(If you think this title is offensive, please see bullet point #3 under “What Jesus said about family values“)
If we survey human history we will find that the family has always been vastly important. Today in the Western World, especially within Christianity, we still hold to the assumption that family is not merely the essential unit of society and but also the perfect manifestation of God’s will on the earth. We teach that family bonds are the most important type of earthly relationships that exist, and that our family members are to be more important than anyone else. We selfishly think that our blood is so important, that we are to prefer and love first those that share it, rather than foreigners or outsiders that don’t. Our whole culture has presupposed that Christianity is all about “Faith and Family” and there are almost nothing else that is equally important. Because of this, hundreds of legal and political battles rage around America, with many Christians making holy war on any institution that dare assault this Holy Marriage of “Christianity” and “Family Values.“
For most Evangelicals, the motto is “God and Family.” This “family tribalism” is assumed everywhere by Christians who verbally affirm the Bible is inspired, inerrant and infallible, though never read it, that Jesus loves family values. Yet nothing can be further from the truth. According to Jesus, he came to destroy the thing most of us call “family values” for the immediate family, and even more specifically, the extended family.
WHAT ARE “FAMILY VALUES”
The phrase “family values” is an umbrella term that refers to a few things, notably it includes an affinity for the nuclear family in the current sociopolitical sphere, as well as historic preference for blood relations. We can break it down into these five points (though certainly they are not exhaustive).
1. Politically charged ideology
First and foremost, one thing that most of us can call “family values” is a set of views that are currently involved in a vigorous political and ideological debate. More often than not, the reason someone talks about “family values” on the radio is not in order to remind mothers to love their children (which is very noble), but to argue that any deviation from “our” sociopolitical idea about the structure of families in society is morally bankrupt. Some “Family values” is less about loving one’s own family, but rather of forcing a social/political/religious view upon the rest of society. Because of this the political arena is filled with lawsuits and rallies, while in social interactions we see shunning and shaming for those that dissent.
2. Religious form of elitism
Second, what we often consider call “family values” is often a religious standard that we use as a litmus test of Christian authenticity. If another church or group of people does not accept our definition of family values, they are automatically assumed to be spiritually or morally inferior. At the same times those who are seen as very strong supporters of “family values” are portrayed as noble and pious.
3. Inclusivism for blood relatives
Third, and easily the most favorable thing about “family values” is the ideological support of positive affinity between members of the same family. This includes the tendency of families to stick together and support one another. It also includes sacrificial servitude towards members of the same family, and financial assistance that is given towards relatives. This part is great.
4. Exclusivism for all other people
Fourth, because family values embraces the idea of inclusivism towards a specific set of people, logically it follows that there is a correlated form of exclusivism for everyone else. “In” cannot exist without “out,” and so accepting family members into a special relationship, means you exclude everyone else out from that relationship. Take this scenario for example, assume a relative and a distant acquaintance are in need of help, and you can only help one, which one will you help? “Family first,” right? It seems only natural.
5. Family name as a source of honor
Finally, ancient family values were focused less on politics but rather created a framework of loyalty and honor towards one’s own family name. This meant that rather than devoting time and resources to help the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed, it was far more important to devote these resources to promote the esteem of the family lineage and everyone included in it. The low status members of society, especially those without prestigious family names, were ignored because they had nothing to offer in the further proliferation of family honor.
WHAT JESUS SAID ABOUT FAMILY VALUES
With all that in mind, what kinds of things did Jesus say about family? Did he support a political argument that the nuclear family is the best? Did he argue that families should stick together to the utmost? What did he say? First, he did talk about honoring ones parents. Second, he did condemn out against divorce. Interestingly enough, in both of these cases the object was to rebuke the Pharisees for their hypocrisy in obeying the law, rather than simply uphold family values. In just the same context of catching the Pharisees in hypocrisy Jesus also says things like: “And He answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? “For God said, HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER,’ and, ‘HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF FATHER OR MOTHER IS TO BE PUT TO DEATH.’” (Matt. 15:3-4) and then instantly rebukes them for not obeying that law. Other than condemning divorce and rebuking the Pharisees for failing in the 5th commandment,Jesus says very little positive things about the common idea of family values, though he does contrast this by saying it is good for some to never marry and have children (Matthew 19:11-12).
Interestingly enough, there are many other saying by Jesus that give a very different picture than we assume, where Jesus breaks down the normative family tribalism that has been predominant in human culture. Jesus destroys the walls holding out everyone besides blood family, and replaces it with a new type of universally inclusive family. Here are the sayings of Jesus.
1. I came to set a man against his father
- “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. “For I came to SET A MAN AGAINST HIS FATHER, AND A DAUGHTER AGAINST HER MOTHER, AND A DAUGHTER-IN-LAW AGAINST HER MOTHER-IN-LAW; and A MAN’S ENEMIES WILL BE THE MEMBERS OF HIS 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” (Matthew 10:34-37, emphasis in original NASB)
Some theologians say Jesus is citing the prophet Micah (Chap 7) because of the similar language, though the context of Micah implies this dishonor for family is a wicked thing. Most people don’t read this literally, but mythologize it and argue that this is meant to convey some idea like that “the intense strength of love we ought to have towards Jesus is incomparable to that for our family.” Perhaps, but in any case, Jesus is clear that he came to divide families for his own sake, because families are not as important as what he is building.
2. I came to grant peace? No, rather division
- “Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five [members] in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. “They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:51-53)
As second, though different, repetition of the same idea: Jesus came to divide families between those that follow him, and those that don’t.
3. If anyone does not hate his own [family] he cannot be my disciple
- “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.” (Luke 14:26)
Commentators quickly jump in to say we should not read this literally, but instead the word “hate” here is not really “hate,” but actually it means “love, but not as much,” while I agree with the sentiment (I don’t want to hate my parents), yet we must gently concede that Jesus specifically used the Greek word misei in relation to family, and that this word, misei, is used everywhere else in the Bible to specifically refer to hate, of the hateful variety.
4. Don’t even bother burying your dead parents
- “Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” (Matthew 8:21-22)
In today’s version of “family values” it would be seen as nothing short of religious blasphemy to neglect burying ones father, or at least gross dishonoring of your parents, yet Jesus commands this. I imagine that most of your Christian friends would think that you are the worst of all heathens if you don’t show up at your father funeral.
5. Don’t even bother saying goodbye to your family as you leave forever
- “Another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:61-62)
Luke recounts a similar narrative found in Mat 8:21, but adds a second person, who is not trying to bury his dead father. This second person merely wishes to go home and bid farewell to his family (does this include wife and children?), and his “family values” desire earns him a strong rebuke from Jesus.
6. Abandoning your family will lead to many rewards in heaven.
- “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29)
- “Peter said, “Behold, we have left our own homes and followed You.” And He said to them, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times as much at this time and in the age to come, eternal life.” (Luke 18:28-30)
Jesus is advocating heavenly rewards for those who leave traditional family values (and quite literally their families, including wives and children) and follow him instead. In his immediate context, talking to Peter, he was dealing with real literal and physical abandonment of ones family. Rather than encouraging people to follow him within the traditional Hebrew family lineages, Jesus specifically articulates the issue of physically leaving ones family (not merely spiritual separation, for how can one be spiritually divided from a farm?)
7. My own family is no longer my own family
- “Someone said to Him, “Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to You.” But Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold My mother and My brothers!” (Matthew 12:47-50)
Jesus completely rejects the family unit that he was born in, (and recall that the Holy Bible itself doesn’t merely consider Mary a caretaker, but really does refer to Mary as the mother of Jesus, see for example in Luke 2:33). Yet, Jesus appears to completely ignore and reject his blood family and instead includes everyone into his new family.
8. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a polygamous marriage/family
- “Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom.” (Matthew 25:1-10)
The parable Jesus uses to discuss the kingdom of heaven is a tale of polygamy (most people have so strongly spiritualized this, they don’t even realize it). Think about it, there are ten brides, and in the end five of these virgins get married to one man, and this is a God inspired picture of Heaven. While Jesus does elsewhere quote the Old Testament saying “the two will become one flesh” (Mat 19:5), that passage was accepted by all the polygamous Old Testament patriarchs (ie Abraham, Jacob, David, etc), none of whom ever saw it as an argument against polygamy. Here Jesus had a perfect opportunity to deny polygamy, but instead tells a parable about the kingdom of heaven as a polygamous marriage. This is not typologically relevant to the theme of this blog post, except to further make you ask yourself, do you really study and know what Jesus said? Or merely assume you do and base your ideology on what you think? If Dr. Dobson married five women, would he be an example of your “family values?” Probably not.
9. In the future there will be no more family
- “Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Luke 20:35)
Jesus argues that the institution of the family is very short-lived, and so inadequate that it will be disbanded in heaven. Other “earthly” things like feasting (Mat 8:11), mansions/rooms (John 14:2), and even gold and jewels (Rev 21:10-27) will make it to heaven, but family values will not. This is arguably a reason why traditional family values are merely a temporary condition, not a universal and eternal truth.
10. The traditional family often rejects prophets from God
- “Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and among his own relatives and in his own household.”” (Mark 6:4)
Jesus argues that families do not honor or believe persons who are set by God to do divine work. In this passage the context deals with a bigger picture than simply family issues, but it does deal with it indirectly and mimics all the other sayings of Jesus about separating families and leaving ones household. It’s curious that this apparently divinely ordained and sacred institution, the traditional family, rejected Jesus and Jesus rejected them.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
First, neither I nor Jesus are arguing for the complete dissolution of the family unit (see Chris’s words against divorce). However, Jesus does not care much about jumping on the political bandwagon of family values and he does not seem to be interested in continuing earthly traditions where family honor is the ultimate ideal. Rather Jesus redefines the family into something new. The family relationship is no longer limited to those born into the same household, instead that profound and unique family relationship becomes open to all.
Thus Jesus offers a new inclusive form of relationship, one that transcends everything that has previously existed. He states
1. There is a new inclusive love
- “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” (John 13:34).
If Christ’s love is literally infinite and the strongest form of love, one that leads to self-sacrifice, then Jesus is teaching his followers to love each other with that same exact love. In the past such love could only be found in the immediate family, but now these walls are broken.
2. There is a new inclusive family
- Also “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:50)
If being a brother or sister previously needed direct blood relations, Jesus breaks this traditional view, and teaches that all who follow him are indeed brothers and sisters. Not in a strange cult-like way, where everyone merely addresses each other by the title, but in a redefinition of natural family relationship, giving complete rights and privileges of brotherhood and sisterhood to his followers.
Jesus is against traditional family values because they create borders that exclude others from the joys shared only in the traditional family. Christ’s mission was to remake a new family, and to include those that have always been excluded.