I greatly enjoy Samuel James and lament his departure from WordPress. Part of what I appreciate is his thinking even when I disagree I very much enjoy his perspective. Reading a piece by him I decline to agree with is always similar to how Niles and Frasier Crane would describe a perfect dinner. “What is the one thing better than an exquisite meal? An exquisite meal with one tiny flaw we can pick at all night.” To which Niles toasts, “To impossible standards!” In the spirit of the Crane Boys I would like to pick at a nit. Before the picking begins I will direct you to James’ new Substack where you can read the original and subscribe if you so choose.
James would like to retire what he sees as tired tropes of claiming there is a problem of idolatry for family in the evangelical church. And were the charge patently untrue I would be with him. However, I disagree I do think it is there. Not exactly in the way he describes, I think it is far more invasive than overt. And because it is such a slippery eel of an issue it is hard to nail down. I would like to present to the jury a few small pieces of evidence for consideration and then move along.
Singleness as a Disease to be Cured
It was remarkable, genuinely stunning, how much respect was suddenly conferred upon me the moment I got married. Talking with other men they have all also experienced this. A whole new world opened up to me. Instantly pastors and elders had time for me. More than that they no longer saw me as someone to disciple but as a peer to be relied upon. My job got easier as I walked into churches to teach, I was no longer as suspect. I can only imagine how I will be treated if I produce an heir to the family name. Here is the problem I had only gotten married. And within twenty four hours I magically became someone the church at large could trust. I had had not changed, my now wife had not changed. And therein lies my problem. I and the other men I have talked with were now no longer second class citizens simply because we got married.
Churches largely are institutionally geared toward families. Singles are constantly harangued as to when they will get married. And ministries that singles are filtered into operate like dating services, pools for volunteer work, or at worst a place to store the undesirables. Married couples, especially with kids, don’t like having single people around who have opinions. They have been trained that they are the highest pinnacle of Christian achievement the church is all about programing for them. Singles kind of harsh their mellow.
Because of that institutionally the approach towards singles is to get them married as soon as possible so that they will fit better. Singles are square pegs in a large board or round holes. Now marriage is a grand thing, the first marriage was arranged and officiated by God. He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and if she is prudent she is from the Lord. Scripture speaks incredibly highly of marriage, which makes the Roman approach to clerical celibacy a stunning example of missing the big E on the eye chart. At the same time in merry old Protestant-Ville we have also missed where Paul wishes that more would be single like him so that the Gospel may advance. Lip service is given to this passage but no one takes it seriously. I have seen churches deliberate less over hiring a pastor with a criminal record then over a pastor who is currently single.* The point is there are signs in the protestant church that point to an idolatry of family.
Helicoptering the Hellions
Additionally, I would point to the bizarre relationship the modern western church has with it’s children. On one hand the budgets, facilities, personnel, security, and programing for children in churches is truly stunning. I work in a lot of schools and daycares and none of them can hold a candle to the cleanliness, professionalism, organization, beauty, and comfort, of the average mid size evangelical children’s ministry. Cost is usually not an option for these churches. These are the places where the kids of the church spend enormous portions of their formative years. And that is the contradiction, the kids have an entire wing, apart from their parents who happily shuffle their kids off to a cushy Fort Knox while they go to worship God. Their spiritual growth has been outsourced. Parents want professionals to mold and spiritually shape their kids. And the results are in, it doesn’t work. The de-churched phenomenon and de-conversion stories are old had by now. We know what leads to this, but it hasn’t stopped budgets from ballooning and ministries from finding newer and flashier ways to try and keep the kiddies entertained, while the gospel gets less and less. Helicopter Parenting is rampant in every area of society except in the church. Kids in western evangelicalism are everything and nothing.
I would suggest we got here by worshiping the idea of family and not wanting the hard work required in having one that glorifies God. Again nothing propels a man or woman to being a pillar of the local church like a smiling perfect looking family. I’m old enough to have been in churches that were run by “that” family. They looked great on the outside, The mother ran the church with the same iron fist that ruled her cowed husband. The first son was failing so badly in college that a bribe was required to get a diploma on time, the daughter hiding an abortion, another son is a neo-nazi… And that was just the oldest three. It was never even whispered that these people were liars who were wildly disqualified from ministry. Because come church time they all showed up looking like the perfect Christian family. Again this leads me to think that there is idolatry in the church of family.
The circles we run in shape our thinking. Samuel James may have, and I sincerely hope, run in wildly different circles than I in his life in the church. His view may be colored by excellent and edifying experiences and when he hears a charge leveled he feels the need to defend his understanding. He may have had experiences worst than mine and is far more mature and wise than I. Either way I am happy to be proven wrong. My circles lends credence to the view that there actually is an idolatry of family in the western church. And to correct that the problem needs to be acknowledged. I desperately want families in churches, worshiping together, raising their kids in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. One of the good things to happen in the pandemic was the total shutdown of nurseries and children’s churches. I personally loved having a passel of kids in the worship service. They saw what their parents were engaged in, it was a remarkable opportunity to make the kids a part of the larger body, instead of an awkward appendage off in some other part of the building. And it is hard to make a family ideal when you see them struggling to help their kid through a complete emotional meltdown during communion. And that is fine, healthy even.
The reason we need to get the false idol of family out of the church is because families are vital to the church. Already there is in the gates a movement to keep kids in church from being raised as christians. Why else would Kevin DeYoung, the calmest, most nuanced, and reasonable voice in the room, be accused of trying to “weaponize the womb” when he said more Christians should have lots of kids and do the hard work of raising them to be fierce Christians. He only referenced Psalm 127, and suddenly Christians, Christians, were accusing him of a violent mentality. Families are necessary but they make lousy idols.
*Interestingly enough those churches usually also severely underpay and over work the married man, and resent when his kids require time the parishioners see as “theirs.” I worked with one church who had a member who lived next door text the elders every time they saw the pastor leave the building. While that practice is abominable they might actually have gotten more out of a singe man…