Water is Thicker Than Blood

By September 30, 20108 Comments

Hi ladies! Today is one of my “thinking days” as I’ve been processing some new reading assignments for my classes. Hopefully these reflection days will continue to stay relevant to your every day life. If not, feel free to tune out…but hopefully you won’t. 🙂

This week I’ve been reading about Horace Bushnell, a pastor and theologian who lived in the 1800’s and placed a heavy emphasis on the importance of family in the church. Bushnell felt that the family was one of God’s primary vehicles for bringing about conversion, stressing to parents the importance of raising their children in godliness.

What is interesting about Bushnell is that he belonged to a new brand of thinking about children that was considerably more nurturing than the generations before. While not all parents before Bushnell’s time were harsh toward their kids, Bushnell represented a paradigmatic change in parenting by emphasizing the importance of nurturing children. For Bushnell, nurture was not a matter of personal preference, but it was in the best interest of the child. Bushnell made this claim long before he had any statistical evidence to back it up, but later generations would prove him right. And key to Bushnell’s understanding of nurture and the Christian family was the presence and care of a loving mother.

In some respects, Bushnell’s ideas about parenting were revolutionary. In fact, we still draw from his thinking today. However, it is also important to note which of his beliefs were Biblical, and which were culturally rooted. For instance, in the Introduction to his book Christian Nurture I found the following commentary:

“In American colonial society, women were more fully integrated into social and economic life, but in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a burgeoning industrial society gradually shut middle and upper class women out of economic roles, making them increasingly consumers rather than producers. Ministers and others preached sermons and wrote tracts hailing woman’s new role as mother and guardian of virtue and religion; her ‘place’ was in the home and in the church…Although Busnell is remarkably evenhanded in his discussion of the religious duties of both fathers and mothers in Christian Nurture, the special role of mothers in shaping the spiritual lives of their children forms an important theme of his book and evangelical Protestantism during the nineteenth century.” (p. xxix)

What was striking to me about this cultural shift was how quickly the consequences of the Industrial Revolution were assimilated into the church as “the way things should be done.” Of course, this assimilation had some positive, Biblical results: Children were valued and treasured by their parents in a manner that was thoroughly Scriptural, and parents were encouraged to play a crucial role in the spiritual formation of their kids. What is alarming, however, is the shift towards commending women based upon what they did. There is a fine line between valuing motherhood, and valuing women based upon their jobs as mothers. There is also a fine line between valuing the family, and raising it to a level of importance that surpasses the Church–which Bushnell was accused of doing. In both of these areas, the family began to encroach upon the centrality and the function of the church.

Even today we can see the fingerprints of Bushnell’s teaching. Consider, for instance, how often Christians emphasize the primacy of the family in our culture. As the logic goes, if men and women do not prioritize their familial duties, then the family will be compromised. And if the family is compromised, then our culture is compromised. After all, family is the foundation upon which our culture stands! Yet the New Testament does not present us with that same kind of urgent language about the family. It is the church, not the family, that is foundational. A majority of the parent-child language in the New Testament refers to the relationship between our Heavenly Father and His children, and when Paul commended women it was for their faithfulness to the Lord and the church, not their families.

Yes, the family is important. But Scripturally speaking the primary location of our identities is in the church, not our families. This fact gives proper perspective to the realms of marriage and parenting, and it also provides a place for singles to feel equally welcome and valued. Gospel centrality, not family centrality, is what guards us against the trappings of idolatry.

Of course both men and women can serve the Lord by serving their families. Please do not hear me as devaluing the family or calling Christians out of the home. But let us not confuse the two lest we slip into a works-driven faith in which we value ourselves based upon what we do (particularly in relation to our families) instead of Who we love. Being a good wife and mother is but a symptom of having a good relationship with the Lord, but it is the fallen human condition to reverse that order. That is why so many women suffer from low self-esteem and feelings of failure in the home, and that is also why we must return to the centrality of the Gospel over and over and over again, commending women first and foremost for their love of God and His church, and their families second. As a friend of ours once put it, in the world around us “blood is thicker than water”; for Christians it is water, the water of baptism,  that is thicker than blood.


  • Chris Pappa says:

    Quite an interesting thought…

    I’ve never felt that emphasizing the family as the root of culture is damaging to the primacy of the church. A significant reason that family must be protected is that it is a microcosm for society at large: parents neglect their children, which reflects a broader apathy towards others; children disobey their parents, which reflects a broader contempt for authority. We may feel that “changing society” is too massive a task for any one of us, but we can at least make our slice of society (our family) conform to the desires of God.

    Good food for thought!

  • Sharon says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Chris!

    You know, it’s a fine line to walk between exalting the family as a God-ordained institution and keeping it in its proper place. I thought about this a lot as I was writing this blog, because you’re right–the family is under attack in our culture, and we need to guard it. I completely agree with that sentiment, and please never mistake me as saying otherwise.

    What worries me, however, is any language that places an unhealthy emphasis on the family, turning it into an idol. Language that talks of motherhood as a woman’s “highest calling” or defines women primarily according to their role in the home (a common practice in the evangelical church) is very much guilty of this. It supplants a woman’s primary identity in Christ with a family-defined one. Don’t get me wrong, I am pro-life and pro-family. Motherhood is indeed a HIGH calling, but is it the highest? No. The highest calling of a woman is that of a disciple of Christ, whether she is single, whether she is able to have kids are not. A woman should not be defined by what she does but her relationship with God through Christ. That’s why we need to be VERY careful about the language we use and the message it’s communicating. Well-intentioned language that seeks to affirm the office of motherhood can unintentionally tempt women toward idolatry and works-righteousness.

  • Robin says:

    Eloquent and interesting entry. It is so easy to feel inadequate as a Christian woman if you are not a wife or a mother. It often seems that the pressure is to be one, or to be trying to become one as quickly as possible. I am working on my graduate studies, and the reality is that I probably won’t get married or think about having children for a while. It has to be the right timing, but because I am not a mother or wife, it is easy to feel left out or less of a “Christian woman.” You make a great point, however, that our highest calling is to be a disciple of Christ. Our identity as a Christian comes from Christ, not dutiful housework.

  • “Yet the New Testament does not present us with that same kind of urgent language about the family. It is the church, not the family, that is foundational.”

    Wow. I had never thought this. I can especially see how a “family over church” emphasis can harm the hearts of singles and childless couples. Great words of wisdom – thank you for sharing!

  • Sharon says:

    Yes, Jennifer! That’s exactly what I’m getting at! This is a tough subject because I don’t want to be perceived as devaluing the family AT ALL–I definitely want to be a mom one day. Yearn for it, in fact! However, language about family so often has an exclusive bent to it. It ends up alienating certain members of the Body of Christ, placing more emphasis on worldly identities rather than heavenly ones. It’s a really hard line to draw and, like Chris said above, we should certainly guard our families and be a good steward of the slice of influence God has given us. But we’ve also got to bear in mind the bigger picture of Christian discipleship, and be honest about the real temptations of the female heart to love family in sometimes unhealthy ways.

  • Chris Pappa says:


    It doesn’t seem to me that we’re disagreeing. I bristle a bit because, having just gotten back from overseas, it is sadly clear to me how poorly American culture does “family.” Particularly, American MEN don’t seem to be tempted to idolize family–more often they pour themselves unhealthily into work while neglecting their family.

    While I am frustrated by the tendency of men away from the home, you’re striking at the other side of this coin–the assumption that women are defined by it! These issues go hand-in-hand, and as you mentioned, are only solved by finding our identity–male, female, married, single, childless, whatever–in Christ alone.

  • Jan Ragains says:

    I love how you are willing to go into tough topics. Shaking things up a bit! Jesus was sure that way Himself. This is right on! I do feel that Christ laid a direct call on my heart to leave my career and serve Him in my home YET the years I spent in graduate school and in my career were not wasted time for His kingdom nor does that mean that I am now removed from ways to serve Him outside my home. In fact, the (seemingly small, due to time and energy constraints) things that I am able to do for the kingdom not within the walls of our home also breathes life and motivation into my role as wife and mother. So important that we live by His Spirit and know His word so that we can avoid the lines of legalism and self righteousness that we find our humanity pulling us toward. No job, nor child, nor husband is enough. It must all be for Christ.

  • Sharon says:

    Thanks, Jan, you are so right on! Especially that point about legalism and self-righteousness. It so easy to think that our righteousness comes from being a good fill-in-the-blank instead of just having faith in Christ.

    I should also add that while I think you do a phenomenal job serving the Kingdom through your role as a mom, you are also QUITE the blessing to the Summit women. 🙂 Miss you, friend!!

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