Article by Marshall Segal, Staff writer, desiringGod.org
If you are married and have children, you likely have become more acquainted with finitude.
Singleness, for all of its unique challenges, often conceals our physical limitations. We still get tired, of course, but most of the time, we can do what we need to (and much of what we want to), while still maintaining space to rest and recharge. Family, for all of its unique blessings, tears away that sense of autonomy. Children in particular soak up a great deal of any margin we may have enjoyed. When they’re young, it’s diapers, snacks, tantrums, and endless awkwardly worded questions about everything. As they age, it’s the rigors of school, the joys and heartaches of friendships, sports schedules and other activities, and hard questions about the future. Any healthy family demands a lot from parents.
“The church is not the enemy of the Christian family, but its devoted ally and fullest destiny.”
As I have come into marriage and parenting myself, though, and watched others around me do the same, I have both sympathized and grieved over a common casualty in families: the church. As we have found love, and welcomed children, and bought homes, and invested in careers, and cultivated friendships, and pursued hobbies, have we forgotten or neglected our precious and vital place in the people of God? Now six years into marriage and five into fatherhood, I have felt the subtle ways Satan casts the church against family life and family life against the church.
The church, however, is not the enemy of the Christian family, but its devoted ally and fullest destiny. Healthy families know how desperately they need the church, and they gladly build their lives around her, in order to serve, nurture, and love her. They not only hope for family-friendly churches, but they strive to become church-friendly families.
Where might we look to catch a vision of what family life in a church could be? I love the glimpses we get of the first churches in the New Testament. The small windows we have, like Acts 2:42–47, paint a picture of church as the garden of life, not as a planter we tend on Sundays:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
The early church was a together church — spending time together, eating together, meeting needs together, learning together, praying together, bearing burdens together, winning souls together. And all involved, surely including some young families, seemed to thrive in such togetherness, rather than being frustrated by it.
Being the church meant being together — and not just for an hour on Sunday. “Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’” Hebrews 3:13 says, “that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Every day. And that’s without phones, or text messaging, or email, or Zoom. They were willing to make daily sacrifices to pursue Christ and his mission together.
Where One Another Happens
That togetherness is threaded throughout Scripture with one-another commands. First from Jesus himself: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35). What sets Jesus’s followers apart from every other kind of person? Christlike love expressed through one-anothering. And where does that one-anothering happen in Scripture? In the local church.
- To the church in Colossae: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16).
- To the church in Rome: “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor,” and, “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 12:10; 15:7).
- To the church in Thessalonica: “Encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
- To the church in Ephesus: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
- To the church in Corinth: “God has so composed the body . . . that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:24–26).
The story God tells about the church is a gathered story, a one another story, a together story. After all, the very word for church (ekklesia) means gathering. So where has this togetherness gone today?
Well, togetherness is often the casualty of busyness — of filling our schedules so full that there’s simply no room for the church to be the church. Families are often the most preoccupied of all. On top of the relentless demands of raising new humans, mom and dad increasingly both work (and both carry their work home and even to bed). As children age, evenings and weekends are often fuller and fuller with practices and games, rehearsals and recitals, homework and hangouts with friends. That means families themselves are together less. It’s no wonder, then, that they are so jealous for time, and therefore also suspicious of committing more to the church, or even fulfilling the basics.
The pressures on family life that make church life difficult may be inflamed by modern life, but they are not new to modern life. Jesus warned us, two thousand years ago, about “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things” (Mark 4:18–19).
These threats are clearly not unique to families, but they may become even more threatening in families. After all, the apostle Paul warns us, “The married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided” (1 Corinthians 7:33–34). And the same anxiety distracts his wife. Jesus said that the cares of this world are thorns that grow up to choke out any signs of spiritual life. We will not raise a family well if we do not notice the thorns and do what we can to protect our families from them.
So which particular thorns have sprung up in the garden of your family? What keeps you from committing more fully to God and his people? In the vast majority of cases, our thorns will not be bad pursuits, but good pursuits that have become consuming pursuits. In particular, pursuits that consume our finite capacity to seek God, love his church, and pursue the lost.
Jesus says elsewhere, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on” (Matthew 6:25) — in other words, the cares of any parent: food and drink and clothes (and hopefully a nap), on repeat. “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).
How many families allow the storms of anxiety and busyness to consume our pursuit of the kingdom? How many churches lose families to the cares of the world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things — to the subtle thorns of temptation?
To overcome the obstacles to church life with a family, we have to confront the busyness that crowds out the church, but we also need to see the church, including our little, flawed, unimpressive local churches, through the adoring and devoted eyes of Christ.
Our marriages — the same marriages that sometimes distract us from Christ and the church — were meant by God to remind us that Jesus loves the church, and with a holy jealousy: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Yes, he was obedient to the point of death, but he did not die for duty; he died for love — real affection for the church, real commitment to the church, real delight in the church. We have to set our disappointments and frustrations with the church before the blazing love of the one who died to have her.
The apostle Paul says he was called to preach “the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things” — pay close attention here — “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:8–10). God means to show the unsearchable riches of Christ, hidden for centuries, not first through creation, nor through Israel or the prophets, nor even through the apostles, but through the church — through your church.
“The King of the universe loves the church, the heavens are in awe of her, and your family needs her.”
And it’s not only friends and neighbors who are watching, but “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” Spiritual forces are being confounded by the manifold wisdom of God as they watch him build the church — the same church that so often gets buried under our everyday lives with a family. We may look at the church and see inconvenience, formality, and monotony, but heaven is arrested by her, watching salvation unfold and spread through cracked pews and simple living rooms. God bends all of history to hold up the glory of his grace to and through the church.
The King of the universe loves the church, the heavens are in awe of her, and your family needs her: “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24–25). And your church needs your family (1 Corinthians 12:12). How will it thrive without an ear, or an eye, or whatever he has assigned for you?
And what has God assigned for you and your family? You can’t possibly be everything for everybody. As a parent, you already have learned that. Ears and eyes and knees don’t work like that, anyway. God has gifted and placed each of us in unique ways to serve the church in some meaningful way. So, “having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them” (Romans 12:6). If service, in our serving. If encouragement, in our encouraging. If hospitality, in our hosting. If generosity, in our giving. If childcare, in our teaching and playing. If prayer, in our kneeling. Ask God for grace to see the particular gifts he has given your family, and then ask him for grace not to squander those gifts, but to use them in specific and consistent ways to bless and build up the church.
If we admit our finitude as a family, and pray for strength and discernment, and beware of the thorns around us, and continually soak ourselves in Jesus’s love for the church, God will help us love our church well with the little we have.
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