Modern churchgoers have some messed up priorities. That’s my thesis. Sometimes we have no conscious priorities; sometimes we feel there is no flexibility in priorities where there should be; sometimes we’ve just never considered the fact that our priorities may be dangerously disordered. But thinking through what our priorities should be—and then consistently acting on it—can be very difficult.
In a recent series, we’ve been discussing the importance of the local church, the priority we place on it, and the appalling dismissal of the local church that is rampant in modern Christianity (under the guise of attending to the pressures and needs of modern life).
Maybe people could devote more time to their church family in the 1850’s, but we have more pressing matters at hand. I do love the church, I’m just so busy! I don’t have time! You don’t understand how busy my family is!
My main point? I just don’t buy it. People make time for what is most important to them. I think we simply have grossly misunderstood the value and import of the local church, and have given in to the habits, values, and worldview of the secular culture. Anyway, you can read those posts here, here, and here.
A follow-up objection to my general emphasis of the local church might be: What about putting my family first? We’re always told to do that.
Indeed we are… So I’m going to do some thought exercises here on the issue of prioritizing church over family, or family over church.
Church or Family?
First of all, it concerns me that we automatically, as a matter of axiomatic self-evidential fact, assume that us (Christians) investing in and prioritizing our family looks the same as when the world does that.
We’re often told that our priorities ought to go like this:
Or some variation of the above… Another way to word that would be,
- My children
- God’s children
Do we get that from Scripture?
I’d like to challenge that. And I do so cautiously and conservatively, because I care a great deal about the natural family; yet I think even in our attempt to prioritize the family, we often do it a great disservice.
A better, but I think still insufficient, priority tier structure would be something like this:
- God and his family
- My family
Jim Daly talks about this priority hierarchy in this article. It’s encouraging, and worth the read. But I think we still need a little work on our priority pyramid.
I think that trying to conceptualize our priorities and responsibilities in chart or hierarchy form may inevitably have inherent weaknesses at various points. Also, I’m horrible with charts, so I couldn’t quite get something I’m happy with. But, with that caveat, I would recommend thinking about it a little more like this:
Yes, it’s more complicated… quite so. But I think this helps in a couple of important ways. First, in this way, Christ is above all and defines all. When we become believers, our identity changes. Who we are in Christ shapes and defines everything about how we live in every facet of life.
Secondly, I don’t know that trying to put church or family, or God’s family or my family, or ministry or family, in a specific order is useful. There will always be tension, and there will always be conflicts at times. Within the overarching umbrella of our identity and commitment to Christ, we have certain responsibilities that we have to do the hard work of balancing. Christ has called us to be committed to our assembling with and encouraging the church community, raising and discipling our own family, and evangelizing the lost.
And yep, there’s tension and difficulty in trying to balance those. Having a hierarchy that tells me, well, whenever two seem to be in conflict at any given point, [this one] or [that one] must win out at every point, I think is less than helpful. Trying to put that tension to rest with a simple order of categorical priorities is problematic. We may need to attend to one or the other more urgently at times, and this takes wisdom, the leading of the Holy Spirit, and sometimes much sweat and tears.
Within the various spheres of responsibility that we have, however, I think we can identify from Scripture certain levels of priority given to certain functions within each domain.
For example, within our church family, our responsibilities include assembling together regularly for worship (Heb 10:25), encouraging one another to love and good deeds (Heb 10:24), and fencing the community—meaning being responsible for who is affirmed and who is expelled from the fellowship through membership and discipline (Matt 18; 1 Cor 5; Gal 1). Beyond those responsibilities, we are blessed to have various ministry opportunities available by which we can serve in different ways as we are led, as we are able, as time allows. But the clear hierarchy here is that the various ministries we can voluntarily commit to are subordinate to our scriptural responsibilities to assemble and disciple.
Within the sphere of the household, our main responsibilities are to our spouse, and to our children (1 Tim 5:8). Our relationship to our spouse is, in fact, primary, and children secondary. Our responsibilities to our children are, first and foremost, to raise them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph 6:4). If, and only if, we are properly instructing our children in their knowledge of the Lord, and discipling them to love and obey Him fully, we then have liberty to involve them and encourage them in various recreational activities. But recreation is clearly subordinate to our responsibility to disciple and discipline our children to develop godly and biblical beliefs, morals, and affections. I think this is the case both within the sphere of the church and within the home; and the current tendency of parents to outsource the discipleship of their children to the church is perhaps one of the leading reasons that children sniff out the hypocrisy of parents who say Christ is important, but don’t consistently live Christocentric lives.
In our relationship to others (those outside our local church) we have the responsibility to encourage, pray for, and support other believers, and to share the good news with unbelievers. Anything beyond that is subordinate to those responsibilities.
One clear implication of this structure is that it shows the deficiency of trying to put church or family above one another. Scripture clearly calls us to be devoted to our church family; and Scripture clearly calls us to provide and care for our physical family. The hard work of balancing those responsibilities is just that—hard work. It takes discipline, wisdom, and prayer—and leaning on the Holy Spirit and His church for guidance and aid in all of it.
It should be clear from this chart that our commitment to our local church takes priority over our children’s recreation. Not only that, but our responsibilities to our local church actually have priority over our relationships to believers outside our own church as well. And that’s an important principle that we’ve largely forgotten.
I’m not entirely happy with the chart. But the bottom line is this: I don’t like trying to simplify our priorities as God, then Family, then Ministry… or God, then Ministry, then Family… or even as God-and-His-Family, then Our Family, then Others. The fact of the matter is that our identity in Christ shapes and defines everything about every facet of our life, and Christ calls us to minister to both our church family, and our own family. At times there will be perceived tension, at times we will need to make the decision to put God’s family above our own, and at times we will have to radically alter our picture of what we think fulfilling our responsibilities to our family looks like. Why can’t you invest in your family by spending time with them serving the church together? Do you think that perhaps that may in fact be one of the best ways to teach your children (and yourself) the importance of serving God?
Why do we think that ministering to, discipling, and investing in our families will look the same for us as it does for the world?
Christ calls us—and our families—to live radically Christocentric lives. And that translates immediately into living church-centric lives; because those who love Christ, will love His church (2 John 1:1).