by Dr. Stephen Farris
Sometimes punctuation matters. “Family first?” is a question worth considering. “Family first” as a statement is a problem. Other than a phrase meaning that healthy families of various sorts are immensely important for human well-being, or that Christian worship should be welcoming to all ages, “family first” can be idolatry.
This does not mean that the family is not a good thing and a great blessing. Most idols represent things that are good in themselves but have been put in the place of God and are then frozen into lifelessness as graven images.
Idolatry is more than adoring a statue, however. It means putting something other than God first in our lives. It is getting our relationships out of proportion so that something other than the love of God comes first. It that is so, the most common form of idolatry in our churches and wider society may be precisely the one that puts “family first.”
Lots of people say it quite bluntly: “I come to the church for the family.” Attending church is like a ballet or minor sports (though not usually as important). We think we should take or send the children so that they can grow up morally straight and strong.
Lots of Canadians, including folks who profess to be Christians, are at minor sports rather than church on Sunday morning, however, because they do put “family first.” And if family really is first, how can we argue with them?
A Rewritten Catechism?
It is as if we have rewritten the catechism: “What is our chief end? Our chief end is to produce a healthy well-adjusted family and enjoy it forever.” If we think God helps achieve that end, we will send or even bring the family to church.
God is merciful and can draw people through less than theologically spotless means. If we insisted that people should come to church only for the right reason, attendance would be even lower than it is now! But in the end, God does not tolerate being a means to an end. Our spiritual ancestors got it right: our chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.
As the church, we hope to provide good programs for families and draw people in, but not dishonestly. We can appear to enable idolatry or to practice a bait and switch: “You think it is about family, but really it is about God.”
Listen to My Mother
Once, as a small boy, I asked my mother, “Do you love me best?” Mom replied firmly, “No, I love God first, then your father, then I love you and your brother and sister equally.” I thank God that I was raised by a mother who didn’t put me or the family first. Listen to my mother, if you won’t listen to me.
Saying “God first” does not mean “Church first” or “Church business first.” Active church people are sometimes tempted to put church first. Church may then become an ugly and destructive idol.
Early in my ministry I allowed myself to get too occupied with church business. My sons were three and one-year-old, respectively. One morning I was sitting on the sofa while the boys played at my feet. Three-year-old Allan picked up a book, showed it to me, and said, “I’m Daddy. This is my Bible.”
“How cute,” I thought. “He’s imitating me.”
“I’m going to a meeting!” Allan announced.
Accurate maybe, but not nearly so cute.
Allan put down his book, looked me in the eye, and said, “But maybe tomorrow I’ll stay home with my boys.”
I felt as it I had been stabbed through the heart. I got up from the sofa, found my appointment book, and drew lines through many of the events. The church did fine without my presence at every single meeting. And the family did much better.
As with all areas of life, if we put God first and, by God’s grace, got that relationship right, all the other relationships have a good chance of falling into place. It’s not a guarantee. We all know that faithfulness to Jesus Christ can produce anger and discord in a family, especially from those who do want to be put first. There was, after all, troubled in Jesus’ own family. See Mark 3:31-35.
Shaped for Good or Ill
Family is, however, “first” in one respect. It is in our families that we are shaped for good or ill. Veteran pastors and psychiatrists all know that what we are, for good or for ill, comes through the family. We talk about “stranger danger”; but, too often it isn’t the strangers you have to worry about. It’s your family! Trouble of every kind will work its way through the family.
But so can good. We begin to learn “all we really need to know” well before kindergarten. We learn it in the family. By all means we should create family friendly programs and worship to draw people into church. But that is only the first half of the job, at best.
If people want to hand the Christian education of their children to the church, don’t let them! Hand it right back. No, that’s not quite right. Enable and motivate families to teach the faith within the home.
Church as Family
Family can be a way of understanding the church. It is not “first” in this respect. Understanding the church as the Body of Christ remains primary. But family is up there among the key ways of understanding and living out the idea of church.
The church is like an extended family where young and old, families of many sorts, and those who otherwise would have no earthly family can come together. Strangely, that kind of extended family, that “village,” may then become, as a side benefit, the best place to raise a child.
God who came to us in Christ, as part of a very human and very fallible family, whose love is imprinted on us by the Holy Spirit, that Triune God can redeem the worst of us and the worst of families—if we put Him first.
Dr. Stephen Farris is a long-serving minister and professor (Knox College and Vancouver School of Theology) who served recently as moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. He currently lives in Ontario. This article first appeared in the Presbyterian Record (March 2016). It is used with his permission.