Aimee Byrd, marriage, family

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Could Focusing on Marriage and Family at Church Actually Hurt Discipleship?

I answer this question from the perspective of a married woman who has been married for more than 25 years. In many ways, I have an enviable family. But I also write from the perspective of a woman who has found it difficult to actually be a disciple in the church. Too often, when a woman comes to church wanting to be invested in and to contribute with reciprocity in the church’s theological, intellectual, and creative vitality — as a disciple would — she is sidelined to women’s ministries that concentrate on her value-ascribed roles as a wife and mother, ignored, or worse, treated as a threat who needs to be managed. She is too often not seen as a sister. 

We’ve lost the status by which the apostle Paul most refers to the people of God — spiritual siblings. This is detrimental to the church because we are losing sight of what is real. Because learning what it means to have spiritual siblings is also learning what it means to be in Christ. 

Anyone in this life can get married and have or adopt children. But one cannot be a sibling in the church without Jesus Christ. Discipleship is about training for eternity, preparing us for communion with the triune God and one another. Do we believe this is real? We are not merely psychic selves in human flesh, who marry and contribute to society in this age. And our value isn’t measured in what roles we play. Our spiritual siblingship testifies to what we receive as a gift and where we are headed. Christians are made spiritual selves in Christ only by the work of God, our creator. As a church, we are made up in Christ, so much so that we are the body of Christ. 

By focusing primarily on marriage and family and our roles in this context, are we missing the very meaningfulness to which our service and love in these relationships point? Marriage is a picture of the love of God, Christ’s self-giving love for his bride, the church. In the same way, virginity is a picture. Abigail Favale explains, “The virgin represents the human being alone before God, divested of any extrinsic valuation.” The virgin is “the bodily sign of the human person whose value is rooted not in earthly bonds, but in Christ himself.” Our sexual distinction, she says, “is not made purposeful through mandated tasks or restrictive temporal roles; the supreme meaning of our sexed natures is to be living, visible icons that gesture continually toward the world beyond the veil.” We need our married and single selves in the church to tell this story. Together.

We live in this reality now as brothers and sisters in Christ. Are we living in the real world? In quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s work Life Together, again I am facing the shut door of belonging that many women feel in the church. I need to do the work myself to add in our sex to his message, substituting “siblingship” for “brotherhood”: “Christian [siblingship] is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.” May we all participate? Only then can we see one another as Christ sees us and as we see Christ — as a gift. Then we will see the one anothering, to which we are called throughout Scripture, functioning beyond the nuclear family to a greater honor in loving Christ’s whole body. Then we will see the gift of women in the church beyond domestic roles.

I can love my husband and my children for my own sake. It all can be about me, really. But in Christ, we are called to love others — all others — for his sake. As Jesus is preparing our souls for love, he teaches us and forms us through his own body in sacred siblingship. And in learning what it means to have spiritual siblings, we are learning about Christ and being transformed into his likeness together. For, as the apostle Paul writes, “We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity.” 

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