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    Southern Tunisian gardens by Paul Klee, 1919

    A Family for Everyone

    The concept of the nuclear family does a disservice to singles and families, and it’s not consistent with New Testament teachings.

    By Sam Allberry

    August 19, 2022
    • Lindsay

      Thank you for sharing this. I'm encouraged to see your texts listed, as I was writing on this a few years ago and people looked at me like I was speaking from another planet. Sojo, seminaries, and others turned all of it down to the point that ultimately I put the effort away. This would be a great resource for the curriculum I built a while back to help churches deconstruct their singleness fear and sex fear, as a necessary (and 100% ignored) stepping stone to being actually LGBTQ+ friendly. I should not have to wear an "I'm queer" shirt to a liberal church in order to be treated like a human being, and I'm not willing to, since it's none of anybody's business, so that leaves me out of being treated like a human at any church I'd go to.

    • Darryl Connolly

      Thanks you Sam for this article. This is something I deal with as a single person and it causes great distress much of the time. I wish more families would read this article and seriously take it to heart and speak with singles in finding ways we can be included.

    • Helen Hunter

      Sam, thank you! This made me weep and also inspired me! You so clearly articulate the very real challenges around church, singleness and family. Single myself, I hear echoes of my own story in yours. Thank you for challenging the status quo! How easily we assume we are doing ‘church’ well until we realise that we are actually reflecting our culture and bringing it to church rather than the Kingdom culture of spiritual family we are called to. The Lord bless you in your journey to help the church be family as God really intended it and a better reflection of the family Jesus talked about. Thank you!

    Some time ago I randomly met someone I hadn’t seen for about ten years. As we caught up on a decade’s worth of news, I asked about her kids. When I’d known her before, she’d had two teenagers, who were now in their late twenties, so I asked what they were up to.

    “One of them is married, and the other is engaged. So they’re both sorted.”

    I was glad to hear they were doing well. But my mind stuck on that last word – sorted. I guess I know what she meant. But it was hard to avoid the implication. Am I unsorted?

    Comments like this tend to imply, often unintentionally, that we singles are a little like loose threads that have been left dangling and need to be tied up. It’s like we’re still awaiting processing. Once people have become established in their own family unit, they’re good to go. They’re ready for life. Or – as my friend put it – sorted. There are a couple of problems with this. One is thinking that having your own family unit means you’ve now somehow future-proofed the rest of your life. The other problem is the assumption that being single means you don’t have family.

    The New Testament has a very different way of helping us think about family. Early on in Jesus’ ministry, someone brings up the matter of his family – his mother and half-brothers.

    He answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:33–35).

    Jesus reconfigures how we are to think about family. His real family is defined along spiritual rather than biological lines. We become part of his family when we follow the will of God.

    Southern Tunisian gardens by Paul Klee, 1919

    Paul Klee, Southern Tunisian Gardens, 1919

    This is foundational to what the New Testament goes on to say about family as the people of God. It means, if we’re Christians, that we mustn’t think our biological family is our only family. And if we’re single, it means we’re not to think we have been left with no experience of family life at all. Take a look at one of Jesus’ most remarkable promises:

    Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.”

    Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:28–30).

    First, Jesus assumes people will leave things to follow him. It is basic discipleship. It is what he has always said. I love this about Jesus: he never buries things in the small print. Jesus is front and center about the cost of following him. Discipleship is wonderful, but it’s not meant to be easy.

    Second, Jesus assumes the most costly things to leave will be relational and familial, having to leave behind certain patterns of intimacy or our whole family and kin. For some disciples this is literally the case. People from some backgrounds know that the moment they follow Jesus, they will be forever shunned by their families.

    But, third, notice how Jesus responds to all this. He doesn’t tell them to just grit their teeth and wait for the age to come when it will finally be worth it. No, Jesus shows them it will be worth it even in this life. Whatever someone might have to leave behind to follow him, he will replace, in far greater measure – a hundredfold.

    This is the true prosperity gospel. Jesus doesn’t promise us greater wealth and prosperity if we follow him. He doesn’t promise a glowing property portfolio if we go all in with him. He doesn’t say that for every dollar you give him, he’ll give you back a hundred. No, just as the cost is cast in relational, familial terms, so too is the blessing. Jesus promises us family. Nature may have given us only one mother and one father; the gospel gives us far more.

    Remarkable though they are, Jesus’ words are really an expansion of what God had always promised to do. In fact, it’s who he is, as the Psalms remind us: “God sets the lonely in families” (Ps. 68:6 NIV).

    Our spiritual family needs our biological family, and our biological family needs our spiritual family. If church is our family, then the boundary of our family life should be porous and flexible rather than fixed and inviolable.

    It’s easy to read a verse like that and think, “Aw. It’s so nice that God does that.” But the fact is, it’s actually deeply challenging, because we are the families of Psalm 68 in which God is placing the lonely. We are the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, and sons and daughters that Jesus is promising in Mark 10. It makes Jesus’ promise quite unusual: there’s a sense in which it depends on us to fulfill it. Those who would otherwise be alone are grafted into the community life of his people. When God draws people to himself, he draws them to one another as well. The people of Jesus Christ are to be family.

    We see this reflected throughout the New Testament, where the church is repeatedly spoken of as a family. One of the apostle Paul’s favorite terms for the local church is “the household of God.” It is common to use this language of family in church circles – calling one another “brothers and sisters” – without really thinking about it. But it is not meant to be honorary. It is real and meant to be lived out as such.

    Paul gives us an example of what this can mean in practice. Writing to Timothy, a younger pastor, he says: “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Tim. 5:1–2). Timothy is to look at the people in his church as family and treat them as close family. Paul doesn’t say, “Treat older men as great-uncles and younger men as distant cousins.”

    This changes everything. Immediate family implies a tight connection. We are to be there for one another and lean on one another. What happens to one affects all of us.

    This has some significant implications for how we think about family. We may well have been blessed by our biological, nuclear family. Maybe you’re married, and maybe you have children. This is a precious gift and one that you have solemn responsibilities toward. But it is not your only kind of family, or the only set of people to whom you owe such a significant amount. If you’re a Christian, the fellowship to which you belong is your family too. And while that might feel like it creates a tension or competition, the opposite is actually meant to be the case. These two types of family are designed to be overlapping and interlocking in a way that helps each to flourish in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be the case.

    In my part of the world (southern England), just as in many other relatively prosperous parts of the West, the assumption is that nuclear families are the basic unit in which we are meant to live. With one, you’re sorted; without one – well, you kinda need one. And because this is the case, many people simply assume these family units are meant to be self-contained and self-sufficient. The aspiration is to have a wife or a husband, children, a black Labrador, and a nice house. Once all this is acquired, you have what you need for life, so you then pull up the drawbridge and live happily ever after.

    A sign of this is the way we increasingly esteem privacy. The wealthier we become, the more we physically demarcate and separate our family unit from the rest of the world. The metaphorical drawbridge becomes as literal as we can afford it to be. We want our family life to be sequestered. This attitude all too easily spills into the church as well.

    But the self-sufficient nuclear family is not a concept we see in the Bible. Instead, we see that our spiritual family needs our biological family, and our biological family needs our spiritual family. If church is our family, then the boundary of our family life should be porous and flexible rather than fixed and inviolable.

    It is easy to see how this can help those of us who are single. It can be a great blessing to be involved in the family life of others. There are some families I am particularly close to. One or two of these, with younger kids, will frequently ask if I’d like to be involved in the bedtime routine, anything from brushing the children’s teeth to reading them a bedtime story and praying with them. It’s great fun. A friend’s little daughter often asks me to do this whether I’ve volunteered or not. Now, not every single person is the same as I. Some will find rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck into the rhythms of someone else’s family only serves to remind them that they don’t have one of their own. But it’s a slice of family life I enjoy being part of.

    Things like this make a family feel inclusive. They’re not just having you around; they’re opening up their family life to you and letting you join in. It might sound a little weird, but I feel reassured when families feel able to have arguments around me. It doesn’t mean it’s necessarily fun to be there when it’s happening, but it confirms that they see me as part of their normal life. None of them is putting on any special behavior when I am around. Sometimes it’s actually not making a fuss over a visitor that can make them feel more at home. They’re not being given a specially vetted version of family life; they’re being included in the real deal, warts and all. This also serves, of course, to help singles realize that family life is not idyllic.

    This is also the difference between what the Bible means by hospitality and what often passes for it in Western culture. Too often what we’re really doing is not hospitality but entertaining. We’re putting on a good show. But in the Bible, hospitality is opening up our real lives to others (often and especially the stranger) and inviting them in.

    This is something all of us are called to do. Some will have a particular ministry in this area, but it is required of all believers. It is even important enough to be a qualification for anyone in church leadership: “An overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (1 Tim. 3:2–3). I have seen people disqualified from church leadership because of drunkenness and marital infidelity, but I’ve never heard of poor hospitality being considered in a would-be pastor. Yet Paul lists it alongside these other failings as being a deal breaker.

    It is easy for singles to think that all the initiative must lie with the families. Certainly, it is often easier for a family to extend a meal by an extra portion than for a single to cook for an additional four or five, but that is no reason for any of us to sit around waiting for families to do all the reaching out. We need to find ways of getting alongside and taking initiative too.

    But for those who do have your own family, it is worth asking who you regularly include in your family life, who you’re opening yourselves to. Other than a neighbor in case of an emergency, who else has a key to your home? Is there anyone apart from those who have your surname whom you truly regard as family? Anyone who is family enough that they have the freedom to come around any time, without an invitation or even advance notice?

    A couple I know very well recently did just this for me – they gave me a key to their apartment. “This is yours now – you’re family.” They didn’t mean it to be a grand moment; they just tossed a key in my direction. But it felt significant.

    Another time, I was staying with a different family I know well. It was the start of the new school year for kids, and the evening before the first day back, the local elementary school had an open evening so that families could come in with their kids and meet the teachers and break the ice again after a long summer break. My friend’s eleven-year-old twin boys insisted I come too as they wanted to show me their school. But it turned out the twins didn’t just want me to see where they went to school; they wanted each of their teachers to meet their English friend.

    Some of this might sound as if the benefit is only one way. But in reality it is a win-win. The fact is, it is good for the families themselves to have others folded into their life. Such inclusion helps not just the people you include but the family as well. The involvement of others in family life can particularly help children. I can still remember the first time I was asked to be a godfather. I was only in my early twenties, and a slightly older couple with whom I’d become good friends were bracing themselves for the arrival of their second child. They asked me to be the godfather.

    What struck me was the reason. They said, “We need you to pray for us as parents. And we also want you to be someone she can talk to when she’s older and doesn’t feel she can talk to us.” They assumed that there’d be times in their daughter’s life when they might not be the best people for her to talk to. I thought that was very wise. The fact is that no two parents can be everything their children need them to be. Stating this reality should not be controversial, but I often feel congregations bristle when I say it. It should be obvious. All parents are limited, and all parents are sinful. They can’t possibly hope to be the best at everything their kids are going to need. Once again we see the myth of the self-sufficient family at work.

    A child who gets her primary spiritual input only from her parents will only really grasp a somewhat incomplete or skewed version of the Christian life. No parents are going to get every aspect of it right, so kids having the input of other people in the wider church family is not a luxury but a necessity. Hopefully this is a role youth and children’s leaders naturally take at church. But it is good to have family friends involved in the spiritual formation of children too. Kids can then see in the details of how others live that this Christianity stuff is not just what their parents think, and that other people follow Jesus too. And because each couple and each family have their own eccentricities, the input of other honorary aunts and uncles can have a moderating effect. It takes humility to realize it, but your children stand a much better chance of becoming well-rounded if it’s not just you they look to in life.

    To be given any kind of spiritual role in the lives of children is an enormous responsibility. Parents need to be careful in thinking about who has this kind of input. In this day and age especially, we are all too conscious of the danger of the wrong people being involved in our family life. Our children are vulnerable. It is good to be mindful of this and discerning about whose input we allow them. But while it is a significant danger, it is not the only one. While having the wrong sort of input is a justifiable concern, so too is having no other input at all.

    What the apostle Paul says in his letter to Titus is striking: “To Titus, my true child in a common faith” (Titus 1:4). Paul describes Titus as “my true child.” This challenges how we typically think of Paul. We tend to think of how he was single, never married, and didn’t have kids. But that’s not entirely true. Paul was single. He wasn’t married. But he did have children. In this verse, Paul literally describes Titus as his legitimate begotten. Paul had led Titus to faith in Christ. Something generative happened as a result of Paul’s ministry to him.

    There are times when singleness is hard. One of those times can be when you reach the age where virtually all your friends have kids and you don’t. (This can be painful for childless couples too, of course.) It hit me a few years ago at a good friend’s wedding. I was watching the father of the bride dancing with his daughter. Her sister told me he’d taken some dance lessons especially for this. He wanted to be able to share this moment with his girl, a final fatherly moment before she started a new home and new family life with her husband. It was lovely to see. But painful too. I realized I would never have a daughter to dance with on her wedding day. I don’t know why that suddenly hit me – the idea had never occurred to me before. But there it was, and it cut me up deeply. A sudden, unexpected moment of bereavement. So a verse like this one in Titus is an amazing encouragement. There is a kind of parenthood available to us even as unmarried singles.

    Children are a responsibility, for sure, but they are also a great gift from God. But Jesus says there’s a blessing greater than that of a parent. If you hear the Word of God and keep it, you are more blessed than any parent of any child. Men and women produce physical children. But the gospel itself also produces offspring. This opens up the prospect of parenting to all who are single in Christ.

    Abridged from Sam Allberry’s 7 Myths about Singleness (Crossway, 2019). Copyright © 2019 by Sam Allberry. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

    Contributed By

    Sam Allberry is a pastor, apologist, and speaker. He is the author of 7 Myths about Singleness, Why Does God Care Who I Sleep With?, and, most recently, What God Has to Say about Our Bodies.

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