Idol Factory: Family

This is a dangerous post to write. I know, I am going where even angels fear to tread. After all, if there is one area of life that is off-limits to criticism it is “family.” Family is a sacred cow in American culture, and in Evangelical culture in particular. But as important as the family is, when it becomes an idol we have sinned against God.

Of course at one level we must acknowledge that the family is extremely important to God. One of the first things God establishes is the family (Gen. 1-2), and it is through the family that the Covenant relationship with God is given (Gen. 12:7; 15:18). And Jesus himself speaks of the importance of honoring parents (Matt. 15:4-9). “Family” even becomes a model of what the Christian relationship looks like (Matt. 12:50). Family is important to God. But our familial relations are not more important than God, and that’s the key distinction.

Jesus makes this point powerfully clear. You cannot love mother and father or son and daughter more than you love Jesus. He writes:

35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.  36 And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.  37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.  38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:35-38)

These are harsh words, aren’t they? What does Jesus mean but that if you love  your family more than him you can’t follow him? Why would he say this? The historical context calls to mind a time when becoming a Christian could have meant social isolation. If a woman came to faith in Christ but her husband did not then she could have been disowned, abandoned, or even killed. Surely this was a reality that for some, following Jesus meant those very things. To them Jesus would say, if you love your family more than me then you can’t follow me.

Of course for many of us we don’t find ourselves in those situations. We don’t find ourselves having to choose between obedience to Jesus and acceptance in our family (though omany all over the world face this decision regularly). But the truth is that American Christianity doesn’t require us to even think about this decision. We can have complete faithfulness to and worship of our families and still call ourselves “followers of Jesus.” We may miss church for months because we are chasing our kids to every soccer game and soccer camp and soccer practice in the state, but we are still faithful Christians. We may shell out countless amounts of money and time to give our kids the best education, but we’ve made no effort to teach them God’s Word. We may center every decision of our home around the wishes and demands of our children, but we have never told them that God has demands and wishes for their lives. It is far too easy to make family an idol and forget all about Jesus. But it’s not just with kids that we do this.

Spouses too can become an idol. I love and adore my wife. She is the most precious human being in my world, and yet there are times where I fear that I can turn to her for salvation instead of to Jesus. Many of us have an illusion that marriage will be our heaven, and our spouse will be our savior. We expect that once we are married we will no longer feel sorrow, grief, and despair. We expect that this person will make me completely happy, 100% of the time. This is partly, I think, why the divorce rate is so high even in the church. We set our spouses up for failure by asking them to bear a weight they are incapable of bearing. We ask them to be our savior, and when they fail we decide to get rid of them and find a better god. The process of spousal idolatry is subtle, but it is real. And all the while Jesus is saying, I am Savior! Anyone who loves family more than him is not worthy of him. What a scary statement.

Familial idolatry does not result from loving our families, rather it results from not loving Jesus. If I genuinely love my family I will put before them constantly the reality of Jesus as God, as savior, and the only one worthy of worship. When I love myself I will put an impossible expectation on my family, I will turn to them for salvation. And I will crush them with the weight of that expectation. My children and my spouse are not my savior. When I treat them as such, Jesus says I am no longer following him. Love your family, but worship Jesus.


  1. This is definitely worth pointing out. You are a brave man, Dave.

  2. Ralph Clark says:

    My wife and I have been having similar musings lately. This resonates. Thanks!

  3. Alice Ryan says:

    Thank you for saying it. It’s is Christmas-time right now, and my family is pretty much gone, some of them at their own choice, and the recognition that “family” has been a god to me, even over the last 28 years of my life (which is how long I’ve been a Christian) has never hit me so hard as it does right now. The only relationship guaranteed to outlive us is the one we have with the Lord Jesus Christ. There is none who can compare with Him, and we are fools to allow anyone even NEAR Him on our list of priorities.

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