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.