The nature of marriage and the family is presently being re-negotiated in secular society. In response, many Christians are doing everything they can to preserve traditional understandings of marriage and family, thinking they are defending the Christian faith. This article attempts to help Christians think more biblically about the family, in order to help us better respond to the current debate around the family.
Jesus on the Family
Jesus’ teaching on the family was radical and unexpected in his day. He took the principle of “leaving” and “cleaving” in Genesis 2:24 to be a foundational mandate for the created order. And along with it, he took the fifth commandment, to “Honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12), to be an abiding mandate for Israel and his disciples as the People of God. Yet it is clear that Jesus had in mind a fundamental re-prioritization of the family. For example, in Matthew19: 29 Jesus calls on his disciples to leave houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for his sake. Any decision to follow Jesus as Lord potentially involves a call to abandon blood-relatives – on account of one’s new-found faith in Christ. This is a question of changed allegiances at the very deepest level. As a result, some have labeled Jesus a “breaker” of families rather than a protector of the family.
In addition to re-prioritizing, Jesus also redefined family. For example, in Matthew 12: 46-50, he draws the focus away from his human family (Mary and his siblings), and instead points to his disciples saying, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother”. In this way, Jesus distinguished between his own blood-relatives, and those who are his spiritual family, prioritizing faith and its communal belonging and expression over familial, blood-related belonging.
The Church as Family
An important example of how the early church embraced Jesus’ reprioritization and redefinition of the family can be found in the outcome of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. Whereas the early Jerusalem church was predominantly Jewish in its make-up, the ruling made by the Council was that entry into the faith-community was not on the basis of blood-dependent ethnicity, but on the basis of one’s confession that “Jesus was Lord”. According to Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. Thus, entry into the early church was not blood-dependent, but faith-dependent. And by extension, belonging to the Christian faith required those who had been given entry to the faith-community, to demonstrate their faith on the basis of confession, mutual obligation and ritual means, in the form of baptism and the Eucharist. The apostle Paul employs family-like language to congregational relationships, on the basis that they were “sons and daughters of God”, (2 Cor 6: 18), and they were to treat one other as adelphoi, as brothers and sisters in the Lord (Rom 14:10-12; Eph 6:23-24).
Significance for Today
On the basis of this brief excursion into the teaching of Jesus and the early church on the family, we observe three keystone realities. The first is that Jesus (like King Midas of old), transforms everything he touches … and this includes the family. His re-defining and re-prioritizing of family manifests itself in a change of emphasis from family as blood-community to family as confessing-community. The second is that the way we demonstrate our new kinship is the way we treat each other as “children” of God. Tragically, many churches experience pitched battles over differences in theology, preferences for worship-style, and conflicting personality-types. But viewed from a Jesus’-eye-perspective, the best way to measure our love for God is the quality of the love we have for one another (John 13:34). And the third is that family – whether viewed in terms of blood-relations (via the family of origin) or faith-relations (via the confessing church) – must demonstrate the values of the kingdom of God. So the measuring-stick for both will be righteousness, truthfulness, justice, and living for God as a matter of “first priority” – this is what the family of today (and the future) must be and strive to become if it is to remain ‘Christian’. If Jesus’ teaching on the family in his day was radical and unexpected – his teaching on the family in our day continues to be equally challenging and provocative.
Dr Stuart Devenish- Director of Postgraduate Studies, Tabor