Friday, May 25, 2007

Misguided Church Leadership
(A rejoinder to Candace Watters' article Misguided Compassion)

I saw Candace Watters' article Misguided Compassion when it came out, and really didn't think it was necessary to comment on it. However, as I have been thinking through the issues associated with the Mandatory Marriage Movement because I have been writing a book on the topic, and have come to the conclusion that the article was sloppy.

Watters' major point in the article starts with an invitation to an event that was sent to several churches in the area. One of the churches rejected the invitation to the event. Here is the invitation and the relevant section of Candace's article:

Dear Local Church,

I, and a group of single friends, am planning a citywide Christian singles mixer. We'd like your help passing the word on. You probably know some singles who may be interested in meeting other local Christian singles.

So began a request made by one of my friends to some large churches in her city. An opportunity for fellow single believers to meet one another in a classy setting with married chaperones (according to the event's website). So far, so good. When I first heard about the event, I remembered how hard it was to meet like-minded believers when I was single and thought how much I would have appreciated this.

Her request continued,

This mixer is an event designed for Christian singles ... to meet and possibly develop relationships with intent to marry.... This is a great opportunity to meet other Christian singles in our area and why not make the most of every opportunity?

Although most of the churches agreed to at least let their singles group members know about the event, one church declined even that.
A member of that group's leadership team replied:

"[We have] been very deliberate in making our group not a hook up time and finding joy and fulfillment in our singleness, so we would not be comfortable endorsing an event advertising as a place to 'meet and possibly develop relationships with intent to marry.' Thank you for thinking of us and wanting to include us. We would be interested in possibly networking with other singles ministries in the area though, so keep us in mind for that."

That is like a slap in the face to any marriage mandator, and Watters is no different. Of course, I have rarely found a mandatory marriage advocate yet who can accurately articulate the traditional position on contentment in singleness. Watters erects the same fatalistic strawman we have heard again and again:

A quick look at the messages coming out of most singles groups, Christian books for singles and singles websites and blogs reveals a common theme:

"If God wants you married," they reason, "He'll make it happen. If you try to make it happen, you'll risk upsetting God's will for your life. Be the best single you can be and leave the rest to Him."

Later on, she also says:

Thinking it's the compassionate thing to do, people will tell their single friends, "Marriage can't meet all your needs, only God can" or "Don't be so anxious about pursuing marriage, it will happen if it's God's will" and "Just be content in your singleness, enjoy this prime time of your life."

Of course, with one exception, these are not the "messages coming out of most singles groups, Christian books for singles and singles websites and blogs." The message that is being presented there is "If you are interested in a girl, go ahead and pursue her. However, you also need to recognize that God has ordained that you will pursue her, and whether or not you will fail, and if he has ordained that you are not to have her, then you must be the best single you can be, and leave the rest up to him." Of course, most of these folks don't want to deal with that viewpoint. That would involve dealing with ends as well as means, and having to address how they can believe that God is soverign, and yet there are these creatures that have autonomious free will, contra Ephesians 1:11.

Not only that, she says that she thinks there is something wrong with the statement, "marriage can't meet all your needs, only God can." What is the problem with that statement? Can marriage meet your need for oxygen? Can marriage meet your need for the grace of God? Even in the essentials of life, marriage cannot meet needs such as food, clothing, and water. There are many poor married people out there who have problems affording such things.

On the other hand, the idea that God can meet all of your needs is purly Biblical. In Matthew 6:25-34, Jesus uses a simple argument that, God watches over the birds of the air, and the flowers of the field, and gives them what they need for food. Therefore, how much more important are we to him than these!

BTW, many marriage mandators have tried to read the idea of covenant child rearing into the phrase "seek first the kingdom of God" [v.33]. That is a total misuse of the text. Whenever Jesus uses the phrase "kingdom of God," he is not referring to something external, such as procreation, but something internal, that is, the internal workings of the heart. A.T. Robertson comments on this phrase by saying:

Mat 6:33 - First his kingdom (prôton tên basileian). This in answer to those who see in the Sermon on the Mount only ethical comments. Jesus in the Beatitudes drew the picture of the man with the new heart. Here he places the Kingdom of God and his righteousness before temporal blessings (food and clothing). [Word Pictures of the New Testament].

This fits with how Jesus uses the phrase "Kingdom of God" elsewhere. After the rich young ruler leaves, Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God [Matthew 19:24]. He tells the young man who says that we need to love God and our neighbor, and that these are better than burnt offerings and sacrifices, that he is not far away from the kingdom of God [Mark 12:34]. In Luke 9:60, Jesus speaks of someone who is to proclaim the kingdom of God to let the dead bury their own dead. Indeed, in John 3:3-5, Jesus talks about the "kingdom of God" in the context of that wonderful work of regeneration where man is cleansed from his sins, and born again. In each of these instances, Christ is referring to the internal state of the heart. This also fits with the general context of Matthew 6, as the whole sermon on the mount has been about ones internal heart, in relation to how one thinks and behaves. Hence, the view that the mandatory marriage movement has taken of this text to try to get around its clear teaching is totally without warrant.

Unfortunately, other than the gross strawman of our position, and the rejection of a Biblical comment, Watters does not address it any further.

Her biggest problem is that she thinks that the church is engaging in what she calls "misguided compassion." She explains:

It's natural to want to respond sympathetically to friends who are trying to serve God in their singleness while fielding intrusive questions like, "Why aren't you married yet?" Our natural reaction — after agreeing that yes, the person who asked that question is an idiot — is compassion. We want to encourage them in their circumstances. We want them to know they are loved and complete in God's eyes just as they are.

But these responses get compassion only partly right.

Compassion, as defined on Wikipedia, is a "sense of shared suffering, most often combined with a desire to alleviate or reduce such suffering." The entry continues, "Compassionate acts are generally considered those which take into account the suffering of others and attempt to alleviate that suffering as if it were one's own. In this sense, the various forms of the Golden Rule are clearly based on the concept of compassion."

It's not enough to feel sorry for someone. That's sympathy, not compassion. Compassion requires action. The classic example of the Good Samaritan shows that feeling bad about someone's plight isn't enough.

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, "Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back."

We don't know what the priest and the Levite who passed the beaten, robbed traveler on the other side of the road were thinking — they may have felt really sorry for him. All we have to go on, however, is their actions. And in the end, actions are what Jesus graded, telling his audience to "go and do likewise" [emphasis mine].

Anything less is worthless; mere words. James wrote, "Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?"

This Biblical model of compassion — both thoughts and actions — motivates many singles who volunteer their time and talents to serve those in need, at a rate higher than any generation in recent memory. Yet when it comes to their need — 86 percent of singles say they would like to be married — those in a position to help them are conspicuously unhelpful.

Right away I think this is totally challangable. First, I would question whether or not it is true that the local church as an organization is in a position to help singles in their quest to find a spouse. Notice, that all of Watters' use of scripture is totally out of context. The good samaritan as well as James are both examples of actions done by individuals rather than actions done by organizations. Hence, right away we see problems.

The reason for this is that the Bible gives us the function of the church, state, and interpersonal relationships. We have to be careful about crossing functions just because we think that there needs to be compassion. For instance, the church is not able to exact the death penalty. The Church is not able to judge infractions upon civil law. Likewise, I think people would start complaining if marriages were arranged by the church from the time you were a child. Even other groups, such as the civil magistrates, have their place as well. For instance, would it not be wrong for the civil magistrate to forbid a church to receive someone as a member? I would also say, given Acts 2:45, that it is not even right to have state welfare, as this verse seems to give it to the church. And yet, is it not an act of compassion to carry out acts of justice on behalf of a wronged party? Is it not an act of compassion to want someone to have a good spouse [Watters would have to agree with this]? Is it not an act of compassion to want to take care of people by not allowing someone you deem as unacceptable to become a part of their community? Is it not an act of compassion to want to help the poor and needy? And yet, we see in each of these instances, major moral problems with organizations doing acts of compassion that God has not sanctioned them to do.

Therefore, what I am suggesting is that the church as an organization is not to be a matchmaker, because God has nowhere in the scriptures given that responsablity to the church. Hence, I would say that I agree with the group opting out of such an event.

While there are other problems that the church mentioned as well [such as people worrying about their singleness], I think this is an even bigger problem. I like what he said about "making our group not a hookup time." Indeed, the Bible never presents the church in that way. I have found that, when this happens, most groups end up making an idol out of marriage and the opposite sex.

Now, I am not saying that individuals within the church cannot, as a mentor, help an individual single people find a spouse, if both the single as well as the older married person agree to it. Indeed, Candace is right that, in individual social relations, we are to give a helping hand to people if they need it. However, it is a huge ethical mistake to make that apply to the church as an organization.

Now, do I think that people in today's churches do not value a single person's desire to marry enough to help them? Yes, I do. However, then the problem is that churches are not teaching people that singleness and marriage are equal gifts of God [1 Corinthians 7:7], and, therefore, the desire to marry should not be something that is discouraged. However, as I said above, we need to recognize that, even if we have help, God can, and still might say "no." If he does so, we need to trust him that, either he will make our pursuits successful in the future, or he will have a glorious way of using us in the single state.

Finally, in response to the idea that singles are "anxious" about not being married, I think the apostle Paul summed up what should be our reaction in this situation:

Philippians 4:6-7 Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Of course, the apostle Paul here says we are to be anxious for nothing...even being single. However, we are to simply, in faith, bring our requests before the throne of grace. Also it is interesting that, Candace quotes the survey, and then, in the next paragraph, moves on to say something the survey never said:

Yet when it comes to their need — 86 percent of singles say they would like to be married — those in a position to help them are conspicuously unhelpful.

Seeing the anxiety many singles express about not finding a spouse, parents, church leaders and friends often feel sympathetic.

The survey says that "86 percent of singles say they would like to be married." For some reason, Watters then thinks that that has some relation to "Seeing the anxiety many singles express..." That is a huge leap, and one not at all justified from the report. The report only talked about the fact that most singles would like to be married, not that most singles have some anxiety about not finding a spouse. Also, notice that Watters says marriage is a "need." Where is the justification for that? We are not told.

Candace writes:

What about that ill-served group of singles at the church whose leadership wouldn't even let them know about an event for meeting other believers — for the purpose of "possibly developing relationships with the intent to marry"? Thankfully they found out about it anyway and participated in greater proportion than any of the other churches represented.

I can almost bet that what happened was that that pastor simply didn't say anything about it. It appears that he understood that his church would be doing something unscriptural if they promoted something like that. Hence, I think he was right to remain silent.

However, not knowing much about the event, if the event was arranged by a church, then he should have gone one step further, and taught the singles in the group why it would be unscriptural, on the basis of ecclesiology and the sufficiency of the scriptures, for church organizations to organize things like that. If that were the case, I can almost guarantee that there would have been no singles from that church at this event because if they heard about it from others, they would have had a Biblical response.

However, if they just found out about it by word of mouth, and the movement was put on by individual Christians, then I don't see any contradiction with what the pastor wrote back and said. In fact, he could say everything he said in his note, and still be fine with the people in his singles group attending that event.

Now, how could we revise this situation to make it more Biblically acceptable? First of all, no churches should arrange or endorse such an event, period. If you want to have an event like this, then it needs to be arranged by individuals, and advertized through things like colleges, workplaces, and word of mouth.

Likewise, trusting in God's providence, we would not say that marriage is a "need," or make statements like "seeing the anxiety many singles express..." We would premptorally teach singles to pursue a girl in whom they are interested, but if he says "no" to their request, they need to trust in his providence.

Finally, while I don't think it is inherently wrong, I don't think it is a good idea to make that whole purpose of the event "to meet and possibly develop relationships with intent to marry." In essence, it is "too much too fast." I know it says "possibly," but the addition as an intention of the event is somewhat awkward for people who are just meeting. These things take time.

Therefore, in summary we can say the following things:

1. The Bible does not give the local church the ability to play matchmaker, and hence, churches should not sponser or endorse anything like this.

2. While local church organizations cannot help singles find a spouse, individuals can.

3. Singles need to rely on the providence of God in pursuit of a spouse as Jesus says in Matthew 6.

4. We can reconstruct events like this so we do not have the problems associated with the limitations in the function of the church.

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