Jesus + Power = Disaster: A Review of The Family on Netflix
Before his fall from grace Tullian Tchividjian, the grandson of the late Billy Graham, wrote the book Jesus Plus Nothing Equals Everything. The sort of “Jesus only” approach that became quite popular in the Evangelical circles and flirted with Lutheranism for a bit with its emphasis on rightly understanding law and gospel seems to be the theological foundation described in the new documentary on Netflix The Family. However, quite opposed to Tullian’s struggle with sin and grace in his book Jesus + Nothing=Everything the foundation of “family” as described in the series has more to do with the late twentieth century evangelicalism that I was immersed in for years. Jesus plus nothing to the American Evangelical movement was far more about the moving past denominationalism into an individualistic encounter with Jesus who became a moral figure and told you how to live and make a better world. This confusion of the person of Christ led brilliantly into the foundation of a society that the documentary exposes as one of the most influential powers in Washington D.C. and even throughout the world.
All of this is thrilling, and the conspiracy overtones are worthy of a Dan Brown novel. The series itself is very well made and yet a few problems do exist. First the villainous motives and operations seem to be about promoting “family values” i.e. traditional marriage and traditional gender roles. The last two episodes feature heavily on senators globetrotting to foreign governments supporting legislation defending such positions and also on the dream of the Trump presidency as the one that will help implement a strong stand on these issues here at home. The shock may come from the more left leaning audience or the Christian left as those supporting the total separation of Church and State featured in the series are shown as ‘good guys’ exposing the secret cabal that threatens “democracy.” However, this is unsurprising for those who are familiar with Christianity’s traditional positions on such issues and its constant articulation of such viewpoints. In so many words the series wants to elicit surprise from the idea that evangelicals and conservative Christians oppose same sex marriage and other moral deviations. Another flaw is the notion that the first amendment of the constitution establishes the separation of Church and State. Certainly, there is to be no state church, but to say the state is totally secular is a strong assumption and patently untrue.
What the series does get right however is far more troubling for Christians. The kind of community that the family promoted at its Cedars mansion in Alexandria, Virginia is typical of the evangelical norm during the 90’s and early 2000’s. Small groups and prayer breakfasts abounded in those days— even more so than today. When I was younger and part of the American Evangelical movement I remember Young Life being something the “in” crowd was all about. Young, popular guys in junior high and high school would always meet at a college guy’s house for prayer before school however the meetings were always private (even secretive). These meetings would include intimate sharing that also went on in evangelical youth groups. The movement was sustained by emotional manipulation and pressure that pervaded ministries to young people into a kind of moral legalism with regard to lifestyle and practice. This was a major reason I left the tradition for liturgical and confessional Lutheranism in college. The same kind of manipulation, buzzwords, and theology are what open The Family and is very similar to how I as a former evangelical remember the movement in those days.
The series focuses on Jeff Sharlet as a young initiate in Ivanwald, The Family compound in Alexandria. Sharlet notes the kind of mind games played on him and the non-questioning loyalty and obedience given by the “brothers” in the house. He is hazed and pushed both physically and emotionally to get to a point where he is remade in the image of the organization. And what is that image? The always smiling and no creeds but Christ mindset. Coincidentally it is what the American Evangelical project was all about too. When Sharlet delves deeper he is introduced to Doug Coe, a shady individual who comes off as a saint and great leader to the young men at Ivanwald and the members of the family. He was highly influential meeting with every president in recent memory, including having dealings with Carter during the Israeli and Egyptian peace talks and was even the power behind the National Prayer Breakfast. He was also influential in the Young Life and InterVarsity organizations. Sharlet notes that this man wielded immense influence during his lifetime and made the family what it is today.
The core of Coe’s philosophy is this Jesus plus nothing approach. Coe saw his effort as simply “loving on” politicians who need prayer and support. He offered them Jesus plus nothing, “just Jesus” as Sharlet would continually recall. At first glance nothing seems to be wrong with this at all, it is something every Christian should do; pray for and with elected leaders and offer them the gospel. Yet it is debatable if Coe gave the Jesus of the gospel and the method of small prayer groups was used as a source and leverage for influence in power circles. At the heart of the argument was that Doug Coe used Jesus and prayer as a way to gain influence and power for himself and thereby pushed his own values into the U.S. government via the National Prayer Breakfast. Whether or not this was his motivation is left to speculation however there is a fine line when it comes to Jesus plus power.
The kind of religion-less Jesus offered by Coe certainly is not what Christianity has historically taught. The Christ of scripture has always been more than a good moral teacher that just wants you to do better and go to heaven. The small group setting as the primary source of living the faith also is dubious at best—and still is to this day—as it lacks any kind of theological and ethical boundaries. There have been and are many instances where these smaller groups have been used to supplant the regular worshiping community (and, no, contrary to what I was told by evangelical pastors years ago, Thursday night small group is not historically where the ancient Church had “real church”). Yet this kind of Jesus and church offered by the family attracted politicians and foreign leaders and gained a lot of traction. They ate up the Jesus plus nothing idea and it cemented for them a great deal of theological security to pursue even more power. They were accountable to each other, and no one else, and as Sharlet recounted, “they were chosen.” Those affiliated with the Cedars and Ivanwald did go on to achieve greater status and power but those such as senator John Ensign affiliated with the Family run C-Street house in D.C. and former governor and representative Mark Sanford (also a disciple of Doug Coe) did indeed damage their families and marriages due to infidelity. And the family aided in covering up the deep flaws within the family’s theology. The damage extended to a lack of need to ever be sorry for these flaws. How can you be sorry when you’ve been chosen like King David?
Christians should be bothered by what they view in this documentary. I personally don’t believe you need to object to the idea of the National Prayer Breakfast per se, and the Church-State separation activists formula “Jesus and Capitol Hill don’t mix” isn't a helpful remedy. But Jesus plus nothing served a cover for Jesus plus power. And this is a very dangerous idea. Christians should not seek power for themselves or as a means to an end in the first place. Remember what Jesus said, “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” (Matthew 6:24).
Whether or not Doug Coe had a good ministry in serving politicians can be left for discussion, however, the need for greater power couldn’t be further from Christianity. We serve a Jesus who isn’t just a good moral leader, who doesn’t simply demand an emotional change of behavior, who doesn’t seek to be forced upon anyone. He is the Son of God who gave up his power on a cross for the sake of those who suffer from wielding it and seeking it themselves. When we seek greater power and influence within the world or even in the Church—by covert organizations, intimidation, bullying, or even as simple and nice as Mr. Coe’s “I just want to love on you” attitude—we ultimately will come crashing down and will have to face the real Jesus who holds that lust for power in contempt.
To join Jesus with a pursuit of power isn’t Christian in the least and if viewers think that The Family represents Christianity, they would be deeply mistaken. The weak culture of evangelicalism that leads to coopting its identity with politics and national leadership is a good warning of what not to do, and exactly how to diminish the witness of the Church in the world. Jesus plus nothing easily leads to Jesus plus something bad, unfortunately for the family, Jesus plus power has led to disaster in their witness and mission. God forbid we repeat the same mistakes.