Community Life and the Death of the Nuclear Family - Reservoir Church
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Community Life and the Death of the Nuclear Family

Steve Watson

Jun 09, 2024

Grace and I are in this weird moment where we’re finishing up our 22-year old run having a nuclear family at home.

Last weekend was our youngest kid John’s high school graduation. And it was a great weekend. We’re so proud of all three of our kids, and this weekend was a great time to be really proud of our youngest. John’s become an extraordinary human while in high school, and he’s off to great things. What a weekend to celebrate with him! It was a good one.

But it was kind of an emotional weekend too, in what’s been an emotional season, as we sort out the big adjustments going on in our family life. I find myself with complicated feelings about the years ahead – excited about my kids’ chances to try new things, excited for all the freedom I’ll have and that Grace and I will have as a couple. But I find myself kind of introspective and even a little bluesy sometimes too – worried for kids’ futures, sad to not be with them as often, and also just feeling like I need to take a breath and sort out what has happened these past 22 years.

Because they’ve been 22 amazing, awesome years I’m so grateful for. And they’ve also been 22 freaking hard, exhausting years too. We’ve rarely known if we’re doing the right thing or doing enough or too much. And sometimes we’ve looked back and been like what felt like the right thing probably wasn’t. Definitely wasn’t. Our kids tell us this sometimes too. Money was tight, every year. Time and resources of all kinds usually felt tight. It was hard. Harder than I think it needed to be.

A few years ago, the conservative columnist David Brooks wrote a whole article about this that got some buzz. He called it, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” He pointed out that most of the world has lived in extended kinship networks of family and friends, where kids weren’t just raised by one or two beleaguered parents but by the community the family was embedded in. And people who didn’t have kids or whose kids were adults mostly didn’t live alone either, but also as part of communities. Communities of care and connection and accountability. 

But America, since the 1950s, has been running this experiment, where society has kind of centered the nuclear family, like the model for adulthood was to have a spouse and 2.something kids and a dog and have all of your most important relational and economic life happening within that small family unit. All along, though, lots of us were living differently – today, only ⅓ of Americans live in nuclear family households. Only a third of us. Yet if we don’t, we might wonder or people might act like we’re missing out on something. And for the third of us that are doing this, it’s not always working out so well. 

So let’s talk about the failure of the nuclear family, and the communities we all need like bigger families, chosen families, church communities. 

I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I’ve been rereading the Bible’s stories from the first generation of the history of the church. It’s the book called the Acts of the Apostles. And I’ve been reading it alongside a brilliant contemporary theologian named Willie James Jennings, who’s been helping me see new things in the book of Acts. 

So I’m going to read to you another story from Acts, this one a provocative and troubling one, and we’ll see how it can help us think about the failure of the nuclear family and what can happen in community life.

Acts 4:32-11 (Common English Bible)

32 The community of believers was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, “This is mine!” about any of their possessions, but held everything in common.

33 The apostles continued to bear powerful witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and an abundance of grace was at work among them all.

34 There were no needy persons among them. Those who owned properties or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds from the sales,

35 and place them in the care and under the authority of the apostles. Then it was distributed to anyone who was in need.

36 Joseph, whom the apostles nicknamed Barnabas (that is, “one who encourages”), was a Levite from Cyprus.

37 He owned a field, sold it, brought the money, and placed it in the care and under the authority of the apostles.

So part one of this story is the idealized picture of church going right. Kind of extreme, like a big commune.. Maybe more intense than most of us would be down for, but I do love the phrase

“an abundance of grace was at work among them all”

and the phrase

“no needy people.”

I feel like we could use abundance of grace and no needy people still.

And it ends with this picture of Joseph, who gets the nickname, the Encouraging One – as a picture of part of how community can work so well. People get a lot out because they’re putting a lot in as well. In this case, giving the full profits of a business sale to the community. 

Then the second half of today’s story, which gets creepy in a bunch of ways.

5 However, a man named Ananias, along with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property.

2 With his wife’s knowledge, he withheld some of the proceeds from the sale. He brought the rest and placed it in the care and under the authority of the apostles.

3 Peter asked, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has influenced you to lie to the Holy Spirit by withholding some of the proceeds from the sale of your land?

4 Wasn’t that property yours to keep? After you sold it, wasn’t the money yours to do with whatever you wanted? What made you think of such a thing? You haven’t lied to other people but to God!”

5 When Ananias heard these words, he dropped dead. Everyone who heard this conversation was terrified.

6 Some young men stood up, wrapped up his body, carried him out, and buried him.

7 About three hours later, his wife entered, but she didn’t know what had happened to her husband.

8 Peter asked her, “Tell me, did you and your husband receive this price for the field?”

She responded, “Yes, that’s the amount.”

9 He replied, “How could you scheme with each other to challenge the Lord’s Spirit? Look! The feet of those who buried your husband are at the door. They will carry you out too.”

10 At that very moment, she dropped dead at his feet. When the young men entered and found her dead, they carried her out and buried her with her husband.

11 Trepidation and dread seized the whole church and all who heard what had happened.

So this story is awful. It’s kind of shocking, and offensive, and funny all at once. I mean a man gets caught in his deceit and drops dead in the church. What kind of pastor when his spouse shows up three hours later, not knowing what’s happened, is like:

ahem, I have a question for you. What exactly did you sell your home for last week?

Sorry, it’s so horrible, it’s funny to me. 

And some commentators are like: that’s the point. Author of Acts had a nice sense of gallows humor. It was meant to be kind of outrageous. 

Maybe, but it’s a weird passage. What is the point? Scholars mostly avoid the passage, but when they don’t, they do not agree. 

  • What did Ananias and Sapphira do wrong? 
  • Was it the lying? And if so, was it lying to the leaders? Or was it lying to God? 
  • Or was it the withholding? The holding back a bunch of their funds, while claiming to give them all to the community? 

Scholars will point out that there are similar stories in ancient literature. There’s a Greek story told by Herodotus about a guy who lies about money he kept dishonestly and is then deprived by the gods of descendants as a punishment.

And in the Bible, there’s a more ancient story from the book of Joshua about a time of religious reform, where the community is collecting all the plunder that they were supposed to destroy, and this one guy Achan, or Ay-chan, hides a bunch of silver and gold in his tent, withholding it from the collection, and when they find him out, they take him and his kids and all his animals too, and they stone them to death. 

It’s a set up to a horrible dad joke. The guys’ name was Achan, and it’s like, who’s aching now? 

Some people read this story about Peter and Ananais and Sapphira in light of this Achan story from Joshua, and they approve of the connections. They’re like, look Peter did this miracle of catching people sinning and punishing them. And there are people who have read this story as a justification for church discipline or capital punishment. 

I think that’s horrible, by the way. Even if this story is connected to the old one from Joshua, it’s different in that no one lays a hand on Ananias or Sapphira. Whatever the reason for their death, no person does it. Jesus commanded his followers not to hate, and to regulate their anger, let alone never to kill. The way of Jesus is a resurrection community, a community of the celebration of life. The followers of Jesus are not to participate in death-dealing, period.

Other people connect this story to the Achan one in Joshua by saying it’s a story of divine judgment, and maybe. 

 It kind of seems that way at first. In the Achan story, the writer makes it seem like God is happy and chills out after they stone that guy and all his people and animals. But I think the whole Jewish and Christian prophetic tradition, right through Jesus, has corrected that interpretation. We see the excess now, and the mistakes in people’s thinking about God. I mean one, that guy’s kids, his animals, what did they do wrong? Like who stones some guy’s dog or cow to death, because that guy stole some money from God? No matter what you think about God and violence, that is excessive. Leave the cow alone. 

And I think the arc of scripture, the arc of the Jesus movement, and even the arc of history teach us to not ascribe violence of any kind to God. When I was in Palestine and Israel, I had the honor of meeting Palestinian Archbishop Abuna Chacour, a beautiful Christian leader and bold peacemaker. He says: the first thing we know about God is that God does not kill. 

Jesus was a healer, and it was his enemies that conspired to put him to death. People who follow Jesus ought to be bearing crosses now, not building them. 

So I think there are two bad readings of this passage.

Bad reading one is any reading that justifies violence. That tries to scare people by telling them that God or some person is going to strike them down if they don’t stop whatever. That kind of fear is not worthy of God, or the way or the people of Jesus. Perfect love casts out fear, after all, the scriptures tell us. Perfect love casts out fear. So we shouldn’t try to use fear or threats to try to change people.

And bad reading number two, I think, is to use this story, to try to pressure people to give more money to the church. It’s true that churches and most other good things in life only thrive when we put a lot into them. Reservoir is an engine of generosity and good and innovation for the church in the world, but that only works when we all – the people of the community – put resources in together to make that happen. We need Barnabases who will give generously, give big from what they have. 

All true and good, and many of us love giving to this church, but using this passage or any other threats or manipulation to get people to give more money to the church is toxic. Give abundantly, friends. Give to where your heart is. Give to where you see God. Give to where you see good you want to be part of. But don’t get scared or pressured into giving. 

That’s not the way. There’s even a little hint after this passage, where it says people were kind of impressed by this early church. But they were scared of it too. Because when a community’s leaders abuse power, or when a community spends its energy or its voice stoking fear and exerting control, it’s becoming a cult. It’s lost its health, it’s lost its way. 

Violence and coercion, bad readings. So what is a good reading of this passage? 

Well, Willie James Jennings helped me see something I hadn’t seen before. Which is that it’s really intentional in this story that a couple is doing this. 

Couples aren’t mentioned much in Acts, maybe just two times. Families aren’t the center of the story either. They come up a few times, but the early church wasn’t really a “focus on the family” kind of place. People from all types of family and status were getting involved – single, partnered, young, old, rich, poor, slave, free, and together they were forging new forms of family life together. 

But this couple is interesting. They’re kind of walling themselves off from the community, like God’s big dreams for them are this private story they are working out all by themselves. And they’re just going to pay lip service to other people’s dreams. They also break this whole abundance of grace culture by being inauthentic. They’re going to play along in this community, maybe use the community for their status, looking like they were so generous. But their hearts and their dreams and their finances are really going to be solely tied up in what’s happening inside the walls of their little home. 

Willie James Jennings says they have it backwards. He writes that communities of Jesus say to couples and families: you belong to us. We do not belong to you. 

I find that provocative. And maybe that’s what this passage is about, maybe not. It’s a hard passage. I don’t know. But let’s go with this surprising reading a bit, just for today, and connect it with these thoughts a number of us are having with our failing American experiment in obsession with the nuclear family.

  • What communities are we embedded in? Can we lean on, depend upon?
  • And what communities are we making happen? Are we growing, for us and for others? 

When I look back on my family’s 22-year experiment with the nuclear family, I think it’s gone better when this was our story.

The years where our family has most helped create community, those were good years. When our kids were babies and for years after that, we had people in our home every week – little kids, teens, grownups – every week, we hosted community groups in our homes. 

Where else in our world do people who aren’t related regularly eat together, play together, share together, learning one another’s hopes and dreams and joys and heartaches, learning the names and likes of other people’s kids, talking about the big questions in life about God and love, meaning and morals? I guess there are other places this happens, but not a lot. And church groups at their best – we crush this. 

When we pulled back from this, because we were too busy or other things seemed more important, no one struck us dead, but we lost out.

We lost out because we were meant to make community. 

Mostly, though, I think, our kids got this. It was enough a part of our family that they got it. 

At John’s graduation, a school leader I admire told the graduates that his advice is to be useful. When they don’t know what to do – don’t know how to find their path, where to live, what job or relationship is right, one way to find the path is to wherever you are, be useful. And sometimes the places you find yourself being useful kind of become the path. 

I think that’s a good word. And I think our kids have taken that to heart. You hear it in the way they talk, in the aspirations they have, in the way they show up in the world. I’m so proud of them.

The world does not exist for our sake, not entirely at least. We exist for it too. Our lives and our resources are not just meant for ourselves, they are meant to be invested in things and people and communities outside of ourselves. 

We aren’t meant to be hoarders but givers. 

We also aren’t meant to be alone but together, no needy people among us, practicing abundance of grace. 

The nuclear family ideal is killing us here. Like the only people we’re supposed to be in truly interdependent relationship with is our nuclear kin. For those of us in nuclear families, it’s not enough. And for those of us not in nuclear families at least right now, ourselves are not enough either. 

We need each other. 

The drift of American life doesn’t get us here. It’s hard to sustain deeply connected community. For our family, honestly, this has been a pretty mixed bag these past 22 years. But I think, oh, our best moments haven’t been the cut off ones. I think of the neighbors and the family friends that were at John’s graduation party, and I think – I only wish we’d spent more time together. Because I need things from them and them from me that we don’t have alone. And my kids need things from them, and they need things from my kids too. 

Friends, even in church, this is complicated. As church people, or people trying to be in the Way of Jesus, we too are sometimes more connected to our NetFlix and our Instagrams and our privacy and our nuclear families than we are to others. And we can kind of go back and forth, putting into the common good or not.

And I know community in church can give a lot and sometimes it can disappoint too. My friend T.C. Moore just published a whole book about the limits of nuclear family and the kind of communities and relationships we can make in community. It’s called Forged. And even there, he tells stories of some big successes but of some fails too. So I get that. Even as Acts amidst, church isn’t always the ideal. But it’s one of the best places to keep trying. Really one of the best.

So I wonder if this summer might be a great time for some of us, nuclear family or not, to imagine again what connection and contribution to a bigger community might look like? 

  • Who can you eat with this summer, this fall? 
  • Whose kids that aren’t your own can you get to know?
  • How can you include a couple more people in your private world? How can you let yourself be a little more included in others’? 
  • To what community are you going to give yourself in a big way, not withholding?

Our church is going to provide some opportunities for these things in the months to come, but don’t wait for it. Get started.

Brian McLaren has this book out on the doom we feel is facing us – climate change, politics, all kinds of stuff. It’s bad. 

And he writes:

Love may or may not provide a way through to a solution to our predicament, but it will provide a way forward in our predicament, one step into the unknown at a time. Even if we lose hope for a good outcome, we need not lose hope of being good people. 

We don’t know what the future holds – for any of us, let alone for our country, for our species.

And we don’t know if community will have the answers, or if love will be enough of an answer.

But we know that love will be the way forward. We know that we need each other. And here we are, we’re around. Let’s lean in.