by Carol Tharp, MD

Marriage & Family in the News

“The key to remedying the ills of American society is rebuilding the family, says William Bennett…nothing can take the place of the family…people need to understand marriage takes work to last…this is the fundamental crisis of our time…families without a male head of the household are a recipe for disaster and children are paying the price” (from “Save the Family, Save the Culture” by Dwayne Hastings in The Magazine Light For Faith & Family, July/August 2002, which is the bimonthly publication of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention).

“In the last two years Oklahoma has turned itself into a petri dish for an array of social programs aimed at getting people married and keeping them that way. Conservative and God-fearing, the state has the second-highest divorce rate in the nation. Many blame the decline in holy matrimony for high levels of child poverty and unemployment…. The state hired a pair of marriage ambassadors, two evangelical-Christian marriage counselors named Les and Leslie Parrott, and paid them $250,000 to give relationship rallies around the state…some critics worry about having Christian evangelists administer public programs—no matter how secular their approach…. Everyone’s for stronger marriages” (from “Giving Lessons in Love” by Peg Tyre and Ellise Pierce in Newsweek, February 18, 2002).

“Christianity has had less impact in Uruguay…than any other country in the Americas…. We soon realized that traditional church-planting methods were not going to work here…. We knew that the people needed to encounter Jesus as revealed in the Bible, but how would we get their ­attention?… God led us to try to help the many couples we met whose marriages were troubled. Now after a number of Marriage Encounter weekends, ‘alumni’ of previous retreats are sending their friends…. We are looking toward a global movement of cross-cultural Hispanic ministries” (from “Opening Hearts—Healing Minds” by missionaries Myron and Alice Loss in the magazine Serving in Mission, Volume 99, July 2002).

“Unless we recover our own commitment to stronger families built on economically sound and child-rich marriages, the United States will likely join the list of nations in demographic decay by the time of the 2100 census” (U.S. Population Boom, April/May 2002 issue of The American Enterprise).

“Plans for a third great World Congress of Families during the year 2002 were ­derailed by the 9/11 events. But we are now looking at early 2004 as a likely date for the next international WCF. The United Nation’s General Assembly has designated 2004 as an International Year of the Family” (Allan Carlson, President of the Howard Center, Rockford, IL).

The Marriage & Family Market

Wherever social ills are decried, the “dysfunctional” marriage and family are implicated as causative, and “happy” marriages and “strong” families are then described as curative. Accordingly, the building of these ill-defined entities has become a major individual, local, national and international ­objective. Marketing to this objective is big business! Even pharmaceutical companies advertise their wares by appealing to love of family: “By taking care of my diabetes, I take care of my family” (ad for Avandia, by Glaxo Smith Kline).

Marriage and family have come to dominate the airwaves and printed pages of Christian media. They are the most common ­subjects of Christian seminars and conferences. Their popularity has even spawned a new form of Christian conferencing, the “road show” in which a conference is scheduled to play in various cities across the ­country, featuring a cast of popular Christian speakers and entertainers in a “get-away-from-it-all” atmosphere that combines teaching, entertainment, fun, food, shopping, and excitement. 

On August 24, 2002, several thousand married Christian couples attended “I still Do”—“A Life Changing One-Day Conference for Couples” at the United Center, home of the Chicago Bulls.

The “I still Do” conference was billed by its producer and director, Dennis Rainey, as “an important step toward improving your marriage…a fun, romantic, bonding experience with your spouse.” Its four guest speakers were to help attendees “understand the significance of [their] marriage vows …­unlock the secrets to romance and intimacy …improve communication…aspire and ­endeavor to make your marriage last a lifetime.” “FamilyLife,” the “Leader in Marriage Conferences,” produced this conference, which was one of many scheduled across the country. The superbly organized and upbeat format featured five popular Christian speakers, what was called praise and worship, special music by a popular country-western singer, and a resource center featuring innumerable “how to” books by the speakers and other authors, in addition to a host of other products somehow related to marriage.

What was Taught?

The opening speaker was popular pastor, radio, and conference speaker, Alistair Begg. His address was the high point of the day. He clearly presented the Gospel. He acknowledged that our relationship with the Lord was more important than the family. He referred to the necessity of God’s transforming work in our lives. However, he concluded his message urging his listeners to pay attention to the subsequent speakers and to take good notes on the “tips and recommendations for action…that would improve their marriages.” This inconsistency left the misleading impression that our relationship with God is important but subservient to the ultimate goal of building a strong marriage.

The second speaker was Paul Sheppard, “senior pastor and musician,” radio speaker, and conference leader “in constant demand.” He spoke from Ephesians 5:21-33, emphasizing the need for married couples to achieve something he called “harmony.” He presented these verses from Ephesians as a job description, a list of duties to be performed by husband and wife. The gospel was presented as something that works to create “harmony” in marriage. Couples “need Christ and his body for their family”. He emphasized the duty of the husband to sacrifice “whatever” to meet the needs of the wife, to love her “supremely,” to make the marriage “spicy,” to “cover” her faults instead of “criticizing.” He said that God would call the husband to account for everything that happens in the marriage and did not mention the wife’s responsibility before God for her own sin.

The third speaker was Gary Chapman, popular author, “pastor and educator” who “delivers keen, memorable insights on marriage.” He spoke humorously on how to “rediscover emotional love in marriage,” by which he apparently meant the kind of starry-eyed emotions experienced by young couples during pre-marital dating. Predictably for his address, he reviewed his best-selling book, The Five Love Languages. As a bonus for this conference, he added seven steps to solve conflict (two had Scriptural references). He informed the audience: “…you don’t have any conflicts that cannot be resolved” with these seven steps. 

Next was Les Parrott, “co-director of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University,” who teaches “the basics of good relationships through seminars and marriage mentoring.” Parrott drew his thoroughly secular advice from Yale University psychologist Robert Sternberg, who understands marriage as a triangle of passion, intimacy and commitment. Accordingly, Parrott spoke of a wife’s “undeniable need to be cherished” and of a husbands “undeniable need for sex,” while offering numerous techniques to satisfy those “needs.” In his entire 50-minute presentation, there was only one brief reference to Scripture, and that was from a paraphrased version of the Bible.

Dennis Rainey closed the show with an address calling for a “statement on behalf of marriage and family.” He offered five techniques to prevent divorce and called for spouses to “come forward” and pick up a “rose of reconciliation” for their spouse. Each attending couple was given a large “Our Marriage Covenant” document to sign, frame, and hang on the wall to “leave a legacy of Christ-centered love” for future generations to see.

The message of the “I still Do” conference can be summarized in its title: I, in my own strength and employing whatever techniques and methods psychology has to ­offer, still do have the power to achieve and maintain a happy marriage.

Professor Doctor Sigmund Freud would have loved this conference. He would have been pleased to see that it has taken little more than a century for his doctrines that he concocted to take priority over Scripture, even within the Christian church. Freud boldly rejected Christ and ridiculed Scripture’s teaching of original sin. He taught that people have problems with thinking, feeling, or behaving (and problems in marriage) because of past traumatic experiences. For Freud, the solution to those problems comes via informed or insightful self-effort. Usually a therapist or some special guidance is required. To him, the measure of psychological maturity or “success” was personal pleasure, the fulfillment of sensual “needs.” The Freudian paradigm rejected any notion of original sin, conviction of sin, the counsel and guidance of the Holy Spirit, the transforming work of God in the life of a believer, and the Christian life purposed in faithful service to a redeeming, holy God.

Where Were the Sinners?

With the exception of Alistair Begg’s opening remarks, there was essentially no mention of the fallen state of man, his sinful nature, his absolute need for salvation, or the sin-corrupted nature of his reasoning and resolve. Problems in marriage were ­presented simply as errors of technique, and the ultimate goal in marriage was presented as sensual satisfaction. Conflict in marriage was not presented as the expected result of individual sin in a marriage partner. There was no suggestion of: “From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not (James 4:1,2).

There was no mention of the need for confession of sin, repentance, forgiveness, or bearing with one another. The attendees were assumed to be good people making errors in marriage due to ignorance of proper technique.

“I still Do” was sold as a Christian ­conference for Christian couples. Although there was initial reference to the importance of faith and salvation, one speaker after ­another made it clear that the real value of Christianity was its pragmatic use as a step ­toward the higher goal of a happy marriage. This kind of thinking is common and seemingly acceptable in Christianity today. ­Forgiveness is valuable because it reduces blood pressure. Families that pray together stay together and supposedly have fewer children in prison because they have stayed together. “Religiousness” is associated with “healthier” responses to disaster. God is ­presented as a means to an end in contrast to Scripture’s clear presentation of God as the beginning and the end. God was surely made for us, rather than us for Him (Colossians 1:16). Christianity is presented as “useful” and its value as practical. The Christian is seen as an eager consumer of the benefits of the Christian faith rather than as an eager servant loving that Redeemer who first loved him.

Who’s in Control Here? 

The emphasis on “I” was profound throughout the conference. Each individual husband and wife were assumed to be able to accomplish their assigned tasks to achieve a “happy marriage.” Failure was never attributed to the fallen nature, but rather to error in technique or to insufficient information and tools.

This was a “do it yourself” Christian couples conference. All of the speakers supported this approach to solving problems in marriage. The last three speakers made little or no reference to Scripture and drew their advice from popular counseling psychology. In so doing, they left the audience with the impression that God’s Word is insufficient for godliness in marriage and family. There was not a hint of II Peter 1:3-4 which says: “According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue: Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge.”

Nearly all the “tips and recommendation” were drawn from the world of psychology, motivational dynamics, conflict resolution theory, and the personal experience and fascinating anecdotes of the speakers. Even though the advice had a show of wisdom (Colossians 2:23), it lacked spiritual power necessary for real change. It would seem that the enthusiastic attendees were largely taken captive “through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Colossians 2:8). 

Scripture does not teach that righteousness comes about by self-effort. The process of sanctification is described as God working His will in our lives through the indwelling Holy Spirit, prayer, study of Scripture and fellowship with other believers. All is a response to Christ’s righteousness having been placed on us. “For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which ­effectually worketh also in you that believe” (1 Thes. 2:13).

Attendees were not pointed toward the Lord; they were pointed toward self and lists of things they should and supposedly could do. Righteousness was not considered to be an issue and was certainly not the goal. The attendees therefore left with lengthy lists, a diploma, and a sense of self-empowerment with the goal being a “happy marriage.”

What’s the Goal?

Passages like Ephesians 5:22-33, Colossians 3:18-21, and 1 Peter 3:1-7 tell believers what our conduct in marriage should be. But these are not lists of methods or techniques; they are fruits of the Spirit working within the believer. These are not skills that can be purchased from the psychological self-help marketplace. They come about as we are transformed by the Holy Spirit as we obediently and gratefully “seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God” and “mortify” [your] members which are upon the earth,” that part of our earthly nature that seeks self-gratification (Colossians 3:1, 5).

Throughout the conference there was ­repeated reference to the necessity of fulfilling “needs.” Attendees were encouraged to fulfill the needs of their spouses, but it seemed always for their own gain rather than for the glory of God. These “needs” were entirely romantic, erotic, and decidedly selfish. Scripture tells us that the real need for each one of us is the removal of the wrath of God resting upon us because of our sin (Philippians 3:8-16, Matthew 16:24-26, Luke 18:28-30). When atonement for sin has been made, we are then called to mortify (put to death) that part of us that seeks to gratify the self. A conference that validates psychology’s so-called hierarchy of needs contradicts the clear biblical truth that Christ came to redeem us from the enslavement to such “needs.” For before salvation we were all enslaved to “serving divers lusts and pleasures” (Titus 3:3).

In contrast to meeting so-called psychological needs, the Bible teaches us something quite different. “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works. These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority” (Titus 2:11-15).

The attendees were left with the impression that a “happy” marriage and a “strong” family are the ultimate goals of the Christian life. At no time were Christian couples encouraged to pour out their lives for anyone but themselves. With this kind of teaching from those we call Christian leaders, it should not be surprising that hospitality, neighborliness, and authentic witnessing to “strangers” has disappeared from the life of the church. Who has time for such when “date night,” “sex night,” “re-igniting the fire in the bedroom night,” “just sit on the couch looking at each other,” “quality time,” and “family night” increasingly fill the calendar of committed “I still Do”ers! The Word of God in complacency-jarring hyperbole teaches a different priority: “And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household” (Matthew 10:36); and “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).

An even more fundamental concern about conferences like “I still Do” is the message that God depends upon the methods and efforts of man to accomplish His purposes. Scripture teaches us repeatedly that when man turns to his own methods to accomplish even what he believes are God’s highest goals, his efforts are not only fruitless but are condemned by God. Abram’s attempt to fulfill God’s covenant via Hagar produced no godly fruit. Isaac prayed to the Lord for twenty years before a barren Rebekah became pregnant with Esau and Jacob. Meanwhile, Ishmael had already produced twelve sons. The Lord’s ways are not our ways. Joseph’s brothers tried to kill him; yet the names of those twelve boys from that dysfunctional family will be written on the gates of the eternal Jerusalem (Revelation 21:12). John the Baptist was born to a doubting old Zechariah and his barren old Elizabeth. God’s ways are not our ways.

Syncretism with the Baals and worship on the high places around the Asherah poles was a constant problem for the nation of ­Israel. When man turns from the Word of God, he still does turn toward some modern variant of these ancient fertility cults. Might God send another Elijah to say to the apostate church of today: “Is it because there is no God among the you that you are going off to consult the psychologists and the motivational speakers? Therefore, this is what the Lord says, ‘Thou shalt surely die!’” (II Kings 1:3,4). Scripture warns us that this is more serious to God than many wish to admit. “For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee” (Romans 11:21).

One of the few moments of this conference that presented a truly Christian message was the mention of J. Robertson McQuilkin sacrificially resigning his presidential position at Columbia Bible College to care personally for his wife diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. His is an inspiring story of husbandly devotion, but ironically, he is the same man who presented this statement to the Evangelical Theological Society in 1975: “In the next two decades, the greatest threat to biblical authority is the behavioral scientist, who would in all good conscience man the barricades to defend the front door against any theologian who would attack the inspiration and authority of Scripture, while all the while himself smuggling the content of Scripture out the back door through cultural or psychological interpretation.” 

(PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter, November-December 2002, Vol. 10, No. 6)