Please allow me to begin with the outrageous statement. I will make all suitable and needed qualifications later. Stop complaining already.
Rightly understood, the institution of marriage is foundational to the gospel, and it is a form of idolatry to deny this.
I want to set this claim alongside the increasingly popular idea that traditionalist Christians have made an “idol out of the family,” and I want to compare and contrast these claims. But to get to the edifying conclusion—which involves lots of babies—you will have bear with me for a few moments.
Two Kinds of Idols
We know as Christians that we are not supposed to carve or paint an image in order to bow down before it. This kind of practice is natural to the natural man, and we are to avoid it carefully as it is something that is deeply appealing to the flesh. The message of the Bible is clear on this kind of idolatry. Put away all such idols, and have nothing to do with them.
“And when Asa heard these words, and the prophecy of Oded the prophet, he took courage, and put away the abominable idols out of all the land of Judah and Benjamin, and out of the cities which he had taken from mount Ephraim, and renewed the altar of the Lord, that was before the porch of the Lord” (2 Chron. 15:8).
These are what we might call idols, straight up. When God grants reformation and revival, we do more than simply stop praying to such idols. We don’t leave them up to make things easier for future archeologists. It is not sufficient to simply make an attitude adjustment, while leaving the statues in place. No, the Baals must come down. We must deep six them.
“And it came to pass the same night, that the Lord said unto him, Take thy father’s young bullock, even the second bullock of seven years old, and throw down the altar of Baal that thy father hath, and cut down the grove that is by it” (Judges 6:25).
But there is another kind of idolatry, and this is the kind of idolatry that must be addressed through an attitude adjustment solely. Because Scripture teaches us to get to the heart of the matter, we must do so, not only in terms of our heart loyalties, but also we must go to the heart of the matter when it comes to clarity of thought. We cannot be children in our thinking.
“Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5).
“For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph. 5:5).
The object of idolatry simpliciter is the statue of Baal that must be removed. But a covetous man is an idolater also. However, in the spirit of the tenth commandment, the object of covetousness is your neighbor’s man servant, his maid servant, his manicured lawn, his new car, and his wife. These cannot be lawfully removed, and actually must not be removed. This is an idolatry that must be addressed through repentance in the heart alone. You cannot fix it through any external jiggering.
Take another example. If a man is simply greedy for money, and not necessarily his neighbor’s money, he also is an idolater, and he must address that through repentance. But once he has repented, on the first Monday morning after his baptism, he still must still go out into the world and handle money. Mammon really is absolute an idol in the hearts of many, and so must be repented. But the Lord Jesus taught us that we were nevertheless to use it (Luke 16:9). He told us, did He not, that we could handle snakes and not be harmed (Mark 16:18)?
With standard issue idolatry, the thing that is worshiped in place of God is a carved or painted image that must go. With heart idolatry, the thing that is worshiped in place of God must not go. In the latter case, what is needed is for God’s people to study their relationship to God carefully, and their relationship to all other people and things, and for them to make sure they understand what Augustine meant by “ordinate loves.” With rank idolatry, the idol is deposed from the god shelf in your home, or from the pedestal in the city square. With heart idolatry, the idol is deposed from a place in the heart.
Not only that, but if your wife was your idol, say, once she is deposed, you find that you love her more than you did before, not less. Before you were loving her with all the resources for loving that an idolater has, which is to say, not very many. Now you are set free to love her as Christ loved the church.
When Family is An Idol
Now is it possible for “family”—a gift of God if ever there was one—to become an idol? Of course it is. An idol can be any created thing that assumes a place of importance in our lives that only the Creator should have. So idolatry occurs when we look to any finite thing to provide what only the infinite can provide.
And the Lord Jesus teaches us explicitly that the family presents just this sort of danger.
“If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).
As the parallel passage in Matthew shows us, Jesus is saying that anyone who loves his family more than Christ (Matt. 10:37) cannot be His disciple. Anyone who loves a family member more than he loves Christ is an idolater, by definition.
But this does not mean that the corrective for such idolatry is to treat the wife and kids as if they were one of the groves of the Ashteroth, and mow them all down. What needs in this instance to be mown down are the idolatrous pretensions that have grown up in the heart of the idolater.
I say all this in order to acknowledge that within the ranks of traditional Christians, there are those who have made an idol out of “family values.” That is a problem. It should be addressed, and it should be addressed through repentance. If your favorite family values organization provides you with a newsletter that is a lamp unto your feet, and a light unto your path, and you don’t really pay attention to your Bible, then you have a problem.
But to the sophisticated critics of such traditionalists, the indicator of idolatry is not that someone is simply being a goober. The indicator is not hokiness. The indicator would be practical—where the father administers the sacraments to his family, where he is the chief priest, principal theologian, pope and poobah in his family, where the teaching ministry of the Church is dismissed with a wave of the hand. That kind of thing really is dangerous.
But it is not dangerous because of simple cultural differences. A homeschooling dad should not be considered an idolater of the family simply because he keeps bees non-ironically.
So before we give ourselves over to the Kuyperian tasks of making craft beer, or hand-fashioned furniture, or managing a shop, or writing the great novel, let us first give ourselves to the foundational task of making babies. And as my friend Chocolate Knox likes to say—get married, have babies, and baptize them.
Now idolatry in my second sense—the heart sense—is a question of motive and intent. It is not a function of what a man is doing externally. And when the family is an idol, it is an idol in this sense.
Two men can work diligently all day, from 8 to 5, commute home, kiss the wife, wrestle with the kids, barbecue something for dinner, watch some television, and then to bed. They could have virtually identical days, and one of them be an idolater and the other not. The thing that must be fixed, if it is to be fixed, must be addressed in the heart.
Now unfortunately, we live in a time when those who worry out loud about whether or not traditional Christians are making an idol of the family tend to be those who have made an idol out of their efforts to undercut, weaken, dishearten, erode, ignore, or just flat deny the family. Defending heterosexual marriage against the homosexual counterfeit is not idolatry. Defending monogamy against polygamy is not idolatry. Defending the fruitfulness of sex against the barrenness-mongers is not idolatry.
I say this having already granted that one such defender could be an idolater in his heart. But that is a question of motive. He would be doing a good thing with a bad motive. But a man can give all his goods to the poor and be an idolater (1 Cor. 13:3). He can be a martyr, and give his body to be burned, and be an idolater (1 Cor. 13:3). He can speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and be an idolater (1 Cor. 13:1). We can say this, and indeed we must say this, without breathing a word against true generosity, true martyrdom, or true eloquence.
So defending the family against the onslaughts of secularism is a noble and necessary task. We must do it. We must not become idolaters of the cause as we do it, but if we find we must repent of any such idolatry, this would mean we would be more equipped us for the fight in defense of the family.
Critics of the family’s defenders, those who glibly throw out the charge of family idolatry, are frequently those who understand that the best defense is a good offense. Their insistence upon singleness-as-gift, barrenness-as-option, openness-to-worldliness as somehow missional is far more exposed to the critiques of a true iconoclast than are a dad, a mom, five kids and a van with stick figures on the back.
The ease with which these things get turned around makes me think of a comment of Thomas Sowell’s that illustrates how easy it is for the serpent to gaslight us.
“I have never understood why it is ‘greed’ to want to keep the money you have earned but not greed to want to take somebody else’s money.”
We live in a time when God’s institutions of marriage and family really are under attack. This should be obvious enough, right? Our Supreme Court has solemnly declared the cartoon of same sex unions to be genuine matrimony—and when someone rises up to speak the truth about such things, that is not the time to speculate from fifty yards off about his possible heart motives.
When Athanasius faithfully stood contra mundum, can you not imagine one compromising bishop saying to another temporizing bishop that “this whole issue seems to have gotten under his skin. Entirely too important to him, if you know what I mean?”
Yeah, I know what you mean. Every generation has its zeitgeist, and every generation of the church has its wind surfers.
Where Living Stones Are Quarried
And now we are in a position to get to the point. At last you say? Well, I don’t blame you. Here it is.
It is quite true that in the resurrection, there will be no marriage. If marriage continued on in the same way as what we experience down here, then the Sadducean question would stand—whose wife is she (Matt. 22:28)? The family is a temporal, historical institution, and it will not be continued in its current form in the resurrection.
I say “in its current form” because I do not believe that a man will be wandering around Heaven with his hands in his pockets, when by chance he runs into his wife of fifty years, whereupon he will say, “Oh, hi. It’s you.” It does not yet appear what we shall be (1 John 3:2), and we know it will be beyond all mortal reckoning. But I think we can be assured that it will not be a downgrade. It will (of necessity) be a transformative upgrade.
Now Heaven will be made up of innumerable saints, and every last one of them is a living stone that will make up the everlasting Temple. Now the earthly family—the historical, temporal, earthly family—is the only quarry from which such living stones can be hewn. I do not say that every such stone is taken up into the Temple, but I am saying that every stone that is taken up into the Temple is a stone that was quarried here on earth. The redeemed souls have to come from somewhere.
Think about it. There is only one lawful way to bring an everlasting soul into existence, and that lawful way is sexual intercourse within the bonds of a covenant marriage. And when I say “covenant marriage,” I am referring to the kind of marriage that is registered at a county courthouse near you. I am speaking of our earthly unions as the supply depot for what God is going to do with all the saints in the resurrection.
We are not playing with counters. We walk alongside eternal realities all the time. That romantic getaway weekend? The one where your third child was conceived? That child is going to live forever. That child is an eternal spark. And you almost didn’t go because of the car trouble. Not only will that child live forever, but she will grow up and marry, and she will have five children. They will live forever too. And they will marry. And before all is said and done, your daughter will be the ancestress of hundreds of thousands of people. And all because your friend from church, the car mechanic guy, came over and fixed it.
In our experience down here on earth, there are three institutions that are instituted by God. They are the family (Matt. 19:6), the civil order (Rom. 13:1), and the church (1 Tim. 3:15). Of these three, it is true that only the church will last forever. But every last brick in that church—that will last forever—was conceived in an earthly bed.
What kind of sense would it make for a brick maker to worry about whether or not he was forgetting the importance of bricks, in that he was placing an undue emphasis on clay? Or for a cook to do the same with his omelets? When he reaches into the fridge for the eggs, there is not an omelet in sight. Supposed he stopped looking for the eggs, and did this for the sake of remembering the omelet? After all, he said, ignoring the eggs, the omelet is the important thing.
Only human souls can be saved, and there is only one lawful way to get a human soul. The lawful point of origin for all such souls is the family.
“Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the Lord: Look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged. Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you: For I called him alone, and blessed him, and increased him” (Is. 51:1–2).