As we have considered our temptation to idolatry, we have observed that our idols are usually good things that we make ultimate things. Christians rarely idolise things that are explicitly evil but frequently find inordinate satisfaction and security in God’s good gifts. This is perhaps nowhere more patently obvious than in our temptation to idolise family.
Family is a good gift from God to his people. The New Testament was radical in the way that it called for a return to God’s design for the family. But Jesus also recognised and warned against the temptation to idolise this good gift. Speaking to a crowd of people gathered to hear him teach, he said, “If anyone comes to me 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.” He went on to explain that his disciples must first count the cost of discipleship before following him (Luke 14:25–33). Following Christ is not a decision to be entered into hurriedly or unadvisedly. It means placing him and his call on us above all else, including family. This is a cost that must be carefully considered.
There are two broad ways in which Christians can be guilty of idolising family.
First, we can be tempted to idolise the family structure itself. We idolise family when we consider, sometimes without realising it, those without a “traditional” family structure to be somehow broken. I am in no way disparaging the good gift of family. I am not suggesting that Christians should avoid the gifts of marriage and parenthood. Indeed, the way our culture encourages us to put these things off manifests an entirely different form of potential idolatry. Nevertheless, the opposite error is to insist that marriage with 2.5 kids is God’s norm for every believer. We pity those who have not managed to attain this norm. We undervalue the ministry of singles in the church. We think that single parents need to be ministered to but have nothing of value to offer to us. We sideline and pity church members who have been divorced or widowed thinking that they bring little value to the church. The only time we reach out to singles is when we are trying to set them up for marriage.
In one respect, this is an understandable reaction to the rise of self-centred, sexually liberated values that have, in many respects, eroded the stability of society. But we must be careful of overcorrecting to the degree of idolatry. While family is important, the Christian life is consistently painted in Scripture in the context of broader community.
Second, however, within our own family structures, we idolise the good gifts God gives by finding our ultimate significance and security in them. Family becomes ultimate. Rather than a vehicle by which we serve God, we structure our entire lives around our family and look for ways in which everything else, including our local church, can serve our family. Once again, I do not mean to suggest that the church should not serve your family, but if you expect to be served without offering service, you may have fallen prey to familial idolatry.
How do we diagnose and avoid this temptation in our lives and families? How do we know that we have properly “hated” our families in faithful service to Christ? Here are a few things to consider and pursue as you guard against idolising family.
First, pursue hospitality. In the list of qualifications for elders and deacons (1 Timothy 3:1–15), only two qualifications for elders are not repeated for deacons: the ability to teach and the display of hospitality. Perhaps one reason that an elder must show hospitality is because it displays evidence that he does not idolise his family.
The writer to the Hebrews exhorted all Christians to pursue hospitality (Hebrews 13:2). A home centred upon Christ will be marked by growing hospitality. Rather than isolating ourselves, we should invite others into our lives and provide opportunity for rest, encouragement, and strengthening.
Second, and related to the above, reach out to others. Don’t allow your family to become so insular that you become strangers to your own community of faith—or, indeed, to the world around you. Even as you rightly guard family time as a means of primary discipleship, beware of giving the impression that people are always bothering you when they contact you for something because their need might pull you away from family.
Third, serve the church. Be careful of allowing family to pull you away from your community of faith. Prioritise gathering with the church, even when you are tired. Guard against valuing your children’s educational and rest needs to the detriment of vibrant church life. Encourage your family to be found in regular, faithful service to Christ by serving the community of which he has made you a part. Even as you rightly look for a church that will serve your family’s spiritual needs, ask how you can serve as much as you are being served.
The family is God’s good gift to us. Like all good gifts, it should be used to serve him while we do all we can to avoid making it ultimate. Christ must have first place in our lives and our families if we will avoid idolising what God has given to us.