My essay on how the church could be more Biblical and less defensive in its definition of family as published October 6, 2015 at ChristianityToday.com
Why Christians Need to Embrace a Changing Definition of Family
No one is from here.
It’s a saying commonly heard in Washington, D.C., a place with changing political administrations, students and interns who come and go, and a workforce of upwardly mobile professionals.
It seems like so many people here are either brand-new to the area or on their way out. A city report this year found that, according to tax rolls, fewer than 1 in 4 people who moved to the District a decade ago remained residents eight years later.
In such a transient place, the church’s special role in creating a sense of home is tangible. Our relatives are far away. We may feel isolated, lonely, or overwhelmed. Through my church community, I quickly discovered an uncomfortable yet extraordinarily comforting fact: My husband and kids and distant relatives aren’t enough. I must depend the friends I make, the people around me, as our “practical family.”
When babies arrive, parents fly in for a visit, but they aren’t on hand to watch your older kid when you go into labor. That’s what practical family is for. When your apartment doesn’t have room for a blow-up mattress for your sister to come stay, you call someone from the congregation. The same when your car battery dies in a parking garage, when it’s your birthday, when you need a ride to the ER, or when you don’t land the big promotion.
In other settings, these responsibilities fall to family or lifelong friends, but my husband, my kids, and I don’t have that support network here. Instead, the people God put next to us become the family we need for getting through hard times, for celebrating everyday joys, and for learning to live out our faith. Our practical family is not only a help for our physical needs but also spiritual ones, offering discernment in job situations, marital counseling, and parenting wisdom.
It runs counter to the American nuclear family, but in three of the four Gospels, Jesus affirms that the faithful are a truer family than our biological ones. When Mary and his brothers arrive, Jesus responds, “‘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 cf. Matt. 12:46-50 and Luke 8:20-21).
In John, the only Gospel to omit that story, Jesus leaves his biological mother in the care of his disciple John (19:26-27). Though Mary has other sons, Jesus invites his friend into a special relationship with his mother, for him to adopt her and she him.
Similarly, one way Christians can become “practical family” for each other is through naming godparents—especially ones who aren’t already your relatives. Rather than being done out of tradition, ceremony, or even necessity (in some circles “godparent” is a designation for those who would take legal custody of your kids), appointing godparents celebrates these special Christian friendships.
Baptism marks our entrance into the new covenant and into the family of God. We believers are now blood-related through Christ’s death and resurrection. Baptism cries out that water is now thicker than blood. This covenant-making moment is the perfect opportunity to recognize godparents. They become adopted into a family as part of a celebration of God adopting all of us into his family.
It wasn’t an exchange of vows between a friend and me—at least not directly. But it was as close to that as I might hope for today. Becoming a godparent meant that my relationship to two of my good friends, and their children, had been sealed through baptism and witnessed by other believers. It was a small step in transforming a “You’re mine because I love you” relationship into an “I love you because you’re mine” relationship. A small step—and hopefully the first of many on a long journey.
In baptism—whether a new believer’s or an infant’s—Christians publicly acknowledge that we need each other to live according to God’s Word. The Anglican liturgy asks parents and godparents together, “Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?” Then, “Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?” Moments later, the pastor asks the congregation to pledge their support of the baptized. Then the congregation, parents, and godparents together repeat the baptismal vows as an affirmation of our common baptism.
You might be privileged to live near your siblings or parents and not have the sort of tangible unmet needs that forged our dependence on our church family. I’d challenge you to cultivate deep spiritual friendship anyway—with another family, a couple, or someone in a different life phase than you. Jesus built his church out of adoptees (first his disciples, then the Gentiles) and declared them his family. When we practice intimate friendship with a former stranger now made family through Christ, we follow his example and get a foretaste of heaven.
Whether you’ve had your kids sprinkled or dunked or nothing at all, the gift and charge to live as part of a covenant Christian family is the same. We are to hang a sign over our family dinners, our holidays, and the work of raising our children that says, “Single, same-sex-attracted, infertile, divorced, or displaced Christians: please apply.” We “traditional” families and married couples need you.
We are commanded by Christ to live our lives known by our love for one another, acting like adopted brothers and sisters not just on Sunday but all the time. (John 13:35) We can invite people, even ones you don’t know “well enough,” into your ordinary family life. Have them join in Saturday brunches with your kids or help out with a project for the science fair. Pick a holiday and reimagine it as a time you’ll create traditions with a “practical” rather than nuclear family, whether it is New Year’s or Columbus Day or even Easter—when my own family and our godparents often celebrate together as resurrection family.
These days the church is being challenged to reimagine how it defines family—by internal voices debating theology and by external political and cultural pressures. It is a ripe moment to transform from churches that loudly fight for “the traditional” or “nuclear” family into churches that expect their members to lovingly adopt one another as family in Christ.
Laura Kenna is faculty at the Trinity Forum Academy and lives in Washington, D.C. where, along with her husband and kids, she’s made practical family among the folks at Church of the Resurrection. She’s written essays for USA Today, The Washington Times, Rare, and Patheos and blogs at remotepossibilitiesblog.com. Readers can connect with her via Twitter @LKenna2.