Families, Commitment and Christian Discipleship
Families are crucial, but Christian discipleship must take priority:
Families are vitally important. The Judeo-Christian worldview has the highest regard for marriage and family. These institutions were ordained by God and are the bedrock of any stable and successful society. Mess with family and you mess with society.
All Christians affirm these truths, and the vital importance I give to family is attested to by the fact that I have penned nearly a thousand articles on this topic over the years. Many of these pieces of course examine the war against the family, and the many attacks on heterosexual marriage.
So while we can speak of marriage and family as being key absolutes, there are other absolutes, and sometimes various absolutes will clash. Christian discipleship and the Lordship of Christ are also absolutes, and sometimes to give full loyalty to God may mean giving less loyalty to family.
Care is needed here as we seek to work out in practice what this means and how it is to be applied. But in the gospels we do find Jesus saying two sorts of things about families. On the one hand he affirms the importance of the family, but on the other hand he teaches that the cost of discipleship may entail leaving your loved ones or being rebuffed by your family.
As to the former, Jesus of course was fully in sync with the Hebrew Bible and what it had to say about the importance of marriage and family. He certainly knew of and followed the Fifth Commandment: “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12).
Some of the places where Jesus speaks to this are as follows:
Matthew 15:3-5: He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,”
Matthew 19:18-20 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?”
Luke 18:20: “You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother’.”
But we also have the latter sort of passages where Jesus seems to disparage the family or minimise its importance, at least in relation to honouring and obeying God. These texts tell us that to follow Christ may at times mean to break with one’s own family.
By my count there are over a dozen such passages found in the Synoptic Gospels. Four are found in Matthew, five are found in Mark, and six in Luke. The ones from Luke are these:
Luke 8:19-21 Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.” But he answered them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”
Luke 11:27-28 As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
Luke 12:51-53 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
Luke 14:25-26 Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone 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.”
Luke 18:29-30 And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”
Luke 21:16-19 You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.
One of the most astonishing of these passages is the one about hating your family members in Luke 14. There is a parallel passage to this which is a ‘softer’ or less harsh version of this text. I refer to Matthew 10:34-39:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
That version speaks of ‘loving more’ instead of ‘hating’. It helps us to more rightly understand what was being said in the Lukan passage. It is comparative: it is basically about who we love to greater or lesser degrees, instead of being about the hatred of various family members. Let me draw upon two commentators concerning this passage of Luke’s. R. C. Sproul says this:
Our Lord is not saying that we are to despise or abhor our parents or our children or our spouses, but the devotion we give to Jesus must be even greater than that which we give to the dearest ones of our family and friends. This sometimes leads to conflict with the ones we love the most. So Christ tells us the cost: “What I demand from My Disciples is that their first devotion, their first love, must be to Me. You must love Me more than your family. You must love Me more than you love yourself; otherwise you can’t be My disciple. Unless you’re willing to bear your cross as I must bear Mine, you can’t be My disciple.”
And R. Kent Hughes puts it this way:
Certainly, in the full light of the New Testament, Jesus was not demanding an unqualified hatred. He could not command, “Honor your father and your mothers” (Mark 7:9-13) and demand that we also hate them. He could not command, “Husbands. Love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25) and then advise them to hate their spouses. Jesus, who so loved little children that “he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them” (Mark 10:16) could not advise their parents to hate them. Neither could he advise his followers to be “reconciled to your brother” (Matthew 5:24) and then encourage brotherly hatred. How could he command “Love your enemies” (Luke 6:27) and then call us to hate our friends? The truth is, in the Biblically recommended sense that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves (cf. Mark 12:32-34) and to love one another as Christ loved us (cf. John 13:34, 35), we cannot love others too much! We can focus on our family too much, we can dote on our loved ones too much, but we cannot love them too much. Further, in the final clause Jesus recommended that each of his followers must hate “even his own life.” Jesus could not be recommending a psychologically destructive loathing of existence. What Jesus was saying paradoxically was that our love for him must be so great and so persuasive that our natural love of self and family pales in comparison. We are to subordinate everything, even our own being, to our love and commitment to Christ. He is to be our first loyalty. All other relationships must take second place.
So with a harsh enigmatic epigram, Jesus yanks us from our dreamworld. “Do you fancy yourself a disciple? Do you think you are going to follow me? Then you must love me so much that your love for your family seems like hatred in comparison! Hate your own life. Otherwise, don’t pretend to be following me! Jesus’ words astonish us.
Countless believers over the centuries have known of these realities. While they have certainly loved their friends and family members, they have had to put Christ first above all other loves. And some have also known rejection, enmity and even hatred from their own families when they become Christians. That is part of counting the cost of following Christ.
But we do have the wonderful promise that I quoted above: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”
That is good news indeed.
4 Replies to “Families, Commitment and Christian Discipleship”
This is often the lot of those who end up ‘unequally yoked,’ with an unbelieving spouse placing demands and expectations on a believing spouse that he or she cannot fulfil.
When my former husband and I married, we were both unbelievers (though I had been a believer as a child). I came back to faith quickly when the marriage became difficult very early, and, skipping over 2 difficult years and much prayer, my husband eventually became a Christian too. But his commitment lasted no more than a month. My life then became one long battle to hold to Christ in the face of intense opposition…a battle that lasted 20 long years before he finally gave up the fight and left me for good.
Without going into the details of the many strategies employed during those 20 years, I will mention just one event to illustrate that the issue was truly about my being a Christian. Once our children were considered old enough for me to return to work, my husband wanted me to do just that to contribute financially to the household income. He urged me to apply for teaching jobs miles away from where we lived, including interstate positions, but he was quite open in his admission that it was his intention to get me away from the church that had become my spiritual home. I succeeded 6 times in getting jobs in Christian schools in different towns and states but each time I got a job, he changed his mind and then rang the school, declining the job on my behalf. He told me that he knew that wherever we moved to that I’d just find another church. I had more freedom of worship during a month I spent in a Muslim country than I did in Australia in my own home. While there I worshipped with other Christians openly in public parks, attended a Christian wedding and took public transport to the church with no opposition – whereas in my own home, getting out of the house on a Sunday morning was never guaranteed.
And sadly now I have adult children who have rejected me because I hold to the truth that God made us male and female – refusing to accept the subjective opinions and feelings they wish me to accept. I miss my children – I miss their voices and the sound of the word ‘Mum’ on their lips.
I may have to live this experience of rejection for another 10 or 20 years – who knows? Sometimes that thought is unbearable, and getting out of bed and going to work seems too hard some days. But I then remember the words of James – my life is but a vapour, and what is my experience in the context of eternity? Glory awaits! My sufferings weighed in the scale alongside that exceedingly great weight of glory are less than a grain of dust.
Many thanks Anon.
Kudos Anon for standing for Christ over your kids as LGBTQ issues is where many a Christian puts family over Christ. They all of a sudden have to rethink the Christian position and “discover” they can still love the children because Christ is cool with it. Children are where many are vulnerable and satan knows it. What is funny is the same person would die rather than convert to Islam or atheism yet won’t give up their relationship with their child. Their child is worth more than their life when it comes to Christ. Great is the reward for those who must choose and make the right choice.
Yes that happens far too often Paul.