Perusing the disagreements about sex in the American church can leave a person overwhelmed by different emotions and thoughts. Often, many of the people I talk to about these issues, have experienced sadness, anger, offense, and quite a bit angst. For many, sifting through the exegetical or historical arguments, for good or for poor, can leave a person drained of any desire to attend, let alone pastor, a local church in the contemporary era. Because of this I don’t want to spend any time on the contentious issues of sexuality at the moment. Instead, I want to address an argument I have run across a number of times that has brought me a bit of amusement.
The argument goes somewhat to this effect: it may be all well and good that Christians disagree about what are the correct or incorrect morals of the Christian life, but those with whom you disagree are a part of the family of God. You cannot reject your family but must accept these differences of opinion on the assumption that they are a part of the family of God.
I understand the most simplistic use of this idea. One’s family is an indissoluble bond. The ontological nature of the bond is such that even a disagreement cannot actually destroy it. This is a powerful image. As Dr. Scot McKnight emphasizes, Paul intentionally uses family language in the expected place of friendship language precisely for this reason. Casting the bond created by the Spirit between believers as one of family means the interactions between disagreeing members of a local community of faith, or between opposing communities of faith, must be dictated by the realities of family life.
Yet, it is precisely here, the dictating norms of family existence, that it seems the use of this metaphor becomes unusably empty for us in this current age. This is because America’s posture toward the family in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries can only be described as hatred. Let’s turn to some of the most common societal realities of America. About fifty percent of all children of parents under thirty will be born to unmarried parents, a majority of which will separate by the time the child is five years old. The birth rate continues its overall, decades long decline. In fact, while people are having fewer children they are replacing them with pets. The younger a person or couple is the more likely they are to determine long term financial decisions with pets in mind more than the factors of marriage or children. More than interesting social trends, these studies show a massive culmination in America’s shift from the historical model of creating families through marriage and childbirth to a new cultural way of life assumed to be a common option.
We should also acknowledge the more anecdotal themes of family in our culture since their constant bombardment makes them more real to us by affect than even the statistics referenced above.
There is the idea that you should place your career before having a family, if not in ultimate importance, surely in the chronological order of one’s life.
The oppressive idea that a person should “find themselves” in late teen years through their twenties, even pushing into early to mid-thirties now, is pervasive everywhere. The implicit claim being that the formation of the individual among their family was not their true identity, but identity must be discovered apart from their originating family among friends in a different place. This leads to the idea that friends are one’s true family as marked by the acceptance of the person as they so desire. This chosen friendship-family is contrasted begrudgingly with the connection of the person to their judgmental and demanding biological family. This trope is reflected upon in a plethora of movies and TV shows for the last thirty years.
What’s more, divorce is seen as a positive action for the betterment of the adults and children involved because a person should never feel the stifling constriction of family demands. If family becomes uncomfortable, or you believe you should be someone other than who the family says you are, then the family is an expendable element of life in the pursuit of self-fulfillment. The normalization of broken, and then the unavoidable formation of blended families, attests to our cultural need for fluidity in the definition of family.
Furthermore, the commonality of medicine allows our society to perceive children as commodities. Whether it is controlling when we want to have children with contraception, using science to overcome our infertility, or ridding ourselves of our undesired babies, we have fully accepted the idea that it is humanity’s right to control the existence of our children. We have no need for small alters in our homes at which we should pray to our family gods for mercy or fertility, instead our scientific capabilities have convinced us that we, ourselves, are the gods of our family planning.
Medicine has even shifted the way our society thinks of adoption. Formerly, infertility could not be overcome with medicine. An adopted child would take the place of the child which could not be progenerated and in doing so would receive all of the rights and responsibilities of being in the formerly vacant position in the family. In this way an adopted child would fill an actual place in the family becoming an integral member of the family’s structure. Presently, adoption is fundamentally believed to be the addition of a child in the proximity of an adult who desires to have a child dependent upon them. So now an adopted child simply comes to fulfill the desire of an adult. Such a self-fulfilling view of adoption allows single individuals or couples who do not desire to go through the arduous, self-giving process of pregnancy or same-sex couples, who are incapable of procreating by nature, to believe the desire to care for a child creates a family. Such a concept of self-gratifying adoption, whether or not it is pragmatically beneficial for any particular child, is interchangeable with the culture-wide compulsion to own a pet. This is continually acknowledged in popular jargon as people give voice to our society’s diluted sense of family by referring to pets as “fur babies” and to owners as “pet parents”.
All this to say, American culture has determined that one’s truest family is simply those people, or even animals, a person so desires to confer the identity of family upon. Family for Americans is not the indissoluble bond between a group of people. It may be the way many families seek to view the family, but our socio-cultural norms and language reveals we live very differently than the way we claim. American family is not actually family at all.
The reality is American culture hates family as it has been defined historically. Rather than the rigid social expectations on our bodies created by the family, Americans desire the idea of family to be malleable enough to withstand any form of romantic or sexual relationship with its resultant dysfunctions, or out-of-wedlock pregnancies, or pseudo-family imitations, and their inevitable separations and divorces. Rather than the family’s narrow bond formed by biological interconnection, which is naturally exclusive and cannot be honorarily bestowed at will, Americans desire the idea of family to be an umbrella term, wide enough to bring meaning to relationships with friends and animals. Sadly, this width and pliability only perpetuates the degeneration of the family and self-justifies our hatred for it when it brings limited meaning to our lives and cannot meet our expectations.
The concept of family Paul refers to in the New Testament is one of overwhelming control. It was not an option to rebel against the family’s demands upon you. Your body, given to you by your parents, and the life you lived was determined by your position within the family and the expectations placed on you. There was no option to create a new family out of fragments of other social spheres like friends, like-minded individuals, or pets. Family was an absolute allegiance, one that then bestowed upon you your identity, which in turn cultivated your personality through behavioral expectations and social opportunities.
Your family gives you your identity. You receive who you are from your family, and therefore how you live in this world is something that is taught to you through them.
Paul’s invitation to enter into a community of faith, who will become a person’s new family, is not a call to find acceptance for who they currently are. Instead, it is a call to give oneself to a new family and for them to radically transform the individual through the power of the Spirit’s presence among them. For poor freedman and slaves, those unmoored from a family identity and therefore seemingly empty bodies adrift without purpose, identity, or life, the church offered a salvation of meaningful existence. By giving allegiance to this group, the Spirit bonded you to these people as a family so that the person voluntarily gave themselves to its transformative power. The individual left behind the shadows of who they thought they were and became dedicated to receiving their true identity from the Spirit’s care and rearing through the people of God.
The difference between Paul’s assumptions of family could not be more different from how people seek to use the concept today for the kingdom. We want our churches to be seen as family because with such language we want to project an Americanized-accepting atmosphere that is safe for people to find rest from the demands of others. Paul used the language of family to refer to the overwhelming transformation of identity for those who participate in the common life of the community of faith. This participation brings rest in the presence of God, which the promises that the person will not be swept away by the evils and sufferings of this world into the abyss of death.
To believe in the church as a family we must intentionally undo the expectations and assumptions of American culture that has embedded itself in the concept and word. It would be too timid, and American, for the reality of family to be an unchallenging and accepting safe place. Instead, the churches must seek to be joyful and honest in our expectant invitation and merciful in our transformative disciple-making family life together.
To believe the kingdom of God is a family even in the midst of disagreement is to believe the communities of faith have the right to confer upon us a particular identity, replete with its restful limits and behavioral expectations. An identity we must receive and accept because we simply cannot know who we truly are based on who we have been apart from the people of God.
Since the kingdom is a family, as we submit ourselves to its childrearing we are each given a purpose and place, but not of our own choosing. Our identity is the one offered to us by the community of faith whose common life we are participating within. Rather than clinging to the vestiges of former allegiances, families, or identities so they might be accepted in the family of God, it is this identity-transforming life together that we must accept and trust.
Maybe you have caught on to what is so amusing about the use of family as an argument for acceptance of who a person currently is. To be accepted as a part of the family of God necessitates a complete rejection of the identity, or identities, a person has had up to their point of acceptance. The family of God then redeems, restructures, and transforms the life of the person in every way. They will be a different worker, a different mother, a different father, a different husband, a different wife. Their social responsibilities are filtered through the kingdom of God’s priorities and expressions of the gospel, and therefore some former behaviors will be rejected, and other behaviors will need to be learned.
My amusement, and I hope yours after such a ramble, comes as American Christians attempt to use the idea of family to dampen the rhetoric of expectation and demand upon those who claim to be Christians but do not wish to conform to the historical teachings of kingdom of God. Only because Americans have become so culturally diluted in our understanding of family would we believe family refers to an undemanding group. It is in fact precisely because Christians are a family that we believe it is our place to demand, encourage, and rebuke Christians for them to conform to the identity the family of God is able to give to them.
Can we really believe we are part of a family if, when we turn to them, there is not wisdom that pours in from all sides offering us the warm assurances of support and the sharp goad to become more than we currently are?