American Jesus is all about marriage and family values. For generations Christian leaders have linked the mission and legacy of Jesus with the health and centrality of the married couple and the nuclear family. If you grew up in an American church, especially in a conservative or fundamentalist tradition, you most likely learned a lot about “biblical” dating, marriage, sex, manhood, womanhood, parenting, etc. The impression is that Christian faith, while rooted in the person and way of Jesus, is most chiefly concerned with and most legitimately expressed in the life and home of a family. In this version of the religion, single adults are often viewed as deficient or suspicious, and cultural changes related to sex and marriage are viewed as threats against “traditional” marriage and values, dangers to the integrity of the gospel, and affronts to God.
There are, however, two realities which complicate these abiding assumptions. First, there is the fact that when the Bible does speak of marriage and family, it does so with a set of ancient cultural presuppositions which often do not match our own. Levirate marriage, polygamy, and primogeniture (favoring the firstborn) are commonplace in the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, and largely unknown in the modern first world. This does not necessarily preclude those texts from being read and interpreted fruitfully, but it does mean that they cannot and should not be read as instruction manuals for our own family lives. At the very least it ought to keep us mindful of the inevitable fact of cultural and societal change across the generations and the globe.
More pertinent to this discussion, however, is the complicated and even dismissive attitude of Jesus toward family and marriage according to the gospel accounts. In fact, an honest assessment of what Jesus apparently believed and taught about “family values” can be downright unsettling. The subject doesn’t come up as often as you’d expect, but when it does the words of Jesus are almost always shocking. Consider:
- A curious episode in Mark 3 where Jesus’ own family, including his mother, accuse him of being “out of his mind” and try to drag him back home. Jesus ignores them and asks his followers, “Who is my mother?” He answers that “anybody who does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.” (The later gospels revise or omit this bit, and scholars of all stripes have wrestled with Mark’s depiction of Mary in this scene. Remember that Mark does not provide a birth narrative for Jesus!)
- In Matthew 8 a new follower asks for Jesus’ permission to “first go and bury my father.” Jesus commands him, “Follow me! Let the dead bury their own dead.” Disciples of Jesus are expected to abandon their families and responsibilities.
- Later in Matthew 10 Jesus describes how his gospel announcement will result in fathers betraying children, and children rebelling against their parents. He famously adds that he “didn’t come to bring peace – I came to bring a sword! I came to divide a man from his father, a daughter from her mother.” And further, “If you love your father or mother more than me, you don’t deserve me.” This is rhetoric, to be sure, and it actually affirms the importance of familial bonds by challenging them. But challenge them it does.
- Jesus’ argument with Pharisees about divorce in Matthew 19 is typically used by today’s Christians to demonstrate Jesus’ affirmation of “traditional marriage” (especially verses 4-6). In the context of the passage, Jesus’ point is that divorce should be seen as a concession for cases of adultery rather than a loophole for men who tire of their wives. But it is Jesus’ private conversation with his followers after the argument that is seldom discussed. Disappointed in his teaching about divorce, the disciples ask “given this, wouldn’t it be better for a man not to marry?” Jesus apparently agrees, and his cryptic response in verses 11-12 seems to indicate that marriage itself is a concession and a compromise of the kingdom ideal of celibacy.
- Along similar lines, Jesus engages with another Jewish sect in Mark 12 and Matthew 22 on the topic of resurrection. The Sadducees were the conservative elites of Jerusalem, who rejected the relatively new notion that God’s people would be resurrected at the coming of the kingdom. They mock Jesus regarding the logistics of marriage among the resurrected population of New Jerusalem. If, they ask, a woman marries several brothers after each one dies, to whom is she married after the resurrection? Jesus responds with the bombshell that there will be no marrying in this kingdom, and that current marriages will apparently be dissolved. This detail is not featured in many sermons about heaven.
Kingdom Values Are For Humans, Not Just Families
The takeaway is not that Jesus hated families or disapproved of the institution of marriage. However, given what we read in the gospels, it is virtually impossible to argue that family and marriage were the foundation or even tenets of the movement which Jesus started. Quite the contrary, since at every turn Jesus challenged the common obligations of family and matrimony as distractions from the real mission of proclaiming the Kingdom of God. To be sure, Jesus preached fidelity and compassion in all human relationships, but he did not prescribe a particular lifestyle or family configuration (though he was apparently keen on celibacy).
In conclusion, I want to say two things: 1) Despite the radical apocalyptic origins of the religion, marriage and family came to be inextricably woven into the fabric of Christianity. This is a strange tension, and it’s something we could actually stand to wrestle with a bit more than we typically have. But I do not think we ought to feel conflicted or guilty about loving and cherishing our families, whatever they look like, as good gifts from God. This seems self-evident. 2) At the same time, Christianity has a built-in defense against those who would beat the drum of “family values” and “traditional marriage” as if these were the things most precious to Jesus, most essential to his message, and most likely to anger God if we get them wrong. The sorts, names, shapes, and sizes of families and communities change with the centuries. Fidelity, selfless love, and empathy are always the same, and these are the heart of the gospel.