Category Archives: Christian Living

Matthew Bracey’s “The Institutional Good of Marriage, Family, and Society”: Review and Response

W. Jackson Watts

I was pleased to listen to Matthew Bracey’s excellent paper on marriage, family, and society at the 2018 Symposium in October. This is a subject of great interest to me, and I know one which Bracey has spent an extensive amount of time delving into. Some of his previous reflection on this broader subject can be found in a volume entitled Gender, Sexuality, and the Church (Welch College Press, 2016).

Review

In this presentation Bracey focused on what has been described as the “institutional good of marriage.” To speak of the “institutional good” of marriage is to speak to one of the ends or purposes of marriage. To state it in summary form, Bracey says, “the institution of marriage communicates a procreational good, a relational good, a spiritual good, and institutional good, each being the expression of love” (77).[1]  Each of these goods, then, could also be described as purposes for God’s gift of marriage.

The procreational purpose or good is fairly self-evident to most who have studied this subject. While not all marital relationships have the capacity to bear children (due to infertility, age, etc.), reproduction is tied to the complementary design of the two genders which God brings together in marriage. The design, we could say, gives rise to the good of procreation. Certainly in a world without sin nothing would hinder this good, but even in a fallen world this good purpose still often attains and blesses couples, and society.

A second purpose or good is the relational (or unitive) good. Genesis 2:18 describes the Lord making a helper suitable to the man whom He had made. Scripture then in numerous places unfolds the enrichment and beauty this one-flesh relationship brings, perhaps most notably in the Song of Solomon.

A third purpose is its spiritual good. The Christ-church relationship is uniquely pictured in Christian marriage. The husband’s sacrificial love serves to typify Christ’s supreme, sacrificial love for His people, while the wife’s willing submission and respect to the husband typifies the posture and attitude assumed by God’s people.

The remainder of Bracey’s presentation was focused on a fourth and generally neglected good: an institutional one.  Sometimes described as a public or formal good, marriage is not merely a private affair between consenting adults. Instead, marriage is a public institution whose blessings and benefits extend beyond the threshold of the couple’s home. Perhaps the best example of this larger social impact is the fact that couples will bear and nurture children who will in turn be citizens in civil society, contributing to its betterment or decline. The health and well-being, then, of the marital relationship has a direct bearing on the type of society we will become.

Moreover, rightly ordered sexual relationships contribute to the flourishing of human life, and by extension, the lives of those around us. Bracey summarizes this point best when he says, “The Christian ethic recognizes this reciprocal relationship between the soul and the state, and it places the family as an intermediary between them” (82).

As an aside, Bracey’s observation here feeds into a larger, growing body of literature that emphasizes the importance of mediating institutions between the state and the individual, such as the family, the church, neighborhood associations, civic organizations, and charities. Not only do these serve as a buffer between the state in the face of its tendency to overreach, but these mediating institutions enrich human life in countless other ways.

Bracey’s presentation is helpful as it introduces this fourth, crucial purpose for marriage, and then moves toward offering some practical implications for the institutional good of marriage and family in society. He highlights how marriage helps civil society to flourish and protects people (especially children, the most vulnerable) from harm. He then mentions several avenues for promoting the institutional good of marriage, moving from the individual to the family, the church, society, and government.

Response

Whenever people come to our churches looking for financial assistance, or a place to stay, it is no surprise that divorce and/or cohabitation lie somewhere in the background of the situation. This is not to be uncharitable to those who are victims, at least in part, of others’ bad conduct. Certainly churches must be places of mercy. Yet an understanding of the institutional good of marriage equips us to detect the impact of family breakdown. Perhaps it can also help us to offer marital counseling to people, who may also, along the way, require some help with rent or the utility bill.

Christians who have inhabited the story of Scripture understand the way marriage provides a safe, secure, and sustainable way of guarding the interests of men, women, and the children they bear. When they choose to honor God’s good design in joining together in legitimate marital union, and proceed to bring children into the world in that context, they are embracing a framework that, in the long run, has been proven to be for their good and the good of their neighbors.

None of this, to be sure, will guarantee marital bliss. Certainly we as Christians would want to say a lot more about the components to a healthy marriage. Perhaps as part of our ministries we can make marriage resources available to our communities, ultimately forming connections that can lead to evangelism and care. But Christians have robust biblical, theological, sociological, and historical reasons to contend for the institutional good of marriage.

As elected officials try to do more and more in the way of policy making to address poverty, might Christians lend a voice to the discuss and show where family order and stability is central to long-term wealth-building? Might we point out that those in intact families have better life outcomes by any measure than those who do not?

While we need to work diligently to not make the victims of cohabitation, divorce, and other destructive choices feel guilty for being victims, we do need to be honest about the good design of marriage and its positive benefits for the world.

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[1] Each page number is derived from the 2018 Symposium Digest of Papers.

Memento Mori

by Randy Corn

Recently while reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, I came across the Latin expression memento mori. Isaacson explains that when a Roman general returned victorious from battle he was given a Triumph, a grand parade, where many gifts and honors were bestowed upon him.  Throughout all of this, a servant would follow the general repeating, “Memento mori,” which loosely translates into “Remember that you have to die.” This is from the chapter in Isaacson’s book where the cancer diagnosis, which would eventually take Jobs’s life, is first mentioned.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us, “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). We all observe the fact that people die, and yet in spite of Scripture and experience most of us fail to consider our own mortality—that is until a doctor brings us a life threatening diagnosis.

About a year ago that happened to me. It put me on an unfamiliar path. I had been the care-giver throughout my pastoral career; now I was the one being cared for. Now I was the one being prayed for, not the one praying. As is typical for me, I began to look around for books to help me on this journey. I found some that have been particularly helpful, and I believe would be a resource for both the suffering and those who want to understand and minister comfort. Most of these are not Christian books, but they are honest in picturing the struggle of men and women wrestling with their own mortality.

  1. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi, Random House, 2016

This book was recommended to me by my neurologist and is one of the best written books I have come across. The author, who was a neurosurgeon in training, tells of being diagnosed with terminal cancer and how he spent the 22 months until his death. As a doctor he had a clinical view of death, but when it was his life ebbing away his perspective slowly changed. Readers can find themselves somewhere on that learning curve.

  1. Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, Broadway Books, 1997

This book details the story of a college professor who is dying of ALS.  He reconnects with one of his favorite students from years earlier who had gone on to be a successful sports writer. The two get together each Tuesday for the professor to talk about life and death. The reader feels as though he has taken a seat beside the bed of a wise man who wants to impart that wisdom before it is too late.

  1. The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow, Hatchette Books, 2008

Pausch was a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He developed cancer, and though he tried to beat it with a radical procedure, he did not.  He knew from about six months out that his death was imminent. This led to what the university called his “last lecture.” It is a tradition at many schools for a retiring professor to give such a talk.  Pausch was extended this opportunity and took it. The result was a memoir of sorts, packed with common sense rules for life. If there is such a thing as an upbeat book about death, this is it.

  1. The View from a Hearse by Joe Bayly, Clearnote Press, 1969

This book is one of the many recommendations made by Warren Wiersbe from his book, Walking with the Giants. It is from his chapter on the “Minister as Comforter.” I can see why he recommended this book. Bayly is a Christian minister who has served in both local church and Christian college settings, but his understanding of this subject is not merely theoretical. Beyond ministering to the dying and their families, he has lost three of his own children.  He discusses such subjects as praying for healing and gives some very practical advice about counseling the dying and those who love them.

There are many more books on this subject, some of which I have read. But these are the ones that I feel have the most potential benefit both for the dying and for those who minister to them. Only Bayly’s book has a clear Christian perspective on death, but the others are what might be called examples of common grace. They have wisdom and even inspiration to share with us.

Millennials: They’re So Hard to Figure Out

by Matt Pinson

“We do face a danger, of course, when attempting to group individuals in a certain generation using sweeping generalizations. We risk missing the beautiful diversity of each generation, and the beautiful uniqueness of each person.”  —Jon Nielson

Recently I read a short article on the Gospel Coalition website by Jon Nielson, a 33-year-old campus ministry leader at Princeton University. It reminded me how difficult it is to “peg” the millennial generation, despite how much some people attempt to do so. One of the things the article tries to get its readers to do is to “stop trying to define millennials,” as a recent Huffington Post article urged.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry every time I hear someone in our denomination repeat this old, tired slogan: “The reason Free Will Baptists are losing our young people is because our churches are not cool enough.” The reason I don’t know whether to laugh or cry is that I know all the latest research from serious sociologists like Christian Smith and others belies this well-worn maxim of many in the FWB Baby Boomer set.

The social science research shows that evangelical churches across the board are losing their young people at the same rate—contemporary and traditional, urban and rural and suburban, large and small and mega, liturgical and charismatic—there’s no significant difference in the percentage of young people being lost or gained. Yet we continue to hear the attractional, “only-way-to-reach-Millennials” line over and over again. (For more on this, read another brief article by Nielson entitled “Why Youth Stay in Church When They Grow Up.”)

But I’m kind of like Jon Nielson in the article below: Millennials are a lot harder to figure out than Boomers and Gen-Xers. I work with them everyday, and just when I think I’ve got them figured out, they surprise me.

Millennials want more depth and transcendence and beauty from their religion than many Boomers and Gen-Xers. They’re more interested in theology than just pragmatic “what works” methods—they want methods that actually grow out of theology. This of course doesn’t apply to all Millennials, but that’s my whole point—it’s hard to reduce them to a one-size-fits-all approach, either educationally or religiously.

This was illustrated when I received an article from a Millennial youth pastor friend of mine recently about church architecture. It was a Barna Research survey commissioned by a large church architecture firm. The firm wanted to know what Millennials like in church architecture. They showed pictures of three types of church sanctuaries—(1) the dimly lit “stage set” one (2) the center-pulpit, brightly lit “Baptist-Presbyterian” one, and (3) the formal-liturgical one.

Two-thirds of the Millennials liked the traditional sanctuaries and disliked the modern one. They showed three types of church exteriors that corresponded to the sanctuaries mentioned above. Again, two-thirds of the Millennials preferred the traditional buildings and disliked the modern one.

Now, my point here is not to make an argument about the “correct” type of church architecture. My point is that a lot of our caricatures of the Millennial generation are just that—caricatures. Millennials just aren’t leaving, or joining, churches for the reasons we often hear cited.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy reading this brief but very insightful article by Jon Nielson.

Our Fears Betray Us

by W. Jackson Watts

(this essay first appeared on the Helwys Society Forum on November 16; It has been republished here with permission)

In the days following the election of Donald Trump, thousands of opinion pieces have appeared in newspapers, periodicals, and online news outlets. Such pieces range from the jubilant and finger-wagging to the angry and finger-pointing. Some are analyzing the data gleaned from exit polling, while others are scrutinizing the counties that flipped from Obama to Trump.

However, one sentiment that has emerged since around the midnight to 1am hour (CST) on Wednesday is fear. Such fearful disbelief was seen on the faces of disheartened young volunteers at Clinton headquarters, in celebrities’ tweets, and in pundits’ commentary. Fear is certainly not all that is on display; anger is, too. The anti-Trump protests certainly reflect deep anger toward the president-elect, those who elected him, and the campaign that swept him into office. Fear and anger often go hand-in-hand.

But the fears concerning Mr. Trump are most troubling from the standpoint of our republic, and certainly from a deeper religious perspective. Fear often betrays deeply held beliefs, emotions, and commitments, which may hinder our thriving as human beings and as a nation. Here I’ll focus on two problems that our current fears reveal.[1]

(1) Our Vision of the Presidency

Ever since the Progressive era (circa late 1800s to 1940), a vision of the Constitution arose that viewed it and its signatories as being out of touch with the demands of modern times. Underlying this vision were several beliefs, among them being an evolutionary view of human thought and history. The thought goes something like this: “The founders couldn’t have envisioned the complexity of modern civilization, or intended that the Constitution not occasionally undergo revision or reinterpretation.”

Fast-forward to our present day, and we find ourselves living in the wake of several progressive presidencies (some democratic, some republican), which did much to expand the executive powers beyond their constitutional limits. Our system was designed with a separation of powers, distinguishing the executive branch from the legislative branch, the legislative branch from the judicial branch, and the judicial branch from the executive branch; equal, but separate. Such an arrangement was intended to provide checks and balances against any one branch or leader assuming power that wasn’t properly granted to them— an important reminder Matthew Bracey alludes to in his recent essay.

Why, then, is such fear present not only among ordinary citizens, but also among elites in the media, entertainment, and sports? Certainly wealth insulates some from many of the vulnerabilities typical of middle-to-low income Americans. This fear must be rooted in something besides party affiliation: Many believe we’re about to have a dangerous president.

This fear should first cause some anti-Trump persons to give pause, and remember the manner in which they ridiculed and dismissed the fears of anti-Obama persons over the last eight years. Obama advocates assured their fellow citizens that they were being unreasonable, unfair, and just plain wrong. So there seems to be some inconsistency here. As one journalist recently put it, separation of powers is suddenly en vogue again!

I would be chief among those who would name President-elect Trump’s flaws in terms of character, views, and preparedness to lead our country. However, our political system was designed precisely to protect citizens from flawed leaders. If there was ever evidence in recent history that our vision of the presidency has been compromised, it is the widespread fear. Our views of the executive branch and its power have grown to unhealthy and dangerous proportions. Conservatives have warned of this for years, though in truth, some were less troubled by it when purported conservative presidents were in office.

In 2014, columnist George Will explained the phenomenon of progressive presidential leadership in an excellent PBS documentary on the Roosevelts. He explained that the presidency is like a warm, leather glove. Each president who’s been elected has put that glove on. However, each successive president (at least every few anyway) has a larger hand, and thus stretches the glove just a bit larger.

Most conservatives would agree with these observations. However, Christians in particular should recognize that some who are fearful genuinely don’t know how to process the fact that the newly-elected president has sounded at times like a racist, misogynist, and/or any number of other despicable things. When we encounter such feelings, we should reassure fellow citizens that we’re just as committed to protecting their legitimate constitutional rights as we are our own.

Even assuming that the worst is true of Mr. Trump’s character and intentions, that one man could singlehandedly provoke, antagonize, or do legal harm to citizens belonging to any other nationality or religious group says something much worse than we know. It tells us that the executive branch—and the presidency specifically—has departed from its proper place, that it’s not a co-equal branch of government, that it doesn’t have checks and balances.

Christians have something significant to say to these concerns. We not only should reaffirm the constitutional separation of powers, but we must point to the larger metaphysical claim upon which this arrangement is based: there is such a thing as human nature, and it isn’t good. No doubt the founders’ beliefs differed about some of the specifics of human nature. It’s fair to say that though they weren’t all Reformed, they understood that too much power given to any one individual or institution could and would lead to lawlessness and tyranny. Believers can refine this insight with verses like Romans 3:10: “There is none righteous, not even one.”

A strong doctrine of sin is critical to preserving the integrity of limiting mechanisms within our social, civil, and political institutions. These mechanisms ensure that one bad man or woman cannot, in fact, take what is not theirs to take, or give what is not theirs to give (cf. Mk. 12:17).

The Bible has much to say about sin and its attendant components—guilt and depravity. Where we have sometimes failed is by stressing the individual dimensions of sin at the expense of the institutional or structural manifestations of sin, a point that mainline theologians have more often stressed. Biblically, sin is explained as an individual and corporate reality, but the discerning person recognizes that individual and corporate wickedness also manifests itself in the institutions humans create. In fact, such a claim may help explain why many suddenly find themselves so fearful about the presidency: we’ve turned a noble, limited office into a scary, unlimited office.

(2) Our Faith in Men

A second issue surrounding present fears is where the dangerous expansion of presidential power takes us. If we believe the office itself has the symbolic, political, and legal power to do such great harm, it becomes critically important that we have complete faith in the person elected, as well as the populace which does the electing. As many are learning now, hell hath no fury like a Clinton-voter scorn. But it isn’t the usual type of frustration. It is a sense of betrayal: “How could you put America in the hands of this person?”

Voters bear some responsibility for allowing and sometimes encouraging presidents to attempt to fix things that either they cannot fix, or should not attempt to fix. Good intentions or not, the blurring of proper boundaries sets dangerous precedents. That we allow this reveals beliefs we have about people that never serve us well in the end. Whenever one has an unrealistic and unhealthy (not to mention unconstitutional) view of presidential power, it fosters and then reveals a misplaced confidence in political leaders. This is true whenever we weep for joy when our candidate is elected, or weep fearfully when another chosen. We feel vulnerable to the whims of the elected, and the electorate.

Christians are warned of this type of false confidence, notably in two psalms. “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes” (Ps. 118:8-9). Then again, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish” (Ps. 146:3-4).

 In both passages, the psalmists warn about the folly of trusting in earthly rulers. These serve as cautions for those Christians who may have unwavering confidence that President-elect Trump will make good on all his promises they liked. If this isn’t enough of a caution, it may be healthy to revisit some of the fearmongering among evangelical Christians prior to the election. One would have thought that Mrs. Clinton’s status as the antichrist (or next to it) rose to the level of biblical revelation for some.

Conclusion

No doubt this was an important election, in ways still unknown at this point. For this reason, Christians still have responsibilities beyond the voting booth. Yet the fears of our current national moment are instructive about human nature, the lessons of history, the problem of double-standards, and the need to trust the one who sits on heaven’s throne, not who occupies the Oval Office.

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[1] My remarks on fear in this piece are not intended to apply to an otherwise biblical and prayerful concern that we might exhibit towards our nation and our times. Rather, my focus is more limited to the reaction of many to the outcome of the election and what it reveals.