‘Biblical’ family life

Posted on March 15, 2010

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(I was preaching in our university chapel yesterday, where we didn’t make much of the celebration of Mothering Sunday, but the fact that it was that day prompted me to finish off this post, which I have had sitting around in draft since mid-January.)

I read something today – it doesn’t matter what; it was a denominational statement from overseas, and so not very relevant – that made a fairly familiar gesture demanding support for ‘Biblical’ patterns of family life which, in this case, included support for the vocation of motherhood and a resistance to cultural pressures that encouraged mothers to go out to work, an encouragement not to limit numbers of children borne within the nuclear family, and a claim that, within the nuclear family, there was a proper leadership to be exercised by the husband and accepted by the wife.

Now, any or all of these points may be good ethical advice (although allow me to express some serious doubts…). Any or all of them may even be demanded by the gospel (although allow me to express some profound disagreements…). But to describe them as ‘Biblical’ is clearly ridiculous, and probably sinister.

Why ‘ridiculous’? Well, between them, they assume a normative situation of a nuclear family (i.e., a cohabiting unit of mother and father with their birth-children, and nobody else) which has easy access to safe and reliable contraception and which is economically productive only away from the home. A family living in this situation cannot possibly be living according to ‘Biblical’ patterns, simply because every facet of the situation highlighted in the previous sentence is a modern Western reality, unknown to the Bible (and indeed to much of history since, and to much of the world today).

Why ‘sinister’? Well, the document I was reading was a contribution to a debate over church discipline; by invoking the rhetorical device of describing these unhappy and unpleasant ideas as ‘Biblical’ a move was being made to remove mission support and ecclesial legitimacy from honest and faithful people.  ‘Sinister’ does not seem too strong.

Unfortunately, this rhetorical device is becoming common, and is in danger of gaining a spurious legitimacy on the basis of nothing but repetition. There have, it is true, been attempts to argue for it rather than simply assert it, but none has been remotely credible. The classic, still apparently taken seriously by some people, was a collection of essays entitled Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a book so poor that when I first encountered a chapter of it as a pdf I concluded that it was a cleverly-constructed spoof – surely no-one could have published arguments that bad?! Unfortunately, much of the book has a veneer of plausibility, since a basic knowledge of Greek and Hebrew is necessary to spot the more glaring errors. In case any reader who lacks Biblical languages is minded to take it seriously, however, let me give one example of just how astonishingly poor, and misleading, the arguments in the book generally are. Considering Junia, ‘outstanding amongst the apostles’ in Rom 16:7: the editors  face the standard question: is Junia a woman, or is it ‘Junias’, an otherwise-unknown male name? Their answer goes like this (pp. 72-3 of my edition): ‘We did a complete search of all the Greek writings from Homer (b.c. ninth century?) into the fifth century a.d. [using the TLG] … The result of our computer search is this: Besides the one instance in Romans 16:7 there were three others [these are described]. So there is no way to be dogmatic about what the form of the name signifies. It could be feminine, or it could be masculine. Certainly no one should claim that Junia was a common woman’s name in the Greek speaking world, since there are only these three known examples….’

Presumably everyone has spotted the basic error here already, but just to spell it out: Junia was an inhabitant of Rome, not Athens. In Rome, they spoke Latin, not Greek. The evidence presented is about as interesting as saying that early modern Spanish literature contains very few men named Hans. More directly, no-one is claiming ‘that Junia was a common woman’s name in the Greek speaking world’; most of the recent commentators on Romans claim that it was a common Latin name, citing such standard sources as CIL, Solin, and Lampe, which show upwards of 250 uses, compared to no attestations at all for the masculine ‘Junias’.

It is difficult to know what to make of this. The ignoring of standard, and widely published, evidence, and the presentation of spurious but perhaps convincing-sounding arguments instead, could convey an unfortunate impression to an uncharitable reader, and yet they are both features rather common in the book. Certainly, claiming that this collection of essays has established or proved anything is inappropriate. It is a revealing text, however, which is why I reference it here. One of the editors begins the first chapter with a rosy recollection of his own childhood, a picture of family life which could have come straight out of The Waltons; as the book continues, the thoughtful reader is driven to suspect that this idealised picture of mid-twentieth-century, mid-Western American, nuclear family life is in fact what is driving everything; the book is a celebration of a passing tradition of American family life, with a fairly feeble attempt to claim that this tradition had some interesting connection to the Bible.

In my experience, the rhetoric of ‘Biblical’ family (in the West – perhaps it is of some use elsewhere?) normally works like this: what is being celebrated is a patriarchal vision of being a nuclear family that has its origins in the industrial revolution and is now – thankfully, in my humble opinion – rapidly being displaced. In industrialised societies, for a little while, Mummy looked after the kids while Daddy went out to work, and (amongst the white middle classes who defined reality in their own terms) grandparents were nowhere to be seen. This pattern of economic dependence and generational isolation disrupted earlier traditions of family living, and re-ordered gender relations in far-reaching and often very unhelpful ways. Of course, in pre-industrial society almost no-one ‘went out to work’: Mummy, Daddy and the kids all worked on the farm, along with other members of the extended family and various servants who lived with them. Even amongst the nobility, tradition holds that the man held the sword, the woman the distaff – he was engaged politically, she economically; his freedom to enter into public life was based on the fact that she earned the money for the household. This at least echoed some aspects of the Biblical witness (Prov. 31:23-4)…

If we choose to base our concepts of what is ‘Biblical’ on the Bible, not on a conservative grasping at an idealised version of our grandparents’ experience, then the basic thing we find is astonishing variety. Families are polygamous and multi-generational; re-marriage and fostering are common and sometimes required; slaves are a significant part of the family unit; marriage can be a political act, or the result of rape, and is rarely based on romantic attraction; etc. I think it is true to say that there is not one single nuclear family (a shared household of wife, husband, and birth-children only) in the entirety of the Scriptures – certainly, it can hardly be presented as a normative pattern.

So what is ‘biblical’ family life? It seems to me that we have two options: we could look for a centre of gravity within the variety that we can describe as normative, and push for this. I do not in fact think that this is possible, but if it were, it would as a minimum involve polygamy and slavery. Alternatively, we can find permission to explore a wide variety of patterns of living together, since a wide variety is witnessed to in Scripture. We can see things that are less than ideal (polygamy; slavery; patriarchy; …) and things that witness beautifully to the gospel if they can be lived out in the messy particularities of human life (revolutionary mutual submission – Eph. 5:20; …). But defined gender roles? I think of an old friend of mine, recently ordained in Australia; Heather and I had the privilege of sharing marriage preparation classes with him and Su. When asked what roles he thought should belong to his future wife in their marriage, he responded ‘pre-natal childcare. And breastfeeding.’ The rest was up for creative re-interpretation in the light of the gospel and the circumstances in which they were called to live.

That’s Biblical. Far more so than the strident attempts to impose cultural idolatries with which I began.

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