A Compelling Vision for Family

Does Christianity have a compelling vision for family life? Some ancient religions required child sacrifice. That is not a compelling vision for family at all! Some would say that the Christian vision for family is likewise not compelling. It is too rigid, too patriarchal. Does the Christian vision for family make you think “that sounds right, that is consistent with a good and loving God” Is the Biblical vision for family beautiful, or ugly? It is beautiful, for the following reasons.

There is a beautiful vision for parenting.

To begin with, child sacrifice was strictly forbidden under the Old Covenant law. God’s people were to be different from other peoples of that day who did indeed sacrifice their children. The place near Jerusalem where people sacrificed their children was eventually used as a garbage dump, as it was despised by God’s people. It was called Gehenna, which most English Bibles translate as ‘hell.’ God’s people were expressly forbidden from sacrificing their children. This already was a positive step for family life!

But is there anything else about parenting? If you happened to read through the entire Bible this week, you might say, “I did not see too much on parenting.” If parenting is all about technique, then yes, the Bible does not say too much. However, if parenting is about character, then the Bible has much to say. Let us consider one example from Galatians:

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. Galatians 5:19-21 (NIV)

Not only will those who “live like this” not inherit the kingdom of God, they will also make life miserable for their children.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Galatians 5:22-24 (NIV)

Those who live like this, on the other hand, will be appreciated by their children who will have great examples to follow. Who wouldn’t want to grow up with parents whose character is marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control? Techniques in parenting will vary according to culture, but the character of a parent can make for beautiful parenting in any society.

Character development is also good for marriage, which is also great for family life. This brings us to our second point.

There is a beautiful vision for marriage.

While we find polygamy quite often in the Old Testament, things are different in the New Testament. In speaking about marriage, Jesus focused, not on the people from the Old Testament who practiced polygamy, nor on the law, which allowed for polygamy, but on the creation account:

3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Matthew 19:3-6 (NIV Quotes from Genesis emphasized)

This return to the original vision for marriage paved the way for women to be on a more equal footing. Polygamy naturally leads to someone being in charge of “the clan,” a supreme leader. Monogamy more naturally allows for the possibility of an equal partnership.

Further, the Biblical vision is of covenant faithfulness and loyal love between two people. Such covenant faithfulness, based on God’s covenant faithfulness, is a beautiful thing and enables family life to be settled and stable. It is a beautiful thing to grow up in a home where one’s parents are in love, with each other!

There is also beautiful vision for leadership and submission in marriage:

21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. Ephesians 5:21-27 (NIV)

Perhaps that does not sound beautiful to everyone. Women being under the thumb of a controlling man sounds ugly. However, let us dig deeper. When leadership is about control, it is ugly. When leadership is about care and responsibility, it is beautiful. Notice the focus on the lengths Jesus went to in his care of, and love for, the church. He was willing to die for the church! There is a great expectation placed on men here, and one that was not prevalent in that day. Likewise, when submission is about giving control over, it can be ugly. When submission is about trust, it is beautiful. When a man loves a woman the way Christ loves the church, trust is built. This passage is not about men taking control without building any trust. It is about harmony in care and trust. It is a beautiful vision that was quite radical and woman affirming in its day. And let us not forget verse 21! Love, trust, and mutual submission makes for great family life.

There is beautiful flexibility in the Biblical Vision for Family.

Although Jesus focused in on the creation account of marriage, something you do not find in the New Testament is a push for everyone to be married with children. Jesus himself affirmed that not everyone will be married with children in Matthew 19:10-12. The Ethiopian eunuch was welcomed into the Kingdom in Acts 8. Paul encouraged people to remain single in 1st Corinthians 7, or get married! While married with children is a beautiful vision, it was not an expectation in the New Testament church. It should not become an idol on ours. If you are single, or have no children, you are not a second class citizen in the Kingdom of God. We do well to ensure that no one is a second class citizen in our churches.

Since there is flexibility in not forcing everyone to fit the pattern of married with children as set out in the creation account, is there also flexibility with leadership within the family? Can it be based on giftedness and capacity rather than gender? My wife takes the lead in a number of areas of our family life. She is so much more capable than I am in those areas!

Proverbs 31 is often thought to be about “the virtuous wife.” It is often pitched to women, that they should be more like that Proverbs 31 ideal. However, I think it pitched to men. The lesson of Proverbs 31 for men can be summed up as “don’t micro-manage your wife, she excels without your interference.” Proverbs ends with this instruction:

31 Honor her for all that her hands have done,
and let her works bring her praise at the city gate. Proverbs 31:31 (NIV)

This description of the capability of a wife must also be considered a part of the overall Biblical vision for family. The flexibility of the Biblical vision for family is a beautiful thing.

There are those who say that even if they became convinced that Christianity is true, they would still not want to be a Christian because it has a very patriarchal and constrictive vision for family life. Indeed, some Christians live out a constrictive and patriarchal vision. However, the Bible gives us a vision for family which is a beautiful. This is another aspect of Christianity that is compelling. What the Bible teaches about family life is indeed consistent with a good and loving God.

(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here.)

Redefining Family

Who feels more like “family” to you, the family you were adopted or born into, or a group of friends? There was an article some time ago which lamented the breakdown of the family. Though I don’t remember much about the article, the author looked at how tv shows were helping to redefine family with “Friends” leading the way.  Many shows portray one’s family members as the last people you would go to for empathy or understanding. However, one’s friends are portrayed as always being there for love and support. With family being redefined in our day how are we supposed to define family? Jesus tells us in Mark 3, and you may be surprised:

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 3:31-35

Considering the importance placed on family in Old Testament law, Jesus’ redefinition of family was shocking to the people of that day. It may be just as shocking today. We may find ourselves asking if Jesus should have been a better Christian and taken the opportunity to affirm the importance of family. Instead he redefines his family as those who do the will of God. What are we to make of this?

First, Jesus redefinition of family as those who do God’s will is good news for those with no family, or whose family has abdicated their role. You might lose out on the ideal family, but you never need lose out on a family. This, of course, speaks to the nature of the Church. If one’s experience of church is to just show up, sing a few songs, hear a sermon and go home, then we are missing out on part of what God’s will for the church is. Reading the New Testament, you never get the sense that people just went to church. You get the sense that they are the church, in relationship with God and with each other. While some churches practically demand a quiet sanctuary prior to worship as a sign of reverence, I pastor a very noisy church. I prefer to look at the positive side of this and celebrate the fact that people are relating to each other. Many churches, including ours, are known as being friendly. However, churches need to go beyond just being friendly, to being family.

Second, Jesus’ redefinition of family is good news for world peace. We have family everywhere, and that family transcends political, racial and language boundaries. Moving from Ottawa I do not miss city life. I do, however, miss the diversity we enjoyed at Fourth Avenue Baptist. Each Sunday I could look around and see people from Jamaica, Russia, Iran, England, Northern Ireland, Haiti, Benin, and often other nations besides. My favourite Sundays were the combined services with a primarily Congolese church. We would worship in up to four different languages with our love for decorum before God Almighty mixing wonderfully with their excitement about Jesus. One is reminded of what’s ahead:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb . . .  Revelation 7:9

Third, Jesus’ redefinition of family is not a rejection of our genetic family, but a call to enter into it with passion. When someone does the will of God as the brother or sister of Jesus, it is good news for one’s family. What is the will of God within family life? We can think of specific instructions for a wife to “respect her husband” (Ephesians 5:3), and for husbands to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Such sacrificial love and mutual respect is good for family life. We can think of instructions for children to “obey your parents” (Ephesians 6:1), and for parents to not “provoke your children to anger” (Ephesians 6:4). Many other passages pointing to God’s will for us are beneficial for family life also. Like, “love one another” (John 13:34), and “do to others you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31). Those things work well in family. Also “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18), and “Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled” (Hebrews 13:4). Sobriety and faithfulness are always good for family. And one more on God’s will:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8

Many a dysfunctional family could use more justice, kindness and members who walk humbly with God. Far from a call to renounce family, God’s will is that we do family well.

Finally, Jesus’ redefinition of family points forward to the wonderful possibility of being God’s child. You may say, “But Pastor, I try to do God’s will and find it impossible to always do it. I always mess up at some point”. Keep reading the Gospel of Mark until you get to that place where Jesus prayed “remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will” (Mark 14:36). God’s will was that in Jesus’ death and resurrection death should be defeated and we would be reconciled to God. Jesus did the will of the Father and now we have the wonderful opportunity of being adopted into His family, not because of our perfection in keeping His will, but because of His.

Should we be surprised that Jesus redefines family? We should not be surprised for it is an act of love and grace. God calls us into a new kind of family, then calls us and enables us to do His will within our family of origin.

(All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV.)