“We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.”—The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis
What C.S. Lewis writes above is one of the more famous stratagems devised by the demon Screwtape in Lewis’ classic book, and I couldn’t help but think of it when reading Kylee Zempel’s recent warning against idolizing marriage.
We are, after all, living in a country in which the median ages for marriage are at historic highs and the birthrate far below replacement levels. Divorce is rampant, illegitimacy has become the norm in many communities, and almost 1 million unborn children are killed and discarded like trash each year. And, as Zempel affirmed in her article, feminism, one of the most institutionally dominant philosophies in our culture, routinely trashes marriage—especially women who gladly embrace being a wife and mother. Sadly, most American Christians have leaped on these bandwagons and are only slightly behind the culture in its disdain for mothers, fathers, children, and marriage.
So, to put it mildly, I’m somewhat skeptical that we’re actually idolizing these things in any meaningful sense of the term. Nor do I think we’re in any real danger of doing so in the near future.
Praising Marriage Doesn’t Make It an Idol
When Christians counter-culturally extol marriage, they are simply assigning it a higher priority than the zeitgeist does. But merely prioritizing one thing over another does not make it an idol. For example, the fact that I prioritize work over play does not therefore make work my idol.
No, something becomes an idol only when we prioritize it above God Himself—when we reject Him and His commandments to us to accommodate our pursuit of that thing. Accordingly, the only way marriage would become an idol merely by prioritizing it over educational and career accomplishment is if such accomplishment were already a person’s idol.
But perhaps putting the best construction on Zempel’s charge of idolatry would be chalking it up to hyperbole. After all, the focus of her complaint was on Christians who merely describe marriage as a “higher calling” than other pursuits, and she does nothing to justify the more serious accusation. So even if it’s not really idolatry, do Christians truly err when we extol marriage as a higher calling?
‘Be Fruitful and Multiply’ Almost Certainly Applies to You
To answer that question, we must consider what makes a calling “high” from the Christian perspective. The highest callings are always the ones God has actually given to us. All the works we make up for ourselves—no matter how much they are extolled by ourselves or others—fail to be “high” in any sense before God.
After all, the Pharisees who followed their own strict rubrics of good works were held in high esteem by their culture and themselves, but Christ nevertheless condemned them for substituting the traditions of men for the commandments of God.
God explicitly calls the vast majority of us to marriage and family. “Be fruitful and multiply” is the very first recorded instruction God ever gave to mankind. Likewise, when he explains why women are not called to the pastoral office, the Apostle Paul extols motherhood as the primary alternative calling for Christian women in the strongest possible terms: “Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” Even the Golden Rule urges us towards marriage and children, for if we are grateful for the gift of life we’ve received, then we should pay that gift forward by doing unto others as was done unto us.
Are there exceptions to this calling? Certainly. Jesus was one; he had neither wife nor children in the earthly sense, because his bride is his church. The Apostle Paul also writes of his own celibate calling for the sake of the gospel and even wishes that all might be called as he is. But in the same breath, Paul also recognizes that all are not like he is, and he prescribes marriage for anyone who struggles with sexual immorality. (And if any category could possibly encompass the vast majority of unmarried Americans, it would be that.)
Likewise, in his epistle to Titus, this same Paul even goes so far as to give a blanket instruction to older women that they train younger women to love their husbands and children—without taking any special care to explicitly address any young women who share his calling to celibacy. Are we then to take both Paul and the Holy Spirit who inspired his words to task for idolizing marriage? On the contrary, it is when we reject these instructions that we make an idol of the pursuits our culture has taught us to prioritize above marriage.
The Few Rare Exceptions Prove the Rule
Now, I don’t think Zempel would take issue with describing marriage as the higher calling for some and not for others—she is, in fact, quite clear in affirming marriage as a good thing and explicitly quotes Paul’s words, “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” Her primary error is rather in forgetting the most fundamental thing about exceptions: that they are exceptional.
The hyper-individualism of contemporary America has led many to believe that everything that makes them unique deserves just as much attention from society as the norm, but this is both vain and foolish. It’s okay to be different. It’s also okay for society not to re-organize itself around that difference.
A person may be allergic to coffee, but he has no reason to resent the waitress who offers it to the entire table every time he goes out for breakfast. There’s no sense taking her to task for being insufficiently nuanced towards exceptions in her normal routine. It instead falls to those with the allergy to get used to saying “no thanks” on a regular basis.
This is no less true for preparing the young for the future. Any wise society will routinely direct people towards good norms more than towards good exceptions. For example, a minority of people may become professional sports stars, but we are quite wise to routinely prepare everybody for other vocations even if that might not turn out to be useful to the exceptions.
Zempel actually takes this same approach when she asserts that because “Marriage doesn’t happen the day after college graduation for everyone” all women should acquire career skills to support themselves. The facts that many women succeed as stay-at-home moms, college isn’t actually a good choice for everyone, and the mountain of debt and licentiousness that many graduates take on make marriage and family far harder to achieve does not dissuade her from presenting her advice as a kind of universal wisdom mandated by God.
So why, then, should she wish that Christians like Lori Alexander be “torn down” for taking that very same approach towards an aspiration which, biblically speaking, is far more a matter of divine ordinance than higher education is?
Encouraging Marriage Isn’t Forcing It
This leads us to the final error to address: the contention that promoting marriage as a higher calling is somehow forcing marriage. The problem here is with the presumption that marriage simply happens when the time and the romance are just right—creating a false dichotomy in which anything other than letting go and letting God comprises “force.”
Christians have taught that lie far too often, and the result has generally been loneliness and apostasy. The truth is rather that marriage needs to be deliberately pursued and prepared for. Those who are not called to celibacy need to make marriage a deliberate goal. They need to consider what skills would contribute to their future household and acquire them.
Those who are not called to celibacy need to make marriage a deliberate goal.
They need to consider what kind of person would make an appropriate husband or wife for them, and a good father or mother to their children. They need to actually go out and look for such people and try to form relationships with them. And, of course, they need to do what they can to make themselves the kind of prospective husband or wife, and father or mother that marriage-minded members of the opposite sex would like to pursue.
These things take time and direction. So yes, their families, churches, and communities need and ought to help and encourage them to pursue that goal—even though they are not always sure whether each individual in their care is truly called to celibacy. Those are the ordinary means by which most will receive their calling, and we shouldn’t rob people of them.
Prepare Kids for Marriage Like You Do for College
As I’ve observed before, many parents spend a great deal of time, effort, and money to prepare their children for college. Not only do they work hard to help their children find appropriate colleges and make their children attractive to those institutions, they also make it clear that college is something to aspire to.
The few called to celibacy owe their very existence to their ancestors who deliberately pursued marriage and family as their higher callings.
We should be putting that same kind of effort into marriage. And just as we don’t call that “forcing people into college,” neither should we cast such shade on analogous efforts to encourage pursuit of marriage. Sure, undue pressure can happen in both cases, but the abuse of a good thing should not lead us to categorically reject that good thing.
Is marriage the highest calling for everyone? Of course not. But it is for most people, so it is entirely appropriate for Christians to treat it as a normative aspiration—especially in a culture that so desperately seeks to dissuade people from it.
What, then, of the exceptions—those called to celibacy? Christians should, of course, treat them with honor and respect. After all, “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’“ We should embrace with gratitude the good work that they do. Zempel is correct about that. Although married myself, I have personally and greatly benefited from the efforts of people who have embraced other callings.
The key is to remember that this instruction goes both ways. The celibate eyes have no business telling the hands that broadly extol and encourage marriage that they have no need of them. They should likewise embrace with gratitude the good work that those hands do in promoting marriage as the norm in a culture which actively discourages it, instead of presumptuously condemning such promotion as idolatrous.
After all, though they will not marry, the few called to celibacy owe their very existence to their ancestors who deliberately pursued marriage and family as their higher callings and to the communities which made that calling their norm.