It’s written deeply into us, the need to belong. We’re social creatures. We seek the acceptance and approval of those around us – the elders we trust to show us the ropes, the friends we depend on to navigate the storms of life, the family that we reach out to and hold onto tightest when disaster strikes. It’s part of why we surround ourselves by those who think and feel much as we do. It’s why we often seek out a spiritual family and crave their acceptance even though we know that it shouldn’t matter what others think – it still matters to us on some level.
The problem with Christianity’s family is that it too often fails to accept everyone who seeks to become a part of it. Some are allowed to be on the fringes, but they aren’t really acknowledged until they meet specific criteria. For some churches, membership isn’t just a process – but a contract, a vow, a permit, and it’s semi-legally binding. Being a non-member is failing to commit, it’s mooching, it’s just not how one properly identifies as Christian. Having grown up in Christianity, I see that there’s a whole other set of expectations in order to be accepted – outsiders get this sort of pass, because they weren’t born into the teachings, obviously lived lives of sin, they shouldn’t be expected to be as righteous as those who were always in on it, always on the know.
Growing up into adulthood is fraught with difficulties. Some of our most beloved child stars pull ridiculous stunts in Hollywood and seemingly get away with questionably legal antics as they fill up pages of newspaper with scandal. Growing up in church is a whole lot like that – except everything you do comes with this threat of damnation and shaming the family name. To avoid that fate, the best thing to do is to stick to the plan. Nobody really tells you about it, but it’s rules are something like this: graduate High School, get married ASAP while going to college or securing work, it’s okay if you get married after college or secure work first in order to support your family, but all that really matters is that you get married as young as possible so that you can move onto the next step, have children. Once you are married and have children, you’re a responsible, mature, adult Christian who has put behind them their childish ways and the selfishness that goes with it. You get the approval of pretty much everyone else for having arrived.
The price of failure, of not getting married and having children, is to be marginalized. It’s to be less important and less respected than others. It’s like realizing that you could do any feat normally considered impressive be tarnished by the lack of a spouse. “If only he had a spouse, he could have climbed that mountain better/faster” “if only she were married, she would have negotiated the business agreement quicker and not settled less” “if only he/she were married, he/she would be better, more faithful Christians”. The last one is a sentiment that echoes unspoken throughout every church hallway, a specter of another time that just won’t fade away.
I think Paul himself would want to set the record straight, marriage is good, but it isn’t the only way. Singleness is good but it isn’t the only way. Being a Christian isn’t about whether or not you have a ring on your finger, but about the love you carry in your heart. If you can’t love a single Christian as fully as you can a married Christian, then your heart is lacking in the capacity to love others whose situation might not be the same as your own. It should never be on your (blood) brother or sister to earn your love, neither should a (spiritual) brother or sister have to jump through hoops in order to be accepted and acknowledged by you.
You see, when we teach about this family, we often say that all they have to do is to accept Jesus and he will accept them. We say “come as you are”. But spend enough time with the whole family and you’ll see that’s just not the case. So many of us are tired by the mixed messages and disappointed by the false hope. We were looking somewhere we could belong, but we found that we just didn’t fit in and nobody seemed to want us around. So we got the hint and decided not to darken the doorways of those churches or any churches remotely like them. Christianity has declined because it lacks love and isn’t place where people feel like they can belong.