Chapter 6: Family-related Ethical Issues
Ever since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, it has become less clear why Christians should or do marry. The moral values associated with “the family pew” have had less influence on the sexual ethics of youths born after 1960 than the same values had for earlier generations of Protestants. Generational differences have created heartache for many disappointed parents. The inability of many congregations to address the life experience of the post-sixties generation realistically could be one of the reasons that so many young adults who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s are not found in “the family pew.”
The great liability of the ethical values associated with “the family pew” is the extent to which the modern family has depended on an intolerance of variety. The small family unit known as a nuclear family today is the typical family type of the modern era in Western cultures.1 During the last two hundred years, identity has been associated more with the family unit than with larger social units like a congregation. Until the 1960s, personal identity — a concept unknown to biblical writers — had been highly dependent on family loyalty and conformity to family values. This general pattern has been intensified in American Protestant culture by the association of family values with Christian and American values. Parents who were reared to believe that the values of “the family pew” are the only option for Christians are confused when they discover that their children do not conform to those ethical values.
For first-century Christians, a commitment to the new life in Christ required them to evaluate family commitments and the role of law in their lives. Just as they were freed from unquestioning commitment to Jewish tradition and law, Christians today can be freed from uncritical devotion to the “laws” of “the family pew.” Some of the most troubling aspects of changing attitudes about sexual behavior are issues related to whether and why anyone would marry. While Protestants may believe they should marry and have children, it is not clear why they feel this way.
Marriage and the Sexuality of Single Adults
In the New Testament, marriage is considered desirable for most people. A good marriage between two Christians is expected to contribute to the spiritual stability of each partner (I Cor. 7:2). Just as individual Christians belong to the Body of Christ and are expected to seek the well-being of other members of a Christian community, so marriage is also intended to enhance the well-being of each partner. The sexual relationship between husband and wife is important because it has bearing on their other roles, in the church and in their work. In other words, a good marriage between Christians can contribute to positive spiritual formation.
While biblical attitudes about marriage are mixed, the New Testament does not support a family ideal in which failure to marry is considered a tragedy. However, because of the premium placed on descendants of the “children of Abraham” in the Jewish tradition, marriage was normative for most Christians, and women were expected to bear children. In the letter to Corinth, Paul somewhat reluctantly concedes that marriage is acceptable. Unlike attitudes today, he favored the single life on grounds that a single Christian is free to give single-minded devotion to God (I Cor. 7:34-40).
However, in a pastoral letter written several generations later, advice about who marries and why was revised in the light of a different situation. A “traditional” prohibition of remarriage for widows was revised lest the “natural desires” of young widows get stronger than “their devotion to Christ.” The writer fears the possibility that the accepted teaching will be a stumbling block to faith and concludes it is better to revise the “tradition” than risk immoral practices that could reflect negatively on the community (I Tim. 5:4-16). In both cases, the issue is how the expression of “natural desires” will affect Christian faith and the Christian community.
All families are said to be created and sustained by God’s grace (Eph. 3:14). For Christians, God’s blessing can be experienced in marriage and family life. All love between those who live by faith in Jesus Christ is enhanced by the presence of gifts of the Spirit. But it does not follow that marriage is essential to the Christian life because Christians can experience God’s grace in a marital relationship.
In spite of changing cultural attitudes about marriage, many Protestants today think it is abnormal not to marry. No one knows this better than single adults. Since it is no longer taken for granted that marriage is for everyone, Christians need to know why they might choose to marry.
Attitudes about marriage in the Judeo-Christian tradition are more practical than romantic. Nowhere is this practicality more obvious than in the creation myths of Genesis. Why did God create them male and female? So they won’t be lonely. So they can be co-workers, caring for God’s world. And so they can populate the earth (Gen. 2:18-22). These ideas about marriage are found in the household rules of Ephesians, but are adapted to the ethics of the new life in Christ.
Although marriage is not a Protestant sacrament, many Protestants experience their marriage as sacramental. A special kind of knowing “in Christ” can occur when a couple is drawn closer to God’s mysterious, ineffable love through their love for each other. As physical union provides a metaphor for the union of Christ with the church, the sexual bond in marriage can enhance the sense that in God’s love all that alienates has been overcome. To love each other “in Christ” is to love the Christ in each other.
The sexual bond in marriage can be an expression of oneness in the Body of Christ, but the experience of unity of spirit is not limited to marriage. To experience oneness in Christ is to glimpse for a moment the truth that God’s eternal love is stronger than the bonds of death.
The Other is present to us in an astonishing immediacy and openness so that there seems to be a commingling of beings in bonds of affection…. This moment never lasts. One cannot recapture or command those moments of self-disclosure and relationship when another self was almost undistinguished from one’s own self.2
All friendship between those who are made new in the Spirit partakes of love that overcomes separation and loneliness. This is love that drives out fear and anxiety, love grounded in faith in God through Jesus Christ. To live the new life in Christ is to love one another in the household of God.
The life of Christians “at home” is expected to reflect the love Christians have for one another, but family relationships are quite different from all other expressions of love. When two people live together, they become aware of differences that alienate. Each one brings an old way of life into their new life together. Strange behavior and attitudes in the other can be bewildering, incomprehensible, and sometimes distressing. Personal likes, dislikes, habits, attitudes, and ways of thinking and valuing will be different. Even though two people grow together in marriage, there is never a time when they will fully comprehend each other.
The counsel of mutual subjection to each other “in Christ” is good advice for Christians who marry. Feminists who blame patriarchal attitudes in early Christian writings for the oppression of women today make too much of the differing instructions to husband and wife. In “the household rule” in Ephesians, wives are told to be subject to their husbands; husbands are told to love their wives as their own bodies. The instructions are given as examples of how to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21-33).
The point is that both husband and wife are to respect each other because both are members of the household of God. This is an example of the self-sacrificing quality of all Christian love. It means that those who live a new life in Christ give up all prior claims to special status. The subjection of a wife to a husband does not mean that women are expected to sacrifice personal well-being for other family members.
The writer of Ephesians has considerable respect for the mysterious nature of the sexual bond. The “rule” for a household conveys the responsibility of Christians to seek the well-being of each other in marriage as they would seek the well-being of other members of the Christian community.
In marriage, faith is tested and can be deepened. Although an appreciation of God’s love can be deepened in any friendship between Christians, in marriage the partners are committed to seeking mutual well-being over time. This does not happen automatically. Marriage can be regarded as an expression of Christian spirituality that will flourish best when both partners are actively seeking spiritual direction through participation in a community of Christians.
Traditional ideals can lead to such high expectations about love in marriage that couples are bound to be disappointed. The more realistic biblical perspective on human nature makes it possible to realize that a marriage may not be a union in which personalities are well balanced. Or, depending on life circumstances, there is more unity between the partners at some times than others. This does not mean that the marriage cannot contribute to the well-being of each partner. It means that most people need friends in faith who understand and support their spirituality in times when their partner cannot or does not.
Younger Adults, Sexuality, and Marriage
It is very difficult for most parents who became adults before 1960 to understand the attitudes of their children about work and love. Many expect their “grown” children to find suitable work and marry after high school or college as they did. But times have changed. Most young adults today do not have the same kind of life choices available to them that were available in the period of economic expansion after the Second World War.
While some social critics accuse youth of being lazy, indulgent, and narcissistic, others see cultural attitudes about work changing because of a transition from an industrial to a service culture. Vocational guidance counselors in public schools are not a fad. They are necessary in a time when young people do not seem to have clear-cut vocational options available to them.
How should the parents of single young adults respond to twenty-five- and thirty-year-old “children” who live lives so different from their own years as young adults? How should they respond when sons and daughters show no interest in marriage but are living with a “friend”? Parents are hurt or angry, but do not usually turn away a “child” who comes home after a divorce, between failed relationships, or for economic reasons.
These parents are justifiably concerned. In the Protestant tradition, work and marriage are considered the two primary areas of life in which faithfulness to God is learned and expressed. But, like the idea of self-fulfillment in marriage or family life, Americans have exalted ideals about self-fulfillment in work as well. Work has a place in Christian life, but it is not taken for granted that human work should or will be personally fulfilling.
The Victorian experience set the stage for continuing Protestant expectations of upward mobility as signs of God’s grace. Despite the shock of the Great Depression, expectations of upward mobility were renewed in post-war economic optimism. The middle-class connection of work to prosperity and God’s blessing means that Protestants have come to believe that work should be rewarding. Many young adults who inherited these expectations have discovered that there is no corresponding reality in the work available to them. Many never find work that matches their expectations, skills, or educational preparation. Most find that their work is not personally fulfilling.
Opportunities to find a suitable marriage partner are not much better than those of finding rewarding work. Cultural pluralism means that young adults do not experience the kind of Protestant homogeneity of moral and social values that their parents took for granted. It is difficult for them to locate “our kind of people” except possibly at church.
There is not much encouragement for young adults to establish enduring relationships in a culture where immediate gratification of desire — sexual and otherwise — is a constant media message. For young adults fortunate enough to find a suitable mate, the scarcity of work and continuing inflation make the establishment of a new household increasingly difficult. Many cannot afford to rent an apartment in a major city. The possibility of owning a house seems a far distant dream, if not an impossibility, to many young couples.
In addition to changes in economic circumstances that are not favorable to establishing a home in the young-adult years, traditional marriage ideals complicate the ability to make choices. It is not viable today to wait for “the right person.” The homogeneity of small-town Protestant values of the older generation led to a mystique about God-given partners as well as God-given roles for men and women. In the popular mythology of the time, everyone knew that the purpose of dating around was to find “the right person” because “marriages are made in heaven.” This is a romantic luxury that creates impossible expectations about happiness in marriage. It is also confusing to parents who do not understand why dating is no longer common practice.
In less prosperous and less romantic times, Christians have viewed marriage in more pragmatic terms as God’s good gift of providing a partner with whom to work and live and make love. If, in the process, a man and a woman were less lonely and if their union issued in children, that was good. From this perspective a marriage between two Christians was not contingent on falling in love. The question asked by young adults in less romantic times was not “Do I love . . . ?” It was “Can I learn to love . . . ?”
The Sexuality of Single Adults
Given the circumstances in which young adults come of age today, many are sexually experienced before marriage, if they marry. Research indicates that “nearly three-quarters of white women eighteen and nineteen had had sexual intercourse in 1988, up from 64 percent in 1982”; 76 percent of single women fifteen to forty-four years of age said they were sexually active.3
While Christian parents may rightly wish to prevent premature sexual experimentation and possibly disastrous relationships, a parent of a young adult actually has little control over the private life of grown “children.” Parents cannot impose their moral code on their children any more than the government can stop abortions by making them illegal.
The parents of many young adults are imbued with an ethic of premarital chastity. The way of evaluating sexual practices with regard to marriage in the New Testament suggests that Christians should never assume that the particular moral code they inherited is the only possibility for acceptable Christian behavior.
The Bible has relatively little to say about premarital sexual relations as a subject in its own right. Prohibitions against adultery are designed to protect the family unit and refer to persons who are already married. Fornication, considered less serious than adultery in Jewish law, can refer to single persons. This includes incest, bestiality, rape, prostitution, and homosexuality. In the New Testament, apart from Paul’s recommendation of celibacy, the single life was not a concern in cultures where most people were expected to marry. But, fornication did refer to any sexual relationship outside of marriage.
When Paul says that it is better to marry than to burn, this presupposes that marriage is a choice, not an obligation, for Christians. Jesus’ condemnation of lust is an especially stringent teaching for modern sexually aware teens and young adults who live in a culture that literally throbs with libidinous energy (Matt. 5:27-30). They may “burn” with sexual desire, but have little possibility of entertaining marriage.
The best reason to advise celibacy to unmarried younger adults is the Christian insight that the corporate nature of the marriage covenant supports partners in their intention to seek mutual well-being. Christians who marry should be able to expect support for their intentions in a community of Christians. The very presence of the community can be a reminder of their commitment. The example of others who enjoy their marriage can encourage those who are newly wed to persevere.
A marriage ceremony recognizes an already existing relationship. It is the nature of the ceremony to make the commitment of the partners public. This element is missing for a couple who only “live together.” A sexual relationship outside of marriage, whether it involves living together or not, will be more vulnerable if differences begin to come between the couple. They are not likely to have a community that cares enough about their future together to encourage them to persevere when the going gets rough, as it does in every marriage.
Just as there are no guarantees that a marriage ceremony will insure the faithfulness of one partner to the other, it should not be assumed that a lasting and faithful union is not possible outside of marriage. It may be more difficult to sustain mutual respect over time without communal support, but it can be done.
What does this say to unmarried adults about the expression of their sexual desires? There are circumstances in which a man and a woman have a lasting relationship, one which is faithful by Christian standards, but find it not expedient to marry. This happens more often with older adults. Sometimes a younger couple does not or cannot marry but has a stable relationship over time. Is it better to burn with sexual desire than engage in a sexual relationship that cannot or may not lead to marriage (I Cor. 7:8-10)?
In the teachings of both Paul and Jesus, sexual desire that distracts Christians from being able to give their lives to “love and serve the Lord” is to be avoided. What does this suggest to unmarried younger adults who may have very little opportunity to marry? Is it better for them to burn with sexual desire than risk a sexual relationship that may not lead to marriage? Here, as in different positions regarding the remarriage of widows in the New Testament, the issue is whether this union will enhance faithfulness to God.
On what grounds can official church teaching continue an absolute prohibition of all nonmarital sexual relationships? New Testament attitudes about the expression of sexuality — and what happens when people try to repress sexual desire — seem more realistic and more merciful than current Protestant teaching would indicate.
There is a difference between a more accepting attitude about sexual relationships outside of marriage and advocacy of “free love”! It is possible to accept an alternative expression of sexuality without implying that it is good for everyone. There are very good reasons for Christians to know why they marry and how that choice is related to the life of faith. It would be helpful if more Christians were aware of the benefits of the corporate nature of the marriage covenant. But knowing that Christians may have options might ease the pain of parents who feel that the sexual behavior of their children is a rejection of everything they stand for.
Several denominations now recommend “celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage.”4 If taken seriously by unmarried Christians, this can encourage suppression of sexual desire to avoid breaking a moral law. It is possible for unmarried lovers to practice celibacy, but is it spiritually helpful? Paul warned that trying to practice celibacy in marriage could lead to infidelity on the part of one of the partners. Is it better for young adults to practice celibacy in singleness when they “burn with desire”? An ethic that does not ask how keeping the “law” affects the spirit of the persons involved is not a law of love.
Christian parents may be more understanding of the life-style of their children if they realize that the world in which their children have come of age requires their children to make decisions about sexual behavior that were not even issues in the past. Everyone has a need for physical intimacy and companionship in daily life. Given present cultural circumstances, younger adults find a variety of ways to satisfy their longing for intimacy and friendship. Some create a surrogate family. Some live with friends who are not lovers. Some live with lovers who are friends.
There is considerable variation in the living arrangements of both unmarried heterosexual and homosexual couples. Homosexual couples who want to commit themselves to a monogamous lifelong relationship find themselves in the same situation as anyone else who cohabits without benefit of marriage. The difference is that there is no choice for homosexuals.
The possibility that a gay or lesbian relationship might be a “marriage” is so alien to current attitudes about homosexuality that there is no language and no publicly accepted ritual to acknowledge their intentions. Yet, they, as much as anyone else, are in need of corporate witness and support for their commitment.
When two Christians live together in a relationship that is not a marriage, for whatever reasons, the commitment of the relationship can be evaluated the same way the commitment in a marriage between Christians is evaluated. Does the love expressed between these two people support the ability of each to live the Christian life of love more fully?
Parenthood as a Ministry
There are a good many parents who wish they were grandparents. Couples who do not choose to become parents and couples who are unable to become parents may find themselves being subtly pressured by parents or peers. It is hard for the older generation to accept the fact that parenthood is now subject to choice, especially when it means that they may never have grandchildren. Some respond to this situation as if they have no future life unless their bloodline is continued through their children.
This legacy of the American Dream still conveys a sense that if a woman is not a mother, she is not complete. These attitudes are particularly cruel in the case of couples who spend a great deal of time and money trying to conceive. But faithful following of Jesus in the gospel is not described in terms of a family obligation to procreate. The best friends of Jesus — Mary, Martha, and Lazarus — were single young adults!
In the past, dualistic thinking about what it means to be a woman so strongly associated motherhood with women that childbearing seemed essential to spiritual wholeness. Since birth control has become easily available, it is possible to ask whether all Christian couples should become parents. On what grounds should a couple decide that it would be faithful to their calling as Christians to become parents?
Protestants have always believed that being parents is a God-given calling, even though they have not always believed it unnatural to be single or childless. Traditionally, Protestants have said that parenthood is work given by God, and that it is a service to human society. That is why all work, including that of parenthood, is to be done “as to the Lord.”
Attitudes about a division of labor between men and women make it difficult to think of men as parents by closely associating parenthood with mothers. In the Victorian period, the identity of women was so strongly dependent on the bearing and rearing of children that men often felt shut out of family life. Many still do, especially in homes where women do not work outside of the home.
The expectation that a man should support his family financially continues to suggest that the “right” place for men is in the work world, while “real” women give themselves in service to family and church. This unfortunate dualism continues to influence attitudes about what it means to be a man and a woman even though over half of the working women in the United States are working to support a family.
Many church members continue to feel that the God-given role of women is in “the Christian home,” as “the keepers of the springs.” As long as parenthood was not a choice, modern Protestants rarely asked about the work of women. It can no longer be taken for granted that all women will or should become mothers.
Parenthood as a Servant Ministry
Every Christian has a vocation, a calling to some particular work in the world, given as their service to God. There are no gender-specific vocations. Men and women are both called to perform work that contributes to the good of God’s world. There are two purposes for Christian callings. First, all work contributes to the well-being of the world. Second, the work of Christians in the world is a form of evangelism. For Christians, parenthood is both an act of faith and a servant ministry.
Parenthood is not for everyone. Freedom in Christ means freedom from uncritical allegiance to social conventions. A Christian man can choose not to be a slave to career ambition so that he can devote enough time to being a good father. No Christian woman has to assume that the only or best work to which she is called by God is that of being a wife and mother. There are childless couples who can, in good faith, conclude that the present work of each is their proper and full calling. Some division of labor between home and work is necessary for every couple, whether they are parents or not. There is no single arrangement that is right for everyone.
Just as a good marriage requires personal change and sacrifice of both partners, so does parenthood. New parents find that the inclusion of a third person in their home and their lives reduces privacy and changes daily living habits. A man and a woman establish a new relationship with each other while learning to care for their child together. In the process, one or both of them may find it necessary to give up some personal ambition, work projects, or free time.
In this time of cultural confusion about the meaning of family life, the world needs to see the kind of attitudes Christians can bring to their family relationships and responsibilities. The corporate nature of the Christian life means that parents should be able to find support and encouragement for their work as parents among other members of their congregation. Sometimes it is hard to remember that the drudgery or pain involved in being responsible for a baby, a child, or a teen is a labor of love. Sometimes it seems like all of the effort has come to nothing. Remembering that parenthood is a servant ministry can be an aid to faith.
Parents who try to rear children in “the discipline and instruction of the Lord” without support from a Christian community will not find family life easier; they will find it more difficult. The attitudes that Christian parents want for their children are not always the same as the attitudes of the rest of the world. Membership in a Christian community offers them companionship in work that will test their faithfulness, patience, and perseverance. Regular worship, Bible study, and prayer are aids to faith, especially as these disciplines remind Christian parents of the presence of God’s grace in all of life.
Divorce and Reconciliation
Divorce is now so common that some couples commit themselves to a marriage for only “as long as love shall last.” Few extended families have been untouched by the phenomenal increase in divorce in the last twenty years. Attitudes about divorce in the church have changed to fit the new situation. Less than thirty years ago, Presbyterian polity instructed pastors not to perform a marriage ceremony if the man or woman had ever been divorced. The reason for this policy was considered biblical.
Although it is now less common to absolutely prohibit divorce, there are still congregations and denominations where divorce is prohibited on biblical grounds. Even where divorce is acceptable, many Christians who have been divorced in recent years feel that they have failed. Some associate their sense of failure with the church so strongly that they may feel unwelcome in their congregation. They may feel unacceptable to God as well as to members of their congregation.
Divorce is tragic. Divorce often seems like the end of life because of the intense alienation that usually is involved. Like marriage, divorce has a public dimension that touches the lives of all who know the couple. It is not unusual for others to feel threatened when friends or family members divorce. The fact that divorce is now so common may fuel the belief that marriage is so difficult that it might not last for a lifetime. Friends and family members may want to avoid a couple in trouble at the very time they most need encouragement.
The Matthean account of Jesus’ reflection about divorce and Jewish law suggests that the spiritual dimensions of a divorce are important. People who divorce may experience it as the end of their fondest hopes and dreams. But divorce is more than the end of a dream, more than the inability to keep a commitment. Divorce feels like the end of life because a union in which two became one has dissolved. A part of the self seems to be lost. Some people never recover their self-respect after a divorce. Others find it difficult to trust because an intimacy has been betrayed.
A divorce wounds the spirit in ways that are difficult to anticipate. It is a time when people need to know that they are forgiven and that they can forgive. In some congregations, a divorce between two members is acknowledged by a rite of confession. The intention of the ritual is to confess failure on the part of the couple and the congregation so that healing can occur. This seems to be a good idea, but it may trivialize the consequences of divorce for the couple and for the congregation.
When two Christians mutually agree that they no longer have a marriage, it is a genuine tragedy that should be repented. If they have made serious attempts with the help of a pastor or counselor to reconcile their differences, they may conclude that a divorce is preferable to living with alienation.5 The “sin” involved is not the decision to divorce; it is the experience of alienation from God, self, and others that causes damage to the human spirit.
The ebb and flow of marriage is bound to have periods in which mutual concern and respect is strained by other interests and other loves. Infidelity takes different forms for people . . . excessive love of work, of children, or of another person. The importance of forgiveness in a Christian marriage — knowing that the past can be left behind — can hardly be overestimated when temptations to unfaithfulness are so common.
Pastors are particularly vulnerable to the temptations of excessive work and adultery. A recent study funded by the Lilly Endowment indicates that one in four clergy has had some kind of sexual contact with a parishioner and one in ten has had an affair with a parishioner.6 The extent of clergy adultery and clergy divorce is fair indication that unfaithfulness in marriage is also fairly common.
When clergy are known to be involved with someone in their congregation, or when clergy divorce, the effect on the congregation is considerably more serious than the ramifications for the congregation when members divorce. The sexual contact of a pastor with a parishioner is considered sexual abuse from the standpoint of professional ethics. This raises a larger issue for the church concerning the spirituality of pastors and the people entrusted to their care.
Forgiveness and Reconciliation
There are times in most marriages when mutual respect is shattered and forgiveness seems impossible. Yet, an attitude of forgiveness is part of what it means for Christians to love one another. This is not easily learned or practiced in a culture where it is beneficial to have power over other people. Reconciliation will be very difficult if not impossible when only one party is willing to admit failure and begin again.
If a marriage ends in divorce, everyone involved will suffer some loss of self-respect. If children are involved, the parents usually experience guilt over their inability to keep the family together. Yet, the admission of inability to be faithful to the marriage covenant is the first step in a healing process. Confession of failure is an act in which the healing power of God’s forgiving mercy can be discovered. This, too, is difficult in a culture in which it is more common to blame others than to accept responsibility for failure.
A broken relationship is always a faith issue. Although it is not always obvious, people who divorce lose faith in themselves. In a case where one or both will not forgive, their ability to trust God, self, and others is diminished.
The same thing seems to happen when a congregation is disappointed by a pastor. The failure of church judicatories to confront the unfaithfulness of a pastor — when the pastor’s unfaithfulness is common knowledge in the congregation — robs members of an opportunity for healing. If the pastor’s supervisor refuses to acknowledge that there is a problem, then it is impossible for the congregation to deal with the spiritual issues involved. This makes it difficult for members to trust new leaders and one another.
Members of a congregation may need to make special efforts to help newly divorced people realize that the community is a place where faith can be restored. The healing of broken persons is a process of learning to trust again; it is a process of learning to respect self and others again. It is learning to believe that there is new life in Christ. A rite of reconciliation does not restore respect, but it can represent the beginning of new life for those who repent and believe.
When the trust of a congregation has been violated, it is the responsibility of the larger Christian community to realize that it may be necessary for members of the congregation to be forgiven and reconciled to one another.
Adults who divorce are sometimes referred to as “single again.” They may be treated differently from a widow or a widower, and in some ways they are different. But any adult who is “single again” for any reason is bound to be lonely. Whether newly divorced or newly widowed, there is a period of grief. For both, there is some experience of guilt. Programs for adults who are single or “single again” often fail to give enough attention to the reality that life is shattered when a companion is lost. It is difficult for congregations to recognize the variety of needs experienced by people who are single again, especially those of a single parent.7
The mystique of “the ideal family” can obscure the extent to which all kinds of families need spiritual support from the church. It also obscures the capacity to realize that some members of every congregation experience family life as a nightmare. It is now known that family disorganization and abusive domestic relationships are common in middle-class families. This reality will not get the attention it deserves unless pastors are able to see that there are no ideal families.8
Church programs in the post-war era were designed to serve members of “healthy,” intact families. They were organized on the premise that most members learn to love in “the Christian home.” This attitude cannot do justice to the deeply human need for forgiveness and reconciliation in all relationships.
There are no families untouched by strain between generations. There are no marriages in which there will not be misunderstanding between marital partners. There are no members of any congregation who do not need to know the power of Christ’s forgiving love in their lives.
The Family Life of Pastors
The marital commitments and family life of pastors are no less troubling or complicated than those of laity.9 The double calling of most Christians to career and to family life means that all Christians, including those who are ordained church leaders, should be able to expect the church to support them in their life commitments.
In the Protestant tradition, clergy and laity are both expected to express faithfulness to God through faithfulness to family responsibilities. Yet, the nature of clergy responsibility in the church today is such that many pastors find an imbalance between commitment to ministry and faithfulness to family. It is rare to find a pastor who does not experience conflict between these two loyalties. It is ironic that pastors may respond to expectations about family-related pastoral care in their congregations at the expense of their own family relationships.
Current congregational practices often deny that all members are to work together to “build up the Body of Christ.” One of the reasons pastors often neglect their own families is that the demand for pastoral care of families has increased in recent years. A pastor is expected to see that all of the people of God do the work of the church, not to do the work of the church on behalf of the people of God. Thus, part 3 is about the servant role of a pastor as the spiritual director of a congregation.
1. This is the thesis developed by Philippe Aries in Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (New York: Random House, 1962).
2. Ronald Goetz, “Picturing a Vanishing,” The Christian Century (April 18, 1990):
3. This information comes from Pregnancy, Contraception and Family Planning in Industrialized Countries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), as reported in the New York Times, November 10, 1990.
4. According to a 1982 compilation of denominational statements on family and sexuality prepared by C. William Sheck for The National Council of Churches (unpublished paper) only four of twenty denominations said anything about “Single Persons and Sexuality.” Only one, the United Church of Canada, raised the issue as to whether the church can accept a sexual relationship that includes sexual intercourse when marriage is not part of it (p. 55). The others do not acknowledge that this is an issue.
5. See Charles L. Rassieur, Pastor, Our Marriage Is in Trouble: A Guide to Short-Term Counseling (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1988) for a realistic introduction to the complicated dynamics of marriage.
6. “Clergy and Sexuality,” The Christian Century (March 7, 1990).
7. See chapter 3, “The Single-Parent Family,’’ Richard P. Olson and Joe H. Leonard, Jr., Ministry with Families in Flux: The Church and Changing Patterns of Life (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990). This book is the best treatment to date about how a pastor and a congregation can minister to a diversity of family types.
8. See chapter 6 in Marie Marshall Fortune, Sexual Violence: The Unmentionable Sin (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1983) for an in-depth discussion of why clergy assume that this is not a problem for members of their congregation.
9. See Charles L. Rassieur, The Problem Clergymen Don’t Talk About (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976). Although his discussion does not address the issue of temptations to infidelity for clergywomen, this may be the only book-length discussion of this “pastoral problem” and clergy marriage.