As the eldest in a large family, I probably received more than my share of essential
discipline. (If I could be trained right, I would set a “good example” for younger sisters’ and brothers’ behavior, my folks explained.) Yet, it is my next-in-line sister that seems the most disquieted by her memories of paternal corrections. Furthermore, while I relish the time our dad spent with us, reading the classics aloud, or telling us family-chronicle stories (even trying to teach us Norwegian, his mother-tongue, from a little primer), the third-in-line sibling grieves Dad’s limited time to play ball or go fishing with his sons.
I know studies indicate that one’s birth order influences his personality, and that firstborn children have the least problem understanding authority and chain-of-command responsibilities. It is also true that in large families, some child might perceive he does not claim enough of a parent’s limited resources of time and attention. (Being the firstborn child of a firstborn mother and a 14th born father, gives me great opportunity for interesting speculation on the complexity of family relationships!)
A young student-nurse friend of ours told us, recently, that nurses are more than likely to be firstborn children from dysfunctional families. Interesting! They didn’t have all that research to so inform us, back when I was in nurses’ training. But, isn’t it encouraging to see how God works all things for good? He provides an “angel of mercy” for a family in some turmoil, who goes on to become an angel of mercy for numerous others, her patients. It has crossed my mind that parents of large families need their older children to
help parent the younger offspring. A social worker might conclude this is unfair
exploitation of a child. But, in what better classroom than the family are we able to learn, as an apprentice, the parenting skills we will later find so useful?
Another nurse friend and I were talking over coffee one army-reserve drill weekend.
Telling stories from our childhood prompted her to tell me about a cartoon she had seen. In it, a banner across the front of an auditorium declared “Convention of children from non-dysfunctional families.” Seated in the midst of all the empty seats were two smiling faces. Apparently, the average family IS a dysfunctional family!
It makes sense. When we think of our own weaknesses and failings, to say nothing of the blindspots about which we aren’t even aware, it prompts a question. Is there anyone, even the best high-achiever we can think of (many of whom are firstborn), who isn’t dysfunctional in some area of life?
And yet, the Bible mentions a “church of the firstborn.” I’ve frequently entertained the thought that it would be fun to name a congregation, instead of Our Savior’s, or St. Paul’s, “The Church of the Firstborn!” It would be quite scriptural. See Hebrews 12:23. Not that only physically firstborn people could be members! It is membership in the Body of Christ that makes all of us who believe “firstborn,” regardless of our birth order.
We know from our reading in the Old Testament that the firstborn of both man and beast was especially designated as belonging to God. This recognition carried with it both blessings and burdens. Among the livestock, the firstborn, if unblemished or “clean,” was given in sacrifice. Among mankind, the firstborn received the birthright, which included
responsibility for headship in the family and a double portion of his father’s property.
Under the New Covenant, which expands the horizons of the promise given to Abraham,
we, not just the people of Israel, are a chosen people. Not everyone can be predestined to be born first in his earthly family. But, by trusting Jesus as Savior, we do become members of that “church of the firstborn,” of which Christ is the Head. And, the purpose for our being members of that elect body is to help us learn the “parenting skills” we will find useful in all our missionary outreaches!
And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to
them who are the called according to his purpose.
For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. (Romans 8:28-29)