One of the basic social structures in the life of a human being is their family.1 Though there is much talk in the contemporary Western world about the collapse of the family2—and though many have complicated, strained, and even adversarial relationships with their kin—the family is still one of the strongest social institutions today.
Even in the individualistic West,3 a great emphasis is still placed on the family unit. Many are taught from a young age to be loyal to their families above all else. This is reinforced by maxims like “Family first,”4 and more recently, “Family over everything.”5 This is especially true among groups who claim allegiance to Jesus of Nazareth.6
But the voice of Jesus himself reverberates across nearly two millennia and challenges many contemporary Westerners’ dearly-held family values: “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”7
These words are hard to accept. For many today, these words of Jesus are just as offensive as they were to the ancient Jewish people he first spoke them to. But Jesus’ words here are quite straightforward, as are their implications: following Jesus requires abandoning the absolute loyalty and commitment one has to anything else, even their families. Picking up a proverbial cross and following Jesus often brings a sword of division between Jesus’ disciples and those in their familial unit.8 As Jesus’ disciples faithfully follow him, it is quite likely that members of their families who don’t follow Jesus will be perplexed by their decisions, feel as though they are alienating their families, and deride them.
But even if followers of Jesus are mocked and misunderstood by their families, they must love them. This is important to note, for although a person’s love for Jesus might complicate their relationship with their family, the family is still a valuable and God-ordained institution. Disciples of Jesus still must honor their father and mother,9 while acknowledging that allegiance to King Jesus comes before all other things, and everything else is mere trash when compared to the surpassing worth of knowing him.10
1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Social Institutions
2. See, for example, Pew Research Center Social & Demographic Trends – The American family today and Kay S. Hymowitz (City Journal) – Alone: The decline of the family has unleashed an epidemic of loneliness.
3. For a look at the development of Western individualism, see Larry Siedentop – Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism and Carl R. Trueman – The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism and the Road to Sexual Revolution
4. See, for example, “Dr. Phil” McGraw – Family First: Your Step-by-Step Plan for Creating a Phenomenal Family. More recently, this phrase has made its way into public policy, like the U.S. Department of Labor’s Families First Coronavirus Response Act enacted by the United States Congress in March 2020
6. Within historic Christianity, the social teaching of the Catholic Church holds that “Marriage and the family are the central social institutions that must be supported and strengthened;” evangelicalism also tends to emphasize family, as can be seen in the name of one of its most influential parachurch organizations, Focus on the Family. Groups outside the realm of historic Christianity show this emphasis, as well. For example, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (known colloquially as the LDS Church or Mormon Church) places perhaps the strongest emphasis on the family of the three groups mentioned here
10. Philippians 3:8