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If Churches Are Really Pro-Marriage, They Will Discipline Its Destroyers

We cannot allow unrepentant destroyers of marriages and families to reside in the body of Christ.

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If churches want to promote marriage, they should excommunicate more people.

Conservative Christians, from academic sociologists to NFL kickers, agree that America needs more and better marriages and that we ought to prioritize families and children over mammon. Despite the freakout over Harrison Butker’s viral speech to Catholic university graduates, he was essentially right. It is undeniable that as Americans are increasingly unmarried, childless, and materialistic, they are also increasingly unhappy. 

There is no single cause for the vast cultural shifts behind this nor any single solution; churches alone cannot fix these problems, but they do have an essential role. Christian marriages ought to be models of love, faithfulness, and stability amid a despairing, lonely, transitory culture. Too often, they are not. 

To change this, church leaders need to understand not only the difficulties that bedevil forming and sustaining strong marriages and families today but also the essential help churches can provide in our culture. This help includes disciplining their members, for culture and community require that standards be enforced. 

Being embedded in community helps marriages, and churches can particularly provide trusted webs of relationships that aid men and women in coming together and then staying together. From premarital counseling to an affordable wedding venue to bringing meals after a baby is born, churches should (and often do) provide material, relational, and spiritual support to help marriages survive and thrive. Christian marriage is countercultural, but the model it offers should not be one of isolated couples heroically struggling by themselves, but of networks of families united in community and sharing each other’s joys and burdens.

Churches have many ways to aid marriages, some of which are deliberate, such as the aforementioned free premarital counseling, and some of which are simply intrinsic to close, in-person communities. Though popular culture has tended to focus on the potential downsides of such “thick” community, there are many benefits, including many that help people in getting and staying married — the old ways just tended to be so taken for granted that they were invisible until people found themselves all alone with only dating apps to guide their romantic way. 

Indeed, dating apps are illustrative of the cultural problem, for though they seem to offer endless options, this comes at a high cost, especially when it comes to trust. After all, the point of dating apps is to pair up strangers; these programs are incapable of the personal screening and accountability that are unavoidable when meeting, dating, and marrying in the context of an established community. And such social accountability is an important part of forming and sustaining strong marriages and families.

This accountability helps the church to counter a world in which both men and women increasingly see marriage as a bad deal. Feminists have long pointed out that when women live as homemakers they are vulnerable to male abandonment. Meanwhile, the unilateral divorce laws established to rectify this one-sided vulnerability often leave men at risk of losing their children, their homes, and much of their income to a malicious ex-wife. Either way, an unhappy marriage becomes a sort of prisoner’s dilemma that gives a significant advantage to the first person to break trust.

These hazards can be, and often are, overstated. Data, observation, and common sense show that marriage is generally beneficial for both men and women. Nonetheless, fear of heartbreak and ruin is not conjured from nothing. Thus, churches have a responsibility to, on the one hand, proclaim the goodness of marriage and that Christians should not be ruled by fear regarding it and, on the other hand, to teach, aid, and discipline Christians to strengthen marriages. 

Thus, churches should lean into their role of holding members accountable. In general, American churches are better about providing help than providing discipline. This support — from helping with babies to giving advice and nurturing friendships to providing financial help to struggling families — is indeed essential. Still, it is only part of what is needed. The biggest failure of American churches is in discipline; very few seem to impose real consequences on members who openly violate their marriage vows and thereby harm and destroy families. 

Yes, there are difficulties in administering church discipline, which requires that churches take membership seriously and have leaders who know their members and are willing to put in the time to discipline them when needed, including excommunicating, or banishing, the unrepentant from fellowship if necessary. And this may feel futile, because the loose nature of membership in much of American evangelicalism, along with poor coordination between churches, may make even excommunication hard to enforce beyond a single denomination or even a single congregation. It will often be easy for people who are expelled from one nondenominational evangelical church to slip into another if they wish, especially if they provide self-serving tales about their broken marriages and church history.

Even if they find ways to limit this sort of church-hopping, churches will not be able to stop people who are willing to burn their spiritual, social, and reputational bridges. And it will often be the case that a man who abandons his family will readily abandon his faith, or that a woman who leaves her husband for another man will be willing to leave her friends behind as well. 

Churches have limited power over their members, but this is no reason for them to abandon discipline entirely, especially in marriage and family life. Yet a multitude of churches have done so. One need not spend much time in even conservative Christian circles to observe that, despite the clear teaching of Scripture, family-destroying adultery, divorce, and remarriage are often treated as matters for congregants to deal with privately, between themselves and God, rather than a matter that the elders of the church are obligated to address. 

But if churches are to demonstrate the goodness of Christian marriage to a culture that is forgetting how to even bring men and women together in enduring relationships, then the men and women entering Christian marriages need to know that their churches will both hold them accountable and have their backs as needed. Indeed, church discipline is not just retributive. It is meant to be restorative. Even excommunication is done, in part, in the hope that it will induce sorrow, repentance, and then a renewal of abandoned faith and broken relationships. And the promise of church discipline may turn people from the path of sin before they are far down it. 

If Christians want to reach a world that is lost, we must show that we take our beliefs, including those regarding marriage and family, seriously. And we must understand that genuine social justice begins at home, with righteousness and love in the primordial human relations of mother, father, and child. Thus, we cannot allow unrepentant destroyers of marriages and families to reside in the body of Christ.


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