In an era of evangelicalism where there are church ministries built around the idea of “family,” marriage has become the focus of countless books and sermons and “family friendly” entertainment has become synonymous with “Christian” entertainment, is there a risk of distorting what the biblical intention of the family unit really is?
What happens when we put too much emphasis on our idea of what family should look like?
The Importance of ‘Family’
The Bible does have a lot to say about the significance of the family structure.
Family is the chief biblical metaphor to describe how God relates to us. God is our Father and we are His children. Jesus is husband and we are His Bride, the Church. “We are our Beloved’s, and our Beloved is ours,” says Solomon’s Song.
The marriage between a man and a woman, in the purest sense, is a pointer to and picture of the love between Christ and the Church. In our shared union with Christ, we are also sisters and brothers to each other.
God established three structures to advance His Kingdom and support the flourishing of societies and persons: the Church, government and the nuclear family. As the family goes, so goes a society.
But like any good thing, when family becomes the main thing, it can cause more harm than good.
A Good Thing Made Into the Ultimate Thing Becomes a Broken Thing
In the modern West, faith communities have been known to elevate the nuclear family as the apex of human existence. When this happens, it can lead to unanticipated wounds and alienation for those whose family narratives may not be considered “traditional” in some circles.
For example, when churches make mothers the center of attention on Mother’s Day, many sit in observation, silent and sorrowful, as salt is added to the wound of an estranged mother/child relationship, or an infertility situation or some other pain.
Like any calling, the calling of motherhood should be celebrated—but with a much greater thoughtfulness and sensitivity than what is common in family-centered churches. When we think and act as if the intact nuclear family is what “completes” our Christianity, then everyone, including intact nuclear families, will miss out on God’s ideal.
The nuclear family is a wonderful servant to God’s purposes. But like any created thing, it is a poor master and an even worse lord and savior.
A Jaded (and Wrong) View of Singleness
When the nuclear family is treated as the end-all-be-all in churches, it tempts single men and women to believe that they will never be complete until they find that “special someone” to spend their lives with.
But this is a lie. As my friend Paige Brown once said—as a single Christian woman with no marriage prospects who wanted very much to be married—it is not our marital status that defines us and makes us special; it is our redemptive status. According to Paige (and Scripture), it is impossible for God to shortchange any of His children: If she meets the man of her dreams and lives happily ever after, it will be because God is so good to her. If she never marries, it will be because God is so good to her.
Do we believe this in our churches? What’s more, do we act like we believe it?
Rather than feed the false view that the single life is the unfulfilled life, the Church must renew its vision for singleness as a high and honored calling—one that was shared by the Apostle Paul and Jesus, no less—that positions uncoupled men and women to serve God’s Kingdom with unhindered focus, creativity and zeal.
It’s also helpful, if not essential, to realize that disproportionate emphasis on the nuclear family diminishes family itself. Marriages often collapse not because husband and wife put too little stock in their marriage, but because they put too much stock in marriage.
The more loosely to marriage and the more tightly to Jesus we cling, the tighter marriages will be. But when we cling to marriage more than we cling to Jesus, irritation turns into hurt, then hurt turns into anger. Anger turns into a grudge, and a grudge turns into hatred. Hatred turns into refusal to forgive. And then, too often, someone lawyers up.
When humble apologies, forgiveness and new beginnings can no longer be found in a marriage, there’s usually something deeper going on. It usually means that one or both spouses are demanding that the other be a savior, a true north, an ultimate source of joy and fulfillment and meaning.
But as millions have discovered, it’s always a disaster when one broken sinner demands that another broken sinner be their Jesus. Only Jesus can be the Spouse who will never let us down.
Treating the nuclear family as lord and savior also weakens parenting. Over-emphasis on children in the west has led many moms and dads to parent their children out of neediness instead of healthy love as opposed to dysfunctional love, which is self-love disguised as love for the child.
If our “love” escalates into a demand that our children think, believe, achieve or behave in a certain way before we will approve of them, it is only a matter of time before we melt down and punish.
This is what you call reversing the flow of the umbilical cord: Parents demanding that their children be their source of life; their emotional nourishment; their ultimate meaning in the universe—their Jesus. But this always ends in sorrow and alienation and loss. As in marriage, we must relieve children of the burden of providing for us things that only God can.
There’s Only One Permanent Family
Scripture is quite clear that in the end and forevermore, the nuclear family is a temporary entity. We raise children with the goal of releasing them as adults into the hands of God.
Similarly, when Jesus returns, those of us who are married will release our spouses into His arms. From that point forward, there will be just one marriage—Jesus, the everlasting Bridegroom, and the Church, His everlasting Bride. In His Kingdom, there will be no more marriage or giving in marriage, because we will be our Beloved’s, and our Beloved will be ours.
Don’t let your family become your Jesus. Instead, let Jesus become your family.
If you do, your family will thank you for it.
Scott Sauls is senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee and author of several books. He also blogs weekly at scottsauls.com, and can be found on social media at @scottsauls.