What Does Family Mean to the Christian?

How do we understand Jesus' words on hating your family?

In the section of my Bible titled "The Cost of Discipleship," Jesus says that it is impossible to follow him without hating "father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself" (Luke 14:26 NRSV). With these words, Jesus Christ relativized family ties for all those who follow him. Those old ties–parent, child, sibling–no longer have any claim unless that claim is to "seek first the kingdom of God." This alone can explain Jesus' harsh words to that man whose father had died: "Let the dead bury their own dead!" (Luke 9:60). A Christian family, then, is one that operates in the pattern of Christ's own self-denial and faithful obedience to God. To hate the family means to reject the family as an end in itself, instead rendering the family as a means for bringing about the divine will for the world.

In this task of self-denial and service, Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas writes, the family "will require a community that has a clear sense of itself and its mission and the place of the family within that mission."((Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 1981), 174.)) The family is always tempted towards its own hopes, needs and desires–as are all groups in isolation. Tempted as it is toward self-sufficiency and interiority, the family lacks a strong understanding of its place within God's mission. In order to learn its place and purpose, the family requires the witness of outsiders; the suffering and neediness of the outsider interrupts the family's tendencies toward self-determination and insularity, reconstituting the family into the shape of the cross.

The need for this kind of witness takes on flesh in the life of Wesley Hill, whose pains as a single man point to a wider cultural crisis. In his theological memoir, Washed and Waiting, Hill quotes a moving passage from a letter written by W. H. Auden:

There are days when the knowledge that there will never be a place which I can call home, that there will never be a person with whom I shall be one flesh, seems more than I can bear, and if it wasn't for you, and a few–how few–like you, I don't think I could. – Letter to Elizabeth Meyer

As a gay Christian who believes his faithfulness to God demands that he remain single, Hill can claim Auden's heartache as his own–he too is shorn of home and the intimacy of marriage. Washed and Waiting is a book of groaning and longing for the end of loneliness.

In an article published in Christianity Today, Hill writes about this longing in further detail:

I need people who know what time my plane lands, who will worry about me when I don't show up when I say I will. I need people I can call and tell about that funny thing that happened in the hallway after class. I need to know that, come hell or high water, a few people will stay with me, loving me in spite of my faults and caring for me when I'm down. More, I need people for whom I can care. As a friend of mine put it, you want someone for whom you can make soup when she's sick, not just someone who will make soup for you when you're sick.((Wesley Hill, "Why Can't Men Be Friends?," Christianity Today, September 16, 2014, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/september/why-cant-men-be-friends-wesley-hill-friendship.html))

Despite the growing prevalence of people like Hill longing for community, Americans are choosing more and more to live alone. In the past forty years, the percentage of one-person households has increased 10%, now accounting for more than one-fourth of all homes in the United States.((Jonathan Vespa, Jamie M. Lewis, and Rose M. Kreider, "America's Families and Living Arrangements: 2012," August 2013, http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p20-570.pdf)) This statistic signifies the erosion of one institution that could help meet these desires: the family or communal home. But instead, the household has and continues to become an afterthought, worthwhile only for the personal convenience it might provide, rather than a site to form community, painful as it may be. It seems easier to live alone than risk having messy, annoying, prudish, or nosy roommates. Culturally, we seem to be moving farther afield from the vision for community hoped for by Hill.

Wesley Hill and others who are single are not the only ones in need of close community to remind them of who they are and how they ought to live. As Christians, we must assume that God really meant what He said in Genesis 2.18: "it is not good that the man should be alone." Those who invoke the reclusive figures of Christ and the Desert Fathers against this point stand on sinking sand. While Jesus withdrew from his twelve disciples to pray alone on occasion, he always returned to them. And while the church has always had its hermit saints, it is notable that the greatest of these, St. Anthony, was one of the first Christians to establish monasteries for monks to live in and encourage one another towards greater holiness.

While there can be a time for retreat from community, it is fundamentally within community that we learn who we are. On the most basic level, relationship titles like "brother," "daughter," "father," and "mother" give us a script telling us who we are and how we are to live together. Because I am the grandson of a man who, due to Alzheimer's, cannot remember his way to the bathroom, I know I have a duty to help him get there. My relationship to my grandfather helps situate me in relation to the world. We need others around us to teach us the true story about how the world is if we are to live well.((See Stanley Hauerwas' essay ‘A Story-Formed Community: Reflections on Watership Down', in A Community of Character for a good illustration of the importance of community in understanding the world rightly.))

Since home is where we begin every morning and end every night, it would be naïve to think that it isn't the primary place where we learn how to make sense of things. Yet there are many people like Hill who will never have a biological family of their own and still need the stability of a family household. What are really needed are people who would take seriously the words of Christ in Mark 3.35: "Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." Too often the significance of these words is downplayed, and family structures remain unquestioned, even in Christian communities. The imitation of Christ ought to lead faithful families to invite outsiders in as brothers and sisters. What is needed is for families to say to singles, "Make yourself at home", and truly mean it.

In the same Christianity Today article mentioned previously, Wesley Hill writes of a moment that comes close to this kind of welcome. Jono, a friend of Hill's, asked Hill to attend his daughter Callie's baptism and to become her godfather. Hill agreed and several weeks later stood with Jono's family as they handed Callie to the priest to be baptized. After baptizing Callie, the priest said "Parents and godparents, the church receives Callie with joy."((Hill, "Why Can't Men Be Friends?")) Through this baptism, Hill's relationship to Callie and Jono was sealed, reflecting, if only in part, that new community established in Christ that relativizes all other ties.

We have been granted security and eternal life, not through the blood of our children but through the blood of the Lamb. When families heed and live out this witness, then and only then can they be called "Christian." The family that has died to self is the family that has surrendered its very stability and intimacy to those beyond it. Though this surrender may take manifold forms, the family that welcomes singles into their midst is surely enacting a parable of the kingdom of God before the eyes of the world.

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