Summary: Following Jesus takes us beyond family values to embrace God’s Kingdom values in our family relationships.
I’ve been reading some authors this week who are deeply concerned about the decline of traditional family values (Dr. Richard Saller, "Family Values in Ancient Rome" www.fathom.com/feature/121908). These authors are concerned that fewer and fewer women are wanting to invest in their children as moms. They’re deeply concerned because so many moms are hiring other people to raise their kids. They’re disturbed about the rising divorce rate and increase in marital infidelity. These authors are also concerned that fathers are no longer embracing their role as the family leader. They’re fearful that this decline in traditional family values is ripping at the very fabric of society. The authors I’m referring to aren’t James Dobson, William Bennett, or Dr. Laura Schlessinger. In fact, they’re not even from this century. The authors I’m talking about are named Cato, Tacitus, Polybius and Juvenal, and most of them wrote in the Roman Empire about 100 years before Jesus Christ was born. During this period of Roman history, many Romans were so deeply concerned about the decline in traditional family values. When Caesar Augustus came to power in 31 B.C. he passed a whole body of new legislation that was designed to restore traditional family values in Rome. This happened just three decades before the birth of Jesus Christ. During Jesus’ lifetime if you said you were a proponent of traditional family values, people would assume that you were a Roman, a supporter of Caesar Augustus and his reforms.
Certainly in our culture today people debate traditional family values as well. William Bennett’s Index of Leading Cultural Indicators demonstrated that by the end of the twentieth century many of the family values of our nation are disappearing. And like Caesar Augustus, many politicians and activists have tried to work for the restoration of traditional family values through legislation and the political process. And strengthening the family through the political process is certainly a noble activity to be involved in. I support those who labor in this way.
But I’m afraid if we as Christians make traditional family values our goal as followers of Jesus Christ, we’ve set the bar far too low. You see, the ancient Romans valued the family as high as any civilization you’ll ever read about in history. Among the ancient Romans, no human institution was more important than your family. Your family was believed to last forever, even into the afterlife. And your obligation to your family was more important than any other obligation, higher your obligation to your government, even higher than your obligation to the god you worshipped. For the ancient Romans, valuing the family meant placing the family above every other loyalty.
The Christian faith has always had more of an uneasy relationship with the family structure than the Romans had. On the one hand, Christians agreed with the ancient Romans that the family is a divine institution. Christians believe that God himself designed marriage and parenthood. So the family isn’t merely a social creation. God’s divine intention stands behind marriage and parenting. But on the other hand, Christians believe that our obligations to God and God’s Kingdom take priority even over our family obligations, as important as those obligations are. And that’s where the early Christians parted company with the ancient Romans.