In what ways has the concept of “the family” changed from Biblical times until now? In what ways do Christians view “the family” similarly and differently than they did in the New Testament era? In what ways are these changes good and in what ways are they not so good?
In the NT, it was common for extended families to live in the same house or “neighborhood” as most people grew up and stayed in the same area for most of their lives. People in Bible times most often just stayed together. Today, that is not the norm, but the traditional nuclear family (dad, mom and kids) has also become the exception too. Along with the distance from relatives and from home of origin, families today are far more isolated even within their own neighborhoods and many people don’t know the people who live around them. Privacy seems to be a higher value than community.
Families today are far smaller than in Biblical times as well. I couldn’t venture a guess what family size was back then, but I would imagine it is far more than the 1.8 kids per families today. The priorities and values of our families today show a very different culture than Bible times too. With the rise of entertainment – music, sports, computer technology, etc. – families have shifted into focusing on things that they believe will benefit their kids more in the long run. Further, we have become a nation that outsources just about everything. We get our kids lessons for sports, music lessons, tutoring, spiritual training, etc. We buy our groceries at a store rather than grow them ourselves. We use technology to outsource our entertainment so kids don’t have to entertain themselves. In part, this has been driven by necessity – working 40-70 hours a week doesn’t leave a lot of time for other things. But there are also choices the family has made to value certain things over others; so to make time for those things we see how we can cut time to “make room” for it all.
The age of maturity and marriageability has risen since Bible times. We tend to think of young people not being adults until they reach 18-21 years of age and even then they not really ready to be married until much later in their twenties. This wasn’t the case for a LONG time! A Rite of Passage typically took place in Jewish culture at age 13 that marked the entrance to adulthood. Education brought about the “invention” of the teenager and lengthened childhood.
And in a world where there are a lot of dysfunctional families, broken families single parent families, extended families, it is understandable that there might be a colossal over-reaction to this broken reality by Christians who highly value the physical family. I am not suggesting that is wrong, but I would like to suggest that perhaps it is not what Jesus encouraged his followers to do. The greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. That includes nothing specifically about family; the tandem of God and neighbor to whom we should direct our love is matched by that same tandem in the Lord’s prayer where we ask God for forgiveness of our transgressions just as we forgive anyone who transgresses against us.. Of course loving our neighbor includes our physical family, but it certainly does not prioritize them such that we are commanded to love family above or to the neglect of neighbor. Additionally, our most important task does include growing God’s forever family (which does include our physical families) through the great commission.
Throughout the Gospels Jesus talks about his family of faith— whoever does God’s will is to be called his mother, brothers, and sisters. This is especially clear in a text like Mk. 3.31-35, but it can also be seen at the cross in John 19 where Jesus uses the family of faith language to tell John to relate to his own birth mother as his spiritual mother, and he tells his own birth mother that John is now her spiritual son. The point is that the primary family is not the birth or marriage family but the family of God! And the body of Christ needs desperately to get on with being a family towards all of its members and learning what in fact that means. Our forever family is the family of faith, not the physical or marriage family.