Let’s face it, Jesus says some hard things. One of the most offensive statements in the Gospels is this winnowing word about families and disciples or followers of Jesus:
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26 ESV)
First, what is Jesus not saying? He isn’t barring or shutting anyone out of the Kingdom. Rather, He’s speaking the language of common sense along the same lines as this statement:
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matthew 6:24)
If our priorities are out of line, we will serve or follow the one we love most: In the Matthew passage, devotion to money diminishes the true worship of God in the service of cash. The Luke passage makes a similar point. A disciple of Jesus is one who lays down his or her life and lays even the most intimate relationships at the feet of the Master: both become the property of Jesus to do with as He pleases. Unless we lay down our lives and take up our cross daily, we cannot be a disciple of Jesus: it’s mathematically impossible. Only One can occupy first place in my heart, might, mind and strength. Not my life, my money, my friends or even my family. Only Christ can occupy the number one spot.
Most of us know this principle to be true and these passages take us back in our minds to that day we first put our faith in Christ. We turned and followed Jesus, leaving behind those who would not come along with us. Many of us did that when we left behind family and friends, only to find that we actually gained a hundred times more within the Body of Christ:
Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel,who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29–30 ESV)
Yes, as disciples of Christ we are blessed a hundredfold with family, friends, and property along with lots of persecution. Of course, the real bonanza comes later, when we enter the new age and eternal life.
But, what if you’re a disciple of Jesus, a Christian, and perhaps, members of your family are believers, too? What if you and your extended family gather together in a local church? Let’s say you and some close relatives serve as leaders in a congregation. Is it possible to over-love your family in that situation and put yourself in the impossible position of serving both your family and Jesus? If money is involved, doesn’t that make your situation doubly dangerous? A number of financial experts and Christian ministers think so. They have some words of wisdom on this subject for anyone in vocational ministry, as well as the family members who support them.
Dr. Jimmy Draper, a national leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, identifies five “land mines” Christian leaders should avoid. Number one on the list is nepotism or “the practice among those with power or influence of favoring relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs.” He says this:
This is a very sensitive area. When a minister hires his wife, siblings, children, spouses of his children, etc., it opens up some areas of concern. I believe it is inappropriate unless it comes as a demand from the church itself.
In other words, in financial decisions regarding jobs or pay, the mission of the entire church should be in view and not the needs or desires of our family members. One rule to avoid this kind of problem, according to church financial counselors, is for family members in leadership to recuse themselves when the church makes financial decisions regarding their kin. In some very small churches, this may be difficult or nearly impossible. In those cases, it may be wise to have others from their denomination or an association or a neighboring church involved in the process to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.
Michelle Van Loon relates first hand how dangerous nepotism can be to a church and its Gospel mission:
We attended a church that had a pair of brothers-in-law and a set of sisters on the paid staff… The elder board at the church included relatives of these relatives… It didn’t take long to discover that not all staff meetings happened in the church building. Some also happened at family birthday parties and during vacations. Plans were hatched and decisions were made in the context of these tight family bonds… Protecting the family was a more powerful motivation than protecting the sheep.
Robert Cubillos, the business administrator at Rolling Hills Covenant Church, points up what may be the greatest danger nepotism poses to the mission of the local church:
Nepotism can create a group of people who are insular and self-referential; they are insulated from outside scrutiny and opinion and are allied together by powerful allegiances to each other. Our concern was to avoid any situations tending toward partiality and/or favoritism that threaten our church’s organizational unity and our ability to function cohesively
There are no ties for first place in God’s Kingdom. When family comes first, Jesus and His Church will drop into second place. Yes, a “kith and kin” kind of church may continue to “proclaim the Gospel and make disciples.” But, its mission will always be divided between the Gospel of Jesus and the interests of “father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters.” If you or I cannot repent of partiality and allegiance to family first, Jesus has this sobering assessment: you cannot be His disciple. It’s impossible.
Update: Back in 2016: I wrote another post on 501 (c) (3) status over here.
Here are some resources to help you and your church avoid the sin of nepotism.
Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability
Great article! We’ve watched the subtle influences of this practice over many decades within every church we have been a part of. It shows up in whose child plays guitar or leads worship, whose ministry efforts are able to use a room once a week in the church with no rooms available. On the church board with husbands and wives who both draw salaries as pastoral staff, the grand entrance video loop which always include professional quality photos of the children of salaried staff, of the job openings for the new spouse of the pastor’s daughter because the guy loves the Lord so much he wants to serve Him full time. And most frustrating, when times are lean, the non-relatives are first to be laid off (with the exception of senior staff or those with exceptional value, skill or influence). When those who lead the church repeatedly profess that the congregation is “family” it seems it would be natural to guard against excesses of nepotism. My wife and I have spent many years volunteering as leaders of prayer and ministry teams. I struggled with a simmering annoyance at the over-abundance of videos and photos of the worship team while the prayer team was never featured. I didn’t seek fame or high profile acknowledgement, but it would have been nice to see ourselves in the archive and church nostalgia presentations.
Oh, did I mention that we never had a member of the staff’s family serve under our leadership? My biggest disappointment was that those not in the “real” family are left with a sense of being lesser. A church should start with a mandate to limit (not eliminate) nepotism. I think a few members of a leadership family being employed is acceptable if they are hired for their skills and qualifications, but the percentage should be limited to the lowest possible. A bit of a rant… but thanks for offering a space to say it.
Thank you for this thoughtful, kind, and insightful comment. It seems that this problem is universal. And, isn’t it amazing that so many are blind to their condition and the unethical, unChristian things they do for the benefit of family and intimate friends? I find myself praying for them, the actual people I know, while I’m taking heed to myself (Galatians 6:1-5).