De-Fluffifying "Family"

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : September 13, 2006

One of the most finely honed skills among Christians is the ability to sap the power and profundity out of words. Take, for instance, the word “salvation.” What once was a rather holistic word of deep meaning with many rich, mysterious facets has now been stripped of its profundity and now means “not going to hell anymore.” Or ponder the way Christians use the word “church.” What once was a lofty word used to describe a race of holy priests has now been revisioned into a word that merely means “a building with a sanctuary” or “a local gathering of people with a shared religious affiliation.” But for my post today, I want to explore the ways in which we use “family” as a Christian word.

Family, in the most conventional sense means “a group of people related by blood, marriage, or adoption.” In the early church, the word “family” was a useful metaphor for the emerging Christian movement. It signified that all these folks from diverse backgrounds, from different classes and races and ethinicity, are now a family. They are a new family, bonded together by a shared adoption. They are a family, since all are wedded to Christ as a Bride. They are a family, since all are indwelled by One Spirit, purchased by the blood of One Man.

In the early church, kinship was the most powerful bond. Ones brothers and sisters were more important than one’s spouse–family meant much more in the ancient near east than it does for most in the West. And so, when the early Christians used this term, it had powerful connotations that accurately represented a powerful reality: those who are in Christ are part of a New Family that are more profoundly bonded together than any other relational tie.

Consider these words from the Apostle John:

For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates a fellow believer is a murderer, and you know that no murderers have eternal life in them.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another. If any one of you has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in you? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.

1 John 3:11-18, TNIV

John’s use of kinship language is more than simply casual. One never gets a sense from the New Testament that our spiritual kinship is subordinate, or lesser to, the blood kinship among biological families. In fact, given the words of Jesus (about leaving familiy, hating parents, and the like), it would seem that being spiritual brothers is a weightier thing than being biological brothers.

How sad, then, that we toss around the word “family” or “brother” or “sister” in the Church as though it meant little? For many of us, these words carry less weight than the word “friend.” We have spiritualized these words and stripped them of their gritty implications. To call a fellow church-goer or Christian a brother or sister is simply a statement of shared affiliation. To call one’s church a “family” simply indicates that you generally like each other and have a shared cause.

* * * * *

The use of the word “family” has been on my mind a lot lately. Usually it is those brothers or sisters with tremendous needs that force us to examine our use of the words “brother” or “sister.” Our new friend Michael, who has been homeless for much of his adult life and struggles with all manner of addictions, refers to us (those of us in MIssio Dei that he has met) as family. And we call him our brother. We talk this way at Missio Dei because “family” is one of our core values. We struggled with the decision to extend full hospitality (letting him stay with us) to Michael, because of the presence of children in our house. After all, we don’t know him all that well. We did let him stay with us, but it was only for a few days, since he iis currently in treatment. We felt good about our decision, because we believe it reflects Jesus’ challenge to extend hospitality (Mt 25:31-46) and shows our commitment to Michael as our “brother.”

Yesterday, Chris visited him at the treatment center. Michael, who is black, introduced Chris, who is white, to everyone at the center as “his brother.” No qualifications. No clarifications. Everyone Chris met had a slightly puzzled look on their faces (how can these dudes be brothers?). Silly Michael, don’t you know that the words “family” and “brother” are churchy words? Don’t take them so literally!

* * * * *

Michael understands the word “brother” better than we do. He is, by virtue of who he is, forcing us all to “de-fluffify” the word “family.” Because family is a necessity for him, rather than a luxury, he takes us seriously when we use such words. And we have a choice to make: either to distance ourselves from him in all the well meaning ways that churches often marginalize the neediest in their midst, or to make good on our words.

I don’t know how to be a brother to Michael. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know how to be a brother to me, either. But our Big Brother Jesus will help us. Amen.

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2 Responses to “De-Fluffifying "Family"”

  1. Shane L on September 14th, 2006 1:43 pm

    Thanks for the post Mark. Something that has been stewing in me for awhile as well.
    By the way, a good read from a therapeutic persepctive on this ‘family’ issue is (perhaps you already know about it) Rodney Clapp’s book, ‘Families at the Crossroads.’ He devotes at least a good chapter to it if not more. Just a resource. Also, S. Claiborne has a great quote on this issue that I’ll summarize, ‘What’s crazier, working and living so that we can have a lot to provide comfort and security for just a few of our family members (meaning flesh and blood relatives) or working and living so we can have enough of what is needed for all of our family members (meaning all of humanity)? I think it’s a good question…

  2. espiritu paz on September 16th, 2006 11:21 pm

    I’ve recently been astounded at that which is called the “new family” or that which is clasified as nontraditional family. A Home remodelling magazine I get identified the following sitcoms as examples of nontraditional families: sex and the city, frasier, seinfeld, friends, will and grace…
    How does one resond to that??!! I don’t even know how to begin to process that.

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