Let’s talk about the family. There have been many popular TV families over the years – Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons, The Brady Bunch, The Cosby Show, Friends, The Simpsons and now Modern Family. Some people say that television shapes the culture while others say it simply reflects the culture. A few would even say it is 5 years behind the culture. What we do know is that today’s families are changing and facing tremendous pressure both from within and without. Complex questions are emerging about such matters as blended families, same-sex attraction, as well as divorce and remarriage.
Families in Bible Times
What did families look like in biblical times? In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, the sphere of action is the family not the nation. Crucial events occur in the home, not the court or the battlefield. Genesis is a succession of family narratives, ‘family’ often meaning a whole clan or household (not the typical ‘nuclear family’ of the modern world). In primitive times, people lived primarily in patriarchal groups that grew as sons brought wives and children into the clan (e.g. Noah’s ‘family’ included his wife, his sons and their wives). The eldest son (the 'firstborn') was given preferential treatment and this was also a time of arranged marriges for children once they reached 15-18 years of age.
As well as experiencing many good times together, these first families faced a wide range of problems. Cain murdered his brother Abel in a fit of jealous rage. Noah got drunk. Lot offered his virgin daughters to the aggressive men of Sodom; later, his daughters got their father drunk and were then impregnated by him. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all played favourites with their kids, causing all sorts of family problems. Their story includes squabbling spouses, sibling rivalry and children being deceitful. Later on, Reuben slept with his father’s concubine and Judah slept with his daughter-in-law who was disguised as a prostitute. And this is the ‘godly line’! It reads like a script from a modern-day soap opera.
The Old Testament presents the family as a deeply flawed institution in a fallen world, highlighting the ups and downs of human relationships. It’s a place of hope and blessing, yet at times disappointment and struggle. It sure shatters the myth of the perfect family! These families were pretty dysfunctional, yet God worked through them. The Old Testament ends with a promise of reconciliation and harmony (Mal.4:6), the opposite of the images of family discord and fragmentation that seem to have been the norm in these ancient stories.
By the time of Jesus, the typical family living in the Roman Empire was a ‘household’ family (Greek oikos), usually consisting of a husband, a wife, children and slaves (all of the latter being the ‘property’ of the man). Household codes served as models for order. The apostle Paul did not seek to overthrow existing social structures (including slavery and patriarchal households) but rather infused them with new kingdom ethics. In his own household codes (Eph.5:21 – 6:9. Col.3:18 – 4:1), after presenting mutual submission as the ideal (Eph.5:21), he commands those in society’s positions of authority (husbands, parents and slave owners) to provide loving leadership and he addresses those in society’s subordinate roles (wives, children and slaves) as persons in their own right and to be treated with dignity, something quite radical for this era in human history. Paul emphasised the interdependent and complementary nature of these roles and requirements, showing that care and compassion for one’s natural family is vital (1 Tim.5:4,8).
Like in biblical times, today’s families come in a diversity of shapes and sizes: the ‘traditional’ or ‘nuclear’ family (dad, mum and kids), single parent families, married couples without children, blended families, and extended families to name a few. There are also vast differences between ancient and modern times when it comes to social structures, as well as the opportunity for both men and women when it comes to education and choices that can be made outside of inherited ‘class’ or social status.
Common challenges facing families today include: conflict, communication breakdown, time pressures, mental health issues (including depression and anxiety), addictions (including substance abuse, gambling and pornography), the impact of social media and finances.
God reveals himself as a Father (God also has motherly qualities – Isaiah 49:14-17; 66:13. Matt.23:37) who desires each one of us to be part of his family (Deut.1:31. Eph.3:14-15). His desire is to place the lonely in families (Ps.68:6) where they can experience love and a sense of belonging. Jesus is the way to the Father (John 8:42) and provides the means for us to be ‘born again’ (John 3) or adopted into God’s family. Jesus placed this spiritual family as taking precedence even over one’s natural family (Matt.12:46-50; 10:34-37. Mark 3:21, 31-35. Luke 12:51-53). Family ties were to be respected and strengthened where possible, yet always as secondary to the family of believers (1Tim.5:1-2). Christians are ‘brothers and sisters’ in Christ – the most common designation of followers of Jesus in the New Testament – and part of the family of God, God’s household. This family is not meant to be cliquey but one that is always open and ready to welcome new sons and daughters of God. It is a family characterised by equality (even slaves and masters are of equal status and value in Christ), unity and love.
THE Key to a Healthy Family
The core foundation of any healthy relationship or family is LOVE. It’s a love of a different kind – God’s kind of love. Not merely friendship love, affectionate love or romantic love but a love that is a decision to do what is best for another person, even at personal sacrifice. Jesus calls us as his followers to love other, including our family, as he has loved us (John 13:34-35), a love that will prove to the world that we are his disciples, when they see how we treat each other. The apostle Paul puts it like this: “Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn't love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that.” [Ephesians 5:1-2. Message Bible]
How easy it is for us to get caught up in the details of daily family life – the tasks, jobs and transactions – and forget its primary purpose: loving God and people. May random acts of kindness become a regular occurrence in all of our homes and families!
1. What was your favourite TV show as a kid growing up and why?
2. What surprises or interests you the most about families in biblical times?
3. What do you think are the 3 most common pressures families face today?
4. In what ways can the church become more of a genuine spiritual ‘family’ for people, including singles, young adults, married couples, single parents and grandparents?
5. Read Jesus’ comments in Matthew 12:46-50 and 10:34-37. Is ‘family first’ a biblical value?
6. Read the description of ‘love’ in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. How does this apply to families?
7. Spend some time praying for your family.