Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Fate of the Family & the Future of the Church?

Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, posted an article on his blog concerning the relationship between family and church attendance. Some of the conclusions are interesting, and perplexing. Mohler begins the article:

"Is the future of our congregations tied to the fate of the family? Professor W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia is sure that this is so, and his research and analysis is impossible to ignore. In his essay, 'As the Family Goes," published in First Things, Wilcox argues that the future of America's Christian congregations will "rise and fall with the fortunes of the intact, married family.'"

Mohler then quotes some of the study:

"Currently, men are 57 percent less likely to attend church regularly if they are not married with children, compared to men who are married with children. Women are 41 percent less likely to attend church regularly if they are single and childless. Marriage does more than bind a man to one woman; it also ties a man to a local congregation.


For men, marriage, fatherhood, and churchgoing are a package deal. Men's comparatively fragile faith often depends on wifely encouragement to flower. More important, fatherhood often awakens in men a sense of paternal responsibility that extends to their children's religious and moral welfare. Men are much less likely to identify with and be able to fulfill the responsibilities of fatherhood--including the religious ones--if they are not married to the mother of their children. This is why divorce is much more likely to drive men away from church than it is women."

Mohler then comments:

"This makes a great deal of sense and a look at congregational life will tell the story. Marginalize marriage, depreciate childbearing and fatherhood, and say goodbye to young adult men in church."

There is more to the article, but the above quotes get to the heart of what I find perplexing. While I appreciate the study, and see how Professor Wilcox arrived at his conclusions, I find the conclusions somewhat anti-biblical. I trust his research. I just don't trust the relevance of his argument. Here's why.

"I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided" (1Cor. 7:32-34). I'm amazed that 1 Corinthians 7 deals almost exclusively with things concerning marriage, and yet it shapes so little of our thought about marriage. I think the reason for this is because Paul puts Christ before marriage, and we don't like it. We like marriage. We want to build a comfortable little life on earth with our wife and kids. We don't want Paul suggesting that it just might be possible, let alone more godly, to remain single for the sake of the gospel.

When I place the Wilcox study, and the Mohler comment against 1 Corinthians 7, I come to radically different conclusions. First, Paul doesn't seem to think that remaining unmarried, and therefore childless, will hinder the advance of the gospel. Paul's primary concern in urging folks to remain unmarried is the advance of the gospel. Wilcox says the church grows through strong marriages and families. Paul says the opposite. Paul is obviously not opposed to strong marriages and families (Eph. 5-6). He just sees them as part of "the present form of this world" that is "passing away" (1 Cor. 7:31). Paul is telling people in Corinth to remain unmarried for the sake of church growth. Wilcox is suggesting that church growth is impossible without marriage. Do you see the conflict?

Next, Wilcox seems to say that as marriage goes, so goes the church. Mohler seems to agree with him. "For men, marriage, fatherhood, and churchgoing are a package deal." That may be the current reality in America. But that doesn't make it right. The supremacy of the gospel is totally dismissed with that statement. Churchgoing is supposed to flow from being saved. Marriage and fatherhood do not. So to lump them all together is terribly misguided.

This cultural conglomeration of church and family doesn't square with the Bible. This world is fallen. We can't base our thoughts about church and marriage on an observation of western culture. Western culture is fallen. What are we saying about the magnificence and splendor of God when we say that men will only come to church out of "a sense of paternal responsibility"? What are we saying when we say that "Marriage does more than bind a man to one woman; it also ties a man to a local congregation." Those statements may be true. But the answer to them isn't to cater to those wrong-headed notions. The answer is to preach the gospel more fervently, and trust God with the results.

What an affront to the glory of God to say that God isn't enough to keep a man tied to a local church! Poor God needs a wife to bind her husband to church? Otherwise the husband would never come to church? Well is the husband saved? Is he a Christian? Make no mistake, if God is working in a young man's heart to "give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6), then that young man will be in church whether married or not.

Now if we want to achieve some result to make ourselves feel good, whether God is working or not, then we can try to "tie" people to church through marriage. But that is not advancing the Kingdom of God. It is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. I fear that most cultural studies end up detracting from the glory of God because they don't begin with God. They begin with fallen culture.

I appreciate Dr. Mohler's insights. I highly recommend his blog to everyone. I read it every day. I just don't think this particular article jives with the Bible. It jives with the evangelical "family values" notion of society. But that isn't always necessarily biblical. God doesn't need marriage. He doesn't need families. When America completely throws family values out the window, divorce is even more rampant, childlessness is even more prevalent, and the church is even more hated, God's gospel-purposes for America will be unaffected. Mohler asks, "Is the future of our congregations tied to the fate of the family?" No, Dr. Mohler. The future of our congregations is tied to the sovereign purposes of God. The gospel transcends family values.

1 comment:

Antonio Romano said...

Excellent, excellent, excellent. Our American ideals (tied to the American dream) have caused us to culturally lay far too much value on marriage. It isn't that marriage is bad but that isn't what you are saying. It just isn't ultimate. God is ultimate. And He will achieve every single purpose He has. One might think that with marriage being the backbone of church, Jesus would have thought about taking a wife. But He didn't even have a home. Or 2.5 kids. Great post, Darby.