Our Idolatry of Marriage

Photo credits: SheCat, stock.xchng

Before you read this post, please step back for a minute.  Evaluate where you’re coming from.  Maybe you’re single.  Maybe you’re married.  Maybe you’re somewhere in between.  Maybe you’re completely something else or the designation is irrelevant to you.  Whatever the case may be, acknowledge your perspective and be grateful that God’s given you your unique perspective and situation.  At the same time, as you read my honest thoughts, please be honest with yourself.  Just as my perspective greatly influences what I have to say, your perspective will influence your reaction.

With your perspective in mind, continue on.  The issue I want to address in this post is our Christian twisting of what God intended as a sacred gift–that of marriage and family–into a God-mandated life mission… the pursuit of which is often elevated above the pursuit of God Himself.

Please know that none of what I’ve written below is meant to say “marriage is bad” or that it’s wrong or sinful to desire or seek marriage.  If you want to read about how great marriage can be or how it can be a fundamental part of life, then there are plenty of places where you can read about that… but I’m not going to repeat what others have already said.

What I am going to do is respond to the messages about marriage that I’ve felt, participated in, and observed in a variety of Christian settings.  I’ve arranged this blog post into three messages that I believe to be not only false, but harmful.  I’ve paired each message with my response.

#1: What We’ve Been Told: Marriage is our life’s mission. Examples include: disproportionate number of sermons and church groups aimed towards marriage and family, the “fresh meat” mentality of singles groups, etc.

My Response: Getting married and/or having children is not anyone’s life mission (it’s not what God has called us to do).  Marriage and/or children may be part of our lives and something with which He blesses us (which some days may feel like He’s cursed us!).  But God doesn’t command it or set it before us as His goal for our lives.

Instead, Jesus tells us the greatest commandments are 1) to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind and 2) to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22: 37-40).  How much of our expression of these two commandments is lost when we are obsessed with finding someone to marry?

Our mission as Christians is largely wrapped up in those two commandments, but just to further underline my point, here’s Jesus’ “great commission” to His disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:16-20).  Note the absence of, “And by the way, don’t forget to get married and have two kids while you’re at it.”
Next time you go to a Christian wedding, listen to what Scripture passages are read.  It’s hard to find Scripture passages about marriage that fit within our cultural frame for marriage.  Here’s a few commonly pushed into the mold of the service…

  • “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” This passage (Ruth 1:16b-17) is beautiful, no question about it. But it’s not about a married couple. It’s Ruth’s passionate promise to follow her foreign mother-in-law, Naomi, back to her homeland, after all of Naomi’s sons (including Ruth’s husband) have died.
  •  Set me as a seal upon your heart,
  • as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord.” Careful here… there’s nothing in Song of Solomon (8:6) to suggest that these lovers are married.

  • “Love is patient, love is kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude…” I’m not going to type all of 1 Corinthians 13 here, but you get the picture.  1 Corinthians 13 is incredible, and certainly this description of love extends to all parts of life, including marriage… but it is not referring to marriage; it’s referring to something and Someone much, much bigger.  As the chapter continues…“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.  So now faith, hope, and love abide; but the greatest of these is love.”

#2: What We’ve Been Told: Marriage will fulfill us.  You’ve seen the christianmingle.com advertisements.  “Find God’s match for you!” or, their favorite verse, Psalm 37:4…  “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.”

My Response: We will never feel completely fulfilled on this earth, and getting married and/or having children is not going to change that. (Psalm 37, by the way, says nothing about marriage.  It
is, however, an interesting and beautiful Psalm, and I encourage you to read the whole thing… just be ready for plenty of condemnation of the “wicked” along with the upholding of the “righteous.”)

Don Miller described this phenomenon of seeking fulfillment in marriage so simply and accurately: “I don’t mean to insinuate there are no minor climaxes to human stories.  There are….a girl can want to get married and feel euphoric when the man of her dreams slides a ring on her finger.  But these aren’t the stories I’m talking about.  These are substories… the girl is going to wake up three months into her marriage and realize she is, in fact, still lonely, and so many of her issues haven’t gone away.”  He goes on to explain that this climax to a substory isn’t the climax to the human story.

This pattern–of asking a fulfillment of marriage that it cannot provide–reminds me of a Kacey Musgraves song. The entire song is context-specific, but I find the broken merry-go-round image so helpful here…

Merry Go 'Round by Kacey Musgraves on Grooveshark
If you ain’t got two kids by 21,
You’re probably gonna die alone.
Least that’s what tradition told you.
And it don’t matter if you don’t believe,
Come Sunday morning, you best be
there in the front row like you’re supposed to.
Same hurt in every heart.
Same trailer, different park.

Mary, Mary quite contrary.
We get bored, so, we get married
Just like dust, we settle in this town.
On this broken merry go ’round and ’round and ’round we go
Where it stops nobody knows and it ain’t slowin’ down.
This merry go ’round.

A friend recently told me about a 20-year-old girl very concerned because she didn’t have any prospects for a husband, and asked her Christian friends to pray for her.  There are so many other things that a 20-year-old can be thinking about and living for… but she’s grown up believing that life starts when you’re married, and not having that within her grasp is unsettling. One of the main problems at the heart of this “life starts when you’re married” fallacy is it encourages a broken cycle.  Getting married and having children is perfectly fine, of course, and that doesn’t prevent or even necessarily inhibit having an impact on the world around you.  But if getting married and having children is our primary goal or all we plan to do in life… and that’s all our children plan to do… when do we (and our children) engage and impact the world around us as Christ calls us to do?

#3: What We’ve Been Told: The church contributes only to marriage, not divorce.

My Response: We, the church, need to take partial responsibility for the divorce rate in our midst. 

I’ve heard many a pastor confusedly address the fact that the divorce rate within the church is no different than the secular divorce rate.  I believe this is due largely to the fact that the church’s message about marriage is no different from the rest of the world’s: “Your life doesn’t really begin until you’ve found ‘the one’ and have a family.”  If young people enter into marriage believing that it is God’s central calling for their lives and that it will fulfill their aching for relationship, then it is no wonder they become disillusioned when they realize much of marriage neither helps them live out their calling or fulfill their aching.

A friend shared with me about an experience she had as a freshman at a well-known and well-respected Christian college.  She, along with a few of her classmates, was excited to be invited to a breakfast with the college president.  She was surprised when the president suddenly asked the gathering of students, “So, what’s wrong with the dating scene here?  Are you all just wimps, or what?”  At first she thought that he really wanted to know–until he called them all wimps.  My friend felt the president had opened the door and slammed it at the same time.  She went through college believing that dating “was reserved for pretty girls who attracted handsome men who would escort them out of their dorm and down the aisle.”  She realizes now that this “marriage hunt” mentality “put a lot of pressure on young adults who were serious students and hadn’t completely figured themselves out yet.”

If the church is responsible for marriage, then the church is also responsible for divorce.  We cheer young people to take that ring and make those vows… then condemn them when what we encouraged them to do becomes a miserable and life-defeating situation that leads them to make the decision to divorce.

The wise friend I mentioned above has had another helpful realization in the several years since college: there are all different kinds of stories that people live.  It would benefit us all to let those stories be lived in full pursuit of God’s calling, whether or not that calling happens to include marriage.

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One Response to Our Idolatry of Marriage

  1. Etta Oben says:

    Well put, Ms. Dause. As I’ve grown older and remained single, I’ve realized your stance rings true. The church heavily pushes marriage as if it’s “the main goal”, when really the main goal is to abide by the will of God through the obedience of His two great commandments. Many people, especially those who are single, should read your blog. It provides the unabashed, rarely discussed truth about God’s vision for our lives regardless of marital status. Thanks.

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