If I had to list five things for which I am most thankful, I would fill in one of the blanks with the word family. It’s hard for me to imagine what life is like for my friend Carla, who has no children, husband, or siblings, and whose parents are dead. In contrast to her, I’m blessed with a large extended family, yet like her, I’m not married and I’m not part of a nuclear family.
I’d be the first to acknowledge the importance of strong family life, but I fear that by extolling the virtues of the traditional unit, the church alienates those who don’t have ready-made families.
Some years ago I went to church on youth Sunday, an event that always seems to feature a sermon on marriage or family solidarity. Disturbed by what I heard—that marriage and the nuclear family was God’s plan for everyone—I wrote a confronting letter to the preacher. Did he know that there were eight million more women than men in the U.S.? When you add in a spiritual factor—that more women than men are committed Christians—it’s even more obvious that the traditional family simply can’t be God’s plan for every godly Christian woman.
In this letter I mentioned two women separated from, but seeking reconciliation with, their husbands. They had found this church’s continual teaching on family life so painful that they had begun to stay home on Sundays. The words they heard were not aimed directly at them, but nevertheless painfully penetrated their hearts.
The pastor never acknowledged my letter, but I was deeply moved a few months later when he introduced another sermon: “Since this is youth Sunday, you might expect me to speak about the family. But instead, I’ve felt led to preach Jesus.” He did, and I, for one, was grateful.
Although “Jesus is the answer” isn’t a biblical phrase, it—as opposed to “the family is the answer”—summarizes the gospel message each of us is called to stand on, believe, and proclaim. He is our salvation, our help in trouble, our hope for the future, even our cure for the past. The family we’re fortunate enough to have or hope to have may be, now or eventually, is the means of God’s grace to us. But the absence mustn’t be correlated with a lack of favor or with an overwhelming disadvantage.
For instance, there’s no need for struggling single mothers to despair that their children have no hope of a bright future. As desirable as “perfect” families are, research by Pierre Rentchnick1 shows that nearly three hundred of history’s most influential leaders were orphans, having grown up lacking the presence of at least one parent. The list goes on and on, including Alexander the Great, Caesar, Napoleon, Queen Victoria, and Golda Meier. Not all the names on Rentchnick’s list are exemplary, but a quick thumb through the Old Testament shows some of the most godly leaders—Joseph, Moses, and Samuel—didn’t have neat and tidy family lives as children.
Paul Tournier comments on Dr. Rentchnick’s findings: “So here we are, giving lectures on how important it is for a child’s development to have a father and mother performing harmoniously together their respective roles towards him. And all at once we find that this is the very thing that those who have been most influential in world history have not had!”2 His observations should be no surprise to Christians who claim God is a force more powerful than anything we might identify as a disadvantage.
Whether we are familied or familyless, each of us can work to affirm our sisters who may need to be reminded that Jesus is the center of our faith, the provider of our needs, and the one around whom we can gather in strength-giving unity.
About ten years ago a minister whom I’d known since childhood was a guest preacher near where I live. Unannounced, I stopped by for a service. He later admitted that seeing me walk in, a woman living alone, had prompted him quickly to adapt his sermon, titled “The Church in Their House,” based on Romans 16:3-5 (KJV): “Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my helpers in Christ Jesus. . . . Likewise greet the church that is in their house.” His original sermon (which I never heard) had assumed a household consisting of a married couple, ministering to their children, entertaining, studying the Scriptures—together. In praise of teamwork. So far so good, though he knew that scenario excluded me in terms of my daily life. He seemed surprised—and a bit pleased with himself—that it had taken so little effort to include me in.
Most messages the familyless hear are subtle; some are painfully blatant. Tears came to my eyes when a grieving widow told me how her married friends at church had responded to her husband’s death. By actions and even unbelievably blunt words they’d said, “You ‘re no longer one of us.” Last I heard, this widow had wandered far from any church home, and I suspect she feels justified.
But what if she’d seen and heard more of the gospel of Jesus—who loved her enough to die for her—and less of the gospel of happy marriages and families? What if she’d been surrounded by women who were secure in their identity as daughters of God? What if her friends had opened their arms to her in love—like a sister?
- Paul Tournier, Creative Suffering (Harper & Row).