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White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

Marriage, Church Membership, and the Gnostic Spring

Release date:

December 15, 2011


Family Marriage

What do the latest findings on marriage in America have to do with trends in church life? Plenty.

Yesterday the Pew Research Center released its findings on the “obsolescence” of the marriage institution. Here are some of the notable stats:

  • 1960: 72% of America’s adults were married; Today: 52%
  • 1960: two-thirds of America’s twenty-somethings were married, but today that has fallen to 26%.
  • While 32% of those 65 and older say that marriage is becoming obsolete, 44% of America’s 18-29 year-olds agree.

According to Pew, and the reports I’ve encountered so far, the demise of “The Family” doesn’t mean the death of (re-defined) families. It’s just that now people depend on broader social networks. In an NPR report of the finding yesterday, it was suggested that Americans “cycle through” a lot relationships, including marriage. They’re finding meaning apart from traditional institutions that limit ever-ephemeral personal choice.

I awoke yesterday morning also to a Washington Post piece, “Christianity 2.0”. As if channeling “Emergent Church” leader Brian McLaren, author, church consultant and Episcopal priest Tom Ehrich asks, “What will a fresh Christianity look like in America?”

No big surprises here.

Confessional labels won’t matter. The usual services, “with people sitting in pews facing a preacher and singing hymns,” will still be around here and there. “But that Sunday paradigm will cease to draw the big numbers or to justify a primary claim on funding.” It will be more interactive, with lay facilitators. No more ordination to special offices. “I foresee less focus on institutions led by trained experts, and more attention to fluid relationships facilitated by assertive and visionary leaders. These leaders will be gifted in personal suasion and in technology, and their work will be to nurture a relational context, not to preserve denominational tradition. “Traditional resources like prayer books and hymnals will give way to local idioms and creative resources.” In sum, “Sunday worship will cease to define the faith community. People will connect with each other in multiple ways, from neighborhood circles to online venues to special interests like a particular mission thrust. There will be less focus on uniformity and consistency, and more freedom to see what emerges from the stewpot.”

Mostly younger, these groups won’t be “beholden to the traditions of national denominations.” “Look for less focus on familiar forms of authority like the Bible and ecclesiastical tradition. Instead, Christianity 2.0 will move away from expertise-based systems and arguments over right opinion, and focus more on creating circles of friends seeking God’s presence and help, both in daily life and in the world beyond personal experience. Bottom line: less intellectualism, more intuition.”

What kind of nourishment can we expect from this new “stewpot”? A lot less friction and denominational power-struggles. Evidently, human nature is a lot better in personal relationships than in institutions. Oh, and “little need for funds,” because you don’t need physical institutions, but simply “to engage a diverse and growing community of people seeking personal health and transformation of life.” Money is still collected (of course) “but it will go toward external mission and mutual support, such as help in emergencies and with joblessness, and not for institutional maintenance.”

Consequently, “The faith community will be highly emotive…Constituents will argue less and share more…” In contrast to “the fear-driven, change-resistant” institutions of today, “Faith circles will create more positive buzz, present a friendlier and less arrogant face, attract more interest, and transform lives.” It will be so fresh that “we will wonder why we endured for so long…a bleak and self-destructive period.”

So, just as the apparent demise of the institution of marriage doesn’t mean the death of social networks that we call “families,” the end of the institutional church is but the bodily carapace that spiritual souls need to cast off. Out of the outer cocoon will emerge a beautiful butterfly.

As we approach winter, it may not be too early to announce a Gnostic Spring. In many ways, we’ve been in it for a long while. America has long been the melting pot for various creeds and spiritualities. Fairly early on, pietism and revivalism launched an evangelical movement that downplayed creeds and confessions as evidence of a “party spirit” inimical to mission. Baptists and Methodists soon overtook the more “established” churches from Reformation and Puritan traditions. Revivalists within these confessional bodies eventually created denominational divisions. Persecuted sects from Europe, like Anabaptists and Quakers, found haven in the New World, as did Reformed, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic immigrants who largely opted out of what they found to be a bewildering cauldron of “enthusiasm.” From the Quakers to the Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau, not to mention Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams, diatribes rang out against creedal, institutional religion in favor of following the “inner light” based on personal autonomy and self-crafting. The new nation was giving its own distinctive stamp to every sect. Unitarianism in New England and a host of odd millenarian movements on the frontier could combine forces, each in its own way, against traditional churches.

So America has a long history of being anti-institutional, suspicious of anything with the adjective “old.” “Don’t fence me in,” says the rugged individualist who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. While skeptical “infidelity” (unbelief) was gaining the upper hand in Europe by rejecting the faith, fanatical “enthusiasm” (detachment from outward forms) fueled a lively industry of native-born spiritualities and movements in America.

Every generation seems to have its own “great awakening.” On the heels of the Second Great Awakening, churches were split along the lines of what the victors would identify as “traditionalism” and “Spirit-led revival.” Promising unity, each enthusiastic movement only created further divisions, as anti-denominational circles of the “truly converted” eventually formed new denominations. Just think of the trail that leads from Methodism to Finney to the Jesus movement, the Shepherding movement, the charismatic movement, Pentecostalism, the church growth movement, the emergent movement, and now, it seems, the no-church movement where technology has made it possible to be more institutional than ever.

So what does this have to do with marriage? Well, it too is an institution. While all of us human beings are born Pelagians, I think we Americans are basically Gnostic, too. Like the ancient heresy that swept through the second-century church, the new Gnostics pit the body against the soul. Obviously, it’s anti-creedal in substance, but also in form. Everything visible-institutions, an ordained ministry of public preaching and sacraments, church order and discipline-is the bodily prison-house of the spirit. Countless studies of American religion in recent decades emphasize the ways in which we prize the inner over the outer; the informal over the formal; the spontaneous over the ordered; the soul’s immediacy to the divine without requiring a Mediator, or at least means of grace, and so forth. “Spirituality” is fine, but “organized religion” is the problem. That’s been the growing refrain of Americans for at least two centuries. It’s not rank atheism, but Gnostic enthusiasm, that’s killing us softly.

Yes, of course, there’s more to it. Other social, especially economic, factors figure prominently in the unraveling of marriage as well as settled churches. However, there has to be a framework of meaning that makes these moves justifiable-even requiring perpetual revolution.

The problem with this Gnostic impulse, from a Christian perspective, is that it is simply the opposite of biblical faith. The Bible affirms creation and the Creator who made everything, “visible and invisible”; that “the Word was made flesh,” not that we ascended away from the world and history to rediscover our oneness with divinity; that redemption is not the liberation of the soul from the body through inner enlightenment, but “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” The Christian faith knows that there is more to reality than matter; more to the Christian life than visible forms, practices, and ordered structures; more to marriage and discipleship than institutional membership-but in every case, that it is more, not less, than these.

It’s not surprising that Scripture draws such a close analogy between marriage and the relation of Christ to his body. Simply on the practical level, I suspect that many twenty-somethings (and their Boomer parents) who want the rewards of close relationships without the institutional commitment may rethink things in the actual struggles of life. The prospect of death has a way of shaking us up on that front. At some point, hopefully, many will wonder why their ever-cycling social network of informal relationships leaves them bereft of physical and spiritual support when they’re out of the social loop. And they may wonder why they’re alone, even though they participated regularly in the latest equivalent of Twitter-church and were “followers” and “friends” on some self-ordained life coach’s Facebook page. Maybe then they will realize that they are embodied, historical, and finite creatures after all. Maybe then they will be ready for a visible church that, in spite of their Gnostic defiance, still delivers a risen Christ to sinners through words, water, bread, and wine.