Whether the American Church Really Idolizes Marriage and Motherhood – The Garrett Ashley Mullet Show
Is motherhood a woman’s highest calling? It is, according to someone Jen Oshman – author of Cultural Counterfeits – encountered at a baby shower a few years ago.
As she wrote in a blog post for Crossway.org on August 1st of this year, the statement hit her like a slap in the face. With one friend she had with her at the event being single but longing to be married, and another friend she had with her having struggled with fertility problems for years, Oshman briefly considered interrupting the event to set the record straight about how wrong that statement was.
But what do the Scriptures say? And how much weight should it really carry in our hearts and minds that Jen’s one friend was infertile, or that her other friend was single, or that Mrs. Oshman herself was so offended on their behalf? At the risk of seeming unfeeling, we should recognize that these are all entirely irrelevant to the objective question of whether motherhood is a woman’s highest calling.
Yet where subjectivity and emotions do matter here, I might add that however pertinent the feelings of Mrs. Oshman or her friends were in this situation, it was equally important whether the statement from the other lady at the baby shower was meant to be a slap on the cheek. Giving the benefit of the doubt, we could chalk it up as merely an uncareful and overly enthusiastic effort at celebrating the woman for whom the baby shower was being thrown. Furthermore, without answering that question of the intentions of the speaker, getting overly offended about the hyperbole itself seems similarly uncareful, and hardly a firm foundation for sallying forth into a meaningful exploration of the topic.
After all, the point of the baby shower – both while it was underway or in the car ride home, or in a blog post years later – wasn’t for Jen to grandstand. Therefore, I count it a good thing that she did not crash the party to confront the untruth.
But nor either was the point of the baby shower for the single and infertile friends of anyone to feel so inclusively and comprehensively equal to the married and pregnant woman for whom the baby shower was being thrown. The point of baby showers is to celebrate the mother and baby in question, and to come around them and support what is happening and about to happen. Anyone who thinks these events are about them or their friends just because they are in attendance should perhaps do some soul-searching.
But notice something key. Jen Oshman is not just saying the comment was careless or insensitive. No, she is introducing a critically important question in the premise of her blog post which I believe we need to grapple with here. Namely, has the American Church actually made marriage and motherhood into idols?
As an aside, and speaking personally for a moment, I do not just mildly dislike the tendency these days to call everything “an idol.” This has quickly become a major pet peeve of mine.
If someone can justify this trend and prove me wrong from the Scriptures that it is appropriate and in good taste, I am open to that. In the meantime, I hear more and more references to Christians valuing this, that, or the other thing more than some pastor or author wants them to, or in a way they don’t want them to. And rather than making their case diligently from relevant passages that deal specifically with the point in question, the pastor or author just throws whatever behavior, attitude, habit, or assertion they don’t like into a kind of theological junk drawer labeled ‘idolatry,’ then carry on as though that’s sufficient.
There are plenty of clear verses about not having any other gods before our God, after all. What’s more, this one even makes it to the top spot among the Ten Commandments.
Please do not misunderstand me. I have nothing against Mrs. Oshman personally. She is doubtless a kind, intelligent, tender-hearted sister in the Lord. But this broader trend which she follows and furthers here in her piece for Crossway of rushing to call things idols which are no idols is a bad way to make an argument in the Church. Moreover, it is unconvincing, and often manipulative in practice. And the more I think on it, the more I wonder if it even borders on bearing false witness against our brothers and sisters – calling them idolators when it might be better to say we think they are mistaken or being unwise. And a commandment against that also makes it into the Ten Commandments, albeit in the ninth place.
In any event, whether coming from men or women in ministry, either missionaries or pastors or their wives, we need to reel this in a bit. Let us do dig deeper.
If the American Church is being uncareful in its celebration and promotion of marriage and having children, bring the Scriptures to bear on that with clarity and precision – book, chapter, and verse. But talk of everything being idolatry whenever there is an imprecise statement or uncareful pendulum swing – it is overwrought. And it may even be a symptom of the latest iteration of the ancient errors of the Gnostics and Manicheans.
In point of fact, we are called in the Scriptures to be thankful and diligent stewards of the good gifts the Master has entrusted to us, and there is nothing inherently unspiritual or idolatrous about striving for material faithfulness and honor from that conviction, particularly given the totality of our current cultural problems which Mrs. Oshman is aware of and makes mention of.
But Jen Oshman says the American Church has been so busy fighting cultural counterfeits to Biblical ethics on sexuality and the family for decades that Christians in this country have lost sight of the value of singleness and childlessness. And I say that while that might be at least partially correct, and that Jen may have a point here, I hesitate to agree with her that singleness and childlessness are equally valuable, equally designed by God, and equally intended to marriage and having children.
Yes, we should value singleness and childlessness. Yes, all these things are under the watchful eye of an intentional and Sovereign God. But to proceed from saying these all can be gifts God gives to saying they are all designed by God seems an awkward way to frame it, particularly where our motives for saying such may have as much to do with flattering the culture as comforting and affirming our single and childless friends.
What I do not want to do is lean into current trends in broader culture which have always been about more than just free love and planning out if or when young folk wanted to be parents. And there are other notable features in broader American society over the past century which should come to mind as well here, besides just the Sexual Revolution and legalized abortion.
For instance, what bearing does the collective move toward participation trophies in children’s sports have here?
The move away from scored sports for children, with both winners and losers demonstrated and declared in sight of all in previous generations of sportsmanship, and the move toward participation trophies for all players regardless of skill, ability, or achievement – this should be factored in.
These all have been expressions of radical egalitarianism, and an excessive importance has been placed on self-esteem decontextualized and unmoored from objective achievement. Dare I say it, the subtle but pervasive influence of the kind of thinking inherent to participation trophies seems to me to be baked into the way Jen Oshman is asking us to reframe the way we believe, think, feel, speak, and act toward marriage and parenting in the American Church.
What Paul Said
Mercifully, we do not have to take anyone’s word for it that the Apostle Paul would not be pleased by our alleged devaluation of faithful singleness and childlessness. And we don’t have to speculate about what the Apostle Paul would or would not say because we have what he already did say in our Bibles.
1 Corinthians 7:1-7 – Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.
So there we have it. Marriage is a gift from God. Singleness is a gift from God. Yet just as surely, we should be encouraging every man and woman in our midst to get married because of the safeguard that provides against the temptation of sexual immorality.
Furthermore, Paul writes other things about motherhood which we can all freely confess are confusing and hard to understand, yet are nevertheless part of all Scripture breathed out by God and profitable.
1 Timothy 2:15 – Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.
Moreover, I think an additional question I would ask which Mrs. Oshman does not address is how we are defining “faithful singleness.”
Look at the statistics for the hundred years in America where marriage and birth rates are concerned, and tell me what percentage of the change year over year and decade over decade is due to individual Christians committing themselves to “faithful singleness.”
I dare say the share is negligible.
Would Mrs. Oshman say we American Christians should not factor such considerations into our thinking and messaging about marriage and motherhood when godless cultural trends are the leading causes of singleness and childlessness?
Would she say we have responded to shifts in culture amiss, assuming wrongly they represented godlessness and depravity when in actuality we just have so many more men and women with the character of the Apostle Paul?
To be clear, I cannot imagine myself ever uttering the phrase which triggered Jen Oshman – “Motherhood is a woman’s highest calling.” Though I can easily think of Bible verses from which someone might mistakenly get the idea, the statement uttered at the baby shower in question was neither careful nor precise. Anyone saying that is not rightly dividing the word of truth as they ought to. But we should gently correct them rather than extrapolating out an ill-suited critique of the American Church.
However, the trouble with the statement is not as Jen Oshman writes, that it’s a moral judgment. How could that be the thing about it?
I have to disagree with Mrs. Oshman here. We Christians absolutely must make moral judgments about marriage and motherhood for one simple reason – because God’s Word does. So let us do moralize marriage and motherhood.
Yet if what Jen means here is that we should not talk like married women are necessarily godlier than unmarried women, I agree. And if what she means is that we should not act as though mothers of many children are necessarily nobler or more honorable than mothers with no children or fewer, again I agree.
As a father of eight myself, I would never agree to someone saying parents with more children are less godly or wise the more kids they have; but neither is it reasonable to assume we are godlier just because we have more kids.
There is more to it than that, though. And it is not enough to say that getting married and having children is all the same compared with remaining unmarried or having no children on purpose. The how and the why are critically important in all the quadrants here.
Hierarchies in the Church
Yet Jen Oshman writes that it is problematic to moralize marriage and motherhood because doing so creates hierarchies in the American Church. And I find this puzzling. Hierarchies are not in and of themselves bad things, after all.
Moreover, Crossway and Jen Oshman clearly agree with me on this, otherwise they wouldn’t be telling us in her bio at the bottom of this blog post what they do.
“Jen Oshman has been in women’s ministry for over two decades as a missionary and pastor’s wife on three continents. She’s the mother of four daughters, the author of Enough about Me: Find Lasting Joy in the Age of Self, and the host of All Things, a podcast about cultural events and trends. Her family currently resides in Colorado, where they planted Redemption Parker, an Acts29 church.”
So then, I conclude that the real question is not whether it is ever appropriate to have hierarchies in the church. Rather, we ought to concern ourselves with whether we are giving greater honor to whom it is due based on their faithful service and good works. And besides that, on the other hand, we must take obedient care not to do anything out of vain and selfish ambition, and not to show partiality, and not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought.
Furthermore, I would respectfully suggest that Mrs. Oshman’s quoted friend here – who she says is single, a missionary, and “a spiritual mother to many” – is being lauded and honored for being a missionary and “a spiritual mother to many” in a way that comes off a bit self-contradictory based on what else Mrs. Oshman says in her post.
Or what will we say? If a woman is a physical as well as spiritual mother to her children, we should not honor her for it in the church, and this because Mrs. Oshman’s single and childless friends may feel excluded, embarrassed, or envious.
But Mrs. Oshman is free to give greater honor to her single friend because she is a missionary, or because she is “a spiritual mother to many”? How can that be acceptable but it is something for the American Church to be chided about if we honor mothers of many children who are physical as well as spiritual mothers to their children?
Therefore I conclude it must be proper to honor faithful and diligent mothers who have many children no less for their many children. And if being a wife and mother is a temporary role here on earth, therefore no basis for getting a sense of purpose and importance and self-worth, I respectfully submit that so is being a pastor’s wife specifically, or a missionary, or an author of books.
Respectfully, Jen Oshman could have just challenged the claim that motherhood is a woman’s highest calling by asking a simple question. “Where is that written?”
When the honest answer came back with either silence or a sheepish admission that it isn’t to be found precisely in God’s Word, Mrs. Oshman could have then proceeded to unpack what the Bible actually does say about marriage and motherhood.
Both are highly esteemed, and God’s people are called to honor, promote, and steward them diligently accordingly. Yet a warning to not go beyond the Biblical text in a hyperbolic way is entirely appropriate and needful in all directions.
Arguing the way Jen Oshman has at Crossway, however, the primary claim seems to be that single and childless women might be offended, or embarrassed, or jealous if we promote and celebrate marriage and motherhood too much. Therefore we should not honor too loudly or much something which not all women have.
This is a dangerous premise to argue from, if in fact that is the foundation of Mrs. Oshman’s complaint and chiding of the American Church as it seems to be.
Regardless Mrs. Oshman’s doubtless noble intentions to consider her friends, if we internalize that premise, the American Church might not honor marriage and motherhood at all, particularly as fewer young people want to ever get married, or are waiting a decade longer on purpose to do so, and when a record number of young people are voluntarily sterilizing themselves – getting vasectomies and hysterectomies – now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned and they will no longer have access to abortion in many Republican governed jurisdictions.
As it seems to me, the concerns Mrs. Oshman points out can be and are real problems to some extent in some pockets of the American Church. Yet just as surely, those same concerns also serve as strawmen after a fashion in more mainstream Progressive regions of this country. And I for one should hate for us to amplify the strawman as we excuse ourselves for not frying the objectively bigger fish we have culturally.
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