This is the third and final installment of a series listing 5 challenges to Christianity that apologetics, traditionally understood, is virtually powerless to counter.
The previous parts:
Now begins the third part. It’s long. Sorry. (I really am)
5. The failure within the Church to live out the Biblical model of marriage and the family.
If you were looking for a thread that ties all five of these challenges together, it is this: the general view, even among Christians, that there is no objective reality to the areas under dispute. That is, we are all arguing about our own opinions, nothing more. It’s like sitting around having an argument about one’s favorite flavor of ice cream. As such an argument is roundly seen as absurd (and I would agree). Thus- even within the Church- the highest transgression is presenting your favorite ice cream flavor as the absolute best. Now this, paradoxically, I have said is something that apologetics can treat (after saying in 3 parts that it can’t. 😉 ), but read carefully on how precisely.
This is attitude that everything is just subjective is manifested most clearly and dramatically in regards to the marriage and the family. To help understand why, let me provide some anecdotal illustrations.
For example, no doubt many of my readers will be aware of the argument against those who oppose gay marriage that if these people really cherished marriage, they wouldn’t themselves support divorce or have the same level of divorces as those outside that community. I am not here highlighting the apparent hypocrisy involved. I’m talking about something else. Another illustration will perhaps help: “Why won’t God heal Amputees?” You see the argument now: if there is a God, surely he would want to heal people, including amputees. The same reasoning undergirds the absurd but common perception among atheists that a praying people will be healthier, or that in an experiment where one group is prayed for but the other group that isn’t, the group prayed for should show better health. (C. S. Lewis exposed this type of experiment as deeply flawed- who in good conscience, if they cared for the sick people would abstain from praying for one group just to prove a point?!?!?)
It is expected that things ought to go great for those of faith but it doesn’t. Point one against theism. The turmoil among secular families and marriages is identical to those among Christian ones. Point two against theism. Now, in the first place- the whole healing of amputees, the assumed benefit of prayer, or general expectation of higher levels of success among Christians- is absurd and stupid, to put it mildly. People who say such things are demonstrably ignorant. It is clear they have never read the Bible. Point two, however… that is a little different.
Well, obviously the agents involved are different. In point one, it is God who is expected to be the acting agent. In point two, that ‘agent’ is us. More to the point, it is a simple (to understand) matter of obedience or disobedience. God tells us to do such and such. We either do it or don’t do it. When we do it- or not- we accept that God isn’t being arbitrary and capricious.
For example, God tells us to keep sex within the boundaries of wedlock. We either do it or we don’t. If we don’t, there is of course the question of our rebellious spirit (I am here talking about Christians!), but it is more than that: Since we were made by him to function best within the wedded framework, it follows that things aren’t going to go very well for us if we deviate from it.
Kind of like if I tell my son: “Don’t use your arm as a car’s jack stand!” Here is a command that is simple to follow. It would be rebellion if he didn’t obey it. Let’s say he thinks my command is just some arbitrary and capricious set of rules to test whether or not he obeys me. That is, the command does not reflect any real aspect of reality as we experience. It’s a hoop, nothing else.
He raises a car up, puts his arm underneath it, elbow on the ground and palm under the frame, and lowers the car. SNAP. There goes the arm. Gee, how’d that happen? What a surprise?
Now, the atheist in the ‘amputee/prayer’ vein as described above reasons that people ought to have superhuman strength and should be able to pull this off, even though there is no hint of any kind of promise like that for believers. However, remaining faithful and true in a marriage is not like trying to use your arm as a jack stand. It is like understanding that God didn’t make us to be jack stands at all, and that if we behave radically outside of our ‘construction’ we’re going to hurt ourselves, while if we behave within it, we will flourish. Skeptics see that Christians are not especially ‘flourishing’ but then, Christians aren’t particularly behaving ‘according to their construction,’ either.
So, in the family we actually have the kind of potential to serve as an object lesson to the world- but only if we take God’s commands and instructions on the matter seriously, as though they correlate to reality- and then actually ‘flourish.’ It is not too far off from my number 3, lovelessness, where I cite Jesus saying that the world will know that we are His disciples by our love for each other. Similarly, by the love shown in our families, the world will see that God really has a good plan for humanity, even if humanity itself has lost its ability to ever fully carry it out.
This is a good time for a little plug. My ministry, Athanatos Christian Ministries, takes this particular challenge extremely seriously. It is hosting a three day online apologetics conference specifically geared towards defending God’s plan for marriage and the family as an objective reality and pondering how to carry out that defense in our culture. I would encourage you to check it out, register, and attend. April 7-9, 2011.
Divorce rates among Christians are just the tip of the iceberg. Attitudes towards sexuality in general, the way we form our marriages in the first place (ie, like ‘dating’,) the basis for those marriages (so-called ‘romantic love’), etc, etc, all closely mirror what we find among secularists. Why shouldn’t marriages fail just as often and just as hard among Christians? It isn’t like what the Bible says on the matter is objectively real, right? Right? Hmmmm. Something isn’t sounding right, here…
Now, if it were only a question of a ‘witness to the world’ that would make it a an unanswerable apologetic challenge all by itself. The ongoing corrosion of the biblical model of marriage and family among Christians has many other serious ramifications too. I could go on and on about giving examples because this model is all-encompassing of human experience. We are designed to operate within the ‘Biblical model.’ Not merely ‘operate’ but also to be raised within it. I myself grew up in a… what do they call them these days… a ‘blended’ family. It was not without its fair share of pain.
Moreover, statistics continue to tell us what should have been obvious: faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior is most likely to be cultivated within ‘intact’ families where both parents, but the father in particular, deliberately raise the the children in a godly fashion and with intentional instruction regarding the Scriptures- as though they were really true.
Now, at first blush one may think I’m subtly plugging home schooling. True, turning over the education and worldview cultivating to the secular institutions which strip God and religion out of everything (see #2 and #4 of the challenges in previous parts) is going to have its inevitable effect. Secularists argue that ‘children should be able to make up their own minds’ while doing all in their power to make sure that the only options presented to children are secular ones. (eg, the fierce opposition even to ‘equal time’ discussion on different theories on origins). The result of this is predictable and obvious and should surprise no one. This aspect of the discussion certainly falls into the category about the biblical model of the family being objectively real, illustrating what I mean about it being an all-encompassing challenge, but it isn’t actually what I have in target right now.
About 4 years ago I made a ruckus by claiming that the Church itself was creating atheists, getting me a bunch of radio interviews, a lot of blogger attention, and a lot of email in my inbox telling me I was dead on. Today the claim isn’t controversial. It’s virtually taken for granted by many observers. Barna, for example, has been charting this, and I’ve been collecting statistics at this site: the Death of Christianity. More lately, Ken Ham commissioned his own study to explore trends in the Church and what he discovered is breathtaking and profound: it is more likely for someone to be a nonbeliever when they are raised in the faith, actually participating in the educational activities of the Church (Sunday School, confirmation class, CCD, etc)! The study has been published in his book Already Gone and I discuss it along with some other statistics, here.
I trust you see what I mean, here. While it is undoubtedly true that the secular world around us is having a profound impact on the transmission of the faith, I contend that worst damage is occurring ‘internally.’ We in the Church are creating our own problems. Eventually this sort of thing has to track back to some doctrinal flaw (or misplaced emphasis) and I wager that two things at least are coming together to create and perpetuate the issue. The first is the virtual abandonment of a practical application of the belief in the priesthood of all believers (see Part 2, #4) and the second is a hyper-institutionalization of all things spiritual at the expense, and often in spite of, what the Bible really teaches regarding how the faith is to be transmitted.
To the first, you will not find any knowledgeable Christian that rejects the doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers.’ I was careful in my words. What is the ‘practical application‘ of this doctrine? If we never act on a doctrine, do we actually believe it? Precisely what does it mean for every Christian to be a ‘priest’? Do we just slap a badge on the average Christian with the word ‘Priest’ emblazoned on it and do nothing else? If a congregation would declare every member a ‘priest’ and label each parking spot as ‘for priests only’ that would be a more robust expression of this doctrine than one normally sees.
Every where you go in the Church, no matter what the denomination, a lot of work and energy is expended to distill spiritual things into a particular group among the people who carry out the ‘spiritual’ duties of the Church. The Bible describes a ‘member’ in organic terms: the arm is a member of the body as is the eye and the big toe (1 Cor 12:12-31 but read on to chapter 13!). In today’s Church, a ‘member’ is a bureaucratic term: this person is a member of that committee or a member of that congregation- legally described as the First NonDenominational Church of Buxley, Tennessee.
You’ve got to have programs and seminaries and committees and professionally trained church workers or all doctrinal hell will break loose! I hate to be the one to throw cold water on things, but seeing as each denomination views all others as being doctrinal deviant, and they all have seminaries and a ‘professional spiritual class’, evidently the institution of hierarchies on top of hierarchies isn’t working so well. The Catholic Church has plenty of individuals who scoff at the fracturing we see in protestantism- but all the same apathy and heresies can be found among individual Catholics. To say their ‘model’ has been particularly effective at maintaining doctrinal purity would be a reach, to put it mildly.
One labors to find in the Church at large any robust and meaningful application of the ‘priesthood of all believers.’ The net effect of this has been that the average Christian figures his job is to defer to the professionals… on everything. I could belabor the point, but the particular issue where that deferring is particularly pronounced is on education and the transmission of the faith. These things have been institutionalized to a high degree and the message has been communicated very clearly- without anyone saying a word- that the persons responsible for raising children in the faith are… the Sunday School teacher, the pastor, the teacher, the director for Christian education, the priest, the professor, etc. The average Christian weighing their knowledge and training against those administering programs in the congregation comes away with the clear message: you are not competent to raise your own children in the faith; that requires professional training.
Thus, the average Christian does exactly that. He or she turns over the transmission of the faith to the ‘professionals.’ He is not a member of the priesthood of all believers. He can barely tie his own spiritual shoes. Even men “of little account in the church” (1 Cor 6:1-11) are not competent enough to live out the faith. The average Christian gets the message, and acts accordingly- that is, they show up at ‘worship’ on Sunday mornings and send their kids off to Sunday School and youth Bible study and entrust the eternal fate of their own children to the ‘professionals.’
There are two big problems with this. First of all, the ‘professionals’ are finite beings. A single person, or even a team of persons, cannot tend to the spiritual health of the children in the congregation- or even the adults. Second of all, there isn’t a hint in the Scriptures that such an attitude is what God ever intended. (To be fair, most of the ‘professionals’ understand both of these perfectly well. But as a former ‘professional’ myself, I have witnessed this deference time and time again.) Despite the wide spread acceptance of both of those problems, is it possible that we in the Church who recognize them nonetheless perpetuate the issues that call them to our attention? What might be going on?
Let us begin by looking at a famous passage in light of the foregoing (in the NIV):
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
This passage is famous, often cited at weddings (especially in the old days) or in conversations about the role of women in the Church. I would like to make a very simple observation: there isn’t anything in this passage that implies that the role of women in the Church is in view. For example, verse 22 does not read:
“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands and to the pastor(s) in your congregation as you do to the Lord.”
It does not continue on and say,”For the husband and priest is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to the pastor, so also wives should submit to their pastors in everything.”
Indeed, the passages do not read:
“22 Wives and husbands, submit yourselves to your pastor as you do to the Lord. For the pastor is the head of the husbands and wives in the congregation as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to to the pastor who submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands who submit to the elders, pastors, DCEs, teachers, professors, etc, in everything.”
It is not by accident that Paul links his discussion about submission to Genesis 2:24, the defining passage throughout the Scriptures on God’s formula for ‘marriage.’ The Scriptures do indicate a hierarchy, but just one: husbands, and husbands alone, are heads of their wives as Christ is the head of the church. No other man is head over my wife. There’s just me. The passage cannot be construed as: Any given man has authority over any given woman in the Church. Paul’s words are grounded explicitly in marriage. Biblical Marriage is the model by which we experientially comprehend the relationship between Christ and his Church. Toss it out, belittle it, marginalize it, disregard it, tweak it, change it, ignore it, dispense with it and there will be consequences.
It is also not an accident that the Ephesians passage continues on to talk about children. An unfortunate effect of dividing the books of the Bible up into chapters and verses is that we often treat passages in isolation which are meant to be taken together with what comes before and/or after. Chapter 6 of Ephesians goes on to lay out the duties of children to their… priest? No. Their father and mother, with a special note to fathers not to ‘exasperate’ their children, laying an explicit command a the feet of fathers to “bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”
To put a finer point on it, just as the Scriptures list the husband as the head of his wife- and no other man- the ones who have the primary duty of raising children in the faith are… the childrens’ own parents. It is not the duty of any other parents, or even of the Church. In saying this I do not mean to suggest that Church has no role in faith formation. However, the good Lord was smart when he set this up for what is impossibly impractical for a congregation’s staff to do, parents are well positioned to carry out. You know, since they actually live with the kids and all. 😉
One begins to see how an epidemic of fractured families within the Church can have wide reaching implications.
I could have skipped all of this and said what no one would dispute: the Bible says that the primary transmitter of the faith from one generation to the next should be, and are, the parents. No one disputes it, yet every where we look the parents are marginalized. That’s my point, here. The Church does not currently behave as though the parents- and fathers- can be trusted to impart the faith to the next generation. The rationalizations are across the board: parents don’t have time, they don’t have the knowledge, they don’t have the energy, they’re not doing their job so somebody has got to…
And there is truth to all of that. However, it is a simple fact of human nature that when people see that others are going to do a difficult job for them, they’re just going to let those people do it. If I know my wife will always do the laundry, why, I’m just going to keep letting her do it. 🙂 (Actually, she no longer lets me do laundry… but you get the idea). Maybe its time for the Church to refuse to pick up the slack? Things can hardly get worse.
No matter where you turn, a failure to live out what the Bible says about marriage and the family can be seen- within the Church. Essentially, we behave as though the Biblical pattern doesn’t actually correlate to reality. As the family is the primary, if not only, ‘common denominator,’ created and designed by God- it transcends both the old and new covenant, for example- its rejection in practice will have huge consequences, even if we embrace it with our lips.
Many people have looked at the direction where Christianity is going in America and decided it is not unexpected and is just the great apostasy that we always knew was coming. Maybe it is, but its a funny place to suddenly act as though what the Bible describes is real, and treating the rest of it as though it were subjective opinion. Even so, let’s say it is the great apostasy- no where is it written that we are off the hook for our part in facilitating it, or if we have no part, simply for failing to obey what is plainly written.
Let us remember something else that was plainly written:
For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 1 Peter 4:17
The resolution of this problem then is not ‘apologetics’, per se. It is about obedience- obedience by Christians themselves who know better, who have the Scriptures, who believe- or say they believe- every word in it. Are we really obeying the gospel of God?
The consequences of it all do fall into the realm of apologetics, though, which is why it have taken the time to detail it as much as I have. I could spend all my time banging heads with atheists, like I used to. It would be much easier, and much better, if we kept them from becoming atheists in the first place by robustly equipping young people- and their parents- with the knowledge they need to stand tall in this world that works so hard to bring them low.
And of course the necessary admission: I am as guilty as the next person. I too struggle to live as though what I say I believe is true and real, and not just personal opinion. There. Hopefully I’ll be spared the knee jerk typical Matthew 7:1-5 citation. 😉
These are the main challenges to Christianity today as I see them. Agree? Let us work together to address them.