Ideal or Idol: Avoiding the Family Cult in Church
When I was a preacher, I got more requests to speak on family than any other subject. I always dreaded it. I’m no family expert and feel my weaknesses keenly. As a preacher’ son I grew up resenting the pressure to be the model family. It felt like living in the church’s private zoo. It is also painful for people in tough family situations to hear messages about what family should be like. Who wants to hurt people?
Primarily, I struggled because the Bible just doesn’t say that much about family–at least not the issues people seem to want most. This is especially true with regard to the family counseling questions most people ask today.
There is general model of family laid out in scripture (though not as clearly as we assume). Marriage is pictured as a man and woman committed to each other for life, bearing and raising children together. Sex is reserved for this special marital bond. Marriage is the primary relationship–not parent child. In marriage a couple is one flesh. Parents are encouraged to do two primary things for their children. 1) discipline them—though no technique is recommended beyond a symbolic “rod,” and 2) provide spiritual training–teach them to know the Lord. We are commanded to honor our father and mother. There are a few instructions about submitting to one another in love. Beyond this, there is no detailed manual for family life in scripture. Also, the Bible presents family from different cultures and it is difficult to untangle enduring principles from temporary cultural expressions (e.g. polygamy).
Perhaps this is why most marriage and family material promoted in churches today comes from the social sciences rather than scripture. Proponents seek to align their teaching with scripture, but most of it does not originate there. Much of it is helpful and we can use it to strengthen our families. That’s great. But the purpose of this material is not advancing the Kingdom of God and often has little to do with being disciples. In our understandable anxiety about family, we can easily over-emphasizing family in church and get our families out of place. If that happens, it will not be good for our families or for the church.
A good friend of mine, who has a Ph.D. in marriage and family therapy, commented a few years ago that we have a near family cult in church. There is a vast supply of family material through Christian bookstores, radio, and TV. There are countless family seminars. We’ve seen an explosion of counseling programs and ministers who are trained as therapists. Some churches build their whole visions around strengthening family. “Traditional family values” is now synonymous with the gospel for many. It is almost as if the primary purpose of the church is to serve family.
In light of the obsession with family, the Bible has some startling things to say.
“’Truly I tell you,’ Jesus replied, ‘no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.’” (Mark 10:29-31)
“Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: ‘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. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’” (Luke 14:25-27)
“’Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’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.’” (Matt. 10:34-47)
What kind of traditional family values is this? Have we forgotten that the gospel is about the reign of God and this surpasses the goal of family harmony–as important as that is? I sometimes wonder if we shifted focus because we lost confidence in our mission of making disciples or the power of the gospel to restore humanity. Perhaps we just noticed the need for help with family in our individualistic culture and adjusted our message to fit our market. That is not wrong per se, but it’s dangerous.
As a child, I heard preachers warn about putting family above church. The family should served God together, but God came before secular family events. Now we see the reverse. In the name of strong family, we skip church events for family. Perhaps this is a good change. Perhaps not. But we better think through it carefully and not just do it in a knee jerk fashion. The old sermons were right. Family can become an idol we serve more than Jesus
In addition, when we focus too much on family, we can leave the impression that only people from ideal families can be faithful Christians. This makes divorced people, singles, and people with family problems feel like outsiders. It can leave the impression that good Christian families have no real problems. That is not true now and never has been true.
We forget that even the heroic Bible characters had family problems:
- Adam and Eve threw each other under the bus in the garden.
- Cain killed Able.
- Noah got drunk.
- Ham saw Noah drunk, disgraced him and then Ham’s family was cursed to be slaves to his brothers.
- Abraham and Sarah conspired to gain God’s blessing through bigamy, which created no end of conflict between Sarah and Hagar and later Ishmael and Isaac.
- Abraham’s love for Isaac was so great it rivaled his love of God to the degree that God called him to sacrifice Isaac to force Abraham to decide whom he loved most.
- Isaac and Rebecca showed favoritism to opposing sons which destroyed their family.
- Jacob deceived Isaac and stole Esau’s blessing.
- Esau threatened to kill Jacob, who had to run and was alienated from his family for two decades.
- After running from his brother, Jacob had endless conflict with his uncle Laban who tricked him into marrying his two daughters who competed all through their lives.
- Jacob’s oldest son, Reuben, raped his step-mother.
- Simeon and Levi deceived and massacred a village after the rape of their sister Dinah.
- Judah had incest with his daughter-in-law Tamar and fathered his own grandchild.
- Joseph was kidnaped and sold into slavery by his brothers because Jacob perpetuated the favoritism of his parents.
- Moses and Zipporah had such an ugly conflict over the circumcision of Gershom that it nearly got Moses killed.
- Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu were so corrupted they were killed by God while leading worship.
- Gideon’s son Abimelech killed his seventy brothers in an ill-fated attempt to become king himself.
- Samson married the pagan Delilah, who betrayed him and left him blinded, imprisoned, and dying in a murder-suicide designed to redeem himself.
- Eli’s sons were so evil God took the priesthood away from his family and had his sons killed.
- Samuel watched Eli’s family closely and yet his sons turned out just as corrupt.
- David, the “man after God’s own heart,”had endless family problems highlighted by his adultery with Bathsheba and conspiracy to execute her first husband, who happened to be in his secret service detail.
- Prince Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar. In revenge Prince Absalom killed Amnon and was banished by David.
- Absalom mounted a coup to depose David which lead to a civil war and Absolum’s death.
- Prince Adonijah tried to take the thrown from Solomon and ended up being killed by his regent brother.
- Solomon had 1000 wives who lead his heart away from God.
I could go on and on, but you get it. Even Jesus himself had his family troubles. See Mark 3:20-21, 31-35. His family thought he lost his marbles, showed up with the thorazine and a straight jacket to get him some help, but couldn’t get to him. Then he denied knowing who they were.
You almost get the impression that faith is hard on families.
Here is the neglected reality: there is not one ideal family in the Bible. All had major problems and conflicts. The same is true today. There are no perfect husbands, wives, parents, or families. If the heroic people of the Bible had family trouble, yet God used them, maybe our families don’t have to be perfect for God to use us.
This is no excuse for not working hard to have best families possible. But it is also no reason to despair because our families struggle. It is no reason to bail out on a difficult marriage or be bitter toward our parents because they didn’t get everything right.
Faith in Jesus doesn’t produce cookie-cutter perfect families, but it does give us strength to endure the most difficult family situations with honor and love. God’s grace touches our family failures like all others and he can work even in the most difficult family situations.
When we focus too much attention on some illusive ideal family and make family the focus of church, we may create as many problems as we solve. Romanticizing family creates unrealistic expectations. Talking about ideal marriages may increase marital dissatisfaction. It can set people up for disappointment as it presents some air-brushed Disneyesque happily-ever-after expectation that is destined to crash. We expect marriage to be a lifelong honeymoon filled with total intimacy, unabated romance, and sexual fireworks. We expect our spouse to be everything to us: best friend, passionate lover, co-parent, financial provider, etc. We expect an intimate relationships with every child. We expect our family to make us happy and meet all our needs. We buy the myth that 50-100 years ago families didn’t have the problems of today.
Family sociologist William Goode has written,
“Like most stereotypes, that of the classical family of Western nostalgia lead us astray. When we penetrate the confusing mists of recent history, we find few examples of this “classical” family….True enough, divorce was rare, but we have no evidence that families were generally happy. Indeed, we find, as in so many other pictures of the glowing past, that each past generation of people writes of a period still more remote, their grandparents’ generation, when things were really much better.”
I fear we’ve overly romanticized families of the past. The good old days weren’t so good, we just kept family problems quiet. Today’s family problems were caused by yesterday’s family problems. While Hollywood unjustly bashes traditional family, we do no one a favor if we deny past weaknesses and uncritically defend “traditional” family.
For most of human history, (e.g., in Bible times) people did not expect as much from marriage and family as we do today. The quest for intimacy in family began in 19th century. Before then, there was little privacy for sex and little time for leisure family time. Marriages were arranged by parents to promote faith, social standing, and financial security, not romance. Children were seen as financial assets. They helped with the family work on the farm or family trade.
Just as fashion models contribute to anorexia, the idealization of family can lead to dissatisfaction based on exaggerated expectations. Some parents drive children away by expecting unreasonable closeness. Other people keep getting remarried looking for their “soul mate” who will be everything they “need” to be happy. Some studies indicate born again Christians divorce slightly more than non-believers. Why? Partly because in church we create unrealistic expectations. We are so committed to some ideal view of family we’ll rip up existing families and create enormous pain in order to have some ideal, only to find problems repeat in the next manifestation.
The problem not that we don’t believe in marriage. Rather, the problem is that we believe in fantasy marriage. It is time we stopped swapping partners and keeping problems and keep partners and swap problems.
I fear many Christians expect their family to provide for them what only God can provide: security, significance, wholeness, meaning, and joy. God can work through our families to bring much good to us. When family is good, it is an incredible joy. But that is not a steady state for any of us. All of our families are flawed tools, even in God’s hands. If we look to our family as our source of security or meaning, we won’t be able to bear the truth about how flawed we are. It will undercut our ability to really love our families. Instead we will be angry and resentful they aren’t better people or more useful for our happiness or fulfillment. Only when we can accept the brokenness of our family can we love them without being bitter they aren’t more perfect and turn our hopes into oppressive demands.
I think about my Bouchelle grandparents marriage and wonder if they had a good marriage. It all depends on how you evaluate marriage. If you asked them, they would say they did. They were together for over 58 years and took care of each other to death. They raised three godly children who all had Christian homes. They loved each other deeply the best they knew how. Yet, by any measure, their marriage had huge problems. They did not meet each other’s emotional needs. I’m not sure my granddad knew women had emotional needs. My grandmother had deep family of origin issues my granddad couldn’t understand. They didn’t always make each other happy. They argued a lot—mostly about the thermostat—but about everything else too. Many times my granddad confided in me toward the end, “She’s killing me.” She was, in fact.
But at my granddad’s grave my grandmother wept over him and said, “Oh Pat, oh Pat, how will I ever live without you?!” She talked to him constantly in the nursing home in her final years. He was always with her in her mind. They fought but they never considered divorce. Murder? Sure. Divorce? Never. They loved each other the best way they knew how to the end. I want a better marriage than they had, but I also want my marriage to do what theirs did.
In the end, Christian faith is more about our relationship to God than to family. It does greatly affect how we treat other people–especially our family. But focusing on marriage and parenting skills is cosmetic. Those skills won’t offer much help to people who don’t have the enduring sacrificial love of God instilled in their character. Focusing on being like Jesus will make us better spouses and parents because it effects us at the core. You want a good family? Focus on Jesus. Live out the ways of Jesus and you will learn how to love everyone, family included.
Family is important and we need to minister to families, but our primary commitment, love and emotional support must come from God. So, as we focus on family, let’s be careful we don’t make our ideal an idol. Ironically the best thing you can do for your family is not to put your family first, but to put Jesus first and put your family in its proper place