I recently published a follow up to the article I wrote in the spring for Equip, an organization run by Pieter Valk and dedicated to supporting sexual minorities in the church. My article in the spring challenged evangelical notions of the relational primacy of the nuclear family, and this article follows up to expand on these thoughts. The article was originally published on Equip’s blog.
I wrote a guest post for Equip last spring which addressed the priority of spiritual family in the Christian life. I’d like to follow up on that post by engaging in some more reflection on the ideas I presented. In an age where more and more people feel ostracized by the church, this discussion may be more important now than ever before, at least in American culture. Getting the family of God wrong means getting the church wrong! And that’s something we just can’t afford.
For single and celibate people, the stakes are particularly high, especially for celibate gay Christians. Lifelong celibacy means surrendering the possibility of biological family in pursuit of the Kingdom of God. In exchange, the Bible promises a family that is “many times more” in this life (Luke 18:28-30), a spiritual family that is more meaningful than anything a traditional family could offer. Unfortunately, celibate gay Christians struggle to find such a family.
Notably, Rosaria Butterfield, who is well-known for her contribution to discussions on same-sex attraction in the church touches on a number of ideas relevant to this discussion in her book The Gospel Comes with a House Key. In a recent article, she had some strong words to say about the state of Christian community:
“[Christians] have swapped out the biblical priority that the church is the family of God for a counterfeit that says the blood of biology ranks higher than the blood of Christ. And when we do this, we toss the most vulnerable brothers and sisters under the bus. The Christian life comes in exchange for the life (and sometimes the family) we once had, not in addition to it.”
It’s no coincidence that Butterfield’s book comes out during a cultural moment when more and more people see the church as a place of hatred (especially towards gay people) rather than a profound embodiment of supernatural love. When we consider that Scripture ties our very identity as a people of God to our larger reputation for love (see John 13:24), there may be no greater indictment against the church today.
Greater Than Every Earthly Relationship
In the consumer-driven culture of America, where we stream worship services straight into our living rooms, church has become the thing you do once a week with maybe a small group in-between. Historically, our lack of respect for the people of God would be shocking to Christian leaders. Respected theologians, pastors, and other church leaders have been talking about this problem for decades.
John Piper, for example, said in a sermon that the typical Christian experience of church in America is “organically flawed.” He blamed the lack of authentic New Testament community as “a significant part of the origin of some of our dysfunctions and distresses,” and he further challenged his congregants to consider whether our lack of community accounted for “more weakness and woe in the church” than we could ever imagine. Elsewhere, he said:
“Oh, let us never trivialize the church! It cost God the life of his Son to create this. And what you share with the persons sitting near you in Christ is a life and an inheritance and a union so great and so profound that it surpasses the value of all other human relationships and all inheritances and can never end.” (emphasis mine)
Is it any surprise that Scripture would consider the family of God to be our single greatest relationship? As author and pastor Mark Dever has noted, “Being united to Christ means being united to every Christian.” This gets to the very core of our Christian identity. Consider that your spiritual connection to the person sitting next to you at church was bought by the very blood of Jesus Christ. We fool ourselves to think that any earthly bond — including marriage — could possibly be stronger than the eternal bond two Christians have in Christ.
The blood of Christ is the great equalizer in Christian relationships. If you are married to a Christian spouse, then your marital bond pales in comparison to the relationship that you share with your spouse as siblings in Christ — which is the very same type of relationship that you ought to share with your closest Christian friends. Why? Because the bond you share as siblings in Christ will last for eternity, while your marital bond will pass away with this life. One day your spouse will cease to be your spouse, remaining only your sibling in Christ (Matt. 22:30). In such a way, your Christian friendships ought to model the type of intimacy that your marriage aspires to become.
In short, the body of Christ unites us to a community more important than every single earthly relationship.
But What About Ephesians 5?
Marriage poses a challenge to countless believers. Far too many Christians prioritize their spouse and family before the bride of Christ, thereby ignoring the strongly-worded warnings of Scripture in passages like 1 Corinthians 7. In fact, many churches actually encourage believers to do so! If I had a dollar for every time a pastor referred to marriage as the “ultimate relationship” or to one’s spouse as “the most important person in your life,” I could seriously open a charity fund.
The problem often traces back to an eisegetical approach to Ephesians 5. In this chapter, Paul refers to the mystery of a man and a woman becoming “one flesh,” observing that it represents the union between Christ and the church (vv. 31-32).
However, Paul never implies that marriage is the “most” or the “best” or the “est” of anything. In fact, that’s not even close to what he’s talking about. Instead, he’s talking about the symbolic value of marriage to represent something beyond itself — the “one body” union between Christ and the church, a union discussed at great length in the preceding chapters (see especially chs. 2 & 4):
“There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call — one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” – Eph. 4:4-6 (emphasis mine)
Paul’s celebration of the “one body” union between Christ and his church runs throughout the entire length of Ephesians. He never tries to establish any sort of relational hierarchy with marriage at the top. Such a conclusion just can’t be found anywhere. Instead, Paul elevates the church, the one-body union which does deserve elevation and which he talks about repeatedly throughout the entire length of his letter.
In short, our relationships to our siblings in Christ are a foretaste of the real intimacy that we will experience with each other for the rest of eternity in paradise. Marriage is to Christ and the church as a family picture is to the family itself. The picture is just a picture. But the family is the real thing! And so too with the family of God. Marriage is the picture. But the “one-body” of Christ is the real thing.
Let’s think about that for a minute. The union between Christ and the church has already been given to us but has not yet been fully realized. That means that in the church, we already have a real taste of what will ultimately be consummated in heaven.
Thus, if marriage is the picture of the “one-body” union between Christ and the church, then your relationship to a fellow believer actually is that union. In this life, our eternal bond of friendship with another Christian is a partial experience of the ultimate thing that Paul talks about! Just as a man and a woman become “one-flesh” through marriage, so too does the church (and all its individual members) become one body in Christ! He’s talking about the mysterious power of the Gospel to reconcile even enemies as bitter as Gentiles and Jews, making them “one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (see Eph. 2:16). It’s the theme of his entire letter!
So if we think for a moment that Paul elevates marriage above the body of Christ then we misunderstand the entire point of Ephesians. Marriage may be the picture. But the “household of God” (Eph 2:19) is a partial experience of the real thing. Your friendship with a brother or sister in Christ in this life is an “already-but-not-yet” experience of the type of unity marriage is merely a portrait of.
But Doesn’t This Create a Zero-Sum Game Between Singleness and Marriage?
Far from pitting them against each other, biblical community orients both singleness and marriage towards a Kingdom-centered end, thereby leveling the playing field. As professor of New Testament language and literature, Joseph Hellerman, has observed:
“A biblical view of the church that places the family of God as the first relational priority situates both singleness and marriage under the overarching rubric of the family of God. It encourages singles and families from every background, young and old, to cultivate meaningful relationships with each another. And it mobilizes everyone in the community to use their gifts for the benefit of the Body of Christ to advance the gospel in a way that fits their current life situation.”
Hellerman, who is the author of When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community, argues convincingly that a proper understanding of Scripture puts “God and his family” at the top.
But must your nuclear family suffer as a result? Absolutely not! In fact, recognizing the Kingdom-centered purpose of your biological family may be the only way to truly flourish as a family in the first place. When we submit our relationships — biological or not — to the overarching primacy of the blood of Christ — the very bond that unites us in “one body” to each other — we partake in the grand story of God’s plan to reconcile a people to himself, a reconciliation that happens through spiritual rebirth into a spiritual family.
But what about your spouse? Must they suffer as a result? Once again, absolutely not! The call of God to live as a spiritual family is placed upon you both. By submitting your union as a couple to the even greater union found in Christ, you thereby fulfill the design of your partnership. If the bond you enjoy as a married couple is beautiful, then how much more beautiful is the bond you enjoy as fellow believers in Christ, which is the same bond you share with Christian friends — the one-body union between our Savior and his church for which marriage is a picture. Once again, recognizing the Kingdom-centered purpose of your marriage may be the only way to flourish as a couple!
But My Spouse Is a Christian! Don’t They Deserve First Priority In My Life Since They’re My Spouse AND My Spiritual Sibling?
The call of God to love your spiritual siblings as Christ loved us (John 13:34; 1 John 3:16) is always plural. Jesus said in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” It’s this very kind of love — the greatest kind of love — that Jesus commands us to show to each other when he says in John 13:34, “[J]ust as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”
Granted, Jesus was an infinite God with the supernatural ability to give his ultimate love to an infinite number of people. And we are finite creatures with limited capacities. We couldn’t possibly love everyone we meet with the best of our love. Nevertheless, there’s nothing stopping us from loving many particular people with the best of our love. That includes your spouse and the particular people that God brings into your life.
Consider Jesus’ startling declaration in Matthew 25:40 that “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Or the apostle John’s pronouncement that “we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” just as Christ laid down his life for us (1 John 3:16). These verses represent only a fraction of the passages in Scripture that call us to love our spiritual brothers and sisters with a radical love — the very kind he gave to us. The greatest kind of all.
In a culture that teaches us to hoard the best of our love for a “special someone,” this truth may be hard to swallow. But if your spouse is the only recipient of the best of your love, then you are neglecting the call of the gospel. Rest assured, you have brothers and sisters in Christ who deserve this kind of love just as much as your spouse. In the words of Scripture, you must love your spiritual siblings “just as [Christ] loved you” (John 13:34).
If the only recipient of the best of your love is your spouse, then it may be time to reassess your priorities. I say this not to criticize or condemn. But to challenge you to take seriously your identity as a member of the family of God whom Christ calls to love not in flowery abstractions but in concrete reality. We must have real people in our lives that we love in real ways just as deeply as a spouse.
A Few Things I’m Not Saying…
There’s huge potential for readers to misunderstand me. So let me rearticulate what I’m saying. I’m saying that our relationship to our spiritual family is more important than every earthly relationship.
I’m definitely not saying that you should express love in a sexual way to people who aren’t your spouse. Instead, I’m saying that some fellow Christians who aren’t your spouse deserve the best of your love as much as your spouse. And the best of your love is hardly sexual. As C.S. Lewis observed in The Four Loves, agape love is the greatest of loves because “it is the kind God has for us and is good in all circumstances.” I am calling you to love not only your spouse with agape but your spiritual siblings too.
I’m also not saying that you should permanently relegate your spouse to second-class. Instead, I’m saying that true biblical community requires many people to exist in the “first-class” section of your life in different ways. In the Kingdom of God, your partner is a spiritual brother or sister just like anyone else. If they come “first” in your life, then you should also have a number of spiritual siblings who get tied for first along with your spouse. That’s what it means to love your spiritual family with the love of Christ.
And I’m definitely not saying that marriage is not a beautiful and God-honoring relationship that deserves celebration, respect, and admiration. Absolutely it is! Nevertheless, I am saying that this amazing and wonderful and marvelous relationship pales in comparison to the one-body relationship we share with each other through Christ — a spiritual kinship that you share equally with a Christian spouse or friend. A sexual union is awesome — absolutely. But how much more awesome is the spiritual union purchased for us through the precious blood of our Lord and Savior!
And finally, I’m not saying that we should worship the church. I’m saying that Jesus calls us to love his church the way he loved us, as he commanded in John 13:34, “[J]ust as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” There’s no greater love than the love of Christ, not even the love between spouses. And it’s this very same love that we are called to give to our brothers and sisters, not just to a spouse. Moreover, I’m saying that this command is not an abstraction, whereby we can esoterically “love” the “church universal” without ever actually loving the flesh and blood people God puts into our lives. At some point, you must learn to love particular people (not just your spouse and kids) in actual reality (not theoretically) the way Christ loved you. As the Bible says, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18).
So Where Do We Begin?
Regaining an appreciation of the family of God will take time and effort. We didn’t lose our love for the body of Christ overnight, so we won’t regain it overnight either! Learning to love particular people with the love of Christ isn’t easy in a culture that encourages exclusive love. But we can’t afford to do otherwise. Our very reputation as believers stands and falls upon our ability to share the love of Christ.
At the very least, we need acknowledge that married people are just as desperate for the type of community that I’m talking about as single people. It’s no coincidence that the rising pressure upon marriage and family coincides with a decline in deep, relational connectedness. Why is raising a family so hard these days? Maybe, just maybe, it has something to do with the fact that we have no one else but our spouse to do life with.
In terms of application, Christians need to begin actively cultivating spiritual family. This means developing a few friendships that you value as much as your spouse, a few people you disciple that you value as much as your children, and a few people who disciple you that you value as much as your parents. If you are married, embrace God’s call to radical love as a calling you can fulfill as a couple and as a family.
It’s time for Christians to structure their lives around the people of God. So let’s make decisions around what will best allow us to love and to be loved. Creating contexts for the love of Christ to flourish means doing life together. We must welcome people into our homes and our lives. Invite our spiritual brothers and sisters into our daily routines, and invite ourselves into their daily routines. Messy kitchens and all.
We must be willing to take up obligations to others. You know how your spouse might give you a call and ask you to stop by the grocery store to pick up a gallon of milk? And you roll your eyes, but you do it anyway because they’re your partner? Or how your kid might ask you for a ride to their friend’s house 30 minutes away? And you inwardly groan, but you do it anyway because they’re your kid?
Who else would you “do it for anyway”? If we don’t have people in our spiritual family towards whom we feel obligated, then chances are we’re not living like a spiritual family. We must take up obligations to other people. And in return, other people will take up obligations to us. We can’t have real spiritual community if no one feels obligated to meet the needs of anyone but their next-of-kin. When we share obligations, life actually becomes easier, for everyone.
To be clear, married couples and families face a tremendous amount of hardship. But that’s precisely the reason that we need to recover an appreciation for spiritual family. Marriage and family were never meant to be done alone. And the isolation that married couples face in trying to raise their children only underscores the need for a deeper family that can support them in their struggles. When the people of God come around each other — single or married, gay or straight — our collective vocations actually become doable. We need our spiritual family to actually live the lives that God has given us.
Some Closing Thoughts
The call to love our spiritual family is not easy, whether you are married or single. For married people, it means that the present reality of married life should never supplant your love for the church. For singles, it means recognizing that the potential reality of a married life should also never supplant your love for the church. For those called to lifelong celibacy, whether gay or straight, it means the life that you gain is far more precious than the life you forego.
But living this out takes careful intentionality.
It’s for this reason that Paul actually cautions against marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. “The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided” (1 Cor. 7:32-34). Paul goes onto say that he’s not “restraining” anyone from marriage but rather wanting “to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord” (v. 35). In this way, Paul makes clear that “he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better” (v. 38).
Marriage is certainly a beautiful relationship! But we must also take seriously the warning of Scripture. Our respect for marriage should never distract from God’s greater calling upon our lives as members of the household of faith. When it does, we do a disservice to the Kingdom of God. More specifically, we do a disservice to the people God has given us to love. Especially those who lack a nuclear family. Our love for marriage should not be greater than our love for the body of Christ. And as we already saw, recognizing the Kingdom-centered purpose of marriage and family may be the only way to truly flourish as a couple.
Many celibate Christians understand these truths intuitively. For many of us, we wouldn’t be celibate otherwise! Our choice to pursue a celibate vocation is made possible by the promise of a spiritual family more meaningful than anything an earthly relationship could offer. But if celibate Christians are the only ones who recognize the primacy of the body of Christ, then biblical community will be next to impossible at worst and a “fringe” occurrence at best.
Then again, thus far in my life, true biblical community has always been at the fringes, with those who are misunderstood, marginalized, and dismissed. Indeed, some of my deepest and most meaningful relationships have been with “the least of these” by the standards of the world (Matt. 25:40). So I guess I’m inviting you to join me on the margins. I’m inviting you to let go of the people, places, and things the world tells you to idolize — including marriage and family. I’m inviting you to embrace a better life — one that will anchor marriage to a grander framework and thereby sustain it. A life in Christ. A life united in one body with the people he died to save.