This was originally published on 10/12/2006.
Abraham had two children with two different women. Isaac and Rachel had two children. Jacob has at least 13 children, 7 of them with Leah. What does the “typical biblical family” look like? It’s hard to tell by the patriarchs. Abraham had a wife and a concubine. Isaac and Rachel were monogamous regardless of the number of children they could produce. Then there’s Jacob with two wives, two concubines, and a brood of kids. I think it’s safe to say that there is no one “typical” family model in the Bible no matter how much some conservative Evangelicals want there to be. The New Testament is even foggier with Jesus changing the rules about family. In fact he redefined family saying “Whoever does the will of my Mother who is in heaven is my sister, my brother, my mother” (Matthew 12:15, NT: Divine Feminine Version). He also didn’t go in for putting family above all else mentality that we see in conservative evangelicalism. He said no one could put their family above him and still call themselves a disciple of Christ. This redefinition of family continues through the New Testament as the Church, the body of Christ, becomes family. Paul mentions several family members “in the Lord,” but he doesn’t mention one biological family member in his writing. We only know Paul had a sister and nephew thanks to Luke. We know Priscilla and Aquila were married, but we have no idea if they had kids: Paul and Luke never say. Then there’s Paul and Jesus–neither of them even bothered to marry. It also appears that Barnabas, Lydia, and Timothy were all single as well. And yet they are part of the body of Christ, part of the family of God.
When we see family in the biblical and Middle Eastern sense of the word, it is not the nuclear family we are used to. Family was the extended family, which usually lived together, may be not in one dwelling, but all of their houses or tents were right next to each other. When a son married, the parents built a room on top of their house for the couple. The couple then moved in. The family was run by the oldest living male–the patriarch–and everyone lived together: parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and children. This was family in the Old Testament and New Testament. In Acts we also see the concept of household, which included all the relatives plus the servants and slaves. How many people were added to the body of Christ when Cornelius and his whole household repented and were baptized? His wife (or wives), children, relatives, servants and slaves? Lydia’s household also were baptized. Who all did that include? Lydia’s relatives? An aged mother or grandmother, siblings, nieces, or nephews? Then there were her servants and slaves, all of whom repented and were baptized. Lydia’s household became the first church in Europe (Acts 16). Households and families were very different than the Western nuclear family. In fact, in many parts of the world, this is what family and households look like today. Not even Christians in other countries will agree with the American Evangelical definition of “family.”
There is a reason I’m bringing all of this up. I have seen a couple of articles about larger families starting to be more common than the typical 2-3 child norm our society worships. Of course these larger families are looked down upon, especially the mothers who decided that this is what they wanted: to have a large family. On the other end of the spectrum are couples like my husband and I. We’ve chosen not to have children. Both of these decisions should be fine with the church along with those who have chosen to remain single. All of these families are represented in the Bible. My husband and I should not be classified as “selfish” because we’ve chosen not to have the culturally accepted family. Neither should women like Leslie Leland Fields, who wrote, The Case for Kids at Christianity Today, be judged on why she and her husband have six children. In the article Leslie talked about the reaction outside of the church her big family receives, but I can see raised eyebrows in the church foyer when they walk by as well. It is more acceptable in the church for a larger family because we see children as a blessing from God. But I still have heard comments about “what were they thinking” directed at couples with a lot of children.
Back to my end of the spectrum: please do not believe that because I don’t have children that means I hate them or don’t want to be around them. I love children. And every child needs at least one adult in their life who shares their life and hangs out with them because they want to and not because they have to. I love being that person. I love being Aunt Shawna. When I told this to one of my friends, Virginia, she absolutely agreed. That meant a lot to me because Virginia is a mother (she has two kids), and she is called to children’s ministry: she’s a children’s pastor. I take very seriously the part of the infant dedication or infant baptism where the pastor turns to the congregation and asks the congregation to do all they can to help the parents raise their children in Christ and in the Church. When I say, “I will,” I mean it. I will do anything I can to help parents raise their children to know the love and grace of Jesus. Whether they have two, six, or ten, no set of parents can raise children by themselves: they need the church; they need a community. This was something the extended family provided in the Bible: parents weren’t all on their own raising a family. This is also the way neighborhoods used to be: the entire street helped parents raise their kids. It wasn’t a Lone Ranger thing.
In her book Real Sex, Lauren Winner points out that both singleness and married life teach the church about God and her kingdom. Marriage teaches us about God’s love for us, the church. Marriage teaches us what faithfulness in a relationship looks like. It also teaches us about forgiveness and compromise. Just as marriage is not easy, it is not always easy to be part of the community, and it’s not always easy to be in a relationship with God. Singleness teaches the church utter dependence on God. Singles don’t have a partner always there to help. They have to depend on God for their intimacy. They teach us that there should always be an empty spot in our lives for God alone. They also remind us that in the end the only marriage is between Christ and his Church, and all of us will be siblings. Our primary relationship with each other is not as spouses, but as brothers and sisters in Christ. Before our marriage vows are our baptismal vows. Before we married, we were a sister or brother to our spouse.
Let’s take this a step further for families of all kinds. Large families teach us we don’t always get what we want in community. Siblings may have to share bedrooms and toys. They can’t hog the bathroom or the computer. They also have to conserve: their clothes will go to the next sibling. They have to learn to share. They also have to learn to compromise. They know life isn’t all about them when there are younger siblings too play with and care for.
Childless families remind us that we don’t always get what we want. Not all of us are called to be parents, just like not all are called to be parents to a large family. Childless families remind the church that family is a much larger concept than those who live under our roofs. We also remind the families with children that they don’t have to go it alone. We are here to help. We spend time with their kids because we want to. We also remind the church that marriage is not for children alone: we can use our marriages to build the kingdom of God. Childless couples have more time and resources for short-term mission trips, giving to those in need, and in helping the families at church raise their children in a godly way.
All of us together show the world what the kingdom God is like. It’s like the single person who depends on God for the intimacy she or he craves when they crawl into their bed alone every night. It’s like the married couple who does not let the sun go down on their anger and works through their argument to reconciling peace before they go to the bed. It’s like the family with two children who show us how important it is to know our limits and to do what is best for the entire family. It is like the family who has six children and teaches us that life does not revolve around us: we have to share, we don’t always have to space we want, and there are others who need us. All of this is what it looks like to be part of the church, part of the family of God.
6 thoughts on “Blast from the Past: The Biblical Family?”
Thank you Cecily. I appreciate that.
This is a great article. I’m a new reader and appreciate all you say!
Thanks you everyone for comments and input. Hugo, I don’t think I’ve posted about Winner on this blog, but she is one of my favorite authors, and I have her three books.
Christine, the same thing happens in evangelical circles. The Nazarene church doesn’t hardly pay its pastors enough to live on and yet expect us to raise families, so I understand that. For me it’s both a justice and a calling thing. I don’t think every married couple is called to be parents just as I don’t think every single person is called to be married. May be if the church looked at marriage and parenthood that way there wouldn’t be so many divorces.
Hi Shawna, Thanks for the visit and comment. My husband and I are a childless by choice couple as well. I have long been frustrated with the Catholic choice for not recognizing this as a valid and life-giving vocation. We were very intentional about this and recognized that because we both work in ministry we need a lot of quiet time at home to renew ourselves. The irony is that my husband has worked for parishes and the salary he earned could never have supported a family. This is a justice issue for me. I would love to see an article out there about this, and this looks like a great start.
Great post indeed, Shawna. Put it out there and let it challenge folks.
BTW, have you posted about Lauren Winner before? I’d be interested in your thoughts; I blogged quite a bit about her last year.
what a great post- I love the way you have questioned presupposed western values of family life and all that it means- also the challenge to embracing the wider family – interestingly I have just posted a comment on John Moreheads blog- where he looks at body image and sensuality questioning western puritanical views! not unrelated I suspect.
so glad to have found your blog- thanks for visiting mine