Avoid Genealogies: When Family Trees Become a Problem

family-tree-imageTracing family roots is a fascinating project that can occupy countless hours. A few years ago, a personal friend and colleague in ministry, Glenn Tomlinson (Sovereign Grace Community Church, Sarnia, Ontario) did some research for me, tracing my family line (Daniels) back to 1640, when a Davy Daniels left Scotland for what became the New England colonies.

According to No1Reviews.com, the top ten genealogy sites for 2015 are:

Ancestry.com
Ancestry.co.uk
Ancestry.com.au
My Heritage
US National Archives
Geneanet
The National Archives UK
Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC)
Family Search
FindMyPast

You can reach any of these sites through the links provided at No1Reviews.com.

Cultures, ancient and modern, have always been interested by ancestors – family trees. The Mormon church places significant theological importance in ancestors as living Mormons can practice proxy baptism for their dead, making possible for their dead relatives to have a second chance at Heaven. Here’s their answer to the question, “Why do Mormons perform baptisms for the dead?”

Jesus Himself, though without sin, was baptized to fulfill all righteousness and to show the way for all mankind (see Matthew 3:13-17; 2 Nephi 31:5-12). Thus, baptism is essential for salvation in the kingdom of God. We learn in the New Testament that baptisms for the dead were done during the Apostle Paul’s time (see 1 Corinthians 15:29). This practice has been restored with the establishment of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Prophet Joseph Smith first taught about the ordinance of baptism for the dead during a funeral sermon in August 1840. He read much of 1 Corinthians 15, including verse 29, and announced that the Lord would permit Church members to be baptized in behalf of their friends and relatives who had departed this life. He told them “the plan of salvation was calculated to save all who were willing to obey the requirements of the law of God” (Journal History of the Church, 15 Aug. 1840).

Because all who have lived on the earth have not had the opportunity to be baptized by proper authority during life on earth, baptisms may be performed by proxy, meaning a living person may be baptized in behalf of a deceased person. Baptisms for the dead are performed by Church members in temples throughout the world. People have occasionally wondered if the mortal remains of the deceased are somehow disturbed in this process; they are not. The person acting as a proxy uses only the name of the deceased. To prevent duplication, the Church keeps a record of the deceased persons who have been baptized. Some have misunderstood that when baptisms for the dead are performed the names of deceased persons are being added to the membership records of the Church. This is not the case.

Small wonder that family trees play an important role in the Mormon religion. That I do not believe one can find adequate Biblical support for the legitimacy of proxy baptism is a question to be answered at another time.

The first full-fledged family tree in Scripture opens with these words: “This is the written account of Adam’s line” (Gen 5:1). Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, various genealogies and family lists appear. The book of Numbers is so named because of the two census lists appearing in the text – one at the outset of the wilderness wanderings, and one at the conclusion. Both Ezra and Nehemiah contain genealogical lists relating to the Jews who returned to Israel from the Babylonian exile. And who can forget the amazing family tree of our Lord Jesus recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

With such emphasis on family lines in the Bible, what are we to make of Paul’s warning to both Timothy and Titus, pastors of newly planted first century congregations?

“…command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work…” (1 Timothy 1:3-4).

“…avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because they are unprofitable and useless” (Titus 3:9).

[Scripture taken from the New International Version (1984) Emphasis mine]

With these stern warnings, is the Apostle Paul denigrating the value of all those family trees found in Scripture? Was it not Paul who wrote: “For everything that was written in the past” – and he refers here to the O.T. texts, including the genealogical lists – “was written to teach us, so that through the endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4)?

To answer that question, we need to consider the possible context of Paul’s warnings to Timothy and Titus. Perhaps a few Jewish believers were trying to use their family heritage to procure privileged positions within the churches. Paul himself had once taken great pride in his family tree: “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more…of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews…” (Philippians 3:4-5). However, following his conversion experience, Paul declared his once-important lineage to be little more than “rubbish” compared to knowing Christ (Php. 3:8).

Further, the fact that Paul mentions “quarrels about the law” in the same warning, could mean that some within the churches were seeking to give permanence to what God intended to be temporary (See Galatians 3:24-25).

The biblical family trees remind us of God’s sovereign control of all history – that he works through free moral agents to accomplish his divinely decreed purposes. However, those same biblical genealogies were never meant to provide occasion for pride or presumed privilege within the New Covenant community of God.

About David Daniels

Evangelical Baptist Pastor. Reformed Soteriology. Enjoy freelance writing & reviewing.
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