The following is Professor Joe Rigney’s contribution to Fragmented Families and the Silence of the Faithful: How Religious Leaders and Institutions Must Speak Up and Reach Out, a Symposium published by the Center of the American Experiment.
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“A City Set on a Hill Cannot be Hidden”
By Joe Rigney
Speaking to this symposium’s questions as a committed evangelical and addressing the members of my own tradition in particular, I ask, “What should evangelical leaders, institutions, and traditions do to strengthen marriage in a fragmented culture?” We ought to be the Bright City on a Hill that Jesus said we are. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14). What does this mean for us? I’d suggest two key features of this Bright City that are most relevant in our own day.
First, the Bright City, like all ancient cities, has walls. Cities of the ancient world had gates and fences and barriers to separate the world within from the world without. The Bright City is no different, and one of our chief aims today ought to be to repair the ruins of our own wall. In concrete terms, I believe it is necessary for the church to recover and utilize church discipline with respect to its own members. Expecting the broader culture to conform to God’s pattern for marriage when half the church is neck deep in sexual foolishness, father hunger, and unchecked divorce is a perfect example of putting carts before horses.
It’s impossible to uphold the value of marriage for the common good if our marriages and our families are in shambles. We cannot magnify the meaning of marriage if our own homes are being rent apart by brokenness and frustration, by bitterness and futility. Church discipline—by which I mean the church’s responsibility to preach the gospel, to teach obedience to the commands of Jesus, and to confront and address high-handed rebellion against those commands, up to and including removing unrepentant members from the body of Christ—is essential for the health and fruitfulness of Christ’s church. Without such discipline, the Bright City cannot help but grow dark.
Of course, exercising church discipline in this way would require some measure of courage. We live in a day when any censure or discipline for immoral behavior is met with furrowed brows and cries of “Who are you to judge?” Ostracism, at least when it comes to biblical faithfulness, is not in vogue. Yet the crying need of the hour is for church leaders and church members who embrace their God-given responsibility to testify to God’s design for the family by confronting philandering husbands, adulterous wives, absentee fathers, and wandering mothers with Christ’s call to repentance and the promise of glorious acceptance when genuine repentance occurs. Short of such courage, a compromised church will continue to bumble and stumble its way down the slippery slope paved by the sexual revolution.
Still, it’s not enough to have high walls around the City of God. Church history has known plenty of severe brethren who did little to arrest the brokenness and futility of their own day. We must remember why God has erected these walls around the Bright City in the first place: because he wants life to happen inside. As G.K. Chesterton reminded us, the chief aim of God’s structure and order is to give room for good things to run wild. God has put boundaries around marriage and family for the same reason that gardeners put fences around gardens: so that something glorious and delightful can grow.
Practically speaking, this means we must recover and embody the gladness of the gospel in our churches and families. There ought not be any scowling from the ramparts of the Bright City. This is the City that Joy built, the City that Joy bought, the City that Joy bled and died for, and that Joy must bubble up from the deep wells and water the garden. Then, and only then, can it flood the earth.
If we are to revive the moral imagination of this country, and especially of the young people who are the collateral damage of the sexual revolution, then our homes and our marriages and our families must be havens of life and joy and gratitude. Our words about the beauty and sanctity of marriage will be powerful and effective when those words flow out of strong, stable, happy families. Put simply, we need strong, sacrificial husbands who take responsibility for their capable, godly wives who joyfully submit to their strong, godly husbands, as they together seek gladly to spend themselves that their children may hope in God.
If this should happen, if our leaders and churches build the walls high around the City of God by faithfully disciplining according to the word of the living God, and if glad tidings of great joy are sung and lived from every hearth and home in the Bright City, then shall come to pass the rest of the words of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. Then, our light, the light of the Bright City, will shine before men. Then, they will see our good works—our merry marriages, our glad-hearted homes, our Christ exalting churches—and they will join us in the Bright City, and together we will glorify our great and glad Father in heaven.
Joe Rigney is assistant professor of theology and Christian worldview at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis.