Is Marginalizing the Family the Latest Evangelical Idol?
Posted on February 11, 2019
Just in time to catch the cresting wave of our secular culture’s anti-family crusade, Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, chides Christians for championing the family. He’s not the only one. In the 80’s and 90’s, evangelicals perceived the family as under cultural and legal assault: abortion, homosexuality, divorce, pornography, and the Equal Rights Movement. This perception was a major impetus behind the Moral Majority. In an abrupt about-face, today’s evangelicals increasingly warn about idolizing the family, despite the fact that the family is under more intense attack today than 20–30 years ago. Moore writes:
The dark powers would have us idolize ourselves and by extension our families, by which usually we mean the image we’ve cultivated of ourselves and our families.
Before we evaluate whether today’s evangelicals are actually family idolaters, perhaps we can consider a time when the family was incontestably idolized — during the ancient Roman republic:
The head of the family was not merely father, judge and protector; he was also priest. The traditional religion of Rome was scarcely more than an extended spiritualization of the high points of family life: birth, marriage, and death. Nothing violated the religious, any more than the legal, autonomy of the family. The father was the supreme priest of the private gods of the family and its hearth, the Lares and the Penates. No child was ever born into a family; he had to be accepted, following birth, through the religious authority of the house father.
Until the recent century and the incursion of Western (Christian) ideas, this divinization of the family almost equally shaped Asian cultures like China and Japan; ancestor worship is a logical practice when the family is divinized. This ancient Roman pater culture and traditional Asian ancestor worship, however, are far removed from the alleged idolatry Moore is criticizing:
[O]ur suffocating grasp on our family — whether that’s our idyllic view of our family in the now, our nostalgia for the family of long ago, our scars from family wounds, or our worries for our family’s future.
Even were this an accurate description of modern Christian devotion to the family, it’s far from the idolatry of the family, to put it mildly. Moore argues that this idolizing the family is partly the result of the church’s trying to be relevant — answering pressing questions the world is asking:
The outside world is interested in order and stability. In that sense, the world can see the value, in most cases, of “The Family” [note the scare quotes and derisive caps] in a way that it would not see the value of, say, the doctrine of justification by faith. Churches can talk about the family, then, in ways that seem immediately relevant even to their most metaphysically disinterested neighbors.
I’m not sure what world Moore is living in. Certainly not the West of the 21st century. This “outside world” is interested in autonomy and rebellion, not order and stability. Indeed, at the heart of our postmodern moment is a reaction against order and stability, not craving for it. Since God’s central institution of order and stability is the family, postmodernity is at war with it: porn, ideological feminism, sexual egalitarianism, children’s “rights,” same-sex “marriage,” androgyny, gender neutrality, “toxic masculinity,” cheap no-fault divorce, and on and on. If uniquely serious members of the “outside world” are anxious over the loss of “order and stability,” why shouldn’t the church counter with the family? In fact, if any other institution should champion and protect and nourish the family in our poisonously autonomous age, it’s the church.
Jesus, Enemy of the Family?
But for Moore, to exalt the family in our incontestably anti-family society is to diminish the message of Jesus Christ, who came to divide the family. He cites these statements by our Lord to prove that Jesus’ message necessarily assaults family loyalty:
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters — yes, even their own life — such a person cannot be my disciple,” he said (Luke 14:26).
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. . . . I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law — a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household” (Matt. 10:34–36).
To the man who said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father,” Jesus responded without any apparent empathy: “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:59–60).
When another prospective disciple of Jesus asked to “say goodbye to my family,” [Moore writes] Jesus would have nothing of it. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God,” he said (Luke 9:61–62). Again, if anyone but Jesus were to say this, it would sound at best harsh and at worst evil.
When Jesus said, “Follow me,” the fishermen-apostles immediately dropped their nets and came with him. James and John, Mark recounted, stopped mending their nets and “left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him” (Mark 1:20). Jesus’ hearers would have understood this as a repudiation of the family.
This catalog would seem to close the argument once and for all: Jesus came to lead people away from the family. But Moore’s is a strategy of swift de-contextualization. Just what families was Jesus dividing? Moore seems to be under the impression that Jesus’ audience were just good old-fashioned, Jehovah-honoring, Torah-observing, Messiah-searching Jews, and their Old Testament commitment to the family was what Jesus was overturning. But anybody who reads the Gospel accounts (particularly John’s) knows how erroneous this assumption is. Again and again he chides the Jews (and not just their leaders) of not believing or understanding the Old Testament (Jn. 5:46), of not adhering to the Genesis creational norms (Mt. 19:8), of not being Abraham’s children (Jn. 8:39). Moore conveniently fails to mention identification of Jesus’ own blood brothers with darkness (Jn. 7:1–7). Jesus’ was not quite a “happy Christian family.”
Jesus, then, did not come to divide the family, the institution that he himself created. He did, of course, come to divide the rebellious, apostate family of Israel at the time. Russell Moore seems not to make this distinction.
Here’s how the angel described the future ministry John the Baptist to Zacharias his the father: “And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord [Jesus Christ]” (Lk. 1:16–17, emphasis supplied). John was to turn the hearts of parents to the Lord Jesus so that he (John) could turn those same hearts to their children in preparation for the Messiah. A parental heart turned to the Lord is a heart that can be turned to one’s children. Jesus indeed came to divide families — apostate and unconverted families. He did not come to divide the family as an institution.
Moore’s assault intensifies: “But Jesus was no hypocrite. He not only taught these things [attacks on the family] but also lived them. He was never married and never had children. He seemed to disrespect at almost every turn his immediate and extended family.” But Jesus’ singlehood, as I noted in my article “The Evangelical Singleness-Celibacy Paradigm Is Wrong,” was wholly unique. Jesus does have a metaphorical bride, the church, and he does have metaphorical children, Christian believers. Had he taken a literal bride (a nearly unthinkable scenario), he would have been obliged to abandon her to untold grief at his agonizing death and subsequent departure to heaven. He knew he could not (and should not) fulfill earthly husbandly obligations to a physical bride. The fact that Jesus did not marry and sire children in no way whatever suggests he assaulted the family as an institution.
But Moore’s most pernicious assertion, the core of his argument, is here:
In fact, Jesus seemed out of step with the entire thrust of the Bible. The biblical story starts with a family — a man and a woman charged with being fruitful and multiplying across the face of the earth (Gen. 1:28). God’s promise was that he would make Abraham the “father of many nations” (Gen. 17:5), that his descendants would be as numerous as the sands of the shore and the stars of the sky (Gen. 15:5). God’s promise to David is that God would establish a royal dynasty for David, that one of his sons would sit on his throne forever (2 Sam. 7:4–17).
Moore sets Jesus against the family by setting Jesus against creational norms. The fact that Jesus himself is the mediator of creation (Heb. 1:1–2) — that Jesus himself established the family — seems not to have entered Moore’s calculation. His marginalization of the family is rooted in his hermeneutic of discontinuity. He can more easily marginalize and deprivilege the family by lopping off the creation account. But Jesus didn’t come to undo creation. “God does not make junk.”  He came to redeem and enhance creation, not junk it. Moore sets redemption against creation, the Jesus of Nazareth against the eternal Son of God, and the New Testament against the Old Testament. He sunders what God has joined, and in so doing truncates the biblical worldview.
Fighting Today’s Battles Today
Contrary to Moore, the church’s great present need is not a revival of preaching on justification by faith alone. This is not the most important doctrine in the Bible, even in soteriology (salvation doctrine). Still, the Reformation was forced to highlight it because the mediaeval church had obscured salvation by grace under a blanket of sacramental works-righteousness. But while that error is not less pernicious today, it is less pervasive, and giving that doctrine the emphasis it had from 1517–1660 is a mistake. The impetus behind that mistake can be either hidebound traditionalism or cultural cowardice — sometimes both.
The great threat today is the attack on creational norms like male and female created in God’s image as distinct kinds of human beings, and the related issue of marriage. That attack comes in the form of same-sex “marriage,” sexual fungibility (interchangeability of the sexes), and the exaltation of singlehood as autonomy. Recovering biblical creational norms is more important than preaching justification by faith alone, not because it’s optional (it isn’t), but because creational norms provide the context in which justification can have any meaning at all.
It’s no idolatry to champion the family and creational norms at the very time they’re under assault both in the culture and the church.
But it might be a tiptoe toward idolatry to slink away from
the heat of battle over a misguided traditionalism, a faulty Old Testament-New
Testament hermeneutic, or plain old garden-variety timidity.
The longing for comfort without controversy and battle might just be the
idolatry we have most to fear.
For further reading on this topic …
 Robert Nisbet, The Social Philosophers (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1973), 37. Christopher Wiley pointed out in his gracious prepublication review of this post: “I think the negative aspects of Roman household life can be oversold. See Xenophon’s On Household Management and you will find many supposedly modern attitudes about working with servants and your wife.”
 David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1995), 3–65.
 Paul D. Feinberg, “Hermeneutics of Discontinuity,” in Continuity and Discontinuity, Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments, John S. Feinberg, ed. (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway, 1988), 109–128.
 Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985, 2005, second edition), 48.