When many people think of North American Christianity, one of the first words that come to mind would be family. Part of that is good, necessary, and unavoidable for a church on mission. If we are going to disciple people, we must teach them to keep themselves from idols (1 John 5:21), and many of the idols of our age come under the rubric of allegedly freeing people from the “constraints” of family responsibility and even family definition. When the outside culture valorizes sexual promiscuity, gender confusion, a divorce culture, and the upending of marriage, then the church must work hard to articulate a different vision. There is a danger, though, that comes with any mission, and this one is no exception.
The outside world is interested in order and stability. In that sense, the world can see the value, in most cases, of “The Family” in a way that it would not see the value of, say, the doctrine of justification by faith. Churches can talk about the family, then, in ways that seem immediately relevant even to their most metaphysically disinterested neighbors. With the secularizing of Western culture, many churches find that their neighbors simply aren’t asking questions like “What will I say when God asks me, ‘Why should I let you into heaven?’ ” They find people are asking, “How can I find sexual fulfillment if I’m not married?” or “How can I stop arguing so much with my husband?” or “How can I relate to my kids during the teenage years?” For many churches, the family then becomes the point of contact with the outside world and the incentive for some to investigate the church in the first place. A church might not be equipped to talk about the problem of evil or the Trinity, but it can offer therapeutic tips on discipline, potty-training, or couples’ date nights to keep the sizzle in the marriage. Some of this focus is due to genuine missionary commitment; some is due to the marketing and entrepreneurial focus of so much of the North American church.
The bottom line is that many think “family values” immediately when they think “church.” To some degree that is positive and unavoidable, but often this categorization wrongly makes the family the fundamental point of contradiction between the church and the world. The gospel, though, doesn’t distinguish between “pro-family” and “anti-family” people so much as crucified and uncrucified people. A church that focuses on the family is in line with the Bible, but a church that puts families first is not.
Reading Jesus with Horror
As a matter of fact, a Christianity that puts family first will soon find itself uncomfortable with Jesus. If we were to hear the words Jesus spoke on the family coming from anyone else, we might quickly conclude that person is not one of us. Jesus taught, “Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). That part is uncontroversial among today’s Christians, largely because we don’t understand what Jesus is saying. First of all, we don’t, like Jesus’ contemporaries, walk down roads with the sight of people writhing in torture on actual crosses along the way. We see cross as a safe metaphor for spiritual devotion. Sometimes we see it as a metaphor for the stresses of life, the way an office-supply store manager once told me of yearly inventory as “my cross to bear.”
Jesus, though, was teaching specifically about the context of the family. “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,” he said (Luke 14:26). Most people would not want that as the theme verse of their church’s summer children’s camp, much less written in frosting on a wedding or anniversary cake. When we hear this verse referenced at all, the emphasis usually falls on what the verse does not say; we reassure people that “hate” does not mean hostility or disrespect but priority of affection.
That’s true enough and needs to be said. But regarding this verse, C. S. Lewis was, no doubt, correct in saying it is “profitable only to those who read it with horror.” As he put it, “The man who finds it easy enough to hate his father, the woman whose life is a long struggle not to hate her mother, had probably best keep clear of it.” Still, we rarely spend much time exploring what Jesus does mean, especially in light of the fact that this is hardly an isolated text. Why does Jesus make these shocking statements that seem to marginalize the family?
Jesus is the Prince of Peace, who told us that the peacemakers are blessed as the sons of God. He came to bring “on earth peace, good will toward men,” as the angels sang at his birth (Luke 2:14, KJV). And yet, Jesus said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. . . . I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household” (Matt. 10:34–36). This is not some obscure diversion from his main teaching, but the introduction to one of the most important sayings of Jesus on the cross-shaped life in a storm-tossed world: “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:38–39).
We see this manifested in how Jesus recruited his followers. To the man who said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father,” Jesus responded without any apparent empathy: “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:59–60). When another prospective disciple of Jesus asked to “say goodbye to my family,” Jesus would have nothing of it. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God,” he said (Luke 9:61–62). Again, if anyone but Jesus were to say this, it would sound at best harsh and at worst evil.
When training people to recognize cults, one of the first details explained is that a cult typically seeks to isolate people from their families. A group that tells new adherents to cut off contact with their mother or father or siblings is usually out to do harm. No wonder, then, that this is exactly how many in first-century Judea viewed the Jesus movement. When Jesus said, “Follow me,” the fishermen-apostles immediately dropped their nets and came with him. James and John, Mark recounted, stopped mending their nets and “left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him” (Mark 1:20). Jesus’ hearers would have understood this as a repudiation of the family. The fishermen walking away from their nets are not the equivalent of a modern person taking a job in another city. When they walked away from their nets, they were walking away from their inheritance. They were cutting themselves off from the heritage of their ancestors, who cultivated this business over probably many generations. They were also sacrificing the means of living for their future offspring, and their offspring, on down through unseen generations to come. This seemed not just shockingly anti-family but a violation of the God’s command to honor father and mother.
In fact, Jesus seemed out of step with the entire thrust of the Bible. The biblical story starts with a family—a man and a woman charged with being fruitful and multiplying across the face of the earth (Gen. 1:28). God’s promise was that he would make Abraham the “father of many nations” (Gen. 17:5), that his descendants would be as numerous as the sands of the shore and the stars of the sky (Gen. 15:5). God’s promise to David is that God would establish a royal dynasty for David, that one of his sons would sit on his throne forever (2 Sam. 7:4–17).
Jesus marginalized his own immediate family in ways that would be startling in any context and any culture. Indeed, for many, Jesus’ attitude toward natural family attachments might have been the most controversial thing about him. The horrified reaction of Jesus’ family and tribesmen is not crazy. He was going against something universal in human nature. Jesus hardly seemed to be a good family man.
But Jesus was no hypocrite. He not only taught these things but also lived them. He was never married and never had children. He seemed to disrespect at almost every turn his immediate and extended family. Once when Jesus was teaching, a woman in the crowd yelled out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you” (Luke 11:27). Jesus replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke: 11:28). When Jesus’ family stood outside one of his teaching venues asking to see him, Jesus responded with the words, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And answering himself he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:33–35).
What it boils down to, ultimately, is that Jesus did not make the family as important as his culture did. Ironically enough, this is how Jesus saved the family. We need not flinch when Jesus tells us that the one who follows him must “hate” mother and father, brothers and sisters. In the same breath, Jesus said that the one who follows him must hate also “even their own life” (Luke 14:26). Is Jesus mandating suicide upon conversion? Obviously not. Instead, he is putting one’s life in the context of the cross: “Whoever does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). In the economy of the kingdom, the way to find one’s life is to lose it (Mark 8:35). Likewise, the way to reclaim the family is to crucify our family values.
First the Kingdom, Then the Family
The dark powers would have us idolize ourselves and by extension our families, by which usually we mean the image we’ve cultivated of ourselves and our families. But if we receive family as a gift and not as the singular defining feature of our lives, then we are freed to love our families as they are, not as idealized extensions of ourselves. We need not force our families to conform to an image that only exists in our imaginations or resent them for falling short of our own idolatrous ideal.
Our grasping for security for our families is often a cover for our own self-exaltation, as when Saul lashed out at his son Jonathan for showing friendship with David: “For as long as the son of Jesse lives on the earth, neither you nor your kingdom shall be established” (1 Sam. 20:31). Most of us do not have literal monarchies to protect, but family can stand in for whatever idol we seek to guard—be it economic security or reputational acclaim.
If we seek first the kingdom, we are better able to seek the welfare of our families. If we love Jesus more than family, we are freed to love our families more than we ever would have otherwise. If we give up our suffocating grasp on our family—whether that’s our idyllic view of our family in the now, our nostalgia for the family of long ago, our scars from family wounds, or our worries for our family’s future—we are then free to be family, starting with our place in the new creation family of the church.
Family is a blessing, yes. But family is only a blessing if family is not first.
Russell Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. This article is adapted from his book, The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home (B&H).
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