The Unequally Yoked Club: How Marriage Became a Cult in Toxic Christianity

The Unequally Yoked Club: How Marriage Became a Cult in Toxic Christianity July 5, 2018

Christians make a lot of claims about their religion. Some of those claims are supernatural in basis, of course, but many others are not. One of their most common non-supernatural claims centers around relationships. Put simply, a great many Christians believe that their rules governing relationships produce better relationships than any other set of rules can manage. Today, we’re going to look at why Christian leaders push so hard to get their flocks following rigid, unworkable rules about marriage. There’s a reason for it, of course. It isn’t a pretty reason. But it is absolutely key to understanding why Christians can’t quit their unworkable ideas about marriage.

(Forsaken Fotos, CC.)

A Deadly-Serious Culture War.

Toxic Christians in particular like to pretend that they own the entire idea of marriage. Sometimes they even act like nobody else is even allowed to have a marriage under any other terms but theirs. They definitely don’t want people thinking that it’s okay to conduct relationships using other rules besides their own.

Christian Courier flat-out declares that their rules for marriage are divine in origin and nature. As a result, people must follow those rules–or risk divorce. Worse, of course, they risk going to Hell:

If it is the case that marriage was designed and inaugurated by the Creator, then he has the authority to set the rules. Men and women do not have the right to treat this sacred human relationship in a cavalier, self-directed manner.

This sentiment is one of the few near-universal beliefs in toxic Christianity. Notice that phrasing about how “men and women do not have the right?” That wasn’t accidentally done. This crowd has a very poor understanding of human rights, especially as touching consent. Their entire world is built around authoritarian lines. If their god invented marriage, then humans aren’t allowed to conduct their marriages in any other way.

Turf War.

Because of that doctrinal belief, Christians try hard to shut atheists in particular out of a business they see as their property.

In Oregon in 2015, a legislative fight broke out precisely because Oregon law allows only for clergy to officiate marriage ceremonies (unless a couple just wanted the county clerk or judge to do it). An atheist couple didn’t want a religious person officiating their marriage, so they tried to change the law.

The vote on the amendment to the law, HB 3483, broke out along political lines that won’t surprise anybody. All the Democratic Representatives voted for it, while the House Republicans almost all opposed it. After passing the House, though, the bill died in the Senate. Apparently the matter ended there.

But Indiana did allow secular celebrants to officiate marriage–after a court battle decided by a federal judge.

Nor can we forget that most of toxic Christians’ opposition to baking cakes for same-sex weddings centers around their blithering, frothy-mouthed hatred of people who aren’t doing marriage the way they like best.

The Reason for the Season.

Christian leaders are quick to tell us why they think marriage belongs to them.

Marriage, you see, exists for one very important (if completely ad-hoc-sounding) reason.

John Piper, writing for Billy Graham’s website, informs us of “The True Purpose of Marriage.” To him, that purpose is the glorification of the Christian god. Seriously:

Marriage is not only from Him and through Him, it is also for Him. Marriage is designed by God to display His glory in a way that no other event or institution does.

He ends the post, “Marriage is meant by God to put that Gospel reality on display in the world.” So there you have it.

Piper’s opinion is echoed in a Cru site called Family Life:

The primary reason marriage is significant to God is because it is part of His ordained plan to provide the world with a picture of His love for men and women. Marriage becomes the means for married couples to demonstrate their love for God.

Got Questions dithers with more-conventional but less hardcore-sounding Christian answers to the question of the purpose of marriage. In their eyes, marriage exists to create a stable home for children, to make an example for those children to emulate, and of course to give spouses a safe perma-partner to do the Horizontal Bop with. But at the last minute, they settle down to a familiar refrain:

Finally, marriage is a beautiful picture of the relationship between Christ and His church.

Crosswalk goes much the same route, except in reverse. First and foremost, marriages “reflect God’s image.” (Second, that god wants Christian married couples to reproduce like wild.  Third, he wants them to rule the entire planet in his name.)

To Christian leaders, people serve the interests of marriage. Marriage doesn’t serve the interests of people. And people don’t just get to decide for themselves individually what marriage means to them. (So much for Mark 2:27!)

Going Pear-Shaped.

But a Christian couple’s marriage can only properly reflect their god if people observing them can tell that the marriage is strong, happy, and harmonious.

That’s where things go seriously pear-shaped in the Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game that is Christianity.

Christians think they’re inhabited by a real live god. They desperately crave to do that god’s bidding. They even generally believe that eternal torture awaits anybody not compliant with that will. Of all people, they should find marriage easy. Their god puts people together–Tra la la! There they go! Just like Lego bricks! And then those two have a god inside them to help out.

It doesn’t even take a god to tell someone how to be a passionate spouse. The Love Song for Shu-Sin, an Akkadian love-poem written around 2000 BCE, managed the trick many centuries before the Song of Solomon came along.

On paper, then, we’d be well within our rights to expect Christians to do considerably better than non-Christians at doing marriage well.

But that’s exactly what doesn’t happen.

The Kodak Marriage, Redux.

Christian couples do not intuitively and supernaturally know how to marriage properly. That much is obvious. Their relationships regularly combust spectacularly. Even their clergy can’t avoid marital meltdowns of all kinds, up to and including the sort of tragic conflagration that ends with betrayal and bloodshed.

To create the appearance of happy marriages, then, Christian leaders created rigid rules for marriage.

If couples follow the rules, those leaders promise, they’ll have lifelong, happy, harmonious marriages–though sure, they might have the occasional knock-down, drag-out screaming match.1 By contrast, if they ignore Christian leaders’ rules, their marriages will detonate.

Indeed, Focus on the Family (FoF) tells us that “applying biblical principles to marriage will give us a stronger foundation than those of our unbelieving friends and neighbors.” The writer of that post, Carol Heffernan, offers no evidence to support such an astonishing, easily-testable claim. She simply takes the matter as self-evident–and she knows the site’s readers will do the same.

(Cory Doctorow, CC-SA.)

Literally Nobody Ever Actually Wishes For This.

Christians simply take for granted that married TRUE CHRISTIANS™ will always have wonderful marriages, and that they will have them because they are zealously following their god’s rules for marriage. Any Christians whose marriages fail are, therefore, not following the rules correctly or fervently enough.

In fact, this trope shows up in one of Thom Rainer’s more cringeworthy blog posts (which I snarked thoroughly here). In the post, he has a non-Christian pining for the happy family life of a TRUE CHRISTIAN™:

I wish I could learn to be a better husband, wife, dad, mom, etc.,from a Christian. “My wife is threatening to divorce me, and I think she means it this time. My neighbor is a Christian, and he seems to have it together. I am swallowing my pride and asking him to help me.”

Shyeah, right–NOT. For those of us who’ve tangled with marriage in that world, Thom Rainer’s description sounds like pure fantasy–and not even really good fantasy. I’ve seen lots of fantasy worlds that made more sense and seemed more realistic than anything contained within that short paragraph!2

Because of the nature of the rules pushed upon Christian spouses, Christian marriages certainly might seem lovely. But in reality, they are as uninhabitable as a bad fantasy setting.

A Cookie-Cutter Marriage.

So Christian leaders teach their flocks that their god invented marriage (which would be news to the ancient Mesopotamians, among others), so he literally owns the entire concept. Then they teach their flocks that he wants people to marry so that everyone will see his reflection in those relationships. Then they tell their flocks that their god devised a certain set of universal rules about marriage that will consistently, reliably produce that reflection.

And then these leaders tell their flocks that these rules are not only the only valid set of rules for marriage, but that they are also completely non-negotiable.

To add insult to injury, these leaders then teach their flocks that following these rules will ensure that the marriage is happy, harmonious, and lasting. They teach that Christian marriages are happy, while non-Christian ones are miserable–all because of the couple’s level of adherence to the ruleset.

These leaders insist that a couple that sets up rules and parameters for themselves is doing the most dangerous thing a couple can possibly ever do.

I used to wonder why on earth Christian leaders pushed their flocks to marry so young.

I don’t wonder anymore.

Only young people, with so much less experience with relationships in the real world and so cloistered away from reality in the Christian bubble, could ever fall for such obvious nonsense.

And now, Christian leaders can’t count anymore on their youngest members’ inexperience–or gullibility.

Wow, That’s a Lot of People Not Following the Rules.

But all of these leaders’ claims rise to the level of testability. We can actually look at divorce rates, domestic violence rates, and more to see exactly how strong Christian marriages are, compared to those of non-Christians.

What we discover, when we look at Christian-dominated areas, is that their ruleset fails miserably at its stated goal. Christians do not have happier marriages, nor longer-lasting ones, nor even safer ones. We can see that easily, thanks to the magic of the internet. There, we can find thousands upon thousands of websites all trying to tell Christians how to deal with deeply-unhappy marriages.

As you review the following declarations, remember that these writers belong to a religion whose members believe that a real live god lives inside them and tells them what to do. I think they’d rather we all forgot that detail.

But we’re going to remember it.

The Unhappy-Marriage Carousel Line Starts Here.

Cornerstone Marriage & Family Ministries simply tells unhappy Christians that their magical invisible friend can fix any unhappy marriage. They advertise their services, then offer up some anecdotal (and totally anonymous) testimonies to support their claims of effectiveness.

Got Questions thinks that no matter how unhappy Christians are in their marriages, their magical invisible friend said that divorce is not an option. But through Jesus Powerany unhappy marriage can be fixed. See, the real problem is that Christians don’t Jesus hard enough. If they Jesus hard enough by following all the right rules, then they’ll be happy. People are only unhappy because they refuse to follow the rules.

Crosswalk has to tiptoe around the spectre of domestic violence, but takes a similar tack. “God hates divorce,” they tell the woman writing to them who is wondering if she should commit adultery with a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ and/or divorce a verbally-abusive husband she’s growing to fear. She should ask her magical invisible friend “earnestly” for advice and strength.

Today’s Christian Woman advises women trapped in unhappy marriages to stop trying to find happiness within their primary relationship. Instead, they should rely on their magical invisible friend to make them happy! Such women also need to redefine happiness itself by lowering the bar for it, and stop wanting happiness itself.

I guess all of these women are simply willfully ignoring rules that they’ve been taught since birth work flawlessly and infallibly to produce good results, as long as both partners Jesus super-hard.

All these women must be silly! Or wait. Maybe….

Where the Ruleset Succeeds: Unstated Goals Edition.

Maybe they’re not silly.

They simply find themselves trapped in a completely untenable situation–as Kay Warren did after marrying Rick Warren, and as Grace Driscoll similarly discovered after marrying Marky Mark, and as I did after marrying Biff.

Maybe their leaders stripped all of these women’s power from them, handed that power to the men in their culture, asked those men to pinkie-promise to be good little boys with all that undeserved power, and then never got around to following up on those promises.

Why bother checking up on them, though? It’s not like those leaders planned to do anything when–not if–someone wasn’t living up to the social contract that benefits men so richly in that culture.

Men face no requirements at all to behave according to the rules laid down by their leaders. Nobody will censure them, nor strip power from them. They won’t face criticism from the tribe–not unless they break secular laws somehow. Even then, nothing’s certain.

And In This Corner…

But Christian women must follow the social contract regardless.

No matter how unjust or even cruel her marriage might be, she still must follow the rules. If she doesn’t, she faces not only criticism, but serious censure. Her tribe might even ostracize her. She stands to lose everything if she breaks those rules.

That’s because those rules aren’t there to help her or protect her, any more than they exist to reflect the glory of a nonexistent deity. We can tell this because they don’t accomplish either of those goals.

They exist to benefit the men in her culture. The rules promise men unilateral, uncontested power over women.

And at that unstated function, Christian marriage rules work flawlessly and consistently. They work, in fact, as long as Christian women put up with the injustices laid upon them by men who do not have their best interests at heart.

If space aliens saw how Christians conduct marriage, and the rules Christian women in particular labor under, they would instantly perceive that Christian marriages are designed to transfer power from women to men–and to keep that reassigned power in men’s hands no matter what those men do.

Irony: They’re Soaking In It.

In a nutshell, toxic Christians’ authoritarian streak informs their vision of the ideal marriage. However, it also forms the reason why so many TRUE CHRISTIANS™ end up divorced. In fact, here’s FoF weighing in on how divorces happen:

“If happiness is our primary goal, we’ll get a divorce as soon as happiness seems to wane,” [Gary] Thomas says. “If receiving love is our primary goal, we’ll dump our spouse as soon as they seem to be less attentive. But if we marry for the glory of God, to model His love and commitment to our children, and to reveal His witness to the world, divorce makes no sense.”

Yeah, that’s exactly why Christians don’t seek divorces. Mm-hmm. Yep.

Little wonder most Christian marriage advice appears to exist to keep women busily dancing–and to keep them from questioning, much less leaving, marriages that serve men’s interests so well.

Here’s Why Christians Fight This Culture War So Hard.

The most toxic religious zealots of our age want to own marriage. Along with it, they want to own how people conduct themselves within their own marriages. A great deal of personal power is at stake here.

However, they can’t seize that power unless people grant them control. So they must successfully sell the idea that they know how to marriage better than anybody else. Their flocks must show the truth of their exalted, divine wisdom in their own daily lived realities. Their marriages must dazzle the people standing outside the sheep’s grazing fields.

However, Christian married couples sure ain’t dazzling anybody through sheer Jesus Power. Either Jesus Power is purely imaginary, or Jesus simply isn’t interested in helping his beloved children make sales through the witness of their exemplary marriages.

What to do, what to do…

Door #1? Or Door #2?

Faced with these serious challenges, Christian leaders had two choices before them, back when they were just beginning to enter their culture-war phase.

Behind Door #1, they could admit that Jesus wasn’t helping anybody marriage better. They could adopt guidelines that were humane and that affirmed human dignity and self-determination. Using objective, measurable observations and testing, they could then seek to find reality-based ways to help their members pick good spouses–and to stay together in joy and love for the long haul.

Door #1 didn’t lead to easy answers or quick fixes. But it opened into a lush world of possibilities.

Behind Door #2, they could instead drill down on appearance-based rules based upon absolutely irrelevant behaviors and thought processes. Those rules would then become idolized and sacred in their own right. The tribe’s dominant group would claw, kick, and scream bloody murder to maintain its dominance. Meanwhile, the other group, subjugated and oppressed, would be obligated (if they wished to remain in the tribe) to endure countless degradations and dehumanizations. If that second group ever sought equality and justice, no matter how sweetly or tentatively, then they would be demonized, vilified, and blamed for their religion’s drop in sales.

Behind Door #2, a very dysfunctional world beckoned. In that unhappy land, Christians would plunge into a carnival world of deceit and masks. It was a world where the goals were all that mattered.

It’s pretty obvious which route Christians went.

As a consequence, every married couple in toxic Christianity must make a decision that nobody should ever have to make. Will they continue to idolize the rules? Or will they forge their own, in effect courting disaster?

(Frédéric BISSON, CC.)

Hard Yokes, Heavy Burdens.

I wanted to start our next foray into the Unequally Yoked Club here because this is where the dysfunction begins in Christian marriages. Christian leaders need everybody to be dancing to their tune regarding marriage. And they need people to be so focused on impossible, inhuman rules that they don’t wonder why these idjits appointed themselves king.

If the flocks know that people do marriage just fine outside of Christian restrictions and rules, these leaders know their days as rulers are numbered.

I talk about genies escaping bottles a lot, because that is one way to look at situations like this one. In this case, though, the situation might be even more like what happens when a bully has finally gotten a serious comeuppance in a schoolyard.

NEXT UP: We’re going to look at terrible Christian marriage advice. Lemme tell ya, I’ve been there. Biff got quite possibly the worst advice imaginable during our marriage, and I got the stinky end of the flavor stick every time he tried to follow it. See you soon!


Endnotes.

1 It is downright shocking to me now to consider now what I used to think was perfectly normal in marriage relationships. In retrospect, it’s a marvel that my first marriage lasted as long as it did. If I’d realized that healthy relationships don’t involve constant conflict, or that it wasn’t actually healthy to always feel put-upon, taken advantage of, or absolutely beyond enraged, I’d never have married Biff in the first place. I try not to let it bother me.

2 I pointedly do not include Middle-Earth. For many years, I helped run an online game based upon the setting of The Lord of the Rings (LOTR). I can tell you for a 100% certainty that while yes, the setting is lyrical and evocative, it is not designed for characters to live in. Our biggest headache was translating that canon into a liveable game setting for roleplay! Middle-Earth–along with Tolkien’s buddy’s setting of Narnia–simply don’t work. Then again, they were Christians like Thom Rainer is. It’s hard for me to see any fantasy show or book and not think about how I’d turn its main location into a start town for players.

(“Start town” is a roleplaying term. Players begin play there, and will often return to buy and sell goods, rest, and find their next plot hook. It can be a huge city or a tiny little hamlet. Whatever its size, it will be fairly safe.)

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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. You can read more about the author here.
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