In the beginning, God created men and women in God’s image. That’s according to Genesis 1, anyway. In Genesis 2, a slightly different account, we’re told that God formed the man out of the dust of the ground, then God made the animals. However, from these animals, no suitable helpmate was available to Adam. So, short version, God created the woman.
This man and this woman were created to be in relationship with God. Second to that, the man and the woman were created to be in relationship with each other. They were family. Out of this relationship, they had children; the Bible records the names of three boys, though I surmise that that’s not an exhaustive list. The first couple multiplied and expanded their family.
Skip down several generations and about ten chapters, and we meet Abram. Abram was an old man of 75, married to Sarai, and they were unfortunately childless. God called Abram into covenant, a covenant which would extend to all of Abram’s descendents. Abram and Sarai received new names and the promise of a child. This small family grew – and would grow exponentially.
Three more generations, and the family of Abraham has grown exponentially, with his son Isaac bringing two sons, and Jacob having twelve sons and a daughter. For his faithfulness, he received a new name: Israel. They acknowledged “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” but otherwise, this god had no name. The descendants of Jacob would be called in Hebrew ben-Y’isra’el, which means literally, “the sons of Israel,” but which refers to all descendants of Jacob.
Four hundred years went by. The Israelites had moved from Canaan to Goshen, a fertile land under the purview of Egypt. There they grew and flourished to the point where the Pharoah considered them a viable threat and enslaved them. Four hundred years of just acknowledging the god of their fathers. They worshiped at altars, but there was no true worshiping assembly.
After the Exodus, the Lord delivered through Moses detailed how-to instructions for worship, including everything from when, what, and how much to sacrifice. The sacrifices were all given in gratitude for what the Lord had done, not as a bribe to make God do what they wanted God to do. (This was different from the pagan deity worship practices.) Even through the desert wanderings, the Israelites didn’t worship as a community as we understand it, but what is clear is that they are still a huge family – all descended from one ancestor – with separate, individual tribal, clan, and family units.
It would be another millennium (plus a few hundred years) before the church as we know it was established. The church as a mash-up of people from different backgrounds, different families, and different beliefs wouldn’t emerge until the first century A.D.
The church is a vital part of the believer’s life, and corporate worship is a beautiful part of that life. I feel bereft of something if I miss more than one Sunday of worship. However, true to the original design, we were created first to be with God, and second to be in our families. Someone from our church tried to lay a guilt-trip on me for skipping something at church in order to take my daughters home so they could have dinner with their waiting dad – and so we could be together as a family for the first time that entire day. We were not created to be a part of an institution; we were created to be a part of our families.
And the church is an institution. Early in our marriage, Peter and I both spent many Sunday afternoons helping out at our small church and engaged in various local ministry projects. The problem was, between my two jobs and his job, we barely had any time together the other six days of the week. We thought we were being “holy” by spending all this time at church, but in reality, we were damaging one of the best gifts God had given us and were failing to be good stewards of that gift.
When someone wants people – whether individuals, parts of families, or whole families – to give up family time for time at church, then the church starts taking on cult-like qualities. Cults desire their members to sacrifice family loyalty for loyalty to the cult and the leader. I refuse to go there. If I have a choice between being home with all my family or at church with just part of it, then I’ll choose to be with my whole family every. Single. Time. Sunday mornings are the exception; if Hubby is sick, then I’m perfectly fine taking the girls to church without him, and vice versa if I’m sick. But any other time… At the end of a long day of working and teaching, when all I want is to complete the 35-minute drive home, hug my hubby, and eat dinner, then no. My first loyalty is to God. My second loyalty is to my family. Everything else comes after that.