Monday, July 12, 2010

Focus on which family?

Everyone knows you shouldn’t take marital advice from a single man. But it is an undeniable fact that both the founder of our faith and the apostle to the Gentiles were single men. And, to make matters worse, Jesus had some pretty harsh things to say about family relations (Lu. 9:57-62; 12:51-53; 14:26). In a radical departure from the norms of his day (where family identity meant everything), Jesus redefined his earthly family in light of his kingdom mission: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (8:21). His behavior proved he meant it; he treated his disciples more like brothers than his own family. Paul certainly believed the same. He acted like his converts were his family; he was especially fond of using familial terms to describe their relationship (“Though you might have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers. Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me,” 1 Cor. 4:15-16). So, when Paul gave advice to his converts about marriage, he thought he was acting like their family father, arranging marriages (or discouraging them) for their own good—being completely devoted to Christ. Marriage that compromised such devotion would be nothing but trouble, “and I would spare you that” (7:28). One more reason why he sent his “son” Timothy to remind his Corinthian children of “his ways” in Christ, “as I teach them everywhere in every church” (4:17).

But what would Paul say to us, two thousand years later? Would he give us the same advice? Some might say, “absolutely, because the American family has become an idol in the church,” and in certain respects, I can see why. We know families have been in crisis for quite some time: Christian marriages end in divorce about the same rate as the national average. One can draw the startling inference that our faith makes no difference when it comes to husbands and wives living together (or could it be Paul was right? Perhaps these Christian couples should have remained single). This led some, especially in the evangelical world, to “focus on the family,” to save the institution from adversarial forces, making it our number one priority. Parachurch ministries were launched, political alliances were formed, enemies were targeted, problems were addressed, and resources were gathered to preserve family values. Marquis issues (abortion, euthanasia, ERA, teenage pregnancy, public versus private education, school curricula, gay marriage) came and went in order to rally the troops during the battle to protect the family. Other countermeasures were installed to make sure the church was doing everything it could to make Christian marriages strong: pre-marital counseling, pre-school programs, parenting classes, marriage seminars, men’s ministries, women’s ministries. The implication was unmistakable: the American family was under assault and we should do whatever it takes to save this sacred institution. But, in our attempts to make Christian families ideal, we forgot our most important obligation: devotion to Christ (not the family) is what makes a man or a woman a Christian.


JDTapp said...

Excellent point.
My understanding is that several polls of people that do not ask people to self-identify as Christian or "evangelical" but rather ask whether they read their Bible daily or have family devotionals saw a significant difference in the divorce rate.
Christians make solid marriages. Solid marriages do not make Christians.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Reeves,

I love this post, but I wonder how much Paul's eschatology played into his view of the family. If he was able to see thousands of years into the future, would he have been so disinterested in the genetic family?

I think the reason that churches today focus so much on families is that we use young families to grow a church. The church becomes a vehicle for playdates for the kids, for a mother's day out, and young growing families attract other young growing families. But somehow, evangelism can get lost in the shuffle. We use growing families to grow a church congregation, but we never really try to grow the family of God.

Rodney Reeves said...


Actually this is a brief excerpt from the chapter on Paul's view of sex and marriage, where I follow Paul's lead in 1 Cor. 7 and frame the entire discussion with his conviction: no need to get married because Jesus is coming back soon.

So, here's a tease to pick up the book when it's published: I suggest that he would say the same thing today.

Anonymous said...

I knew well enough that you would talk about his eschatological view of marriage.

I was hoping you would comment a little more on the topic. After all, the book's not out yet...

What kind of light does Paul's view of marriage show on so many popular ideas of Church growth?

Can we focus on the family in a way that focuses on the gospel?

Rodney Reeves said...

Paul would say you should have church growth without the emphasis on marriage/family because WE are God's family. In fact, marriage/family should serve the Church, not the other way around.

Darryl Schafer said...

"In fact, marriage/family should serve the Church, not the other way around."

VERY well said. You should put that in the book.

Rev. Spike said...

Pastorally I have seen this in the elevation of sports, hobbies, etc above opportunities of worship and service. It is as if when someone says, "this is a family thing" that it is immediately Kosher. The risk on my end is being a Pharisee. On the end of the congregation, as you have said, idolatry.

When we elevate "family time" above Christ, we may inadvertently sabotage our kids' spiritual lives.