Like many people who share my religious background, I grew up in this standard of beliefs. My father came to an understanding of the truth, as we like to express it, in 1966 while he was studying Agronomy at West Virginia University, a journey of faith that led him to a small religious college in Big Sandy, Texas, four years of service as part of the I-W program after he was drafted in Vietnam and resolutely maintained his status as a Conscientious Objector, and then the rest of his life as a farmer and a bus driver in the rural Western Pennsylvania where he had been born and raised. On my mother’s side, at around the same time my father came to an understanding of the truth, so did my maternal grandparents while my maternal grandfather was a drill instructor at the Coast Guard Academy in Groton, Connecticut. His rather traumatic separation from the military and a desire for a new start led him, his wife, and his three children to move to a rural area outside of Tampa, Florida, where I would later grow up myself. For better or worse, my own journey of faith has been inextricably tied up with my complicated relationship with my own family .
Yesterday, the second split sermon during the video hookup we received with the Home Office of our church during its General Conference of Elders was given by the Chairman of the Council of Elders, an elderly and fiercely intellectual gentleman who was my instructor in the fundamentals of theology almost a decade and a half ago. The message repeated over and over again aspects of God’s plan and was a layered and deeply allusive examination of family. As one might imagine, the message was one that I have a great deal of complicated and mixed feelings about. For one, I happened to be transcribing the message for a deaf member of our congregation and it was a very difficult message to take notes on, being somewhat rambling and lacking in structure and organization and fully utilizing the remez method of alluding to many scriptures that he did not cite–and he cited enough of them, some of them with discussions of the meanings of the Greek and Hebrew words included in the verses. Apart from those grounds, the message was quite a challenge as well in that some of the layers of the message touched on what could be termed sensitive subjects.
One the one hand, it appeared as if the speaker had a bit too much reliance on the ability of his listeners to grasp the layers of what he was trying to say. He discussed in considerable detail aspects of the family planning of God going back before the creation of mankind and also pointed out his own family stories and the challenging times we live in with regards to social hostility towards the nuclear or extended family organized according to godly lines. He dealt with questions of hierarchy within the family and in blessing physical families he appeared to be somewhat insensitive to the plight of single members, something I tend to be somewhat prickly about. In addition, he referred to the way that God has always sought to adopt outsiders into God’s family in Psalm 87, but appeared to whiff on the obvious opportunity to be inclusive to outsiders in the Church of God. Perhaps he was relying on the listeners to take Psalm 87 and apply it to our own contemporary existence, but it seemed a missed opportunity for me. Perhaps it was simply a matter of the speaker being particularly ambitious with the split sermon format that some explanation was cut out because the speaker simply had no time to do more than he was already doing.
Why is the family such a sensitive subject, not only for myself but for others as well? There appears on the one hand to be a wide gulf between the family as is it ideally is defined in scripture and the family as it is experienced by many people. The Bible certainly provides plenty of dysfunctional families (including just about all of the polygamous ones) but it does not spend a great deal of time dwelling on dysfunctionality. Rather, the Bible rather consistently commands that children honor parents, that wives obey their husbands, and that church leadership and national leadership include godly family leadership. On the contrary, our contemporary world is filled with all kinds of family dysfunctionality. We have wives who resent patriarchy even as they strive to present themselves as loyal members of the Church. We have divided families where there are stories of alcoholism, adultery, and abuse. We have children who grow up in reputedly godly families tormented by their own memory and experience of abuse as well as the divorces and general bickering of their own parents.
In addition to this divide between the family as it is defined and endorsed in scripture and family as it is experienced by members, we have other concerns. For one, the divide between ideal and reality makes it difficult for many people to grasp God’s family when their own has been such a disaster. In addition, it can be hard for people whose family experience has been unpleasant to traumatic to have any sort of confidence in their own ability to succeed in families, especially if they want to avoid repeating the cycles of brokenness they have experienced. Added to this, the contemporary pressures against the family have led many ministers (quite understandably) to support and bolster and endorse physical families to an extent that makes those who are more isolated often uncomfortable and even offended. The recognition of the relationship between human families as models (hopefully) of God’s family and the desire to throw all the weight possible to supporting and encouraging physical families can make isolated individuals feel like second class members of the Church of God. When you have little in the way of family and people repeatedly proclaim from the pulpit that it’s all about the family, one can feel at best like stepfamily. How can we do better? How can we become a godly family as congregations in ways that help people feel less isolated and that also serve to bolster and encourage the families within those congregations and also help shrink the gap in our experience between the ideal of family as expressed in scripture and the reality as it is experienced by people in the Church of God in an ungodly society that is growing ever more hostile to the ways of God that we strive to obey?
 See, for example: