Never in my life did I have so low an opinion of marriage than after I became a Christian. Or maybe I should say never in my life did I want to avoid marriage as much as I did after I became a Christian.
I know those may seem like odd statements. After all, God made marriage and speaks highly of it.
But in my opinion, many evangelical pastors and preachers’ rhetoric surrounding marriage has become toxic. Yes, they portray marriage as a high calling. Yes, they say it is wonderful and shows God’s love and is beneficial to society. Yes, they say they love their spouses. And I believe all of that. But I’ve also heard over and over again things like, “marriage is where you come to die (I assume they mean die to self),” “marriage is hard,” “we spend days mad at each other,” “I yelled at my wife in a way a Christian man should never do,” and on and on I could go.
I began attending an evangelical megachurch my junior year of high school. That church is in line with the teachings and ministry philosophies of John Piper, Matt Chandler, Francis Chan, Tim Keller, and those guys. At the beginning of my time there I thought I wanted to find a good Christian girl in the somewhat near future and get married. I went off to college for a year in another part of the state still thinking the same. I then came back to my hometown and attended that same megachurch again. But after almost three years of hearing the descriptions of marriage I referred to above, my attitude toward marriage started to turn sour. I began coming away from sermons thinking “geez, who would ever want to get married? That sounds awful.” More and more I viewed marriage with disgust and something to be avoided at all costs.
But the thing was, somewhere inside I still wanted to get married. I wanted to find a Christian girl, but then I kind of didn’t because I didn’t want to get involved in that mess the preachers portrayed as marriage. I didn’t want to be in a relationship where we constantly hurt each other like the preachers said. I’m a harmonizer; I hate being mad at others and having them mad at me, especially if they’re someone I’m close to. So, to me, marriage sounded like it would constantly make me stressed. My view regarding marriage became No Thank You.
I left that megachurch my junior year of college to find a smaller church. Part of the reason I left was the uneasiness some of their teaching gave me. Sometimes it wasn’t necessarily the message I didn’t like, but the way the message was presented. Somewhere along the way, their teaching really began to grind on me like sandpaper. And one of areas of teaching that bothered me was regarding marriage. At first, I took them for what they said. Marriage is hard. Okay, fine. But at the end of my time there, even though I never articulated it to anyone and I didn’t really know how, something inside me was very skeptical of their portrayal of marriage.
I began attending a small church of about 250 people with mainly college students. When I started there, we had an interim pastor who I liked. Several months into my time, the church hired a full-time pastor. He was a young guy, newly married, not too far removed from seminary. He seemed to be in tune with the evangelical movement spearheaded by John Piper, Matt Chandler and the others I mentioned above. And along came the negative presentations of marriage in his sermons at as high of a rate as the preachers from my old church if not higher.
I was set. If this was marriage I didn’t want any part of it. I’ll just be like Paul, I thought, and live single for the rest of my life. I was convinced I’d never fall in love. I didn’t think I’d ever find the right girl and I kind of didn’t want to. I’d even walk around my apartment singing the line from The Carter Family’s “I Never Will Marry”: I never will marry…I expect to live single all the days of my life. My roommate would laugh and say, “Never getting married, huh?” I’d reply, “Nope.”
But then I met a girl at my new church. We were serving as college small group leaders over the summer, and we and the other two leaders met weekly to discuss our topic for the week. One day she posted on Facebook that she needed help moving and I volunteered. She rode in my truck with me back and forth between her old and her new apartment and I stayed at her new apartment two hours after we finished, so we got a lot of time to talk together. I remember thinking as I walked down the stairs of her apartment complex, “I think I like this girl.”
I wanted to ask her on a date. Part of me was hesitant, though, because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to take on all the frustrations, hurt, and arguments that a committed relationship would, according to the preachers, inevitably bring. But I liked her a lot; I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t ask her out. So I called her up one night and asked her if she wanted to have coffee with me. She said yes.
We started dating full-time. During the first month or so I kept worrying about the inevitable first fight. It never came. Two months went by. It never came. Three and then four months went by. We never fought. Surely, I thought, by this time we would have fought at least once if not multiple times. That’s what my church leaders made it sound like. And the grinding hardship? I hadn’t caught a glimpse of that. Dating this girl was the most pleasant and pleasurable undertaking of my life. I know we weren’t far in, but this was defying my negative expectations. I started thinking, “What were those preachers talking about?”
When I proposed, she said yes. No, the wedding planning wasn’t always easy, but we didn’t fight over it. When we had any sort of conflict, we talked it over and resolved it smoothly. No shouting or I just need a second to myself or cold shoulders.
We’ve been married almost two years now. I still don’t understand what those preachers are talking about. No, marriage isn’t always necessarily easy like relaxing and enjoying a beautiful day outside is easy. Yes, there are conflicts. But conflicts are different than fights. Almost every relationship (any kind of relationship) you’ll ever have has conflict. Conflict in a marriage is inevitable, but it can be dealt with smoothly. Fights in a marriage, at least in my opinion, are not inevitable. What bothers me is that preachers say they are. Perhaps that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. In any case, they need to quit.
The elderly couple from our church who did our pre-marriage counseling once said to my college small group they are concerned about the evangelical rhetoric surrounding marriage. Pastors, they said, give marriage an incredibly bad wrap. “Do your homework,” they told us. “When you go into a test without studying, you probably won’t do well. But when you study, you excel. The same is true in marriage. If you do your homework on your potential spouse and on marriage itself, you’ll be fine. If you don’t, you’ll struggle.”
Perhaps my wife and I are just an outlier, an exception to the rule. But we’re normal people. We get passionate about things, we get angry, we get upset, so I don’t like to think we’re just a “special” couple. Maybe it’s just a matter of shifting what’s perceived to be the norm. The elderly couple I mentioned in the previous paragraph told us they’ve had conflict, but never in all their years together have they fought. My wife and I aren’t the only ones. That’s why what the preachers say bothers me. It’s like they want to be a part of the highly godly evangelical club, so they just buy into the predominant way of thinking. I’m not throwing every evangelical preacher under the bus because I’m sure some think the way I do. But for once I wish some of these superstar evangelical preachers would think outside the norm. You don’t all have to align yourselves with John Piper. John Piper (or whoever else) is wrong sometimes.
I get that marriage is hard sometimes. I get that many people have hard-to-deal-with marriages. Even if they want to make things better, the difficulty doesn’t go away instantly. I’m not trying to discount that. What I’m trying to say is this: there is an alternative not being recognized by many evangelical preachers. And that, I think, is doing harm.