re a bit more like us than we may imagine.

We know that Abraham is a miracle father. He and Sarah are promised children in a seemingly impossible situation, and become parents at an absurdly old age. No wonder the son to whom they eventually give birth is named Isaac; it’s laughable if it’s literal. So laughable that little Hagar, a servant, is called into action. Sarah can’t see how the promise of a child is going to come true, so she suggests to her husband that he sleeps with Hagar to get her pregnant and become a second wife.

That may shock us, but it may perhaps be even more shocking to discover that the Bible doesn’t expressly condemn polygamy. Servants exist to be at the service of others, and Hagar’s life doesn’t appear to get any better; she’s used for her body parts and biological capability. Her body can do what Sarah’s can’t, and so becomes the classic female victim of a patriarchal society, passed from servitude to servitude because of her body.

She becomes pregnant, and then finds herself victimised by the woman whose idea this all was in the first place (Genesis 16:6). Even more unpleasant, God won’t let her run away somewhere safer (16:9). She can’t catch a break.

Or so it seems. This is where things starts to turn, and Hagar starts to get a glimpse of a the bigger picture. She is indeed to have a son. The description given of him in Genesis 16:11-12 doesn’t seem complementary, but the translation may be filtered through some misunderstandings. It speaks of him being the child who will stand out from the crowd, stand up and think and act independently.

In a moment of fleeing, Hagar’s been spotted by God, so she names the place for that truth (16:14). When you’ve been used because of biology, mistreated at the hands of the originator of the plan, being seen is significant. The see-er has seen past the obvious to who you are as a person, and the bigger picture of which you are a part. You are no longer just a womb; you carry within you the father of nations. God’s purpose through Abraham was always to do something for every nation; with Hagar and thus Ishmael in the picture, blessing will flow to what we now call the Arab nations. The conspiring, conniving abuse of the aged Jewish couple becomes the birth of whole nations.

What’s more, she’s the first to know. This won’t become apparent to Abraham (and Sarah) until much later. Isaac is born, as promised, and there’s no longer any need for Hagar and Ishmael – or so it seems to Sarah (Genesis 21). She insists that her husband sends Hagar and her son away; she can’t stand a reminder of abuse and unfaithfulness in her house. Out of sight, out of mind. Guilt encroaches on Abraham’s conscience, and it’s as he realises the extent of what he’s done that God steps in and sets his mind at rest. He may have used and abused a woman, but God will knit that into the birth of nations (21:12). In the economy of God, nothing is wasted.

Hagar is off into the wilderness again, this time sent away rather than running. She is hopeless to the point of death. At which point, the God who sees proves He is also the God who hears (21:17). Not for the last time in the Bible, water flows in the wilderness and hope is restored.

If you’ve been bullied, used, abused (and if you haven’t, then you’ll know someone who has been), then you’ll know how reductive is. You become an outlet for a person’s needs and whims. The book and film Room takes this to unforgettable lengths. A woman is kidnapped, given a life limited to one room – and used for sex whenever the captor wants it. This leads to a child, a son. When escape is eventually effected, the beauty of the boy doesn’t exactly eradicate the pain that’s an inescapable part of the family history, but it does harmonise it into something all together more remarkable. Which is the way of God; He doesn’t wipe evil out. He does something far more difficult, and much more creative – he takes evil, and weaves into the warp and weft of grace. He brings nations from a single cell.

Ever been astonished that someone who’s suffered can offer forgiveness? Ever been floored by the generosity of someone with very little – giving away something that is, in the scheme of things quite small but in reality is everything to the giver? This is grace, the work of God, writ small. God does it on the macro – at the extreme, taking the torture and murder of an Innocent and bringing redemption through it.

Have you been the bully, the abuser, the user? You need to repent. When guilt threatens to overwhelm, listen for the distant harmonies of grace that can be weaved. It doesn’t excuse you, but it does mean that your evil wasn’t the end of the story.

Bullied? Victimised? Used? Abused? It’s not the end. Let the master composer play a tune beyond compare.

Also in this series: 

Moses: frustrated and angry at God’s people

Paul: impure and limited

These posts are based on a series of sermons

A story

I often write here about stories. They could be films, they could be books, they could be parts of  my own story. It’s because I like stories. Stories are a fundamental part of human existence. We are the only beings on the planet with the capability of telling stories to one another. Stories worm under our defences, help us walk in another’s shoes, see something from a way we haven’t seen before.

Large parts of the Bible are in the form of stories – histories, parables, gospels. They burrow away with truths that detonate in our heart and mind repeatedly days, weeks, months, years after encountering them.

I’m increasingly of the opinion that the debates we enter into as Christians would be changed for the considerably better if we stopped and listened to some stories for a while. Stories take debates out of the abstract and into the everyday. They give a theory a name, an idea, a face, an argument flesh and bones. It’s much harder to use rude names when you’re confronted with someone with their own name.

I was born and raised and remain one of those Christians who broadly fit under the label evangelical. I’m also, in many ways, what you might call an evangelical of a charismatic flavour. I’m not going to explain what those labels mean for me, now: that’s my story and that’s a story for another time. Part of that story is, though, that I grew up with a conservative view of homosexuality. That view of homosexuality remained static over many years; more recently I’ve tried to take a walk round the issue and examine it from different perspectives. It occurred to me that I’d never really examined other points of view on the subject; I’d simply gulped one in with the air I breathed. That can’t be good. As I walked I’ve learned that there are many other stories out there. I’ve learned that there are people in churches of the flavour that I like, who are gay; and they’ve received the message that they’re vile, hated by God and detested. That they can’t love Jesus.

I haven’t finished my wandering around this subject. I can’t say where that wandering will finish, if it ever does. I’m don’t want to call all conservatives homophobes; neither do I want to accept any lifestyle or choice or practice unquestioningly. But I do need to listen. Wherever I finish my wandering, I want to commit to always listening to stories, and always listening well.

So listen with me, will you? And before you and I opine, call people vile or abominations or detested or not-Christians, let’s remember we’re not talking about ideas. We’re talking about a person Jesus died for. A name, a face, a history, a person for whom their sexual orientation is just one part. An important part, to be sure, but only one part nonetheless.

Let’s start by taking 10 minutes to listen to this engaging, humbling, disturbing story.

What, then, shall we say?

We need more stories like this, don’t we? Stories of Jesus and grace and cross and iron nails and visions on beaches. Jesus often seems to do important things on beaches, doesn’t He? Who am I to call this man vile? Who are you?

You’re not, you say. You say you’re just repeating what God says.

Well, Jesus had many hard words to say to those who claimed to speak for God, didn’t He?

What, then, shall we say?

Let’s find a better story.