Christianity: A Centered Set

Many things about faith cause me to struggle. I’m not a guy who claims to have all of it figured out: while there are a few beliefs I think are important enough that I’ve put my stake in the ground regarding them, there’s a lot, even things that are very important to me, that I hold in fairly open hands. One of my bigger challenges are those Christian churches with a wildly different set of beliefs from my own. What do I do? Do I embrace them even though I think some of their beliefs are dangerous (and they no doubt think the same of mine) or put them on the “outside”, labeling them a “bridge to far”? Or what about when I disagree with something taught at my own church? It can be challenging to both be open mind while having a passion for pursuing the truth.

I was introduced to a concept recently believe has a lot of promise: it’s called a “Centered Set”. The idea is to differentiate between “bounded” and “centered” sets. The first kind of set is fairly familiar: you draw boundaries, and everything that is outside of them does does not belong to the set. Think of a farmer with cattle. He puts a fence around them to identify which cattle belong to him. But say that farmer has too much land to build a fence, so instead he builds wells that attract the cattle. The cattle aren’t bounded, but rather they are grouped by the points that attract them. Centered sets are identified by movement in relation to a point rather than movement within a boundary, and that is a very different way of looking at groups of individuals.

The visible church (made up of those who are externally identified as Christians) operates a lot like a bounded set: members confess doctrines/creeds that identify them as believers and they are defined by these professions of faith. The problem with this is that we can’t agree on the boundaries, and even if we could, we don’t really know the true state of a person’s heart, whatever he or she confesses. Because of this Christianity has long held the notion of the invisible church: real Christian who truly have faith and belief. The visible and invisible churches may line up a great deal (one would hope), but they will not always coincide: there are those who fall within a bounded set by profession that are not true believers, and those who are outside the bounded set yet truly do have real faith. This is where I think the concept of the centered set becomes compelling.

I believe the real key to someone’s faith is answering this question: is he or she moving toward Jesus? Not distance, but direction. If someone seems close to Jesus but is moving away, that person is not part of the centered set, unlike someone far away who is moving closer (note: when I say “moving away”, I mean permanently; not someone who is going through a season of struggle- often those kinds of struggles may look like walking away, but are really about drawing closer to Jesus than ever before). I would say it is reasonable to identify Christians as those moving in the direction of Jesus and pursuing him.

I was reminded of this today as my personal study and the Sunday morning preaching collided. I’ve been reading through Judges, and the awful behavior exhibited by many of these leaders has caused me great pause. For example, Samson neglected his wife, broke his nazarite vows, and slept with a prostitute. There’s no record of repentance for these actions, though God used him in mighty ways. It is true God that can use sinners and unbelievers, but Samson found his way into the great hall of faith in Hebrews 11 (the verse we studied this morning), so he is the real deal.

But this morning’s text had one verse in particular stood out to me:

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:6, ESV)

The emphasis here is just what I’ve been thinking about with centered sets. The measure isn’t the righteous acts a person has accomplished or the ability to abstain from evil, but rather the overall direction. Did Samson believe in God? Absolutely he did. But believing in God is not enough, we must seek him, even through our sin. No matter how far or close we are to him, we need to turn and walk toward him. Samson did a lot of terrible things, but he also ultimately sought to do the Lord’s will, sacrificing himself in the end.

I’ve begun challenging myself to think in terms of a centered set, not bounded one, when it comes to Christianity. Certainly I have my own set of bounded beliefs, and I don’t think that’s wrong. That is the fruit of study, prayer, and experience. I would be foolish to not try to make sense of my own faith and place limits on what I think is good and true. However, I think the takeaway is that I should not be quick to assume someone within my same bounded set is a brother or sister in Christ, and someone without is not. I probably can’t see the true trajectory of the heart, and that means I should be humble, speaking the truth as I know it, but not quick to judgement of others.

The personal challenge for me is not to measure my distance from Jesus, but whether I am drawing nearer to him. Am I going a direction that centers him in my path, or somewhere else? It can be easy to rest comfortably within a bounded set of beliefs and behaviors others deem acceptable, but such does nothing to protect me or give me hope. The only real hope is my destination and center. And when it comes to other believers, I can accept when we don’t agree, even on big doctrines, if it seems we are ultimately headed after Jesus. And those who do agree but behave in ways that concern me, that should send up red flags. How all of this works out in practical terms is still a challenge for me, but I think I’m drawing closer to the kind of unity and discernment God calls me to in scripture.

Experience Counts

There are two archetypes I consistently see portrayed regarding people of faith. The first the believer whose faith is based on experience, constantly chasing after the next spiritual high and snubbing his or her nose at those who dive too deep into theology. The second is the flip side of the coin: those who discount experiential faith, remind others that the heart is deceitful, and are always pointing to knowledge of scripture as the only real way to know God. Of course, most people are not this extreme in either direction, but these archetypes exist for a reason.

I’m not an advocate for completely experiential faith, but I do strongly believe that we should not discount it entirely lest we miss an important tool God has given us in the process of our sanctification. The scripture is quite clear that our experiences matter and God uses them for our growth:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4, ESV)

Trials are certainly experiences, and God uses them to test our faith and grow us. Yes, we understand them in the light of scripture, but we still have to experience trials to have the spiritual maturity, perfect and complete, that God desires for us.

I remember when I was going through my divorce that I had many questions I’d never asked before. To answer them I sought wise counsel, dove deep into scripture, and prayed a lot; I cannot think of a better picture of James 1:2-4. I was going through a trial, it tested my faith, and it produced a stronger, more informed set of beliefs. But there were many who questioned what came out of that trial. “Would you hold the same beliefs about divorce if you hadn’t gone through it?” they would ask. I understood the subtext: they were questioning my objectivity. The implication was that I was not biased.

Well, it’s true that I was not biased. My experience ran up against a lack of understanding in scripture. My limited view on divorce theology did not include what I was going through and the answers I had before my trial were not sufficient. I needed to see how the love of God and his truth made sense in my situation.

But bias is not the silver bullet that destroys a belief. If it did, we’d all be sunk: every one of us comes at questions with bias. The real issue is whether our bias drives us to seek deeper truth and wrestle until every piece fits, or whether it causes us to ignore truth all together in favor of what we want to be true. I think it is no accident that the very next verse in James tells us God will give us wisdom if we seek it with a sincere heart:

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. (James 1:5-8, ESV)

If we truly seek truth when we are in trials, we will find God’s heart, bias or not. My experience not only helped me to dive deep and wrestle with scripture, but it gave me empathy for others I’d never had. When the subject of divorce and remarriage comes up, I can always tell when I’m talking with someone who hasn’t experienced it: his or her understanding and theology are very surface level, very often parroting well worn ideas entrenched in the church that fall short of addressing all the needs people have when going through divorce. I know these ideas well because I used to hold them.

I admit, I struggle a bit with feeling shame that I had to experience divorce in order to really understand it. I feel like I should have been informed enough and studied enough in scripture that I knew it all before I went into it myself. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?

Well, no, it isn’t. James 1:2-4 tells us that God uses trials to grow us and make our faith perfect. Why would we think we could be good enough to understand everything simply by studying ideas we never put into practice? Certainly the scripture is our rule of faith, but our understanding is perfected by our trials. To deny that is to take the life out of faith, because Christianity is a faith to be lived, not just thought about.

Experience counts. It’s not the only part of our faith, but we should not be ashamed of it or try to discount it. We should embrace it, whether joyful or painful, and use it to study, grow, and pray bigger and deeper.

Stage Diving Without A Net

Today my heart nearly stopped in terror. It was after church and I was having a conversation with a few guys on the worship team. I was standing in front of the stage (we meet in a high school auditorium) which is at about the level of my shoulders. My four year old son had gone around to the side, climbed up the stairs, and walked up to the edge of the stage. He loves to jump into my arms (off of play equipment, usually) and indicated that’s what he wanted to do. I lifted my hands up to tell him that I’d catch him, but he shook his head and stepped a few steps to the side where no one was standing. I told him not to jump and then stopped paying close attention. He’s smart enough to know not to jump off of a stage without someone to catch him.

Or so I thought. He took a flying leap- not feet first, but head first, arms outstretched. There was no hesitation at all- he absolutely knew I would catch him. I did manage to react in time and step into his flight path, but I can tell you it scared me to death. He really had no clue that I might not have made it. To him, I was “daddy” and that meant I can catch or stop anything. I can protect him from any kind of danger. One of these days he’ll realize I’m not that powerful, but thankfully today wasn’t that day. He went on, oblivious to how much danger he’d been in, even when I reprimanded him and he got in trouble. I could see in his eyes that he had no idea the stakes of his poor choice.

Reflecting on this, it made me think of our relationship with God. How sometimes even though he’s told us over and over again the consequences, we just don’t get it. We go off the deep end and make horrible choices, expecting that he will catch us. In his grace and mercy, often he does. Praise him for that! But how much better would it be if we trusted him when he tells us “That course of action is bad”? I recently saw a cartoon of a character leaping over a “fence”, only to realize it was a guardrail protecting him from going off a cliff. This is so true about how we think about God and his “rules”. We resent them, even though they are there for our good and protection. Alex had no clue that when I told him “no” that he was in danger; he just saw it as a place to push a boundary. Some day I hope he will learn that my guidance and direction are for his good, not to limit him. And I hope I will learn that about God as well.

But there’s another aspect to Alex’s aerial adventure that gives me heart. There is no doubt in my mind that he would have never attempted what he did without me standing there. No one else in the world gives him the confidence to leap with complete trust that he’ll be caught. Was his trust misplaced? Of course, and that’s something he’ll have to learn. But the truth his, he believes in me. He believes in my goodness and he trusts that I will always desire to protect and love him. That is the relationship of a father and son, and anyone who knows Alex knows he feels that relationship deeply.

This moves me, because this is how the scripture describes our relationship with God. We are grafted into the body, and God is our Father. We have that intimate relationship with him where he invites us to trust in his love and provision. We may misuse this at times and do our own share of leaping off the stage, but this itself is a testament to the real connection we have with the Creator of all that is. We revere and fear God, but we are also close to him. Close enough that we can trust he will catch us when we fall, protect us when enemies attack, or even be there when we take a header off a stage.

I praise God for his grace and goodness. I hope that as I am sanctified I will learn to trust God more in the right ways, not test him with risky behavior. But most of all, I’m grateful that I am his son and he is my Father, for that relationship is the most important one I will ever have.

The High Cost of Free Will

I believe that humans have free will. For those who want to argue this with me (knowing I’m a Calvinist), that is a discussion for another time and place. This is not a theological post exploring how the sovereignty of God and human free will can co-exist (though I believe they do); rather this is a personal post about the sad choices we make with our free will and how much damage we can do.

Most people, especially in the U.S., place a high value our autonomy. We want the freedom to do great things, or by contrast self destruct if that is what we choose. We are fiercely protective of this freedom, both for ourselves and others. The problem with is that no one lives in isolation; we cannot make bad choices without hurting those who love us.

When the people we love choose to self destruct, I can say from firsthand experience it is easy to wish we had control over their lives. The answers are so clear, if they could just make good choices so much pain could be avoided. The song “How To Save A Life” by “The Fray” really captures the helplessness so well. The truth is, none of us can save someone who does not wish to be saved. It is out of our hands.

I’ve had the conversation this song describes on multiple occasions. It’s painful to lose friends to bad choices. More than being painful, it’s so helpless. You just want to get into their heads and help them see what you see; know what you know. You will do anything and everything to save them, but you cannot.

This is the high cost of free will. People will make bad choices that hurt us, and we will make bad choices that hurt others. Is it worth it? I believe it was God’s good pleasure to give us the freedom to sin, and I trust in his goodness. But where I really want to focus right now is how this pain brings clarity to our relationships with God. When I watch someone I love self destruct, I can understand a small part of what God must feel when he watches us walk into the sin that destroys us. When I’ve had to put up boundaries and say goodbye to my good friends who have become unsafe, I can see God establishing his own boundaries as he expelled Adam and Even (and all of humanity) from the Garden. We have broken his heart so much. So much.

It’s so easy to focus on the human side of the equation when we read scripture. How much we’ve lost in the fall and how we’ve repeated the sin of our parents Adam and Eve ever since. How much pain we’ve received from the wars we’ve fought that were only necessary because of human rebellion. But we should never miss that God created something for us perfect and we walked away. That he gave Israel a law for their blessing, and they broke it repeatedly. That ultimately he suffered the very effects of this sin by taking on human form and dying on a cross.

Every person has the stamp of God on him or her. No one who walks away from God does it without doing damage to a life that is valued and worth an immeasurable amount to its Creator. The cost of free will is indeed high, and that point was driven home to me again recently. I hope that as I struggle with my own sin and poor choices, I can be reminded of how this must feel to God, watching me walk down roads that hurt myself, him, and the ones I love.

I praise God for the Gospel and that there is no condemnation for those in Christ, but it does sober my heart to remember that there are consequences for the choices we make. It makes we want to do better, not because I want to earn favor with God, but because his way is good and his path leads to the greater, more abundant life he desires for me.

The First Act of Grace

What was the first act of God’s grace recorded in scripture? I would argue (really, R.C. Sproul would argue it and I’m just lifting his exposition here) that it is found in Genesis 3:

And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them. (Genesis 3:21, ESV)

Clothing was God’s first gift of grace to us after the Fall. Before the Fall, humans were naked and unashamed. We were completely vulnerable, physically, spiritually, and emotionally, hiding nothing from God or one another. After the Fall, everything changed. We had shame. We felt shame. We became fearful of others not only knowing what we’d done, but who we were. And thus God, in his mercy, provided clothing. He covered our physical nakedness, but in so doing he also demonstrated a covering of our spiritual and emotional nakedness as well.

I believe this speaks volumes about how we were designed, and also why we need the Gospel so much. We are a people created for intimacy. We require vulnerability to function properly. In a broken world of sin, we can no longer expose ourselves with the freedom we need, and yet in the proper created order of things, we could be honest about ourselves without fear of God or others. There are always people trying to push the limits of vulnerability, exposing themselves more than others, but it is not a comfortable thing to do (borrowing from R.C. Sproul again, he says there is a reason it’s called “streaking” instead of “strolling”!), not for the one exposing or the people who have to observe the vulnerability. We have become separated from one another by sin.

This is one reason marriage is such an important institution for humans. It provides a relationship where two individuals can get closer to our created state of vulnerability than any other, but with it also comes a danger. In a healthy marriage, physical, emotional, and spiritual exposure results in unparalleled acceptance and grace: a husband and wife bound in intimacy can show all of their flaws and be found loved, respected, and cherished. In an unhealthy marriage such exposure can result in abandonment or abuse, which is why marital violations are so hard.

I’ve been thinking a lot about masks recently, and while everyone seems to decry masks in the church, more often than not people are punished for not having them. If we do not show the right kind of spiritual life, or if we are too vulnerable with people, we can easily make them uncomfortable and not want to be around us. And in a sense, this is a place where we need to take a cue from God’s first act of grace: though in a perfect world we were created to be vulnerable, it is appropriate to cloth ourselves and shield some of our nakedness. Does that mean that we should happily put on masks and live out false lives before others? I don’t think so, but it does mean we need to respect boundaries and realize that not everyone needs to be subject to every intimate details of our lives.

But having said that, as a church I do think it is our charge to make people more comfortable with vulnerability than they are in the world. When someone enters into a worship service, they should feel more open, not less, to letting people in. Looking at the life of Jesus, one episode (recorded in all four Gospels) stands out:

One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”

“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves,“Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:36-50, ESV)

What strikes me here is the vulnerability of this woman and the discomfort it causes others. She comes before Jesus giving herself over to him, and the Pharisee is concerned about “what sort of woman this is who is touching him”. The Pharisee is wearing a mask, and she has none.

We need and crave intimacy. It is part of our DNA and how we were created. If we spend our lives surrendered to making our outward appearances match expectations, we will never be completely whole. We will constantly live in fear of being found out and rejection. We will never be able to truly live out the Gospel, which says we are free based on a foreign righteousness. This woman accepted that she was vulnerable before Jesus, and she came with everything exposed. He knew her sins (as did most, it seems), and he accepted and loved her. He even commended her ability to love.

The Gospel sets us free from the curse of sin. Though we are still making our way through this broken world and that means we will never in this life be able to get to the true kind of vulnerability we were created to need, we must strive to be a people of intimacy: a people where we can invite honesty in worship, service, our relationships, and every other area of our lives. Because while God’s first act of grace was to protect us in our vulnerable state, it was also to accept us as we were, broken and sinful, in need of his restoration.

Teaching The Rebellious To Rebel

Recently I had a conversation with some friends about some very popular teachers in the evangelical world who we believe are teaching false doctrine, and we considered why these men are so popular. Why do people flock to hear these teachers who claim to represent classical Reformed Theology, and yet seem to undercut it with their applications, returning to a very works orientated type faith?

This post is not about those teachers so I’m not going to name names, but about us and why we find them compelling. Why do so many of us (and I say “us” because I know I’ve been guilty of this) like to follow and trust men who will teach us how to earn our way into God’s grace, when the Bible makes it clear that such a thing is impossible and that our works are of no value toward attaining salvation?

Personally, my suspicion is that it has everything to do with the American ethic of ego and rebelliousness. By that, I mean that that it is very much in the typical American D.N.A. that we want to one up each other and just prove how tough we are. We want to stand out among the crowd and be seen as rebels who fight the system, proving our importance; nothing serves such a spirit as well as a tough works-righteousness message: “Show me the hard rules, pastor, I can take it- and I’ll do it faster and better than anyone else”.

Wait a minute, how is following rules rebellious? Surely I picked the wrong world there? Legalistic certainly, but rebellious? Nah.

No, I mean rebellious, and I’ll illustrated with a true story from my past.

Several years ago I was involved in a very powerful youth ministry. My band led the music for the Sunday evening youth service at a small church, and the youth group absolutely exploded within months. The youth pastor had a radical vision for growing his ministry, and it worked! Fun games? Nope. Pandering to their tastes and cultural designs? Not that either. What then?

It was a simple plan: he preached the scripture expository style, we spent hours in prayer with the youth, and we focused on worshiping God. There was nothing else. The focus was pure and awesome. I was hooked, and so were the youth. This was not a typical youth group, and we all knew it. The youth pastor just kept on preaching and more and more youth came.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? It did seem that way at the time. It seemed like this was the recipe for success. How could anything so purely focused on God be wrong? And yet, there was a sleeping dragon; I never saw it coming. Disunity grew between the youth and the adults. The youth pastor grew increasingly dissatisfied with the church, “abandoning” everything except for his own ministry. He convinced many of the youth that their parents might not even be saved. In his mind, the adults certainly didn’t have authentic worship. And then one day, the youth pastor didn’t show up to church. His wife came instead, and said he wasn’t coming back. The youth group fell apart completely after that, many returning to (or adopting new) bad habits.

What happened? I was bewildered. We were doing all the right things. We would spend hours in prayer with these kids, preaching directly from the scripture, line by line (and make no mistake, they were good sermons- for all his faults, the youth pastor was a fantastic expositor), and we didn’t pander to “entertainment”. How could that have ended so wrong?

I posed this question to the Senior Pastor of the church, and his words will remain with me forever: “It turns out that it is no great trick to teach teenagers to be rebellious”.

And that’s when it clicked: I got it. There’s no doubt that we were doing all the right things: the prayer, the preaching, etc. I wouldn’t change a thing if I went back. But we were deceived about our “success”. We didn’t grow because of the attractiveness of these things (though undoubtedly there were some who genuinely saw the value in what we were doing), but because we were counter-culture. We were different. We were rebellious. And what attracts a teenager like rebellion? Whether it is rebellion against parents or rebellion against the norms of the world, in those angst ridden years nothing pulls in a teenager like the idea of doing something different and radical.

And so, the truth was, we attracted many who liked the idea of rebellion, and that it was rebellion in the name of Jesus probably didn’t matter than much. And as the group grew and the youth minister attributed our success to the righteousness our methods were cultivating, a feedback loop began because he started pitting youth against their parents. When that happens, boy then you really have an attractive ministry. As the youth grew, more contempt for the adults came right along with it. Of course it all fell apart, because the hearts of the youth weren’t grounded in Christ, they were grounded in rebellion.

Was this an indictment against our methods? Hardly- what we did was good. But where we erred was believing our success was due to our methods. A heart of humility would have gone a long way toward preventing the breakdown of the ministry. We shouldn’t have been so naive as to believe that the group “got it” and measured ourselves by such success. If we had been a little more humble, no divide between the youth pastor and the parents would have occurred; instead, the families could have grown together, with parents leading their teenagers while we added the meat of authentic worship and serious Bible study.

So what does this have to do with why popular teachers are able to mislead so many? It’s because for many of us, as much as we’d like to think we’ve left the rebellious years back in the past, rebellion is still attractive. We love to prove our worth through how counter-culture we are to the world. We can show that we are big and strong by the “hard teachings” we are willing to endure “for the sake of the Gospel”. And there’s no doubt that some of these teachings are good, but I can say from experience that often my motives stink.

When you add into the mix a false teacher who will provide even more rules and a higher standard in order to receive God’s grace, then our rebellious natures kick in to overdrive. We don’t want to settle for average or what everyone else does. We want to be the big bad Calvinists (or pick any other doctrine people argue about) who can proudly speak of how awful our sin is and how we don’t know anyone as bad as us. Our self images might as well be in leather jackets and eye patches as we growl at those who won’t live as righteous a life as we do. False teachers just egg this on, allowing us to be proud of how different we are and how much disunity we can sow between ourselves and the world. Because really, they are just teaching rebellious people to be rebellious, which is not so great a trick.

What is a great trick is to humbly teach people how to work out their salvation in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, not rebelling against the world in contempt, but lighting the way for those who do not yet have the truth. Yes, part of the Christian life is living counter culture, but not to add battle scars we can brag about, but rather to increase the light around us. We are not leather-wearing spiritual soldiers destroying everything in the culture that opposes us, but rather a redeemed people rising out of our rags with humility and loving the world as God does, so much that he sent his son to die for it.

Let’s be careful about allowing ourselves to be motivated by rebellion; even if the methods and cause is right; if our hearts are proud and ready to fight, we are missing the point. This is my own struggle and I’m a susceptible as anyone, but my prayer is to be a person of a different nature, transformed and operating to a new code, not one of rebellion, but of meekness and grace, finding strength and power in the giver of all life.

Marriage and Children: Idols?

Recently I was engaged in a discussion over on The Gospel Coalition about “child-free” marriages. The general thrust of the topic is that people who elect to be married but not have children are selfish and in sin (a pass is given if you are unable to have children). I realize this is a debatable topic among Christians, and I respect those who disagree with my position peacefully, but I believe that the decision to have children is a choice, like many others, in which we should seek the will of God. I laid out my reasoning many times in the comments if you dare dig through them, but essentially I believe this is another “bolted on to the Gospel” idea that is harmful to many people (especially when taken to the extreme view of “Quiverfull” that means you have as many children as nature/God allows).

But that’s not the thrust of what I’m writing about today. What concerns me is a comment from another person as we were discussing this topic. I’d specifically called out the plight of many singles in church who are treated like second class citizens because they are not married. This is related to the arguments regarding childless couples because I believe the church has turned marriage and children into an idol. Here is my original comment:

Every page of scripture drips with the truth of the Gospel, pointing toward or pointing back to the life of Jesus and what he did for us. By comparison, the scripture says very little about families and how they ought to be conducted, and even less about children’s place in them. The central person of our faith and the greatest evangelist/theologian in Christianity both remained unmarried and without children, further suggesting that marriage and child bearing are not central to what it means to be a Christian; yet those who are unmarried and/or without children find a difficult place in the church today.

The church needs to repent of this idolatry and re-focus back on the core mission: making disciples of all nations.

Here is her response:

. . . to suggest that those who urge married couples to keep to the procreative pattern that God created at the beginning of marriage are being idolatrous is kind of ludicrous, really.

This really bothers me. I completely understand that she and I are coming from different perspectives on what we believe is a “procreative pattern that God created”. She believes that marrying and having children is a prescriptive command from scripture and I do not. I can agree to disagree there. However, I think she goes too far by calling my position “kind of ludicrous”. By doing so, she’s declaring that family can never become an idol. The very idea is appalling in her mind.

So what about it? Can something like a family that is a sure blessing from the Lord become an idol? Can it become an idol to an entire evangelical subculture? I think it absolutely can. Not only can anything that is not God become an idol for us, I think Jesus DIRECTLY addresses this issue:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26, ESV)

Now just about everyone agrees that Jesus is not telling us to hate our spouses: if he meant that it would create a huge contradiction in scripture. What we generally understand him to mean is that he MUST come first. We must count the cost and be willing to put Jesus before absolutely everything, including our families. If we don’t, we are putting our families above Jesus; in other words, making them our idols.

But the second question is: have we done this? Are families idols in the evangelical world? This is a bit more debatable, especially since we’re talking about something as fuzzy as a trend. But I would come down on the side of “yes”.

In evangelical churches, talking about families is the norm, not singles. Events are structured around families, not those who are unmarried. If you are not married, it’s a little harder to fit in, and if you ARE married but don’t have kids, people are going to be asking when they are coming. The pressure is immense and intense. Is this true everywhere? No, and I can’t cite statistics, but I’d invite you to find the single adults in your church, or the adults without children, and ask them. Ask them if they feel included as a part of the community and welcome at church. If they are not, we are showing partiality, and that’s NOT a good place for the church to be.

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (James 2:1-9, ESV)

It’s true that in this passage James is talking about personal wealth, but clearly what is in view is not to set up divisions within the church. Single or married, children or not, we should feel welcome in the house of God. If we are not seeing singles over the age of 30 in our congregations, we are not doing a good enough job of “show no partiality”. All believers should feel welcome, without division and segregation.

I think in many cases, this segregation is not intentional. I believe many married Christians really do WANT singles to feel comfortable at church, but in many cases simply don’t know how to relate. I get it: people are busy, especially when there are children with sports, piano lessons, school, and a myriad of other things going on. It’s not an attack on singles, but mostly just a different world. But that’s the catch: if we are the body of Christ, our worlds should collide. We should be known by our love for one another. The single life and the married life may be very different, but we can find communion at the table of Christ. Yes, it takes being flexible and bending for people who aren’t quite like you. They are in a different place with different goals. You may not even like some of their choices. But the body of Christ isn’t about finding other people like us, but about finding other people who are brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.

I’ve heard that the church is a collection of families, but this simply isn’t true. The church is a collection of CHRISTIANS, brothers and sister of Jesus, adopted into the faith. Some of those believers are married, some are single. Some have children, others do not. But if they are in Jesus, they are beautiful in his sight. And that’s the key.

Folks, we can do better, and it starts by reaching out and tapping into lives of others, wherever they are in their journeys. And yes, the idea that we would place families above God should be “ludicrous”, but sadly it is the reality in many churches for many singles or childless couples. Please, let’s tear down those walls and realize that God is not only for the married with children, and that to truly come to him he must be first in our lives, above absolutely everything, even the greatest blessings he’s given us.