Last Tuesday I wrote about a Christian book on romance that isn’t about dating or marriage, and I ended my summary of its ethic for unrequited love (how to love someone when romantic love isn’t mutual) by noting how Smit frames this ethic by first constructing a “Theology of Romance.” Catch up on Part One: “The Ethics of Unrequited Love.” So, I’ve done this writeup of Smit’s book, Loves Me, Loves Me Not: The Ethics of Unrequited Love, in reverse, writing about the first half second and the second half first. I did that because the “Ethics of Requited Love” chapters are the juiciest and most practical. This week, we will look at Smit’s meaty Theology of Romance.
A Theology of Romance
Smit begins LMLMN with a “Theology of Romance” that details God’s nature as love, God’s creational designs, sin’s effect on those designs, and finally, virtuous and vicious romance: how sin distorts God’s intentions for love and how we can live virtuously by reshaping our romantic lives through Christ to God’s creational design. Smit centers her theology of romance on New Testament teachings on marriage, family, and singleness that many Christians, myself included, have successfully avoided.
Smit notes the importance of pouring a new understanding of marriage and family into new wineskins. In Matthew chapter 19, Jesus makes this astonishing statement: “For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it” (v. 12). And shortly after that, in response to the Sadducees, Jesus declares, “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30).
Jesus also asserts that the way we think about family changes when he enters the scene. Jesus is teaching, and his biological family interrupts him, expecting that they deserve Jesus’ attention more than the crowd does. And it was natural for them to expect this. But again, Jesus turns social expectation on its head, responding, “‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Matt. 12:48-50).
Jesus seems to be saying marriage is not ultimate; only the union between Christ and his Church is ultimate. He is also saying our biological families are not ultimate; but rather the family of faith. Saying all this about marriage and family was a big deal. In Jesus’ day, everyone’s number one loyalty was to his or her biological family, people who were married were higher on the social ladder than those who were not, and couples who had children (well, sons) were even higher. Christ came and changed our primary loyalties, proclaiming that the only members of society who are valuable to God’s kingdom are those who do God’s will, regardless of their social status.
Smit puts it this way:
Our primary loyalties shift when we come into contact with Jesus. Whereas in the Old Testament the family was one’s primary loyalty, Jesus redefines this, saying, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt. 12:50). Jesus is our family now and the community of faith is our primary social commitment. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son and daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:37-39). Jesus insists that his followers live sacrificial lives that will make little sense in the eyes of the world.
By looking into these passages of Scripture, Smit is asking us to consider: Should Jesus’ teachings change the emphasis most Christians place on marriage and family? Think for a moment about the political implications for the Religious Right. Marriage and family concerns wouldn’t cease to exist, but would rather exist within a broader context, under a farther-reaching banner. What might such a banner look like? Let’s look again at Smit. She posits:
If all Christians everywhere were to take [seriously Jesus’ teaching that marriage is not ultimate], stop getting married, and stop having children, perhaps the church would start to grow through evangelism rather than through procreation. In this case, the church would be a blessing to the nations, just as we are supposed to be, with most of our nurturing energy going outside our own community. Finally, if we actually converted everyone in the world, and everyone in the world then embraced continent singleness so that no children were being born (a rather unlikely scenario), wouldn’t that mean it was time for Jesus to come again? All Christians are supposed to be longing for his second coming and doing everything possible to bring it about.
What a bold statement! Don’t worry, in the very next lines she says,
I do not believe that all Christians need to be single [or stop having children], but all Christians must come to terms with Jesus’ teaching that marriage is not ultimate. Taking [this] teaching seriously will change how we think about the possibility of marriage in our own life and how we treat people around us – particularly within the church – who are single.
I think it important to note that throughout her entire book, Smit never once devalues marriage or children—particularly within the church. And that is part of the point. Jesus came and demolished value hierarchies society had placed upon people. The apostle Paul states that this is to be the case particularly within the church: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
Marriage and children and sex and singleness and abstinence and romance each offer valuable life-pictures that teach the church about who God is and our relationship with him. Loves Me, Loves Me Not contains some powerful exhortations for the church that I appreciate on two levels: one, Smit forces readers to think seriously about New Testament teachings on marriage, family, and singleness; and two, she gives singles in the church a voice, in part simply by writing a book that addresses the lives of unmarried folk in a thought-provoking, holistic, and meaningful way.
If my brief look into the book has sparked your interest, and if you want the specific, and I think rather good, suggestions Smit makes as to how we can pursue loving virtue in our relationships, be sure to pick up a copy of this singular book.