The Family, the Church, and the Kingdom: What Comes First?

Text: Luke 14:25-33

What if I told you that Jesus asks you to give up your family? What if I said he bids your family to come and die? Well, that’s exactly what he did say: “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26). And he didn’t talk like this just once. No, he seems to have poked people’s sensitivities on this point a few times. For example:

Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’  He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. (Matt. 10:34-37)

What does Jesus mean by talking like this, and what are we to make of it for our own families today? How does this teaching instruct us to go about making our priorities in life, and what does it mean for the church? Do we always need to put the family first, or are there other considerations?

Hate Your Family?

Hate your family? Those sharp words are meant to grab your attention in order to teach a deep spiritual truth. Jesus doesn’t mean that you have to dislike your family. You don’t have to have especially hostile feelings towards them. You don’t even have to try to do things which will show displeasure towards them. The point is that you have to be willing to put your faith ahead of all of your earthly possessions, commitments, and relationships, even your family. You must “hate” your family in the same way that you must “hate” your own life. Jesus means that you must be willing to sacrifice them if that’s what it takes to follow Him.

Notice how that verse connects to the parable of the great supper just above it:

A certain man gave a great supper and invited many, and sent his servant at supper time to say to those who were invited, “Come, for all things are now ready.” But they all with one accord began to make excuses. …another said, “I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.” So that servant came and reported these things to his master. …Then the master said to the servant, “Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. For I say to you that none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper.” (Luke 14:16-24)

The fact that Jesus immediately follows this parable up with his statement about how we must be willing to forsake our commitments makes the connection plain. If we cannot “hate” our father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, then we are like those men who were unable to accept the invitation to the feast. We may want to go to the feast, but we can’t because we have important worldly obligations. Notice that one of the excuses is “I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.” There it is—the man’s marriage got in the way. He could not be the master’s disciple. And Jesus then turns to his audience and says “Don’t be like those men.” If anything claims a higher allegiance in our lives, we must be willing to give them up.

Jesus Before the Family  

Conservative Reformed and Evangelical Christians—Christians like us—don’t have a big problem with general calls to forsake all and follow Christ. I can even tell you that you are called to sacrifice good things in life for the higher calling of Jesus and His ministry. That is all rather familiar, and we applaud it as noble and honorable. You will probably allow me to say that you must sacrifice popularity, respectability, money, and even certain freedoms and benefits, all for Jesus. But if I single out the family, as Jesus Himself did, and say that you must be willing to sacrifice your family for Jesus, then things get a little more difficult. Our hair bristles. Our backs arch. We don’t like it.

This really is an awkward point. After all, we have been emphasizing the importance of the family in this very sermon series. The family is very important, and in our day it is under attack on many fronts. It seems natural that we would rally around it and ask people to focus on it. But still, we need to make this point clear. The family is not the most important thing in life. The family is not the most important thing in your life. The family is not the most important thing in my life. Jesus is.

On one level, saying that Jesus is the most important thing is obvious. It’s the kind of answer that we are taught from our earliest ages. But we often do not “count the cost,” as Jesus instructs us in Luke’s gospel. We have a number of assumptions about what following Jesus will look like, and we usually form of a picture that includes comforting images of family, home, and tradition, all alongside Jesus and part of a unified program. We do not always take the time to consider that some of these things could themselves become competitors to Jesus, or, in the words of the Bible, idols.

Can the family really be an idol? We have said that the family is a Biblical concept, and that we are called to ordinarily make families, provide for them, and honor them. Nevertheless, we must understand that the family is an earthly thing. In a world without sin, the family would be an exclusively good thing, but of course, we do not live in that kind of world. In our world, families are fallen, and they are made up of sinners. Did you know that? Everyone in your family is a sinner? And this means that sometimes they will desire things that are not good. They will occasionally put their own interests ahead of the other members of their family. They will sometimes want things that aren’t even good for themselves! And so a kind and loving family-member must be able to repent of his own sins and call to correction those sins in his family. A kind and loving family-member must be willing and able to allow Jesus to correct and sanctify his family.

But there’s an even deeper level to all of this. In a perfect world, the family would still be earthly, by which I mean that it always is a created thing, created by God, and thus it always owes its allegiance and worship to God. It is also temporary. The family will come to its fulfillment and expire. “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven” (Matt. 22:30). This can be difficult to accept. I do believe that ties of love and affection will continue, however mysteriously, and yet, it seems clear enough that the family as we experience it now will be dramatically transformed and, in some ways, done away with once Jesus brings about the end of history. If this teaching gets under our skin, makes us greatly disappointed, or makes us angry, then we need to examine our hearts and consider our priorities. Over and against Mormonism, Orthodox Christianity has always denied that the family is eternal.

The reason that earthly families will be transformed and even partially done away with is because the earthly institution of the family is itself modeled after the divine family. Now, when I say “divine family,” I do not mean that the Trinity is a family. Not in any kind of human sense, anyway That would actually be polytheism. What I mean is that God is our universal father, and we are all His family. Consider these verses:

While He was still talking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brothers stood outside, seeking to speak with Him. Then one said to Him, “Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak with You.”

But He answered and said to the one who told Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and 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.” (Matt. 12:46-50)

Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. (Matt. 23:9)

Now, obviously there is a sense in which our mother and brothers are, well, our mother and our brothers. And there is an equally obvious sense in which our earthly father is our father. But Jesus still makes a point to say that our spiritual father, and our spiritual brother, sister, and mother are more important. “There is one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Ephesians 4:6). Who is a son of Abraham? “Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7). And this is all true because were created by God and we were redeemed and adopted by Him:

…if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God… (Rom. 8:13-16)

God is our first father. Never forget that. Before you were children of your mother and father on earth, you were children of God, and after you cease to be children of your mother and father on earth, you will always be children of God.

The Family or the Church? Seek Ye First the Kingdom

Now, so far we have been talking about the family’s relationship to Jesus. It is a very different thing to talk about the relationship of the family to the church. There are some points of overlap, but there are also some big differences for the simple reason that the church is not Jesus. But Jesus did found the church, and He entrusted it with the ministry of His gospel and the proclamation of His kingdom. So when we ask about how the family should relate to the church, or which is more important, we need to keep in mind that there isn’t a competition between the two but rather the fact that both have to submit to Christ and His kingdom.

When we say “the church” we can mean a few different things. On the most basic level, “the church” means the people of God, all who believe. In this sense it is not institutional. But there is another sense in which “the church” applies to the formal gathering and organization of those people in specific places, to this church or that church. This is a legitimate definition of the church, and in this sense we have to keep in mind that churches always exist as specific and concrete groups. We shouldn’t mix things up and assume that “the church” as specific congregation is the same as the universal church or that it can do the things which the universal church does through other specific bodies. Our church is one thing, and it has its gifts and its limitations. I make this point just so that we are clear. Christ Church Lakeland should not just go around saying that it is “more important than your family.” That wouldn’t be correct. But, there are things which we do, gifts we are given, duties we are entrusted with, and a community and service to which we are called that are “more important than your family.” How can we tell the difference?

There are some basics here which are true for all times and places. The faithful preaching and teaching of the Word of God is more important than the family. This doesn’t mean that the preaching and teaching has to be 100% totally and exhaustively correct or even the best out there. All preachers have their shortcomings and flaws. But the preaching and teaching does need to be Biblical, honest, and consistent. A church with great programs, sports leagues, and lots of friends is still not a promoting the kingdom if it does not have biblical preaching and teaching.

I would also say that worship, including some of its particular styles and expressions, is more important than the family. The principal act of worship is worship, by which we mean the direction of our hearts and minds to God and His majesty. That’s the first thing, and it’s the first thing by a long shot. Whatever worship service you attend, it must have that as its chief goal. Any worship that is primarily man-focused, whether it be entertainment or activism, is not directing us to God. Any worship which panders to changing moods, trends, or even current events is in danger of missing this point. We can and should relate our current events and situations to God, David certainly did this in the psalms, but we need to make sure that we are actually offering them to God for Him to do as He pleases and that we are open to God changing us by them or using them for purposes which are bigger than our lives and our families.

And what we often call “the communion of the saints” is also more important than the family. This includes the fellowship, shared community-life, and even goods, money, and service of Christians in a particular place. This can and usually should include families, but it can also challenge the family from time to time. Consider the following scenario. You receive a bonus at work. You can use this money to take your family to Disney, or you can give to the church for a charitable fund. Which one promotes the kingdom of Christ? If you believe the charity is good and noble, then the choice ought to be obvious.

But I know that it’s not always black and white. And I know that you know that. Not every activity or self-proclaimed “ministry” a congregation does is really the best thing or necessarily more important than your family. Churches should not pile up lots of programs and activities which crowd out the family. Churches shouldn’t be focused on themselves either, but on helping and serving their members and those around them in need. So godly churches have to work to support and promote families and homes. There is a balance, but because we are typically more self-focused than we like to admit, we need to be very honest with ourselves when we come up with these balances. If one interest always seems to win out, then you have good reason to be suspicious.

There are two primary ways in which the family can seek to overshadow the church and keep you from your duties. The first is by being a homebody and never sharing your family with others. If all of your activities are at home, most everything you do is made up exclusively of family members, and you just don’t really give up your time and resources to others then you have a problem.

There’s an opposite danger too, that of perpetual busyness. If, in the name of giving your family the best of everything, you are running all over the state, finding the best sports leagues, going on exotic vacations, piling up clubs and parties and outings and events, and you never actually have any time to just slow down, sit with your neighbors, and build lasting and rooted relationships, then you are actually being just as self-focused as the homebody.

Families can be very happy, strong, and successful without being too busy. The strongest families are those who open themselves up to other families and other groups of people, especially those kinds of people who are not naturally attractive to them. A family that is seeking the kingdom is going to choose acts of worship, service, and Christian fellowship over recreation. Sometimes there are recreational activities which also promote Christian fellowship, and that is an ideal pairing, but sometimes we have will be called to prioritize something which will promote true Christian fellowship but not be as much fun or as successful as some other activity which we really like to do.

Conclusion

A good church ought to be family-friendly. We have made this point many times. A church which exhausts or swallows up the family with endless programs and insensitive and unhelpful projects is not seeking the kingdom. But a good family ought to be church-friendly as well. It ought to be willing to pitch in and share its time, its resources and it’s self, even in ways that stretch and challenge it. Seek ye first the kingdom.

A wise church knows that it isn’t everything. It should have some very simple and basic requirements which are absolutely essential. There can be a sort of spectrum of non-essential but still helpful and important things after that, but it needs to know its limits and not try to do everything. At the same time, our families and other worldly commitments need to be honest as well. We need to bring our priorities to the Lord and ask Him to sift through them and teach us our true calling. He gives you a cross, after all! Ask Him to show you how to bear it.

Jesus says you might have to hate your life. He says you might have to hate your family. It’s a cross you must bear if you follow Him. What do you really value in life? Where is your treasure? But the good news is that, if you do bear that cross, and if you do seek the kingdom first, then all the rest will be added to you.

Let us pray.

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3 thoughts on “The Family, the Church, and the Kingdom: What Comes First?

  1. Thanks for writing this! I’ve been struggling with balancing family with church and community responsibilities for awhile. When my kids were small it was possible to meet their needs while also serving the church and outer community. Now I often must pick and choose.

    There are many ladies in my church who think I am selfish for homeschooling my six children. They believe I’m making an idol out of my kids. And, after all, they say, the public school down the street is good. I don’t think that is an option, but honestly, I do feel guilty I’m not able to do more outside of my home. I live in one of the poorest, most crime ridden cities in the south and I just drive right by those people hobbling down the sidewalk, bent with exhaustion. Then I drive home and teach my kids Herodotus. It feels so detached. Giving money or food and driving away just seems insufficient. Broken people need relationship. I have health issues and I can’t do both.

    Most of the ladies in my church are too busy driving their kids to activities and watching plays to serve. It’s easy to call them materialist, but maybe I’m just being a different kind of materialist – a gatherer of more knowledge than anyone really needs. I’m considering giving up the whole classical model next school year, so I can have more time for others. There’s nothing else to give up. On the other hand, I only have my kids for 10 more years, and they ask so many big questions. I’d hate to send them to an atheist professor unarmed. Maybe it is a season. It’s a hard one for me. I wish it were just a matter of giving up a Disney trip.

    I do think, though, that what I am doing for my family *is* for the church and for God, at least that’s my intent. My family is part of the church, the part I happen to have the most influence over. I’ve never quite understood the dichotomy. Sorry this is so long and a bit tangential. It’s been an issue on my mind.

  2. Brandie,

    Thanks for writing. It sounds like you’re putting the appropriate thought into what you’re doing. I think you should stick with the classical education. I don’t see why that should be an issue, since you’re committed to homeschooling either way.

    You can consider ways to open up your home to the people in your community. If you can do activities from there, and invite people in, then you do both outreach and discipleship. You’ll need help- a husband and father hopefully- but it could be a promising avenue. Lots of times we get scared off by the possibilities of poorer or different kinds of people entering our lives, and it can be tricky. But there are plenty of lower middle class and “working class” types that strike us as “poor” but are not at all criminal or mentally disabled. Why not host a neighborhood cook-out with games and activities for the kids but also social time for adults?

  3. Thanks for replying! I realized, after reading this post through again, and after reading your reply, that this article is not aimed at me. I am not struggling with balance because I am an upper middle class lady who is just beginning to think about these things.( I kind of chuckled when I read I shouldn’t be scared off of the working class. Good! I can keep inviting my friends over!) Instead, I am struggling as a person who has had everyone in the neighborhood over till every kid knew the gospel, who has had thousands of dollars of damage done, when I couldn’t afford it, who has realized that my children’s basic education and personality development is suffering because I have tried to please the missional people in my church.
    I tried doing both, lots of ministering outside and inside my home. I ended up doing both badly and ruining my health. I am sick all the time now and I’m trying to catch my children up to where they should be. It seems the only way to be a committed Christian now days is to evangelize the poor. The mantra I hear is, “It’s not all about you and your family.” “It’s not all about you and your church.” “Don’t throw money at it, actually physically serve church and city.” I’m noticing that most families trying to do all this, like me, just end up doing them all badly. This “missional” or “culturalist” advice seems to directly contradict Paul’s teaching on the functions of the body, but here I am disagreeing with graduates of theology school. Maybe I just can’t see past my own idol.
    So, I feel I’m at this point imbalanced. I do a few things to serve my church, but nothing really to serve my city. I spend way more time and money on my own family, meaning I feed them and clothe them with second hand clothes. I have no money to give up, except money spent on curriculum. We live simply. I don’t have time to give. The only thing I have to give up is Classical Education. I must admit, sharing knowledge with my kids is one of my chief delights, I’m just no sure if, in our dumbed down society, it’s really fully necessary. When people ask about my home schooling and I tell people I’m reading through the great books with my kids, I’m usually treated as,”Oh, well, aren’t *you* so wonderful,” , as if I’m being prideful. I’m actually trying to be humble, trying to see past my own biases. By the way, it is much more time consuming to educate a large family classically than traditionally. My time would be freed up tremendously if just used My Father’s World, or something like that.
    This topic is really important to me not just for myself, but because I see so many other ladies feeling pressured to give up homeschooling, being afraid to take the time to read to their kids,etc… It seems to me the idol of family is being replaced by the idol of community in some corners of the PCA. I guess, I’m trying to figure this out more clearly so I can pass on the clarity to other large, exhausted families, and maybe somehow be an encouragement. I don’t think your article reflects an idol of community at all, though. You seemed to be a person reflecting on this topic who also values family, and knows it’s all about Christ, which is why I commented. Thanks for forbearing with my super long comments. I know you have moved on in your blog, so please don’t feel pressured to reply.

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