(This is the second post in a series on the things that those of us in small (ish) towns often are tempted to give God-like significance and worship to. The intro post is here.)
To the Christian, family is a great thing and should be one of our highest priorities. We should fight for the health of our families, and be aware of the harm that idolizing work, ministry, and hobbies can bring to our families. Husbands and wives are called to love and serve one another and their families with selflessness. As Christians, we should be providing the watching world a picture of the God-designed goodness of what a family should be. Not a picture of perfection, but a picture of persevering conviction that the marriage and family God has called us to is good, and giving our time, energy, and devotion to it is good and God-honoring.
In a world with innumerable opportunities and temptations to put family on the back burner, this call is regularly needed.
However, there is an equal danger in elevating the priority of family too far. For years we’ve heard great calls for the priority of family. But just as morality has often been separated from the gospel and presented as an end in itself, perhaps the good of family has too often been preached as an end apart from the gospel and the kingdom of God. What was meant to be one important responsibility among others has been singled out as our main, or only responsibility.
As I said in the opening post in this series, one of the effects of idols is that they distort the appropriate devotion we ought to be giving to all other responsibilities and roles. Just as worship-like devotion to work, exercise, drinking, or gambling negatively impacts all of our relationships, especially family, so idolization of family negatively impacts the other relationships God has called us into.
And he has called us into other relationships. This is where some confusion sets in. We’ve heard that a correct ordering of relational priorities are God first, spouse and kids second, church family third, and then everyone else. But as a recent Christianity Today article pointed out, this ordering makes an unbiblical separation between God and church. Part of what it means to belong to Jesus is belonging to his family, with roles and responsibilities to our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Furthermore, how the above ordering of activities often plays out in our lives is that church relationships (let alone evangelistic relationships) almost universally take a back seat to familial relationships. We sacrifice everything for family, and rarely sacrifice as a family for the church. So we completely separate the spheres of God and ministry, maintaining that we’re devoted to the one, while neglecting the other.
But just as you can’t read the Bible without sensing the value God has assigned to familial roles—husbands, wives, parents, children—you also can’t get past the value the Bible assigns to our roles within the church. The idea of the church as a body with every part playing a valuable role in building up the whole body (1 Cor. 12-14) falls flat on its face if family relationships always trump family of God relationships. As Christians, both areas—nuclear family and church family—call for our sacrifice and service, and neither one ought to mute the other.
For whatever reason, we’ve built our biblical canons around Matthew 15:3-6, where Jesus calls out the religious leaders for neglecting their families for the sake of religion, and haven’t even attempted to reconcile this with his word about true discipleship requiring us to submit our love and devotion to those closest to us–family and even our own selves—to our love and devotion to Christ (Mt. 10:34-39; Luke 14:26-27). Have you ever heard a sermon on “bearing your own cross” related to the cost of discipleship to our families? This is the context of the phrase in two of the gospels.
Or what about Jesus’ offensive reply when his family came looking for him: “Who are my mothers and my brothers?…whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” We start to wonder if Jesus missed the memo about focusing on the family (pun intended).
In fact, Jesus is getting right at the heart of our idolatry. He’s calling us out of our attempts to build our own little kingdoms that revolve around our families (or a host of other things), and into his much grander and glorious kingdom, which revolves around Him. This is what idolatry always does: it shrinks our vision. Our focus narrows and we get distracted from the big picture.
So what do we do? How do we navigate our responsibilities and roles within both our nuclear and church families? I’m not sure there are better words to describe this effort than a continual fight and struggle. It is much easier to abdicate our responsibility towards either our nuclear family or our church family, to sacrifice family for ministry or ministry for family. But Jesus’ statements mentioned above force us to keep pressing into both areas.
Our sacrifices and service to both church and family are good, God-honoring, and teeming with eternal significance. As we enter into this struggle, we communicate to our families that they exist for something greater and as part of something bigger; and we communicate to our churches that we are ready to love and serve the body as Christ has loved the church, because of how we’ve displayed it in our families.