I wrote this essay a couple of weeks ago for my theology class, by chance one of the last assignments in my Master’s program. I recognize that it’s a bit longer than the usual post, but decided to go ahead because I believe the topic is one worthy of (much) further discussion. Far from holding the last word, it’s my firm opinion that this doesn’t come close to answering all the questions I have; for one thing, I’d like to know what, if everything I say below holds true, the place of biological family and marriage within the family of God. But maybe at the least it can start good conversations.
In 2006, Boundless magazine (a Focus on the Family publication) conducted an interview with Michael Lawrence and Scott Croft, two then-active leaders at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. The subject was sexuality, dating, and marriage among young Christians. In their ministry to young men, they discovered that a large number were not interested in pursuing marriage, but still engaging in sexual behaviour with the women they were dating. Ultimately, Lawrence and Croft’s concern is not just that sex ought to be practiced only in marriage, but that marriage itself is mandated for all human beings. Says Lawrence:
I think it’s understood to be the norm for all men and women — marriage is not just a Christian institution; marriage is a common grace institution. Marriage is something that God created for all men and women, and it continues to apply after the fall in much the same way that it applied before the fall so that the norm for us as human beings is marriage.1
These ministers further see celibacy as only a rare calling, one that is meant to be taken seriously and seen as a sacrifice rather than as “spiritual cover for the lifestyle that [young men] have chosen.”
They are not alone. Christina Hitchcock identifies these ideas as the primary ideology of the Marriage Mandate Movement of recent years, and finds them congruent with the contemporary secular American view of sexuality: if you are sexually active, you are fully expressing your human autonomy and therefore fully human. Evangelical Christians may attach it strictly to marriage, but, Hitchcock asserts, the effect is the same. It is how marriage becomes a mandate rather than a choice.2
In contrast to this is the view of another prominent evangelical: Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. In an interview with Christianity Today, Moore comments that
When we value the family above God’s kingdom, we actually end up destroying what we think we’re upholding…The starting point is to stop seeing the church as a voluntary organization full of isolated families who drive their minivans together once a week. Instead, we should see the family imagery in Scripture as more than mere imagery. As part of God’s family, we really are brothers and sisters, not just friends or co-laborers.3
The family imagery he mentions is indeed more than mere imagery; it is something we have to take in earnest. When Jesus is told that his mother and brothers are waiting to see Him, He responds: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (Luke 8:19-21) He also asserts that marriage is not something that exists in the new creation. (Matthew 22:23-33) The apostle Paul, seeing us living in the new creation’s shadow, advises in 1 Corinthians 7 that all relationship statuses can be lived to the glory of God, whether married or not. While the biological family is still good and has a place in our lives, the Bible seems to view the gathered people of God as the new model of ‘the family.’
How can the evangelical church recover this scriptural theology and leave aside this apparent idolatry of the nuclear family as a mandate for all people? I believe that theology is best learned when it is lived, and that what we live and practice is ultimately what we truly believe. We can recover our sense of the Church as God’s family when, as a gathered community, our worship engages our senses and points them towards that goal—and the best sensory engagement we have in worship is the liturgy of sacraments.
James K.A. Smith argues that “We are embodied, affective creatures who are shaped and primed by material practices or liturgies that aim our hearts to certain ends, which in turn draw us to them in a way that transforms our actions by inscribing in us habits or dispositions to act in certain ways.”4 This happens outside of the Church as well, but it is also a feature of our worship. Liturgy forms our imagination, and it is with our imagination that we see and interpret the world.
Which doesn’t mean that teaching is discounted; indeed it forms an important part of our Protestant liturgies. The Orthodox tradition sees it as a sacrament in itself alongside the public reading of the Bible: “The proclamation of the Word is a sacramental act par excellence because it is a transforming act.”5 Preaching the Bible involves telling each other the story that narrates our identity and that gives context to our rituals such as baptism, the Eucharist, and even marriage.
We can also find that these rituals are instituted and governed by the idea that the Church is God’s family. Baptism, for example, is scripturally tied to the idea of being born. Jesus, after His resurrection, commands the disciples to make more disciples from all the nations “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” in what is normally called the Great Commission. (Matthew 28:16-20) The language of this command bears a resemblance to the Creation Mandate of Genesis 1, when God commands human beings to go into all the earth and multiply. The Church is told to do the same thing—but now the multiplication is of followers rather than babies, and through baptism rather than procreation. Jesus in John 3 explains to Nicodemus that “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” The apostle Paul further sees baptism as joining ourselves to Christ’s death and resurrection: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3-4)
This language of procreation—being born; new life—is what the New Testament uses to describe entry into the Church and the kingdom of God. Smith describes baptism as “a rite of initiation into a people that at the same time effects the constitution of ‘a people,’” that “is situated in the context of gathered worship because it announces a social and political reality…As a sacrament, it makes what it promises: a new person and a new people.”6 Our life as Jesus’ disciples and our existence as the Church is dependent on our baptism, a baptism which is viewed as a spiritual rebirth, not only out of our sin, but also into a family fathered by God. There is room to see Jesus’ words at His ascension as the New Creation Mandate, and the beginning of a new family dynamic in light of His resurrection.
If baptism is our birth into God’s family, the Eucharist is our family dining table. Just as we often see family dinner as the essence of domestic life, we can see the Lord’s Supper as the centre of our faith and the culmination of our worship. In the relative ordinariness of the bread, we see a “sanctification of the domestic”7 and I would add that in the wine we have a sanctification of the celebratory; it is the drink served at weddings. This is where the Church gathers to feed on life and feast on grace, to be joined together with our Father and our Lord. And it is a thoroughly communal practice that, according to Smith, subverts our competitive culture.
The gracious invitation to the table is also a call to reconciliation, which is a reminder that the task of humanity is ineluctably social; we cannot image God in isolation (“in the image of God he created them“).8
Eating the Eucharist is the act that reconciles us not only to God, but to one another, uniting us in Christ, and reminding us of our dependence: we cannot live without each other under God.
I think it fair to say that North American evangelical churches do not see baptism and the Eucharist as rituals which actually make true what they symbolize. For most low-church Protestants, they are merely outward signs of abstract theology. We have already been saved by the Spirit and baptism is merely a public proclamation.9 Jesus has died for our sins and by consuming bread and wine we only memorialize the historical fact. In much the same way, the overwhelming Biblical imagery of Christians as belonging to God’s family—adopted as children and co-heirs with Christ—is seen as ‘mere’ metaphor, something which provides a colourful way to speak of our relationship with God and our charity towards each other. It seems that a non-sacramental view of baptism and the Eucharist prevents us from understanding the spiritual truth of the Church’s nature.
The impact of this on our lived theology has been amply illustrated by Christina Hitchcock. In her argument, evangelical idolatry of marriage and biological family leads in the end to seeing people’s significance—especially their significance within a church’s ministry—only in terms of their sexuality and their marriage status. Instead, she argues, we ought to find our significance for ministry in terms of the Spirit’s gifts and empowerment, just as Paul does in his letters to the Corinthians.10 This same idolatry also negatively influences every other kind of relationship we might have with one another, since it prevents us from seeing other people without the ‘pressure’ of sexual tension. “Our society, including the evangelical church, struggles to imagine a relationship that is intimate, fulfilling, and committed yet is not the result of our striving toward a sexual union.”11 And the consequence, of course, is that we cannot conceive of family in non-sexual terms; we cannot live the theology that the Church is God’s family, because this family is spiritual rather than sexual.
Theology may deal with abstractions, but ultimately it is meant to be lived. This is why Paul’s letters always deal not only with ideas about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but also with how we ought to live within those realities. The Church is the first theology that most people encounter, whether by visiting a Sunday gathering or by interacting with Christians. That lived theology should be formed by practices undergirded by our spiritual reality: the Church is God’s family and the new human life. Perhaps the best road to our recovery of this understanding, not only cognitively but also practically, is sacramental worship. When we can imagine how we have been made one in Christ Jesus through tasting and seeing grace, we can better image Christ in the whole of our living.
- Michael Lawrence and Scott Croft, “Mentor Series: Sex and the Single Guy, Part 2,” Boundless, November 2, 2006, https://www.boundless.org/adulthood/mentor-series-sex-and-the-single-guy-part-2/
- Christina S. Hitchcock, The Significance of Singleness: A Theological Vision for the Future of the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), 13-5.
- Russell Moore, interview by Jen Pollock Michel, “Where the Church’s View of Family Goes Wrong,” interview by Jen Pollock Michel, Christianity Today 62 no 7 (September 2018): 66-67.
- James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, Cultural Liturgies, vol 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 133.
- Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973), 33.
- Smith, 182-3. Emphasis in original.
- Smith, 199.
- Smith, 202. Emphasis in original.
- A former pastor of mine was fond of comparing it to wedding rings; in his words, they do not make a couple married—the vows do—but only display to the world what has happened.
- Hitchcock, 129-30.
- Hitchcock, 136.