In a recent Newsweek magazine article entitled, “Marriage Is Hard: The religious right admits it” (Oct. 19, 2009), writer Lisa Miller begins by drawing a contrast between the convictions and conduct of two professing Christians: Billy Graham and Senator John Ensign (R-NV). In describing the Reverend Billy Graham she writes:
Billy Graham had a rule. He was a powerful man, away from his wife and children more often than he was with them. Aware of the significance of his reputation and convinced of the moral value of the Gospel message, he took precautions to guard against his own human weakness. He gave his ministry colleagues explicit I nstructions: never leave me alone in a room with a woman who is not my wife.
By contrast, Senator Ensign admitted to an extramarital affair with a campaign staffer and wife of a top aide in his office this past June. Of Senator Ensign, Miller writes:
If only someone had given John Ensign similar advice. Or if someone did, that he'd heeded it. The Ensign story continues to reverberate not because of its delicious best-friend's-girl plotline (for who among us is surprised anymore that politicians sleep around?), but because he said he stood for something else. He is a "family values" Republican who voted for the impeachment of Bill Clinton and in 2004 lent his support to a constitutional amendment defining marriage, saying, "Marriage is an extremely important institution in this country, and protecting it is, in my mind, worth the extraordinary step of amending our Constitution."
It isn’t my intention to vilify Senator Ensign or pile on to man who is suffering the effects of his own sin. I am truly sad for him and his family. We all suffer from the destruction of a single family and Miller adds a painfully obvious point by saying, “Ensign has become the latest example of what so many see as the failure of the right to retain any credibility on the marriage question.”
However, as Christians our foremost concern is not the political right or left but the Christian church that is called to bear testimony to the lordship of Jesus Christ. This is why marriage both as an ideal and in reality should matter to the church, because its condition within the body of Christ either serves or opposes the gospel of the kingdom. We are simply called and empowered to live according to a higher standard-lives that should bear witness to a people who have been changed by God.
Of course the world has every right to expect this, especially when we assume the authority to speak on any moral issue. Ms. Miller echoes this expectation specific to marriage when she writes, “Of course, every person who utters ‘till death do us part’ and then separates is, in a sense, conceding defeat. But when evangelicals are leading the charge in the marriage movement (and now, the anti-gay-marriage movement) arguing that sacred unions between one man and one woman are good for society because they're good for children, one would hope that they'd have worked out the kinks a little better than the rest of us.”
Again, secular Newsweek magazine makes the ugly but all-too-apparent point, “No one denies that conservative Christians have a marriage problem, a dizzying gap between their articulated ideals and their success in achieving them.” Miller points out that “according to the Pew Forum, evangelicals are more likely to be divorced than Roman Catholics, Mormons, the Eastern Orthodox, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and atheists.” Linda Malone-Colon, Ph.D., a conservative advocate of marriage and director of the National Center on African American Marriages and Parenting gets straight to the point by saying, "It's as true with Christians as it is with other religious groups. They don't live by what they're talking about." Ouch!
Returning to our contrast between Billy Graham and John Ensign, one must ask, “What was the difference?” The immediate response might be, “Well, of course, Billy Graham is simply the better Christian.” But Billy Graham, as wonderful as he is, isn’t the recipient of more particular grace than anyone else. Granted, Billy Graham likely understood something about himself that Mr. Ensign did not, namely his own sin nature. Rev. Graham didn’t think he was above temptation; he placed no confidence in the flesh. Quite the contrary, he didn’t trust in himself at all, which is why he took the added precaution of asking others to help protect him-not from seductive women-but from himself. Billy Graham was perhaps wiser than Mr. Ensign, but he wasn’t supernaturally immune to temptation.
More importantly, the Reverend Billy Graham understands the value of the larger Christian community and its rightful relationship to his life. At the very least, we are far more vulnerable to sin and destruction when independent and isolated than we are under the care (and accountability) of a loving community. Further, the Christian life is not an event in which we compete for the “individual gold medal” but a corporate life in which we seek the spiritual growth and restoration of the whole community. This is not happening on the scale that it should within the American church. Too many Christians remain individualized, isolated, alienated-and subsequently the church fails to flourish in its mission and purpose. My days are frequently filled counseling those who have found no support within their churches.
Furthermore, this “life together,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued, is not about “good experiences,” but rather concerns real relations as we abide together in Christ-who is and who becomes present in the life of the body. Neither is this life together to be confused with a romantic sense of community, nor is it to be exclusively self-serving. The Christian community exists in Christ for the sake of the world, and when this common life together is not seen, both the church and the world suffer. It is the difference between actually being the church and simply doing church. Life in the body involves loving, sustaining, and supporting one another, in practice and in prayer, through the vicissitudes of life.
Because we all too often fail to foster the relationships essential to true Christian community, we cannot abide together in Christ. Consequently, we remain relatively indifferent to both sin and sinner in the church. We are reluctant to confront when necessary, seeking to arrest sin’s destructive effect and restore the sinner. The result? Sin reigns within the church; marriages unravel and families are destroyed and the body of Christ looks no different from the world.
It is not enough to respond to the marriage crisis within the church by saying, “My marriage is fine!” If we abide together in Christ, then we together must prepare and care for marriage generally, and intervene specifically when any marriage is endangered. Practically this means we become more transparent in our struggles; we ask for help! It means we seek to restore sinners and thus we stop “shooting the wounded” when they share their weakness. Finally, we must engage in the spiritual warfare of which Paul speaks in Ephesians 6:10–18, setting captives free, fighting against the sin (not the sinner) that destroys, divides, and weakens the body.
In conclusion, we must take seriously our life together in Christ, bringing the abiding love of Christ to bear on each other and stop ceding the body’s matrimonial and familial ground to the enemy.