Love, Singleness, and Same-Sex Marriage
Christian sexual ethics is radically countercultural. Laura Smit (author, Loves Me, Loves Me Not) offers fresh theological insight on Christian love in the context of singleness and same-sex marriage in the wake of Obergefell.
This recent Supreme Court decision about same sex marriage, making it the law of the land has created dismay in many people’s hearts. And many evangelical churches, pastors, congregations have been really startled to discover that the government of the United States does not at this point enforce an understanding of marriage that agrees with us. So the first thing I want to you, this is not a new situation.
It’s been a long time since the government of the United States has enforced any kind of understanding of Christian marriage that could really be, or any understanding of marriage that could be called Christian. In fact I’m not sure it ever has. In Colonial times, before the founding of the United States perhaps that was happening. I’m not sure. I’m not an American Historian. But certainly never in my lifetime has our government been insisting on anything like Christian marriage.
So we should stop pretending that this is some kind of new dissonance. I think the reason that we have been blind to the dissonance up until now is that we ourselves, and by we I’m gonna, I know it’s probably a false we, but I’m gonna be kinda thinkin’ about evangelical pastors in general, recognizing that there are many opinions in the room. But we ourselves have not done a good job about articulating, or practicing a truly biblical, truly Christian understanding of what marriage should be. We have sold this out. We have given it away.
We have been ourselves unbiblical. So I’d like to start by looking at the log in our eye. Look at four things I think we’ve really done wrong. And then I’d like to turn to four opportunities I think we have in the wake of this Supreme Court decision. I’m actually, maybe I’m just an optimistic person, but I think there is some possibilities here for better ministry and better conversation because this has happened.
Four things that we have done wrong in the past. Four opportunities to do something a little better in the future. So the first thing that we have done really wrong I think, is we have put out trust in the wrong place. As the Psalms say we have put our confidence in princes, or in Presidents, or in Supreme Court Justices. We hae expected that the government of our country would be enforcing Christian marriage. Why did we think that? I mean I’m a Calvinist so I have a pretty robust understanding of sin you know. [laughter]
And it just, it seems sort of self evident to me that no secular institution is going to be able to enact a Christian understanding of marriage. Now some people will come back and say, well but there is a natural law argument about marriage. To some extent I agree with that. I think that there are some natural law arguments that can be made that should be accessible to anyone with reason about complementarity, things like that.
I don’t know why you would think however, that a government, a secular government would have the capacity to understand the natural law argument. Again I’m a Calvinist. I think that sin has epistemological consequences. So why would I expect that a non Christian government would be open to those natural law arguments. But even when a natural law argument works, I don’t think it works completely.
So consider a non controversial thing like murder okay. We think murder is wrong for a lot of religious reasons. And our government thinks murder is wrong for some natural law reasons. But even when we have that level of agreement we don’t really agree. Imagine that somebody in your congregation was arrested tomorrow for murder. And the case was obvious. And we’ll just say it’s a he. He was, he’s sent off to prison.
Okay so that’s what the government is supposed to do. And while not objecting to that, your job as a pastor would be a completely different job. What you would have to be thinking about would be a completely different set of things. Your job would be to talk about reconciliation and repentance, and bringing this person back into a right relationship with God. You would have a completely different agenda.
And you might come to a point, a few years down the line where you would be convinced that he has repented of his sin, that he’s really been regenerated in some significant ways. The Holy Spirit’s been working in his heart. You might be confident he would never commit murder again. This would have nothing to do with whether he would be let out of prison.
These are unrelated things. So even when we agree with the government. What we do and what they do, not the same. So why in the cases of marriage would we expect a closer connection? Particularly since marriage has to do with sex. And for Christians that can never just be natural. So the natural law argument is never gonna get us to a New Testament understanding of our sexual behavior.
I mean think about all the things Jesus says about sexuality. He is always saying things that are profoundly unnatural. He says things like, there are eunuchs for the kingdom of God, which makes his disciples go nuts. This is not a natural law argument, that some people are eunuchs for the kingdom of God. He says you know you shouldn’t even lust in your heart. You should be monogamous in your desires. That’s not a natural law argument either. The kind of sexual behavior to which we are called in the New Testament is not something that we arrive at by natural reason, because it’s not natural behavior.
It’s super natural behavior that relies on the help of the Holy Spirit. That’s the only way it’s possible. So it is simply inconceivable that a robust Christian understanding of marriage would ever be defended by our secular government. It’s not gonna happen. We need to stop bemoaning that. It hasn’t been happening. It’s not gonna happen in the future, and it’s not their job, it’s our job. So it’s time for us to start doing our job as the church.
Articulating what it means for us as Christians to talk about marriage, to talk about sex, to talk about abstinence, to talk about chastity. What do these things mean for us. And we need to accept that responsibility. The second thing that we have done wrong is we have failed to fulfill that responsibility. We have failed spectacularly. Now I’m gonna give a list of ways in which we failed. And I hope there’s no one in the room who will say, I did all those things. There may be a couple of you who will say, I’ve never done any of those things, I hope.
But I’m guessing that most people in the room will have to fess up to a few of these things. So we have condoned divorce. We have failed to discipline people in case of divorce. We have condoned remarriage. We have looked the other way when a couple has shown up in our church who went through all of their process of divorce somewhere else and we have really not wanted to know about that.
And we’ve just been happy to do the marriage and have all the happy stuff, and never investigate what went on in the past. We have married Christians to non Christians despite the clear prohibition of being unequally yoked in scripture. But we still have done it. And we’ve done it because their moms and dads are members of our church, or their grandparents. And we know someone will be mad and we’ll lose a donor.
And we have caved on all these sorts of things. We have married couples who are living together, who admit to us freely that they are having sex before they’re married. And we’ve done that without requiring any repentance. Without requiring any time of separation. Without requiring any admission that what they did was actually out of step with our church’s teaching. In fact we often treat that as not such a big deal.
It feels a bit prudish even to mention it. Which makes it not so surprising that people think we’re not very consistent when we get all worked up about same sex marriage. Excuse me. It makes it really hard to defend ourselves against a charge of being homophobic and bigoted and biased if we’re not enforcing any kind of standards when it comes to heterosexual marriage.
But we have not enforced many standards. We have some of us even done purely secular weddings. We’ve gotten the idea in our head, that well we are agents of the state here. And I hope no one in this room. But I do know some pastors who don’t feel they’re being paid enough, weddings pay quite a bit. You know maybe I can make a little on the side, and if you’re not a Christian, I can leave out the part about Jesus.
We have turned our church buildings into places for hire to help meet our budget. We have been co-opted by the romantic lies of our society, by the wedding industry in our society. We have not stood up against any of this. And now all of a sudden this new thing happens and we’re surprised that society at large is not defending a Christian view of marriage.
We have not ourselves defended a Christian view of marriage for a very, very long time. Third thing we have failed to do. We have failed to acknowledge that the New Testament is really, really, really clear about singleness as an honorable option. This is simply not the case in most of our churches. I meant the New Testament doesn’t just say, well if you must be single, if you are just stuck being single, find some blessing in it.
That’s not the message here at all. I mean there is a sharp, sharp change with the coming of Jesus in the nature of marriage and the nature of singleness. And many of us in our congregations are still living like old covenant people. We’re living as if Jesus never came. We’re living as if marriage is still the be all and end all of everything. As if we’re still living in Israel where the whole structure of God’s people is based on family, and tribe, and who you’re married to and who you’re kids are.
And if you don’t have children, you don’t have a place in this society. We’re still living as if that’s true. But when Jesus came marriage was fulfilled in him. He is the bridegroom. He is the one who is bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh. He’s the one who’s the divine helping presence of God come to us in a form that is meet for us. Everything that marriage was ever meant to point to, Jesus is. So now there’s a new reality with the coming of Jesus. Marriage is more important in some ways because it’s now elevated to be a sign of Christ in his church. But it is no longer necessary. And it’s no longer the shape of the people of God.
The people of God are now a community of brothers and sisters. And you get access to the people of God not by being born into it, but by being baptized into it. By being converted into it. By being baptized with the Spirit, and regenerated, and born again. That’s how you come into the people of God. And Jesus tells us explicitly that marriage will not exist in heaven. So we know that we’re now at this overlapping time where this Old Testament structure of marriage is still here but has a terminus point. And the new creation structure of the new people of God is already here, already breaking in and both those things are happening for us.
But it’s that New Testament, new creation structure that’s supposed to dominate us now where we’re going. Those of you who are married, and that’s probably most of you, since your pastors. Congregations don’t call a lot of single people. You know you can have one single person on staff. But most of you are married since you’re employed. [laughter] I’m sorry that was a really snarky thing to say. [laughter] I shouldn’t say that, I take that back. [laughter] Now I don’t know where I was going with that.
See I’ve lost my own place. [someone speaking off microphone] Okay right. So this new creation structure has not in fact started to inform our congregations. Most of our congregations do not reflect the makeup of our society at all. I mean, I’m bad at numbers, I have to read these. But 2010 census says 27% of all households in the United States are single person households. 27% of all households.
Think about the households in your church. Would 27% of the households in your congregations be single person households? And that of course is not the full single population. Many, many single people live with other people. I’m single, I live with two other single people. So none of us are counted in that 27%. Lot’s of single people have roommates. And of course many single people are cohabiting instead of getting married.
But that’s a really startling number to me. 27% single person households. And as of 2014 45% of US residents 18 and older were single. 45% in 2014. People are getting married later. Some people are not getting married at all. Marriages don’t last the way they used to. So some people who did get married find themselves single. And then they don’t all get married again. The single population in our country is huge.
But we do not welcome them into our churches. Because what we do in our congregations is send a very clear message that to be part of our church you really need to be part of a family. I had a meeting, a meeting, I was with a retreat group last weekend of single people. And we were talking, sort of laughing, but not entirely, about at what age do you age out of the singles group at church, and get told you have to leave. [laughter]
And you know this actually does happen. Because there’s an assumption that, well okay a singles group is a place you hang out while you wait to get married. But it’s not where you ought to be for your life. That’s not how you ought to be living. That’s how churches communicate to single people. So are we surprised that when a group of people who see that traditional marriage is not open to them, not an option, when they look at the church, they say, I don’t really see where I fit there. I mean ask yourself, if there’s a young person in your congregation right now, 15 years old, 18 years old, grew up in your church who’s starting to think, I don’t think that marriage is gonna be for me.
For whatever reason, maybe it’s about sexual orientation, maybe it’s just someone who’s strongly introverted, or really career driven, could be a lot of reasons why someone’s thinking I don’t think I’m gonna get married. When that young person looks around your church does he or she say, there are people here I could be like. You know 10 years from now maybe I’ll be like that person. Maybe I’ll be doing that job.
Maybe I’ll be a deacon or an elder, or on the worship committee, or I’ll be singing in the choir. Are you looking around saying yeah, yeah I would be welcome here. Or does that young person look around and say, clearly I’m gonna have to leave this church? There’s one kind of congregation that’s still very welcoming to single adults. Usually the large urban, liberal, congregation. Mainline, progressive congregation in most big cities. Very, very welcoming to all single people.
And almost always in those churches the message is, oh all of this sexual ethics conversation is such a downer. Why would you feel you need to deprive yourself of something as natural as sex. So the evangelical church has just said to single people, we don’t wanna deal with you. Go get your religious teaching somewhere else. And the one group that’s willing to welcome them, is not willing to disciple them into anything approaching virtue.
That’s the situation that we’re in in the Christian church today. Fourth thing that we’ve done is that we’ve just been unkind. And that’s not always true. Sometimes I grant you, in these conversations, we can say things that we mean lovingly, and we get portrayed as if we’re mean, as if we’re bullies. And that’s an unfairness that Christians just have to live with. But let’s be honest, sometimes we have been bullies.
Sometimes we have been unkind. Sometimes instead of having our fights with other Christians who are writing things about what the Bible says that we disagree with, instead of that we’ve gone after 17 year old kids who are trying to figure out their lives. And we have made them feel unwelcome in our churches. We have picked on the most helpless and the most vulnerable people. And that’s just not Christ like.
That’s not what we’re supposed to be doing. So we have to own up to some of our own responsibility for the fact that there are an awful lot of people out there in the world today who think that the last person they’d ever talk to about their sexual confusion would be a Christian person. The last person they’d ever want to approach for moral advice on how to live through this confusion would be a Christian person.
We have created a really bad reputation for ourselves. And we need to fix that. So I think we need to fact up to our own responsibility here. But now I also think that there is some great opportunities for us. Some very positive things that can come out of this Supreme Court decision, and just the general cultural change that we have going on around us. The first thing, the first opportunity is that we have an opportunity to reposition ourselves.
To take on a new role. For far too long we’ve been coming into this conversation as the people with all the power. We’ve been coming in as the people with the power who think that we have the right to control the election. That we think we have the numbers to win the vote. And we have come into this conversation as a political conversation, and we’ve been on a campaign that we want to win. Well we lost the campaign.
So I think there’s some grace in that. Because now we can come into the conversation as people who are weak. And the Bible tells us that when we are weak, God is strong. That in our weakness his strength is shown. In our foolishness his wisdom is shown. So now we can be weak and foolish. Because that’s what we look like frankly. We look weak and foolish. And I think we should embrace that. That’s good. It means that we can be much less threatening as conversation partners. When we come into a conversation as people who are weak, and as people who are foolish. We don’t have power. And if we admit that we don’t have power then the conversation immediately becomes more welcoming and more gracious.
Frankly I just, there’s a couple of news anchors especially that I kind of keep in my imagination as my target audience when I’m trying to think how would I explain my Christian view on this. [chuckles] Could I get this person, whom I know to be embracing a sexual identity that is not at all something I think should be embraced, could I get her to say, I understand what you’re saying. Could I say this in a gentle enough way that her first reaction would not be to put up all her defenses?
The odds of that are a lot better when she’s strong and I’m weak, than when it’s the other way around. That the odds of being able to say a gentle word of love to someone, saying I really think there’s another life giving path that you might consider. The odds of that being heard improve astronomically when we say it from a place of weakness and foolishness. So I think we should be grateful for that place. And stop trying to control all the conversations that we’re in. We need to see ourselves as living out a radically alternative, radically foolish, not natural path. Because that’s the path that Jesus has carved out for us.
In all areas of ethics. Jesus is always calling us to do the radically foolish thing. And that’s certainly true in sexual ethics. I mean the growth of the church built on the idea of people who don’t get married and don’t have children, that’s not the way most of us would do it. In fact, in the United States so many churches have grown simply by having many, many, many babies. That’s what makes sense to us. But that’s not the way that made sense to the apostle Paul.
So this path of radical, alternative foolishness, I think that’s the biblical path, that’s the path we should be following, and not fighting, not resisting. Second thing, our outrage over this issue, and by our I mean evangelical people in general has shut down a lot of conversation in the social sciences. I mean most social scientists I know at my college and at other Christian colleges are very well aware that sexual orientation and sexual identity are messy complicated things. And that yeah, there’s nature involved, but there’s also nurture involved. There’s a whole lot of stuff. And it’s not the same for everybody. And there’s a spectrum. It’s not a toggle on or off. It’s a complicated messy business. But that conversation has gotten very quiet in the last few years.
And it’s gotten very quiet in large part I think because social scientists realize that people like us might take that information and use it as a weapon in this political war. A weapon to say, you weren’t born that way at all. This is your real story. I’m gonna tell you your story. And I’m gonna tell you what you get to do with your story. And so a lot of social scientists would say, well I think I won’t do this research for awhile because I don’t want my research weaponized.
Now if our outrage can die down a little bit, and if we have a climate of a little more safety, I think we’re going to hear some much more interesting conversation coming out of a lot of different quarters about responsibility, and choice, and moral issues that are much more hospitable to us. And we need to enter into those conversations without them saying, oh so now you’ve proved that we’re right and now we’re gonna take the power back. Because then the whole conversation will shut down again.
But the truth is, that for many people, probably not for all, but for many people there is an element of moral responsibility and choice in their sexual orientation and their, and certainly in their acting out of that orientation, and their understanding of their sexual identity. For some people the born this way rhetoric is very true. But not for everybody. And being able to parse out the complications of that, that’s something we’ve just not been able to do. The issue has been so emotionally fraught.
And we bear some of the responsibility for keeping it emotionally fraught. If we can calm down enough to have honest conversation about the reality of sexual experience, I think that’s an opportunity for us. Honest conversation about what really does lead to happiness. I mean I’m convinced that the way of committed monogamy is not natural. But I do think it leads ultimately to happiness. But not easy happiness, and not immediate happiness. And so I don’t think that that’s a self evident claim.
And it’s a claim that requires quiet conversation to back it up. Not strident loud screaming. Third opportunity. I think we really need, especially within the church to concentrate on having a positive conversation about sexuality that’s holistic, and that restores some old time values that we have let fall. Is it possible that we in the church could start talking about chastity, purity, holiness as desirable qualities that we could hold up and make something that people love, and want, and want to embrace?
Many, many years ago when I was a pastor I had a new member showing up in my church. Actually I don’t think he ever became a member, but he was thinking about Christianity and he asked me some questions. So of course, I handed him Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Read this. He came back. After he left I thought oh no. That book has a whole chapter about sex in it. And I had not been thinking about that. I was just thinking about the Jesus trilemma. This guy had been living a really promiscuous life. And I had not yet broken it to him that things were gonna have to change.
And I thought, I really wasn’t ready to have that conversation yet. I wanted to ease him into that. So he came back. I thought well he’s not someone who’s done a lot of reading, I don’t think. Maybe he won’t get that far. [laughter] But no, he got that far. He got through the whole book. And he came back with the book. And I said what’d you think? Oh yeah, the part about Jesus that was interesting. But you know that chapter on sex, that was great. I said why, what did you like about that, because I mean Lewis on sex is pretty hard core, conservative, down the line, the tradition you know.
And he said, I never knew it could be that clean. Now is that the picture people have of sexuality who encounter your congregation? Maybe. But can we lift that up more and more obviously? You know I think he was drawn to our congregation because he just didn’t know that many people who were in long time marriages. Who had made that kind of commitment to each other, and had kept the commitments. And really never even discussed the option of not. So in a way I think that cleanness and that purity was in fact on display in our church. But we didn’t really even realize that. It wasn’t something that we talked about.
And certainly there was no conversation, except from me, in my congregation about what that looked like for a single person. For a person who wasn’t married. What does that clean, pure, holy, chaste way of life look like? And can that be something that we offer as attractive and desirable? That seems to me to be the most pressing project for us as Christians. To start articulating a positive understanding of sexuality that takes in the full range of our congregation’s experiences.
And that let’s us have something to offer to the world when people come looking to us with their brokenness saying whatever’s on offer out there isn’t working for me. Do we have a positive word to offer when they come and turn to us. Fourthly I think we really do need to work on making our congregations places that reflect the diversity of our culture, especially in terms of marriage and singleness. You know in the middle ages, if you couldn’t go into, if you couldn’t get married. Okay and that was for a lot of reasons in the middle ages. And sometimes it was because of sexual orientation.
I mean they were aware of homosexuality in the middle ages. It was not something we have invented. So sometimes that would be the reason. But maybe it was that your father had a really physical job and you’d been born with some kind of handicap and you could not possibly do that job, so the normal path of following in your parents footsteps, that wasn’t available to you. Or maybe you were a woman and you had some brains in your head and you wanted an education. And that was not going to be available to you. If for any reason marriage was not your path you went into the church. That’s where you went if you were gonna be single.
And the church would embrace you. And your family would say, oh we have a single person who is now a priest or a nun, who is especially holy, who is our representative in the church. It’s fantastic. Everyone would be so happy that you had embraced this single life. Now when people say marriage is not for me, they go out of the church, and that’s what we need to change. The percentage of people in our society who don’t marry keeps growing, and we remain completely out of touch with that population. So even amongst our own young people who grow up in our churches, they don’t think they should stay unless they are going to get married. They think it makes no sense to stay in our churches. Now there are exceptional congregations where that’s not the case. And if you have one of those please start sharing your stories and helping other people mimic you because we need models of people who have figured out how to do that. But most of us have not figured out how to do that. In most cases our congregations are not welcoming to this vast population.
And because of that we have not had any good news to offer to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who need to be surrounded with love, and friendship, and community, and care if they’re gonna live the celibate lives we tell them they’re supposed to live. We don’t actually have that community in place. We don’t actually have that care in place. So when we issue this edict and say this is the life you should live, we have not made it possible to live that way. We need to change that too.
So that’s a lot of information really quickly. Four problems, four possible opportunities. And I know there’s a lot more to say, so I think that we’re going to move now into questions and answers, and let you, or probably not many answers, but questions, and let you be part of the conversation.
[Male Audience Member] Hi, I just had a question. You’re emphasizing a lot about singleness, and singles ministry. I believe that that is yeah, actually the most neglected ministry in the church, we just think as kind of a transitional ministry. And so I’m hearing a lot about how it’s so important. What does that really look like? How, what do we, what are the marks of a successful single, singles adult ministry. Let’s say the singles are going to 30, 40, 50 years old. What are we doing with that group?
Well it’s a good question. Actually I think the marks of a successful, a church that’s successfully integrating singles is that you don’t need a singles ministry. Because the singles are treated like adult members of your church. Where married people are not threatened by the single people, and the single people are allowed at the grownup table. Well I just remember my sister and I watching in my, the church I grew up in you know, I would come back at Christmas and stuff and sort of see our generation starting to take over the church.
Well you could be in your 30s, 35, 36, if you weren’t married you were not asked to be a deacon. The day after you got married suddenly your invited to be an officer. You know you don’t get to be an officer in the church unless your married, ’cause you’re not mature. There is so much of that kind of stuff that happens in churches where singles are not allowed into positions of leadership. Which is so backwards.
The Bible says the great advantage of being single is you can pour out your life in ministry. And instead what we say is, well you’re still single, you’re just a kid, you know you’re just goofin’ off. We don’t challenge people to be pouring themselves out in ministry as mature adults. We kind of give ’em a pass and say you get to be an adolescent until you get married. No, I would say my goal is to have churches where there’s no need for single’s groups at all. Not to have better singles groups. But just not to need them.
For now many churches need them because singles aren’t welcome elsewhere. So it’s better to have a singles group than have all the singles leave your church. But better yet would be integrate the singles and married people together as brothers and sisters because that’s what we’re supposed to be.
[Other Audience Member] Thank you Dr. Smit. I’m single myself and in the Chinese church if you’re not married, now I mean except for, our pastor here is an exception but. [laughter] Single pastor. He literally just told me no, you’re not a child. But in many, most Chinese churches you know I mean in Chinese culture you’re not an adult until you’re married.
Yeah. Well and every culture has things that we have to challenge. The church challenges every culture right. I once spent a week in China. And I spoke to a bunch of Chinese Christians. And said you know you’re not allowed to marry an unbeliever. It’s very clear.
And all these Chinese women were so upset because there were so many more Christian women than Christian men and they felt like they were being condemned to never marry. So I mean I think that different cultures have different challenges. But the gospel has to correct every culture.
[Another Audience Member] Now this is my question. It’s kind of a tough one.
[Another Audience Member] You mentioned that the passage in Matthew 19 where Jesus says, some are made, some are eunuchs for the kingdom. Well there are two other parts that are also very challenging to understand. The first Jesus says, some people were born eunuchs. That’s a very difficult one to interpret because what do we mean by, what did Jesus mean by some people were born eunuchs? I mean were they born without a penis? I mean how do we understand eunuchs. And what do you think? What was Jesus talking about, some people were born eunuchs?
I’m not sure. I did just hear a lecture where, now I can’t remember this woman’s name. Some of you may know her. She’s just been writing about intersex people. And she thinks that that’s what Jesus is talking about. People who are born with ambiguous sexual organs and you’re just not really sure what they are. And it is true that anthropologists will talk about how different cultures deal with that experience. So that may be what he means.
He may mean people who are born with their sexual desires for the same sex, that marriage is not an option for them. So he might mean homosexuality. I don’t know. But I think we don’t necessarily have to pin him down on that either. I think he’s saying that there may be natural reasons why marriage is not for you. There may be cultural reasons. Some are made eunuchs. And some are eunuchs for the kingdom of God. So there may be a reason why you are single for the sake of the gospel. And so I think we can keep those three broad categories without necessarily specifying exactly what natural causes he has in mind in that passage.
I also think it’s really interesting that one of the very early converts is the Ethiopian eunuch right. So it’s very clear that whatever, whichever of those first two categories he was in that did not delegitimize him, or keep him from being evangelized, and keep him from being baptized. He’s a very early convert. And converted without a lot of external help actually. He’s already half way there by the time Philip gets to him, because he’s been reading the Book if Isaiah. Women with the mics are coming.
Male: I like your first opportunity to acknowledge that we now inhabit a position of weakness. So what would it look like to embrace that position as a pastor, or as any other follower of Jesus. What does that look, couple of examples of what it looks like, ’cause it’s counter cultural to our selfish nature to adopt that appropriate posture. But I’d love the opportunity.
Well I think that’s a good question. And I was thinking especially of visa vie the world outside the church that rather than trying to make this a political matter. Because as soon as it’s a campaign, a political campaign you’re campaigning to see who’s gonna win and who’s gonna lose. And you’re getting your votes together.
And the people who are opposed to you are your enemies. And it creates this very strong inability to have real dialogue. But if instead you come with a position of weakness and say I don’t expect to have any power in your conversation. I don’t expect that just because I say I’m a Christian pastor that means that you, my state representative, or my supreme court justice, or my gay neighbor, I don’t expect that that’s gonna give me credibility with you.
I don’t come to you as an authority who’s going to speak to you authoritatively. I come to you as your loving neighbor. You know, I don’t, I don’t come to you trying to debate you. I come to you trying to love you. And I do think I have something, some good news to offer. But I’m going to let you dictate the terms of when that offer gets made, if it ever does. I’m not gonna force myself on you. I’m not going to come at you as this dominating presence.
Does that make some sense? Now I don’t think that means that we’re weak within the church. I mean I think that we need to create a strong identity as church, but even as we do that, I think the identity we’re creating is we’re a counter culture. We are an alternative. We don’t create the identity that this is really what our nation is supposed to be and we’re in a war.
No we create the identity that we are a place of refuge and holiness, and broken people are welcome here. And we trust that when they come here we have something worth giving them. But it seems to me that that can be a subtle distinction, but it’s an important one.
Audience Male: Hi thank you for your time today. A common thing, earlier you said one of the mistakes we’ve made as ministers is doing weddings for non Christians as a minister of the state. I’ve heard as a very common, you know it’s a ministry opportunity. You know I can be a Christ in their lives. I can share the gospel at these events. I’m curious what your take is to those responses.
Well I haven’t done very many weddings in my ministry. I have to say I was ordained in 1989. I think I could still count on two hands how many weddings I’ve done. I will tell you I’ve never had a divorce. Everyone I’ve every married is still married, ’cause I don’t do a lot of them. I’m really picky.
But even with the really good weddings I’ve been part of, no that wedding machine, that just takes over. And it is so hard not to be just one more caterer. I don’t believe that there’s a lot of ministry opportunity in your average wedding. I don’t believe that most brides and grooms are payin’ much attention to what you have to say. To be honest. I mean there are exceptions to that. I was talking to a friend of mine. She had a very beautiful, simple, kind of painful wedding that I went to a few years ago. Her father had died, and so, there was a lot of family pain, and happiness that she was getting married. And his side too.
And she said she listens to the recording of her wedding regularly in the car. ‘Cause she likes to hear what the pastor said to them. She said, at that time she didn’t actually take it all in. But she listens to it. It reminds her of what that charge was. So there are a few people like that. She’s already a serious Christian person so she wants to hear that. I don’t think it works that way evangelistically. Funerals yes. I’ll do a funeral for anybody.
That’s a time when people are open right. They open their hearts to you. You sit at their kitchen table and they pour out their life to you. You still have to be honest in the funeral. You still have to name the name of Jesus. And you can’t pretend that everybody goes straight to heaven no matter what they’ve done, and despite the fact they haven’t ever expressed any faith of any sort. So you gotta be honest, and that’s tricky.
But I think funerals are ministry opportunities. I think in our culture weddings very, very rarely are. And certainly if you’re doing a wedding where you don’t even name the name of Jesus you have given away any authority to me a minister. Do you disagree with that? [audience member speaking off microphone] [laughter] Thank you. But Biola might not. [laughter] Just to remind you.
[Male Audience Member] Hello. [clears throat] Excuse me. I enjoyed your talk. I found if very refreshing. My question to try to understand where you stand on this, [someone speaking off microphone] Oh yes okay.
[Male Audience Member] On the one hand, well you mentioned romantic narratives and how churches bought into those. And unfortunately there are many, and they are all conflicting, unlivable, right. But on the other hand I think some of those, at least some of those, maybe most of those have been generated by well meaning people within the church trying to promote a spiritualized view of marriage.
You know if you hang around a men’s group for very long you’ll find griping and complaining about well they say my wife, my future wife is gonna be marrying Jesus. I’m not sure I can live up to that. These sorts of things, and these are, and I think they’re heavy and rife. And so my question is what about the natural reason, counterparts to these things.
Singleness has been a part of the church, and it’s a good thing, and I agree with what you say. But not everybody’s a Christian. We should have a voice in our culture too, regardless of our political position. Let’s say a friend comes up and says hey, I feel like I gotta get married now or never. But there’s advice for some people. The best thing is not to be married. For some people it is to be married. And I think there’s a natural reason aspect of that that is important, would you agree with that?
I think it’s complicated. I mean, so for instance. One of the narratives that’s very dominant in our culture is kind of what Alain de Botton calls romantic determinism. We’re fated to be together. People who have no belief in God still have this idea of romantic determinism. Because when you’re in love with someone it’s very hard to entertain the thought that I could’ve been in love with somebody else. So that narrative is hugely potent in our culture. This idea that there is the one, the one person for whom I was made.
The one who will complete me. Now that’s a lie of course. It’s a lie on several levels. We’re not created in matched sets. [laughter] That’s just not how we’re made. The every pot has a lid, that’s not actually true. And some pots have many possible lids. You know, you choose one. So the Christian narrative I think is, you’ve made a promise, you keep the promise. You’re not in love anymore, you still keep the promise. But the romantic narrative is, I follow my feelings. My feelings have evaporated. I, many years ago when I was a pastor, I had a couple in my church who we’re on the edge of divorce because he had decided he had fallen out of love with his wife. And they had a newborn baby who was gonna be baptized. And I told him if he was planning to leave his wife he wasn’t allowed to be, to participate in the baptism. And he said, I’m gonna be a good father. I said, no you’re not. You’re planning to divorce your child’s mother for no reason.
He said well it’s not no reason, I don’t love her anymore. And I said, I don’t care. [laughter] And I didn’t. I really don’t care if you are in love with her. I said, can you do your duty, can you keep your promises. Can you live in her home and be good to her, and kind to her, and care for your children. And he said, oh I could do that. Is that enough?
Yeah, I said, that’s enough. Well they fell back in love with each other. He needed some better medication, and then they… [laughter] You know, but that very, very easily could have fallen out into divorce because of a false story that he had bought. That I have to have certain feelings. And when those feelings go away it’s inauthentic and dishonest for me to stay in my marriage. That’s the kind of romantic story that I think we have to disagree with that story.
And tell a different story about commitment, and fidelity, and hanging in there together, and what does that look like. And we have to celebrate people who go through times when they don’t much like each other, but they stay together anyway because they made a promise. And they find a way to like each other again. That’s not as catchy a movie script. But we have to look for ways to make that a more enticing story I think. Because frankly when you’re 17 that romantic story sounds really enticing. But by the time you’re 30 and you’ve thought that several different people might be the one, and you found out that they’re not.
That romantic story is no longer terribly believable. And most people by that time are looking for a different story, they want a different story. And some people don’t take quite that long to figure it out. I mean some of my students figure it out already after one false experience. They’re quick learners, you know they’re 19 and they already know that story of the one, that can’t be true. So that’s what I was thinking of. Am I answering your question?
[Male Audience Member] I, probably. I was just… [laughter] Yeah I just think there was a natural reason counterpart, a part from the church that we need to be mindful of, and I think you are. I was just–
And I don’t disagree that there’s some natural reason conversation to have. I just don’t think we should put a lot of stock in that conversation. I don’t think you should expect that having a natural reason conversation about the nature of marriage is going to produce political victory.
[Male Audience Member] Well that’s, okay but you just gave one. You just gave a very plausible one that would appeal to a non Christian, a non believer. So I guess that’s the type of thing I meant.
Male: Hi, I really enjoyed it. My thought is, probably the majority of the people in the room, based on how this was going, this is like preaching to the choir for a lot of us. These are probably the people who’ve had these same thoughts, or found themselves mostly in agreement. But what about the people who wouldn’t come to something like this, do you have thoughts on how do we reach the other parts of the church who would be either totally in opposition, or kind of like you give the example of the mainline denominations who have the people coming, but aren’t discipling afterwords. Do you have any thoughts on how we who are in agreement here reach the rest of the church to give us a better name?
Well I would guess that most people in this room are part of larger associations. Right so if you in your congregation are starting to have a conversation about being more hospitable in certain ways. How can we both be hospitable, and be truthful, and how do we find the path that let’s us be both those things. How can we be truthful but not men spirited, and how do we find the path that can do both those things. How can we let go of this political game and start having different kinds of conversations.
If that’s happening in your congregation surely there are other people in your association of churches, or in your neighborhood, or in your ministerium who would benefit from your experience. And I would also guess that most of the people in this room even if you’re sympathetic to everything I said it’s probably still not happening in your churches exactly that way. So you know, start at home.
And I would guess that if you do this really well in your congregation, other congregations that you are tied to in whatever way will start to come to you and say, could you help us do that too. Because this conversation is not gonna go away. And if you figure out how to have it well in your congregation other people will want to learn from you about how to do it.
Another Male: Thank you Dr. Smit. Real quick the last retort over here to the kind of romantic determinism narrative that you mentioned. I was looking at first Corinthians 13, just yesterday, I guess it was, Sunday. And one of the things you see there is as evangelicals we’re very quick to point out that love’s an action. Love’s not just emotion, or sentiment. And yet when you read through the list of things listed in first Corinthians 13, they’re actions. If I give my body to be burned but have not love.
If I sell all I possess and give it to the poor but have not love. When we take that paradigm and implement that then in marriage, in our preaching, in our counseling, do we encourage couples then that yes keep your vows, do what you’ve promised to do, be faithful to what God’s called you to do ’cause he’s a faithful God, and you’re to be faithful to your calling. But and then ask them to pray for those reoriented affections, is that how you’d?
Yeah I think, I think that that’s certainly a good place to start but also that our affections get animated through our actions most of the time. But I agree that it can’t just be a duty. That’s not what we’re calling people to. I do think that this gets to the magnanimity project that I’m working on that, Lewis says we’re empty in our chest because we don’t have stable, disciplined, organized desires and loves that we teach to our children. Things like honor, and patriotism.
We’ve become a culture in which we think that these sorts of loves and desires are personal, and it’s up to you. It’s a matter of taste. The church has to again become a place where we teach things about sexuality and marriage that fill in that chest which is an emotional place. But it’s not an impulsive place. So it’s about loves, but it’s the kind of loves in first Corinthians 13 that love hopes all things, and believes all things right. Hope and belief are virtues. So it’s a virtuous kind of emotion.
And emotional life that’s shaped by virtue. That is trained, that is trained from the time you’re a child. That you learn within your community. Not something that you do all by yourself, that you make up for yourself, but that becomes a communal norm. And I think our emotional responses are often communal norms. If you notice, for instance on the news when you watch a news shot of a family getting the information that someone in the family has died. There are very different in which people will react to that. And it’s all culturally shaped. People learn how they’re supposed to react. This is an extremely emotional moment.
But people experience that emotion differently depending on their culture now what if we created that kind of a culture within the church where we genuinely had kind of a predisposition to certain emotional responses within marriage that were stable. And that were conducive to the fidelity, and affection, and this long term relationship. I think that that used to be there. It’s not just that people in there for, out of duty. But that there was an assumption that it would be dishonorable not to do this.
It would be wounding to me not to do this. It would be against everything that I value and love not to stay in my marriage. And we’ve lost some of that. So yes I think it can’t just be action. But it’s not emotion the way we usually think of emotion either. Does that make sense? [someone speaking off microphone]
Dr. Smit thank you so much. We recently launched a Biola Center for Marriage and Relationships. And I laughed out loud when you said one of the things we do poorly is we’ve allowed ourselves to be co-opted by the marriage industry. I would love for you to elaborate on that. We just posted on our website, research from Pew Research that said how much you spend on your wedding is an indicator of the future stability of the marriage. So I was wondering what you were getting at, no in a bad way, that it shows in a bad way.
I think we were guessing that, yeah.
We would be in a lot of trouble if that was, yeah. [laughter] But I was wondering what you meant by that. And how have we been co-opted. And how would we push against that tidal wave of status and privilege and things like that.
Well I was actually thinking of a blog post I put up maybe a year ago, I don’t remember. I just retweeted it this morning. You can find it on my Twitter feed. ‘Cause I was getting ready for this. About this whole problem of cake bakers, and florists who don’t want to serve same sex couples and I said okay. Are you serving unequally yoked couples?
Are you serving non Christian couples. So where is your line gonna be about how Christian has to be before you’ll sell them a cake? [laughter] And I think it’s perfectly legitimate, if you want to set up a Christian bakery for Christian weddings okay. There are all sorts of industries that serve the church. And most of you pastors get piles of catalogs for them every week right.
There are industries that only sell to churches. But if you became that kind of a bakery say, where you would only sell a cake to someone who met the test for a genuinely Christian wedding you would not be able to make a living. Okay so it would have to be a charity or a hobby, or something you did on the side right.
And what I was saying at the end of that post was wouldn’t that be fantastic? If Christians stopped buying into the industry and instead you just have a lady in your church who likes to bake, who makes the cakes for the people in this church when you get married. And you have the hand made buns in the church basement which are assembled by the youth group or, [laughter] if you just refused to buy into that industry, this whole question of who do I have to serve, I think that could evaporate very quickly. But only if we as churches refuse to be part of that industry.
Audience Member: Dr. Smit. Back here in the back, real quick. I got a little nervous with my friend here, ’cause we didn’t spend that much on our wedding but, [laughing and laughter]
Your good then.
Audience Member: We’re still together. We’re still together. Ha. But my question is, when you deal with diversity, when you deal with, myself as a church planter, planting in the urban context. The context that I’m in, how do we change the normative as far as I have 14 year old triplets that go to school, that are now becoming aware of, I have friends that don’t have a mom and dad in the home.
So how do I as a pastor begin to push forward in that to where now I’m knowing that I have to share with a generation of youth who will become young adults who will become the adults in our church, about the idea and the nicety of marriage, because that’s not what they’ve seen. So how do, how do I push forward in that, through some frustration, and being okay with the singleness, but of course making marriage something that is not so foreign to this generation of folks that I’m pastoring.
I wish I had a magic answer to that. And I don’t. I feel for the difficulty that you’re in. I do think that your own marriage becomes a pretty powerful message. That the strength of your marriage in that context must be very attractive to a lot of those children who say wow, if only my parents could be like that. So that’s putting a lot on you.
But I do think looking for other couples that you can bring into mentor your youth. And talking about it really explicitly. That the way things are is not the way they’re supposed to be and that’s true for all of us. The world is not the way it’s supposed to be. But can we talk together about this little corner of the world, making it more like Jesus envisioned. That’s the best I’ve got to give ya. [someone speaking off microphone]
Female: I’ll go ahead and snag this ’cause I’ve got the mic. [laughter] I just wanna say thank you for the conversations on singleness. I think one of the question I have is we’ve been talking about marriage and singleness.
And I’m curious as to if you have any thoughts or ideas about key things we really need to focus in on as far as what does it mean to have some rights of passage in our Christian culture for mature adulthood. If marriage is not the right of passage, how do we reshape culture that says adulthood is the right of passage, and how do we define what that Christian adulthood looks like.
Yeah that’s a very good question. I mean I do remember being in my 30s and thinking so do I have to register with someone to get decent dishes? [laughter] I mean it would just really be nice to have nice dishes. [laughter] So I get the right of passage thing.
And I have not found that right of passage yet myself. I do find that often singles do these things for each other. Treat, sort of acknowledge each other. Here’s my moment. So a lot of single people are aware of their own right of passage. It’s like the first time I went to a restaurant by myself. And I just was comfortable being alone. Or when I move into an apartment alone. And I was all right with that. Or when I finally started taking on certain responsibilities that I never really took on because someday there’s gonna be a man doin’ that for me. No he’s not coming, time you learn how to fix your car. So I think a lot of single people have these moments where they can articulate their own right of passage, but the community doesn’t recognize the adulthood of these people.
I mean it seems to me that even if you don’t have a ritual in your congregation, what if you just started evaluating single people the way you evaluate married people. I mean if you say we really need someone who knows something about finance on this committee. Oh look here’s an accountant who’s 26 years old and not yet married but who knows a lot about finance. Why isn’t that good enough?
Why do you say no you’re not actually mature enough ’cause you’re not married. Or maybe you have more spiritual standards in your church which would be nice. Maybe you are actually evaluating people based on leadership like is this person in daily prayer. Is this person reading scripture regularly. Is there evidence in this person’s life of that kind of spiritual maturity? There are plenty of married people invited to be leaders in the church who do not display those things.
And plenty of single people who do display them who are not invited into leadership. If you have the same sorts of things that you’re looking for and you don’t, you just refuse to make marriage the marker of having now become responsible. That’s the best I’ve got to offer. But it would be kind of nice if there were some moment when when we all said we’re grownups. I don’t know if that’s gonna happen in our society any time soon. [bright music]