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The Metaphor of Church as Spouse, Membership as Marriage

September 2, 2015

There often goes this idea that I one should regard the church as a spouse, and one’s membership in the church is analogous to a marriage.

This idea has been put forth frequently, and I think for relatively good reason. I mean, the scriptures frequently have as running theme the motif of marriage: Israel is the often unfaithful bride of God; the Christian church is seen as bride of Christ.

Yet, this idea seems to come about most commonly in a Mormon context as an instructive analogy to discuss how people should and should not engage with the church, and how people should and should not discuss the church — especially to others. Most notably, this analogy is used to proscribe (or at least, strongly discourage) public criticisms of the church. I do not want to highlight every blog that I’ve seen approach, but I feel that if you have been around conservative Mormon bloggers, then you probably have seen it once or twice already. Instead, I’ll just highlight one particularly recent post as representative of them all: Nate Oman’s Covenant and Speech at Times and Seasons. As he writes:

…If we take the metaphor of marriage seriously as a model for covenants, then it should have an impact on how one speaks and thinks about the Church. Imagine that I subjected my wife to a constant stream of public criticism. It is easy to see how such criticism could be corrosive to one’s marriage, even if it was all entirely merited. My wife might be hurt by such criticism, but even if she was not, the speech could well change my own attitude toward her. Indeed, even if I did not vocalize the criticisms, a mental habit of constantly dwelling on her faults and misdeeds could be equally corrosive of our relationship. Rather, in a healthy marriage, I think that one cultivates a habitual tendency to accentuate the virtues of one’s spouse and treat their failings with charity and – as often as not – discrete silence.

Marriage as a model of proper speech is diametrically opposed to the dominant model provided by our society, namely the marketplace of ideas in a liberal democracy. This is a model that also imposes obligations on how we are to speak. In a democracy, we are to speak truthfully, fearlessly, and critically. Norms that seeks to circumscribe speech are inherently suspect, associated as they are with tyranny and authoritarianism. From the vigorous give-and-take of ideas emerges a world of greater truth and greater accountability for those who wield power, in short a better world. Notice that in this model, habits of affection play no role. Indeed, such habits are generally conceptualized as prejudices and condemned. The failure to vocalize one’s criticisms out of affection is to be a bad citizen, to undermine the social process of the intellectual marketplace.

In just this quote, several ideas percolate.

Just to speak to his comments on marriage specifically, there are two main themes:

  1. Public criticism of spouses is not healthy to marriage
  2. Even unspoken criticism of spouses is not healthy to marriage, so one should focus and emphasize on positive aspects of one’s spouse

To an extent, there is certainly good research for these points. Harvard Business Review has taken research from healthy marriages and applied it broadly to businesses, organizations and teams that successful marriages, teams, and organizations are associated with a ratio of 5 compliments for every criticism. Now, certainly the questions about correlation vs causation are relevant (do the successful teams and marriages make more compliments because there are already more things to compliment, or do they compliment first, which drives success and stability?), but it’s certainly a reasonable hypothesis to believe that if you can just cultivate the habit of making more compliments, then things will probably go more smoothly.

But the HBR article says something else. I will get to that later, though.

The second thing from the quotation I selected from Nate’s article is this idea I saw first from Jeff G from New Cool Thang — the distillation of criticism as a product of a liberal/democratic worldiew (or, culture of critical discourse). There is this idea that all of this criticism that people are making from the church (and that people feel justified in making in public spaces) is really an intrusion from a different worldview and that, if we could challenge the underlying assumptions therein, then we could stifle criticisms and restore faith. One does not simply lose one’s testimony, Jeff titles one of his posts.

However, the thing I want to discuss today is how even as people make this marriage metaphor as if it’s a slam dunk against criticism, there are some big difficulties in analogizing that to the church (or, alternatively, there are some big differences between how a lot of people are going to idealize marriage vs how the analogy requires people to see it. [And, as I will go further, I will state that the latter is perhaps not surprising.])

So, first, let’s accept that one probably shouldn’t talk about one’s spouse in public. Let’s accept that one probably should accentuate the positives in one’s reflection of one’s spouse rather than nitpicking for negatives. Let’s accept these two things.

What’s the problem, then?

Why the Marriage Analogy Fails

The problem is that marriage also has other expectations. There are also other factors in successful marriages. And again, I’m not the first person to write about this, but since I couldn’t readily find the several articles I had read that addressed this (although, to be fair, I only tried cursory google searches for people I thought may have covered the subject once or twice), I wanted to put things out here again just so there can be +1 article addressing this.

But here it is: Healthy marriages involve two-way communication. Healthy marriages involve a responsiveness to the two-way communication.

These two things are not found in the church, however, and thus, the marriage analogy, and its cascade of assertions that follow from those premises, are jeopardized.

In a healthy marriage, yes, one doesn’t air one’s dirty laundry, but one is still expected to be able to talk about the dirty laundry internally. But what if this is not possible? Or what if, even if one can say something about the dirty laundry, one spouse is never responsive to anything said? What if one spouse expects that they can make demands of the other, but the other can never counter, challenge, make demands or even requests or suggestions back?

This is what the church feels like to a lot of people.

And getting back Harvard Business Review Article, when they talk about the 5-to-1 compliment/complaint ratio, what do they also say?

So, while a little negative feedback apparently goes a long way, it is an essential part of the mix. Why is that? First, because of its ability to grab someone’s attention. Think of it as a whack on the side of the head. Second, certainly, negative feedback guards against complacency and groupthink.

And third, our own research shows, it helps leaders overcome serious weaknesses…

…But clearly those benefits come with serious costs or the amount of negative feedback that leads to high performance would be higher. Negative feedback is important when we’re heading over a cliff to warn us that we’d really better stop doing something horrible or start doing something we’re not doing right away. But even the most well-intentioned criticism can rupture relationships and undermine self-confidence and initiative. It can change behavior, certainly, but it doesn’t cause people to put forth their best efforts.

Negative feedback is a sword…this sword can motivate, and can be essential in certain dire situations…Sometimes a gangrenous limb must be chopped off (hopefully not with a sword…and I’m sincerely not trying to imply anything about the “body of Christ” metaphor here…) but swords are sharp nevertheless.

Different Views of Marriage

As I mentioned before, there are two potential problems with the metaphor. It could be that one’s relationship with the church just doesn’t fit the ideal of marriage, but the other possibility is that maybe people have very large differences in how they idealize marriage.

Something I have raised with Jeff G on several occasions is that his model of faith crisis as the “intrusion” of a competing value system, while reasonable, cannot account for where Mormonism’s value system begins and competing value systems end. Since Mormonism is not an insulated religion, Mormons go to school and work in communities with non-Mormons. So, it is difficult to imagine any Mormon could be raised with “pure” Mormon values — always, every Mormon’s worldview is a pastiche of Mormon ideas blended with non-Mormon ideas…and telling the difference is difficult.

For example, Jeff notes that that liberal/democracy is a foreign worldview that has crept into certain members’ Mormonisms…but couldn’t we say that certain politically conservative ideas or certain anti-democratic ideas are foreign worldviews that have crept into Mormonism as well — especially since the development of Mormonism’s super-white, super-conservative, all-American Leave-It-To-Beaver image is just that — a development.

Jeff has not been able to address this satisfactorily for me.

How this applies here is with marriage. We assume that there is a pure vision of “traditional marriage” — that we can then contrast to encroaches upon marriage (such as same-sex marriage). But I would counter that the idea of “traditional marriage” has morphed and evolved with social views over time anyway, such that talking about “traditional marriage” in 2015 is going to look very different than what it would have looked like 50 years ago or 100 years ago. And more importantly…most members — perhaps even some who would normally consider themselves supporters of traditional marriage, will not agree with those past definitions.

See…in my post, I have to admit that I have taken for granted that everyone agrees that healthy marriages involve two-way communication and responsiveness to that communication. But ultimately, I have to acknowledge that perhaps, some people don’t see this as part of the marriage ideal.

Perhaps the marriage metaphor to the church works because the church really preaches an idea of marriage that is patriarchal, not egalitarian or even complementarian. In other words, it’s not a problem if the beleaguered brides of Christ feel unheard, because that was not part of the ideal. It’s not a problem if the husband gives the orders, and the wife submits, because anything else is not part of the ideal.

If the church wants this to be the model for marriage, then fine. But then, can it institutionally at least be consistent about this instead of hedging?  Others have written about the history and evolution of the term “preside” in the church as it relates to women and men, where the church in more recent years has attempted to present as more equal. But if the church is really for a patriarchal model, then it should probably correct those who argue that really, women and men are “equal [albeit not the same] partners” in the home. And suffer the fallout of a generation who absolutely does not agree with the patriarchal model and never signed up for that.

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5 Comments
  1. I may have missed this idea when reading your post; however, I instantly think of the elements of an abusive relationship (marriage). Is one to stay silent if the perceived abuse and wrong doing of the spouse is not revealed in order to stop the abuse or to free oneself from the abusive marriage?

    Sometimes the abuse in a marriage can be healed, or taken care of, through private counseling; however, a number of relationships end in divorce because divorce may be what saves the abused individual’s life.

    How the X-spouse handles his/her grief, anger, hurt is different for everyone. Some determine that disclosing the abuse publicly may help others or at the very least will be an important part of their healing. Some may decide to leave the marriage and the angst behind by never speaking of it again. Some may still love their X and choose to highlight the positive for the benefit of the ‘children’ or the X spouse. There are as many scenarios as there are individuals.

    I can also see how the spouse who decides to stay in the marriage would become defensive and hurt when they see, hear or read about other people’s opinions of their chosen spouse. Their marriage, to that same spouse, may not be abusive to them. They may find that they thrive in that marriage. The way the person choosing to stay reacts also varies in so many ways. Some publicly defend their marriage, some silently support their marriage and some who feel abused choose to stay in order to try and make things better.

    Often times those that stay in the marriage want others to concede that their marriage is the only true relationship. They believe everyone should be in the covenant of this marriage. They ‘know’ that the only real path to happiness and freedom is to be in this marriage. Just as often, the person leaving the marriage wants everyone to experience the same freedoms and happiness that they have found outside of the boundaries of their former relationship. They ‘know’ that the path they chose is potentially better for everyone.

    • Victoria permalink

      A fascinating correlation!
      Abusive relationship recovery programs are the model used for recovery from cults. The abuser has all the power and authority, and any questioning, criticism or doubts about the abuser are met with more abuse to keep the victim in line with the abuser. Social abuse through pressure to conform is one of the biggest problems. But self identity through entity is the hardest to deal with, because the victims identify themselves as an aspect of the cult or abuser. Cults and abusers use the same psychological abuse to retain the submission of their victims.
      I’m sure you can google it, but there us a dissertation on the similarities between abusive personal relationships and abusive cult relationships. It’s very informative.

      • I think the challenge is that what many of us would call an abusive personal relationship is instead idealized as the “traditional patriarchal marriage” ideal. So, we risk labeling a wide swath of religious traditions (e.g., most politically or socially conservative ones) as being cults if we go with that.

  2. Jill,

    This definitely reveals the extent of the divide between the patriarchal model of marriage and the companionate model of marriage. In the patriarchal marriage (which is what I fear the church and others are using as the basis for the analogy), many kinds of abuse are dismissed or explained away (e.g., the father/husband has a great deal of leeway to do what he wants to the kids/wife.)

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