I’m Really Over The Word “Helpful”

Talk about overused. Anyway, that mild irritation aside, I want to mention one hopefully brief quibble about a not-so-helpful way (married) pastors and (married) women’s ministry leaders — and even, crazily, some unmarried folks — often talk about marriage. I don’t even think it’s intentional, more reflexive than anything, but I think it’s biblically inaccurate and misleading.

How many of us have heard some version of this from the pulpit, in a Bible study, or at a conference? “Marriage is absolutely the furnace of sanctification! I now know how selfish, how inward-focused, how prideful I was before I got married, and let me tell you, I had never experienced the kind of sanctification I experienced that first year. Friends, there is nothing in your life that can prepare you for it, and there’s nothing else like it to make you more Christlike.” For the sake of brevity, let me throw down a few bullet points explaining why I think teaching like this, well-intentioned though it may be, needs to be retired, STAT.

  • it implies that single people are selfish, inward-focused, and prideful just because of their marital status.
  • on the flip side of that, it implies that marriage is the key to becoming selfless, others-focused, and humble.
  • it sets marriage up as a big, terrifying leap that people take in part because they’re blind to the consequences and results.
  • it paints sanctification as the result of circumstances rather than as a work to which God himself is committed because of our salvation.
  • it can imply that unmarried people aren’t being sanctified to the degree married people are, and thereby reinforces the idea that unmarried folks are the JV squad of Christianity.
  • particularly for men, it can be one more confirmation that all that’s expected of single dudes is spiritual slackerdom and perpetual adolescence, and that they’re off the hook for serving, leading and teaching until they start checking the “Married” box on the census form.
  • particularly for women, it can reinforce the totally false view that women are spiritually superior to men (no pressure!), and it can be incredibly alienating. How does any of that apply to me, the unmarried woman, Married Pastor With Five Kids?

OK, now don’t get me wrong here. I’m not looking for offense, I’m not trying to get my feelings hurt, I’m not calling anyone out. In fact, I’m totally not offended by this kind of stuff. I know people can’t help but speak from their experiences, but I also don’t want people in church leadership to stay stuck in those experiences, unable to speak to anyone outside their stage of life. So here you go, friends.

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5 thoughts on “I’m Really Over The Word “Helpful”

  1. Thanks for your thoughts, Laura. As a married pastor it is good to hear from other voices. I can understand your reaction and I have heard similar from some of my own folks.

    The problem with implications, however, is that sometimes they are not implications but inferences. I can ‘imply’ something (my responsibility) or the listener can ‘infer’ something (their responsibility). I certainly don’t mean to imply the things that you suggest and I earnestly believe that marriage is a hotbed for sanctification.

    Fact is: marriage is really tough and it does sanctify. Another fact: faithful singleness is really tough and it sanctifies. I have been an unmarried Christian for many years and a married one for a few. In both states I needed the grace of God and for that grace to transform me. Perhaps what you would like is balance in our speech. Perhaps to hear the other side of the matter more? Would that be ‘helpful’ (haha) ? I really appreciated your post and want to understand and adjust if need be.

    By the way, what is the ‘JV Squad’? Help me.

  2. Hi Steve, thanks for your comment. I do understand your distinction between implication and inference, and I think what I am trying to say is that those are logical implications, logical conclusions of the statements I listed. So, put them in a sort of loosey-goosey syllogistic form. If “Single me was selfish” AND “Marriage made me less selfish” are true, it’s logical to conclude that the speaker is saying that marriage is the key to that sanctification. Which may be true for HIM but is certainly no guarantee for others. And if pastors used their own marriages simply as object lessons to illustrate a larger point (here, for example, a larger point about how the Lord graciously orchestrates the lives of ALL believers for their sanctification), I think I’d have no problem with it. But it seems that often the sanctification in marriage IS the point of the illustration, without even a token effort to recognize God’s work in a season of singleness or after divorce or widowhood, or even outside of a marital relationship — with one’s friends or in one’s career, etc.

    What I want is just that: recognition that, while I am confident that marriage is a tool God uses to sanctify married believers, a) the Christian life has Christlikeness as its goal — for ALL believers, b) God uses ALL circumstances in life to sanctify Christians, and c) marriage isn’t by definition more sanctifying any more than it is more holy than singleness. Practically: encourage and expect unmarried believers to reach maturity, whether they marry or not; encourage them to mentor, not just be mentored; don’t exclude them from leadership on account of their marital status; remember them in the pulpit and in your events, not as “singles” but as fully participating brothers and sisters; affirm your similarity and your eternal connection more than your differences.

    The JV squad = the junior varsity team, as in high school sports, as in the people who aren’t good enough to make the varsity team.

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