For several years, I served in a church that was known for its commitment to world missions. Many of our college kids were called into full-time cross-cultural ministry, including a bright young man named Bill. The reaction of his parents, however, caught Bill by surprise. His family had supported missionaries financially, prayed for them, and even fed them Sunday lunch when they were on furlough from the field. But the idea of their son giving his life to overseas missions was too much for Bill’s parents. They wanted Bill to find steady employment and raise a nice Christian family—one that supports missions, of course—like they had.
Bill’s parents are hardly unique. American adults, according to a recent Barna study, are “most likely to point to their family as making up a significant part their personal identity.” Country and God come next. Christians are no exception; natural family has usurped God and his family as the primary identity marker for most church-goers.
Most of us prioritize our commitment to family above our commitment to the church. This is unfortunate, because the Bible offers us a different set of relational priorities.
Jesus: Pro- or Anti-Family?
Many Christians rightly say that God loves family. All throughout Scripture, families are given the task of rearing children in the Lord. Husbands and wives are commanded to be faithful to one another, and children to their parents. Paul writes that “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8).
Yet in the Gospels, we find a mixed bag of instructions about family. In some places, like Matthew 15:3–4, Jesus appears to be pro-family, questioning the Pharisees’ commitment to the fifth commandment to “honor your father and mother.” But in other places, he seems to be anti-family. For instance, in Luke he says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” (14:26).
While shocking to us, the meaning of Jesus’s statement in Luke would have been especially challenging to his first-century audience. Ancient Mediterranean society was a strong-group culture. The health and survival of the group took priority over the goals and desires of individual members. Loyalty to family constituted the most important relational virtue for persons in the New Testament world.
But following Jesus meant belonging to two families, a natural family and a faith family. Unlike his surrounding culture, what is most important to Jesus is faith family: “Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Matt. 12:46–50).
Jesus’ call to join a new family generates an unavoidable loyalty conflict. Which family do I now owe my ultimate loyalty?
Getting Our Priorities Straight
Most of us would rank our relationship priorities like this:
- My family
- God’s family (church)
But both Scripture and Christian history reinforce the idea that the family of God should rank higher than natural family. Jesus did not primarily call individuals into a private relationship with him. He calls us to join a movement, to become part of a new family. The notion that loyalty to God could somehow be separated from loyalty to God’s family would have been foreign to Jesus and the early Christians. As third-century theologian Cyprian of Carthage famously said, “He who does not have the church for his mother cannot have God for his Father.”