As a four-year-old, I knew enough to realize that my sister was very sick. There was a blur of fluorescent lights in the Emergency Room, the cool swish of long white coats, a beeping of monitors, the smell of rubbing alcohol. I heard a whispered word: “tonsillitis.”
Two days later my sister lay recovering at home. Covered in stuffed animals, she sipped poorly-set red Jell-O through a straw. Her tonsils were gone but she remained prone to infections and sinus issues for the rest of her life.
At one point in time, doctors in the United States believed that tonsils were a useless organ in the body. A vestigial organ, they called them. Residual. Purposeless. One group of physicians seriously suggested that all infants should have their tonsils removed at birth, to avoid the possibility of tonsillitis.
But tonsils are not useless. They actually form an important part of the lymphatic and immune system. To remove them makes a person more prone to infection, not less so. They are actually quite important.
Why all this talk of tonsils?
We’re in a ten-part series on scriptural distortions which cult leaders or spiritually abusive people use to damage and control the people who follow them.
In this post, we’ll look at the erroneous teaching that Christians must cut off their unsaved family members in order to more fully follow Jesus Christ. Advocates of this position believe that when somebody becomes a Christian, their relationships with “natural” unsaved family members become obsolete. Vestigial. Not only so, but they consider such relationships defiling and believe that the Bible commands them to avoid natural family.
This is unbiblical.
Here are four scriptures used to promote this error, and the biblical response to each of them.
1.) Matthew 12:46-50 – Jesus was teaching in a house with crowds pressing around him. Someone came and said, “Your mother and brothers are outside, wanting to speak with you.”
Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Then he pointed to his disciples and said, “Here are my mother and brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Some folks believe that by saying this, Jesus set an example of rejecting natural family in favor of spiritual family. They view this as an either-or choice where a person cannot maintain relationship with both saved and unsaved family members.
Response: It is important to notice what Jesus does not say in this passage. He doesn’t say that he hates his natural family, or that he will never see them again, or that they are evil, or that by expressing concern for him they have sinned against God. He doesn’t eliminate his natural mother and brothers as family. Instead, he expands who he considers as his family. Just as blood makes a family related at the natural level, so obedience to God makes people related spiritually.
Biblical context helps nuance Jesus’ words. Jesus continued to relate to his family after this incident in Matthew 12. He visited his hometown, almost certainly staying in his family’s house (Matthew 13:53ff). His mother continued to follow him. And even though Jesus’ brothers did not yet believe that he was the Christ, Jesus still interacted with them (John 7:1-10).
There is no indication that Jesus rejected his natural family members, shunned them, or thought that they were particularly sinful even though they failed to believe in him initially. Indeed, he made special provision for his own mother even while he was dying on the cross (John 19:26-27). By doing so, Jesus mirrored the heart of God and avoided acting worse than an unbeliever (cf. 1 Timothy 5:8).
Can you see that Jesus expanded his family to include everyone who obeys God? And he did this without making his natural family obsolete.
An illustration from our modern world might help. I once knew a Navy SEAL who talked about having “2,000 brothers” in the SEAL teams. This didn’t eliminate his love for his own natural family—he still loved his mom and dad and brother and was devoted to them. Instead it expanded his family to include hundreds of men who shared the same vision, experienced the same hardships, and suffered the same pain. When the SEALs called, he had to answer, but it didn’t mean that he had to shun his family.
In the same way, Jesus’ statement in Matthew 12 adds a spiritual dimension to family. While you always stay related by blood to your natural family, you also gain an entirely new group of “family” when you become a Christian. And your ultimate allegiance is to Christ.
It’s a simple point, so why do some leaders read into this passage a meaning that Jesus didn’t convey?
I believe it is because they arrive at this passage with a preconceived agenda which wants to cut off family members who aren’t cowed by their so-called “spiritual authority.” Such leaders want to call their natural family obsolete—a vestigial organ, if you will—in order to abdicate any responsibility they have toward them and to consolidate their power over their followers.
Also, by telling their followers that they must shun their natural family and devote themselves exclusively to their “spiritual” family, abusive leaders isolate and control parishioners, making them dependent on the church and the leader for everything.
Anyone who says that Matthew 12 encourages Christians to completely reject their natural family misunderstands the expansive heart of God.
2.) Luke 14:25-27 – Jesus tells his followers that if they don’t hate their own family, they are unworthy of Christ.
Response: We covered this passage in the earlier post on shunning parents. In a nutshell, Jesus uses a well-known Hebrew idiom to tell his disciples that their primary allegiance must be to God. His onlookers would have understood that Jesus was telling them to prefer God over and above their own families. When the two were in conflict, they must choose to honor and obey God. Jesus does not literally mean to “hate” our family.
Several other New Testament passages help to qualify Jesus’ striking statement.
Matthew 7:12; 22:36-40 – Jesus taught his followers to love their neighbor as themselves. Since a person’s natural family members are included within the circle of his or her neighbors, it is unbiblical to hate them or act uncharitably towards them. To do so—especially when using religious-sounding arguments to justify our cruelty—makes us hypocrites in company with the Pharisees of Jesus’ day (cf. Matthew 23).
Galatians 6:10 – This verse commands Christians to actively do good to everyone, including their natural family members. It does not say that such “good” means to give them the gospel like the thrust of a sword and then walk away forever, leaving the person bleeding on the ground or cut off outside the church.
A normal reading of this verse implies that Christians should continue in relationship with non-believers, including family members, and do kind things for them. Bake them brownies. Help them load the moving truck. Change the oil in their car. Spend a couple hours listening sympathetically when they discover they have cancer. Buy tickets to the Buckeyes Game and invite them to join you. Give them a ride to work. Normal everyday stuff like that.
1 John 4:20-21 – Anyone who says that he or she loves God, but hates his brother, is a liar. I’m not sure this needs elaboration.
3.) Luke 12:51-53 – Division in the family. Jesus came not to bring peace but a sword.
Response: We covered this in the first blog post in this series. The division, we discovered, comes actually from non-believers, not from believers. It is a work of non-Christians, not of Christians. Any Christian who teaches people to actively shun their family members who are unbelievers is in fact acting like an unbeliever. Yikes.
The New Testament calls people who love to divide families “divisive” and commands other Christians to avoid them (Titus 3:10-11). Such people are warped and self-condemned.
4.) 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 – Do not be yoked together with unbelievers.
My former pastor used this verse to justify cutting off natural family members. It seems to present a powerful case for shunning unbelievers and having nothing to do with them, right?
Response: Not really. Instead it makes a powerful case for why Christians should not participate in or condone sin. The context is one of holy living and open-hearted fellowship with other believers. When we participate in sinful behavior it corrupts our relationship with God and with fellow Christians.
The metaphor of a yoke occurs elsewhere in the Bible. In Numbers 25, God prohibits the Israelites from “yoking” themselves to the Baal of Peor. The context is idolatry. The reason for the metaphor of a yoke is because oxen were physically yoked together and had a common mission, a common destination, and a common master. Jesus would later call people to come to him and put on his “light yoke” (Matthew 11:28-30). The idea is that by yoking yourself to Christ, you make him your master and you do his work.
What Paul is saying in 2 Corinthians 6 is that Christians should avoid participating in sin or closely allying themselves with people who want to “yoke” them into something sinful. Instead, yoke yourself to Christ and live a holy life. This doesn’t mean you have to shun your unsaved family members. It just means you shouldn’t sin when they do. Avoid wearing that common yoke. Instead, be holy.
A Better Way
The either-or dichotomy is a false one. Leaders who tell their followers that they cannot maintain relationships with unsaved family members and still follow Christ have set up a binary choice when the reality is more of a spectrum.
It may be true that some Christians will need to spend less time with certain relatives who are a bad influence on them. But the normal model of Christian witness demonstrated by Jesus is one of incarnational ministry. This means that Jesus came to walk and talk with normal everyday people, including his natural family. He lived life with people. He gave grace in the context of normal life. He practiced evangelism and discipleship in the context of life, not in an isolated community. And so should we.
Why would a spiritual leader teach that Christians should cut off their natural family members in order to follow Christ? I believe they do so in order to more fully isolate and control the people in their church. There is no other reason. By doing this, they metaphorically cut out the “tonsils” and make their members prone to the illness of judgmentalism and the infection of pride.
Even a four-year old can see the sickness in that.
Posts in this Series:
Distortion #6: God or Mammon: Logical Fallacy of the Excluded Middle
Distortion #7: I Committed Adultery Watching the Smurfs: James 4:4 Unpacked
Distortion #8: You Shall Be Holy Unto Me (So Ditch the Budweiser)
Distortion #9: “We Alone are the ‘Remnant,’ all 75 of Us!”
Distortion #10: Fun in the Shun? Confessions of an Excommunicator