Does Jesus focus on the family?

March 4th, 2015

It almost goes without saying that most Americans, especially Christians, think the family is the foundation of society. To that end, one of our greatest impulses is to use, protect or promote our versions of family in order to maintain, protect and promote a society we deem to be rightly ordered, just and good.

Many American Christians have felt the ground shifting from under our feet over the last decades. From abortion to fatherless homes, from divorce to gay marriage, Christians have felt Christendom crumble beneath us. And the collapse of Christendom has coupled itself with, indeed symbolized itself in, the collapse of the so-called Judeo-Christian family model, leaving evangelicals in a mad scramble to reclaim something of the American familial soul.

But what I want to ask in this post is whether or not we’re asking the family to take on more meaning than it is able to carry. I want to ask if maybe we’re placing a greater load on it than God intended. I want to ask whether or not the family really is the foundation of society, whether or not the trajectory of the family necessarily directs the trajectory of the nation … or even the church.

That I’m asking these questions likely indicates to you that I fundamentally disagree with the way American evangelicals have spoken of the family in recent decades. I think the position we’ve taken only makes sense if we’re anything other than Christ followers. In fact, I will go so far as to claim in what follows that our emphasis on the family as the foundation or savior of society is directly at odds with the way both Jesus and Paul spoke of the family and its place in Christ’s kingdom. For rather than elevating the family, the New Testament in some sense seems to diminish its importance, or to so radically redefine it that its importance takes on a meaning quite different than we assume.

This is not, of course, to say that family isn’t important. If I were accused of saying such a thing I’d have to assume you neither know me nor have read me rightly. It is merely to say that our understanding and emphasis on, particularly biological family, cannot carry the biblical load we’ve placed upon it.

And to demonstrate my point, I think it’s only appropriate to look a number of passages from the New Testament.

Who is Christ’s mother and brothers?: Matthew 12:46-50

While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

The cultural, familial background here is not all that different from our own. Our parents have a high priority in our lives. When they need something, respectful loving children do what they can to meet the needs of their parents within reason. This is probably even more so the familial fact in ancient Israel.

All Jesus’ mother needs in this story is to speak with Jesus. It doesn’t appear to be that demanding of a request. Socially, no matter how famous Jesus is becoming, it’s expected that his mother is given priority. And this expectation sets the stage for Jesus to completely turn the idea of family on its head.

Jesus responds to his mother’s simple request by redefining family, and thus priority, around obedience to his will rather than biological lineage. “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother,” he says. In other words, the family of Jesus is less concerned with flesh and blood, and is more concerned with alignment with the revealed will of God. If Jesus thought the biological family was the foundation of society, he sure did have a weird way of showing it, especially given that he seems to go out of his way to make the point otherwise.

Taking a sword to the family: Matthew 10:34

In Matthew 10 Jesus has sent out his 12 disciples on their first lone mission. In this, he is sending out his new family. They are symbolically the new Israel, the new “sons of God.” As such they spend their time reclaiming God’s authority over creation by driving out demons and healing the sick. As the family of new creation in the midst of old creation, they will encounter resistance, even be put to death. But the force of their witness and the power of their words will create enmity within the biological families to which they preach.

Jesus tells them to expect this enmity and resistance when he says, “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.

The hatred others feel toward them will result in not only a general societal marginalization, but actually a familial marginalization. The resources, encouragement, love, and protection once given by their biological family will be forfeited on the altar of preaching the gospel. In short, they will be cut off from their biological families because of Jesus and his message.

In case there is any question about what the disciples of Jesus should expect, Jesus makes the issue even more clear:

“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.’

If Jesus intends to reinforce the centrality of the biological family, he’s doing a terrible job of it. But these words communicate rather clearly that his intention is quite the opposite. Jesus has no interest in protecting the biological family as the so-called foundation of society. He has a different family with a different society he’s interested in creating. Those who love and obey him are, as we’ve seen, his new family. And this new spiritual family is to take on those old responsibilities once borne by the biological family: Protection, love, encouragement, challenge, resources, etc.

Jesus did not come to bring peace and prosperity to biological family. He did not come to reinforce the biological family’s prominence in society. He did not come to centralize the family as the foundation of society. He came to start a new family with a new brotherhood and sisterhood, a new idea of fatherhood and motherhood, and that at times meant the rending and slicing up of biological family ties. Those of us who did not grow up in Christian homes know the reality of this all too well. Commitment to Christ can sever familial bonds, but it intends to create all new ones.

Neither marriage nor giving in marriage: Matthew 22:30

In the larger context of Matthew 22:30, a man is asking Jesus about what marriage will look like in the resurrection. Asked in a society specific way, the man is essentially wondering who a woman will be married to in the resurrection if she has multiple husbands who have died on her. Jesus’ response is interesting: "At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven."

Stay with me here as I wander and circle back to the profound statement Jesus is making. The way the kingdom of God works is that there is this already/not yet aspect. In the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the kingdom of God – indeed, the resurrection itself – is already taking place in our world. The tension of Christian ethics is navigating the already/not yet realities of the kingdom. We are to embody the what the kingdom will look like while living in a world where that kingdom is only partially realized/arrived.

What Jesus is telling us with these words is that when the final resurrection occurs, when the kingdom of God is fully actualized on earth as it is in heaven, there will be no marriage. By implication, therefore, neither marriage nor family is central to the kingdom of God, either now or later.

As tangible evidence that Jesus did not hold the biological family as central to the kingdom of God, we see that Jesus remained single his entire life. He lived his life in singleness as a witness to his theological belief that the family is not the center of God’s kingdom. If marriage and family were the stabilizing center of society, then surely Jesus would have seen it as imperative that he participate. While he certainly doesn’t seem to be against marriage and family (as illustrated by his attendance and assistance at the wedding at Cana), Jesus does not assume that marriage and family are the center of society or even foundation so the kingdom of God. And therefore he does not assume that saving the family will initiate that kingdom or provide social salvation.

Paul and singleness: 1 Corinthians 7

The Corinthian church is known in Scripture for its distorted family relationships. Using their newfound freedom in Christ, the Corinthians seem to be falling into all kinds of familial and sexual immoralities, including one particular man who is having sex with his father’s wife.

Apparently they’ve written a letter to Paul to explain the extent of their moral freedoms, and as any one who’s ever studied I Corinthians knows, Paul’s return letter is sometimes difficult to interpret because we have to discern “Corinthian slogans” of freedom and immorality from what Paul actually thinks.

For example, when Paul says, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman,” Paul is not advocating what it appears he’s advocating. Rather, Paul is quoting a slogan being used in the Corinthian church to advocate a sort of sexual abstinence amongst spouses. Rather, Paul says that, due to the prevalence of sexual immorality among the Corinthians, they should be having sex with their spouses, not avoiding it.

Now, within this context we circle around to our discussion at hand. In the middle of this discussion of sex and marriage, Paul tells the Corinthians (gasp!) that it’s better for them not to marry at all if they can manage the temptations of abstinence:

Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry,for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this. … A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is — and I think that I too have the Spirit of God.

Now look, if Paul’s main concern were the situation of the biological family, or raising biological families that will be the foundation of society, or of making sure that everyone gets married so that they can produce Christian offspring, then all the recommendations for singleness make absolutely no sense.

And this isn’t just some awkward, buried thing the Apostle Paul said. No, Jesus says the same kind of thing in Luke’s Gospel (paralleling the passage we cited in Matthew earlier) when some Sadducees (who don’t believe in a resurrection) asked him who a woman belongs to in the resurrection if she’s been widowed more than once. Jesus’ reply decentralizes marriage and family in the new creation and therefore in his kingdom:

Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.

Let’s just be honest about this: Jesus is weird. And what he’s saying here is incredibly weird. He’s saying that the people of this age are concerned about things like marriage and family, while people of the age of resurrection are concerned about being God’s children and therefore will not marry.

And lest you want to try to get Jesus off the hook by claiming that Jesus is talking about the next life, notice that he’s explicitly addressing people who are worthy of the next life because they didn’t marry in this life. He is not talking about no marriage in eternity, he’s discussing singleness as the ideal of the kingdom right here, right now. He has essentially tied those who marry and are given in marriage as part of a former age, the age prior to the resurrection of Jesus and the arrival of the kingdom.

Again, this is not to say that Jesus doesn’t value family (his honoring of his mother in other places proves otherwise), but it is to say that for Jesus family is not the foundation of society, the church or the new creation. Indeed, Jesus’ language is so strong that it cannot even be mistaken for anything other than a radical and quite odd way of viewing the family. For us to therefore elevate the family to a centralized position in society is to completely ignore Jesus’ words…which, admittedly, would be a nice thing to do as a person who is married and loves being married!

Brothers and sisters

Finally, as one last example, it is clear that the earliest Christians understood the radical new family Jesus instituted was centered around belief and obedience to Christ. So thoroughly did the idea of a new family, defined spiritually not biologically, penetrate their thoughts that they even came to refer to each other as “brothers and sisters.” More traditional churches still maintain this language, “Brother so-and-so is our deacon…”

The idea here is not the institution of new, nice religious titles. The early church really did believe that they were a new family, called by their Father God into the fellowship of His Son – our brother, by the way – Jesus. Everywhere you see Paul and others urge their “brothers and sisters in the Lord” to some activity, they are making an appeal to the fact that the church is the new family arrangement. The church is the foundation of a new creation society.

Or better stated: The church is a new kind of family and a new society all wrapped up in one.

I love my brothers and my sister, but my biological ties to them are not nearly as tight as they are with the people with whom I have scaled the mountains of faith. I loved my mom and dad as well as a son can, but I have other mothers and fathers that understand me even more deeply because we share a common belief. My mother and father-in-law are great in-laws, but what makes them truly my family isn’t that I married their daughter, but that we love the same God and His Son, Jesus.

In the end…

Is it possible one of the reasons the American family is in trouble is because we Christians have placed upon it unwarranted expectations and then judged it according to those expectations? Traditional families won’t save America. There is no soteriology of the family in Scripture. The family didn’t die for us. The family didn’t resurrect for us. The family won’t even exist in the new heavens and the new earth. Maybe, and I say this with the utmost respect and love for biological family, maybe we’ve placed on the family a yoke it was never capable carrying.

In the end, I appreciate the fact that the church in America wants to reclaim family language, but I think our emphasis in the culture wars has led us to a place where we claim too much for biological family. Is the biological family the center of society? I think there are probably good sociological reasons for making this assertion. But let’s not confuse sociological truth with the radical, new family claims of Jesus and the biblical text. We may certainly, and rightly, have much to say about the Abortion, marriage, divorce and whatever. But let’s make sure we say those things in the right theological, biblical context. We don’t need to create new teachings in order to be a prophetic voice. The scriptural truths are more than sufficient for such a task.

Your turn: What do you think about the radical family claims of Jesus and Paul? How do they align with what you’ve heard taught in church? What do you think would be the implications if we took their claims seriously?

Tom Fuerst blogs at You can subscribe to his blog via email here.

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