Category Archives: Culture

Making Sense of Religious Liberty

Jackson Watts

Recently a friend of mine at the Helwys Society Forum, a site I also contribute to, called attention to Robert Louis Wilken’s book, Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom. I had somehow overlooked this title, though I had admired Wilken’s work for years. He is William R. Kenan Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia. My first encounter with Wilken’s work was reading his book The Christians as the Romans Saw Them over ten years ago. I was riveted by his description of early Christian practices and teaching and how Roman civil authorities perceived this strange new cult.

Then about five years ago while I was studying at Concordia Seminary, Wilken came to lecture on the church fathers. Even in his 80s, he was clear and compelling. I should also add that he was personally warm. What drew me to this more recent book was the subject: religious freedom. We are living at a time when increasingly in the West earlier assumptions about the value and necessity of liberty of conscience aren’t fully recognized, or only for a scarce few. Even now at least four cases that somehow relate to this subject are being argued, or have been recently argued, before the U.S. Supreme Court. This issue is not going away, and will only intensify in the coming years.

Though Wilken’s argument is more limited in scope, I think it complements the overall project of articulating an understanding of freedom of conscience that benefits all people, not just Christians. I want to briefly summarize Wilken’s argument, then make some observations that relate this to our present challenges in the area of religious freedom.

A Common Misconception Exposed

Among historians there has been a tendency to see religious freedom as the product of Enlightenment thought. The argument goes something like this: During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, bloody religious wars were all too common. As the Enlightenment emerged, philosophers and other intellectuals saw the need for civil society to move past this needless and unfortunate bloodshed. In that unique context the need and case for religious liberty emerged. Increasingly people were free to practice their own religion, and form their own confessional communities without oppression or restriction by the state.

Here’s where Wilken (and other scholars) help debunk this misconception. He ably shows that the origins of religious freedom didn’t begin with Enlightenment philosophers, John Locke, or the founding fathers. Instead, he shows that as early as Tertullian (3rd century A.D.), Christian theologians saw in Scripture a basis for religious freedom. As Wilken puts it, “Religious freedom rests on a simple truth: religious faith is an inward disposition of the mind and heart and for that reason cannot be coerced by external force (1). Or to put it in Tertullian’s words:

It is only just and a privilege inherent in human nature that every person should be able to worship according to his own convictions; the religious practice of one person neither harms nor helps another. It is not part of religion to coerce religious practice, for it is by choice not  coercion that we should be led to religion (from Ad Scapula).

Wilken then develops his argument by showing how Lactantius and Gregory the Great joined Tertullian in providing a fairly early Christian perspective about religious liberty. Now I should add that this argument wasn’t fully developed, and certainly its application was not widespread. However, it refutes the argument that Enlightenment thinkers came up with the idea over a thousand years later.

Throughout the next several chapters Wilken walks the reader through Christian history, showing unique developments in which these early Christian ideas were received, appropriated, repackaged, and unfortunately, sometimes ignored. One interesting feature of the book is Wilken’s attention to Reformation era developments in several European countries, and how the case for religious liberty was made and often unevenly applied.

This latter point is really crucial. Jesus warns us about the problem of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy hinders people from seeing and receiving the truth. While living out of the faith inconsistently doesn’t logically discount the truthfulness of the faith, Scripture is clear that people see Jesus through seeing His people (John’s Gospel and first epistle really hammer home this point). So perhaps one reason why it is so easy for modern people to believe that religious liberty is not a cherished, ancient notion is because religious people themselves have at times been inconsistent in its application.

A Free Will Baptist Contribution

A book that deals with this subject couldn’t avoid the contribution of Thomas Helwys. Wilken devotes significant attention (for a relatively short book) to Helwys’ articulation of religious freedom. As an aside, my colleagues at the Helwys Society Forum have done this also, and we continue to marvel at the non-Free Will Baptists who are interested in Helwys who contact us about what we’re doing. But even Wilken sees Helwys as a major figure in this story. He quotes the famous line from Helwys that gets to the nub of the matter: “Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews or whatsoever. It appears not to earthly power to punish them in the least measure” (180). For an early English General Baptist to be the one making this case is something for modern Free Will Baptist to be proud of. But we should just as quickly feel surprise, for another inconsistency in the story of religious liberty is the fact that Christian thinkers were not always quick to acknowledge the need for full freedom for other groups to practice their faith. Helwys throws the doors wide open to Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and Jew.

Tensions that Linger

I have alluded now a few times to the circuitous path it took for religious liberty to be widely observed. Part of this is due to some tensions that not only existed in earlier times and places, but ones that are still with us today. I’m going to highlight just two of the issues we still need to wrestle with and learn to articulate with clarity.

Coercion or Persuasion?

When we read about some earlier Christians discussing religious toleration (more limited) versus religious freedom (more expansive), one issue they were concerned with is how to persuade people to adopt the Christian faith—and their specific confession—while not coercing it. Again, if one accepts the premise that religious faith is a matter of the heart or individual conscience, then it cannot be coerced by some kind of external force. This external force could be threat of death, or something less severe like threat to civil well-being. Naturally believers who want to be evangelistic see persuasion as a legitimate Christian activity. The apostolic pattern certainly bears this out. But when does persuasion slip into coercion? When does an attractive argument become an inducement? Wilken’s book gives a few examples of this problem being worked out in a few circumstances, but we still have to think about it today.

It is possible to preach and evangelize in such a way that we give the impression that people should adopt Christianity if they intend to be loved or valued by us. Yet there is a distinction we have to make. We are called to love and respect the worth of all people, regardless of whether they come to Christ or not. There is indeed a special love, care, and commitment that believers share in the body of Christ that unbelievers are, by definition, excluded from. But I think we have to try to communicate this wisely so that we can be sure to seek to persuade people, while not coercing them. We may not wield a sword, but it’s possible that we would try to win people to Jesus using extraordinary means that win them to our means, or the external benefits of what we preach, and not to Christ himself.

There are other examples of this problem. In an earlier generation belonging to a church (and “espousing a religion”) helped build one’s social profile, especially if you were going to run for a local political office in certain communities. And though this trend has increasingly disappeared, it still points to the problem of believing without truly believing.

Private Belief or Public Practice?

Perhaps the part of Wilken’s book that I found most compelling is the problem of how we define religion. At times some Christians saw religion as merely, or at least predominantly, private belief. Obviously they did not see their own faith that way, but they were often tempted to limit it to private belief when it came to what would be allowed of others. Naturally you cannot compel someone to truly believe something in their heart. However, when it came to public expressions of that belief, those in power often differed on what would be accepted.

At the same time, many in favor of religious freedom for others recognized that this was inconsistent. Religion pertains not only to individual, private beliefs, but the expression of those beliefs, in practice, with other believers. This means there is always a public dimension of true faith. This was of course unsettling at times for civil leaders who thought that preserving order in their particular realm required conformity in matters of external religious observances. It’s like saying, “What you want to do and believe in the privacy of your own home is fine, but the moment you step outside, gather with other likeminded individuals, or stop supporting the existing religious order, then you’ve crossed the line.” Liberty ended at the threshold of one’s home.

This sounds all too similar to our contemporary situation in America. Christians are increasingly told that if they want to enter the marketplace they have to discard all of their religious and theological convictions, regardless of how sincerely held they are, how inherent they are to historic Christianity, or how supported they are by the First Amendment. If they try to bring their beliefs to bear on, say, how they create art, provide adoption services, or operate a college, they must conform to the established secular orthodoxies of the moment (I say “moment” because it is literally a moving target depending on which regulatory agency is writing memos that day, or if the Twitter mobs notice).

It’s all too easy to see how this current situation doesn’t just violate the plain sense of the First Amendment, but also the very ancient understandings of religion that some of the most powerful minds in history have articulated, such as St. Paul, Tertullian, Gregory the Great, John Wycliffe, Thomas Helwys, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and more recent brethren like Robert P. George and Russell Moore. We can do better. Christians need to do their best to appeal to persons of good faith to show them why every citizen has a stake in freedom of religion and conscience. Wilken’s book and argument are just what the doctor ordered in helping to equip us for that enterprise.

 

Roger Scruton, in Memoriam

Matthew Pinson

Some while back I wrote a couple of blog posts that reflected on some ideas from the book Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition by the British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton. Many readers of this blog have benefited a great deal from reading one of the more than fifty books Scruton wrote during his lifetime. Scruton passed away on January 12 after a six-month battle with cancer. He will be sorely missed by conservative evangelicals as well as others in the conservative movement.

Roger Scruton didn’t talk a lot about theology per se, although he did write a “personal history” of the Church of England and spoke often about the importance of Christianity both spiritually and culturally, and the problems our culture is encountering because of its decline. I could point out numerous points of difficulty with his theological views. But his Christianity was of the old, Tory, Anglican kind, and when it came to questions of morality, culture, and public life, he shared with conservative evangelical thinkers an affirmation of the broad outlines of the cultural and intellectual commitments of the Christian Tradition. So he was a sort of “co-belligerent” with conservative evangelicals whose theological commitments have driven them to defend the Judeo-Christian intellectual and moral foundations of the Christian West in the face of the erosion of that consensus.

I had heard of the legendary Sir Roger many times before I ever read a book by him. This Cambridge-trained analytic philosopher was prolific in writing books and articles on a breadth of topics. He wrote on economics, postmodern intellectual trends in the universities, sexuality, and politics, but mostly art and culture, with his most well-known popular contribution being his BBC documentary Why Beauty Matters.

When we began to revise our general education curriculum at Welch College more than a decade ago, to help it more consistently to reflect the Christian intellectual tradition that has always been at the college’s heart and core, Scruton’s Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Beseiged, was one of the books I asked the committee to read. Before that book, I had benefited from his masterful An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, a tour of the problems that beset the culture of modernity and the erosion of the culture it is fast replacing. I have also enjoyed his How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism; his critique of postmodern critical theory and other brands of intellectual leftism, Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left; and later some of his reflections on art such as Music as an Art, and several lectures he gave on representational art at the TRAC2014 conference.

Theologically conservative Protestants like us need to listen to Roger Scruton. We won’t agree with everything he says about religion and theology, but we will find in him an ally against the acids of modernity and secularism that are eating away at our culture, and we will see in him a penetrating intellect rooted in the broadly Christian intellectual consensus of which conservative Protestants are heirs.

We evangelicals today are faced with a deeply entrenched temptation to separate the mind and the heart. And, ironically, the more educated and sophisticated we become, the more it seems we are tempted to succumb to an anti-intellectual approach to our spirituality and its implications not only for how we approach the faith and practice of the church but how we engage culture. This is robbing us of our nerve, and we need all the help we can get in getting it back, in regaining, as David F. Wells calls it, the courage to be Protestant. While evangelicals will have their differences with him, I believe that engaging Sir Roger as a serious conversation partner will help us go a long way in doing that.

 

Some Thoughts on What Unchurched People Want in a Church

Matt Pinson

Ultimately the question of what unchurched people want in a church is very unimportant compared to what the Bible says people need in a church. But over twenty-five years ago, some church growth experts started telling pastors that the main impediment to their growth was their lack of consumer orientation or cultural relevance or, for lack of a better word, “coolness.” This advice was associated with what was known as the “seeker-sensitive” or “attractional” movement. Many pastors began to engage in an extreme makeover of their churches to rid them as much as possible of any vestige of Christian tradition. While a small minority of these churches experienced growth, most did not. And recent data shows that most of the growth that is occurring, in churches of all sizes, is in transfer growth, not conversion of the unchurched through evangelism.

From Attractional to Missional

This phenomenon has led many ministry practitioners to question the received wisdom of the church growth movement, and refocused the emphasis on church health. Some have labeled this as a shift from an “attractional” church model (“How can we best attract customers?”) to a “missional” one (“How can we best embody the mission of God?”). It has also coincided with the preferences of members of the Millennial generation and Generation Z, many of whom prefer the authenticity of a boutique shop or locally owned restaurant over Wal-Mart and Red Robin.

This growing dissatisfaction with the same old answers of the church growth movement, which most pastors of typical churches have tried to no avail, surfaced in several things I read and listened to recently. This included a book by Jared C. Wilson, The Gospel-Driven Church: Uniting Church-Growth Dreams with the Metrics of Grace. Wilson started his ministry in the seeker-sensitive megachurch world, but got burnt out on it. Since then he has written several books that present a more “gospel-driven” approach (characteristic of Mark Dever’s 9Marks and other increasingly popular church health ministries) to other leaders of large churches who seem to be getting burnt out a little on the seeker-sensitive or market-driven approach to church life.

Some of my reading coincided with some seminars presented at the recent Free Will Baptist Leadership Conference by Gordon Penfold, an expert in turnarounds and revitalizations of what he calls the typical “neighborhood church.” What was interesting about Dr. Penfold is that, while he (rightly) stressed that we don’t need to keep doing “business as usual” in dysfunctional churches that have lost their desire to evangelize and grow, he did not outline the same old “seven steps to achieve quick growth in your church by stylistic tinkering” that we have grown accustomed to hearing.

His focus was more on church leaders understanding themselves and the dysfunctional systems that most often cause churches to stagnate and decline. He suggested the need for a more holistic, church health model rather than the corporate and consumer-driven models so often heralded as the silver-bullet solution for the plateaued church—“If you just make your church more marketable to your customer base and their consumer tastes, more people will come and the church will explode. . . .” In his own way, Dr. Penfold was echoing what we’ve been hearing more and more by church health advocates—pastors like Mark Dever, Harry Reeder, Mike McKinley, Jared Wilson, Colin Marshall, Tony Payne, and Brian Croft, who are experiencing growth in all sorts of demographic settings while utilizing the ordinary means of grace found in the Bible.

The Studies Show . . .

Reading and hearing these things caused me to think back over some of the studies that have been done over the last two decades of the unchurched, and what they look for in a church. It has always puzzled me that the actual studies of the unchurched have almost always shown that what is important to them is not the style of a church or the way a church appeals to the consumer tastes of its “market base.” Yet, despite these studies, over and over again, I would repeatedly hear pastors in our denomination who were discouraged because they did not think their churches were “relevant,” “cool,” or “entertaining” enough, and that that was what was needed to bring about growth. The studies consistently showed that, while these characteristics were important for some transfer members who grew up in evangelical churches, they were not generally important to the unchurched.

Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to matter to many what the studies showed. People were in such a panic mode because of our rapidly changing, secularizing culture that they were willing to throw whatever trendy method they could against the wall to see if it might stick. Yet they never really knew (and still don’t know) what the long-term consequences would be of all these tactics that had never before been tried in the 2,000-year history of the church.

In view of this ongoing problem, I was prompted to reflect back over the studies I’d seen over the last couple of decades. Here are the major ones:

Barna

 The Barna Group, in the late 1990s, pretty close to the beginning of the seeker-sensitive movement’s influence in the Free Will Baptist denomination, studied what was most important to unchurched people when they visited a church. Out of the 22 most important things that attract people to a church, the study found that the top five things were:

  1. The theological beliefs or doctrine of the church
  2. How much the people seem to care about each other
  3. The quality of the sermons that are preached
  4. How friendly the people in the church are to visitors
  5. How much the church is involved in helping poor and disadvantaged people.

Things related to worship, style, and music ranked only 12, 13 and 15. (Source: “Americans Describe Their Ideal Church,” Barna Research Online, October, 1998.)

Rainer, Surprising Insights from the Unchurched

 Thom Rainer and Lifeway have studied this over and over again, always with the same results: Substantive things are what attract people to church—things the Bible talks about, done with excellence, not cultural trends and targeting consumer tastes. This is summed up in Rainer’s book Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, which studied the “formerly unchurched”—those who were unchurched but then joined a church. Here are the top ten reasons listed for why they joined:

  1. The pastor and his preaching (90% said this)
  2. The church’s doctrines (88%)
  3. Friendliness of the members (49%)
  4. Other Issues (42%)
  5. Someone from the church witnessed to the individual (41%)
  6. A family member attended the church (38%)
  7. Sensed God’s presence/atmosphere of the church (37%)
  8. Relationship with someone in the church who wasn’t family (25%)
  9. Sunday school class (25%)
  10. Children’s or youth ministry (25%)

Worship style, music, and other stylistic or consumer-oriented factors were named by only 11% of the respondents as having anything to do with why these formerly unchurched people joined a church. (Also interesting is that  Rainer says it is a “myth” that “the unchurched are turned off by denominational names in the church name,” and “only 4 out of 100 formerly unchurched indicated that a denominational name had a negative influence on them as they sought a church home.”) (Thom Rainer, Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, 21, 38).

Rainer, Ham, Kinnaman on Why Young People are Leaving the Church

The same basic insights found by others holds true for the question of why young people leave the church, as seen in Thom Rainer’s Essential Church, Ken Ham’s Already Gone, and David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me. Young people are leaving all sorts of churches at the same rates—large and small, urban and rural, contemporary and traditional, charismatic and liturgical. As with the more general surveys like those of Barna and Rainer above, these studies show that the reason young people are leaving the church has nothing to do with stylistic factors and everything to do with the lack of solid teaching, the lack of intergenerationality and mentoring across the generations, the lack of love and community, and what they see as hypocrisy in the church. Church style is way down the list and usually is not listed as a factor. These studies are also undergirded by more serious sociological studies by scholars such as Christian Smith and Melissa Lundquist Denton, whose results undergird David Kinnaman’s conclusion that:

“After countless interviews and conversations, I am convinced that historic and traditional practices, and orthodox and wisdom-laden ways of believing, are what the next generation really needs.”

—David Kinnaman, CEO, Barna Group

Millennial Preferences in Church Architecture

A few years ago the Barna Group conducted a study for one of the largest church architectural firms in the country, which wanted to know what style of church architecture Millennials preferred. When shown pictures of the “stage” or “platform” as well as the outside of traditional and modern church buildings, two-thirds of Millennials preferred traditional structures over modern ones. This is not to argue, of course, for a “sanctified” architecture; it simply shows that many of our assumptions about what “the young folks” will actually prefer have been overturned by the Millennial generation, and similar preliminary reports are coming out of the even more secularized Generation Z. This confirms an earlier study by the Cornerstone Knowledge Network and Christianity Today, and another by Lifeway Research that said that the new church buildings most evangelical  pastors wanted to build were the exact opposite of the more traditional structures that two-thirds of unchurched people said they were most comfortable with.

Fuller Youth Institute, Growing Young

These same sorts of considerations continue to be borne out by the research. For example, the Fuller Youth Institute’s latest study, Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church, lists the top ten qualities churches don’t need to “grow young”:

  1. A certain size (young people don’t care whether a church is large or small)
  2. A trendy location or region
  3. An exact age (young people don’t care whether a church is old or newly planted)
  4. A popular denomination . . . or lack of denomination (young people aren’t negative on denominations)
  5. An off-the-charts cool quotient (“For young people today, relational warmth is the new cool.”)
  6. A big modern building
  7. A big budget
  8. A “contemporary” worship service
  9. A watered-down teaching style
  10. A hyper-entertaining ministry program (“We don’t have to compete. . . . Slick is no guarantee of success.”)

Conclusion

We have many dysfunctional churches, and many that have lost interest in evangelism and are more about internal dynamics than reaching out with the gospel. They need the sort of revitalization that is being talked about by Eddie Moody and Danny Dwyer in the Refresh church revitalization program of the National Association of Free Will Baptists. This program is built on rich, biblical church revitalization strategies.

I also talk with lots of Free Will Baptist pastors who are seeing steady, if modest, evangelistic fruit and gospel growth in their churches. But so many of these decent, faithful pastors are utterly discouraged because they’re comparing themselves to celebrity pastors and consumer church growth methods that don’t and can’t work for most churches and most pastors. What these pastors need to compare themselves to is the New Testament, not to contemporary trends that are more concerned about consumer marketing than the solid biblical teaching, zealous evangelism, and rich community and koinonia we see in Scripture. But if they look at most of the latest studies, they will find that those things are what the unchurched in our increasingly secularized communities say they really want when they get serious about finding a church.

Cultural Analysis and the Dynamics of Leading Change in the Church: A Review

Jackson Watts

In his Symposium presentation “Cultural Analysis and the Dynamics of Leading Change in the Church,” Rev. Dr. Jackson Watts tackles the tough topic of implementing change in a congregation. Noting shifting demographical factors like the graying and shrinking of the evangelical church, Watts draws a correlation between these factors and an inability to change. He then seeks to wed biblical principles of change with socio-cultural concepts to assist church leaders in more effectively leading change in their churches. Such change will require “critical listening, thick description, and pastoral sensitivity” (57).

Watts points out that each church is best understood as a culture. This means that a congregation has its own “unique set of beliefs (spoken and unspoken, practices (symbolic and practical), values (inherited and derived), dispositions (conscious and subconscious), and artifacts (religious and mundane)” that define individual roles and responsibilities in the fulfillment of the institutional mission (59). This means that any change, even a small one, will have significant impact on every aspect of the church’s self-understanding. Because of this, change must always be tethered to the culture and values of the congregation.

Thus, the process for change begins with listening and loving one’s congregation. One must become a part of the culture and be a student of the history, traditions, and relationships present in a church body. All of these factors define meaning and determine value in the organization of relationships gathered together for a common goal. Only after such listening and learning, can one effectively begin the process of leading change. This is the first step of developing a “thick description” (an interpretation of the way relationships, rituals, and rhetoric interact to define a community, 61) whence a leader can cast a vision for change.

Watts then introduces the sociological concept of liminality. Liminality is a reference to a process of transition (usually of individuals but also organizations) from one set of identifiers to another. Similar to a sixteen year old getting his driver’s license, the process of liminality describes the period of the young person being unable to drive, obtaining a permit, receiving instruction, and eventually becoming a licensed driver. Even after such a change, it takes some time for the young driver (and especially his or her parents) to get accustomed to the idea. It is precisely this type of process that a church undergoes when implementing change. Change introduces ambiguity and must be understood as a process that leads to a new reality, thus impacting the culture. People become naturally uncomfortable in the liminal, in-between stage, of change.

A pastoral perspective will remember that congregants in this liminal phase are not simply “selfish, unyielding, rebellious, ignorant, unrepentant traditionalists” (63). Rather they are complex cultural creatures, spiritual beings embodied in time and space (63). This means that our attempts to lead change must always take a “total personality approach.” We must be sensitive to their needs as thinking, feeling, loving, worshiping beings. Watts then mines Forlines’ “total personality approach” of theology for important implications for the process. Such an approach to change will mean that a “one-size-fits-all approach” will never be adequate (65). Each individual and each congregation is unique.

Watts then turns to a discussion of the types of change in a congregation. He sums them up in three categories of 1) addition, 2) alteration, and 3) subtraction (65). Changes 1 and 2 can be difficult because congregations don’t perceive the need. In these cases careful consideration, description, and consensus are paramount. He notes, “as a general rule, the degree of listening, prayer, planning, communications and implementation is proportionate to the extent of the reforms to occur” (67). The final form of change, subtraction, can often be more difficult because even when congregants intellectually understand the need for change, they are often emotionally and experientially connected to previous forms and identity.

With these principles in mind, Watts offers a paradigm for leading change in the local church. Leaders must take the time to see what is going on. Leaders must then investigate why these things are the way they are. Finally, the leader is called to respond. He or she asks the question, “what should be happening?” Applying evaluative judgments to the current culture, changes must always be proposed with sensitivity to the spiritual, social, emotional, and physical needs of individual congregants and the body. Such reflection and care mirror the “ministries of Jesus, Paul, and the apostles” and exemplify the biblical principles of “wisdom, compassion, and courage” (70). May all our attempts to lead change in our congregation be characterized by this pastoral heart. The full presentation can be seen here.

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.

________________

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