Newsletter #28: The Anti-Marriage Message of American Pastors
Welcome back to the Masculinist, the monthly email newsletter about the intersection of Christianity and masculinity.
Going Their Own Way
One of the more colorful internet subcultures is the MGTOW movement. MGTOW (pronounced mig-tao) stands for “Men Going Their Own Way.” MGTOWs claim that marriage is a racket, and say men should not only stay single but also avoid dealing with women at all to the extent that they can. MGTOWs are very different from “incels” (involuntarily celibate) in that the MGTOW movement argues for permanent voluntary celibacy (though not necessarily abstaining from porn).
To give you a flavor of MGTOW, look at their savage attacks against marriage advocate Brad Wilcox. Wilcox put out a short video called “Be a Man. Get Married.” A MGTOW YouTuber called Turd-Flinging Monkey put together a point-by-point rebuttal called “Be a Man. Sacrifice Yourself” (200,000 views). While Wilcox says marriage is much more than “just a piece of paper,” TFM says marriage is “worse than a piece of paper,” it’s a “one-sided, biased, bull—- contract.” He adds, “But I do agree that it’s the most valuable piece of paper that the woman will ever own because it gives her lifetime access to the man’s resources whether she stays with him or not.” There’s much more of this and that 15-minute video is a great introduction to the MGTOW movement and its rhetoric.
It’s easy to criticize MGTOWs. But the vision of marriage put forth by too many American pastors is so unappealing, so gloomy, so grim that they are effectively MGTOW evangelists themselves.
Consider superstar mega-church pastor Matt Chandler’s portrayal of the husband and father’s role in marriage.
Why are men going to bed these days with so much energy? That’s not what God designed you for. God designed you to go to bed tired. Why are you going to bed so strong? We work hard at work for the glory of God. We pull into our driveway. We say a prayer. We go into the house. We love and serve Mama, because the Bible has put on our shoulders by the Holy Spirit of God that our wives would look like well-watered vines, that they would grow in their gifting, that they would feel cherished and loved. Then we get on the floor, and we play with our kids. We tuck them in bed, and we pray. We lead out spiritually in our homes. Then when everybody is down, we sit with Mama some more, check on her heart, pray, and then go to bed exhausted, wrung out for the kingdom of God.
A pastor with whom Chandler was formerly close, the now-disgraced Mark Driscoll, took a similar view, saying:
What this means, gentlemen, is your priorities will be Christian, husband, father, employee. Those are your first four duties, it’ll take most of your life. You’re not gonna have a lot of time. Probably gonna need to put down your tools, your hobbies, your car, your projects, your golf clubs, your Xbox and probably going to need to put down the remote control and your laptop and your iPod to honor your wife parentally. You’re not gonna have a lot of time for a lot of other things.
Driscoll was also famous for sayings like, “Men are like trucks: they drive straighter with a weighted load.”
Chandler and Driscoll seem to believe husbands are little more than human pack mules for their family. Is that the kind of vision of marriage that’s likely to make a young guy want to run out and say I Do? I don’t think so.
American Pastors’ Bleak View of Marriage and Family
These two are extreme in many ways, but even mainstream Evangelical discourse follows the pattern of portraying marriage as a fundamentally negative institution. I thought of this while reading Russell Moore’s new book The Storm-Tossed Family. Here’s the cover:
The very cover of this book, showing a house as a boat at sea in the midst of the perfect storm, is a visceral, negative image of family life. The book itself is likewise full of stories about terrible things that can happen to families:
And so, despite the fact that family can sometimes scare us half to death, we smile our way through it. A friend of mine likes to say that he knew that parenting would be humbling; he just didn’t know that it would also be humiliating.
As a child ages, every day could bring word of a catastrophic pregnancy or a failed school term or a lost job or a broken engagement or a car wreck. And, it seems, there is nothing one can do about any of it, except look back on pictures at how sweet that baby used to be—and all the ways you failed as a parent.
One of the hardest things for us to grasp as family members—whether as sons or daughters, husbands or wives, mothers or fathers, even as spiritual brothers and sisters within the church—is just how complicated it all is.
Family humbles us. Family humiliates us. Family crucifies us. That’s because family is one of the ways God gets us small enough to fight the sort of battle that can’t be won by horses or chariots but by the Spirit of the Lord.
The self-sacrificial love of a husband for his wife is not especially heroic
Our honeymoon was a debacle. I should have sensed some trouble coming when I woke up on our wedding day with severe laryngitis…. I kept ruminating on how this was going to ruin all the memories we were supposed to be making. Wouldn’t we want, when we were celebrating our silver or golden anniversaries, to remember moonlight walks and gondola rides, instead of watching one another vomit?
It is quite common to hear ministers (and I am one of them) who will say that they would rather do a funeral than a wedding. This is because no pastor has been vilified at a funeral by the mother-of-the-corpse.
Many people have found their deepest suffering, even profound trauma, at the hands of family members.
I am unnerved by how often I am approached by young couples—whether Christian or not—asking what to do about a lack of sex in their marriages.
A husband’s leadership is about a special accountability for sabotaging his own wants and appetites with a forward-looking plan for the best interest of his wife and children. Headship is not about having one’s laundry washed or one’s meals cooked or one’s sexual drives met, but rather about constantly evaluating how to step up first to lay one’s life down for one’s family.
This is pretty bleak stuff. (The last bit actually does echo Chandler and Driscoll a bit). How is reading it likely to shape the attitude of a young person towards marriage? It probably won’t turn people off entirely towards it, but I could imagine it validating people’s decisions to hold off on getting married for a while. It certainly offers nothing to entice anyone to want to start a family.
To be fair to Moore, there’s nothing unusual about his portrayals of marriage and family, particularly if you discount his Southern Baptist stylisms. In fact, he includes more genuinely good descriptors of family than most pastors do (even if they are almost always interleaved with negatives and/or are ambivalent, such as his relating the joy of eating cheese sandwiches below).
Thinking back through all the marriage books I’ve read and all the marriage sermons I’ve listened to – and that’s a number of them – I’m struck that I can’t think of much positive and aspirational they had to say about the institution such that it would encourage young singles to want to go sign up to get married. For example, in Tim Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage, which I’ve quoted from multiple times in the Masculinist, he tells eight major stories from his own marriage and six stories about other couples. Most of them are negative stores (debates over who changes a dirty diaper, for example. Or Kathy smashing their wedding china). Some of them are neutral in tone (such as when Kathy took a part-time job). I wouldn’t call any of them unambiguously positive or uplifting stories, though you can argue about one or two of them maybe. Most of the conflicts and episodes were resolved successfully, but they stress the negative aspects of marriage and family life. I don’t recall much if any genuine joy in marriage in this book – or any others I’ve read.
So Moore is not alone – he’s got lots of company. I do have some substantive issues with him. He’s one of the folks I mentioned in Masc #26 who is promoting a post-familial vision of the church. For example, he writes, “The sentence above might prompt you wrongly to conclude that this assumes the text is teaching that marriage is normative. It is not. The apostle elsewhere tells us, as we have noted, that marriage is the concession in this age, and that celibacy is the default for those serving the church.” And he says, “Marriage, not celibacy, is the exception in the New Testament, the concession to frailty (1 Cor. 7:7–9).”* Post-familialism like this needs to be forcefully rejected.
However, it’s pretty clear that Moore doesn’t want to discourage marriage. I’d say he genuinely would like to see people get married. In fact, he explicitly tries to counter the trend towards later and later marriages. He channels Charles Murray to tout the advantages of getting married younger:
For a couple of years, I was tyrannized by the thought that I needed to be “ready” before I could marry. Now, of course, in one sense that is obviously true. No one should marry who lacks the maturity to carry out one’s responsibilities to one another, or who is not sure about what he or she should look for in a mate or in a marriage. That’s not though the sort of “ready” that I mean. I knew on our first date that I loved her and wanted to spend my life with her. But many told us, “Wait until you can afford it before you get married.” It’s true. We had nothing. I was a twenty-two-year-old first-year seminary student; she not much out of high school. I worked and reworked budget scenarios, and never could find one that would suggest that we could pay our bills. That’s why I kept delaying asking her to marry me, even after I knew she was “the one.” I thought I needed stability and a put-together life before I could ask her into it. My grandmother wisely asked one night when I was finally going to ask “that girl from Ocean Springs” to marry me. I answered, “When I can afford it.” She laughed. “Honey, I married your grandpa in the middle of the Great Depression,” she said. “We made it work. Nobody can afford to get married. You just marry, and make it work.” Apart from the gospel, those were, and remain, the most liberating words I ever heard. I bought a ring that wouldn’t impress anyone, then or now, but we were headed for the altar.
As I look back, I can see the intense joy in our lives that would never have made it into our daydreams about the future. We loved those nights eating only cheese sandwiches because that’s all we could afford. We loved doing youth ministry together, and figuring out what to do when a teenager showed up on a mission trip with marijuana in tow. We loved sitting up together while I wrote a dissertation, taking breaks to watch reruns of a television show we knew so well we could mouth the lines right along with the actors.
Moore obviously has a particular concern to encourage people to consider early marriage because I also heard him bring it up on a podcast he did to promote the book. I especially admire him citing his own life experience and in effect saying, “Don’t be afraid to do what I did. Look at how it turned out for me, despite the challenges.” This makes him very different from too many folks who do one thing but preach another. So clearly the guy is not intentionally anti-marriage. But that’s the overall vibe his book gives off because it is such a litany of negative family associations.
Why Pastors Talk and Write This Way
Many times in life there are things we get intellectually at a surface level but we don’t really understand them until we experience them for ourselves (e.g., having children) or until something triggers a deeper comprehension. I always understood the pattern of how pastors interact with families, but it wasn’t until reading Moore’s book that it really clicked for me. He helped me to understand why pastors write about marriage the way they do.
An interviewer on a Fox News radio podcast asked Moore why he wrote the book. He answered, “Because so many of the conversations I have behind closed doors with people are often in a varying sense of crisis as it relates to family.” There it is.
If you think about it, pastors tend to deal with families in three main situations: weddings, baptisms, and crises. The first is marriage at its most naïve and idealistic. The last is marriage and family at its low point, whether it be a death, infidelity, divorce, a troubled child, etc. This is an unrepresentative selection of the experience of marriage and family, to say the least.
In a sense, pastors are part party planner, part trauma surgeon. Only they do their trauma surgery on the people whose party they planned. No wonder their writings and sermons tend to warn against naïve idealism and describe all the problems that may lie ahead.
Pastors constantly have to deal with truly terrible family situations. Moore writes, “I have counseled hundreds of couples in the wreckage of marital infidelity over the course of my ministry.” Think about that. This one guy has personally had to deal with hundreds of couples suffering through the trauma of infidelity – and that’s just one of the many crisis situations Moore along with other pastors has had to deal with on a regular basis.
That has to take a toll. No wonder he is so keen to warn people about the pitfalls that await them.
Pastors usually only get to see the incredible joys of the family at the specific times of weddings and baptisms, whereas they get to see almost all of the seriously bad things that happen. As a result, they tend to be focused on the bad by the very nature of what they do. This gives them a warped perspective on the family and perhaps this accounts for the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of family life in their books.
The bad times in the family are real and it’s definitely appropriate to warn people about them. My stepmother is dying of cancer as we speak, for example. So I am not opposed at all to real-talk about marriage.
But these books and sermons are incredibly unbalanced because of what they don’t talk about: the downsides of singleness and the joys of marriage and family life.
The Traumas of Long-Term Singleness
How often have you heard a Christian pastor or writer tell the same sorts of negative stories about long-term singleness that they do about marriage? I rarely see any of it.
To me this suggests that things are far worse than you might think. It’s very obvious that there are a lot of unhappy singles in today’s pews, and pastors are incredibly sensitized against saying things that might make them feel bad. The fact that pastors feel very comfortable punching married people in the face but treat singles with kid gloves tells you everything you need to know about the relative conditions of these estates.
Brad Wilcox’s Institute for Family Studies put out a short pamphlet on the benefits of marriage for men. Men in first marriage have a median wealth 300% higher than a single man. Even factoring in the risk of divorce, a man who is divorced and remarried is still almost 40% richer than a single man. On average, sex between people who are married is rated as better than sex between those who aren’t married. (As a Christian obviously, any pre-marital sex is off-limits, so this is an even bigger advantage for marriage). A couple of other tidbits from the report: “Married people appear to manage illness better, monitor each other’s health, and adopt healthier lifestyles than do otherwise similar singles.” And “Married men experience less depression and more happiness than bachelors.” There’s other research suggesting things such as that married people live longer.
Invert these and you have the statistical negatives of singleness: you’re poorer, have worse sex, degraded health, are more likely to be depressed, etc.
I can also tell you a variety of bad stories about the terrible consequences of singleness. In 2015 the New York Times ran a story about the death of George Bell, a 72-year-old never-married man who lived alone.
Once firefighters had jimmied the door that July afternoon, the police squeezed into a beaten apartment groaning with possessions, a grotesque parody of the “lived-in” condition. Clearly, its occupant had been a hoarder….It falls to the police to notify next of kin, but the neighbors did not know of any. Detectives grabbed some names and phone numbers from the apartment, called them and got nothing: The man had no wife, no siblings. The police estimate that they reach kin 85 percent of the time. They struck out with George Bell….“You can die in such anonymity in New York,” Gerard Sweeney likes to say. “We’ve had instances of people dead for months. No one finds them, no one misses them.”
This is a powerful piece that I’d encourage you to read.
Once you reach middle age, as I have, it’s easy to see the trajectory of long-term singleness is not what it’s cracked up to be when you’re younger. I’ve mentioned before the female colleague who, after years of being the life of the party, told me at age 42 she never got asked out on dates anymore. A single male friend in his 60s talks of the greatest regret of his life being not marrying a woman he’d dated many years ago. A single 50-something person we had over for dinner spoke of a fear of dying alone. I watch the Facebook pages of my single friends and see their life trajectories. In their 40s and certainly by their 50s they are now largely isolated in a world inhabited by other singles. Their photos, for example, are often of a group of their single friends at dinner. While those who married and had kids moved on to different lives, these people are still in many ways living a life from circa age 30, played in infinite loop. Too many of the single men I know around my own age are overweight, play a lot of video games, presumably watch tons of porn, and seem caught in a holding pattern of simple existence.
I noted in Masc #8 that until around age 35 we lack meta-awareness of life change. That is, we can see how much we’ve changed in the past, but we don’t get it in our gut that we’ll continue to change in the future. It’s only after around age 35 that we start to be able to emotionally connect with the full story arc of our life, including the end of it. By then, it’s often too late to easily change course.
A recent Wall Street Journal article called “The Loneliest Generation” shows the emerging trend.
Baby boomers are aging alone more than any generation in U.S. history, and the resulting loneliness is a looming public health threat. About one in 11 Americans age 50 and older lacks a spouse, partner or living child, census figures and other research show. That amounts to about eight million people in the U.S. without close kin, the main source of companionship in old age, and their share of the population is projected to grow…“The effect of isolation is extraordinarily powerful,” says Donald Berwick, former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services…The baby boomers prized individuality and generally had fewer children and ended marriages in greater numbers than previous generations. More than one in four boomers is divorced or never married, census figures show. About one in six lives alone.
Among the most likely to lack close kin are college-educated women and people with little money, says Ashton Verdery, an assistant professor of sociology and demography at Pennsylvania State University. More senior women than men are kinless because women’s life expectancies are nearly five years longer, at 81 years. Of Americans age 50 and over in 2016, 27% of women were widowed or never married, compared with 16% of men. Women are also less likely to cohabitate and date later in life, research shows.
Research suggests that those who are isolated are at an increased risk of depression, cognitive decline and dementia, and that social relationships influence their blood pressure and immune functioning, as well as whether people take their medications.
The Journal is subscriber-only, but try to find a way to read this powerful piece, which has several first person accounts. The Boomers were the original “Me Generation.” But subsequent generations have if anything probably enhanced their family choice trends. Whether Gen X, Millennial or Z, you need to read about this and think about your own life trajectory and where it might be leading. As the article shows, marriage and children are far from a guarantee that you’ll be surrounded by family in your old age. But at least you’ll have a fighting chance.
That’s why we need to give the same realtalk to single people that we do to married ones. That takes courage because young people today can take extreme umbrage at anyone suggesting that they might want to reconsider the way that they are living their lives. To be clear: I’m not telling anyone how to live his or her life. It’s a free country. Whatever you want to do, do it. But I do think that pastors need to make a point of explaining the potential future consequences of life choices so that people can make informed decisions. That means doing the same thing for singleness that they do for married life.
The Joys of Marriage and Family
Also missing are the joys of marriage and children. Family is not all embarrassing incidents, health scares, infidelity, divorce, sexless marriages, and troubled kids. There are actually a lot of amazing things that family brings.
I talked about memetics in Masc #20. Part of it is simply the way we present ourselves. Probably nothing Russell Moore could write could do more to sell people on pursuing family than posting pictures like this:
That’s a great looking family. And I’m sure there are tons of incredibly positive moments they all have to share. I’m guessing there’s a massive amount of joy in Moore’s household that we could have heard much more about.
This is already long so I go into too many more details here. But I can tell you this is such an important matter that I actually have an entire project in the works to address just this point, if I’m able to launch it.
But I will list a few to-dos for all of us for your consideration on this front.
1. First, we (which includes me) need to make sure to tell our own pastors about the positive things that are happening in our family lives. We already know they are getting barraged with the negative. Let’s give them some positive news to balance it out.
2. Pastors and writers need to talk up the good sides of marriage more in their sermons and books. They should certainly include at least as many if not more positive than negative stories. John Gottman famously claimed that his research shows that the only thing that matters in a marriage lasting is having five times more positive than negative interactions. Though these findings have been critiqued, I find this a useful rule of thumb. Pastors should say and write significantly more positive things about marriage than they do negative. Today, the ratios are reversed. (I need to be sure to be taking my own advice here).
3. We should all also try to let people know about the positives going on in our own family. This doesn’t mean downplaying the negatives and acting like all is well when it’s not. But we should all see ourselves as in the sales business for marriage and family. Guys tend to get together and grouse about “the ol’ lady” or the “old ball and chain” and the like. I think most of the time this is done for sheer social bonding purposes. How can we promote other, more positive ways of social bonding that uplift family life?
Positive Family Stories
In light of the above, I’d like to start including a short section in the Masculinist of positive images and news about the family. If you want to relate something great that happened in or to your family, or send a happy picture of your family, please email it so firstname.lastname@example.org. I can include a story or two in most issues. Stories I can post anonymously, but obviously there is no anonymity in a picture. I’m not talking about photos from your amazing vacation in Zurich or something like that. But rather more quotidian aspects of family happiness. Something like this one Russell Moore tweeted recently about baptizing his son:
I don’t think I’ve had any unusual experiences as a father. I don’t write much about my son because my guess is every other guy who has had a kid has gone through pretty much the same thing. But I guess I’ll start anyway.
One of the things that really surprised me about having kids – I have a 16 month old son – is how much other people love kids. People stop my wife on the street all the time to oogle our son and talk to him and say nice things about him. I’ve experienced it myself when I’m out with him. Older people especially seem to love having kids in the neighborhood. There was a period of time when probably my neighborhood didn’t have a lot of kids, but now it’s full of families and the older residents get to see kids on the streets again.
Here’s one recent encounter my wife had. Last week Alex and I were walking down a busy NYC street when we got stopped by a red light at an intersection. A delivery man, with a cart full of heavy boxes, stood in front of us, obviously annoyed by the red light and seemingly in a very bad mood. I reached around him to push the pedestrian crossing button (because Alex likes the voice alerting visually impaired folks to wait). As the voice said “wait”, Alex mimicked him with a loud “Wait!” The man broke out into a huge grin and glanced at Alex. Then, when the light changed, Alex exclaimed “Go, Go, Go!” The man again smiled and then hurried across the street and on his way. Alex and I proceeded across the street, and before I knew it, the man had turned around and walked back to wait for us. He broke into a huge smile, with tears in his eyes, and said, “Have a great holiday!”
I always assumed that once I had children I’d be the annoying person with kids slowing down the line, blocking the sidewalk, making noise, etc. There’s some of that, obviously. But so far there’s been far less of it than I would have thought. And I didn’t realize at all how much joy we’d be spreading around the neighborhood just by taking our son for a walk.
This is but one of the many unexpected joys of having a son. I can honestly say the experience has been amazing and amazingly great so far.
Habits of the Home Follow-Up
Thanks to all of you who sent me “life hacks” and traditions from your home. I am planning to distribute a compilation of these next month. That means there’s still time to contribute. So if you haven’t yet, go back and re-read Masc #27 and send me examples of your household habits to share with everyone else.
A lot of what I’ve gotten so far is devotional in nature. That’s great. But I’d like to encourage you to also think about other things. Here is one sample someone sent me about phone calls to get you thinking:
Something I started about 12 or 13 years ago when our kids were still home and the world of cell phones blossomed for our family. Prior to that time I realized that I was not always available to my family. Either work or mentally I cut them off. I found myself saying I can’t talk now too often to them. I realized I needed to make a change. At that time I gave my family all the same ring tone on my phone. No one else has it. I told them if they called I would answer the phone. Based on what was happening I might need to keep the call short, but I would take the call. At first no one called. Based on past experience I had trained them well! Then one call, then another and over time they call on a regular basis. I always take their calls.
Early on I had a big test of my new stance. I was on the phone with a customer and we were discussing a $1 million dollar deal. A call came from my wife. I said to the person, sorry I need to take this call. Turns out my daughter was sick at school and I needed to go get her. After I handled the situation I called the person back apologized and explained what had happened. He said something about being even more impressed, I understood what is really important.
Also, I said I was particularly interested in things your family does to honor you as husband and father. I don’t think I got anything on this! At one level, I’m not surprised because we’ve got a lot of work to do. But if there are things you do in this regard, I’m very eager to hear them.
I happened to notice this tweet by Kevin DeYoung while it was at the top of his Twitter profile: “One of the acceptable idolatries among evangelical Christians is the idolatry of the family.”
There’s something not right about a pastor who uses a picture of himself with his wife and seven kids as wallpaper warning you against making an idol out of the family. It’s unseemly.
I always stress that I’m a social and cultural critic, not a theologian, but I can’t help but notice that in practice America’s pastors are inverting Paul’s instructions in 1 Cor. 7. Paul says it is better to remain single.* But that’s for the specific reason that it allows people, like Paul himself, to devote themselves single-mindedly to the pursuit of God’s mission without the distraction of family. That’s why traditionally monks, and in the West priests, were celibate.
But today it’s the people in full-time, dedicated ministry who are all married with big families while the singles are sitting in the pews.
Something is definitely not right somewhere.
* Note that Paul says it is “better” to be single, not that this is the normal and ordinary case or that marriage will be an “exception” in the church.
What of the responsibility of intellectuals? Those who qualify for the title have a degree of privilege conferred by this status, yielding opportunity beyond the norm. Opportunity confers responsibility—which, in turn, poses choices, sometimes hard ones. One choice is to follow the path of integrity, wherever it may lead. Another is to put such concerns aside, passively adopting the conventions instituted by structures of authority. The task in the latter case, then, is to carry out faithfully the instructions of those who hold the reins of power, to be loyal and faithful servants, not after reflective judgment but by reflexive conformism. That is a fine way to evade the moral and intellectual difficulties of challenge and to escape what can be painful consequences of seeking to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.
Noam Chomsky, The Responsibility of Intellectuals