Family. What comes to mind when you hear this word and contemplate what it means? For me, as I assume is true with most of my readers, there are multiple layers of meaning. Of course, I first think of my wife and our kids. I then think back and remember growing up with my parents and my sister. My mind also expands to my extended family: aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, etc. Now this includes in-laws, both my wife’s family and my sister’s in-laws.
In 2009 we added another layer to this mental image. We (my wife, daughter Abby, and myself) adopted two children into our family. For us, this has gone further than “just” adding two more children. Our children came to live with us in the summer of 2008 as foster children. During the 15 months that they lived with us, we grew to know some members of their birth family. This relationship has continued, and now means that we include some of these members as a part of our image of family. Legally, they are not related to us, or our kids. Biologically and emotionally, they are a part of the story that led two of our children into our home. I cannot imagine the process without them, and all that they added in helping us adjust and understand the two young children we were suddenly trying to parent. Ironically, I could not have imagined life with a third set of “grandparents” for our kids before this process. We did not go into the adoption process planning to long-term foster first, or hoping for the added complexity of dealing with a birth-family. Still, that complexity has led to real beauty as well.
There is another layer to family, our family of close friends. Our best friends often take on something of true brother-hood (or sister-hood) in our lives. I have several friends who I look at as true brothers and sisters. I don’t mean this simply in the sense that we sometimes use as Christians (more on that later), but in the sense that I know that they are there for me no matter what the situation and whether we’ve just had an argument about some area of disagreement. I know full well that some of my friends would drop everything to be there for my family if there were a need, just as my parents and in-laws would be.
In the larger context of the Church, we are supposed to be just that kind of family. In fact, whether we feel the connection or not, we are brothers and sisters. In a story captured by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus radically redefines His own family. His mother and brothers come to see Him but cannot get to Him. He is informed that they are present and looking to speak with Him. He turns to those within the sound of His voice and says “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (using Luke’s gospel from the NET translation) Here Jesus radically redefines a family based on faith, not blood; a family based on the Spirit, not the flesh.
This idea of a “family of faith” is also found in the epistles. Paul writes to the Galatians: “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who belong to the family of faith.” (Galatians 6.10 NET) So we do good to all, but “especially” those in the broad Church. Also, Peter writes: “Honor all people, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the king.” (1 Peter 2:17 NET) Both of these apostles use the term family to refer to believers, or those in the faith. This predates denominations and the schism common in the time of the reformation and beyond, but I think that we should read this to include all those who call Jesus their Messiah and King.
How does this impact life as a follower of Jesus? I think it has some major implications that are often overlooked. I have explored some of these themes before, but not specifically with this motivation. I think it comes down to a question of allegiance and who we are most bound to support and defend. If my primary focus is on family based on biology, I will likely align with nations based on geography and ethnicity. This is so common in many Evangelical circles that we see a close alignment of groups like the Religious Right, the Moral Majority and the like. The mainline churches tend to align with the left side of the political divide. Both sides have bought into the lie, I believe, that family is defined for us the way the Powers would want us to define it: according to the flesh or the physical world.
Our Messiah calls us to a different, higher, definition. We are to define our family according to the Spirit. This means that a believer in China, Burkina Faso, France, or Brazil is a member of my family in a way that is more real than anyone outside the faith who lives on my block. Thus, when I see my earthly country of residence making decisions that hurt my brothers or sisters in other parts of this world, I should be grieved. When the United States bombs civilians in a Muslim country, and claims to be a Christian nation, I grieve. This gives the impression that Jesus would bomb them, and makes life so much worse for whatever Christians may be present in that country. The plight of Christians in Iraq since the war that removed Saddam Hussein from power has been horrific. My family members in Iraq have suffered greatly because of the actions of the US. Which side should I support? For too many Christians down through history, this question has been easy to answer, but for the wrong reasons. We have assumed that since our country is largely populated by people who identify themselves with Jesus, God must be on the side of our country and thus our actions are probably right. There may be some sentiment to feel bad for the Christians in Iraq, and to offer them asylum within our borders, but there is not much real remorse for the effects on these sisters and brothers of ours.
I submit that this is a sign of not being aligned with our King. While I applaud the good that the US, or any other country, may do in the name of Jesus, I cannot blindly endorse any activity. The struggle between nations is not my primary focus. These struggles, and the debates among Christians in how to wage them, often miss the real point. The true battle is between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world which scripture refers to as the Powers, or principalities of the air. We are a part of a Kingdom based on family, the Kingdom of God. All of the members are family, sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. This is the image to which we are called. I pray that as we follow Christ in His self-sacrificial love and refusal to stoop to the use of violence which comes so easily to us, we will rediscover how to be family with all of those fellow believers.
This has other implications on a more interpersonal level. Within any family there will likely be squabbles. Unfortunately, those sometimes happen in public. While we can at times air our differences, we should be careful of our tone when we do this. I may disagree publicly with you, but I must be careful to make sure that anyone who hears about the difference, also knows that I still consider you family. I am an Anabaptist. If you follow Christ and disagree, I think you are wrong, but you are still a member of my family. I disagree strongly with much of Calvinist theology on many points, but still count Calvinists as members of my family. I’m not Catholic, but if you are, you are still my brother or sister. Hearing and doing the will of God is the key, according to Jesus. If you are endeavoring to follow the way of our Messiah as best you can understand right now, I count you as one of “mine”. We are a part of each other, like it or not. Now, let’s be family together and start working together to accomplish our Father’s mission. Along the way we’ll talk, and probably disagree, but together we are God’s workers to change the world and awaken people to His love for them and invite them into the family.
Coming full circle, that’s what God’s family is all about. Adoption into the family, just as it was for our family, is life changing. There is no such thing as an adoption where no one is changed. Our adoption changed life for my wife, for our biological daughter, and for me. It also changed life for two precious children who were without parents to guide them and help them grow. Adoption is complicated, messy, and life-altering. It is also life-giving, both to the adopted and the adopters. This is especially true as we recall that we are also adopted. We love because He first loved us.
This article is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog on Missional Spirituality for the month of February. MennoNerds is exploring through this event Spirituality through an Anabaptist lens and what it means concerning participation in the mission of God.