What if Jesus didn’t mean “family” the way that the church defines it?

Many middle-class, American churches tend to make one of their goals to share the gospel through reaching families. And this is good. We know stories of from around the world of one person from the family hearing the message of salvation, and bringing it home to their whole family, where everyone decides to follow Jesus. We also know how influential parents are on the faith development of their children (check out Christian Smith and Patricia Snell’s research in the book Souls in Transition). When our kids got dedicated (for my methodist friends, this is kinda like infant baptism but without the water), the church presented us with some awesome kid bibles because, they said, we were our child’s first evangelist. I wholeheartedly agree and am so thankful for this declaration. Finally, I love how some churches are moving towards integrated sunday school curriculum, and multi-generational sunday school so that parents and children can learn together, and have discussions later on over lunch about the lesson (check out Orange– a great family ministry).

BUT, could it be that, in other ways, the church has placed too much emphasis on the nuclear family? In the Scriptures, what does Jesus say, if anything, about the notion of nuclear family?

I was surprised to observe that there just isn’t a ton one way or the other (I mean, how many family-oriented sermons have you sat through, right?). Jesus upholds the idea of marriage (Hebrews 13:4), and especially for the context in which they were living, children would have probably be assumed. I’m comfortable saying that Jesus is happy for people to marry and have kids (although we do have the warning from Paul that marrying [and I would include having kids, but Paul doesn’t] will leave us with divided attention (1 Corinthians 7:32-35).

However, Jesus does say some things that would make us question some of our thoughts on the responsibilities of family.

  • He talks about how we must hate our mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and children for the sake of the gospel (Luke 14.26).
  • When Jesus calls one of the disciples and he replies that he needs to go bury his father (i.e. stick around and do what he needs to do to take care of his responsibilities to his father until and after he dies), Jesus told him no, that he needed to let the dead bury the dead (Matthew 8.21-22)
  • Jesus assured his disciples that there were eternal rewards for the sacrifices they were making for the gospel- material and familial (Mark 10.29-31).

What to make of all of this? We each have to wrestle and pray through these Scriptures, and through God’s desires for us and the community for which we are a part, but Will O’Brien in “Family Values” offers his ideas about what all this might mean:

In God’s reign, all persons are God’s precious children. We are all sisters and brothers. Everyone deserves the fullness of our love, the intentionality of our concern and care. We treat everyone has our family. Social or cultural systems that mediate against this vision are opposed to the reign of God, and we must, as disciples, defy them. I am afraid that much of the church, in its insistence on family values, is upholding the very social and cultural systems Jesus railed against. Family values are preached and practiced in the United States today means a boundary line between those for whom we are responsible and those for whom we are not; those worthy of our love and those not worthy.

Finally, as I reflect on God in His role of Father to Jesus, I see His incredibly deep and perfect love for Him. Isn’t it the kind of love that we as parents aim for and bask in ourselves as God’s children? Yet, the Father sacrificed His one and only Son (i.e. ask a parent whose only child has died to help you understand a portion of the significance of the “one and only” part)….so that we may live. We were not His biological child. We were adopted into the family of God. In God’s eyes, we are a sister and brother of Jesus. As we parent, how can we begin to justify creating boundaries of responsibility for our child only? The example of God as parent tells us to do something very differently. If God would have said that His only responsibility was to provide the best for His child only, we would be in seriously bad shape.

Thank you God, for grace. For not caring only about Jesus, but for all of humanity. For calling me your daughter. For taking responsibility for me too. Help me to see ways that I can do that for others. Give me a deep love for other children I come into contact with everyday….and give me and Jake the courage and wisdom to put ourselves and our children in places where we can interact meaningfully with others, especially with those who have no parents or have parents who can’t or don’t love them well.

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