As a person who is single I think about family a lot.
That might come as a surprise to some but my singleness I think, gives me a unique perspective on the way that people practice the concept of family. Within the ordered structure of a typical nuclear family, I notice if I am welcomed in or not, when I am listening to politicians speaking, my ears perk up when I hear that strange term ‘family values’, within church, my curiosity is piqued when a particular church is described as a ‘family oriented church’ which holds ‘family services’ and they have a ‘families pastor’. I don’t have a problem with most of these terms and we use some of them at the church where I minister. I do however find it all immensely interesting, perplexing and concerning. What do people mean when they use the word ‘family’ as an adjective? Sometimes I wonder if when Christians use the term family, they mean ‘the nuclear family’ seeing family as being essentially about husband, wife and the two or three children. And then I wonder if that is the case, which I suspect it is, if we have again allowed the church to become captive to the culture of our world. A world which is in the habit of enshrining middle class values on car bumper stickers displaying stick figures to let everyone know who exactly is considered to be a part of their family, a world that tends to look past those who don’t quite fit into the established patterns of the norm, a world which has a practice of looking inward rather than turning outward to connect to a greater story. As God’s people when we use the word family, what do we mean? Are we defining family according to the values of our culture or according to the missional, kingdom of God perspective that we see in Scripture?
One of the wisest things anyone has said to me is that when reading Scripture, we need to make sure that we read ‘the whole counsel of God’. That bit of advice has stayed in my mind and surfaced every time that I am tempted to build my own peculiar theology based on my likes and inclinations. I wonder if this is something we have done to the topic of family and as a result it has shaped some bad habits in us in terms of the way we practice being family? As far as I can discern from my random musings as a single person observing Christian families, we tend to emphasise the more ‘positive’ teachings about family in Scripture and well, we kind of don’t know what to do with some of the other teachings which come across as a little abrasive to our middle class sensibilities. So for instance we will focus on the command to honour our parents (Exodus 20:12) and to keep good order in the household (Ephesians 5:21-6:4). We are also careful to honour marriage (Hebrews 13:4) and to teach about the fact that God hates divorce and adultery (Mark 10:1-12). All of these teachings of course are interpreted and applied in various ways, however the underlying theme that is emphasised here is that ‘God is for the family’. I am not arguing against the fact that ‘God is for the family’ but am only asking what then do we do with some of the other passages which rattle our typical notions of family? Two passages that stand out which come straight from the ministry of Jesus are Matthew 10:34-38 and Mark 3:31-35. In the first passage Jesus says that he has ‘not come to bring peace but a sword’ to the earth. He proceeds to say that various relationships within the family will come under pressure and even experience division because of him. In the second passage which I think is even more radical, Jesus redefines the notion of family. Jesus refuses in this case to attend to his mother and brother and instead looks at the crowd of disciples following him, hanging on his every word and says ‘Who are my mother and my brothers? Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’ Joseph Hellerman in his confronting book When the Church was a Family says about Jesus’ response in this passage, ‘These words spoken in the hearing of a large crowd, were utterly scandalous in the cultural context in which Jesus lived. In the social world of Jewish Palestine, Jesus, as the oldest surviving male in his family…was responsible to defend the honour of, and provide leadership for, his partrilineal kinship group. In a single stroke Jesus dishonoured himself and his family by refusing to exercise that crucial family role. And he did so in a public setting.’1
All of these sayings by Jesus frankly, do not sound very ‘family friendly’ – in fact they sound like they belong to another reality, the reality that we call the reign of God. Whenever I have seen these sayings literally put into practice, that is, people truly placing Jesus first even if it means family disruption or people redefining and broadening the usual narrow definitions of family, these people are called radical and treated as exceptions to normal discipleship. However these disciples are simply putting into practice ‘the whole counsel of God’. I know of a woman who lives alone in a big house, too big for her so she takes in overseas students in order to show them what she would call Christian hospitality. I know of a family who make it a point to regularly invite people to dinner who do not fit the prescribed social norms of the day, those such as the poor, the lonely, the marginalised. I have also heard of another family who renovated their home not for the purpose of living more comfortably but rather to have an extra room in case they get to know someone who is struggling with life and they need a place to stay. I see some families who part with their comfortable lifestyles and cause upset to their extended families because they follow the whisperings of God to move, go to a faraway or challenging place, and connect with a hurting world. I know of large families who add to their number by foster caring for abandoned children. Yet these disciples would be called ‘saints’ and ‘radical’ by some.
What do we mean by ‘family’?
As God’s people are we being held captive to our world’s definition, vision and purpose of family or will we enter into that alternate reality called the kingdom of God which upsets and turns upside down the values of our world?
1 Joseph Hellerman, When the Church was a Family, B&H Publishing group, Nashville, 2009 (p55).