Marriage idolatry may be one of the most concerning spiritual conditions of the church today. But this can be incredibly difficult for people to wrap their minds around because people see the elevation of marriage as a defense against the “attack on family values.” It’s important to realize that I’m not attacking marriage in this post. Instead, I’m attacking the throne upon which we’ve placed it. It’s time we return marriage to its rightful place as a good thing, yes, but not ultimate.
As a side note, I’ve scattered a variety of different images throughout this post because I felt the need to better display the type of mindset that I’m talking about which currently proliferates in the church (all of these images are put out by Christians). This type of stuff isn’t just a fringe ideology. It’s the norm, and it’s everywhere.
Also, marriage idolatry is closely connected to idolatry of the nuclear family in the church. If you’re interested, check out this related article I wrote a few months ago:
The Scandal of Celibacy
Not surprisingly, the concept of lifelong celibacy scandalizes a world gripped by the aftermath of the sexual revolution. Celibate? For life? You’re kidding, right? So improbable does it seem to the modern ear, that celibacy gets blamed for everything from psychological disorders to the sex abuse scandal in Catholicism, as if sexual abuse were uncommon in contexts where men are sexually active.
Such reactions are expected in a world of non-negotiable sexual activity. Sex is a non-option. We enjoy the perception of self-determination the way a child enjoys the choice to do his homework in crayon or in marker. The freedom to determine how he does it distracts the child from realizing that he actually has no choice but to do it.
Such is the world that we live in. We have no choice but to do it. Our freedom exists in the how but nothing else. Choosing a sexless life breaks the most important and all-encompassing but unspoken rule of sexual liberation. Sex is a must.
And lest you think I’m talking about the secular world, let me be clear. I’m talking about the church.
The Sexual Imperative
Sexual liberation theology teaches that self-actualization depends upon sexual expression. No sex? No fulfillment.
Such thinking stems from the belief that our emotions, feelings, and desires form the basis of personal development. Your passions, as Hume might say, determine your end. You’ve gotta follow your passions to find your purpose. Or put more simply, “follow your heart.” Combined with the Freudian belief that sexual desire represents the most basic, essential, and all-encompassing human passion, and suddenly you’ve created a vision for human flourishing that cannot be achieved apart from sex.
As a result, we’ve made sex the gateway to love, life, and happiness, and in so doing, we’ve made it all-important. In the words of one person who sent me a well-intentioned e-mail, sex has become the doorway to “real life.” A sexless life is no life at all.
But in making sexual activity a precondition for joining the ranks of the self-actualized, sexual liberation theology enslaves humankind to their sex drive. “Have sex or be lonely and miserable for the rest of your life” is as much of a choice as telling a child to “go to bed or get a spanking.” It’s no choice at all. We live under a sexual imperative.
Sexual Fulfillment Preached From the Pulpit
The deception, of course, is that Western Christianity somehow kept itself immune from sexual liberation theology. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the spiritually-sanctioned version of sexual liberation preached from the pulpit today may be the most common and most championed form of sexual liberation theology in America.
Put simply, it teaches the following: The sexual union between husband and wife reflects the union between Christ and the church. As such, it’s not just a physical experience. It’s a spiritual experience. Christ uniting himself to the church is the ultimate culmination and expression of God’s love on earth. Therefore, as a picture of Christ and his bride, the one-flesh union (/cough/ sex /cough/) between husband and wife must likewise be the ultimate culmination and expression of love between people.
Anyone who’s ever taken a class in formal logic could spot the fallacies in such reasoning from a mile away. But when the entire culture bows down to sex, there’s no reason to critically evaluate a theological approach that biblically sanctions what you already want to believe. As a result, Christians across the country — as well as those influenced by Christian culture — idolize marriage as the ultimate good of human life. Nothing compares to marriage.
Marriage Idolatry as the Christian Version of Consent Culture
Whereas in secularism “consent” represents the doorway to sexual fulfillment, in modern Christianity, marriage does. But no matter how you slice it, christening the god of sexual fulfillment with heterosexual marriage won’t make it less idolatrous. The modern church views the “one-flesh union” as a precondition to self-actualization in the same way the world views sex.
Thus, you get pastors saying awkward things like, “Marriage is the ultimate relationship.” (Yes, I actually heard this from the pulpit). Or, “Friends are great. But no relationship could possibly compare to what’s shared between a husband and wife.” (Yes, an elder actually said this to me). And singles get things like, “God will send you the perfect person to complete you, if you just wait for it.” (Yes, single people hear things like this all the time). As if people need a romantic partner to complete them.
These are real things that real Christians and real pastors actually say. Indeed, the “sexual-union-as-ultimate” approach to human sexuality has become so universal that pastors often take it for granted. It’s presuppositional. Casually referenced because everybody knows it.
Pulling Apart the Evangelical Marriage Mythos
In a phenomenal book recommended to me by my friend Dani Treweek (whose work on biblical singleness you absolutely need to check out), Kutter Callaway pulls apart the evangelical marriage mythos piece by piece.
“[T]he most common evangelical narratives reduce the entire meaning of the marriage relationship down to sex. Marriage is held out for the Christian as the divinely sanctioned solution to the problem of sexual frustration. According to this very clearly articulated message, sex is incomparable—ineffable even—so if single people can just wait until marriage, they will finally be able to engage in all the mind-blowing sexual activity they could ever want without having to worry about sin, or guilt, or unforeseen complications.” [Callaway, Kutter. Breaking the Marriage Idol: Reconstructing Our Cultural and Spiritual Norms (p. 79). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.]
Callaway does a phenomenal job unveiling the “bedfellow” relationship between evangelicalism and the secular obsession with romantic love. Christian purity culture, courtship rhetoric, and supposedly “biblical” manhood and womanhood paradigms find their fuel in the same philosophical assumptions undergirding consent culture, serial monogamy, and “one day my prince will come” fairy tales.
“[Evangelical ministries] are constructing and disseminating a particular narrative about marriage, singleness, and sexuality that is strikingly similar to the one embodied by the music of popular artists like Taylor Swift, “ Callaway says. “The key difference is that whereas Swift chooses to direct her sexual energies toward serial monogamy, evangelicals direct their erotic desires toward marriage.”
The Slavery of Sexual Liberation
In a church culture built from the same sexual paradigm as the world, it’s no surprise to see women asking questions like, “Where Is My Boaz?” and wondering what could possibly be hindering them from finding the “love of their life” and, thereby, “the life they love.” (Yes, these are real books, written by Christians, with 4.5 stars and thousands of reviews. And yes, they use this exact same language.)
So it’s no surprise to see people desperately bouncing from partner to partner in an endless cycle of relationships. Whether the magical words be explicit consent or simply “I do,” both men and women are sold the tale that the life they desire is just a soulmate away. Inside and outside the church. It’s no wonder the relational condition of the church increasingly mirrors the world.
By modeling its approach after sexual liberation, the church has failed to deliver its people from sexual slavery. People across the world are beholden to their sexualities, believing their only hope to finding a meaningful and satisfying life is if they find “the one.” But according to the Bible, finding “the one” has nothing to do with satisfying your sexual needs.
Who is Free and Who’s In Chains?
How ironic that the most common criticism of celibacy amounts to a complaint over choice. “You should be able to have sex when you want,” they say. “It’s unnatural to force yourself to be celibate.” The celibate person is thereby portrayed as living in their own personal prison.
But such thinking betrays a fundamental lack of cultural awareness. In a world intoxicated by sex, just who exactly is the one behind bars? There is no freedom when you must go to bed or get a spanking. The pursuit of lifelong celibacy may be the most identifiably free assertion of the human will against the raging current of the age.
So here’s my clarion call: It’s time to retire this twisted understanding of human sexuality. Let’s quit justifying sexual liberation theology using biblical language. It’s time to regain an appreciation of human personhood as complete apart from sex. Whether it be sex via consent or sex via “I do.”
It’s time to understand human sexuality as a good thing but not a god.
What do you think? What’s been your experience with the idolization of marriage in the church? How has it impacted your life? Leave a comment or send me a message! I’d love to hear your story! And as always, don’t forget to subscribe!
Also, check out these articles from the Gospel Coalition for other takes on the way Christianity has succumbed to the thinking of sexual liberation: