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Guest Column

July 2001 | by John Thornbury

Family values or Christian values?

Family values are big in the USA. Given the exploding divorce rate and the tremendous social problems caused by children born out of wedlock (about one third of all births), it is no wonder that ministers, educators and sociologists are trying to keep families together.

Family values have even become a key factor in political strategy. I recall that when George Herbert Walker Bush ran against Bill Clinton in 1992 an influential political pundit suggested that Bush need only include a family values plank in the Republican party platform to ensure victory. Even at that time, Clinton’s past marital infidelities were generally known about.

Hidden dangers

Within the evangelical church, family books, family counselling and family conferences have become almost ubiquitous. Much good has been done by such efforts, and we can only hope that there will be a heightened awareness of the need for a biblical basis to the husband-wife relationship, the parent-child relationship, and even the various duties that stretch to the extended family.

But I think I see some dangers lurking in what is otherwise a wholesome and necessary emphasis. I get the impression from some Christian leaders (and their viewpoint is spreading to the grassroots) that the family is to be the central reference point for all moral choices and pursuits.

What is best for the family is now being, if I understand rightly what I hear, put forward as the basis for all of life. For example, if children would enjoy a camping trip on Sunday rather than going to church, then the former must be chosen.

Now there is no doubt that doing the right thing, is, in the end, best for everyone, including people in their domestic relations. But even a superficial acquaintance with the teachings of Jesus reveals that there is something much more important than securing good family relationships.

Supreme allegiance

In fact, Jesus warned that if anyone comes to him, he must ‘hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also’ (Luke 14:26). ‘Hatred’ here is, of course, to be taken in a relative sense. We are commanded to love our wives, our husbands, and honour our parents, but only in a way that is secondary to supreme allegiance to Jesus Christ.

Obviously, tender domestic ties, precious as they are, can become a snare and hindrance for the one who is determined to honour God in his life. Sometimes a person must choose to follow Jesus even when it means that a powerful human tie must be broken. Many a servant of God has had to leave behind loved ones to serve God in some missionary field.

Not infrequently, a newly converted soul, when announcing his or her Christian experience to a spouse, finds not help and encouragement but denunciation and threats. I can think of a case in my own experience in which a sincere Christian faced the painful decision of following Jesus or enduring a divorce simply because of the offence of the cross.

Our Lord himself on one occasion made it clear that his true followers, his disciples who loved him, were his real family, and their needs came before those of his own mother and brothers (see Mark 3:31-35).

Vital union

In his immortal allegory Bunyan pictures the pilgrim who carries a heavy burden of sin on his back as setting out for the heavenly city. Spurred on as he was with the desire to get to heaven and escape hell, he abandoned the ‘City of Destruction’ and ran ‘from his own door’.

‘His wife and children’, Bunyan says, ‘perceiving it, began to cry after him to return, but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran, crying, “Life! Life!”‘ The point here is not that a man should literally abandon his dependents. What Jesus teaches is that securing an interest in God’s grace is more important than anything else.

There is, moreover, a family much more important than the one deriving from human marriage: it is the family of God. There is a connection vastly more dear than that of any earthly relationship: it is vital union with God’s Son through repentance and faith.

No, ‘family values’ are not to be the final standard or primary driving motivation in life, but fidelity to the gospel of Jesus Christ and his laws and commandments, as taught in Holy Scripture. When the family comes between us and God, then we have just introduced another idol.

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