Throughout the history of the church, Christians have keenly desired to believe that the New Testament affirms the kind of people we are, rather than—as is actually the case—the kind of people we are not, and really would not want to be. The first, perhaps most crucial thing to understand about the earliest generations of Christians is that they were a company of extremists, radical in their rejection of the values and priorities of society not only at its most degenerate, but often at its most reasonable and decent. They were rabble. They lightly cast off all their prior loyalties and attachments: religion, empire, nation, tribe, even family. In fact, far from teaching “family values,” Christ was remarkably dismissive of the family. And decent civic order, like social respectability, was apparently of no importance to him. Not only did he not promise his followers worldly success (even success in making things better for others); he told them to hope for a Kingdom not of this world, and promised them that in this world they would win only rejection, persecution, tribulation, and failure. Yet he instructed them also to take no thought for the morrow.
This was the pattern of life the early Christians believed had been given them by Christ. As I say, I doubt we would think highly of their kind if we met them today. Fortunately for us, those who have tried to be like them have always been few. Clement of Alexandria may have been making an honest attempt to accommodate the gospel to the realities of a Christian empire, but it was those other Egyptians, the Desert Fathers, who took the Gospel at its word. But how many of us can live like that? Who can imitate that obstinacy and perversity? To live as the New Testament requires, we should have to become strangers and sojourners on the earth, to have here no enduring city, to belong to a Kingdom truly not of this world.And we surely cannot do that, can we?
I too am struck by the mention of “New Testament family values”. I think no small part of the problem is that the New Testament takes for granted the family as a natural starting point while we have destroyed nature and the family and are struggling merely to maintain the family. The idea of transcending it as the New Testament urges us to do is beyond our imagination. You can’t build with building blocks that have been smashed to dust.
But the problem with our predicament is that, making all our focus be upon restoring the family, we have paradoxically forgotten what the family is for. We are in grave danger of turning the family, not into a building block for the society and, ultimately, the kingdom of heaven, but into a kind of “selfish unit” that is all about itself. Building blocks are made for building and the proclamation of the gospel is not ultimately about family, but about transcending family. Indeed, it is a notoriously ruthless text:
If any one 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. (Lk 14:26).
It’s only centuries of hearing that in Church that has made it unshocking. And it is only the radical claim that the Man saying it is Very God that makes it palatable. Any lesser man–Sun Myung Moon, or Hillary, or Trump–uttering such words would rightly fill us with terror. Only God can make such a demand. And he has. And the early Church heard it and ran after it with zeal. Americhristianity muffles and ignores those words, because their horizon, constrained by the breakdown of the family can’t see the Community of Christ that transcends the family.