What is a family?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

I grew up watching "Leave It to Beaver" on my parents' black-and-white TV set. The cast was made up of Ward and June Cleaver with their boys, Wally and the Beav, with frequent visits from the neighborhood sycophant, Eddie Haskell. A traditional two-parent arrangement, the so-called model of American normalcy in family life.

Today, I turn on my TV and in high-definition living color, I watch "Modern Family," which is as far a departure from the Cleaver clan as it is possible to get. Jay Pritchett is a middle-aged man divorced after a long marriage -- and remarried to a much younger woman from Latin America. Jay is now a stepfather to his new wife's preteen son. Jay's daughter is married with three children. Jay's son is gay and, along with his partner, has adopted a Vietnamese baby. Oh, I forgot to mention -- the Pritchetts are very close-knit, just like the Cleavers.

Which of the above two scenarios represents "family?" In America, in Missouri, even in Southeast Missouri, the answer is: both.

The definition of family has taken on many permutations during my short sojourn on this earth -- now approaching 53 years in duration. On Oct. 18, St. Andrew Lutheran Church is hosting a "GrandFamily Conference," designed for grandparents and other relatives who are raising children. We have come as far from Ward and June as it is possible to go -- and yet the word "family" still applies.

Did you know that St. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, the man who wrote so much of the New Testament -- uses the word "family" to describe the church only thrice? (Galatians 6:10; I Thessalonians 4:10; Hebrews 2:11) Yes, it is true he talks about being children of God, about being sons "by adoption," and about being heirs of the promise (all in Galatians 4). But family is a word Paul usually avoids -- and when he does use it to refer to the collection of believers, the apostle does not have in mind any biological connection. Twenty-first-century churches use the word "family" continually -- "Come and be part of our church family," the advertisements read. Why did Paul shy away from the use of the concept of family in describing the fledgling churches of the first century? Didn't he miss a golden opportunity to attract newcomers to the way of Christ?

Jesus was once told that his family was waiting outside for him. His response was: "Who is my mother and who are my brothers?" (Matthew 12:48) Jesus actually points the reader away from his biological relatives and toward his disciples -- his friends by affection and shared purpose -- as his family.

If we wonder why Jesus and Paul usually demur in using this compelling image of family as a metaphor for the church, perhaps this is the reason: We are born into families. We don't choose them; we inherit our mothers and fathers, our brothers and sisters and all the extensions of blood lineage. By contrast, we freely choose our association with a church. We can be "born" into a congregation, but we have total freedom to stay or go.

May we think of church the way Jesus must have thought of it -- a collection of followers of the way of Christ who have affection for one another and shared purpose. Maybe this is why Jesus and Paul avoided "family" as a description -- because we think of it as kin and blood relations.

Something to ponder, dear reader, as you think of what your church means to you. If you don't have a church, there is one for you out there -- I'm convinced of it. If you're searching, may God act as matchmaker. And soon.

The Rev. Dr. Jeff Long is senior pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau.

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