Your Marriage Needs the Church

I have not only tracked divorce rates for about thirty years, but have tried to succinctly overview and explain them to college students over the same time.  This is one of the most consistently misunderstood and misrepresented areas in the social sciences.

Getting the rates, and their meaning and interpretation, wrong, means also making serious errors in assessing things that help to sustain, or undermine marriages:  strengths and risk factors.  This is critical not only to understanding population trends, and reasons for them, but in helping communities, churches, and couples constructively address potential dangers and embrace things that are likely to strengthen their marriages.

Nowhere do people, and unfortunately leaders and pastors, get this wrong more than in talking about the divorce rates of professing Bible believers versus others.  Almost every year I share with audiences, including students, that the divorce rates of professing, Bible-believing, “saved,” “born-again” Christians are the same as everyone else’s.  And several times a year, either in the classroom or later through Facebook or email or some other inquiry, I am told that I have misled them.  The reason that I am supposedly wrong, I am told is  this:  regular church attenders clearly do have dramatically lower divorce rates than those who never, rarely, or infrequently attend church.  Since professing, Bible-believing, born-again Christians obviously attend church more regularly than others do, than (they think) I must be wrong when I claim that these believers get divorced just as much as everyone else.

I have received more of these kinds of inquiries or rebuttals since the publication of a book by Shaunti Feldhahn entitled The Good News About Marriage, which includes, among other things (roughly) that argument I laid out in the last two sentences.  Feldhahn’s claims in this regard have received wide, positive circulation in conservative Christian circles (including, sadly, many people and ministries whom I respect).  Without addressing everything in her book, and without denying the value and accuracy of much that she has to say, I do need to object strongly on that point.

You see, these rebuttals to my claims about the sad state of marriage and divorce among professing Bible-believers are always especially frustrating to me.  Why?  Because, in those same talks or classes, I virtually always point out that (a) while professing Bible-believing Christians get divorced as much as anyone else, (b) regular church attenders get divorced a lot less than others.  Then, I virtually always go on to point out that this seeming contradiction is pretty easy to explain, because (c) a very high percentage of professing Bible-believers do not attend church regularly.  (And, there are plenty of theological liberals who, none-the-less, do attend church regularly and as a result, reap the benefits – even though they do not believe that the Bible is true, or fully authoritative, by any means.)  For some reason, a year later my former audiences only remember that I said “(a)” and forget what I said about “(b)” and “(c)” (above).  So they think that the evidence that regular church-goers get divorced less refutes my claim that the divorce among professing believers is the same as everyone else’s.

 I have had two conversations with old and dear friends about this that are illuminating.

One came after I dealt with everything I just said above, in a Sunday School class on marriage. (I am loading edited audios of this class, as I get them done, here).  I talked about the fact that many professing, born-again, Bible-believing Christians don’t go to church regularly, and that this is one of the reasons for high divorce rates in the professing church.  At first, he was skeptical that conservative churches like his really could suffer from such low attendance rates.  He told me that later, he thought about it and realized how many confirmed, “made-a-public-profession-of-faith” voting members of his church did not attend services once per week or even close.  I could go further.  Many of them attended the regular services of that church once a month or less, and some only a few times per year.  These folk who rarely darkened the door of the church they were members of were not disciplined in any way, or even spoken to about it.  If they attended on a Sunday in which the Lord’s Supper was given, they partook without qualms or questions from anyone.  Their status as true Bible-believing Christians was not questioned by the elders.  It hit him directly that what I had said was true – these are people in “good standing” in a conservative church that insists upon adherence to orthodox theology, who could only join after being examined to show that they had truly come to Christ and placed faith in Him, but whose church attendance habits are terrible.  And as a group, so are their divorce rates.  This situation exists in thousands of churches across this country.

The other conversation was with a man who had been introduced to Shaunti Feldhahn’s arguments (through a popular Christian column) and asked me about the “40-50% divorce rate in the professing Church” claim.  I assured him that there were good grounds for this claim, and shared some hard data with him.  But I asked him something that I often ask older Christians to consider, especially Baby Boomers like me, who have been serious committed believers since their younger, single years, got married for the first time as believers to a believer, and have many friends and acquaintances who are identical in this regard.  “Of all your Christian friends and acquaintances who got married over the years and at least, say, ten years ago, how many are now divorced (or more-or-less permanently separated, which is quite common)?  When he thought about it carefully he realized that was…well, about half!  Same for me.  If I look back at all the professing, theologically conservative Christian friends I know who got married over the past thirty to thirty five years, about half are now divorced or irreconcilably separated.  About half.

One argument I hear goes something like this:  “Well, they aren’t real Christians – if they were, they’d be in church regularly.”  Uh, ok.  Isn’t that a bit circular?  Yes, there is some truth in that.  A church member who refuses to connect and remain committed to his or her local church is someone who, at a certain point, should be challenged.  We might even have grounds to reasonably question the state of their heart.  (And hopefully do so not to condemn them but in order to encourage and help them.  In fact, we should do that.  Most churches don’t, but all churches should.)  I suppose we could say the same thing about regular prayer and Bible reading.  But going by public profession, and considering that we don’t (in practice) reject folk as believers based on inconsistent use of the means of grace, I am a bit hesitant to go there.

So let me share just a little data, and then some closing thoughts of application.  (By the way, for more detail on this and related issues, see the video of a dinner presentation I gave in April 2015 here.)

First, I need to say some things about measuring divorce in a population.  (a) Divorce is dynamic and on-going.  Thus, in any group of people who have ever been married, you will have some who are now divorced or legally separated, some who are widowed, and some who are married.  Among those who are married or widowed, some were divorced previously.  And among some who are married, some will get divorced in the future.  (b) Divorce is heavily “front-loaded.”  The vast majorities of divorces that will ever occur take place within the first ten years of marriage.  For example, the U.S. Census noted that, as of 2009, the average first marriage that ended in divorce went like this:  separation by year 7, finalized divorce by year 8.  As a result, researchers typically look at marriage cohorts (that is, every marriage that started in a given time period, such as “first marriages that started in 2000 through 2002”).  They do so ten to fifteen years later or more.  Then, they make a reasonable projection, based on standard patterns of frequency of divorce across the span of marriage, on how many additional divorces will take place in the future, among those marriages that are still intact at the time they captured the data. Roughly, if about 38% to 40% of all couples who got married in 2000 are divorced or legally separated by 2010 to 2015 (and I am being conservative here, I’d go with just 2010 with a lot of confidence), about half of those marriages will have ended in divorce by the time that every person in that original, 2000 marriage cohort is deceased.  This is not that speculative, this is based on very sound, long-term, empirically-measured experience.  (c) Legal separations need to be included.  Although some happy exceptions occur, the overwhelming majority of legal separations are in fact a virtual divorce.  Either the couple ends up formally divorced eventually, or the legal separation remains permanent and irreconcilable.

OK, that technical stuff is out of the way.  What are the facts?  I will look at one excellent data source, the General Social Survey (GSS).  This has been performed using large national samples since 1972, by the prestigious National Opinion Research Corporation (NORC), and is widely used by researchers and policy makers.

Taking only those who have ever-been married, and combining the years 1972-2012 of the GSS, I see that for those who had first been married ten to fifteen years prior to being surveyed, 36.5% had been divorced or legally separated at the time they were surveyed.  (Some had then remarried, others had not.)  Among those in the same group who were classified as “Protestant fundamentalists” (based on a combination of factors, which would together include almost all professed “evangelicals”), that figure was 41%!  That is actually higher.  But among those (again, who had been married for the first time ten to fifteen years prior to being surveyed) who attended church about every week or more, that figure was 24%  Add in those who say they attended church at least two to three times per month, and the figure was 28%.

So, regular church attenders had much lower divorce rates.  Still too high, but lower.

(If we restrict ourselves only to more recent decades, by looking at 1992 through 2012, the situation gets worse.  Overall, 40.5% of all couples first married ten to fifteen years prior to being surveyed had divorced or legally separated, and the same figure was 43% for conservative Protestant believers.  But again, for regular church attenders divorce rates were far lower:  31% for those who were in services about once per week or more.)

So if regular church attenders have lower divorce rates, why are the divorce rates of conservative Protestant believers just as high, or even higher, than average?  Because lots of these folk, despite what they claim about their faith, don’t attend church regularly.  In fact, among ever-married “fundamentalist Protestants” who were surveyed by the GSS between 1972-2012, fully 54% admitted to attending church less than once per week.  Another 17% attended church one to three times per month.  The rest were very infrequent and sporadic.  This is especially troubling because, in surveys like this, particularly among those who are more religious, there is a demonstrated tendency for respondents to overstate how often they attend church.

These low church attendance rates are not, as some claim, something one only sees at places like megachurches or the more liberal wings of the evangelical world.  Even in one fairly small conservative church we were members of for some years, the gap between the voting members listed in the church directory, and the folk one saw at church most Sundays, was huge (as I mentioned earlier).

As I used to tell my Sunday School marriage class – “if you aren’t here, we can’t help you”. (Of course, the folk who needed to hear me say that weren’t there!  Which I suppose is the point.  My hope here is to reach some of them on the Web instead!)

The author of the Book of Hebrews strongly warned early Christians that they should not “forsak(e) the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some…” (Hebrews 10:25a)  After all, it is in that assembly that we “exhort one another” (v. 25b), in which we help each other to “hold fast the confession….without wavering” (v. 23) and “consider one another in order to stir up love and good works” (v. 24).

Christians need each other, and they need to relate to each other (in addition to other ways) within the on-going ministry of the Church, especially meeting together on the Lord’s Day.  Christian marriages need the instruction, encouragement, on-going ministry and care, preaching, sacraments, fellowship, practical support, early intervention, pastoral care, and all else that a healthy, Biblical church should be providing.  If their church is not a healthy, Biblical church, and constructive change is not likely, then they should consider finding another church.  (Not church-hopping, but also not “sticking out” a place in which basic spiritual meat and drink is too sparse to keep them “alive.”)  To believe we can function without the church is to claim that we can be faithful to God without also being faithful to doing what God says we need to do!  How much sense does that make?  That is impossible by definition.  If we claim to live under the authority of the Word of God, while neglecting its clear instructions about being regular participants in the assembly of His saints, we are deceiving ourselves.  And the fact is, we were not designed to make it on our own.  (Except when God provides extraordinary grace for unusual (and hopefully temporary, circumstances.)

This is also developing a habit of commitment to something larger and more important than ourselves.  This is being committed, week in and week out, to something that we need and to others who need us, whether we feel like it or not.  And isn’t that what marriage requires too?

Imagine that someone told you that you can get into athletic trim while exercising only when it is convenient or pleasurable, never when it is hard, and that you can do it without ever skipping anything that would be more fun than exercising. Would you believe it?  Why then do we take that approach to the discipline of regular attendance, with our family and our spouse, at church?

Ultimately too, the real question of faith-authenticity has to be addressed.  That is not for me to answer for anyone ultimately, but for infrequent attenders to confront honestly.  Real faith produces action consistent with it.  Because I believe the floor is solid, I stand on it.  If I was afraid to stand on it, then that would mean I don’t really believe that it is solid, regardless of the claims I am making with my lips.  The Apostle James said that we should demonstrate our faith by our works.  He said that faith without works is dead. (He actually says it twice in the space of four consecutive sentences.)  James said that even the demons believe in one God, and fear Him, and yet do not have true saving faith. (James 2: 17-20)  Real faith produces works consistent with it.  And for the Christian, that includes joining oneself to the Body of Christ, to serve, and to be served, by and within it.

Of course we are sinners.  Of course the carry through of our faith into our actions is going to be horribly flawed, beset by stumbling and backsliding.  Of course this includes our commitment to the church, and to other basic disciplines of the Christian life such as Bible reading and prayer.  But the very sin nature that often makes it hard for us to be as committed to regular church attendance as we ought to be, is the very reason we need it.  In a healthy church, sinners help sinners under the care of the Good Shepherd.  You need it.  I need it.  Your family needs it.  My family needs it.  Your marriage needs it.  My marriage needs it.

Keeping Marital Vows in an Egoistic World

One of the fatal weaknesses of the modern evangelical church, and to a great (though lesser) extent of those who are active Roman Catholics, is that we have not demonstrated, to a watching world, a radical commitment to honor our own marital vows through thick and thin.  We allow the slightest things, even variations in our feelings and personal emotional states, to serve as excuses to walk away from our marriages and, when we deem it necessary, our children. Leaving our spouses to find greener pastures appears to be about as common among professing Christians as everyone else. (I will back this up with some data in my next post, but I don’t wish to focus on statistics here.)

High divorce rates, low and declining marital rates, high out-of-wedlock birth and cohabitation rates and (yes) homosexual “marriage” all reflect this highly individualized, “therapeutic” view of matrimony.  That is, marriage is seen as being just one relationship choice among many to be abandoned or turned down if it fails to deliver personal happiness or fulfillment, vows or not, children or not.  Not surprisingly, the more Americans look to marriage as just another “voluntary committed relationship” to deliver subjective and emotional benefits on their own terms, the less it is able to actually deliver these desired “goods.”  As Robert Bellah et al pointed out in the 1985 social science classic Habits of the Heart:

‘Finding oneself’ is not something one does alone.  The quest for personal growth and self-fulfillment is supposed to lead one into relationships with others, and most important among them are love and marriage.  But the more love and marriage are seen as sources of rich psychic satisfactions, it would seem, the less firmly they are anchored in an objective pattern of roles and social institutions.  Where spontaneous interpersonal intimacy is the ideal, as is increasingly the case, formal role expectations and obligations may be viewed negatively, as likely to inhibit such intimacy.  If love and marriage are seen primarily in terms of psychological gratification, they may fail to fulfill their older social function of providing people with stable, committed relationships that tie them into the larger society.  (P. 85)

Love and commitment, it appears, are desirable but not easy.  For in addition to believing in love, we Americans believe in the self.  Indeed…there are few criteria for action outside the self.  The love that must hold us together is rooted in the vicissitudes of our subjectivity.  (P. 90)

Every trend that Robert Bellah and his co-authors noted in Habits of the Heart regarding love and marriage has accelerated in the thirty plus years since it was first published.  At that time the authors noted that the evangelical church was one of the few remaining groups consciously and intentionally bucking the therapeutic view of marriage.  Since then, it too has increasingly succumbed to the siren call of rooting marriage in egoism, rather than seeing it as love realized in action within institutionalized and publicly affirmed solemn commitments.  Marital love of this latter, more durable sort is actually able to deliver personal meaning and happiness better precisely because it is motivated by things far larger, better, more important, beautiful and profound than self-gratification.

Even the rationale for having children, and what we expect from them and feel we owe them, is now seen in egoistic terms not only in the larger culture but, too often, in the professing church.  Every time a professing believer says to me, “The main way to make sure children are happy is to ensure that the parents are personally fulfilled” (usually as an excuse for “moving on” in divorce) I cringe, and am saddened that even our commitments to our children are now subject to the adult quest for self-realization.  A sad fact I have to cover each time I teach Marriage and Family class is that, according to most research, the presence of dependent children has little impact, pro or con, on the chance that a married couple will divorce.

(If our culture as a whole, including the professing church, has pushed increasingly toward the “therapeutic” orientation described in Habits of the Heart, the so-called “millennials”– professing believers or not–are going beyond anything Bellah and company might have predicted, and to breathtaking degrees.  Not only have their “committed relationships” become extremely fluid and anomic, but we now even see therapeutic, subjective, shifting choice in sexual roles and identities.  Many if not most millennials take it as an article of faith that reality can be bent to match their personal feelings, including their “gender identity”.  Each year, fewer millennials view living consistently, and comfortably identifying, with their biological sex as something normal and natural to be embraced. Rather, according to some studies half or more see their gender identities as “assigned” or “chosen” rather than God-given and rooted in biological fact, shifting with time, self-perception, and peer-influence, and available in more “flavor combinations” than Baskin Robbins ice cream.)

Marriage as a disposable consumer good?   It was not always so.  As recently as the time when many Baby Boomers like me were born, believers and unbelievers alike accepted the idea that marriage was something larger than the individuals within it and their personal gratification.  In ideals, culturally-admired examples and heroes, and often in fact, the idea that simply keeping one’s word, including one’s marital vows, is honorable, morally good, and expected, even though it might become very hard, was widely held.  That this involved men taking on the obligations of men, and women those of women, and both willingly sacrificing themselves for the welfare of each other and their children, as well as for their communities, beliefs, and nation, was unquestioned.  We saw it all around us.

My wife Kathy’s family doctor from when she was growing up in the 1960’s was not a Christian believer. And yet he displayed wonderfully the beauty of commitment to marital vows to remain faithful to our spouses in all circumstances as long as both partners live.  His wife had a complete mental breakdown.  She had been locked up in a mental hospital for decades, and was probably going to remain so for the rest of her natural life.  This physician thus had no normal access to his wife – sexually, emotionally, or relationally – other than to visit her in the state hospital.  There wasn’t much opportunity for her to satisfy his “felt needs.”  People used to ask him why he just did not simply divorce her.  His answer was very simple, and went something like this: “When I promised that I would be faithful to her in sickness and in health until death do us part, I meant it. I am going to honor my promise”.  Now this is an unbeliever honoring his promise to his wife through enormous distress in ways that go beyond what many believers would be willing to endure.  Can I learn from that? Should we all learn from that?  Should we respect that?  Should we honor a man like that?  Unbeliever or not, is Jesus modeled in that, does this physician tell us something about our Savior?  I think the answer to these questions is clearly, “yes”.  I know that he had a very powerful and positive impression on my wife, and I am grateful for that. Because you see, by God’s grace, my wife and I hope we have that kind of commitment to each other, and we know that the future could require just that kind of sacrifice to something larger than ourselves, and to each other.

Compare this unbelieving physician to Rev. Pat Robertson, the famous television preacher, faith healer, and ordained Baptist minister. You may recall the dust-up a few years ago when he claimed, on national television, that it is acceptable for a committed Christian to divorce his wife and marry someone else if she has Alzheimer’s disease. His reasoning was that a wife with advanced Alzheimer’s was more or less dead, unable to meet her husband’s needs.  So at that point, as long as her husband makes sure she is taken care of, he should be able to put her away, divorce her, and get himself another wife who can better fulfill his marital needs.  That is a hideous claim.  I know there are a lot of wonderful things that Pat Robertson has done and said, but the bottom line is that this counsel encouraged the man in question to defy the vow that he and his wife almost certainly made to each other before God and human witnesses when they got married.  It doesn’t, at all, fit the teachings of the Scriptures that married persons are bound to their spouses as long as either of them lives (or for many, unless the extremely serious moral failing of one party has created legitimate grounds for divorce).

From which person am I getting a more truthful statement about what marital vows should mean for, and might require from, me – my wife’s childhood family doctor, or Pat Robertson?  I think the answer there is quite obvious.

Rev. Robertson would probably assert that his teaching here bears no resemblance to that of the Christian rock musician Trey Pearson who recently claimed that, having “discovered” that he was homosexual and would never change, he was being “led” to leave his wife and two children to pursue the gay life, apparently with the blessing and encouragement of his professing Christian counselors and pastors.  It is interesting to see the way Mr. Pearson describes this, in terms that Robert Bellah and his co-authors would have found very familiar:  “There is absolutely no conflict with accepting who I am and following Jesus.  God wants me to be healthy, authentic, whole, integrated and my truest self.”  Trey Pearson has to be “me.”

Authentic identity for a true Christian can only be found in self-sacrificing service to the Lord Jesus Christ in obedience to the Word of God which He is also identified with and affirms as being the essence of (John 1:1-5).  This includes keeping his public vows to his wife and two children.  Apparently, these are not constraints that Mr. Pearson or his pastoral counselors felt should interfere with his pursuit of self-fulfillment.  My heart breaks for him, as it does for the false guides who helped to lead him to this awful decision.  I am further grieved by his choice to market this “revelation” to the larger Christian church.  This hope that he has and that he was promised is a mirage; it is sand not water, and it will not deliver the goods for which he longs.  “For My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn themselves cisterns—broken cisterns that can hold no water.”  (Jeremiah 2:13)

We find something similar in the “testimony” of the (now retired) highly popular Evangelical (now, “and Ecumenical”) Women’s Caucus speaker Virginia Ramey Mollenkott.  What she describes as the “Voice” spoke to her brain, as her husband and son lay sleeping, and informed her that God just wanted her to be happy.  Thus, she was able to joyfully leave her husband and son in order to pursue life as a self-described Bible-committed lesbian activist, in about 1973.

These kinds of stories are becoming increasingly common, and those of us who remain committed to a Biblical view of marriage and sexuality find them, and their broadening acceptance in both the larger culture and in the professing Church, disturbing and saddening.  However, if we are honest, how much worse or different are these than the many narratives of heterosexual professing Christians explaining and justifying why they have abandoned their spouses?  I recall one very nice woman who was one of my students in Dallas.  Describing herself to me as a committed, conservative, Bible-believing Baptist, she went on to tell me that she was in the act of divorcing her husband, despite the toddler son they had together. Why?  Because, tied up as he was in completing a medical residency, he did not feel he could quit to stay home with their son full-time so she could attend law school (and first, finish college).  God did not want her to be unhappy, she informed me, and He had also promised to take care of her son after their marriage dissolved.  She did not see any conflict between her Biblical convictions and leaving her husband.  This is not quite as bad as the woman I know who left her husband for someone else’s husband because (she claimed) the latter was a “stronger Christian leader,” but its right up there!

Years ago, my pastor in Texas gave me a book of sermons by a fellow that I had heard of but was not personally familiar with, named B.B. Warfield.  Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851-1921), the famous “Old Princeton” Seminary professor and minister, had quite a pedigree: his uncle was a former U.S. Vice President and Confederate general, his father a U.S. Senator and Attorney General, his brother a college president.  This set of sermons my pastor gave me is called Faith and Life.  It is a collection of sermons that he preached to Princeton seminary students on Sunday afternoons.  Every single one of these sermons was theologically rich but practical and inspiring.  Dr. Warfield was the quintessential Renaissance genius, but the warmth of his heart was incredible.  After reading a few of these sermons I decided that this is a man I wanted to know more about, to see what B.B. Warfield the man was all about.  And here is one of the things I read about (sometimes exaggerated in some accounts, but even in recent, carefully checked biography still inspiring and convicting).

B.B. Warfield

B. B. Warfield

In 1876, Benjamin Warfield got married.  He and his wife Annie took a honeymoon to Europe.  When he was with his brand new bride, probably married for a few weeks, they were in the mountains hiking.  They were caught in a severe lightning storm.  If you have ever been out in one of those, you know what they are like. Something happened to her that day, no one appears to be certain exactly what, but it appears to have led to a nervous disorder.  She progressively got worse over time, eventually becoming an invalid.  Though many accounts appear to have overstated the speed of the onset, and severity, of her disability, there appears to be little doubt that she required a lot of ongoing care that increased over time especially by the 1890’s, and that her husband lovingly cared for her until her death in 1915, then he died about five years later.  They were never able to have children.  Caring for her certainly meant limiting his engagements elsewhere (a tough thing for a world-famous Princeton theologian), especially in their later years.  Interestingly, this appears to have increased his scholarly productivity.

People used to comment that B.B. Warfield was called “the Lion of Princeton” and “the last of the great Princeton theologians”.  Dr. Gresham Machen, no slouch himself in the defense of orthodox Protestantism, said “When B.B. Warfield died, old Princeton died”.  Some people were afraid of him. When he would go into a meeting and begin to attack heresy, his opponents had to hold onto their hats, because he was going to win.  He hated to see professing Christians corrupting the church.

Imagine his students observing his care, devotion, and commitment to his wife and his marriage, living out the tenets of the Westminster Confession of Faith that he loved and defended so ably, including its categorical call to marital commitment and endurance in Chapter 24 section 6, and the reminder that the purposes of marriage include the “mutual help of husband and wife” in section 2 of that same chapter.  We know that the quality of Warfield’s marriage had a profound impression on not only Machen but one of his other famous students, O.T Allis.

Warfield would be someone with real “street cred” when it comes to faithfully applying Biblical teaching on marital commitment, to use the modern slang.  He would certainly not agree with Trey Pearson and his counselors, or Virginia Mollenkott and her Voice, or Pat Robertson (“my happiness, ‘needs’ and personal fulfillment, vows or not!”); but his life would also give his faithful Biblical teaching authenticity.  Nobody could say that B.B. Warfield was not committed to the institution of marriage and that he was not willing to give up personal pleasure if that is what it took to maintain his vows.  Is this characteristic of the church today?  It should be.

In contemplating this, I will say that when I need examples of marital commitment, tenderness, fidelity, and self-sacrificing love I don’t need to only think of well-known Christians far away in status, space and time like B.B. Warfield.  I have had the privilege of knowing more than a few folk, some of whom I know I have profound theological and political differences with, who inspire me with the love they have given their spouses, and continue to sacrificially serve when many others would have given up.  I have seen, and been inspired by, this across decades of my Christian experience.  Marriages that have withstood the overdose deaths or suicides of sons or daughters, spouses who have remained tender and faithful in the face of the complete disability of their partner through various forms of profound, chronic, and terribly disruptive mental and physical disability, permanent emotional and sexual rejection, and more.  Yet, like Jesus to His Bride the Church, to His people, to us — faithful.  May that be said of us, lesser, married saints also.


Truth and Love: Staying on the Log

Birling is a little known sport featured at lumberjack contests.  The trick is, roughly, to maintain one’s balance on a spinning log floating in the water longer than one’s opponent who is trying to do the same thing on the same log.  This always struck me as frightfully difficult. Something similar is funambulism, or, walking on a tightrope.  In both birling and funambulism, special gear is often used to assist the person, including the right footwear, and balancing poles (in birling, abandoned once the contest begins in earnest).

Birling Contest

Imagery from these sports has found its way into popular speech.  We might make a comment such as “he constantly has to walk a tightrope.” (One is reminded of the well-known section in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels describing how Lilliputian ministers were chosen or kept their rank by performing this task.)  Or we might say that someone is trying to avoid falling off one side of the log or the other.  When we point out that doing something is as “easy as falling off a log” (as Frank Gilbreth unwisely predicts about having his tonsils out without anesthesia, in the original film version of the book Cheaper By The Dozen), we are stating the truth by declaring its opposite – that staying on that log is extremely tricky, while falling off of it is unbelievably easy.

The idea is of course maintaining a delicate and difficult balance between two equally important and necessary things, in the face of not only our limitations, but opposition, including opponents who seek victory over us by “knocking us off balance.”  It is much easier to go one direction or the other than to stand upright.  Constant vigilance and corrective action is necessary to succeed, and frequently failing, then having to get back on that log (or tightrope), is the experience of all who attempt to master it.

Philipe Petit Walking Tightrope World Trade Center

Philippe Petit’s Famous Tightrope Walk at World Trade Center, 1974

It seems to me that the Christian life is filled with birling and funambulism.  There are many areas in which fruitful and faithful service to Christ requires standing upright on a log or tightrope, often while life, the world, our own inadequacies, the actions of opponents, and certainly our real enemy (Satan) makes being swept off to one side or the other almost irresistible.  Heart or head?  Both.  Word or deed?  Both.  Work or rest?  Both. Grace or law?  Both.  Denounce sin or declare grace?  Both.  And just like folk doing birling or funambulism, we as Christians need to have the right equipment and know how to use it.  For us, these include: the Word of God; the Holy Spirit working within us and speaking to us in His wonderful “still, small voice”; the wise counsel of our spouses, families, spiritual overseers and friends; regular and faithful preaching applying Scripture to our lives; and even at times the solid truth embedded in the rebukes and attacks of our critics, enemies and opponents.

We can also see that maintaining equilibrium doesn’t simply mean keeping opposites in balance.  Rather, it involves understanding the mutual complementarity of both sides in a marvelous whole; appreciating the ways one cannot really exist without the other, but rather are mutually depending and reinforcing.

One of the hardest logs to stand balanced on is “truth or love.”  In Ephesians 4, the Apostle Paul describes “speaking the truth in love” (v. 15).  The reader, as always, should note the larger context of this phrase.  That is, speaking the truth, but in love, is part of the work of the Church and the saints together, as the Church and its people individually grow in unity and in Christ, become mature (‘no longer children”), and avoid being “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men….” (v. 14).  The saints within the Body of Christ speaking the truth in love and so growing individually and corporately while remaining faithful to sound teaching in the face of opposition and false doctrine.

This applies so very clearly in the modern conflicts about matrimony in which every single area of godly marriage, including sexual practice and gender identity, is being contested inside and outside the professing church.  On the one side, we have those who are willing to compromise truth to be “loving” – and so fail to be truly loving despite their good intentions.  On the other hand, often (actually or in their minds) provoked by the increased hostility of our culture to sound Christian teaching and practice, we have those who claim to pronounce truth but do so in mean-spirited, hateful, out-of-balance ways.  Since they are rejecting love for truth, they generally end up with neither, as their understanding of truth becomes twisted by their lack of love.  Either way — truth without love, or love without truth — we have neither, and because of that, we also do not have unity, maturity, or any of the other fruits we enjoy when truth is spoken in love.

When we hear awful things like Pastor Steven Anderson celebrating the Orlando massacre because its victims were (mostly) homosexual, we do not see truth.  Rather, we see someone with a terrible black hole where love should be, wielding Scriptures out of context as weapons to destroy.  We have a man who is far more in need of forgiveness than the unfortunates he is denouncing and mocking.   In the mouths of the Steven Andersons (or Westboro Baptist churches) of this world, the Biblical teaching that God regards homosexual practice as sin is not magnified at all, but lost within a terrible, sick, perverted lie – that God would ever rejoice in someone engaging in the mass slaughter of innocent people.  I cannot judge this man’s ultimate state before God, but I can say that, so far as I can tell, “Pastor” Anderson and I do not serve the same God.  My God delays final judgment not because He winks at sin, but because He is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).  In other words, my God presents truth in love.  He presents truth because He loves.  My God, in His zeal for both truth and love, would rather sacrifice His own Son to a criminal’s death in the Cross than to see one of His little ones perish; showing Himself to be both just and our justifier (Romans 3:26).  My God Himself not only endured the full horror of our just punishment, but He also forgave the men who stood at the base of the Cross who had hammered thorns into His head, spat on, whipped, and mocked Him, were taking public pleasure in His suffering.  Love and truth.  Mercy and justice.  Each one-hundred percent, in harmonious, complementary, radiant beauty.

I learned something about this need for both truth and love, joined at the hip, when I was a fairly young college professor in my first teaching position.  We had professors in this college who, despite the evangelical nature of the school and a clear statement of faith, were downplaying Biblical teaching on sex outside marriage (for example, one group wanted condom machines installed in the bathrooms!).  Some were even openly promoting and defending abortion, with some students even claiming that one professor was actually transporting pregnant students to abortion clinics.  Partly as a result, according to the Director of a local pro-life pregnancy center who sought me out, we had a high rate of sexually active students, pregnancies, and (sadly) abortions.

Sobered by this, where appropriate, I used my classes (for example, Social Problems, or Family) to tackle issues such as sex outside of marriage and abortion head-on, using Scripture but also empirical research to underscore the damage, risks, heart-aches associated with both.  I counseled students about it, trying to be direct and loving at the same time, though I am sure that my carry-through was often of lower quality than my intentions.  (I imagine my students often forgave a lot!)  At one point, I even sponsored a “standing room only” debate between two local church leaders on the issue of how to best promote the pro-life agenda. Not everyone was happy about this of course, though students seemed to honestly appreciate it and the classes in which I dealt with this material were extremely well-enrolled and got solid course ratings.  I wasn’t perfect, far from it, but I did try to be loving and truthful at the same time, and I did regularly get counsel from others as I tried to minister in this area, including from my pastors.

Being young and stupid, one semester, I made the class project for my Research Methods course a survey of students’ sexual practice and beliefs.  The results were awful, revealing that the majority of our students were sexually active by the time they graduated, and that most of these became so while enrolled there, despite promises they made and the statement of faith each had signed.  These were traditional-aged students, and virtually none of them were married.

Back then, when one did statistical analysis on the computer, one issued “orders” from a computer station that were then sent to a printer in a separate room, generating results on large sheets of green and white striped paper.  Results did not appear on the screen.  So if one had help, rather than running back and forth between one room and the other as one generated and checked requests for tables, F scores and the like, one would station a helper in the printer room to check results, who reported back to the person actually doing the statistical requests on the computer, sorted findings into various stacks, and so on.  On the evening when we were finally ready to run the results from the survey data we had quality-checked and entered, I did the computer work, while one of the members of the class, a young lady, was stationed at the printer.

I realized as I was working that I had not heard from her in a while.  These were the days before cell phones, so I went to the printer room to check on her.  I found her there openly weeping, the results before her on the table. She turned to me, tears streaming down her face, and said something like “this is just awful.”  When I looked at the figures, I agreed with her – I had no idea things were this bad, especially knowing (given how surveys of sensitive issues worked) that the reality at this college was probably worse than those numbers.  “What do you think we should do?” I asked her.  She replied something like this, “Can’t we just bury this, forget it?”  I knew she was distraught, and of course tried to minister to her.  At the time, I thought that her tears were simply a Biblical reaction to learning about the reality at this school.

The following year I had taken another teaching position and moved far away to another state.  One day, I was working in my office in my home.  My wife Kathy brought a letter to me that had just arrived, from one of my former students.  I opened it.  Soon, I had tears falling down my cheeks.  I will never forget it.

You see, the letter was from the young lady who had been in the printer room that night.  She said something like this:  “Professor Ayers, you may not remember me, but I was the girl crying at the printer that night.  What you didn’t know at that time was that, when we were running those results, I had just discovered that I was pregnant.  What you also didn’t know at the time was that I had already decided to have an abortion.  You were the only professor at [this college] who talked to us about these things.  I wanted to let you know what happened.  I wanted to let you know that I decided to keep the baby.  And I wanted to thank you.  As I write this letter, my little girl is on my lap.  She is alive because of you.”

In New York City where I lived, a number of Hassidic Jews were involved in the pro-life movement, often quite actively so.  They used to cite their Talmudic belief that “He who saves a single life, saves the entire world.”  Whether or not that is a valid interpretation of the Talmud is beyond me.  I do know that, as each human being is of infinite worth, logically, this statement is true.

Regardless, I realized then what I still believe.  I face pressure to compromise the truth.  Not for my sake, or for my pride, but for the sake of not only my own soul but everyone and everything I care about, I cannot and must not do that.  Wisdom?  Surely.  Discretion?  Absolutely.  But speak the truth as best as I am able to comprehend that truth.  But I also face pressure to compromise love, to lash out, to hate, to feel righteous, censorious, superior.  To focus on winning arguments rather than embracing people.  And so I have to try, by the grace of God and with the constant help of others, to stay on that log, to walk that tightrope.  When I fall off, to get back on, and quickly.  Maybe, just maybe, someone’s life will (once again) depend on it.