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.

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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:

  1. God
  2. My family
  3. God’s family (church)
  4. Others

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.”

Western evangelicals tend to think of Jesus as a personal spiritual trainer with whom we interact one-on-one, leading us to distinguish between loyalty to God and loyalty to God’s family. But for Jesus, the only way to relate to God is within the community of his family. Thus, Jesus’ relational priorities look something like this:

  1. God and his family
  2. My family
  3. Others

While this ranking is tough for most Western evangelicals to embrace, it makes better sense of Jesus’ “anti-family” statements. If God and his family take priority over our natural families, the problem of conflicting family loyalty is solved. Because Jesus lived in a culture where family loyalty reigned supreme, if he intended to establish a new faith family—one which would take priority over the natural family—he would obviously have to challenge natural family loyalty time and again during his earthly ministry. This is precisely what we find in the Gospels.

While our natural families are still the most significant earthly relationships we have, we must learn to situate our natural families under the overarching rubric of the family of God—not as distinct social entities competing for time and attention but as members of the same family.

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Formed by the Family

Jesus’ relationship priorities help us understand that the church—the family of God—is not here to serve the interests of our family, it’s preferences, desires, and needs. Rather, our families are here to serve the family of God.

Eric Hardie works in the toy industry in the Los Angeles area. Like most young couples, the Hardies have faced quite a challenge with the overpriced Southern California housing market. They finally settled on a home in a less-than-ideal neighborhood, where the school system is marginal (the Hardies have two daughters), and where the average price for a small single-family house is still about $400,000.

The family of God is not here to serve the interests of our family. Rather, our families are here to serve the family of God.

Several years ago, Hasbro, a multinational toy and board game company, offered Eric a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity that came with a significant salary increase. Hasbro’s headquarters are located in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where $200,000 buys a family a nice 3–4 bedroom home. The schools rate significantly higher than those in the Hardies’ current neighborhood, as well. A move to New England would have been a big win for the Hardie family. Most couples would have enthusiastically accepted the job and relocated their family.

Eric and his wife, Jeannie, declined the offer. The Hardies are deeply embedded in their church family and could not imagine life without the relationships they had cultivated during their years at Oceanside Christian Fellowship. And because of their long tenure, Eric and Jeannie are highly influential in the lives of others at OCF, both formally, in the areas of spiritual formation and the arts, and informally, in their day-to-day relationships with brothers and sisters in the church who have come to dearly love and respect the Hardies and their daughters.

While we may not be faced with a decision to relocate, many of us prioritize natural family in more subtle ways. We keep our families so busy that little time remains to develop the kinds of relationships God intends for his faith family. When we do this, we teach our kids the wrong relational priorities.

Brandon Cash, one of the pastors at my church, is a wise father of four children, ages 5 to 16. Brandon and his wife allow each child to participate in only one non-school, non-church activity at a time. The Cashes want their kids to have time each week to spend with their church family, even in informal settings, in order to develop meaningful relationships with Christians of all ages. The Cashes realize that Christian character is best developed by associating with others who love Jesus. We were made to thrive in the community of God’s family.

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For the Health of the Church

A return to early Christian relational priorities will not only enhance personal spiritual growth, but also will improve the health of the Western church in what has now become a post-Christian culture.

Many have lamented the mass exodus of Millennial Christians from the church in recent years (59% according to a 2011 Barna Group study). While everyone focuses on why so many Millennials leave the church, the reasons that the rest choose to stay are just as fascinating. According to a 2013 Barna study, “the most positive church experiences among Millennials are relational.” But not just any relationship will do. Intergenerational relationships topped the list of reasons young people remain connected to their faith communities. Those who stayed were twice as likely to have a close personal friendship with an adult in the church as those who left (compare 59% with 31%).

As Barna president David Kinnaman said,

Cultivating intergenerational relationships is one of the most important ways in which effective faith communities are developing flourishing faith in both young and old. In many churches, this means changing the metaphor from simply passing the baton to the next generation to a more functional, biblical picture of a body—that is, the entire community of faith, across the entire lifespan, working together to fulfill God’s purposes.

Seeing the family of God as our primary family will also lead to less privileging of marriage, parenting, and family dynamics, and a more robust theology of singleness and celibacy. According to the New Testament, the family of God—not marriage—is the primary community in which spiritual growth occurs. Among the early Christians, marriage and singleness were both subordinated to the overarching model of the church as a family and to an overarching passion to accept the Great Commission and win the world for Christ.

According to the New Testament, the family of God—not marriage—is the primary community in which spiritual growth occurs.

In the New Testament, mission, marriage, and singleness intersect most clearly in 1 Corinthians 7, where marriage is viewed as “a concession” to our physical desires (v. 6) and singleness is commended as the superior way to be “devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit” (v. 34). Paul even says, “It is good for a man not to marry,” because a single person, male or female, is “concerned about the Lord’s affairs” (v. 32).

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This is the only place in the Bible where singleness and marriage are evaluated side by side for their respective abilities to serve God, and Paul’s priorities look quite different from the priorities we see in most of our churches today.

If we don’t put the family of God first, we can stunt the ministry of the church by inadvertently ignoring members of our church family. Most adults will marry, but many will not. And those who do are marrying much later in life, often leaving a decade or more of single adulthood between adolescence and matrimony. There are also brothers and sisters among us who struggle with same-sex attraction. A Christian community that privileges the natural family over the family of God, and which extols marriage as the epitome of human relationships, has nothing to offer those who must commit to celibacy for a season—or even for a lifetime—in order to live in a manner pleasing to the Lord.

A biblical view of the church that places the family of God as the first relational priority situates both singleness and marriage under the overarching rubric of the family of God. It encourages singles and families from every background, young and old, to cultivate meaningful relationships with each another. And it mobilizes everyone in the community to use their gifts for the benefit of the Body of Christ to advance the gospel in a way that fits their current life situation.

God wants all of his children to grow up into “the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13), and our spiritual wellbeing depends upon rightly prioritized relationships. We need to learn to adopt Jesus’ relational priorities and put the family of God first.

Joseph H. Hellerman is Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Talbot School of Theology and author, most recently, of Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why It Matters Today (Kregel).