Focus on the Dysfunctional Family

Focus on the Dysfunctional Family May 23, 2012

I love my friend, Larry Shallenberger’s paragraph in this post, about the danger of “Christian Church Culture”.  He likens God’s transforming process to that of a mechanic restoring an old motorcycle, believing that the old rusted bike has its best years ahead of it.  We religious people, meanwhile, tend to handle each other like airport luggage handlers. This leads to the false belief that its better to lower our heads and fit in.

Lower our heads and fit in. Covertly demand that, as a precondition for fellowship, outsiders think the way you think (or at least pretend to think the way you pretend to think), about all things, as a precondition for finding your place at the table.  And of course, there’s behavior too, and at our worst, clothes – all covertly held up as preconditions for belonging  This, I think, is what Larry means by “lower your heads and fit in”.

The trouble with this, if I can switch analogies, is that this kind of Christianity feels more like an audition on American idol, or for a sports team, than an invitation to “come as you are”.  If you don’t have the moral cache, on the front end, to fit in, you’re stuffed.  As a result, many people learn to play the church game, creating a sort of Sunday “game face” that might be far, far from reality.  “Lower your head and fit in”.

I can’t begin to articulate how damaging this culture is.  It’s a petri dish for hypocrisy, and hence one of the major reasons the church is failing to reach young generations according to this research.  It mangles the gospel, making it less about good news, and more about fear, control, and conformity.  As I wrote in my first book, “every Sunday in America, people will walk out of a worship service never to return” for these exact reasons.  I don’t blame them for leaving, if all I’m part of is a performance modification program.

THE GOOD NEWS (the gospel) is wholly other than this.

After all, we serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  That’s how God refers to Himself.  It’s God’s way of saying, “I’m for these three guys.  They’re in my family.  I identify with them.  I love them. I’ll stay with them every step of their transformative journey”  And…  just off the top of my head, here are some bits of their lives, AFTER they said yes to God:

1. one lies about the identity of his wife, handing her off as his sister to a king in order to save his own skin.

2. the same one sleeps with the maid because his wife, tired of waiting for God to miraculously get her old womb impregnated with his old seed, asks him to do so.

3. one exudes unabashed favoritism to one of his twin sons, going to great efforts to thwart God’s plan to choose and bless the other son.

4. one of the twins lies, cheats, and steals in an attempt to secure blessing and affirmation from his father.

5. one them, on the run, and in fear of his life, settles in a land where he marries four women and father’s 12 sons.

6. those twelve sons will, over the course of their days, display themselves to be jealous, petty, vengeful, thieves, murderers, liars, proud, hard-hearted, and violent, even towards their own family members.  They’ll sell one brother as a slave.  One of them will sleep with his daughter-in-law, thinking her to be a prostitute, and impregnate her.  Oh, and they’ll become known by this title: “The Patriarchs”.

Let’s put it this way.  None of them would be welcome in church, or invited to do marriage seminars, or speak for Focus on the Family, especially when I remind you that all these things occurred after they’d said yes to God.

Somehow, though, God still found room for them, stayed with them, loved them, and walked with them relentlessly, shepherding them towards a transformation that would better represent God’s heart.  I wish we, who are the church, would take a cue from God on this.

Oh, and that daughter-in-law with whom Judah (one of the twelve dysfunctional sons) slept?  Her name is Tamar, and she fathered Perez out of that union.  She nearly lost him, because when Judah’s servant tells him that (the Message translation)… “your daughter-in-law has been playing the whore – and now she’s a pregnant whore”, Judah get’s all self-righteous and calls for her execution.  When she reveals, though, who the father is, he changes his mind, and Perez is born.  He becomes the patriarch in the line of David, who establishes the kingly line through whom Christ comes.

And we think people need to clean up their act before coming to Christ? It should be enough that they want to know God and follow Him.  How about giving God a little room to work, on both others and ourselves?  How about ending the game of pretend and acknowledging that none of us, None. Of. Us… have arrived yet, that we all have issues under our issues, things to be transformed that we can’t even yet see.  That would make the church a little more humble, and a little more patient with flaws, and a lot more like Jesus.

I welcome your thoughts.


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  • sp

    Two good books on this, worth reading more than once: TrueFaced, and Bo’s Cafe….both by the same author.

    Thanks Richard

  • fluger

    Great post! God uses flawed people! This is GOOD NEWS.

  • Roy

    Hoping it’s true.

  • Eric Peterson

    I think this goes back to Adam in the Garden. ” Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
    He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
    Three things we do 1. We hear the Lord’s “footsteps” / His presence . 2 We Hide 3. Because we afraid. Welcome to 21 st Performance oriented Christianity.
    He Calls us to himself , We hide in many ways ( Church, religous activity, sins, addictions and other things) Because we are afraid of his Prescence because of our Perfomance. He still ask us the question Where are YOU?

    I think he wants to walk with us in our daily lifes. A Good example is Enoch- ” Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away. ”
    ” By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: “He could not be found, because God had taken him away.”[a] For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God.”

  • Ryan Hofer

    So glad to be pointed to this blog through a friend’s FB post. I attended Bethany often while attending SPU. In this post, I agreed with the results of acting out of what is thought to be proper: incongruity and fragmentation. I’m not convinced, on a reasonable or emotional level, of the claim that the Gospel is wholly different. It’s not performance modification, but it’s definitely in the business of people modification, towards a future that is based on past special revelation. The root question is ‘how do we become,’ and the Gospel, in most permutations I’ve encountered, claims absolute authority in answering this question. How then could judgement not be the controlling influence?

  • Sarah

    1 Corinthians 5:9-13
    What does it mean?????
    The more I try to understand, the more confused I get.

  • Richard, there is a 3-part sermon series by Pastor Joe Duke, LifePoint church is Maryland, titled “Come As You Are”. It talks about all if these issues, and makes some of the best challenges to Christians. I keep his series in my. An and listen to it regularly, in order to keep my own thinking in check with regards to this topic. Thanks Richard, for sharing.

  • je

    I agree with your thoughts, Richard, that this problem is part of what drives so many of the kids who grew up at Bethany to leave. The atmosphere “creeps them out”, as I’ve heard them say. I would love to hear Nick Steinloski’s thoughts on this, Nick?

  • Mark

    While I used to be mostly troubled by Genesis, I am now grateful for it as an encouraging narrative about God’s grace, redemption, and providence. Let’s not forget that Noah, the most righteous man of his generation (and one of God’s favorites according to Ezekiel 14, along with Daniel and Job), got drunk and exposed himself to children. Hardly the type we would esteem and look to follow in a church today. I’m grateful for the raw and non-airbrushed nature of scripture, and I’m even more grateful that my righteousness comes not from me, but Christ. The good news is amazing news.

  • Dear Sarah! Isn’t the most immediate and urgent question this one: What is it saying to you? God is not the author of confusion, but you say you are confused. So what are the questions that are clouding your clarity? It’s not a straightforward, uncomplicated passage that you are wrestling with but I really think the first priority is to understand why you feel confused so that you can articulate your particular angst. What is God saying to YOU about this topic?

  • Not only does God work with flawed people, God loves each one of us uniquely and makes art from our broken lives! Great post, Richard. Thank you for this!

  • I played UN-Christian over Audible a couple of years ago. It is honest, I believe, if maybe a little antiseptic. It is certainly important for church people to review this material prayerfully. I’m moving on to “You Lost Me” next, after I finish “One Thousand Gifts”. I will be sad to finish that one, cuz I wish it would never end!

  • Those absentees you refer to are likely struggling with the existential “What if?” crisis because they see very clearly when church people who speak freely about “God’s unconditional love” and “being His disciples” put all kinds of walls and judgments and demands upon others who share their worship space.

    Here’s a song that describes what I think I’m saying:

  • CatB

    Also, keepin’ it true to the historical facts, I am not aware that Jacob *MARRIED* 4 women. He married 2 women because his father-in-law tricked him into marrying the oldest daughter first (as was the CUSTOM in their land and at that time) when what he wanted was to marry her sister. He paid for the privilege of marrying his beloved (the younger daughter) also, which made him a bigamist by American standards, but which was entirely normal and accepted practice IN HIS CULTURE. The price he paid was in hard labor and he deliberately used that labor to enrich himself, since his employer/father-in-law was NOT treating him fairly.


    So now he had two wives and each came with a handmaiden who served her every whim. I know of no source that says that Jacob ever contracted marriage with the handmaidens, but the sisters were very competitive and they used their handmaidens as surrogates against each other to try to increase the asset value of their portfolio of children. With their flawed logic, they believed that this would cause the husband to favor them above their competitor/sister. This practice was also completely normal IN THAT TIME AND CULTURE. The Bible is completely silent on the issue, except to basically say by inference, if not explicitly, that whatever you take on as your responsibility/estate/portfolio, you must handle it with diligence, kindness, honesty, etc; in short, all the qualities that demonstrate the character of our Life-GIVING, Loving G-d.

    The Bible DOES say that a MAN will have a more peaceful home with only one wife than with many. The Bible also says it is BETTER for a MAN to seek pleasure and fulfillment with his WIFE than with a stranger or a professional. The New Testament says that if a MAN wants a leadership position in the CHURCH, he should only be considered if he is the husband of ONLY ONE WIFE. <>

    Other than that, the Scriptures are SILENT on the subject of “Spousal Groups”. I have heard that the Koran, for example, says that a man may have as many wives as he can afford to support and care for.

    APPLICATION: It seems apparent to me from the changing conditions in Scripture that the Prime Objective is to “demonstrate and live into the faithfulness of God IN THE CULTURE IN WHICH YOU ARE CALLED”, *NOT* to superimpose an older, alien culture onto your constituents because ‘that’s the way it was back then’.

  • CatB

    I should have known that using angle brackets would not work to separate ideas on a web page . Sorry. Here’s the text that was inside the first brackets:

    {I know of no science that supports Jacob’s scheme to skew the outcome of his breeding practices, yet it worked for him. To me, this says that G-D backed him up in the task he undertook because he did it openly and with his employer’s full knowledge and agreement.}

    Here’s the text that was inside of the second set of brackets:

    {I take that as a practical acknowledgement that a man with more than one wife has his duty roster full on the home front.}

  • By way of bringing these comments into our 21C American culture, I haven’t done the etymology research yet, but if its true, as I suspect, that the passages referenced above use “anthropos” or its Hebrew equivalent in the instances we now read as MAN, it is more accurately translated HUMAN, without any gender-specific stem. And the better expression for WIFE may very likely be “HELP MEET” or “SPOUSE”, as opposed to a word which we commonly understand to mean FEMALE person. I can’t wait to look these references up and understand them in context, but first, I have household chores!

  • Lamont

    Paul is saying that if someone is confessing to be a Christian brother (or sister), and is living a life of “sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler,” that those in the chruch should not even eat with them. This sin was so vile that “it is not tolerated even among the pagens” vs 1. Paul calls for the man to be put out from the congregation, from the blessing of worship and Christian fellowship in hopes that the man will repent of the shameful act that his soul would be saved! vs 5. It is not that christians do not stuggle w/sin, and sometimes fall into sin. Here Paul is talking about willful rebellious sin.

    CatB said:
    “Isn’t the most immediate and urgent question this one: What is it saying to you?

    Sounds like Sarah just needs confidence that her interpretation is correct.

  • Lamont

    Oh… The other part is that it’s not Christians place to judge unbelievers who are outside the church. That is God’s place. Be in the world, but not of it.

  • greg

    Richard, I think sometimes we in the Church use the sharing of Truth as a “protective shield” around ourselves, to avoid being vulnerable. In other words, we often imply, “I’m intelligently sharing the Truth, so I know the Truth, so you and I shouldn’t have to dialog about the application of this Truth to my broken soul.”

    My thought is the biggest problem we have in this area isn’t talking about the Truth (whether about morals, or about transparency, or about…).

    The problem is that we lack humility, and we lack the discipleship that grows humility.

    Otherwise, I think that one point of this article is self-defeating, in a way. This article suggests that there are certain categories of “Truth” that we should avoid implying that people conform to, but instead the article presents a Truth that we should imply that people conform to. 🙂 We shouldn’t demand (covertly or otherwise) that people be “cookie cutter” copies of the ideal church member (whether the ideal church member that this article scolds, or the ideal church member that this article promotes) before they join the church. But at the same time, the church needs to share the Truth in love. Some people, though, will confuse the two, and while we can’t prevent people from judging us entirely (that’s a fool’s errand); however, I think that growing in humility will produce fruit that, with time, helps to reduce that effect.

  • greg

    One additional thought – picking on Focus on the Family seems to be a favorite thing to do at BCC. Can we avoid doing that? I’ve worked with a lot of different denominations and ministry groups, and one of the things I’ve found is that we so often talk *about* other groups, rather than engaging in fruitful fellowship and conversation with each other. That tends to result in isolation of different parts of the body of Christ from each other, and the only things we hear about other isolated groups are the criticisms that people in our own communities have for those other communities. That doesn’t promote understanding, and it’s neither healthy nor redemptive…

  • Been looking for this, but haven’t found it yet!