What's so Christian about family?

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May 9, 2012
Susie Guenther Loewen |

I’ve been getting the feeling lately that we’re not asking ourselves this question very often, if at all. In our society, Christianity and “family values” are understood as synonymous, whether for Catholics (who focus on the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus – see image, found here – and a belief that marriage is a sacrament, a vehicle for God’s grace) or Protestants (who seem to talk a lot about the wholesomeness, sanctity, and “threatened” status of the nuclear family, particularly in the U.S.). Among Mennonites, the customs of marriage and having children are much the same as for others, aside from the vast networks of extended families and obsessions with family lineages that are apparent in Mennonite circles. But I’ve been uncomfortable with the way we equate faith and family for quite some time, because I really don’t think it’s that simple.

I’ve been reading lately about how Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder emphasized that Christians actually shouldn’t be all about family, that family values can actually get in the way of the calling of the church, especially a church which practices believer’s/adult baptism. This practice symbolizes that faith isn’t something passed down from parents to children, but rather, something each generation of church members must decide to commit to on its own (see Gerald Schlabach's article in the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 27, no. 2). This is understandable if you consider that radical discipleship involves placing yourself at risk, even risking your life in following Jesus’ way of peace. It’s also in keeping with some aspects of Jesus’ teachings, certain passages we tend not to read in church very often, since they’re pretty much anti-family! In Matthew 10:37-38, Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (I don’t think we’ll be reading that one in church on Mother’s Day!) A couple of chapters later, Jesus refuses to see his mother and siblings, who want to talk to him, and speaks of a drastic redefinition of family: “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (12:50). I think it’s important that these passages show up in Matthew, the most “Jewish” of the gospels, since the customs of the Jewish community of that time, much like Mennonites today, centred around kin and bloodlines. There’s a danger, then, of “famolatry,” of idolizing the family; an exclusive focus on those you’re related to, especially the capitalist dream of the suburban “nuclear” family, is a version of narcissism, a form of selfishness that can prevent you from the radical openness and redefinition of family that the faith requires. In terms of traditional gender roles, there’s also the issue of women being limited to “family” concerns, which prevents them from contributing to wider, more public issues, and from using the gifts they have in the wider community, to the benefit of more than just their own children and spouse.

But this isn’t to say that family is altogether negative or faith-destroying; here I think that Yoder was a bit extreme (and so does Schlabach). Though Jesus says the harsh words above, we also see a Jesus who affirms key aspects of family: he affirms the goodness of faithful marriage (Matt. 5:27-32, John 2:1-11), welcomes the children and blesses them (Matt. 19:14, Mark 10:14, Luke 18:16), and even while being crucified, makes sure his mother has someone (an adoptive son) to care for her in her old age (John 19:26-27)! So there’s clearly a pro-family side to Jesus' teachings as well. While family doesn’t constitute the sum of the faith, there is certainly a role that it can play in teaching the faith to children (making possible their later decision as adults), bringing together strangers to form new families (which is what marriage is, really), and supporting one another and the wider friendships and adoptive connections that make up the community of faith. So, while I wouldn’t want to limit women to family life alone, I wouldn’t say that it’s unworthy to be seen as an aspect of faith, as Yoder comes close to doing. It’s important, but it can’t be seen as the only important thing.

If we hold together both sides of Jesus’ statements about family, then, we're left with the sense that there’s a very real temptation to reduce the faith to looking after our own, to a kind of family-tunnel-vision; this is an unfaithful way of being family. But Jesus’ response doesn’t seem to be to do away with family altogether, but to include and broaden it into something larger: the family of faith. So there is also a faithful way to be part of families – when they’re not exclusive but part of the larger church, they can become gatherings of two or three in the name of Christ, where peace is taught and lived, and bread is broken and shared around the table.

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