This article was originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of Plough Quarterly.

Jesus loved little children. According to the Gospel writers, he would place them front and center as an example of how to receive the good news, and he was ­indignant when his friends spoke sternly to them. He taught his followers that unless we become like children, we cannot enter the kingdom of God.

But Jesus does not appear to have the same admiration for the family. Here his teaching often seems harsh, even alarming. Jesus told a would-be disciple who wanted to show basic decency to his deceased father, “Let the dead bury their own dead” (Luke 9:60). He commanded his disciples: Leave parents, siblings, spouse – even “hate” them – and follow me. When his own mother and brothers came to see him, Jesus’ reaction was terse: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Looking at those seated around him he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:31–35).

Jesus himself founded no family – he took no wife, fathered no children, and even called some to be “eunuchs” (Matt. 19:11–12). Contrary to the tradition that salvation is guaranteed by ancestry or that one’s highest social obligation is to family, he reminded his listeners that the covenant that first drew God’s people together was based not on bloodlines but on faith and the miraculous power of God (John 8:31–59).

Vincent van Gogh, Still Life: Potatoes in a Yellow Dish

This is why Jesus dethroned the biological family. While he never denied the family’s worth as a creation of God, he made clear that its importance is not absolute; it is not the primary means by which God’s grace is transmitted to this broken world. Something else is.

Jesus calls his disciples to give their allegiance first and foremost to him. Those who forsake human security, including their families, will receive “a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29–31). In calling into question the primacy of the family, Jesus asks us to imagine a different social order, an all-encompassing community based not on natural ties but on discipleship. Jesus came to establish the new family of God, a family of disciples who follow him with the entirety of their lives (Matt. 10:34–37).

Rodney Clapp, in his book Families at the Crossroads (Intervarsity, 1993), notes how Jesus stretches the family beyond its natural state because his new social order transcends the old boundaries in which people love only their own. In Clapp’s words, “It is through a new family, born again of the Spirit, that God’s kingdom breaks into our world.”

Jesus exalts children because they – not the powerful and the successful – teach us how to become part of this new family. While the disciples argue over who will be the greatest in the kingdom, Jesus places a small child before them as an answer (Mark 9:34–37). Children are dependent and relatively powerless; they teach us to become small so that God’s kingdom may become great. When this happens, a new set of relationships is born of his Spirit under his cross. It is the church, God’s first family, a life of shared sacrifice and community in which family ties are loosed for God to weave together, from many different strands, a new fabric. Only when we become like children and recognize our utter dependence upon God, and only when we put our natural families second, can this kind of society – the church – exist.

In Jesus’ new family, things are turned upside down: the first are last, and the least are the greatest. Things aren’t “natural.” People are more valued than possessions, and love for our biological kindred gives way to serving everyone around us, even those most unlike us. Like children who pay little attention to race or social status, we enter a radically new way of relating to one another.

Paradoxically, within this new and greater family the natural family of parents and children is honored and can even be strengthened. When the first Christians spread the good news across the Mediterranean world, their witness contrasted sharply with the promiscuity and decadence of Roman society. Widows and orphans were cared for, and no one was in need, for entire congregations shared everything they had. Husbands learned self-discipline and self-sacrifice, and women were honored as co-equal heirs of salvation. The result was that the natural family was restored to what God originally intended.

Today there are countless problems undermining families, from divorce and poverty to pornography and drugs. But these problems are only symptoms of what ails us: the absence of community centered on God. The hyper-individualistic worldview that is the hallmark of our age is a threat to the family and to children far more insidious than underfunded schools or immoral lifestyles. This false creed tries to shove God out of the public realm and confine him to private spirituality. It promises that maximizing personal autonomy will bring happiness. Now that the infection runs so deep, it’s no wonder that many families are in trouble.

Jesus calls us to pursue not only the good of those nearest and dearest to us, but to seek first the kingdom of God and his justice. He adds: “And then all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33). We must put Christ and his church first. Only then will our marriages and our families be able to withstand the forces that threaten them. And more importantly, only then will we be able to advance the gospel of the kingdom in this fragmented world.