Monday, August 08, 2016

No, the Church Isn't More Important Than Family

My wife and I had a conversation not too long ago about what we see ourselves doing the next decade or so. We're in the middle of some home renovation projects, and that helped provide the context of what we discussed, centering on the question, "How can we stay here for a while?"

I grew up a preacher's kid. Before I myself entered full-time pastoral ministry, the longest I'd lived anywhere was about 5 1/2 years. This included a move in the middle of junior high, which was incredibly difficult for multiple reasons. Remembering all of this, I vowed to try to create something different for my own family so they could avoid experiencing some of the things I did. So by the time my wife and I stood in the kitchen just talking some of this out, we agreed that once our firstborn gets to middle school, we'll do our best to see him and his younger sister through the same district to graduation.

This has certain implications for someone in a profession that tends to feature moving around. I don't yet know how long I'll be in my current pastorate, but my intention is to stay for a while yet. Even though it's been 3 1/2 years it feels like we're still just getting started, so this has the potential to be a long partnership. But if and when I've discerned that the hour has come for me to transition to a new ministry position, I'll have to carefully weigh my family's needs and do my best to give preference to my kids being able to stay in their current location, whatever that might look like for us.

Some apparently don't like this kind of thinking, the kind that prioritizes family over the church, or even at the least weighs the needs of each in tandem. Over the years, I've heard many voices bang the drum of "sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice," stating that church and ministry should always come first and if that means the family has to take a backseat to its needs or to where you feel called, then that's an egg you just have to go ahead and break.

One such voice has been making the rounds recently. In an article on the Christianity Today website, Joseph Hellerman argues that (this is the actual title) our priorities are off when family is more important than church. Early on, he laments:
American adults, according to a recent Barna study, are “most likely to point to their family as making up a significant part their personal identity.” Country and God come next. Christians are no exception; natural family has usurped God and his family as the primary identity marker for most church-goers. 
Most of us prioritize our commitment to family above our commitment to the church. This is unfortunate, because the Bible offers us a different set of relational priorities.
The complete conflation of God and the church is my first problem. He'll do this several times throughout his piece. This is a common tactic I've seen to guilt people into remaining with faith communities that are unhelpful, destructive, and spiritually draining. This line of thought presupposes that the institutional church is the official earthly representation of the "family of God," a term that pops up often in Hellerman's post.

This leads us to another problem: the assumption that formal church organizations are the only authentic experience of God in community. This often goes unexamined, largely because the people who make this argument are so embedded in church life that they can't envision anything different. I've seen this mindset at work my whole life and confess that I get caught up in it myself as a church worker, especially in moments of frustration.

But let's discuss the core theological claim of this article for a moment. The term "family of God" comes from several statements that Jesus makes in the Gospels. The primary passage cited comes from Matthew 12:46-50:
While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And 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.”
Is this a clear rejection of his biological family in favor of some greater concept of family? That is not immediately clear. We are not told one way or the other that Jesus never opened the doors to speak with his mother and brothers. We are not told that he had them sent away, cut off from relationship for the rest of his life (and given that his brother James ends up as a prominent figure in the Jerusalem church, he probably didn't). All we know is that he used this request from his family as a teaching moment for the crowd, a statement to help expand people's notion of what it means to be in community based on discipleship.

Does Jesus seem to prioritize this new concept of family over biological family? Again, given what this passage doesn't say but what we can deduce from James' eventual position (along with Jesus seeing to it that his mother is cared for while hanging on the cross in John 19), he does not seem to reject earthly concepts of family as suggested by the CT article.

So what can we do with the term "family of God?" Is the vision of the church as a community on which people can or should rely for support, care, and mutuality a bad one? I certainly would not argue that. In times of both despair and joy, the church should be a place where people can commiserate with their fellow believers, seeking love and concern. It should be a place where, as Paul says, we bear one another's burdens, weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice.

But we sabotage ourselves when we insist that people do this at the expense of their loved ones; that it's somehow the only correct way to be in relationship with others.

Many within the church are familiar by now with the difficulty of scheduling ministries and programming when practices and school activities have become much more demanding than they seemingly have in the past. Insisting that the church is your true family that you've chosen to neglect is one defense mechanism in response to this reality. And it's one founded on shame, not love.

Am I really to say to the family still reeling from the death of their husband and father a year later that they should all be back in church, insisting that they should be getting their support here and not somewhere else? Should I really knock on the door of a family facing serious health concerns that they really need to start showing up more on Sundays so we can pray over them and stick the decisions constantly preoccupying their time and sapping their energy on the back burner? When the day comes for me to leave my current pastoral position, should I really make plans to move my family to a new community with a simple, "suck it up, this is how it works," without any realistic, respectful, loving conversation?

Or in each of these scenarios, where vows were made to God in marriage and at baptism to care for one another in the complex and dynamic context of these particular relationships, do those promises suddenly no longer matter?

A more caring response in these cases would be: "We know things are difficult, and we want to provide what we can and to be present for you. But if you don't want that right now, we hope and pray that you're receiving what you need from people you trust. We'll be here if or when things change."

Insisting that the institutional church 1) is the incarnation of God on earth and 2) matters more than any other notion of family, to say nothing of the church 3) being full of human beings who can be spectacularly efficient at getting things wrong is the be-all and end-all of faithful community can be more damaging than articles like this realize. It advocates for neglect of real needs among God's people. It assumes that we only have one vocation as members of the church as opposed to several that may include roles of spouse or parent. And it forgets that the context of family--particularly as it is marked in church rituals, of all things--includes promises made to love and care for one another in those relationships.

So no, our priorities aren't "off" when family is more important than the church. Instead, it means we're being faithful in a different, fuller, more complete way.