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Isn’t it interesting that Jesus rarely says anything affirming about the nuclear family?
You won’t catch Jesus asking Peter to have another child, or telling Thomas to get married, or inquiring about when Thaddeus will be “starting a family.” A biological family isn’t high on the priority list for the apostles either, or any of the women who bankrolled Jesus’ ministry.
The biological family, marriage, two kids and a labradoodle — these are footnotes in the New Testament Kingdom of God. Jesus reminds the Sadduccess, “At the resurrection people will neither marry, nor be given in marriage.”
When his mother and brothers are looking for him, Jesus says, “Who are my mother and my brothers? Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’ Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
Our biggest cultural idols are the ones so central to our lives we couldn’t even imagine fighting about them.
Can you imagine — on the floor of Synod — a heated debate about whether or not our church programming makes family into an idol, and if we might consider adding a footnote to the catechism to remind unmarried office bearers that Paul instructs them to marry only if they are burning with passion? To remind the middle-aged that their marriages won’t last forever (but giving to the poor will store up eternal treasure)?
I won’t pretend these reflections aren’t personal. All scripture reading begins with our present reality, and we sort things out from there. I am thirty-one, married, no kids, and have spent the week with people who will never have the shiny, straight Costco families that form the foundations we often set for living faithful, Christian lives.
If I were writing this at 4 AM after my gassy baby refuses to sleep, I might tell you how Jesus instructs us to provide for our immediate family (1 Timothy 5:8), how the church nursery needs some serious upgrades, and how I have learned Christ-like self-sacrifice from parenting a two-year-old.
These are beautiful things, and your nursery might need a fresh coat of paint, but God’s grace invites us to consider that family may not be the foundation of a flourishing society. Jesus knew the value of family, felt the love of a mother, lived the sacrifice of a brother, and yet cautions us toward mistaking a sliver of light for the whole sunrise.
When we root our primary belonging in Christ, Jesus hopes we see that the beautiful belonging we may derive from our biological family is a murky version of our truest belonging. And yet in a season where many feel we must defend our institutions from those who seem to question everything, relying on “family and freedom” feels familiar and safe.
We are invited into a much bigger truth: we are family in Christ. This is perhaps the least practiced Christian cliché, a teaching of Jesus’ that the church began to ignore from the very beginning. We’ve moved past gentile inclusion and sacrifice, but when it comes to Jesus’ reimagination of family, “the church generally softened, compromised, and finally abandoned his position altogether,” theologian Walter Wink asserts.
What might our communities look like if we didn’t believe the stability of our churches rested on the biological family? Perhaps more like the West Detroit ministry house I often join for Thursday Bible study. Some people come to this ministry house with suitcases of family baggage, past divorces, rocky relationships. Others come with relative family stability, but without an illusion that this is the gold standard for a stable Christian life. Rather, the faithful Christian life is marked by spiritual healing, patient transformation, and an open invitation to a tasty lunch. A little messier, yes, but this is a space where I feel like if I really — really — messed up, I’d still be welcomed.
I love my family. And I love families. There are few things as beautiful as being welcomed into the life of our friends with three energetic and imaginative kids, smiling as a seven-year-old shows me her six-foot-long stuffed caterpillar. We just can’t love ‘family’ more than we love God’s family. And I think that we do. The idea of it, the feel of it, the stability of it.
This does real damage. It’s single people sharing that Sunday morning church is the time when they feel most alone. It’s the woman who desperately needs a divorce to escape an abusive husband, but her pastor says no. It’s a 50-year-old who has chosen to be single and knows that every church member is assuming a million things about him, and they don’t realize he simply finds joy in loving his nieces and nephews, caring for neighbors, and living faithfully.
What might a society not based around the nuclear family look like? We might see fewer remote subdivisions and more high-density housing, one where neighbors and strangers live interdependently, where our kids would play with kids who didn’t look like us, where childcare was actually affordable, where fostering was assumed. Where young and unmarried single people could be taken seriously without marriage. Where spiritual aunts and uncles were cherished not as placeholders but as spiritual leaders.
Where the church — not entirely occupied with protecting or teaching or inviting biological families — had the collective wingspan to care for the poor, feed the hungry, and welcome the stranger.
Photo by Jessica Rockowitz on Unsplash
I don’t remember the translation I was reading but years ago I was convicted by Jonah 2:8 “those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs”
I realized i was holding up the “perfect” family as an idol.
Hi Barb, thank you for this! I love that–it reminds us that Jesus’ push against biological family as the bedrock of the Kingdom is also good news for the family — parents (across any or no religious affiliation in the US) experience an impossible exhaustion, with women experiencing the most wearying traps, from guidance on the perfect way to breastfeed, to maximizing career and time spent with children… if we could rest in Jesus’ assurance that families are just one part of a beautiful kingdom, and if that message got into our communal ethos, perhaps this could lead us toward the grace that family’s are often nearly forced to avoid by external pressures.
And thank you.
Amen! “Family and freedom” may be the biggest idols, next to wanton capitalism, in the US church. And if the Bible doesn’t really major in the nuclear family, it doesn’t seem to have much of a clue about our notions of “biblical” marriage.
Thank you, Nathan.
This is very thoughtful! I appreciate it greatly.
Thank you; my very own congregation has mostly single people… some by choice and many not… so why does our society idolize it so? we belittle each other in such a idolatry. Thank you for valuing each and every member of our great family of God.