Thinking biblically about families

This is not designed as a complete answer to everything biblical about the family. It is intended to provide a quick overview of the biblical material that seems to speak to the issues of family life and God’s intentions for it. While it does not aim to be technical, it does inevitably touch on some more technical issues. (The few Hebrew and Greek transliterations are in the interests of simplicity rather than accuracy.)

Old Testament language

The language in use is fluid and the position is complicated by inconsistencies in translation in the English Versions. When the word ‘family’ appears we cannot be entirely certain what lies behind it.

The main word groups in the Old Testament are mishpaka, which normally represents a group larger than the family and tends to be translated ‘clan’ but is sometimes translated ‘family’. There is still a concept of familial relationship in that the clan will look back to a founding father, seeing themselves as descended from one common ancestor.

The smaller group is the bayith (house, household), which is sometimes in the compound form, beth-’ab (father’s house) (both have the same Hebrew root). These are variously translated as ‘household’, ‘father’s house’ (mainly in older versions) or ‘family’. They indicate the immediate family group plus servants, slaves and possibly other relatives. (Lot, for example, seems to be included in Abraham’s household, as were Hagar and Ishmael.) The size of a household could vary. Many of the accounts we have reflect fairly wealthy groups, but the size of houses excavated indicates that many households could not have exceeded six or seven people. The Passover lamb was to be shared between households if they were too small to consume the whole lamb.

This means that there is no word in the Hebrew that relates to family as we know it in modern Western cultures. This does not mean that blood relationships are unimportant. Clan and tribe are related, theoretically at least, by blood. The parent–child relationship is emphasised in a number of ways. Those who slip into slavery are to be redeemed by a blood relative.

Broader Old Testament concepts

The creation account sees humans being made in the image of God – in part, at least, this indicates the capacity to live in relationship, and perhaps especially intimate relationship, with others. Marriage and family are certainly not the only expressions of the capacity to relate which stem from being made in the image of a God (and in the light of some of Jesus’ teaching maybe not the most important) but family life is nonetheless an expression of what it means to be made in the image of God who is Trinity.

The creation account also gives us a picture of the close relationship between man and woman in the creation of woman from the rib of man. This introduces the closeness of the bond and leads to the ‘leaving and cleaving’ which establishes a new set of family relationships.

The Ten Commandments safeguard marriage and parent–child relationships, not only in the obvious sixth and seventh but also by implication in the fifth (Sabbath is for family) and the tenth. We should not underestimate the importance of having these at the heart of Israel’s faith, reflecting as they do God’s priorities for life in the community.

Children are seen to be a gift from God (Psalm 127:3–5, and the stories of Abraham and of Hannah). Children are loved and valued, as the grief of Jacob (Genesis 43:14), the resentment of Job (Job 21:7–13) and the joy of Hannah indicate.

Education and discipline take place within the context of a parent–child relationship (eg Proverbs 1:8, and note the reference to both parents; 4:1; 6:20; 13:24; 19:18; 22:6). The first Passover meal is eaten in households (Exodus 12:1–3), but the instruction to observe the festival in the land in the same way and to tell the children the story suggests that the parent–child relationship is important (Exodus 12:24–27). Deuteronomy 6:7, 11:19 and Joshua 4:21 also point to this picture of nurturing in the faith happening in the context of the home.

New Testament

The normal Greek word for family, patria, occurs only three times in the New Testament, and none of these are in a context that automatically suggests anything like the family unit. The ‘household’ is again the more usual term, but this translates from a range of words (oikos and derivatives) that reflect the basic concept of those who live under one roof or under the authority of the householder. At its heart would have been those who were related by blood, but others are included. Household size would again have varied by social class and wealth. Patterns would have varied between rural and urban settings. Many villages would have housed families who were related in a range of ways but who did not live under the same roof.

Ephesians 3:15 seems at face value to be a key text, but it is notoriously difficult to interpret. There is a play on the words patria, pater that English translation cannot capture, and the exact meaning of patria in this context is disputed – it is variously translated as ‘family’ or ‘fatherhood’. There is also doubt as to whether we should understand the verse to refer to the whole family (NIV, CEV, ‘all beings’!), or each family (NRSV, GNB) – both are possible ways of reading the Greek. We also have the question of what is implied by naming, and it seems unwise to read too much into the verse. What we can say is that it indicates that family in some way has the blessing of God and lies under the authority of God.

Although the household may be the normal unit, it seems that relationships between husband and wife (eg 1 Corinthians 7; Hebrews 13:4; 1 Timothy 3:2) and parents and children constitute special relationships that are to be safeguarded. It seems that it was within the latter context that nurture and training took place (for example, Ephesians 6:1–4; Colossians 2:20,21). In this sense, little changes from the Old Testament pattern. The example of Eunice and Timothy is a telling one (2 Timothy 1:5,6; 3:14–17). The way in which Paul uses the metaphor of a father to describe his relationship with the Thessalonians gives another valuable insight into the role of the father in the period (1 Thessalonians 2:1–12).

The instructions to widows (1 Timothy 5:3–14) and the qualifications for overseers (1 Timothy 3:4,5) and deacons (1 Timothy 3:12,13) point to the importance within the household of the parent–child relationship.

Adoption is an important concept theologically in Paul’s thinking, and he probably has both Jewish and Graeco-Roman practice in mind, although formal legal adoption was not a Jewish concept. This simply reflects the wider expression of the household. This serves to confirm the reality of a group that was wider than simply blood relatives in both Old and New Testament societies.

The honoured place that Jesus gave to children may give added emphasis to the importance of a secure environment in which they can be cared for, and we note that he was obedient to his parents (Luke 2:51). But he also introduces a new concept in that kingdom relationships transcend human ones. In the age to come, marriage is not part of the order (Matthew 22:30; Luke 20:34–26). His family are not those who are related to him by blood ties but those who do his Father’s will (Mark 3:31–35). We are required to put allegiance to him before all other ties (Luke 14:26,27).

In both Old and New Testaments an ideal is presented, but it is recognised that the reality is very different. Many of the stories we have are of dysfunctional families. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and David are obvious examples. This simply illustrates the fact that broken and fallen humanity will not live up to the ideals. The very existence of the Commandments and the instructions in the Pauline letters indicate that we are working in an imperfect world, while affirming the need to aim for the ideal.

Implications

It is difficult to jump straight from the biblical world into our own. Social structures are very different; the nuclear family – in the sense of an isolated unit of two parents and a small number of children – is unknown to the biblical writers. But this does not mean that the principles cannot be applied.

The husband–wife, parent–child relationships are fundamental building blocks of human society in this age and are to be protected and safeguarded.

The church has a responsibility to proclaim such values and to support those who have to live them out in a fallen world. This may involve training in marriage and parenting skills, encouraging, training and resourcing parents to take responsibility for the education of children in the faith.

We can note the prevalence of family metaphors to describe the relationship between God and his people and the nature of the community of faith. But while the use of these metaphors confirm the significance of family relationships, we should beware of confusing church family and kinship family in practical terms.

All of this raises questions about how we work with children, especially those from different faith and cultural backgrounds. (The whole question of different family patterns in different cultures today, many of which are closer to the culture of the Bible, has been ignored in this paper as being too broad an issue.)

In a world of cultural diversity, we should beware of any sense of cultural superiority. Family patterns in various cultures will demonstrate different aspects of the ideal. Some will, in some respects at least, be closer to the biblical cultures than modern Western patterns.

The tension between human family ties and kingdom allegiance may need to be carefully managed. This is particularly true in the case of children and young people from other faith backgrounds.

Adapted from Scripture Union Family Ministry Web pages.