The following post was written by Kevin Harris, Director of Community Relations at The Marin Foundation.
As long as I can remember, my mom and dad and sisters have always been in my life. We would go to church on the weekends together where my Grandpa Harris would preach and we would sit down together for hearty meals around the table each week night for dinner; though my dad will go to the grave claiming that you have dinner at noon and supper in the evening…..it’s a country thing. I will always be thankful for my dad who took care of us all and was always a part of my life through things like coaching my baseball team and my mom whom instilled in my sisters and I every day that we were loved through her words and so many selfless (and seemingly tireless) acts of devotion.
I was raised and formed by what you would define as a nuclear family and I am incredibly thankful for my family and I wholeheartedly affirm this concept of family. This type of family is most commonly defined as a social unit composed of father, mother, and their children in a household (nuclear families currently account for just under 25% of the population in the U.S. according to Wikipedia). It is common today to hear Christian identified organizations and individuals talking about being ‘pro-family’ and supporting/protecting ‘the family’ which can be understood to be descriptive of the type of family I have mentioned above. There is obviously nothing wrong with a desire to protect those whom we love and ideas that we believe are fundamentally good. But when we start to look at the Kingdom of God and the implications it has for our view of family as opposed to how it is defined by popular culture, points of contention start to arise in relation to our priorities and how we ultimately define the concept of family.
In starting to look at family through this lens, we see that as Christians, scripture points to our reality as children of God. We are told that “all who did receive him (Jesus), to all those believed his name, he gave the right to become children of God. Children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or husband’s will, but born of God (John 1:12-13).” This is not something you have to work to become and you do not have to grow into the likeness of God to be a child of God….you simply are one in Christ Jesus through faith (Galatians 3:26). As a result of being adopted as sons and daughters of God, we are also grafted onto the household of Christ. Hebrews 2:11 tells us that “Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not afraid to call them brothers and sisters.” This makes us “fellow citizens with God’s people” in the Kingdom of God (Ephesians 2:19).
Now, I want to step back for a minute to provide some background on the words being used and the implications and importance of what they are communicating. First, there is no word in the Old Testament which corresponds precisely to the modern English concept of ‘family’, as consisting of father, mother, and children. The closest approximation is found in the Hebrew word bayit (meaning house/household). “Households in the Old Testament could contain others beyond what we typically think of as ‘family’, such as servants, kinsmen, and near friends as well (New Bible Dictionary, 3rd Edition).” Ancient Israel was a patriarchal culture, so the father was looked at as the authority over the household and women and children received their standing in society through ‘the father’s house’ in which they were a part of. Greg Boyd stated that the main responsibility of families at that time was to bring honor to the father, propagate the family, and give their ultimate allegiance to their father. The cultural understanding of households/heads of the house and the authority ascribed to them in Old Testament times set the stage for how language and concepts would then be interpreted in New Testament times in relation to the topic.
Individuals in New Testament times would have understood the weight of such language when they heard it being said that they were now a part of the same family in Christ (Hebrews 2:11) and “they are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens of God’s people and also members of God’s household (Ephesians 2:19).” This would have challenged their understanding of allegiance, redefined their notions of family and undermined their loyalties to the world’s priorities, politics, and loyalties.
Jesus redefined notions of family and reordered priorities towards a Kingdom of God perspective that would have been deeply troubling for those alive at the time. In Matthew 12:46-50, Jesus’ mother and brother came to speak to him while he was speaking to a crowd. When Jesus was told of their desire to speak to him he redefined their notions of family when he stated, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 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.” He contrasted natural family ties with greater “family” ties. At that time it would have been incredibly offensive, culturally speaking, to disavow literal family members in a sense given the emphasis that was placed on fidelity and respect to one’s family.
We see Jesus reordering priorities in relation to family and emphasizing the seriousness of his call to follow him. In Matthew 8:21:22, we see an exchange between Jesus and a disciple that wanted to follow him. The disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” “One of an eldest son’s most basic responsibilities (in both Greek and Jewish cultures) was his father’s burial (The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament).” It would have sounded like heresy for Jesus to demand that the disciple place him above the greatest responsibility he had toward his father. Given the Jewish tradition’s commandment of honoring one’s father and mother, this surely would not have sat well with those in that day.
Now, I’m not trying to advocate that following Christ means we should not look after and take care for our families (in the various ways that may be defined for us). The scriptures seem to be very direct about this matter in some areas, such as “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8).” I wholeheartedly believe that we are still called to honor our biological/adoptive/foster parents.
What I am saying is that the Kingdom of God is not simply a reinforcement of society’s mores and relationships as Christianity is so often used. It supersedes our loyalties to the world’s priorities, politics, institutions, hierarchies, familial structures, and any other loyalties we may have or answer to. It alone demands our ultimate allegiance and all other loyalties and priorities are to be ordered in light of this reality. It is “like a new household, a new family, a family of reconciliation and peace that is not under the control of the given and ordinary familiar authorities and rulers of the world (Joe R. Jones).”
This new household or family transcends and broadens our common understanding of family. It includes people of various races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. The Kingdom of God is a transnational family that extends beyond our national borders to include followers of Christ that live in but are not limited to Mexico, South Korea, Uganda, India, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and even our neighbours to the north in Canada. Unless you are going to take the position of God and judge the inner recesses of a person’s heart for every person that claims to follow Jesus, your family includes those that are LGBT and heterosexual. We are one family in Christ. The reorientation that we all need to pursue is reorienting who we call brothers and sisters and how we are called to love them.
It is in the Kingdom of God as opposed to the kingdom of the world that we discover our true priorities and figure out what it means and looks like to live as a good ‘family member’. It is here where we realize and seek to live out our responsibility to bring glory to our Father (not using ‘Father’ because of any personal beliefs about the gender of God but rather to connect this thought to the main responsibilities of family members in the OT). We learn what it means to pledge our ultimate allegiance not to any of our earthly family members or the nation-state, but God alone. It is here where we realize that language like “It’s your problem” simply does not make sense because “your problem” becomes “our problem” where we are called to bear one another’s burdens to fulfill the law of Christ.
My fellow family members in the LGBT community are raising spiritual disciples in the way they should go in this Kingdom. They are building up and ‘propagating the family’. They are providing family for those that have been rejected because of beliefs about religion and sexuality and gender identity. They are reproducing expressions of Christ’s love and movements communicating God’s heart for humanity. And the community is giving birth to creativity and fruits of the spirit through Christ that add vibrancy to the life of the Church, helping to point others in their spiritual family towards the wonder and incomprehensible beauty of the Creator (even though many exist in the Church and must express their creativity, gifting, and leadership in silence for fear of losing their position or job).
I pray that our notions of familial structures and allegiance not conform to those patterns presented to us in the world and popular culture, but instead be transformed by the renewing of our minds to understand the implications of our citizenship in heaven. While the Kingdom of God has not yet reached its final consummation, it is already at hand and it is my hope that we would seek to more fully live into that reality that alludes to God’s Kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven.