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The Cult of the Family: how family emphasis defeats the church's mission

Updated on September 16, 2015

There is a false god being worshiped in Christian churches; a destructive idolatry hidden in plain sight. The idol is family.

When is the last time you encountered a church that didn't emphasize as its main selling point that it was family-friendly? A church that didn't promise that living by the Bible would solve your family problems? A church that didn't put marriage and children front and center. A church that didn't act as if singles were somehow defective? Did you just assume this was the way things should be? The Bible says otherwise. And there are consequences.

Consider these two propositions:
1. The main purpose of the church is to seek and save the lost.
2. The main purpose of the church is to build strong family relationships.

Which of these two can you readily cite Biblical support for? And which is preached and practiced by your church?

"But wait a minute!" you object. "Isn't a strong family a good thing?" Of course it is. So is banana nut bread. Should your church's main purpose be banana nut bread? Should you set aside other things for banana nut bread? Should your diet consist primarily of banana nut bread? And if your devotion to banana nut bread interferes with seeking and saving the lost, do you sacrifice the Great Commission for banana nut bread?

"Don't be absurd!" you reply, indignantly. "There's nothing about family that conflicts with seeking and saving the lost!"

Actually, there's quite a lot about a family emphasis that conflicts with seeking and saving the lost if you take it far enough. But first, let's look at what Jesus had to say about the issue.

What Jesus said about family

Matthew 10:21 And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death.

Matthew 10:37 He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

Matthew 23:9 And call no man your father upon the earth; for one is your Father, who is in heaven.

Luke 12: 51-53 Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

Luke 14:26 If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

Luke 9:59-62 And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house. And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.

What Jesus meant

“You're taking those verses out of context! Jesus never meant for us to completely neglect our families!” Of course he didn't, at least not always. But neither did he mean for us to make family the center of our lives. This is the important distinction. Jesus said these things, and he wouldn't have said them unless he meant something by them.

Instead of getting defensive, let's try to understand his point. It's not that hard to suss out if you just read his words without preconceived notions. His point is idolatry. Anything that you put ahead of God is an idol for you. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. If you're forced to choose between your parents and God, will you choose your parents?
  2. If you're forced to choose between your spouse and God, will you choose your spouse?
  3. If you're forced to choose between your children and God, will you choose your children?

If you answered 'yes' to any of these, I've got bad news for you. You are worshiping a false god, and there will be consequences.

These three questions are not academic, unless you're privileged enough to have a godly family, and maybe not even then (more on that later.) Do you intend to seek and save the lost? The lost will have to reject their family relationships in order to come to God. That's the norm. Their families are not going to be thrilled. I know someone from a Buddhist background. When she became a Christian, her family regarded her as a traitor. That's extreme, but we all get some sort of blowback. We all have to make a choice: family or God.

“Today's orthodoxy essentially has its abode in the cordial drivel of family life. This is utterly dangerous for Christianity.” - Sðren Kierkegaard, “Dare To Decide”

Will God fix your family?

Many churches preach that if you follow the Bible then your family relationships will get better. But as we've seen above, Jesus not only makes no such promise but actually warns that the opposite is likely to happen! This is a false teaching and a false promise. When a false promise fails to come true, your converts will leave in disgust. You will have slandered God my misrepresenting His word.

Even if you are from a Christian family, you're not safe. People fall away. Will you remain faithful if your loved ones abandon the faith? Not unless you have real faith of your own - faith not based on false promises. Also, church members commit grave sins against their families. If you think a good family life is proof of God's love, what will you think when your family betrays you?I know a Christian woman who married a man in the church, thinking this was the safe thing to do. He turned out to be abusive, and now she's struggling. It wasn't God who lied to her; it was her church misrepresenting God's word. False teachings destroy faith when their promises fail to come true.

Additionally, the climate of the family-centric church culture leads to a pressure to marry by a certain age. Those who marry under pressure tend to marry unwisely. Couple this with the Biblical aversion to divorce (at least that part is Biblical) and you have a recipe for misery. It would be better to marry late, or not at all, than to marry simply because it's expected of us. There is nothing in the Bible saying we must marry by a certain age, or at all.

I'm not saying your family is necessarily doomed if you become a Christian. I'm saying it's not necessarily saved if you're saved. Don't get into religion to fix your family. That's not what it's for.

Let's look at some other problems...

What would Mork do?
What would Mork do?

It's a human thing. You wouldn't understand.

Too much of an Ozzie and Harriett vibe is alienating to people from bad families. Unless you're from that background yourself – and very few are these days – you'll be thinking: “What planet are these people from? Are they for real?” Individuals from troubled families are among the most spiritually open potential converts you'll ever meet, but only if you don't weird them out. They're looking for answers. It won't help if you can't even understand the questions. How would you like it if you had a problem, turned to people for guidance and got only blank looks or nonsensical happy talk? I ran into that when I was young. They nearly made an atheist out of me.

The visitor is faced with a dilemma: either these church people are for real or they're not. If they're fake, that's a reason not to trust them. But don't think you can win them over by proving your sincerity. If the church people aren't fake, then they're seriously out of touch. Earnest obliviousness is every bit as off-putting as hypocrisy. To gain an outsider's trust, you need to be real and relatable at the same time.

Raised in a bubble

This is a big problem with kids raised in a church environment. They simply don't know anything about what life is like for outsiders. They try to evangelize these earth creatures which they are completely incapable of understanding. Church kids seem to come from planet Veggie Tales, where carrots talk and everybody sings and horrible things never happen. Why would a human want to open up his heart to such a creature? What does a space alien know about life on this planet?

Ironically, if a church kid's own family betrays him – say if his parents commit adultery or get divorced – then he'll be in a better position to relate to the rest of humanity, but at the very same time he will lose his own faith!

When church kids grow up, they may eventually come to understand more about the world, but only after they have unlearned everything they thought they knew. This unlearning requires unusual humility, and generally takes a long time. Until they're well past fifty years old, they will likely be irritatingly naïve.

No singles need apply

Then there's the fact that 44% of US society is single. A church that makes a big deal about marriage is implicitly insulting those who are not married. This will come out in all sorts of subtle ways that the perpetrator won't be aware of, but the seeking single will certainly notice. Why are there no single evangelists? Why are there no single teachers? Why are the few singles in the congregation relegated to menial tasks such as ushering and child care? Why is it considered acceptable for kids to marry young, before they've developed any solid self image? Why is all the preaching about family life? What's family life got to do with me? For that matter, what's it got to do with God? I came here for God, not this! The sermons insinuate that God is all about family, and family is all about God. We've already seen how unbiblical that is. Now consider the implications for a single. You're telling him that God doesn't care about him.

Any church in the United States that is serious about the Great Commission, and also serious about not showing favoritism ought to invest 44% of its time and resources on being welcoming to singles. “But nearly all of our congregation is married!” you say. Ask yourself why that is. If the demographics of your membership are that far out of whack with your local mission field then something's wrong. Is your focus on seeking and saving the lost, or is it somewhere else?

“But we're the salt of the earth. Shouldn't we be different? Otherwise, what do we stand for that you can't find anywhere?” That depends. Different from what? Many pagan societies have made a fetish of family. And different in what way? And there plenty of religions, philosophies and cults that one can choose from, if all you care about is being different. The point isn't to be different for the sake of being different. The point is to be a viable alternative to the lost state of the world. We have to be different in the right way. To be a bridge between God and a fallen world, we have to have a foundation on both sides of the gulf. In a society where singlehood is common – keeping in mind that singlehood is definitely not a sin or a defect - that means respecting singlehood.

Paterfamilias knows best.
Paterfamilias knows best.

How did we get here?

The first thing to understand is that family and marriage are institutions of this world and this flesh. There is nothing specifically Christian about either of them. Some of the societies that put the most emphasis on them are in fact thoroughly pagan. Ancient Rome was one such. To the Romans, family was identity. Without a family, you were nothing. (In fact, if you didn't produce children, you were guilty of negligence.) Some of this attitude crept into the Christian church very early on.

As a corrective, the early church developed the idea of the gift of celibacy and from this the celibate priesthood. This preserved the high regard for the single state propagated by both Jesus and Paul, but at a cost. It retained the notion that singles were somehow different from everyone else – a difference not of degree, but of kind. It held the priesthood up to a standard that they could not always maintain, and created a gulf between laity and clergy.

The Protestant Reformation rejected the idea of a celibate clergy, but it never addressed the original problem: that of disrespect for singlehood. Protestants added the further absurdity of married couples going into the mission field, having children or bringing children into dangerous environments. To any sensible person this would be child endangerment. How did they justify it? By twisting I Corinthians chapter 7, interpreting it to mean nearly the opposite of what it actually says. Paul more or less damns marriage with faint praise as a spiritually compromised state preferable only to gross sexual incontinence, but churches make this chapter out to insinuate that it's somehow more holy to be married than to be a righteous single.

Now we have a society where faith and family are both in retreat, and all the churches can think to do is to sell the church as a way to save the family. “The family that prays together stays together.” No... it doesn't necessarily stay together, nor does the Bible promise that it will. The church cannot save the family, nor can family save the church.

The corrective

What's needed is to put God back in His rightful place. Put God first, and the church will do better. Family might also do better - or it might not, but it doesn't matter. If you have God, you don't need family. You may however get a good family thrown in as a bonus, if that's God's will.

But here's the cruel irony of idolatry: if you love something more than you love God, you're more likely to lose it and lose God as well. There are cultures in the Far East that literally make a religion of family. Many of the families there are seriously messed up, to the point that there is a high rate of suicide among the young. I've seen elderly people begging in places where the young are expected to care for their parents. So much for filial piety. Too much family values is bad for family!

This is what we should preach and practice in the churches: love your family, but not too much. There is a place for family. Keep it in its place. Don't even insinuate that marriage is spiritually superior to singlehood. And don't make promises that the Bible doesn't make: teach your children and your converts to put their faith in nothing that isn't God.


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    • serenityjmiller profile image

      Serenity Miller 

      3 years ago from Brookings, SD

      I'll admit, I found the sarcasm behind the "banana nut bread" analogy to be pretty off-putting. I almost moved on to another article at that point, but I decided to stick with it and see where you were going from there. :)

    • Gordon Wright profile imageAUTHOR

      Gordon Wright 

      3 years ago

      Thanks, guys. I was worried my tone might be too confrontational, but I couldn't figure out how to dial it down and still get the point across.

    • Motherbynature profile image


      3 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Good article. You maid several good points. A lot of Christians are trained to portray the perfect family and to not be an embarrassment. I do like churches that teach a good balance. You're no good to the world or to your church ministry if you and your family are struggling at home. Family is important and the church is so needed for a Christian to learn to be a good parent, spouse, son or daughter. If a Christian seems like a good person at church but their household is a complete catastrophe then they have no credibility. When the Duggar family scandal broke that was the first thing people said. How can they be preaching about family values they obviously know nothing about?

    • serenityjmiller profile image

      Serenity Miller 

      3 years ago from Brookings, SD

      "Earnest obliviousness is every bit as off-putting as hypocrisy." That one's going on my office door! As a second-career ministry student who did not grow up in a Christian home, I can appreciate a lot of your points, especially the disconnect with non-Christian family members. We can certainly endeavor to raise up godly families who want to seek and save the lost, but there's never any guarantee they'll be interested in cooperating! Thanks for tackling a tough topic.


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