Family: Pointing to God’s Kingdom or an idol of self-fulfillment?

A friend sent me a chapter of the book For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973) by Alexander Schmemann. The chapter, “Mystery of Love,” outlines Schmemann’s theory that marriage and family are not institutions for the pleasure of people, but they are institutions that reveal the glory of Christ. I believe him. Schmemann says:

A marriage which does not constantly crucify its own selfishness and self-sufficiency, which does not “die to itself” that it may point beyond itself, is not a Christian marriage. The real sin of marriage today is not adultery or lack of “adjustment” or “mental cruelty”; it is the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God.

Family ministry is important, but we need to keep the focus at the right place. It is always a ministry of Jesus Christ. First, the church will be the representative of Christ in this world. Second, the message of Christ will be passed on to the next generation.

It is at this point that I am rethinking a term that I commonly hear used in family ministry. The term is “partnership.” We often say the church is in partnership with parents. Our intent is good as we mean to indicate that the church and parents both have responsibilities in the spiritual development of the next generation.

The shortfall of this term is that it is a business term indicating a relationship based on shared risks and benefits. Partners are usually only partners so far as both sides share benefits from the relationship. Thus, in family life, we have become used to the idea of domestic partnerships. For all intents, a domestic partnership is a marriage without the commitment of marriage.

The church and the family do not exist to bring benefits to one another. The church and the family (at least the Christian family) both exist to bring glory to God. In reality, there is no goal for shared benefits because both should benefit God with or without the expectation of the benefit to those people involved. When we expect benefits from either church or family, we have given up the purpose of both and substituted our own joy in the place of the joy of God.

If the church and parents are serious about the second objective of family ministry, passing the faith to the next generation, then we need to be serious about the first. The first comes when we offer our bodies as living sacrifices. A sacrifice doesn’t expect benefit in return; it is given up completely for the worship of God. It is false religion that tells us that our offerings to God will return to us in great measure. That’s not a promise of God. That’s a pyramid scheme. In the same way, the family model of ministry isn’t about great returns on the investments of time and money. It is a return to the truth that God is worthy of our affections, and in these two institutions we demonstrate his worthiness.

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