Holding Fragile Families Together

Church of Christ theology serves as a means to hold fragile families together. The hardline Churches of Christ require weekly attendance. Some require attendance at every service and Bible Study, citing a verse in Hebrews that threatens damnation if you don’t attend. So you have your whole family together three times a week, reasonably well dressed and well behaved, singing the songs, standing for prayer, listening to the sermon and standing around talking afterward. In some congregations if you miss attendance for 3 months you are officially withdrawn from, with various interpretations of what that means.

So a family that doesn’t treat each other very well can look relatively healthy just by virtue of the fact that they attend church regularly. For instance, a family that is critical and discouraging to be around, one in which the family members dread getting together because of all the sniping, or the boredom, can look like a family in which everyone is happy and getting along, just because they all attend church together.  Like the remarks about your weight that keep getting made every Sunday, or the jokes about your age or at least the loss of your hair. Or the old car you drive, or the antidepressants or sleep aids you take. Like a henhouse of chickens, they can’t stop picking at the unhealed scabs of your life. So when one person stops attending church, a good portion of the pressure put on that individual is pressure from family members to maintain the facade, to maintain the fantasy that we are a healthy, happy family that has always gotten along together, a family that loves each other, that treats each other as we would like to be treated. The most dysfunctional members of the family will apply the most pressure, because they have the most to lose if the family falls apart. Their emptiness will be exposed, not only to the world, but to themselves.

On a side note: evangelicals in general (and this includes Churches of Christ) are subject to idealism when it comes to family life. Seldom in the history of the world has any generation been bombarded with so much information on how to have a happy healthy family. Yet nowhere in the Bible is there any kind of a promise that our families will be happy if we follow God. There are no families or couples that are referred to in the Scriptures as happy. Idealism leads to extremes in family life that take their toll: extreme rules to keep, extreme obedience required of the children, extreme punishments if obedience is not attained, extreme reactions to aberrations. (An example is what happens at the table if a child spills her drink. Is there anger, violence and shaming? Or is there: “Oops! Here’s a cloth. Time to clean up!”?) This extremism leads the children of ministers and elders (and anyone truly dedicated to Church of Christ ideals) to be cynical.

Yet even as cynics we tend to hold onto the ideals. We are split. We cannot believe that the fairy tale of a happy family and really getting along cannot be attained. Those who leave hardline churches are at first upset that whatever congregation they visit (that is not hardline) is not as close and family feeling. Much like someone who leaves the Mafia is surprised by the lack of respect shown to family patriarchs. Or someone who leaves a teen gang is surprised by the lack of loyalty and brotherhood in groups that are not gangs. Or people from eastern Europe are surprised by the lack of patriotism in America. These groups demand respect, loyalty, brotherhood and attendance, and use extreme punishment to maintain it. Jesus does not. Jesus did not punish those who left his group, nor did he demand respect and loyalty. He said, “If you love Me.” Quite a different motivation. Jesus steers away from pseudocommunity. What we seek in Jesus is true community, and it is rare.

And so, if we only went to church when we were motivated by love, we would have a very different relationship with our congregation. Likewise with our families.

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About Mark

I was raised in the conservative non-institutional churches of Christ and attended Florida College in Tampa, Florida. I served as a minister for 8 years in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and 4 years at a mainline church of Christ in Vermont.
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