In pockets of Western Protestant culture, the image of a happy, put-together family unit has become an idol. Many of our church programming budgets are directed toward attracting young families, and those members who aren’t inside a traditional family unit are keenly aware of their status.
Singles become a problem to fix or fix up. Lone parents are pitied, and older unmarried adults get relegated to seniors’ clubs, widow support groups, or some other socially palliative program.
Christian authors are taking notice and rightly challenging how we think about marriage, family, and singleness in the church. For example, an excerpt from author Sam Allberry’s book 7 Myths about Singleness recently appeared in Plough magazine, detailing how singles and families with children benefit when they integrate their lives.
Allberry argues that nuclear families are too privatized and insulated from those around them. Other public figures like David Brooks have recently made similar claims.
Although Allberry’s insights are spot-on, editors at Plough added a subtitle that seems to move beyond his position. Their choice of phrasing reflects a sentiment I’ve observed among fellow Christians: “The concept of the nuclear family does a disservice to singles and families, and it’s not consistent with New Testament teachings.”
Nuclear family is increasingly wielded as a pejorative term and almost always used without a clear definition. Sometimes the term encapsulates gender roles with a breadwinner father and a homemaker mother. Other times it’s meant to describe the middle-class, suburban lifestyle. Allberry uses the phrase in reference to self-sufficient, sequestered families who are isolated from extended family and community.
Irrespective of those various interpretations, the married-parent unit is still fundamental to the concept. Christian critics of that unit may have valid observations, but they need to be careful not to confuse a distorted version of family (or bad practice) with the basic principle of family (the idea itself).
To dismiss the married-parent family structure as passé is what author and student of psychology Rob Henderson has termed a luxury belief—an opinion that is fashionable among elites but disastrous in practice for the lower classes. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and sociologist Brad Wilcox have made similar claims.
Data suggests that fewer young adults are marrying and if they do, it’s typically at older ages. Western family structure is diversifying, and the portion of adults living alone is increasing. While marriage is declining, it’s falling far faster among lower-income people.
The so-called “marriage advantage” has been well documented for decades. Married adults generally enjoy better health and are more likely to pool income, invest and save, and leverage those benefits for their children. Kids with married parents generally have better economic and educational outcomes than their peers.
That advantage doesn’t mean everyone should get hitched, nor should we think of marriage as a panacea. But family instability must be taken seriously. The institution of marriage, in particular, requires the support of other institutions like the church in order to thrive.
“The sexual revolution has come and gone, and it’s left us with no governing norms of family life, no guiding values, no articulated ideals,” writes David Brooks in The Atlantic. “On this most central issue, our shared culture often has nothing relevant to say—and so for decades things have been falling apart.”
I would add that the sexual revolution also damaged our understanding of friendship. For Christians, thankfully, the church has something to say about that and about how we structure our lives in community with one another. While an absence of cultural norms and the mistaken idolization of family have damaged the body of Christ, Scripture offers a clear and simple solution: the reclamation of family and singleness as vocations.
As author and lecturer David Goa reminds us, the family is the primary spiritual community whose vocation is grounded in the call to holiness. That countercultural vocation includes nurturing parents and children toward union with Christ for the sake of the life of the world. It’s both inward and outward facing.
When the Christian family loses that calling, it becomes an end in itself. But at its best, the family is a community open to the adoption and inclusion of others.
Many Christians are culturally conditioned to view companionship and self-actualization as the primary purposes of marriage. Of course, it does provide companionship. But it’s also a covenantal relationship with voluntary sacrifices and limits, where passions and behaviors are supposed to be oriented toward a greater purpose.
The “institutional” model of marriage “seeks to integrate sex, parenthood, economic cooperation, and emotional intimacy into a permanent union,” writes Wilcox.
That doesn’t mean married-parent families are private, impenetrable fortresses. But nonetheless, we shouldn’t dilute the importance of their distinct role in both the church and society.
Scripture itself uses familial language to convey how we’re to treat one another within the church. In 1 Timothy 5, Paul instructs his protégé to speak to older men and women in the same manner a son speaks to a father or mother and to treat younger men and women as brothers and sisters (vv. 1–2).
The vocational family is a model (although not the only model) for relational interactions in community. We engage with the body of believers, respecting that family and church are distinct but overlapping spheres. Like other social spaces, the married-parent unit has its own distinct identity, duty, and prerogative but also maintains a posture of openness and hospitality.
Embracing family as a vocation challenges the privatization of that unit, but it also guards against the cultural notion that family is whatever we make of it for as long as it’s convenient. A vocational view of family and singleness invites the integration of the two and provides space for both to bless each other.
I’ve seen this play out in my own life.
My wife’s mom, dad, and uncle Al were a constant presence in her life growing up in a small northern Ontario town far from extended family. Uncle Al’s grinning face graces cherished photo albums from decades of Christmas dinners and family events, even after he and my in-laws moved to separate cities.
When my wife and I married, we were serving in youth ministry in a city several hours from Uncle Al. Once while chatting with a student in our program who had recently moved to town, we learned she also had an Uncle Al. As our conversation continued, we realized we shared the same Uncle Al.
Although he’s family to us, he is neither biologically related to my wife nor to the student in our ministry. Al, who never married, befriended my newlywed in-laws at church during the early 1970s. My father-in-law and Al became fast friends, and then Al integrated into family life.
A similar story had played out in the life of the new student in our youth ministry when Al relocated to her hometown. In fact, he has been an important figure in the lives of several families over the decades and a friend and mentor to many young adults.
In our family, the affectionate term uncle fittingly expresses his presence in the rhythms of our shared life. Even now, Al continues to be an important part of our kids’ world.
The local church community was a significant force in the formation and flourishing of these friendships—both ours and others’. Al generously sought them out, for sure. But the church provided the space and opportunity for those expansive relationships.
At a time when demographics are shifting and family life in North America continues to diversify, healthy developed communities will continue to rely on families and singles living vocationally and doing so together.
We need to move beyond an idolized family without neglecting a clear vision for married-parent units. And we need more Uncle Als—for the sake of families, singles, and a unified body of Christ.
Peter Jon Mitchell is family program director at Cardus, a nonpartisan think tank.
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