I initially wrote this piece for another website I was trying to get off the ground. It failed…more on that some other time…but this is one that has a lot of meaning to me and it is in line with another piece I finished this weekend.
I grew up in an abusive and broken family, believing pretty awful things about myself that I had been told by my father my entire life. As a result of my messed-up thinking, I made bad choices as an adult and ended up in an incredibly unhealthy, painful, and dark marriage to someone who was…less than a good match. And, years later, I endured the process of a long and painful divorce and the unspeakable anguish of watching my children be turned against me—the torture of having to make the dangerous choice between fighting and letting them go. I chose the latter and it nearly killed me.
It was during the divorce process that I found myself in weekly counseling therapy, working through the decades of lies I’d believed and acted upon—the unhealthy self-preservation habits which had become intuition for me. In fact, I’m still finding it a daily battle to overcome and to make healthy, godly choices for and about myself in a proper and healthy relationship to the world around me. I fail a lot, but I’m doing better.
Though I am remarried, now, to a godly woman in a far healthier situation, I still find that my worldview about “family” has been affected. My relationship with my father and his family (he and my mother divorced and he remarried decades ago) is virtually non-existent. My relationship with my children has been better, but still, at times, strained and quite painful for them and for me and my wife. They live a very different life from me, in a place with different values. It is my greatest failure and source of pain and doubt.
My situation, sad to say, is hardly unique. Truth is, in a world in which there is sin, violence, and narcissism, there will be pain and broken relationships. That God has worked through his son to resolve them in the cross and to restore that world in the resurrection is the only and best hope we have. In fact, I found myself thinking the other day, as I considered the anger of one of my children towards me, “If it wasn’t for Jesus and the resurrection, there’d be nothing in this world to find joy in.” Jesus and his kingdom remain the work of God—his sole mission on this earth.
Therefore, someday, I look forward to living here on this restored world, in the harmony of the resurrection.
As the book of Revelation seems to tell us…until then, there is the cross. And the cross is what we must all bear until our deaths. The cross…the epitome of death which Paul called “foolishness to the Gentiles and a stumbling block to the Jews”(1 Cor 1:18-26) is, as he said, the power of God to make things better here. It is so, precisely because our own participation in bearing Jesus’ cross with him destroys that sin, violence, and narcissism within ourselves (Rom 6). It recreates us to walk in the resurrection before it actually happens. It creates in us the first fruits of the kingdom of God, as we await for the final work of the kingdom, the restoration of God’s good creation—the earth (Rom 8). Those first fruits, of course, being for Paul in this last chapter (Rom 8) the result of a cross-formed life. Cruciformity, as Michael J. Gorman calls it.
And that is, I think, the point of Romans 8. We have, to look forward, the resurrection of our bodies and the restoration of this universe—all of nature waits for this; it waits to join us in what is happening within our minds and what will happen to our bodies. This wondrous event when God restores his created order will be greater than any suffering we endure. Yet, until then, there is the cross. There is sharing in Jesus’ suffering. In fact, Paul insists that we cannot be his co-heirs in glory if we do not also inherit his cross.
That each person’s cross is a prerequisite of their resurrection means that, just as Jesus did, we endure the cross, scorning its shame because we, like Jesus, are looking ahead to what will be (Heb 12:1-3).
My cross, as is the cross of many people I have known (and many more I have not) includes the pain of familial brokenness. In fact, scripture is replete with examples of people whose family life is hardly reminiscent of a 50s sitcom. Yet, when I look at my own situation from my own perspective, I find that mine seems the most confusing and the most painful—to me. I find that, for me, my family has always been a cross. Being in my family has always been being crucified.
Those who have been divorced…buried a child…watched a child walk away…endured disability…chosen not to have children, or even marry, have often endured that same cross.
This pain has often been intensified by well-meaning folks in Christ’s church who have been aboard that popular “traditional family” bandwagon. In fact, part of the irony of my life has been that, as every moment of my life has been shaped by the sting of broken family, the church I have loved so much has continually made the “traditional family” its poster child. Statements like: “The family is the basic unit of society,” and “the family is under attack” indicate that many in our churches understand the family to be a battleground in the culture war.
Hence, churches have often emphasized the family to the point of idolatry. You’d be hard pressed to throw a rock without hitting a church whose focus is “young families.” And just try looking for work as a minister without at least being married. Many churches won’t even consider someone who has taken Paul’s admonition to remain single seriously (1 Cor 7). Beyond that, “family” has been preached from the pulpit and written about as if it and not the church is God’s primary kingdom work on this earth.
On the one hand, I can hardly blame folks for feeling this way about the family. Marriage and children can be a source of great joy when all goes according to plan. Yet, it often doesn’t. And no amount of theologizing can guarantee that it won’t. As much as I wish it weren’t so, there simply is no way to guarantee that the “joy” of the family won’t turn to agony because there is no way to guarantee that spouse or children will always choose to do what is right.
And yet, though I can hardly blame them for feeling this way, the truth is that the New Testament teaching on the family is hardly congruous with the contemporary “focus on the family” as the “basic unit of society” in the church. In fact, in the New Testament, it seems, the focus on the family is undone. Certainly, if someone has chosen to marry and have a family, Paul says, he or she has done nothing wrong (1 Cor7:28). Yet, Jesus (in Matthew 19) and Paul in the current passage both admonish members of Christ’s body to remain single. These statements, though not condemning the practice of marriage and having families, do indicate that the obsession with families in the church constitutes idolatry. As Stan Hauerwas says it:
The most extraordinary thing that…early Christians did that distinguished them from the Jews is that they didn’t have to marry. I mean, you gotta remember that Jesus was not a good Jew. He was single, he walked around with twelve guys….
So, followers of Jesus didn’t have to marry. You may think that was because they had negative attitudes about sex. They may have had negative attitudes about sex, but that’s not why they didn’t marry. The reason why they didn’t have to marry is because you don’t have to have a child to be a Christian. You don’t have to have a child to be a Christian because we’re an apocalyptic sect that grows by witness and conversion.
Every time Christians make a fetish of the family you can be sure that they don’t believe in God anymore. It’s exactly because they don’t want to witness to anyone about the truth of the gospel; they just want to make sure that their kids grow up thinking that they don’t have another option but to go to the Reformed Church. Singleness is the absolute necessary correlative of the fact that the church is an evangelizing body that grows by witness and conversion. Because, in one generation God could call every Christian to the life of singleness and yet we believe that God would create the church anew through witness and conversion.
Think about what kind of community, what kind of practice that community must embody. So, any community capable of sustaining singleness as a way of life must also be a community of trust made possible by speaking truth to one another….[i]
That the churches have focused on growth through the attraction of “young families” is precisely because they have forsaken evangelism for procreation—the latter being more popular. And that Christians have made, as Hauerwas puts it, “a fetish of the family” suggests that they have misunderstood that the church is God’s new primary community through which he does his work, not the family unit. It is the church who provides family to the family-less. It is the church which redeems the brokenness within our families. It is the work of the Holy Spirit within the church which makes whole that which has been broken within us in our families.
However, the danger for the church corporate in this fetish is that by focusing on “young families,” we ignore those whom Jesus came to serve: the widows, the lonely, the prostitute, the beggar, the lame, the disabled. Unfortunately, these folks (though loved by God) have little buying power in church growth models predicated on corporate business principles. We begin to see the church as a corporation selling a product to the most lucrative demographic, rather than the kingdom of God loving those whom Jesus came to save. And broken people, like me, are not the right demographic.
The danger for the individual Christian is that he feels he can justify loving his family more than the church. He justifies disservice of the church, even harming his fellow brother, in service of his children because he takes his “family” to be his highest calling and not the Kingdom of God. In essence, he has presumed that his family is the kingdom of God rather than the truth that his family is to serve that kingdom. He forgets Jesus’ command to “hate” father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters (Lk 14:26) for the sake of the kingdom. The danger is he forgets that Jesus calls his children to bear a cross as well as himself and, so, forgets the call of the kingdom in their lives.
It isn’t hard to understand why it has been so difficult to make the distinction. In our consumer economy, the family is the basic unit of society. We need lots of families making more families if we are going to continue selling houses and cars and college educations. Our national economy requires a strong emphasis on families to continue creating more consumers. I don’t think the leaders in our churches have been reflective enough to notice that the church, therefore, has been coopted to provide religious rhetoric that creates a moral imperative for the building of a consumer culture. Therefore, they forget Jesus’ statements about “hating mother and father” for the sake of the kingdom, and Paul’s about singleness. We have forgotten that our “brothers and sisters” are the members of the church now, and not our families at all. We have forgotten that the church is an alternative to the family, a replacement of it. The church is our new family.
And, as a result of that forgetting, we worship an idol. The “family” becomes an idol. It’s an idol that, for some of us, is easier to ignore because our own idols were so very, painfully broken. But it is an idol, nonetheless because, as a result of our worship of it, we hurt Christ’s bride. We do a disservice to the widow, the orphan, the single mom. We devalue the aged and the single. We fight bloody and hateful cultural battles over the vocabulary which the empire uses to refer to marriage and, consequently, make God’s kingdom a group of militant culture warriors. All because we worship an image of the family born in the 50s. We see providing for our children as our highest calling rather than teaching our children about our Christian calling. We stop being a people devoted to being family to those with no family. We stop thinking of ourselves as family to one another in the church.
But, this idolatry is not universal in Christ’s body. In truth, I have found that there is an underground of those who understand the church as I do, who have come to find an alternative to their own broken families within the church. I, for one, having such terrible experiences in my own family can say that there are people in the church all over this country (and the world) who are closer to me than my family could have ever been. And I have loved them and have been loved by them with a love that surpasses understanding—a love I simply cannot put into words. We have been made one together by our participation in Christ. We have been made one by our communion together in his body and blood. We have been made one who were two because of the enmity that was put to death in his flesh. Because of this, I feel I can, like the Lord, say, “Here are my mother and my brothers. Those who do the will of the Lord are my family (Mt 12:46-50).” My family is the church. It is the bride of Christ.
[i] Stan Hauerwas, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Howard Yoder,” a lecture given at the “Sermon on the Mount Theology Conference” (2005). Available on the iTunes Store.