Family. It’s in the news. It’s on your mind, most likely (how many people don’t have family problems?). What is this thing “family”? And what does Christianity have to say about it?
Christians understand families as something God created—an institution among humans that has been around from the beginning. They are (generally speaking) something that human beings benefit from, just as we do from food, water, shelter, and the like. Which is not to say that they are in themselves somehow holy or righteous or wholesome. Families can go bad, and every human family is broken in some way. Those who trumpet “family values” as if families were an unmixed blessing need to do some serious rethinking. But more about that later.
Families come in a variety of forms, though there is usually (not always) a mated pair somewhere in the mix. People refer to the pattern of two-parents-with-children as the “nuclear family,” but throughout human history, families have usually included a whole lot more than that, and the Bible recognizes the fact. In its pages you’ll find:
- multi-generational families (often living together), including children and parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins;
- stem families—where the original married couple has died, but the children and their own continuing families continue to act as a unit;
- families built by adoption or fostering;
- families where a parent is widowed, divorced, or never married in the first place;
- two-person families—that is, marriages without children or other relatives around;
- families with multiple marriages involved, either at the same time (polygamy and concubinage) or in series (by divorce or death);
- families which include people entirely unrelated by blood or marriage, but who choose to live together and care for one another as a family.
Contrary to what you might have heard, the Bible does not prioritize the American nuclear family ideal which so many politicians love to praise. There is no commandment which says, “Thou shalt be married with exactly 1.9 children and no other relatives living with you, according to the custom of thy people.” Jesus himself was single all his life, and his mother’s marriage was certainly unusual (see Matthew 1:18-25). We are told he had brothers and sisters, but not whether these were step- or half-siblings, or even possibly cousins. It’s likely that his foster father Joseph died during Jesus’ youth, leaving Jesus to provide for the family and help raise the younger ones.
Companionship. Families have several purposes. The first is companionship—as God himself said when he set up the first marriage, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Even those who remain single lifelong, as Christ did, need relationships with other people. Families are the way most people find those relationships, at least to start with, though this isn’t true for everybody.
Children. The second purpose of families is the obvious—to continue the human race through childbearing and child-raising. Anyone who has ever raised a baby knows that the more people you have to share the load, the better. I (the author of this article) never had so much respect for the human race as when I walked the floor late at night with my colicky baby and realized that most human beings rise to the challenge of childcare without abandoning or abusing them (no matter how much they scream). That’s purely amazing. (And it helps that babies are mostly cute…)
Help and Support. And that’s the third purpose of families—to give you someone who will be there when you need them (or so we hope!) during the hard times—during infancy, old age, illness, unemployment, or disaster. People are so fragile, and a lot of what we deal with is best handled with a lot of helpers. Being all alone with your problems can be a very difficult thing. It’s better if you have someone (or several someones) who will help you out when you’re in need, and then you pay back the favor when they’re in trouble. My son babysits his cousins partly because their grandmother (my sister-in-law) babysat him when I had to work. Some day, no doubt, they will watch my son’s children…
Spiritual and Character Development. The fourth purpose of families takes us into the spiritual realm, at least a little. For most people, your family is where you get the sharp edges knocked off your soul. It’s where you learn to share your toys, that you should NOT pull Mommy’s hair or kick Daddy in the (never-mind), and that chores are a necessary and unavoidable part of everybody’s life. It’s where you should learn what it means to love and be loved, to trust and be trustworthy, and to put the needs of others right up there with your own (and at times before your own).
Broken and Redeemed
Not everybody is so fortunate as to have a family where those good things happen. A large percentage of us grew up with physical or sexual abuse, name-calling, emotional manipulation, drugs and alcohol, mental illness in the family… the list goes on and on. Some of us are so broken by our experiences in families that we have trouble even considering the idea of starting one of our own, by whatever method. Some of us (God help us!) have personal issues that make us believe we’d do better not to inflict them on a spouse, children, or other family members.
This is what I meant when I said that family is not an unmixed blessing. No human family has ever been what God intended it to be; every family, including Jesus’ family, is broken. The sentimental view of the family found on Mother’s and Father’s Day cards is simply false. We may have had wonderful parents, horrible parents, or none at all; we may have dozens of siblings and cousins or we may be alone in our generation; it doesn’t matter. Whatever we come from, we have experienced brokenness. And whatever family we form in the future, we are going to need God’s help to redeem our broken lives and make something beautiful and healthy out of the pieces.
First Steps Toward God?
One additional purpose of a family, as Christians see it, is to help people take their first steps toward knowing God’s love. Not in a threatening, “God’s going to get you for that!” kind of way, but in a way that teaches them to turn to God for help when they are in trouble, and allows them to trust in a God who will never harm them and never turn them away.
Children raised in a healthy family, Christian or not, like this usually have a much easier time learning to trust God, to believe that he cares about them, and to seek Him out when they are in need. Children whose families had significant problems are going to struggle. A lot of people, Christian or not, have trouble even using the name “Father” for God because of their earthly father’s track record. And people who’ve been abused find it very, very difficult to let down their guard with God, in prayer or at any other time.
Hope and Healing
But even for the millions of us who feel badly broken by our families, there is hope. God invites us to become part of his own family as people he dearly loves. God does not abuse people, and he is infinitely patient and kind to us—especially to us who struggle with broken lives and families.