What Jesus Had to Say About Families
In Biblical Women Who Didn’t Submit: Abigail, I began looking at The Quiverfull Movement and some of the beliefs that far right, fundamentalist Christian groups have about women. The Quiverfull Movement has been in the press due to Kathryn Joyce’s new Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchal Movement. Since my first post, The American Prospect and GlobalComment have either done a review or an interview with Kathryn, and Religion Dispatches has posted a searing commentary on their view of children as taking culture back for God in God’s Little Soldiers: Procreation as a Weapon.
For the past week or so I’ve been having stray thoughts about what Jesus had to say about families wandering through my head. I wonder what people like the Quiverfull movement and others that idolatrize the nuclear family do with Jesus’ view of the biological family:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me (Matthew 10:34-37).
But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:48-50).
To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:59-60).
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26).
Jesus redefined family as those who do the will of God, even at the cost of the biological family. One’s family was no reason not to follow Jesus. If one’s family got in the way of following Jesus and doing the will of God, then the family was to be left behind. It is absolutely amazing how quickly biblical literalists say, “Oh but that’s not what Jesus really meant” when these verses come up (Everyone picks and chooses what to take literally in the Bible, whether they admit to it or not). If you think this is a radical and hard thing to swallow now, imagine what it would have been like to hear in the ancient world.
The paterfamilias was the social unit. And the paterfamilias is not the equivalent of today’s nuclear family with mommy, daddy, and kiddos. The paterfamilias was the patriarch, his wife or wives, all their children, and anyone who belonged to the household: parents, siblings, servants, and slaves. The patriarch could be your grandfather, father, uncle, or older brother, depending on who was still alive. A person did not exist outside of the paterfamilias in society in that day. You were defined by the family, and your social standing was also determined by your family and the family’s connections. When Jesus’ followers heard him say: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple,” they must have been picking themselves up off the ground. Outside of a woman leaving her family for her husband’s family, leaving the paterfamilias was absolutely unheard of. If you did, you were on your own, which meant, more than likely you would end up a social outcast. But the fact remains that Jesus said this.
He redefined family outside of biological relationships. When you became a Christian, your family became the Church. Your nuclear family came after that. Not that Jesus absolutely did away with the biological family either. His first miracle was at a wedding (probably a family wedding) at the request of his mother. He made sure his mother was taken care of before he died. But Jesus made it very clear that the most basic societal structure was not the family: it was his followers, the Church. The Church, those who obeyed the will of God, would be the basic social unit that changed the world. The Church would be the one to proclaim the gospel and show people how to live like Jesus in the world. Granted we haven’t always done a good job of it, but that is how Jesus redefined family.
If you’re a Christian, the biological family cannot be the foundation of society, and all evils do not come from the family breaking up. In fact, there have been times in Christian history where marriage and children were looked down on as second best, and both fathers and mothers abandoned their children to join monasteries for the higher good of chastity and prayer (but that’s another post).
Jesus and the New Testament writers make it clear that the family of God, the Church, is the foundation of society. It is also interesting to note that not many of the New Testament leaders are married or have children, or that children just aren’t mentioned. A good example is Priscilla and Aquila: they’re married, they make tents, they host churches in the homes, but do they have kids? We don’t know. Neither Jesus or Paul married and had children. Peter’s wife is mentioned, but did they have kids? Don’t know. The Bible doesn’t say whether Phoebe or Lydia, Timothy or Titus, were married or had children.
Yes, families are important. Yes, we should marry if we are called to do so and have children if called to do so. We should also remember there are people who aren’t called to marriage or parenthood. We just need to remember that it is not the nuclear family that changes the world. It is the Church’s testimony of Christ and living out the love of Jesus in our daily lives that brings the kingdom of God to earth. That should begin in our families, but it should not end there.