Christianity is often presented today as a religion whose adherents are to care for everyone “equally.” One logical tendency of this egalitarianism is to flatten all human affection, and thus deny the particular, natural affections for one’s own relations. But this denial runs counter to the explicit teaching of the New Testament whereby affection for kin is permitted, expected, and even demanded — a teaching affirmed by the example of Christ Himself.
Christianity Affirms Familial Duty
Scripture affirms duty to one’s own. It is written, “If any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” (I Timothy 5:8 KJV) This verse expresses an expectation that the Christian have a special care for some, namely “his own,” as opposed to a flat, uniform affection that applies universally to all people.
Such is clear from the text itself, as has been evident all the way back to the Church Fathers. For example, Chrysostom interprets the words “his own, and specially for those of his own house” (τῶν ἰδίων καὶ μάλιστα οἰκείων) to refer to close relations (in his words, τῶν πρὸς γένος διαφερόντων, “those belonging to [his] race” — or kin, stock), as do other commentators. Regarding this verse, he adds, (bold mine)
And so says Isaiah, the chief of the Prophets, “You shall not overlook your kinsmen of your own seed.” (Isaiah 58:7, Septuagint) For if a man deserts those who are united by ties of kindred and affinity [τοὺς γένεἰ προσήκοντας καὶ ἡνωμένους ὑπὸ ἀγχιστείας, “those akin and united by close kinship”], how shall he be affectionate towards others? Will it not have the appearance of vainglory, when benefiting others he slights his own relations, and does not provide for them? And what will be said, if instructing others, he neglects his own, though he has greater facilities; and a higher obligation to benefit them? Will it not be said, ‘These Christians are affectionate indeed, who neglect their own relatives’? […] The law of God and of nature is violated by him who provides not for his own family. […] It is not the same thing to neglect our kindred, as to neglect a stranger. How should it be? But the fault is greater here, to desert one known than one who is unknown to us, a friend than one who is not a friend.
In agreement with Chrysostom that care for one’s own relations is demanded by nature, Lactantius writes in his Divine Institutes, (bold mine)
He who does good to a relative [consanguineo, “blood relation”], or neighbour, or friend, deserves either no praise, or certainly no great praise, because he is bound to do it, and he would be impious and detestable if he did not do that which both nature itself and relationship require.
Likewise stressing the necessity of caring for one’s relatives, Ambrose writes in his work On the Duties of the Clergy, (bold mine)
True liberality also must be tested in this way: that [you] despise not [y]our nearest relatives [proximos seminis tui, “the nearest of your seed”], if [you] know they are in want. For it is better for you to help your kindred who feel the shame of asking help from others, or of going to another to beg assistance in their need. […] Good-will starts first with those at home, that is with children, parents, brothers, and goes on from one step to another throughout the world.
In response, one might argue that I Timothy 5:8 does not actually prioritize duty to family, but merely picks it out as an example. Isn’t it possible (one might ask) for Christians to have toward all men the same duty, which only just so happens to be discussed here with regard to one’s closer relations?
The context, however, does not accommodate this interpretation. Under discussion in verses 3 through 8 is the sort of widows for whom the church community ought to care: Excluded is the widow with family members to take care of her, because that responsibility naturally falls to them, not to members of the congregation as a whole. When such widows are not cared for, those family members are particularly blameworthy, since such care is their natural responsibility. They are more responsible because they are more closely related, while the other members of the congregation are not as responsible, since they are not as closely related.
Does Christianity Deny Familial Duty?
To some, however, it might seem that Christianity tears down familial relations. After all, Jesus says, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26 KJV) But this is typically understood as hyperbolic, and not literal. The point isn’t about loving or hating one’s family, but about having a properly ordered love for men and God. Aquinas, for example, contends that Luke 14:26 means only that “we ought to hate our neighbor for God’s sake, if, to wit, he leads us astray from God” (ST II-II, Q 26, A 2, s.c.).
Similarly, John Wesley writes, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father — Comparatively to Christ: yea, so as actually to renounce his field, oxen, wife, all things, and act as if he hated them, when they stand in competition with him.” To make his point, Wesley cross-references another, similar verse: “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37 KJV) Many other commentators draw a parallel between the two verses. John Calvin, for example, writes that they express the same idea. When discussing Matthew 10:37, Calvin notes, “The phrase employed by Luke is more harsh, if any man doth not hate his father and mother, but the meaning is the same, ‘If the love of ourselves hinder us from following Christ, we must resist it, courageously.’” To clarify further, Calvin writes the following in defense of familial bonds (emphasis and bold mine):
‘He who loveth father or mother’. As it is exceedingly harsh, and is contrary to natural feelings, to make enemies of those who ought to have been in closest alliance with us, so Christ now says that we cannot be his disciples on any other condition. He does not indeed enjoin us to lay aside human affections, or forbid us to discharge the duties of relationship, but only desires that all the mutual love which exists among men should be so regulated as to assign the highest rank to piety. Let the husband then love his wife, the father his son, and, on the other hand, let the son love his father, provided that the reverence which is due to Christ be not overpowered by human affection. For if even among men, in proportion to the closeness of the tie that mutually binds us, some have stronger claims than others, it is shameful that all should not be deemed inferior to Christ alone. And certainly we do not consider sufficiently, or with due gratitude, what it is to be a disciple of Christ, if the excellence of this rank be not sufficient to subdue all the affections of the flesh.
Note the underlying assumption, hinted at repeatedly, that ties of kinship (and marriage) hold a higher rank than the mere tie of a common humanity. By nature we ought to be “in closest alliance” with our parents; we have natural “human affections” for those to whom we are closely related, and we have “duties of relationship” to such people; and close ties make “stronger claims” on us than ties that are less close. Indeed, the reason that Christ uses the example of one’s mother and father is that the natural bond between parent and child is by nature so much stronger than whatever ties subsist between those who are not closely related by blood or marriage. It would have made little sense for Christ to say that His followers ought to prefer Him to strangers halfway around the world. There would have been little need for such a remark, seeing as how people by nature tend not to care much for those with whom they perceive a lack of close ties.
Various commentators agree that love of family is moral, natural, and expected. As Matthew Henry asserts, “Every good man loves his relations,” but “must love them less than Christ.” John Gill argues that Christ does not command “proper hatred” of one’s relations, “for this would be contrary to the laws of God, to the first principles of nature, to all humanity, to the light of nature, to reason and divine revelation”; rather, Christ demands “that these are not to be preferred to Christ, or loved more than he.” Augustine contends that “no one should be ungrateful to his parents or mock the list of their services to him, since by them he was brought into this life, cherished and fed.” Rather, he adds, one should always pay his duty, giving preference to that which is higher. And Cyril of Alexandria explains, (bold mine)
O Lord, some perchance may say, do You despise the laws of natural affection? Do You command us to hate one another, and to disregard the love that is due to fathers from their sons, to wives from their husbands, to brethren from their brethren? Shall we make those enemies who are members of the same household; and those, whom it is our duty rather to love, must we count as foes, in order that we may be with you, and be able to follow you? […]
This is not what the Saviour means. Away with so vain a a thought. […] He permits us to love, but not more than we do Him. For He demands for Himself our chief affection; and that very justly: for the love of God in those who are perfect in mind has something in it superior both to the honour due to parents, and to the natural affection felt for children.
Jesus’ harsh statement in Luke 14:26 presumes that those to whom he speaks already know that they ought to love their relations. It is to be understood as a corrective to the possibility that a normally proper familial affection might come in the way of duty to God. Thus, Paul’s unambiguous affirmation of familial duty in I Timothy 5:8 still holds: “If any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” So does Paul’s command to children that they honor their parents (Ephesians 6:1-3), a restatement of Exodus 20:12, which Aquinas takes to imply that “we ought to love more specially those who are united to us by ties of blood.” (ST II-II, Q 26, A 8, s.c.)
Granted, one might object that the foregoing argument relies too heavily on the idea that Jesus is exaggerating when He says that His disciples must “hate” their family members. But this interpretation is warranted. Jesus also says that He comes “to fulfil the law” (Matthew 5:17 KJV), in which He includes the precept, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Mark 12:31 KJV) It would make little sense for Christ to command love of neighbor, literally one who is nearby, while commanding hate for those who are typically the most near, namely one’s spouse and the members of one’s immediate family. Moreover, Jesus reminds the Pharisees, “God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death.” (Matthew 15:4 KJV) It would certainly be odd for God to command men both to honor their parents and to hate them at the same time.
Thus it is warranted to interpret “hate” in Luke 14:26 as hyperbolic, which is why the major commentators have done so. Natural familial affection is not to be discarded or despised, but only kept in its proper place so as not to hinder one’s duty to God — a duty that, as it happens, actually includes taking care of one’s own relations.
Christ Affirms His Familial Duty
Christ’s teachings about family can be considered in light of how He Himself behaved in this life with respect to His earthly family.
As a boy, Jesus “was subject unto” His parents (Luke 2:51 KJV), meaning He was obedient. He obeyed His mother when she implied that He ought to provide wine (which He then made from water) for the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-10). Furthermore, while dying on the cross, Jesus ensured that His mother was cared for by one of His disciples (John 19:26-27). Of such passages Chrysostom writes,
To prove that He greatly respected His mother, hear Luke relate how He was subject to His parents (Luke 2:51), and our own Evangelist declare how He had forethought for her at the very season of the Crucifixion. For where parents cause no impediment or hindrance in things belonging to God, it is our bounden duty to give way to them, and there is great danger in not doing so; but when they require anything unseasonably, and cause hindrance in any spiritual matter, it is unsafe to obey.
With regard to Jesus’ care for His mother during the crucifixion, Cyril of Alexandria notes that Jesus thereby “confirm[ed] the command on which the Law lays so much stress,” namely “Honour thy father and thy mother” (Exodus 20:12 KJV), being “not diverted from the pursuit of duty in stormy and troublous times.” And Augustine writes,
The good Teacher does what He thereby reminds us ought to be done, and by His own example instructed His disciples that care for their parents ought to be a matter of concern to pious children. […] From this wholesome doctrine it was that the Apostle Paul had learned what he taught in turn, when he said, “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” (I Timothy 5:8) And what are so much home concerns to any one, as parents to children, or children to parents? Of this most wholesome precept, therefore, the very Master of the saints set the example from Himself, when […] as a man for the mother […] He provided in some measure another son in place of Himself.
Emphasizing the special care that Christ accorded His mother, Chrysostom asks, “But why made He no mention of any other woman, although another stood there?” And he answers, “To teach us to pay more than ordinary respect to our mothers.” Assuming that our parents do not hinder us in our duty to God, “we ought to pay them all becoming respect, and to prefer them before others, because they begot us, because they bred us up, because they bare for us ten thousand terrible things.”
Although Jesus’ actions with respect to His mother do not in themselves demonstrate a teaching of familial duty, when they are taken into account along with His reminder in Matthew 15:4 (KJV), “God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother,” they are not easily dismissed as arbitrary actions. Jesus by His own example carries out the commandment that demands a proper affection for one’s own parents specifically.
Does Christ Deny His Familial Duty?
This much seems rather straightforward. But one might claim in response that Jesus denied His earthly family, on the basis of an incident described in Matthew 12:46-50, Mark 3:31-35, and Luke 8:19-21. While Jesus preaches to a crowded synagogue, someone informs him that his mother and brethren are outside and wish to speak with him. Jesus responds by asking, “Who is my mother? and who are my brethren?” Then it is written, “And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Matthew 12:48-50 KJV)
But Jesus does not deny His family here. His affirmation of spiritual family does not in itself deny earthly family. The fact that He calls His disciples family does not mean that He denies relations by blood. As Chrysostom points out, “For He said not, Go and say unto her, She is not My mother, but continues His discourse to him that had brought Him word.” Jesus is interrupted in the course of preaching (Matthew 12:46-47), and turns the interruption to His rhetorical advantage, maintaining His focus on important spiritual matters. Jerome, remarking on this passage, goes as far as to claim that the interruption is intended to ensnare Jesus in worldly concerns:
He that delivers this message, seems to me not to do it casually and without meaning, but as setting a snare for Him, whether He would prefer flesh and blood to the spiritual work; and thus the Lord refused to go out, not because He disowned His mother and His brethren, but that He might confound him that had laid this snare for Him.
If this is indeed a snare, it is yet another in a series: Moments earlier, the Pharisees accuse Jesus’ exorcisms to be of Satan (Matthew 12:24-29), and they also demand of Jesus a sign (Matthew 12:38-42). But snare or not, Jesus’ response is no denial of His earthly family.
Moreover, had Jesus wished to deny His earthly family, He had considerable opportunity on another occasion (described in Matthew 13:54-58, Mark 6:1-6, and Luke 4:14-30), when the people of His home town Nazareth question His wisdom on account of His birth and familiarity to them. “Is not this the carpenter’s son?” they ask. “Is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Whence then hath this man all these things?” (Matthew 13:55-56 KJV) A similar response meets Jesus in nearby Capernaum, according to John 6:38-44 (KJV): “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? how is it then that he saith, I came down from heaven?”
But on neither occasion does Jesus deny His earthly family, even though doing so might improve the reception of His teachings. As Chrysostom puts it, “Had He desired to disown His mother, He would have done it at the time when the Jews cast His birth in His teeth.”
In short, then, Jesus does not deny His family and thereby contradict His teaching and example regarding familial duty.
Christianity does not teach an egalitarian love, but instead takes into account and affirms man’s natural affection for his relations. This is evident in Paul’s condemnation of the man who does not provide for his own, especially for those of his own house. It is also evident in Christ’s affirmation of the command to honor father and mother, and by His own example in obeying His earthly parents and in caring for His mother. And it is recognized by various Church Fathers and later commentators.
Christianity’s teaching of a love that can properly be described as inegalitarian, particularly with respect to kin, may upset some people. In particular, it may upset those who say that they oppose discrimination and contend that Christianity is a religion of non-discrimination, whether on the basis of its condemnation in particular circumstances of Christians being partial or having “respect of persons,” or for a variety of other reasons addressed elsewhere on the basis of Scripture.
But scriptural counterarguments against dogmatic non-discrimination aside, it should be noted that a man’s particular affections are what allow for even the semblance of egalitarian affection. As Chrysostom writes (as was quoted above), “If a man deserts those who are united by ties of kindred and affinity, how shall he be affectionate towards others?” And Ambrose adds (also quoted above), “Good-will starts first with those at home, that is with children, parents, brothers, and goes on from one step to another throughout the world.” A major practical difficulty with teaching egalitarian affection is that its denial of the special affection that is due to one’s own kin hinders attempts to extend affection to distant strangers, even though such an extension of affection is presumably the entire point of the egalitarian teaching in the first place. If the goal is love for all mankind, then the starting point can only be love for one’s own, and thus such love must not be denied, but affirmed.