Taking the Family of God Seriously

The following is a guest post by Bridget Eileen, a celibate lesbian who writes about Christian sexuality and LGBT+ issues in the church. Read more about her thoughts on life as a celibate, gay Christian at www.meditationsofatravelingnun.com.

 

Celibate gay Christians are frustrated. And not for the reasons you might expect.

Consider how the average congregation revolves around marriage and family. Husband, wife, children — they all sit together as a “family unit.” Couples cluster up two-by-two. If a guy and a girl sit beside each other, it’s because they’re an “item.” Church leaders frequently teach that marriage is the most important earthly relationship, and people commonly say that after your relationship with God, spouse and family should always come first.

But in a world where marriage and family monopolize our love, Christians have little to offer people whose lives don’t fit the “marriage and family” model. When Christians invite believers — gay or straight — into a context where the most normative form of love happens to be the nuclear family, they reinforce the message that celibate people, and in particular gay celibate people, don’t deserve to have love. You might as well invite a child into an ice cream parlor but give him a bottle of water. No kid would be happy with that arrangement.

But that’s the arrangement that so many celibate gay Christians must navigate. And while a great number of straight Christians struggle with the challenges of long-term singleness, most of the straight Christians I know assume they will get married and aren't interested in settling down into singleness or investing in that possibility.

As much as Christians love to celebrate it, the nuclear family should not be the only expression of love in the church. Nor should it be the most meaningful. Biblical community suffers when Christians prioritize the nuclear family above the people of God.

In fact, healthy Christian community calls believers out of their families and into a new one. A spiritual family whose love for each other surpasses the love between spouses, parents, children, and siblings.

 

A New Kind of Family

Jesus brought about a paradigm-shifting change to the social landscape of God’s kingdom. Under the Old Covenant, you had to be biologically born into the family of God. But under the New Covenant, you must be spiritually born again. In the past, God’s kingdom multiplied through biological offspring. Today, it multiplies through spiritual offspring.

Understanding the spiritual fabric of the family of God gets to the very nature of the Gospel itself. Paul declared that, “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring” (Gal. 3:29). And John said, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13).

As a result, familial language characterizes the entirety of the New Testament, from Paul addressing Timothy as “my true child in the faith” (1 Tim. 1:2) to numerous epistles describing Christians as “brothers and sisters” (Gal. 1:1-2; Col 1:1-2; James 1:2; among others). Elsewhere Paul says to the Corinthians, “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel (1 Cor. 4:14),

Paul even exhorts the church to relate to each other as a family. “Do not rebuke an older man,” he said, “but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Tim. 5:1).

 

Sacrificing the Nuclear Family for a Better One

Our rebirth into a new kind of family is fundamental to understanding the types of sacrifices God asks of his people. For too long, we’ve allowed our culture’s worship of the nuclear family to determine our social priorities in the church. Don’t get me wrong. Scripture certainly emphasizes the importance of biological family. (See, for example, Paul’s exhortation in 1 Tim. 5:8 to provide for one’s household. Or his admonition to be faithful to one’s spouse in Eph. 5.)

But the New Testament offers challenging words about how Christians should define family.

“If anyone comes to me,” Jesus said, “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 14:26).

At another time, when pressured to see his family in Matthew 12, Jesus said, “‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (v. 48-50).

Thus, when choosing between his earthly family and his faith family, Jesus never missed a beat. The family of God came first. Such a sacrifice only makes sense in a world where spiritual family is our true family. 

 

Deeper Than Blood

Consider the implications of this Gospel truth upon the Christian life.

If necessary, spiritual children are so significant that they’re worth forsaking biological family, and spiritual siblings so important, they’re worth neglecting your kin. If necessary, discipleship is so necessary that it’s worth rejecting your birth parents, and devotion to the body of Christ so imperative, it’s worth neglecting your spouse.

As Jesus said, “[T]here 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 18:28-30).

Setting the body of Christ as your first family and aligning your life accordingly is part of what it means to be a Christian. When Jesus said that we would receive “many times more” in this life, he was referring to the innumerable family members that we inherit upon joining the church (Luke 18:28-30). A family whose relational ties run deeper than blood.

Now this doesn’t mean that we should actually neglect our families. In fact, Paul said in 1 Timothy 5:8 that anyone who does not provide for their own household is worse than an unbeliever! Instead, scripture calls us to accurately assess our priorities.

We should never neglect our obligations to family under the pretense of “serving God.” However, scripture also makes clear that there may come a time where we must choose between our faith family and our biological. Consider early converts to Christianity whose families threatened to disown them or worse for their faith. They left everything for the family of God. Would we be willing to do the same?

Let me be clear: Scripture commands that we love and care for our biological families. I am not endorsing familial neglect. What I am saying is that regardless of our very real obligations to our earthly families — obligations that we cannot ignore — Scripture says that the family of God is nevertheless our first family.  If we already take so seriously the obligations to our earthly families, then how much more so should we take seriously our obligations to our faith family?

If your spouse or children happen to be members of the household of faith, then count yourself blessed. You have spiritual siblings and spiritual children embedded within your own biological family! But keep in mind that as spiritual siblings and children, your biological family rests on equal footing with any other member of the household of God. While your spouse and children may be inside your inner circle, they shouldn’t be the only ones in it.

Having a few people within your inner circle who have no biological connection to you is one essential way to cultivate true Christian community. Ultimately, the choice between your spouse and your closest friend is a choice between spiritual sibling and spiritual sibling. It ought to be a true moral dilemma for the Christian — as problematic as asking a child to choose between mom and dad.

 

A Vision for Christian Community

So what does this mean moving forward?

At the beginning of this article, I said that celibate gay Christians are frustrated. They’re frustrated because they’re making the type of relational sacrifices that scripture demands, but they don’t see the same from many others. Like it or not, a church where only the smallest fraction of its people prioritize spiritual kinship is not a church. It’s a club.

Far too often our churches behave like one big social group for families and couples. From a scriptural standpoint, it’s unacceptable. If the relational bonds of the church don’t surpass what the world has to offer, then what do Christians have to offer?

Healthy Christian community offers a celibate gay person relationships deeper and more meaningful than anything a secular marriage could give. In fact, it offers this to everyone. Ultimately, the family of God reflects the type of relationships found in paradise — spiritual relationships where no one is married (Matt. 22:30). Imagine a world where you are loved more deeply by your friends than you were ever loved by your spouse (John 15:12-13). If such a world seems impossible to you, then perhaps you’ve never experienced Christian community.

The Bible says that unbelievers will know that we are Christians by our love for one another (John 13:35). But if our deepest relationships are the same as the world’s, then how are we different from the world? Christian community is unique because its love is unique. And celibate gay Christians can’t be alone in their pursuit of this love. We need our straight brothers and sisters to join us.