Yes, Marriage and Family are Still Normative and Good Gifts for Today’s Church

Some Christians do idolize marriage and other gifts of God. But the solution isn’t to ignore or minimize his gifts’ original good purpose.
on Jun 18, 2020

This article from Kevin DeYoung is raising some concerns, and some ire, on the Twitters.

DeYoung suggests “It’s Time for a New Culture War Strategy.” Among his most seemingly concerning statements, he writes:

Here’s a culture war strategy conservative Christians should get behind: have more children and disciple them like crazy. Strongly consider having more children than you think you can handle. . . .

Do you want to rebel against the status quo? Do you want people to ask you for a reason for the hope that is in you (1 Peter 3:15)? Tote your brood of children through Target. . . .

The future belongs to the fecund. It’s time for happy warriors who seek to “renew the city” and “win the culture war” by investing in their local church, focusing on the family, and bringing the kingdom to bear on the world, one baby at a time.

Among DeYoung’s readers’ criticisms:

  • What if you can’t have kids?1
  • He shouldn’t say “culture war”; it’s combative.2
  • But the Church makes marriage and family an idol!
  • But the Church makes marriage and family an idol!
  • Did we mention the Church makes marriage and family an idol?

So, does the church make marriage and family an idol, or … ?

I jest a little. But those last three salient points keep recurring in some Christian articles and rhetoric. That includes one 2018 article at a website for which I’ve written and that I overall respect. Unfortunately, however, the author had some very wrong ideas, perhaps best summarized by this statement:

Marriage should not be the norm that orients the communal life of the church, and Christians have an opportunity to show the world a better way rather than falling into the same obsessive focus on finding our Prince or Princess Charming.

At the time that article appeared, I replied at length with gentle pushback. This I’ll edit and expand below. But first I must make the pushback not-so-gentle: The writer’s first statement (and much of the article) are flat wrong and even unbiblical. Marriage should be a great norm that orients the communal life of the church.

Abusis non tollit usum: abuse [of a good thing] does not disqualify proper use.

Yes, Christians can certainly show the world a better way. In all our families and churches, we must include single people as they are, image-bearers of God. We must refuse to idolize or obsessively focus on good gifts like marriage and child-bearing. Instead, we must recognize that we live in a groaning world when it is not always possible for everyone to do this. And to be sure, we must reject the simpering romanticisms of the “Prince(ss) Charming” images, which (as no few articles and marriage-retreat hosts have reminded us) come from shallow stories, not the Bible.

However, we cannot insist that “the biblical norm of marriage” = “obsessive focus / idolatry.” This is a false equivalency: treating a biblical idea the same as one’s personal experience with the twisted version, in order to reject both at once. That’s not a biblical approach to any idolized gift, any more than we would reject the goodness of food because some people are gluttonous.

God made gifts like marriage, which are made holy by God’s word and prayer.

Leaders of the early church, faced with the charge that they have idolized marriage, repent and give proof by burning all their devotionals and conference workbooks by Dennis and Barbara Rainey (artist’s conception).

In fact, the apostle Paul makes this very point about abuses of good gifts, such as food and marriage:

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.

(1 Timothy 4:1–5, emphases added)

This is a sound proof-text when confronting Christians who seem caught between the icon / iconoclast divide about anything, be it:

  • Food and feasting,
  • Marriage and family,
  • Stories and creativity,
  • Celebrations of holidays.

Regarding the twisting of marriage, I can’t help seeing the direct clash between the apostle Paul’s correction and some teachers today.

  • They say: the Church idolizes marriage; therefore, we should not see marriage as especially holy.3
  • Paul says: false teachers forbid marriage; therefore, we must make it holy by God’s word and prayer.

Paul insists that marriage, like all good gifts, is made holy by these actions. He doesn’t feel the need to give an inch toward those false teachers who might have, even then, insisted that earthly things like marriage (and food) were just too important to the early church, and should therefore be forbidden (or at least strictly regulated). Instead, he takes his rebuttal right back to the source: God’s creation and intent for these good gifts.

Bad experiences really hurt, but they can also lead us into legalism.

Did some Christians then, as some Christians now, idolize these good gifts? Sure.

But if we base our response on reacting to the sin—rather than proactive reminders about God’s intentions for the good gifts—then we err. And we may even err in ways that Paul might describe as “deceitful spirits and teachings of demons”!

Even more strangely, we err in ways that we ourselves have seen aplenty, whenever Christians of the past have thrown out gifts like certain music genres, games, visual storytelling (like TV or movies), and even specific foods and drinks. From the outside, we can immediately see that they’re being reactive and not biblical. So it’s time to apply this wisdom more consistently. Yes, we must do this, even if Christians we’ve known in the Church Back Home have annoyed us, or even made us suffer, by idolizing good gifts and frowned on us for being different.

After all, how do you think those anti-movies, anti-recreational-drinking Christians got that way? They didn’t just make up their legalisms to be legalistic. They often had profoundly tragic backstories about bad experiences: a child read Harry Potter and got into witchcraft, or an uncle grew addicted to alcohol and physically abused his wife.

Those stories are real and terrible. But even those abuses do not disqualify proper use of good gifts.

If we disclaim marriage, we must also disclaim Christians making culture.

I direct this part toward Christians who believe in specific cultural redemption work. If we believe these slogans:

  • Because the church often makes marriage into an idol, we probably need to stop being so focused on marriage.
  • But if the church makes popular culture into an idol, then it’s still good for us to view popular culture in redemptive ways.

This collapses into self-contradiction when you realize this big truth:

The Bible commands both family-making and culture-making all at once in the Cultural Mandate. If you reject one gift as hopelessly idol-corrupted, then you must also reject the other gift.

Here’s what I wrote in 2018 (with some editing).

  1. Some popular culture and real-life people (including Christians) make marriage and family into an idol.
  2. Marriage is still normative for Christians.
  3. So is filling the Earth (with children).
  4. So is making and engaging culture (including popular culture). In fact, marriage and family and stewardship and cultural creation are all inexorably tied together in the Creator’s original command (Genesis 1:28).
  5. If you can’t do any of these for various reasons—say, because your family keeps you from culture participation or your missions work keeps you from starting a family—that’s a real and genuine exception. You’re no less valuable to our Savior and his Commission!
  6. Still, it’s dubious for us to go on about “idols.” We might as well go on at length about how “some Christians” (e.g. “people in my admittedly limited experience with the Church”) are making an idol out of either “cultural engagement” or “engaging popular culture.”
  7. Do some Christians make an idol out of popular culture engagement? Yes. I’ve seen it happen a lot. Is this the majority view among Christians? Probably not. Yet in either case, claiming “this isn’t normative”—either about marriage or about making or engaging culture—is simply (at best) a vague statement or (at worst) not a biblically accurate statement.

Final concessions

When we read DeYoung’s article or any other reminders about God’s good gifts, they will certainly raise many questions:

  1. What about that Church Back Home that did idolize marriage/children, and treated me as a pariah?
  2. How then should Christians address smaller, localized idolatries versus the greater idolatries of our culture?
  3. Should we try, in all our articles and materials about good gifts, to address every possible idolatry of those gifts?

The first two questions likely call for general biblical principles, applied in specific ways for specific situations.

However, for that third question, I heartily answer: no. That’s because no article or book or interaction can possibly account for everyone’s experience, struggles, or account of idol-abuses. It might seem easier in the information age to expect all the information at once. But not even a biblical chapter or book can fulfill such an expectation. Rather, we must rely on someone’s whole body of work (past, present, and future) for reassurance that they’re aware of the idolatrous risks, and can and will address them in other articles or interactions.

That’s why, despite DeYoung’s very casual tone and the brevity of his article, I overall trust him to offer balanced perspectives. He seems quite aware of potential abuses. In this exact article, however, he’s simply chosen not to address them. That’s not a failure of biblical teaching. It’s simply a decision to focus on one theme. That’s a creative decision. Other books and articles can offer different focuses.

I think we should show him grace. And let’s show grace to other writers who remind us about God’s good gifts without always giving “equal time” to warnings about the gifts’ corruptions. I’ve asked the same when I write about God’s good gift of imagination, without always devoting similar wordcount (in the same article or post, etc.) to imagination’s misuse. And so I request the same grace here. If necessary, we can have further discussions in the comments sections or on social media. After all, that’s another good gift in the Church, with all our gifts and warnings not to idolize these gifts: graceful interaction and presumed goodwill in all our relationships—marriage and otherwise.

  1. DeYoung mentions this in brief, but singleness / infertility exceptions aren’t his focus here. Those familiar with his whole body of work know he’s among the first to directly disclaim idolatrous expectations among evangelicals.
  2. Among the criticisms, this one seems the oddest. DeYoung is literally subverting the “culture war” definition. He contrasts the typical definition, of waging battles in politics and government, and recommends we instead do peaceful things like having families and discipling children. I realize the term “culture war” may itself alarm some Christians. We have a host of images for “culture war” in our heads. However, if we cannot gaily use and subvert these terms, irrespective of our own trigger points, we’ve no hope of effective evangelism. This mission often requires subversion. For example, the apostle Paul could speak freely about “gods” plural in Acts 17, on his way to make a point about the one true God. If his audience included Christians who felt offended by him seeming to presume multiple gods did exist, then Paul’s evangelism would not have gotten far.
  3. Some may say this approach to marriage is not the same as “forbidding.” I agree that it is not the same, but these are both still on a spectrum of legalism. At one end of the spectrum is the accusation, “This thing is an evil idol, and no Christian should be allowed to do it.” At the fainter, more-moderate end of the spectrum is the gentler reminder, “Well, it may not technically be wrong, but alas, Lots of People are making it into an idol. (And therefore you must see that thing as not especially good, and perhaps even a step away from the Very Serious marks of faith, such as monk-like chastity, or evangelism, or justice advocacy.)”Both these responses are on the spectrum of legalism. We’ve seen much the same when Christians don’t outright forbid, say, fantasy stories or certain foods/drinks, but just raise their eyebrows and let you know those things are just not very spiritual.
E. Stephen Burnett explores fantastical stories for God’s glory as publisher of and its weekly Fantastical Truth podcast. He coauthored The Pop Culture Parent and creates other resources for fans and families, serving with his wife, Lacy, in their central Texas church. Stephen's first novel, a science-fiction adventure, launches in 2025 from Enclave Publishing.

What say you?