Ever since this article by Tony Robinson came out in June, I have been reflecting on the church as family. Growing up, that is how I felt about my church—they were an extended family. In my ministry, I have often referred to the church as “The Family of God.” There are still good uses of the metaphor of family. However, I agree with Robinson that it’s time to rethink that metaphor, especially of how it has been mis/used in church circles.
First, we have to understand that the concept of family and household has changed throughout the Bible and throughout our own human history, so to think that today’s definition is the same as it was even a few generations ago is a false assumption to start on. Yet I hear many Christians objectify the “family”—the idea that there is a husband who is the provider, a wife who is the caregiver, and children who are cared for by the mother. Every Sunday I hear of people who share about the morning’s worship service that praised the family and where the pastor taught that we need to protect the family.
Frankly, this is contradictory to the Gospel and to the New Testament. Jesus certainly didn’t provide for or care for his earthly family (save in John’s Gospel where he asked the “beloved disciple” to care for his mother, who, probably widowed and without support would have needed someone in that culture to provide for her given the cultural barriers).
Jesus taught that “whoever does the will of God is my mother and my sister and my brother” (Matthew 3:35)
Jesus said, “And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:47)
And Jesus even proclaimed, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).
The family unit was something never upheld by Jesus. This doesn’t mean the family unit is contrary to Scripture or to faith—it means that it is not nearly as important as we might think it is. This is Good News.
This is Good News to the stepfamilies, the same-sex families, the grandparents who raise children, the single moms and dads. This is Good News to those who do not have children. This is Good News to those who live together, friends that share homes, multiple families in one roof. This is Good News to married heterosexual couples with children, interracial and multicultural families. Because it’s not about how we live together, but that we are part of God’s Community together.
In the Old Testament, we do hear of God being called the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but later God is called the God of Israel. This is not the God of one person or of one family, but this is the God of the Community. God is not just present with one individual or one family, but when multiple families and individuals and all people come together as a community. In the New Testament, Paul often speaks of “households” which included not only the biological family unit, but the servants and caregivers and others associated with the family. When one person became a follower of the Way, as in Acts 16 with Lydia, the rest of the household was assumed to also be followers of the Way, as often the whole household was baptized into the faith. The act of faith was not one of the individual or the individual’s family, but of the community the individual belonged to, greater than themselves and family.
Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20).
Jesus said this in the context of discipline and forgiveness within the community. When we are in community, we need to be conscious of how our lives affect the well-being of the community, how our actions and decisions affect others.
In the question of equal marriage, posed in several states this election year, including my new home state of Washington, we would do well to remember this: it is not about the family unity, but how we live in community with each other. When we limit rights to one kind of family unit, we disallow not only homosexual families but we are making a statement that there is no other kind of family unit that is acceptable. It is clear that Jesus would stand against this hypocrisy.