Over the last several years, I have watched people as they relate to “family.” By the word in quotes, you can expect that there is much more to this word than a simple definition implies. There is biological family, there are blended families, there are relationships that are more familial than technical family, and there is family as metaphor for intimate relationships, in general.
The Christian faith has a high view of the metaphorical “family.” We (I am aware of the presumption being made that I speak for all of Christianity!) speak respectfully and intensely about the importance of ‘the family of God.’ Both Jesus and his appointed successors used the term “brother” and “sister” with ease. And this was not as odd to the Roman culture at the time as you might suppose. There was a long cultural notion that everyone in a family is adopted in – no matter if you were blood or not. To be in the family was an active moment, not an accident of birth (as we tend to think of it).
Just to clarify, “Idolatry” (which I use in the title) is not merely an old-fashioned word. It is a very current issue, though most people do not use the term. “Idolatry” is the practice of placing anything above, or beside, God’s rightful place. For example, as only God is worthy of worship, worshipping a golden statue that is supposed to represent God is idolatry. As the idea was further developed in Christian scripture, idolatry was living as if anything (money, relationships, ambitions, possessions, desires, and so forth) was greater than God himself.
Speaking of relationships, let’s bring in “family.” Jesus himself seemed ambivalent about blood relationships. For those unfamiliar with Jesus’ story, the episode where he states that he values God’s spiritual family over his blood relatives is startling. The episode can be found in Matthew 12:46-50.
Yet Jesus valued his blood relatives and this is clearly shown in the interaction that he had with the Apostle John regarding Jesus’ mother, Mary. Essentially, assuring that Mary would be taken care of, Jesus seems to give her to John as his ward. You can find this interaction in John 19:26-27.
What is striking is that Jesus did not share the – dare I say it? – obsession with family that seems to have gained so much currency in the last few decades. The evangelical Christian movement has – rightly – recognized both the importance of family for society, as well as the actual decline of family, and has worked hard to strengthen family, marriage, and even sexual morality. And this is important – I personally am highly committed and invested in this work and share the movement’s aspirations.
However … there is a dark side to “family.” Family can become an idol, even and especially in the church. I remember attending an event for a Christian family close to us and listening to one of the children state publically, “We need to do everything we can to keep our family close. After all, family is everything!”
And that is where I respectfully and lovingly disagree. As a Christian, nothing is to displace God’s supremacy and centrality in our lives. The whole epistle to the Colossians can be summed up with the text, “Jesus is all.” If you are willing to sacrifice everything, literally everything, for the sake of family, then you are making a religious statement and engaging in the activity of worship. And the god is your family.
This is wrong.
Just to play with this more; what about churches who are very up front about being “Family Oriented,” or even “Family Centered?” As Jesus followers, aren’t we supposed to be Jesus-oriented or Jesus-centered?
OK, OK – I get it. I really do. Churches that are ‘family-oriented’ are not really displacing God with family loyalty. Are they? I hope not, but this is not always clear.
Christianity is occasionally not “family friendly.” Again, Jesus was not endorsing “blood is thicker than water” (nor the guru-esq ‘love, peace, tranquility’ stereotype) when he said: “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division… father against son … mother against daughter ….” (Luke 12:51-53).
It seems to me that Jesus preached a strong message, generally, against ‘fleshly,’ ‘worldly,’ and ‘established’ loyalties. In the case of family, Jesus seemed to say that if your blood family is contrary to God, you need to turn from them and toward God. This is, in practice, a Very Hard Thing for many people. Many people struggle to take Jesus at his word because they are so engrained into what they have always been told (and have come to believe) that “(Blood) Family is everything.”
But that is not a Christian notion. That is idolatry.
Where I have seen the pain of this counterfeit thinking is when a family abuses one of its members, but they will not seek help from loving, gracious, and mature Brothers or Sisters in Christ because, “we have to keep this in the family.”
BTW, this extends further, “Christian” or “spiritual” or “church” family is not everything, either. There can be idolatry in placing church above God – oh, yes, this happens a lot. In the Bible, there are times when people, deluding themselves into thinking they were serving God before family, actually disobeyed God by not living up to their family responsibilities (Mark 7:10-13; 1Timothy 5:8). And, of course there is the abuse that church family can heap on one of its members (I’m not talking about loving corrective discipline, I’m talking about clear abusive behavior). That is failure and sin.
At the end of this, my point is that God values natural families, but not above the healthy relationship we should all have with him. And for many, it is important to recognize that one’s spiritual family should overtake one’s loyalty to their natural family.