Almost every Christian will readily agree that the family is important. Family is the one truly natural institution, and of all the many institutions that influence us through our youth, our families’for better or worse’usually end up shaping us the most. Recent decades have witnessed rather profound changes in cultural attitudes and practices regarding family: the sexual revolution, no-fault divorce, reproductive technologies, declining birthrates, and now the extension of marriage to homosexual couples. We look around us and it seems that “family” is increasingly becoming whatever a person or group of consenting people want it to be, rather than a fixed idea’an institution established by God as part of the natural order. In light of the vital significance of family relations for children’s moral development and the stability of civil society, we are rightly concerned about these many far-reaching changes in family affairs over the past several decades.
So we all agree that family is important. But just how important is it exactly? A certain pattern has played out many times through history: an established idea or institution comes under assault, and well-meaning people respond by doubling down on their efforts to defend and support it; but they end up overreacting and hence emphasizing it so much that they lose proper perspective and neglect other ideas or institutions that may be just as or even more important. Is there any danger of well-meaning Christians today following this same pattern with respect to the family?
That danger certainly does exist, and the institution probably most likely to suffer from an overreaction to the contemporary assault on the family is the church. Although this may be uncomfortable for some Christians to hear, the Bible indicates that while the family is important, the church is even more important. This article explores these themes, first by noting how Scripture describes the family as a wonderful blessing, and then by considering the evidence for the superiority of the church in God’s redemptive plan. Christians’ concern about the family is well placed, I conclude, but it would be tragic if zeal for this divine gift clouded our appreciation for the centrality of the church in our Christian lives.
If we just stop to think about the great blessing a loving, supportive, and virtue-instilling family is for those raised in such a family’or about the deep damage a broken, neglectful, or abusive family does to those who grow up in this context’it doesn’t take much imagination to conclude that family relationships are extraordinarily important. Scripture confirms and reinforces these impressions in all sorts of ways.
Already in Genesis 1, Scripture unpacks the purpose and importance of the family by giving humanity this initial commission: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). Genesis 2 goes on to explain that this fruitful procreation is to take place within marriage: “A man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Thus we sometimes refer to marriage as a “creation ordinance”: from the beginning God established the family, centered in marriage and child-rearing, as a natural and foundational institution for the human race to carry out its God-given labors in this world. Later, God reaffirmed this institution twice, in the covenant with Noah and the whole human race after the great flood (Gen. 9:1, 7). Despite our fall into sin and God’s curse upon the world, God still upholds the family by his common grace and gives it a continuing central role in carrying out his purposes in human history.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (24.2) helpfully lists four purposes of marriage identified in Scripture. First, marriage is for the mutual help of husband and wife, an idea captured in Genesis 2:18 where God says that it’s not good for the man to be alone and thus makes “a helper fit for him.” Second, marriage is “for the increase of mankind with legitimate issue.” In other words, a marital relationship isn’t necessary to procreate, but it’s the proper context for bringing children into existence and raising and training them. This purpose of marriage isn’t limited to Christians, as the reference to “mankind” indicates. God’s call to be fruitful and multiply extends to the human race generally (Gen. 1:28; 9:1, 7). Third, marriage is for the increase “of the church with an holy seed.” God is pleased to build his church for the next generation in part through Christians nurturing their children in the faith (see Mal. 2:15). Fourth, God ordained marriage for the “preventing of uncleanness,” providing the proper forum for sexual activity. Although the Westminster Confession (alluding to 1 Corinthians 7:1-5) puts it negatively’that is, a marital sexual relationship helps to keep us from extramarital sex’Scripture also speaks of sex within marriage as a positive good, most explicitly in the Song of Songs.
Scripture speaks of the family’s importance in so many ways. We might think of how serious Abraham and Isaac were about finding the right kind of wives for their sons, the celebration of children as “a heritage from the Lord” (Ps. 127:3), and the corresponding grief of many Old Testament saints who struggled with barrenness, or Paul’s advice to younger widows to “marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander” (1 Tim. 5:14). But this scratches only the surface. The family indeed must be of high importance for Christians. But is it the most important thing?
Family is clearly not the most important thing in Scripture. Our relationships to and within the church are ultimately more important than our family relationships. In this section, I’ll highlight several considerations explaining why.
First, and perhaps most obviously, family relationships are not the most important thing, insofar as our allegiance to God must always trump family loyalty if they’re in conflict. This point, of course, extends beyond family loyalty to every human loyalty. We must always “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Whether it is a government official, an employer, or a friend, we must refuse anybody who demands allegiance above our allegiance to God. Family, however, can often provide the strongest and most plausible temptations to cheat our highest allegiance. It’s certainly difficult to give up a good job because it compromises our devotion to Christ, but it’s painful to be forsaken by one’s family for becoming a Christian.
Is Christianity really so important that it justifies letting these deep bonds be broken? Scripture is clear that it is indeed. Jesus said unambiguously,
“I have come 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 person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Matt. 10:35-38; cf. Luke 9:59-62; 14:26)
So here is one respect in which the church is even more important than the family. Those who believe with their hearts must confess with their lips (e.g., Rom. 10:9-10) and thus be “added to the number” of Christ’s church (see Acts 2:47). Hence, Christians should unite with the body of believers and be faithful in their responsibilities to it, even if their families are staunchly opposed.
This brings us to another reason why the church is ultimately more important than the family. While family relationships are temporal, relationships in the church are permanent. To put it another way, family relationships are natural and belong to this present age, while relationships in the church are eschatological and extend into the age to come.
Consider the family first. When God established marriage at creation, he commanded couples to be fruitful and fill the earth (Gen. 1:28). He repeated this mandate in the Noahic covenant (Gen. 9:1, 7), whose purpose was to preserve the natural order “while the earth remains” (Gen. 8:22). Thus God designed child-rearing as a task for this present world, a world not destined to last forever. Scripture also indicates that marriage itself only lasts for the duration of earthly life. At weddings, couples vow to be faithful “for as long as we both shall live” because the marriage bond ends when one spouse dies: “A married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage” (Rom. 7:2; cf. 1 Cor. 7:39). Every Christian will enter heaven single. And the glorified saints will remain single, for they will “neither marry nor [be] given in marriage” (Luke 20:35).
Now consider our relationships in and to the church. When the “keys of the kingdom” bring us into the church, we truly enter the kingdom; whatever is bound “on earth shall be bound in heaven” (Matt. 16:18-19). Joining the church of Jesus Christ (provided we do so sincerely) creates a permanent, everlasting relationship with Christ that will continue and be consummated in the new creation. Christ died for his church so that she might be “holy and blameless,” “without spot or wrinkle” (Eph. 5:27), which will be realized only in the age to come. This permanency of relationship applies not only to the church in general, but also to other individual members of the church.
The New Testament says a lot about our union with other Christians, whom it calls our brothers and sisters, and who will remain our brothers and sisters in the new creation. Paul captures this point when he encourages Philemon to receive and liberate Onesimus, his slave who converted to Christ while away from him. Philemon now can “have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother” (Phil. 15-16). Thus here is another reason why the church is of greater importance than the family. Our family relationships are temporal and earthly, while our relationships in and to the church will endure permanently into the age to come. Family relationships are of penultimate importance, but church relationships are of ultimate importance.
The idea that fellow Christians are “brothers and sisters” raises a final consideration. Instead of saying that family is not the most important institution or kind of relationship, it might be more accurate to say that our natural family is ultimately not as important as our church family. There will be family in heaven, but not millions of discrete families, each with a husband and wife. There will be only one family in heaven, made up of millions of brothers and sisters’with Jesus as our husband (Eph. 5:25-32) and brother (Heb. 2:11-12). But God grants a little foretaste of that experience here and now in the church. When Jesus was told that his (natural) mother and brothers were looking for him, he responded, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21). This helps to explain why Jesus told his disciples, “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (Matt. 19:29).
Those who give up natural families here and now for Christ actually receive family blessings a hundred times over. Christians gain Jesus’ own “mother and brothers”‘fellow believers’as an even dearer family. Similarly, Paul explains that we’ve been adopted as the sons of God, and because we’re his sons we’re also his heirs’heirs of everlasting life (Rom. 8:14-17; Gal. 4:4-7). Remarkably, we are “fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:14), who is “the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29). He earned the everlasting inheritance by his perfect work, and we share the inheritance through union with him. Thus Paul also calls the church the “household of God” (Eph. 2:19; 1 Tim. 3:15). When we treat our church family as of even higher importance than our natural families, we testify to the grace of the gospel and our hope of everlasting life in the most intimate bond with all of our fellow believers.
These considerations don’t make natural family relationships unimportant. Married Christians must be diligent to foster right relations with their spouses (e.g., Eph. 5:25-33; Col. 3:18-19) and zealous to train their children in the fear of the Lord (e.g., Eph. 6:4; Col. 3:21), while children should obey their parents (Eph. 6:1-3; Col. 3:20). Keeping family in proper biblical perspective hardly justifies neglecting familial responsibilities. In fact, Christians who do not care for members of their household are worse than unbelievers (1 Tim. 5:8). These biblical admonitions need to be emphasized.
But Christians also need to be on guard against overreaction to contemporary attacks on the family. We should never make the family a substitute for the church, for example. A home “church” is not the same as the church Christ established, which gathers together Christians from many families under the authority of ministers, elders, and deacons. Family worship is wonderful, but it can’t take the place of the church’s corporate worship.
Other temptations are subtler. Some churches advertise themselves as “family friendly,” but in so doing they make the church unfriendly to those without spouse or children. This can happen in all sorts of ways. Church programs and fellowship (formally or informally) sometimes segregate members who are married-with-children from those who aren’t, as if the latter are odd or have a completely different set of needs. Or when these groups mix, the former sometimes make their stories about child-rearing the center of attention, effectively excluding the latter from relevance. Family-friendly churches can send all sorts of messages to the unmarried that they really haven’t begun to live until they marry. Although most Christians will and ought to marry at some point in life (see 1 Tim. 5:14), Paul explains that not marrying can be better for some Christians (1 Cor. 7:6-8, 25-26, 32-35). And while barrenness was experienced as a terrible curse under the Old Testament, the New Testament never once treats it as such for new covenant believers. If a church turns family-friendly into unmarried- (or childless-) unfriendly, it’s done a disservice to those without spouse or children.
Christians with big and/or active families also need to be on guard against getting so enveloped by family activities that they unwittingly neglect to give as much attention as they should to the church and its needs. Investing time in spouse, children, and grandchildren is valuable, but what about in the lonely person who sits across the pew on Sunday? Investing financial resources to educate one’s offspring and give them a head start in life is a noble goal, but what about the needy fellow church member who has no natural family member to help?
Exactly how particular Christians honor both their natural family and (even more) their church family is a matter of wise judgment that cannot be specified once and for all in advance. But all Christians ought to strive to give testimony here and now to their hope of everlasting life through zealous love’as the Apostles’ Creed puts it’for the “communion of the saints.”