Does the Bible present a preferred pattern of family?

This is a follow-up to the article “What is a Family?” This follow-up asks whether the Bible presents a preferred pattern of family. Discussing Mat 19:3ff; Mk 10:2ff; Gen 1:27,28; 2:18-24; Colossians 3:18-21; Ephesians 5:21-6:4 and 1 Timothy 3:1-4 (cf Titus 1:6) as possible biblical bases for a model of “family”.

Part of the discussion between Sean and me (BTW Sean thanks for a stimulating and useful set of responses!) after my article “What is a Family ?” related to the question of whether the Bible presents a preferred pattern of family. I had used a number of examples to argue that the Bible takes families as they are and presents a set of values or virtues that go with “family”.

Sean however lists:

A number of passages however suggest that at the core of a preferred or normative family form/life are a husband and wife who are mother and father and are committed to the hesed that brings wellbeing of their children (This is not to say that in a broken world the God of grace does not accept and bless other family forms ).

Let’s look at these passages in turn (the introductory italicised material quotes from Sean’s comment):

Mtt 19:3ff; Mk 10:2ff Jesus affirmation of marriage between one man and one women can also be said to be an affirmation of the preferred context in which children are to be nurtured. By prescribing the form of the institution of marriage one would think he is also prescribing the core preferred form of family life.

Gen 1:27,28 Affirms not only the nature of the marriage relationship but the nature of the context in which children are to be raised ie “Be fruitful and increase in number”. It is the man and the woman, the husband and wife who are given the responsibility to nurture the fruit of their union.

We need to look at what is going on here and what Jesus is discussing. Because when interpreting the Bible it is vital that we identify the topic and do not use scriptures to teach about things that they are not “about”.

The topic is set by the Pharisees, “divorce” (Mat 19:3, Mark 10:2),  and Jesus addresses this topic, teaching from Genesis 1 and 2 that marriage is intended to be a lifelong commitment of a man and woman to each other and that therefore divorce spoils God’s intention in creating humans (Mat 19:4-6, Mark 10:6-9). This is teaching about divorce, not about family or childrearing. Marriage and children are evidently closely related, but as the example of African matrilineal societies shows not necessarily related in the way we modern Westerners assume.

Gen 1:27f. And Gen 2 are similar, they address the relationships between men and women, and they address marriage, but they do NOT set a pattern for family.

Colossians 3:18-21; Ephesians 5:21-6:4 Affirm the core relationships at the centre of family as husband, wife and their children.

These passages, by contrast, are about family, they tell of virtues we should show in our family relationships: love, faithfulness, submission, obedience… However, notice that in both cases the “family” is not a contemporary nuclear family, in each case it is assumed to include “slaves” too (Col 3:22ff.; Eph 6:5ff.). We can debate whether these “servants/slaves” (the Greek is doulos) were usually slaves or whether they were often junior members of the wider biological wh?nau. Whichever or both, they are members of the “family” being discussed, so we should not argue for our pattern of family as being “the” biblical pattern from these passages!

1 Timothy 3:1-4 Highlights key family relationships of the church leader and explictly mentions husbands, wives, fathers and children (cf Titus 1:6)

These passages discuss the qualities needed to be a leader in the community, and they focus on family values (as I have discussed them). Leaders should be monogamous (and – I’d assume but will not argue here – faithful) and bring up “their children” well, but these qualities are part of a much wider list: “Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money.” (1 Tim 3:2-3) Here too we are given a glimpse of the sort of people God wants us to be, including how we should behave in marriage and towards “our children”. But we are not presented a model family to which we should seek to conform – it seems God is happy to work with and in families as they are rather than propose one shape to fit everyone!

<Related digression>
I think one of the reasons this recognition comes hard for us is that over the centuries we have come to accept the idea that the Bible is a law book, or a “maker’s manual”, when really it is more like a series of sermons. The Bible much more often exhorts us to live better and more Godly lives, it seldom lays down rules. Just think what Paul had to say about “the Law”.
<End digression>


This piece was first published on the Vision network site, but changes of URL have lost it there, so I am reposting it here.