Single, like Jesus
by Isaac S. Villegas
Sept 8, 2013
I grew up listening to Focus on the Family, five days a week, every morning on Family Life Radio. For that half hour, Dr. Dobson would explain the world to me; he’d tell me how to understand my life and our culture. On Family Life Radio, he would focus on the family, the Christian family, the American family — because, after all, the family is the center of God’s work in the world, at least according to Dr. Dobson.
“The family is the basis for our relationship with God and each other,” he would say. “Everything rests on the family. When you start to mess with it, things happen.” More recently, Dobson put it this way: “There is no issue today more significant than the defense of the family. Not even the war on terror eclipses it.” For Dobson, it’s all about the family. Without the family, we’re lost, society will crumble. “The institution of marriage is the foundation of human social order,” he said, “When it is weakened, the entire superstructure begins to wobble.” That’s Dr. Dobson.
Now listen to Jesus, in our passage from the Gospel of Luke: “Large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14).
So much for Dobson’s focus on the family. So much for thinking that marriage and family are central to God’s work.
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother and children and brothers and sisters cannot be my disciple.
This is not an easy passage. You can dull it a little by saying that the word for “hate” in Greek doesn’t really mean “hate”: partly because the word doesn’t have anything to do with psychology, with our emotions, which is what hate is all about. It has to do with a feeling. But the Greek word has more to do with actions, with actively ignoring somebody, with neglect, negligence.
So, Jesus is saying something like, “Whoever comes to me has to forget about their father and mother and children,” and so on.
That might sound better, but it still sounds bad, at least to me, since I care a lot about my wife and parents and sister.
I’m tempted to write off Jesus here, to say that he was just having a bad day. He really didn’t mean it. It was hot out, the sun unbearable. Sweaty people crowded him, making a sauna in the desert, stealing his air, suffocating him. Obviously he didn’t mean it. He just needed some space.
The problem, though, is that his words in this passage — his words against family — fit with the rest of Luke’s Gospel. Throughout the story, Jesus speaks and acts against the family. When he was a kid, he ditched his father and mother during Passover so he could hang out in the temple, his true home; he snubbed his parents by letting them know that he was spending time, not in their house, but in the house of his true parent, the heavenly father (Luke 2). A few chapters later, when his mother and brothers come to fetch him, to bring him back home, he told them that he’d replaced them, that he had a new mother and brothers, his band of followers, a bunch of single men and women, all seeking to live out God’s community together, as a new family, members in God’s household, not anyone else’s. They were his mother and brothers (Luke 8). Still later in the story, when he told a man to come and follow him, and the man asked for some time to give his dad a proper burial, Jesus told him to forget about his dad: “Let the dead bury the dead,” he said (Luke 9).
And probably the most troubling passage, at least for me, since I’m married, is in Luke 20, where Jesus says: “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.”
When we take all this in, it’s hard to see how Dr. Dobson, or anyone else, could get away with talking about family values as a priority for the Christian life. If anything, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says the opposite — that family life gets in the way of true discipleship. There isn’t a warm place in Jesus’ heart for family, for marriage and children.
If this is a hard word for you, as it is for me, it’s because we’ve grown up in churches where marriage is normal, where families are normal. We can’t help but hear these words of Jesus as words of judgment, especially if you’re married, especially if you have children, especially if you love your parents and sisters and brothers.
But, if you are single, I wonder if these words sound less like judgment and more like affirmation, more like good news, because, if you are single, you are more like Jesus than those of us who are married.
This passage has been good news for nuns and monks, for sisters and brothers in religious orders, throughout the history of the church, as they abandon their families in order to become part of a new family, a Christian community of single people. From the beginning of the church, singleness was the normal way to be Christian — because, after all, Jesus was single, so singleness was part of what it meant to follow him. But the church has always been gracious, so if someone got married, they weren’t kicked out, which us married people should be grateful for. The community made room for married couples, even though it was clear that such things weren’t beneficial. Marriage was tolerated, but not preferred.
In the late 300s, around 390 AD, a man named Jovinian starting teaching that married and non-married people were spiritually equal in the church. Singleness should not be seen as better than marriage, he said. Bishops gathered and discerned that his teaching was heresy. The great theologians of the church condemned Jovinian’s teaching: Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, and Jerome the translator of the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible — all of them explained how Jovinian was leading the church astray by saying singleness and marriage were equal ways of following Jesus.
This way of thinking was normal in Western Christianity for centuries, for sixteen centuries, for most of the life of the church, from the early church until around the time of the Reformation. It was only in the late 1600s that we can see a shift, after the European Reformations.
In England, for example, the household becomes “a little church” — that’s the language they used: a household little church as the central place of God’s work in the world, the family as the building block of the church and society.
Monasteries and convents, communities of single people, were banished. Marriage became the normal way to be Christian. The pastor had to be a good family man. The family bible was invented, for the Christian home, because the married couple and their children were now a little church.
This is the Christian world we live in — a new world that reversed sixteen centuries of church practice, of church teaching. If you take the long view of history, it’s strange that marriage is so normal for Christians now.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m happily married. I love Katie. I can’t imagine my life without her. I’m not looking for a way out. But I do worry that in our church culture, where marriage and the family unit are so normal, where family households dominate — I worry that all of this makes single people feel like they haven’t quite arrived, that they haven’t made it into the Christian ideal, as if it has always been normal for Christians to get married. Well, the truth is, it hasn’t been normal. Those of us who are married are the strange ones, bucking the wisdom of church tradition, and, more troubling, muting the scandalous words of Jesus, who said: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
The early Anabaptists were troubled by the Protestants as they developed their theologies of marriage. The sixteenth-century Anabaptists worried that marriages and families divided up the true family of God, the church. In the church, everyone was supposed to be a sister or brother, fellow children of God. That was their true identity: not wife or husband, not mother or father, not daughter or son, but everyone one was a brother or a sister to one another, regardless of family units, regardless of being married or unmarried.
One way married couples reminded themselves of this — the way they reminded each other that they were first and foremost children of God and therefore siblings, sisters and brothers — was to call their spouse, “my wedded sister,” or “my wedded brother.”
It sounds silly now, a bit strange, at least to me — Katie as my wedded sister? — but that’s how they tried to speak the truth about who they really were, the truth about who we really are: that we are children of God, that we are sisters and brothers.
Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (Columbia University Press, 1988)
James C. Dobson, Marriage Under Fire: Why We Must Win This War (Multnomah Publishers, 2004)
Dale M Martin, “Familiar Idolatry and the Christian Case against Marriage,” chapter 8 in Sex and the Single Savior (WJK, 2006)
C. Arnold Snyder, “Anabaptist Marriage,” chapter 19 in Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction (Pandora Press, 1995)