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A man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh (Genesis 2:24).
Let’s begin with your immediate family. Marriage between a man and woman is an instantaneous formation of an autonomous domestic empire. The institution of a family happens at marriage, not at the birth of their first child or the adoption of a child. It does not take a child to make a family. It requires the marriage of a man to a woman—a freestanding entity that separates them from all other families, including their parents. Leaving two families to form one family is the “leaving and cleaving” idea in the Bible. Some in-laws prefer to call it “leave, cleave, and weave,” a manipulative attempt to maintain ongoing interaction with the newly formed family. Obviously, there should be some weaving between families, which you can do humbly, wisely, and—at times—courageously, which is my point here: how do we do this?
Each year I talk to couples during the holidays who want to know how to entertain family members who have proven to be challenging to enjoy. Typically, their initial question is: “How do we set boundaries for our relatives?” I do not care for the boundary concept, and even less so when that’s how someone leads the conversation when sharing their concern. I realize you can pull the boundary idea from the Bible, but the word generally has a negative connotation and, usually, a misapplication. There is a better way to talk about how to weave your relatives into your autonomous domestic empire. How about a more redemptive question: “What is a gospel-motivated worldview regarding engaging my challenging relatives?”
Framing this opportunity as a gospel-centered opportunity rather than a boundary construct makes it redemptive rather than reactive. Boundaries connote fences, hedges, and maybe some razor wire. The gospel indicates redemptive thinking and restorative acts (John 3:16). Though both approaches anticipate saying complicated things, if you come from a gospel-motivated presupposition, you’re likely to say what you must with the right attitude and restorative words. Living out the gospel does not prohibit awkward and challenging conversations. To live the gospel in your community, you must do it right (Ephesians 4:29).
But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:48-50).
In this passage, Jesus explains how to think and respond when relating to people. This instructive passage conveys that bloodlines must not manipulate how we connect with relatives. Jesus drew the line between those who did God’s will and those who did not. Being related to people is necessary to enter the human family, but being related is not our primary relationship to our spiritual family. This perspective should cause us to rethink how we think about our camps. Christians engage all people regardless of their camp, and there are only two camps that matter—one goes to heaven and the other to hell.
These two groups have different eternal destinations. There is the camp of the saints and the camp of the doomed. That is how we think of people—eternally saved or eternally lost (Colossians 3:11). Of course, what follows next is how to honor those who are not doing the will of God, like parents. It may be helpful to think of the word honor similarly to what you think about the word love. It is always right to honor people, and it’s always right to love people, even parents, who may not be following the Lord.
If you center your motives and objectives on the gospel, how to love or honor someone becomes less of an issue. The gospel will biblically govern your heart, while setting boundaries can open the door for self-serving agendas like vengeance, especially if the relatives are royal pains. This perspective is one of the reasons I choose to think about family relations through a gospel worldview rather than the culturally familiar boundary idea.
It’s not unusual for an adult child to define honoring as submitting to every parent’s request, even those parents who are not doing the will of God. This interpretation is problematic if the parents are self-serving. Always giving in to what someone wants from you because they are related to you is not honoring them. Is it redemptive to say “yes” to every desire of your parents? It depends on what the parents are asking. The Lord does not give you everything you ask, does He? If you desire to imitate Jesus (Ephesians 5:1), measuring each request from your relatives to determine the best response is wise. Sometimes the most appropriate thing you can do for them is to deny their request.
Let’s suppose a parent did not know the Lord; they are in the camp of the eternally doomed. The most vital thing to consider is their dark spiritual condition, which means giving them everything they desire could be a mistake. There are times when the Lord works redemptively through personal disappointment (Genesis 50:20; Luke 22:42). If a relative asks you to do something and you know it is not best to give them what they want, the most effective way you can honor them is by denying their request (James 4:17). Christ knew how to lead others well, even if it meant disappointing them. He was not afraid. In His interaction with Mary and Martha, for example, Jesus gave a “disappointing” response in John 11:1-15. The sisters were making a solid case for Jesus to get a move on so He would help their brother, Lazarus. Jesus denied their request because Christ was a big-picture guy. He let Lazarus die.
If you’re afraid to disappoint your relatives, you may mask your fear by responding inappropriately. The fearful person erects a wall (boundary) rather than doing the redemptive work that may open the door of repentance. The gospel dispels the boundary and honoring rigamarole. Are you willing to do the right thing regardless of their responses? I’m asking if you’re ready to lead your relatives as Jesus would. Fear of relatives can captivate your heart and cloud your judgment to the point that you can no longer make biblical decisions. You have a higher objective: 1 Corinthians 10:31. Glorifying God is the primary question you need to ask regarding relational tension. To glorify God is to make His name great—to spread His fame throughout the earth—throughout your family. This opportunity may be a call for you to step up and do a complicated thing because it is the only right choice.
The gospel empowers you to do hard things lovingly (Hebrews 12:6). If you don’t lead them from a gospel-centered framework, then perhaps it’s because you do not love them as you should, and maybe that is where you need to begin. Please do not bring corrective care to anyone with whom you do not have affection. Love for others must always precede how you lead them. How could you withhold challenging and disappointing conversations from those you love? A faithful friend may wound you, but a person unwilling to do those hard things for the good of others and the glory of God is not that faithful friend (Proverbs 27:6).
There is grace for any difficult conversation you need to have with someone. If you desire to speak the truth in love, you can count on the Lord to stand with you while empowering you to do what is loving and honoring. It is His joy to do this for you, which is your reward. Be of good courage. The relatives are coming, and some of them may be unsavory. Weren’t you this way once upon a time? How did the Lord lead you? Did He chicken out, or did He persevere through your nonsense and bring His courageous and challenging love to you?
Christ is a lover of sinners, and you and I are the undeserving beneficiaries of His bountiful love. Jesus will leap a wall to love you (Romans 5:8). The only fence He will erect will be an eternal one that will separate the goats from the sheep. In the meantime, as you prepare for your relatives this year, imitate your fearless Leader (Ephesians 5:1).
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).