Twitter is really a rough place to post any current issue mulling over in our minds. With a short number of characters one cannot expect to present a full treatise on a position for all to gaze upon. But this requires considerable oversight in discerning exactly what it is we wish to post. With such a small space an ill-chosen word can be quickly misconstrued and the purpose for the post becomes a tangled mess we can only try to unwind.
Recently, Pastor Kevin DeYoung of Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, NC tweeted "One of the acceptable idolatries among evangelical Christians is the idolatry of the family". Anytime someone wants to flush out a known idol, the unified cry of the brethren should be a resounding "Amen"...so long as it is an actual idol. Let me pause at this point and clarify an important point. I am not asserting that people can’t or don’t make family an idol. Whenever we look to something or someone other than Jesus to be what saves or justifies us then we are on danger ground for potential idolatry. Are there some in churches that idolize families? Yes! But is it as common and acceptable as Pastor DeYoung emphasizes? I believe the evidence will show this is not the case. To clarify his statement, much in part to the backlash he received on Twitter, Pastor DeYoung wrote an article for The Gospel Coalition.
In the article he appeals to the examples he claims of how "...virtually every pastor in America can tell you stories of churchgoers who have functionally displaced God in favor of the family." He then proceeds to lay out a few real-life examples of how this idolatry plays out.
From a personal perspective, I pastored a church where I did see a few instances of families skipping services on the Lord's Day to meet the recreational desires of their kids. I say this because I can sympathize with the intent behind identifying a perceived problem. I am not saying there isn't a point to be made of placing things of lesser importance over Christ and His commands. Pastor DeYoung is solid theologically and in most areas of orthopraxy, but the question still remains: Is family one of the acceptable idols among evangelicals today?
Go where the evidence leads
How do we determine if this statement is true? The answer is a rather simple one...we examine the evidence. We take a look at the claim made and the facts that are used to support it then determine whether that claim is valid or a strawman. Unfortunately, Pastor DeYoung does not provide tangible evidence in his short article. But this is understandable since it was meant to clarify his tweet and not qualify it.
The problem though is that this is not really something we can gather evidence from without a research survey of sorts. The only survey of recent that might shed light on this is from The State of Theology. Statement number 20 words it this way: "Worshiping alone or with one’s family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church". 58% of respondents agreed with this statement while 30% disagreed. Could this be the lone smoking gun to claim the family is an idol? Not really!
First, the assumption of the question presupposes that a proper view of church membership is understood. The phrase "attending church" comes with a lot of baggage that assumes simply being in the location where the local assembly meets to worship is actually worship itself. Notice as well that worship is only referenced in regards to doing so with one's family and not with the local church. A better way of stating this would have been to contend the two locations of worship (at home with your family v. the location where your local church meets) against one another. While some may believe this is implied, as one who has taken countless workplace surveys in the military I can assure you that precise wording is key to precise results.
Are there stories of families that have weighed church "attendance" against their family events and fallen in favor of the latter? Yes, just like there are some who have favored against attending church so they can....well...just fill in the blank. Live in an earlier timezone and the game is one right when services are supposed to start? Had a long workweek with more overtime than you can bear and Sunday is your only day off? Lots of studying for those mid-terms that kick off on Monday? You can literally come up with just about any reasoning that someone would use to excuse themselves from corporate worship on the Lord's Day corporate.
Of course, absenteeism on the Lord's Day for the sake of family isn't the only issue Pastor DeYoung highlights but none can be offered with tangible evidence as to their validity or substantiation as to why they qualify his tweet. Perhaps what he tweeted was truly more out of frustration from what he has personally seen in recent times in his own pastoring but that alone is not enough. In fact, I would propose that the evidence proves that the opposite is true of what Pastor DeYoung claims. The family isn't an accepted idol because most just simply don't care about the family either way.
Walk into just about any church today and you will notice a plethora of age-graded groups for families to plug into. Youth Groups, Children's Ministry, Children's Church, Nursery, College Ministry, Elderly Ministry, Singles Ministry, Couples Ministry, etc. What do most of these have in common? They are divided by age and separate the family. The one day out of the week when we should see families gathered together is the one day out of the week that we can't seem to accomplish this. Let's first look at a typical Lord's Day in most evangelical churches:
Little Susie goes to her Sunday School class down the hall from Johnny's youth room. Mom and Dad head off to the adult class but not before dropping baby Bobby in the nursery. 45 minutes later they stop into the nursery to wave at Bobby just before saying goodbye again and then pick up Susie from her room. Johnny's youth discussion is going a little long but they will meet up in the main worship auditorium. Susie takes her seat and right at 11 Johnny comes walking in. He sits with the other teens from the youth group but that's pretty normal...he is a teenager after all. After a few minutes of announcements the Pastor calls the kids up front for a short 3 minute message before they are ushered out to children's church. Mom and Dad sit together so they can focus on the message while keeping an eye on the door in case a nursery attendant signals for one of them to come change Bobby's diaper. Bobby stays dry throughout the service. The doxology ensues and shortly afterwards mom and dad pick up Susie from her children's church room just after grabbing Bobby from the nursery. The attendant remarks about how sweet he was during his 2+ hour stay with them. Johnny meets the rest of the family at the car and they are off to lunch only to head back again in 5 hours for evening services (only for mom and dad of course), youth group, children's ministry, and another solid hour for Bobby in the nursery.
So does the family seem the idol in this case? Kind of hard to see that as a reality when they spend only a total of 5-10 minutes together where the local church meets. But the evidence doesn't end at the church door, it goes far outside of it.
In 2016 an estimate 887,000 babies were murdered at the request of their parent(s). The State of Theology survey indicates that 38% of evangelicals disagree that abortion is a sin. While that number is still disturbing some would say that at least it isn't higher. However, that does not factor in the 10% of respondents who said they were unsure. That means that nearly half of professing evangelicals do not want to call abortion a sin. Nearly half of them are either in favor of murdering babies or apathetic towards it leaving the decision up to the parents as to whether their child deserves to live.
So does the family seem the idol in this case? But wait, it doesn't end with the slaughter of innocent children. It goes into the marital relationship as well.
If we took the basic grouping of evangelicals proposed by Pew Research, 28% have been or are divorced/separated. But the classification of mainline Protestants would add an additional 14% while historically black Protestants would bring in another 9%. If taken together, the total would bring us to 51% of respondents. While the specifics of each divorce/separation are unknown the number itself shows a disturbing reality.
So does the family seem the idol in this case? In any of the three examples, does the family even appear to be the idol?
In the military, particularly those of nautical tradition, the term "deck-plate level" is used to refer to the the practical day-to-day workers of the ship. They are where the ideas of the command are actually implemented and where reality becomes tangible. It is here that what is proposed is tested and found to either be feasible or just another idea without merit. Let's look at the deck-plate reality of the most accepted idol today.
I've ministered outside abortion clinics in Alaska, Virginia, and Tennessee. I've pastored in church in all three of those states as well. I've seen countless vehicles with pregnant mothers pull into parking lots for appointment to have a paid assassin and his assistants tear a baby from the womb and place him/her in a disposal bag. I've witnessed mothers and fathers laughing at the idea of murdering their child, flipping us off as we offer to help them in whatever way they need. I've seen medical "professionals" escort mothers from their cars for fear that they might hear some grain of truth from us that would plant doubt in their hearts and remove the hitman's ransom that the mother carried in her purse for them.
I've seen these things and grieved. Grieved so hard at times that all I could do was come home and crash because I was so exhausted. Worse still, I've talked with people who profess to be Christians and came to these clinics to murder their babies who have no shred of remorse. They pull into the parking lot with a fish symbol and/or some religious sticker on their car. "God forgives me", they chant as they angrily assert their sin as though it were pleasing to God. "My Pastor says abortion isn't a sin", they cry as I ask them the name of the church they attend. This is the deck-plate reality. For them, family is most certainly not an idol.
But they are merely a logical conclusion of the real idol that Pastor DeYoung bypasses to attack the strawman in the room. With no evidence to support his claim, with a few stories from fellow Pastors that may or may not actually reveal an ongoing issue, he unfortunately ignores the fact that many of our churches are promoting the idea that the family is of little to no importance.
I wrote an article addressing a video of parents rejoicing that their kids were going back to school. Some time before that, I attended a church service where the Pastor noted that school was coming back in session the following week and a few in the assembly replied with a hearty "AMEN" as though their children were a burden they couldn't wait to be free from. For them, family is most certainly not an idol.
The evidence around us supports the idea that the family is just a weight that anyone burdened with should seek to offload. It's the opposite of an idol because not only is family not placed above God, family is placed below everything else.
Family is not one of the most accepted idols. SELF IS THE IDOL THAT IS MOST WIDELY ACCEPTED!!! SELF drives our churches to create programs that attract parents and provide them an opportunity to drop their kids off for an hour or two to "enjoy" the worship service. SELF drives families to seek out a local church with all the age-segrgated ministry opportunities you could ever want. SELF drives us to focus on what makes our lives more pleasing both inside and outside the church gathering.
SELF drives some professing Christians (a word I use lightly) to stand arm-in-arm with abortionists to murder their babies. SELF has no qualms throwing in the proverbial towel on a marriage because they are not getting out of it what they want.
Maybe you are reading this and are simply still not convinced that my critique of Pastor DeYoung's assessment if correct. In that case I would like to leave you with a few short questions to ponder which help to summarize the points made above:
1) What does a typical setting for most families look like in a local church these days? Is the family together in the corporate gathering of the saints?
2) What does that family look like outside of the Lord's Day? Are they functioning biblically with devotional or worship time regularly at the forefront of each day?
3) Where do most evangelicals send their kids during the school year? Public school? Private Christian school? Homeschool?
4) What does the culture reflect back to us regarding what we believe of the family?
5) What do our marriages say regarding our view of the family? Are we consistent in our application of the roles of husband and wife?
6) Is church discipline for neglectful, absent, or even slothful fathers or mothers even on the radar?
7) What does the family's relationship to their extended family look like?
8) What is the overarching understanding of the family's relationship to the local church?
Pastor DeYoung has some great material and is faithful to his calling to shepherd the flock which God has placed him over. His sermons and other articles carry great weight with many in the Reformed camp and throughout evangelicalism. In my mind, there is no doubt of his sincerity in what he tweeted and wrote. But as I browse his own church's website I am met with the same problem I pointed out in one of the thes fact mentioned above. His church provides numerous ministries that divide the family from one another during the corporate gathering of the saints. Age-graded Sunday schools, alternative opportunities during the worship service for young children, youth groups, etc. all fit the description I have already mentioned to show us that family is not the idol that is most accepted.
This does not mean that his church is not faithful to the Word. It does not mean they are not passionately pursuing Christ. It certainly does not even mean that they are bent on intentionally dividing the family. What it does mean is that they have bought into the same church model which, for over 50 years now, has undermined the relationship of the family to the local church and fueled the fire of the idol of SELF.
Pastor DeYoung's tweet swings and bats at the air with no evidence to support it in sight. Can family become an idol? Yes. Can your wife/husband become and idol? Yes. Can your children become an idol? Yes. But again, that is not what he stated. It is the difference between potential and practical. What we see today is that family is not an accepted idol among evangelicals because all the evidence points to the contrary. Perhaps a frustrated Pastor, having seen one too many families in his congregation skip the Lord's Day for other things motivated by their family, needed to vent a little. Perhaps he was tired of having to find someone to fill in for Sunday School teaching because the usual teacher decided on an impromptu day at Six Flags instead. Perhaps it was just a combination of years of personal perception and frustrating talks with fellow pastors that finally boiled to the surface. But none of these actually prove the point asserted and only serve to cloud the issue as we are motivated to attack a dragon that in the end turns out to resemble more of a lethargic salamander.
Idols seek to draw our affection away from Christ. They seek to replace the affection of our great salvation (Hebrews 2:3-4). They shift our focus from the Savior to something temporal. Idols are everywhere and can be constructed out of anything in our lives and hearts. Warn against making ANYTHING an idol but ensure that if you are addressing an actual one it is based on evidence and not just frustration.
What is the cure for idolatry? Focus on Christ! Focus on Him as Savior and Lord over all. Turn our eyes upon the resurrected and glorified Jesus Christ who sits even now at the right hand of the Father. Let all idols be utterly destroyed in our minds and hearts that we may worship the Savior in spirit and in truth.
For His glory,