Redefining Family | Sojourners

Redefining Family

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My very-serious relationship ended recently. As a single woman in my 30s, I was hesitant to tell people about the breakup because I didn’t want to feel the shame of another failed romance. In both our culture in general and the church-world in particular, having a significant other or being married still seem to be the prime ways in which we evaluate each other. Sure, there are pockets in this country that care more about your career success, but we wouldn’t be having all these endless debates about whether women can have it all if it wasn’t assumed that you should.

So I was incredibly surprised by the outpouring of love and support to me in the aftermath of my relationship. No one treated me like a sad statistic — yet another unmarried woman in her 30s! No one blamed me — there she goes again, another failed relationship! Instead friends and family in several states rushed to my side with support, solidarity, and supper. As one, also single friend noted, “Just because you’re single, doesn’t mean that you’re alone.”

This extravagant love poured out on my behalf felt like an offer of grace from God, a reminder that God would make up for whatever love I lost. It was a convicting moment — I have often viewed this type of love and friendship as a consolation prize for not having a significant other. What a small way to live and love when you only expect love from spouse and children and see the love of friends and family as lesser. How could such a small group of people really show all the wonder and magnitude of God’s unfailing love toward us?

And yet I can’t help but feel that in the short time I went from being in a relationship to being out of one, I have reverted back to a second-class status in the church. I recently watched a video in a series called For the Life of the World that essentially said that God’s plan to show love, encouragement, and blessing to the world was through the nuclear (and in this video series, white, middle-class) family. The small group I attend rightly defended me and other singles — most of us who are not single by choice — saying that this was a too-narrow definition of family.

I’ve certainly felt like I was part of a larger family — a body if you will — in this time of loss. I would love to receive comfort and love from a husband, but I won’t deny that having the chance to receive comfort and love from at least 30 people over the past week and a half is a tremendous blessing. One that has made me really wonder why the church is so quick to defend, define, and glorify marriage while ignoring the extremely unique way that the Body of Christ is called to supersede all other relational bonds and provide love and family despite heredity, gender, nationality, or economic status.

Of course, it’s not just the church that is struggling with its definition of marriage and family.

On Tuesday, while hearing arguments about whether same-sex marriage is guaranteed in the Constitution, Justice Ginsburg (aka Notorious RBG) responded to some of the arguments on behalf of the states seeking to preserve the ban on gay marriage. She pointed out that the traditional view of marriage for a long time in this country was that of a “dominant male to a subordinate female” and asked the lawyer for those states whether that view should be allowed to continue (the answer was no). Ginsburg also shot down the argument that marriage’s sole purpose was to ensure procreation, giving the example of an elderly couple, past childbearing years, who wanted to marry.

It strikes me as funny that we have to ask many of these same questions in the church. Is a Christian marriage worth less if the couple cannot conceive? Is a Christian’s contribution to bringing life to the world worth less if they never have the opportunity to marry or have children? Is a Christian’s ability to provide love, encouragement, or blessing diminished if they’ve been widowed? What happens if a Christian is LGBTQ?

To go further, would we say that Abraham and Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, and Zechariah are only valuable to the story of God’s redemption in the world because they eventually — miraculously, through God’s grace — had children? Should we take the rich teachings of Jesus and Paul with a grain of salt because they never got married nor had children? Was their ability to offer love, encouragement, or blessing to the world was diminished as a result?

As a single woman who has committed her life to following Jesus, I reject the notion that I cannot fully participate in blessing the world because so far no one has put a ring on it. I am not single by choice, and I have had to draw deep from the well of God’s love to learn what it means to be God’s Beloved. I have had to cling to the truth that even though I may not get married in this life, I have a Maker and a Husband. I have had to learn to let Jesus fill my soul, and let me tell you, it’s a beautiful thing. It has enabled me to love people without putting unnecessary weight on them to satisfy my needs — something that took me years to learn. My life up until now has been the story of God choosing me, pursuing me, revealing Gods’ self to me, and loving me.

I reject the idea that this experience I’ve had of God and this life I’ve lived for God’s glory would just be a prologue until the real story of my life begins when, God-willing I do get married and have children.

Just like I experienced this past week and a half, the early church created a space that pushed back against a culture that viewed women as second-class, children as property, and widows and orphans as disposable. It created a new kind of family in which all believers broke bread in their homes and ate together. It pointed to the hope that the Bridegroom would one day return for a Bride—the church—who had made itself ready. Perhaps the marriage we should be focusing on should be the one we have with Christ. In the meantime, please keep those casseroles coming.

Juliet Vedral is a writer living in Washington, D.C. She is the former press secretary for Sojourners and currently edits an online literary magazine called The Wheelhouse Review when she isn’t serving as on staff at a local church. You can also find her on Twitter.

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