The Church Should Focus On It’s Own Family

Many years ago when I was driving through Colorado Springs I saw a bumper sticker directed at Focus on the Family that said, “Focus On Your Own Family”.  I thought it was sort of funny but I didn’t really give it a lot of thought.  But the phrase sort of stayed with me.  Whenever I’d see something from Focus I’d think about that sticker and smile.

But in thinking about it, this might actually be a good idea.  Now to be clear, before I start, I like a lot of what Focus the organization does.*  I’m not picking on them here.  However, the Church’s focus on the nuclear family is a huge problem with far, far reaching implications.

As I’ve stated many times, I’m not against the church teaching on family or how to be a good husband, wife, parent or even child.  I’m not against that all.  If I’m married and/or have kids, I need to learn how to do that in a Godly way.  In other words, if that is my context, I need to follow Jesus and grow in my ability to fulfill that role.  Absolutely.

However, if that is the focus of our church or if we lift up the nuclear family as the answer to how the kingdom advances, or as the thing that helps make us holy, or makes us eligible for leadership in the Church or as the model for the church instead of the other way around, we end up on seriously shaky ground.  Frankly that is exactly where many churches are today either by intent or by accident.

The kingdom does not advance by the nuclear family.  It advances through Jesus and His family.  The nuclear family does not make us holy, Jesus does.  Being married is not a requirement for leadership in the church – hello Paul and . . . uh . . . Jesus.

I’ve covered all of that before.  But what I want to say today is what brings us back to that bumper sticker.  What if the Church focused on it’s own family.  Because frankly most church families are a mess and that’s not even to speak of the body of Christ as a whole.

Now I get that church is messy. It’s made up of humans and we are all sinners.  People sin.  Against God, against each other, against non believers.  Whole nine yards. That’s not what I’m talking about.

What I’m talking about is are we teaching our churches how to be a family.  Is that our focus?  From a global level: How do we treat fellow believers that we don’t quite theologically agree with?  How do we talk about them behind their backs?  How does the “local church”** talk about missional “para church” parts of the body and vice versa?  How do church planters talk about the old church that is literally down the street?  Protestants and Catholics how we doing?  This list could go on and on.

From a particular church level:  How welcoming are we to new people that might join our family?  Have you gotten to know anyone in your church family?  Is our teaching inclusive to those who have a nuclear family and those who don’t?  Do we love each other?  Is there actual church discipline?  Who is accountable to who?  Who actually knows anything about the people leading the small group?  Could anyone walk in and feel welcome?  Not necessarily agreed with, but welcome.  Do we hold the Kingdom picture of advancement or the “lets live in the nuclear family bubble” picture?  Are the people Jesus welcomed welcome?  By each member?  Again the list could go on.

Bashing the church is not my point here.  The point is this – the church should focus on it’s own family.  We should be focused on getting our own stuff in order.  We should remember that marriage and the family point to God and His family, not the other way around.

You see God is the creator of the family unit.  He really is.  This means it’s a good thing.  But just like everything else that He created we tend to start to count on it instead of God.  We start to elevate it over God’s Kingdom, just like we do many of his other good creations.

Jesus said, Who are my mother and brothers?  In other words, who is my family?  He answered, “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother”.  At the end of the day, and for sure at the end of days, the Kingdom family will be the one that lasts.  It will be the one that is most important and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the nuclear family.  The church should focus there.

When we don’t do it, we set up everyone to fail and alienate many.  When we do focus on the Kingdom family we set up everyone, including those with nuclear families, to thrive.

 

 

* Focus does a lot of great things – especially in regards to children and parenting.  For example, if you’re a parent and not looking at Plugged In for movie reviews you’re missing out.

**The idea of the local church is totally misunderstood and mis-taught. First, in the city and suburbs there is almost no such thing as a “local” church.  Parishes are long gone.  People drive by 50 churches on the way to the one they want to go to.  The local church in the bible was all the people in that location, regardless of the place they worshiped in.  When God looks at your town, He sees one church, not hundreds.  Your church is not the answer.  The Church is.

We Are All Called To Reproduce

In the very beginning when God created the first people, Adam and Eve, He created them with purpose.  I like to say that God created us to be in relationship with Him, reflect Him and to represent Him.  Instead he said, “Be fruitful and multiply.  Fill the earth and subdue it.  Rule . . .”  He created us male and female in His image.  We therefore reflect who he is in our very being.  But we were also to go, to multiply, to fill the earth.  Now this was based on our communal relationship with Him.  This of course takes exactly one page in the bible before we mess it all up.

However, once we are reconciled to Jesus, he essentially gives us the same command.  “Go and share the gospel and make disciples”  In other words, go represent me in the world and multiply.

Here’s the truth I want to get at today.  We are created, each of us, with the desire to multiply.  Yes there is a biological aspect to that.  Understand that God even created that desire.  But there is more to it than that.  There is something deeper.  Something that knows that we are to multiply.

This is part of the reason why we have some of the recent phenomena in our culture including:

  • More women having children out of wedlock
  • Even though women are waiting longer to get married, they still have children late.  Sometimes far into their 40’s.
  • There is a rising number of unmarried women in their 30’s and 40’s having children out of wedlock on purpose.   (I address this here)
  • Married couples are choosing artificial means to have children

What’s interesting is that this is true even in the face of a huge chunk of our culture saying (for a variety of reasons) that having more children is a bad idea and a declining birthrate overall in Western society.

The Church of course is all about this.  This is because many parts of the church, particularly evangelicalism (whatever that actually means at this point), see the nuclear family as the answer to every question.  In fact some go so far as to include in their statement of beliefs that the nuclear family is the foundation upon which God’s kingdom advances.

This is their attempt to both answer the desire to multiply and corral the misuse of that desire.

Now I’m not anti nuclear family.  But the problem is that the nuclear family is not the answer to the to the problem and frankly suggesting that the nuclear family is the foundation for kingdom advancement is at best misguided and borderline heresy.

I’m going to say more soon about the “family” and the Church as well as back up and talk more about why we need a robust theology of celibacy and marriage together.  But for today I’d like to tackle the desire to reproduce.

The truth is that we are all indeed called to reproduce.  The desire is good.  But the Kingdom of God is not grown by having babies.  It is grown by making disciples.  It is true that in the Old Testament, the Kingdom was in many ways advanced by physical offspring.  This starts with Abraham and continues all the way up to Jesus.  But even in the Old Testament there are words that point to a different future – a future we live in right now!

Hear these words from Isaiah 56

Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say,
    “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.”
And let no eunuch complain,
    “I am only a dry tree.”

  For this is what the Lord says:

“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
    who choose what pleases me
    and hold fast to my covenant—
 to them I will give within my temple and its walls
    a memorial and a name
    better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
    that will endure forever.

Or from Isaiah 54

“Sing, barren woman,
    you who never bore a child;
burst into song, shout for joy,
    you who were never in labor;
because more are the children of the desolate woman
    than of her who has a husband,”

How can Eunuchs and barren women have sons and daughters?

It starts with Jesus.  Listen again to Isaiah from chapter 53 after he describes what the Messiah will go through he says:

For he was cut off from the land of the living;
    for the transgression of my people he was punished.[b]
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
    and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
    nor was any deceit in his mouth.

 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
    and though the Lord makes[c] his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
    and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.

The truth is that Jesus changed the whole thing.  The gospel puts things right.  It reorders the way things work, and re-establishes our call to reproduce and multiply.  As a believer you may or may not be called to marry and have children.  And because we live in a fallen world, even if you are called to that, it might not happen.  But all of us, regardless of if we are called to marriage or celibacy are called to multiply – to grow the Kingdom.  But not only are we called to it, we can participate it in it.  The celibate man can have offspring.  The barren woman can have children in the Kingdom.

At the end of Matthew 19, which is chalk full of thoughts on celibacy and marriage, Peter says to Jesus, “we have left all to follow you.”  Jesus replies,

“Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”

The Kingdom is both now and coming.  Marriage, family and celibacy are all a reflection of it, not the other way around.  In the Kingdom, regardless of context, we can and in fact are called to be fruitful and multiply.

You Can Be A Single Saint

I’ll be honest.  When I started writing this blog four years ago, I thought I would share some thoughts about my experience as a single for over 20 years of adulthood and specifically in the Church culture.  Somehow in my mid thirties I had a sort of awakening that a whole lot of what I thought I knew about singleness, what I’d be taught and even what I had taught others was wrong.  But I had no idea how wrong we were.

This is why now and then I’m responding to some posts from prominent leaders in our church culture.  They represent what we teach and when it comes to this context, they come up almost unbelievably short.  It’s astounding really.

In a post on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Page, they share from a speech from Al Molher (whom Time called the “reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement in the U.S.” – Yikes) in which he addresses the “sin” of delayed marriage.  I know you’re getting excited already. . .

There are some amazingly bad assumptions going on here.  There are three main things that need to be addressed as they are three staples of the Church’s response to increased singleness.  They are 1. The idol of the nuclear family, 2. It’s all the men’s fault, and 3. God has chosen someone for you.  You can’t make this stuff up.

First let me say that I’m for more marriage.  This situational singleness that our culture has created is not a helpful trend.  Calling it a sin is a stretch, but if you are called to marriage, then I do think you should pursue it, not just wait around for it to happen.

But if we go about that the wrong way, or with the wrong understanding, we are setting up both the unmarried and the married to fail.

For today, let’s focus on point 1.  Mohler and company have a serious idol in their culture and it’s called the nuclear family.  In addressing that people are trying to build careers first, Mohler states,

“What is the ultimate priority God has called us to? In heaven, is the crucible of our saint-making going to have been done through our jobs? I don’t think so. The Scripture makes clear that it will be done largely through our marriages.”

Oh.My.Gosh!  Where does scripture say this?  1st Families chapter 3?  Wow.  Just wow.

I’m going to be honest here.  I don’t know how else to say this.  This is wrong.  It’s completely wrong.  It’s so completely wrong that it is borderline heresy.  I’ve never used that word here, but I don’t know what else to call it. If he meant it the way he’s says it. . .

Let me be absolutely clear.  Your identity is not in your marital status!  It is not!  The Kingdom of God is not about being married with 2.5 children.  When you get to the gates God will not decide what kind of saint you are based on whether or not you were married here on earth.

Here are some results of this sort of teaching.

Unmarried people of all kinds, the divorced, the widowed, the not yet married, those who are celibate by gifting, calling or fall of man, end up excluded from the family of God on earth.  It turns what should be the most inclusive, welcoming place on the planet into a club for a few.  It helped create same sex marriage (more soon) and it stands completely counter to what the New Testament teaches.

But not only that.  It keeps married people from being missional, keeps their children from seeing a missional life style and creates the bubble that is whats left of the Christian Culture™ today.

Unless Mohler and the evangelical movement is suggesting we go back to the pre-Jesus method of Kingdom advancement and God’s pre-Jesus faithfulness, it is completely wrong.

Jesus says this, “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”  And again, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”  Pointing to his disciples he said, “here are my mother and my brothers.  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus is saying this because he is creating the new family . . . the family of God.  Jesus is constantly pointing out that God’s favor is not on the people who have the most or who have the perfect family scenario but instead upon those who respond to Him.  He is throwing open the Kingdom (and therefore the sainthood) to all who would come to Him. In fact He is saying that if you don’t have Him first none of the rest of it matters much.

We are not going to be married in heaven and being married on earth will not earn you extra points when you get there.  Our identity is to be in Him.  Our calling is to follow Him. He is the way.  Not marriage, not childbearing, not success, not earthly riches, not cultural standing.  This is the scandal of the gospel.  The marginalized have just as much access as everyone else.  You will be judged on how you responded to that, and on how you loved others, not just your spouse. That has to be our starting point every time.

Unless that is our starting point, anything else we teach about singleness, marriage, and frankly everything else, will be a counterfeit.  Putting an over emphasis on the nuclear family screws up everything . . . including the nuclear family.

The Nuclear Family Or Kingdom Family

A few people in the church starting to wake up to the fact that the cultural context has changed.  Not only that but some are even beginning to see that they are part of the problem because of the ways they’ve handled that.  I myself have admitted many times here that I’ve taught many things wrong through the years – and I was teaching it as a single person.

Now the majority of the church has yet to even roll over, let alone wake up.  But it is encouraging to see some movement.  Over a couple of blog posts I want to sort of encourage (read challenge, push, bother, implore) them to not just offer band aids or think that a few simple thoughts are going to solve this.  If you are a pastor/elder/leader type person, you need to know that it’s going to be slower and more all encompassing than you think.

My fear for this discussion is that churches who are starting to see the problem of having family as an idol or not doing well with singles will only look to give simple answers that won’t actually unmask the deeper assumptions and mistakes that we have made and/or are making with this topic.  Changing what we say won’t be enough. We have to go back and rethink the whole thing to have a chance.

As an example of this I want to respond to parts of an article written by Scott Sauls for Relevant.  Let me be clear – I’m not coming at Scott.  I don’t know him personally but know folks who do and I’ve heard only great things about him.  I also want to give him a lot of credit for writing about this.  He is obviously way ahead of the curve which is apparent in much of what he writes.

I’m simply using his post as a launching pad to challenge some of the things that I believe the leaders in his, and similar circles, seem to assume.

So let’s look at the first part today.  While talking about the family Scott writes:

The Bible does have a lot to say about the significance of the family structure.

Family is the chief biblical metaphor to describe how God relates to us. God is our Father and we are His children. Jesus is husband and we are His Bride, the Church. “We are our Beloved’s, and our Beloved is ours,” says Solomon’s Song.

The marriage between a man and a woman, in the purest sense, is a pointer to and picture of the love between Christ and the Church. In our shared union with Christ, we are also sisters and brothers to each other.

God established three structures to advance His Kingdom and support the flourishing of societies and persons: the Church, government and the nuclear family. As the family goes, so goes a society.

But like any good thing, when family becomes the main thing, it can cause more harm than good.

It is true that the Bible does indeed have a lot to say about the significance of the family structure.  This is true in the sense that there are many direct instructions for families and without doubt it is used as a picture of the Kingdom in many different ways.

I’m not sure that we can call the family the “chief” biblical metaphor for describing how God relates to us.  It is certainly one of them.  But, the problem here is that Jesus changes so much of what the family has to do with the Kingdom.

In the Old Testament, marriage and offspring were basically THE way that the kingdom was advanced. God chose the Israelites as His people.  They were His family so to speak. They needed to continue the line from Abraham to Jesus. After all, this was the promise that God made to Abraham.  His descendants (blood family) were to represent God to the world and advance the Kingdom.  Basically if you think being single now is tough, being single in the Israelite family was by far worse.  If you had no physical lineage, then you had no way to advance the Kingdom.  You had no children in the Kingdom.

But that is not true after Jesus.  Jesus throws open the Kingdom to everybody.  Not only do you not have to be physically born into it, you CAN’T be physically born into it.  You must be born again into it.  What this means is that the nuclear family is NOT the way that the Kingdom advances.  Read that again friends.

For a great message on this take some time and listen to what Hunter Beaumont has to say here.  I was fortunate enough to hear him share a similar message a few months ago. His main point, as I took it, was that we must have a theology of singleness (and marriage frankly) that stems from this new idea that Jesus started.  While important in many ways, the nuclear family is not the way that God’s family is built.

All this to say, that while the family is a metaphor for the way that God interacts with us, it is not the only one and certainly not the way that God is bringing in His Kingdom.

Setting aside whether the Song of Solomon is a metaphor or not (which is open for debate at the least) Scott is right to suggest that marriage is a picture of the love between Christ and the Church.  I’ve said as much many times.  However, it is not the only picture of the Kingdom. What gets left out is that the celibate life is also a picture of the the Kingdom.  It is a picture of what it will look like in the end (which Scott mentions but doesn’t name).  That is a picture of pure and total devotion between us and God.  A person who is called to this is a demonstration of what is to come every bit as much as marriage.

The bottom line is that while the nuclear family is indeed a structure that God created and does indeed present a picture of the Kingdom, the Church family is THE picture and it trumps the nuclear family.  The nuclear family is not the the structure that advances the Kingdom.  The Church family is.

This is why focusing on the nuclear family is wrong.  In fact,  Jesus says that unless you love Him more than your family you are not worthy of the Kingdom.  In my opinion simply saying as the family goes, there goes society, ultimately (even if unintentionally) leaves the unmarried out.  It’s still focusing on the nuclear family. God’s family has to be the focus.  As God’s family goes there goes the society.

This is not merely semantics.  I wish it was, because that would be much easier.  But this baseline, that the Church family must be the focus, is the only way to avoid the traps that Scott mentions at the end of the quote – that is making too much of the nuclear family.

What I’m suggesting here is not that we stop teaching on how a family should operate (we probably need more of this) or that we stop saying that the family or marriage is a picture of the Kingdom.  But we need a sort of clean slate.  In other words we need to repent of how we’ve idolized the nuclear family –  not just offer excuses, justifications and rationalizations for it. We need to put God’s family first.  Then, and really only then, can we begin to paint the whole picture and include everybody.