The Church As Beacon
Following up my posts on the eschatological nature of marriage and the necessity of corporate worship, I would like to make an application where these meet thoughts from Ed Shaw's Same-Sex Attraction and the Church: The Surprising Plausibility of the Celibate Life. The book is written to communicate a number of "missteps" that the church has made that make celibacy seem like an implausible reality. One of these "missteps" is related to a Christological emphasis of marriage and the primacy of the family. The "misstep" itself is the undermining of the church family or as I might tenderly put it — idolatry of the biological family.
I can hear the gasps. I do not wish to paint with a broad brush — so hear me out in all my qualifications. Given that the church is the holy conveyed community of God, no other community can stand on equal footing. Sure, there are God-ordained structures that are beneficial to society and us personally, but they remain incapable of replacing the church. This truth is communicated in a number of hyperbolic statements from Jesus Christ (e.g. Luke 14:26). We have only taken these statements as true when we say, as Ed Shaw says, "one of the most radical changes between the two testaments seems to be that the biological family matters much less than used to" (43). In the midst of the hyperbole, Christ's point is not to neglect the biological family but to intentionally reorientate ourselves towards the body of followers.
The church as an institution is supposed to be barrier breaking (Matt 16:18) and dominion taking (Matt 28:18). The church community should be expansive and inclusive. It is true that some individuals reject the church or drive themselves away from healthy churches for bad reasons. But I have encountered many individuals who have poured time and energy into the church only to feel oddly displaced, estranged, or invaluable because of one shared characteristic — singleness. Granted, there are many things that could be said about single millennials. Many of them are not very nice. And yet, in the words of a great Dawes song, "The true crime would be thinking it's just one person's fault." Ultimately, the church must take responsibility, to some degree, for all its members.
My working theory? Whether intentional or not, marriage and the biological family has been elevated in importance to combat progressive culture. Though correct in theory, in practice this emphasis on family can be a distraction. In some cases, the church is built to "attend" particularly to families through children's programs and a flurry of classes for mothers. In other cases, spiritually minded families begin to satisfy themselves spiritually apart from the church. Both of these tendencies come at the expense of a healthy and vibrant church community. In today's culture wars, these situations seem to be happening with more frequency given the seemingly daily defense of the family against statism or progressive agendas. Through renewed interest in the spiritual upbringing of the family, exclusionary results sometimes occur. Singles, widows, divorced and celibate individuals are subversively told they are less important because they do not have a family unit. Ed Saw puts it this way,
"The impression that we unintentionally give is that the church is made up of biological families, and that unless you are part of one of these conveniently shaped building blocks, you won't ever fit in" (44)
In an effort to correct past trajectories, a mistaken view of the family develops that unintentionally undermines the church by not relying as heavily upon the church. Know this, I yearn for generations of families who take seriously their responsibility before God — spiritual education in the home is not optional. And yet, I am fearful that in some evangelical quarters emphasis on family and marriage has deemphasized the church as the primary community of fellowship and subsequently driven some away from the church — or at least driven them to churches full of single people.
I say all of this as a young married individual. Married at the age of 19, I have gotten to experience quite the dynamic of tension between singles and married couples. This has placed me on the listening end of many conversations that I frankly was not mature enough to understand. I personally cannot tell you every way in which we discourage singles. I've sat over coffee and beers always a little shocked at how little I understand my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Their experiences are foreign to me. But they're not made up. I've heard the stories and realized my own guilt. Again Shaw, "If you have a family, you can reasonably feel you have time for no one else. But that can mean that unless you have a family, you feel you have no one at all" (44).
Without notice, spouses can become substitutes for the spiritual nurture and encouragement of Christ and the church. Friendships across different age groups, life experiences, and genders get minimized as parents struggle to get their kids through life. When they do reach outside themselves the families with babies, toddlers, teenagers, and college students often break off into their own exclusionary sessions of common interests and struggles. Single women are excluded from classes intended for mothers, and single men are left staring at each other awkwardly — in this example young couples without children are equally ostracized. With every good intent, the family can become a source of spiritual community that detracts from the church. They undermine the church by not pushing the church forward as the God ordained community. Dependency upon the family becomes a mask that hides the problems experienced by singles, widows, and those who experience SSA.
Presently, I do not think this is a stretch when you read some Christian family writing. Very rarely have I read a discussion of how the family and emphasis on family worship can help foster a localized community that brings in singles and strangers. Instead, the family is seen as a continuum of the church. The family becomes a crutch for overlooked deficiencies in the church community. It becomes the entertainment that distracts us from the separation of our spiritual family. Soon after, the family gets referred to as a mini-church or a mini-body. But family worship is not some weekday equivalent to the Divine Service. There is no replacement for the community that gathers on Sunday morning. That preaching of the words is specially ordained by God and the Holy Spirit. And those administered sacraments are specially ordained for the maturing of the saints. Put in a reductionistic manner — our true "family worship" occurs on Sunday.
If this seems odd then it is an indication that our week is being spent too often apart from our "family." Church family needs to grace the doors of the biological family throughout the week. Through dinners, game nights, bible studies, coffee table debates, or invitations to family worship, the church community takes what is taught through the sacraments on Sunday and lives it with each other. This takes time and conversations. Not merely inviting people over for whatever fits your family's order, but truly ministering to one another's needs.
Sometimes we need to be reminded of the importance of this church community against all other communities. The community that gathers together must move out and live together. It all stems from the Divine Service outward. The Belgic Confession says that "there is no salvation apart from it" (Article 28). It also says that "people ought not to withdraw from it, content to be by themselves" — this includes families. The Westminster agrees when it says that "unto this catholic visible Church Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world" (WCF, XXV.III). Sometimes, we also need more modern language and perspective. Rosaria Butterfield has a profound (and insightfully critical) chapter on community — truly living life together — that finds its foundation in the church,
"God made the church to stand as a visible witness to a watching world and to remain as a beacon. The visible church, made up of average people with plenty of problems, sin patterns, character flaws, annoying habits, and peculiar interests. The church remains as a beacon of who God is. Not the Christian family. Not the Christian college. Not individual celebrity Christians who do a lot and get a lot of attention for doing the lot. The church alone is commended by God to hold this privilege." - Rosaria Butterfield, Openness Unhindered (176)
This is not some newfound concern about "relationships and community" as is often found in non-denominational churches. Those churches with their catchy slogans — "real life," "for those who don't like church," "be who you are" — try to make the primary identification of the church something other than the church. But the church identity is found solely in its relationship to Jesus Christ. The community of the church is centered around Christ. The true "family" of the Christian are the members of the church. This exalts the strange mystery of God,
"When the kingdom of God is proclaimed, a sign in the concrete world needs to be set up, something definitive needs to become visible. For the Church cannot be merely invisible in the world, but to its invisibleness corresponds a visibleness, perhaps a very strange, very offensive, very controversial visibleness. Why the Church is raised up out of the other earthly things in just such a way cannot be answered. The answer consists in the commands which God issues to the Church." - Karl Barth, The Great Promise (11)
While families are a godly institution, which can be used for godly means, they are never the church. As marriage acts as a signpost to the eschatological marriage between Christ and the church, so the biological family acts as a signpost to the body of Christ. As signposts, they must serve beyond themselves. They must serve the church and its more lonely members. For there are widows, singles, and individuals who experience SSA suffering within churches while families keep themselves afloat with their tiny communities,
"We pay lip service to the family language, but the experience is gone. Moms, dads and their 2.4 children tend to settle in quickly, but you can arrive as a single parent, a divorcee, a widow or widower, a single man or woman for whatever reason, and find that people don't know what to do with you" (Same-Sex Attraction and the Church, 43-44)
I know that many will question the legitimacy of this account. I can attest that it is not my account — it is the account of those I have read and talked to. If I have spoken a single true word it is their word. The question for the church can be simplified as such — do we identify more with our spiritual family or biological family? How are our churches marked and seen by their local neighbors? Are we conduits of love to the members of our church who need it the most?
I feel like a parrot lacking the self-awareness to replicate the tenor of its owner. I fear I cannot relate to my friends who are occasionally "in the fetal position," were told to "drop the things [they] love to become more marriageable," or attest that "no one offered to walk alongside me and my thorn." I must find a way to "Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep" (Rom 12:15) lest I find myself "unworthy of them" (Heb 11:38). I hope the church will join me.