Thursday, August 10, 2017

Shooting from the Lip

“Pastor John” Piper is answering his mail again, which nearly always ends up, well ... interesting, to say the least.

This time he’s responding to the single mother of a three-year-old boy who wants to know whether the Bible teaches she should be looking for a husband.

Piper is rarely reluctant to engage with questions the Bible doesn’t directly answer, and this one is no exception.

Red Flag Time

Now, this woman’s circumstances and attitude about her past are far-from-clearly spelled out, which should be our first warning to tread carefully. She talks about a transformed “soul and lifestyle” and about the “overwhelming task” that looms before her, but says, “I do not feel called to marriage”. Three issues jump out at me, two of which Mr. Piper doesn’t appear to consider.

The first is the current situation of the father. The writer says, “I’m a single parent and have been since [my son’s] conception”. Now probably there are good reasons for this; there usually are. The father may be unknown, long gone, married or committed to another relationship, in jail or otherwise unsuitable for consideration. But how can anyone reasonably address the question of marrying another man “to complete the model of family that is clearly laid out in Scripture” without opening that can of worms? People may change; genetics don’t. Unless he is dead, this man is a significant consideration in any plans that may be made in the future.

The second is the question of feeling called. That’s worth a whole post of its own, in that it sounds like there’s plenty of potential for miscommunication in that phrase about just how God makes his will known to us. That issue too remains unaddressed.

Third, I think Mr. Piper gets off on the wrong foot right out of the gate by pointing out that Jesus had “a special concern for mothers who have children to raise on their own”, in support of which he cites the Lord’s compassion toward the widow of Nain. That’s a big red flag to me. Widows and single mothers with children born outside of marriage are often conflated in evangelical circles these days, and while they certainly face some common challenges (loneliness, responsibility, financial pressures), there are also significant differences between the two conditions.

Suitability for Marriage

Let’s talk first about suitability for marriage. A widow has nothing about her state for which she needs to repent (unless she is the rare sort who happens to have dispatched her husband into eternity). She is entirely marriageable, and in fact the apostle Paul counsels younger widows to “marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander.”

The suitability of an unwed mother for marriage is considerably more complicated.

One red herring to get out of the way first. Someone will almost surely ask, “But what if she was raped?” It is claimed that in the U.S. approximately 27,000 children are born to rape victims annually, a rate of less than 7 children per 1,000 born. Factor in the likelihood of any one of these young, single mothers walking into your local church looking to change her life, and the statistical probability of any given church leader being asked to weigh in on the fallout from rape-related childbirth is exceedingly low.

The overwhelming majority of single mothers simply made a sinful choice, or more often a series of sinful choices.

That doesn’t make an unwed single mother more wicked than most other sinners, of course, and it’s absolutely no reflection on the poor child. Still, it creates marriage complications that don’t exist for widows.

Two Different Approaches to Repentance

Now, my observation, both from scripture and experience, is that there are two very different ways people approach the ongoing negative consequences of the sinful choices they have made.

A godly single mother genuinely owns her past, rejects those choices utterly and accepts her present lot in life as the product of them. Attitudinally, she may well be in a place where she could indeed make a decent Christian wife. (Let’s leave aside for the moment the question of whether she should marry, which is a separate issue; and let’s also leave aside other issues she may still have to deal with that are unrelated to sexual sin, such as past rejection of parental authority, attraction to the wrong sorts of men, etc.)

Then there is another sort of single mother, and if the Internet is any indication, evangelical churches have plenty of them. These are women who define themselves as the unfortunate victims of ignorance, bad upbringings or societal pressure. They may well acknowledge they have sinned in some technical sense, but they do not fully own their choices. To the extent that they continue to justify their past decisions to themselves and to others, we can safely conclude their repentance is incomplete.

Such women are in another category of suitability for marriage altogether, and may well be a train wreck waiting to happen. No godly counselor would advise such a woman to marry, or advise a Christian man to marry her.

Marketability? Really?

Secondly (and this may sound both unkind and overly pragmatic), we need to realistically consider the question of marketability.

Both Mr. Piper and the woman asking this question seem confident that marriage to a good man is still something that’s on the table for her, assuming she ever wants to entertain the option. (Currently she doesn’t, and I find it interesting that it’s Piper who makes the case for remaining open to the possibility of marriage.)

Now, Piper’s reasons are probably logical: a young, attractive single mother is open to the same sexual temptations and distractions as young widows; and a child is notably better off raised by two loving parents. No good shepherd wants to see the sheep in his care subject to unnecessary temptation, frustration or loneliness; nor would he wish their children to lack for male role models or masculine care if such a thing could be prevented.

But, awkward as it is, we should probably acknowledge that unless she’s spectacularly attractive or unusually appealing in some other way, a woman who has made these kinds of life-changing decisions has involuntarily limited her options. Given the choice between an apparently godly young woman with no known sexual history and an apparently godly young woman with three-year-old squirming baggage, most marriageable young men prefer the former, and I will not criticize that preference or call them ungodly on that account.

The Wrong Sort of Attention

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are definitely plenty of young Christian men who will jump at the chance to court and marry an attractive single woman with a child. The dangers here, though, are not insignificant:
  • First, if we are talking about men who are still unattached in their late twenties or thirties and are desperate to marry, it is likely they have had some difficulty attracting women and are now “punching above their weight class”. This means they may have a tougher time keeping the exclusive attention and respect of their new wife. They may also be prone to jealousy if they believe they have married out of their league.
  • Second, they may be the sort of men who have the unreflective compulsion to “white knight”. A tendency to view one’s new partner as a comparatively innocent victim of the men in her past or to see her as needing to be bailed out of a tough situation may lead a new husband to do precisely the reverse of what he really needs to do to lead and benefit his wife. A husband is to live with his wife in an understanding way. That means knowing exactly who you’re dealing with, for good or ill.
  • Third, a man who jumps at the chance to raise another man’s son may not have counted the cost, financially or to the male ego. He has probably not weighed the difficulties involved with creating “combination families”. He may not respond well if the child does not instantly take to him, which is a distinct possibility when a boy has an established (and perhaps unusually needy) relationship with his mother but none with her new partner.
In short, a single mother looking to marry may not have the options she thinks she has.

None of this is to say such complications are insurmountable, but they certainly need to be acknowledged and faced. From his response, you would think Mr. Piper contemplates a line of godly, available young prospects queuing up to take on any single mother who is willing to have them. Simple observation tells me this is not what is generally happening in our churches. There are lots of single (or divorced) mothers out there and lots of single men, but putting them together is not necessarily easy, wise or desirable. The fact is that if given a choice between playing house in a second-rate marriage scenario while raising someone else’s offspring and life in their parents’ basement playing video games, many young men will choose Counterstrike.

If I’m honest, I’m not sure having major reservations about such an arrangement is genuinely evil.

Caution Required

It would be wonderful if all children grew up with two godly parents who loved one another, wouldn’t it? That is unquestionably the scriptural ideal, and we should all be aiming at it. But this is not the world we live in today, even in evangelical circles.

Raising a child, especially a boy, is a daunting task for any single mother. While it doesn’t seem to be the case here, the temptation to look for somebody to come alongside and help out financially, practically and in other ways is probably very, very common. But not all these marriages are destined to end well, and there are worse things than godly single-motherhood.

One of them is creating ill-conceived unions that don’t last or that cause more pain than they might stand to mitigate.

In dealing with the sheep, it seems to me that one of the chief responsibilities of a shepherd, like that of a doctor, is not to make things worse. Before I would ever advise a woman who “does not feel called to marriage” to leave herself open to that possibility (or, God forbid, to advise a man to consider her as a life partner!), I’d need to know a great deal more about the specific circumstances, the spiritual condition of both parties, the genetic father, the child, the family and church support system, the financial situation, and so on.

Otherwise, I’d just be shooting from the lip.

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