Christian families today are a rope stressed in the relentless tug of war between competing forces. On one side is the pull to be family as God intends; on the other side is the pull to be family as culture and society intends. Each side has its own wisdom concerning what families ought to be, and Christian families get pulled one way and then the other.
In this tug of war it is easy for Christian parents to assume that their prevailing family wisdom is biblical by default – by the mere fact that they attend church, read the Bible, or rely on Christian books and radio programs. And yet, assumptions may need to be examined here.
Take our “ideal of family life” for instance. Insofar as the Bible speaks of ideals at all, the ideal of family is one in which the immediate family (today’s “nuclear family”) is firmly set within the extended family in a way that is covenantal (what today we might call contractual). So, for instance, kin outside of the nuclear family had clearly defined duties and responsibilities to act on behalf of the nuclear family should the need arise. The Bible calls this the role of the “kinsmen redeemer.”
Simply put, the attitude of God’s people of old was one of lifelong determined caring for one another within the entire family. In other words, family members considered it normal to be seriously involved in each other’s lives from birth to death.
Haven’t we lost ground to the pull of this biblical idea on us today? How about in the attitude of many young people who date and get engaged and married often with merely a token nod to what the parents think or the family needs? And the parents don’t really know what to do about it. Or, afterward, how about the way in which the resultant family may evolve with only the most tenuous links to the nuclear families of the new parents. Or what about the way we treat our elderly relatives? The pull of society is strong, and its direction would have been anathema to God’s Old Testament people.
Lifelong determined caring for one another among God’s families of old did wonders for helping them keep together and stay sane. For instance, it meant that many of a family’s internal tensions were eased out among the circle of relatives who were close at hand, and it guaranteed contexts for members of the extended family to step in to help shoulder heavy stresses that might come along and crush an individual or a small and very poor family. Today, families under huge stressors often break down and fall apart when everyone in the family is doing their own thing (insurance, government checks, and retirement income go only so far).
When we’re pulling in all directions, we’re pulling apart. When the immediate family no longer eats together, or takes holidays together, or discusses important decisions together, there’s no rhyme or reason for including members of the extended family. Such familial distance was unthinkable in days of yore. Discoveries like this can come as a shock, and we may need to ask ourselves how has it come about that we have assumed a notion of the family that may not be all that biblical?
The tragic answer is that we may live isolated from our families but not from society. We can be, and often are, influenced by the wisdom of our culture – no matter how much we don’t want to be or how much we argue that we are not. In America, for instance, the pull of selfish individualism, or the idolatry of rights, or personal peace and affluence is strong and the biblical pull of honoring father and mother, duty toward family, and caring commitment of the extended family is weak.
The notion of family that was so normal to God’s Old Testament people may not fit comfortably into our way of being family today. Honest family self-examination, repentance, and change required. If it is too late for boomers to do much about this – I’m looking in the mirror here – it may not be too late for the younger generations to do the kind of biblical homework necessary for creating alternative lifestyles that are more conducive to godly and lifelong determined caring of family. And to move in that direction for the sake of their children and their children’s children.
(The kind of homework I am suggesting means gaining wisdom by engaging with what I call the ABCs of Scripture. This post was adapted from Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, by John Peck & Charles Strohmer.)
©2015 by Charles Strohmer
Image by Jennifer L. Sovanski (permission via Creative Commons)