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Rethinking the Family: The Challenge of Sacrifice and Inclusivity in the Kingdom of God

Sunday, 1 December 2013  | Karina Kreminski

Today in Christian circles we are hearing quite a bit of anxious talk around the issue of family. Some of the discussion seems to be coming from a place of deep anxiety that traditional family values are being redefined in our society. The logic then is that this will potentially lead to the demise of our nation because traditional family values are what keep our society chugging along in a functional manner. I hear from some middle-class Christians that they ban their children from watching the TV series Modern Family because of the non-traditional interpretations of marriage, relationships and family depicted on that show. However they are happy to watch Packed to the Rafters which seems to them to convey a much more traditional (and therefore supposedly ‘Christian’) view of family life.

None of this anxiety is new of course. Several decades ago, Stanley Hauerwas noted in his book A Community of Character: “One of the few issues on which there is consensus today is that the family seems to be going through some kind of crisis. Indeed the account of why this crisis exists is beginning to take on a boring familiarity.”1 He then describes the typical trajectory of thought the institution of family is in crisis due to a decline in traditional values; therefore Christians especially must be called to return back to ‘family values’; then society can be saved from disintegration. In this view, the notion of family must thus be protected from any redefinitions which could cause instability to the status quo view. The problem with this way of thinking is that it obfuscates some deeper questions that we need to be asking as a community of Christ-followers regarding the concept of family. What exactly does it mean to have ‘family values’? What is family? And most importantly, how can we define family according to a Kingdom of God paradigm as opposed to simply imitating the definitions and expressions of our typical middle class context?


What Scripture says about family

Family and relationships are affirmed in Scripture. God himself is relational as Father, Son and Holy Spirit: and our nature reflects something of God. We hear God the Creator looking at the man and declaring, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone’ (Genesis 2:18): isolation is something that is contrary to God’s design and intention for humanity. Family, community, and relationships are all a part of God’s intention for us. However, we should be careful if we seek to glean from Scripture a consistent, normative structure of family. The compositions of families throughout the Bible were quite varied.

In “Six Theological Theses on the Family and Poverty,” Krish Kandiah notes that there is no Hebrew word that directly corresponds to what we might call the ‘nuclear family’. He says that three words informed the Hebrew understanding of family which were; sevet meaning tribe, Bet ab which meant parents, children and a broader network of relatives and mispaha which meant a clan with territorial significance. He states that therefore

“The Old Testament is replete with examples of varied family structures... There are examples within Israel’s central story of polygamous families such as the patriarch Jacob with his two wives are thirteen children. There are instances of harems and concubines... there are also references to single parent families, kinship carers and adoptions. Interracial marriage too was practiced and is both commended and forbidden.”3

We also see in the Old Testament that while family is affirmed, family boundaries are to be kept open by welcoming and including the stranger, the alien, the widows and the poor. We do not see one model of family expressed but a variety of expressions of this institution.  

When Christians look for guidance on the topic of family in the New Testament, they tend to shy away from and don’t know what to do with passages that confront us. For example, in Matthew 10:34-38, Jesus says that he has come to split up families. In Luke 14:25-27, Jesus says that if we follow him, we must “hate” our family—shocking even after making allowance for hyperbole. Finally in Mark 3:31-35 we see Jesus distancing himself from his immediate family and refusing to exercise his crucial leadership role within his family as the eldest son. In When the Church was a Family, Joseph Hellerman says:

“In our efforts to understand what Jesus said about family, we generally set aside these passages and begin to develop our theology of family from the more positive teachings. We gravitate toward those portions of the Gospels in which Jesus exhorts his followers to honour their parents or to refrain from divorce. Only after we have persuaded ourselves that Jesus is truly family friendly do we return to the thorny passages cited above and somehow try to fit them into a pro family reading of the Gospels.”


Rethinking Family from a Kingdom of God Perspective

From this quick look at Scripture we can say that while the institution of family was certainly affirmed, it was also a broad concept and diverse in structure. More importantly, it was intended to be open in its boundaries, welcoming and inclusive, subject to primary obedience to the Lord Jesus, and focused on helping the weak in society.  

Such a perspective is not as popular as the typical notion of the ‘Christian’, middle class, nuclear family. It could hardly be considered conservative or traditional in Christian circles today and yet it highly endorses family as a gift from God. What would it look like today for Christian families to look more like this kind of expression of the kingdom of God? 

First, families could practice being more inclusive, avoiding the usual insularity of the nuclear family. Recently, I was speaking with a Christian family who was telling me about how wonderful their family life was going and how marvellous their children were doing. I listened carefully, rejoiced with them and then asked, “Have you ever thought about adopting a child who needs to be loved by a good family?” They thought I was joking, however if we are going to be serious about thinking beyond the prospering of our immediate family and serving others, then we should be seriously considering such sacrificial acts. Marriage needs to be seen in a wider framework than simply two people coming together for their own happiness and procreation: a broader kingdom purpose must be incorporated into the traditional view of marriage.  

Second, Christian families could be more accepting of those who are different and don’t fit into traditional interpretations of family life. By accepting I also mean practicing acceptance. It is all well and good for families to notionally accept ‘difference’ but this must be practised by showing hospitality and allowing those who are different to penetrate their family life, even if it means experiencing discomfort as the family circle is forced to flex to include ‘the other’. Single people also need to experience God’s gift of family. Singleness was a modelled way of life for followers of Jesus as we see in Scripture, however Protestantism had the effect of moving marriage to becoming more the norm for Christianity. As Hauerwas says:

“I think it cannot be disputed that Paul and Jesus both tend to say that some people will choose not to get married because of a specific religious mission. Moreover, they seem to imply that this is a good thing.... Marriage and the family, like the life of singleness, becomes a vocation for the up-building of a particular community.”

Both marriage and singleness can be expressions of the kingdom of God as well as a means by which the kingdom is built by God.  

There are various marginalised groups within the family of God and outside of it that need to be accepted, welcomed and shown true hospitality by Christian families. Christian families today need to walk in a kingdom of God paradigm  rather than conservatively conforming to the structures of family life which are typically modelled by our culture.


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