Russell Moore: Putting the Family First Puts the Church at Odds with Jesus

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).

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Source: Christianity Today