A theology of ‘chosen family’ liberates us from toxic relationships

Written by Selina Mullin, a version of this article first appeared on Unfundamentalist.com on April 2, 2018

Does Jesus call us to forgive, accept, and maintain toxic relationships with family? Does Jesus want us to honour abusive parents?

For too long the church has preached a message that calls victims of abuse, both physical and emotional, to keep open painful and dangerous family connections for the sake of “Christian family values.” This kind of thinking always infuriated me, and I asked myself, is this how Jesus wanted us to live our lives? But, after turning to the Gospel of Mark, my answer to that question is now an emphatic hell no!

In Mark 3:19b-35, we read a strange story of Jesus rejecting his family. At the beginning of the chapter he goes home, and arriving there is swarmed by a crowd. His family hears about this and goes to investigate. Apparently, his behaviour post-Baptism and desert experience is radically different from before. Frankly, his mom and siblings are not happy about it. He’s just so different than we remember, maybe it’s who he’s been hanging out with? Maybe it’s a phase?

They try to intervene and a discussion ensues as to whether he has been overcome with an evil spirit. Sound familiar to any of my queer friends? Of course, little do they know he has been “overshadowed” by a spirit–but one of divine origins.

Fast forward a bit … in Mark 3:31-35 I think it is no coincidence that Jesus’s family is outside the gathered crowd of believers and followers; they are both physically and socially outside his circle. When the crowd tells him that his family is calling him, he responds with a question: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (3:33 NRSV)

Cold, right? Well, who are these people who tried to shut him up, tried to stop him from being who he is? Jesus makes a clear distinction between those within his circle and those outside of it—despite biology, it is faith and obedience that determine kinship for him. “And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’” (3:34-35 NRSV).

This promise of a new kinship is especially interesting in light of later developments in Mark. In Mark 10:29-31, Jesus says:

Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. (NRSV, emphasis added)

With this new kinship comes a rejection of the old, but it appears to me that Jesus is not merely calling his followers to reject their families. This rejection serves a purpose: to better allow them to serve God and live out their faith. Jesus’s family attempted to hinder him in his work, from living out who he was after his transformative experience, so he rejects them. So, too, his followers might need to reject their own families if they try and prevent them from being who God calls them to be.

The Christian witness begins with a counter-cultural message that focuses on constructed kinship over biological ties, as seen in both Mark’s Gospel and Paul’s letters. There are many similarities between the two, including the idea of faith and obedience as the key indicators of kinship in Christian community (Galatians 3, Romans 4). Paul’s communities are ruled, above all, by love, which has no place for toxicity (1 Corinthians 13 for the win!).

However, a shift takes place over the next few centuries of Christian thought, and we begin to see the biological family emphasized as a microcosm of Christian community (such as in later texts like Colossian, Ephesians, Titus, 1 Peter and 1 Timothy)—i.e. it became institutionalized. This shift led to what many contemporary Christians now view as the idealized “Christian family values.”

Yet, there is space within the biblical text for the idea of “chosen family”—for families we create for ourselves with or without biological connections. Jesus’s new kinship is based not on biology but on faithfulness, and prioritizes healthy community-based in mutual love and respect.

Jesus encourages his followers to disconnect from harmful relationships that hinder their faith journey, and I believe a modern parallel can be drawn with the LGBTQ2IA+ community’s emphasis on “chosen family.” For those who have been abused or rejected by their family, Christian community at its best offers a new family that honours each person as they are. Jesus, the liberator, frees us from the power of sin, death, and toxicity.

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