by the Revd Dr Hayley Matthews, Director of Lay Training, Diocese of Leeds
We have a lot to thank the late Victorians for. Education for all, an end to Key Stage One chimney sweeps, women in paid work as well as a proliferation of barn-like churches that were never full, and the image of what is was to be a family granted us by a Queen who adored her King and produced enough heirs and Graces to fill Osbourne House twice over.
This ideal was compounded in the post-war 1950s era of baby boomers born to illusory Happy Days families (where protagonist Richie and his sister, Joanie, live in a perfect teenage idyll with gingham-frocked, pie-bakin’ Mrs ‘C’ and her husband, Mr Cunningham, a card-carrying lodge-member and hard-working, self-made man). Still we wrestle with this idealised – and some have conflated this with the word ‘biblical’ – image of what a ‘real’ family is.
I’d like to look at the word ‘family’ as if it were an oil painting of the Cunninghams and begin gently peeling away the layers of oil, and age and dust, and any over-painting to see if we can’t get back to the original image.
What does a biblical family really look like?
Our first difficulty is that in neither Hebrew nor Greek is there a word that translates as ‘family’. Instead the Old and New Testaments contain writings centered around the word bayit (Hebrew) / oikos (Greek) meaning household.
An ancient Hebrew household would have looked something like this: a husband and at least one wife, with both sets of parents/in-laws and the couple’s children. The husband’s siblings would also have lived in the same household, each of the brothers with their respective wives and in-laws and their children. Unmarried sisters would also have remained a part of this household. Any number of wives and concubines might have been added to this household at the man’s behest, and their children and their children’s children, too, would have formed a part of what we might consider to be a small village in East Lancashire.
Many would have been extensively related by blood and marriage: aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins twice removed and great, great, great Grandmas. Now if that seems like an awful lot of washing up for one family, do not be alarmed! The household included a wider range of less familial but no less permanent relationships such as servants and slaves who likely also had a lifelong affiliation to the families into which they had very likely been born. This complex nexus centering around one man’s sexual, biological and business relationships was extensive, reaching far beyond our contemporary understanding of family.
This image stands in stark contrast to the Cunningham’s, living the American Dream of two binary gendered parents delivering two binary gendered children and is so far removed from the breadth and colour of a household containing upwards of 70 people (Genesis 46:5-27) as to be incomparable.
The very idea that life, love, relationships and even our worship of God was individualistic and predicated upon one primary romantic relationship with another adult would have been inconceivable to a people for whom ‘tribe’ meant everything. Joshua reminds us of this when he declares, ‘As for me and my house we will serve the Lord’ (Joshua 24:15).
He does not declare faith in a personal and individualist manner despite his obvious personal commitment and investment to following YWHW, but on behalf of his entire household. We need to be very clear that when we use the phrase ‘biblical family’ we are simply not comparing like for like and it would be dishonest to suggest otherwise.
This is not to say that biological family wasn’t important to the Israelites – God’s promise to Abraham is that his descendants would number the stars in the sky. Yet the Israelites’ history reveals God flouting conventional family ties in unexpected ways through His grace. God ignores the blood-line convention of hereditary blessing on the firstborn son in favour of Isaac (Genesis 21:9-13), Jacob (Genesis 25:23; 27:1-19) and Judah (Genesis 49:3-4, 8-12) not to mention Joseph (yes the one with the coat) and David, selected to be King over and above a long line of strapping older brothers who would have been peeved to say the least. God also passes His blessing through non blood-line outcasts such as Ruth the Moabite, Rahab a Canaanite prostitute and Mary – the young, unmarried Israelite girl, now hailed as Mother of God.
God does not seem to be concerned with gender, birth order or even social/religious standing. In the New Testament – post resurrection – God continues to disrupt our ideas of family and how God’s blessing can be received through bloodlines.
Although biological family still underpins the basis of a family unit, the concept of ‘family’ is still the household. When Jesus is alerted that His mother and brothers are outside looking for him, Jesus’ words ‘whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’ (Matthew 12:50) sounds extraordinarily harsh unless we exchange our concept of the nuclear (or even extended) family for household. Then we hear Jesus saying ‘all these are welcome in and belong to the Household of God (just as much as my own Mum and brothers)’ as opposed to our Westernised back-reading which understands these words as ‘My followers are my real family taking precedence over my biological family whom I’ve left outside’.
I wonder if we might rethink our linear, dualistic thinking where good replaces evil and true disciples replace blood relatives. For God’s love and grace have always and ever will be expansive. Jesus drops into His incarnation like a stone in the sea of humanity from whom ripples forever roll out and widen, continually pushing back the boundaries to include concentric circles of outcasts as century after century one reactive human boundary after another is overcome welcomed into God’s household as equals. For ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise”’(Galatians 3:28-29).
Jesus’ teaches us to pray to ‘Our Father’ which seems rather domesticated now given its familiarity, but was akin to being advised to no longer address Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II, Supreme Governor of the Church, as ‘Her Majesty’, but to call her ‘Our Mother’ or as my Dad would have talked about his mother, ‘our Mam’. Hard to conceive, isn’t it?
St Paul goes further, inviting us to relate to God as ‘Papa’ (‘Abba’ in Aramaic), ‘For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15). My adopted children call me ‘Mama’ but when my son or daughter are proudly talking of me I overhear them making the especial point ‘our/my Mummy said…’ so I can relate to the profound import of those nuances because for some time they used the word, ‘Mama’ to address me, but we all knew I wasn’t yet their Mum. The relationship has not be born out of biology, but familiarity and love.
Equally, being adopted in the Household of God moves far beyond familial and/or legal ties. “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty” (2 Corinthians 6:18) Indeed, the scriptures declare, ‘A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families’ (Psalm 68:5-6a) and those families are not nuclear ones, neither are they necessarily binary or blood related.
It is notable, given the nuclear-family-olatry that has pervaded the last century of the Church’s history that three key turning points in Israel’s salvific history have relied entirely upon non-biological family structures. Of the Old Testament we read, ‘when he (Moses) was abandoned, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son (Acts 7:21). Moses goes on to be a prototype of the liberator of God’s people. Next, the little-known Queen, Esther, saves the people of God when they are due to become the victims of a state-sanctioned genocide; ‘when the turn came for Esther daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai, who had adopted her as his own daughter, to go in to the king’ (Esther 2:15)… she, too, is an adopted child. There is no need to recount Jesus’ gestation to an unmarried Mum from Nowheres-ville with a betrothal hanging in the balance.
Three key moments in the history of God’s own household and every last one rests upon an individual who does not flourish in their family of origin but through both trial and tribulation, God’s grace and gifting, is raised to their particular vocation through the love and care of an individual who brought them into their own household: Pharoah’s daughter (unmarried woman); Mordecai, (an elder Uncle with a household of his own); Joseph (taking on a pregnant fianceé and a child that is not his).
Families have forever originated from a much broader genesis that the progeny of a binary biological coupling – there is neither time nor space to work through the many and varied biblical accounts of people attempting all sorts of extra-marital relations in order to procure a child who goes on to be blessed by God, experiencing unmitigated inclusion into the divine Household. Children today, are no less desirous of being placed into loving households who, irrespective of bloodlines, provide a child/children with the love, grace, discipline, comfort and care that will enable them to flourish as children of God, equal in stature and value to a first-born son – He being Jesus Christ, our Lord.
There is biblical precedent for those households to take many forms; single parents, adoption, surrogacy, foster-care, blended and wide-ranging extended families, male, female or a mixture of the two. Even developmental child psychology agrees that what children need are orientation, order, exploration, communication, movement, manipulation of objects, repetition, precision, imagination, facing and constructively responding to error. None of these things are gender specific. Most of these things require more than two people; ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is so much more than a truism.
Beginning with God, Creator of all, who called humankind into being and relationship with the Divine and one another, embodied by Adam, Eve and the call for them to multiply – to diversify as only DNA can – into the multifarious range of beings, continually calling into the myriad facets of God seen and as yet unseen.
Does the gender of a parent matter?
How can it when so often one dies and one does not. One stays the course, and one does not. When two desire but two cannot, but three can and one might adopt. Biblical families have never been nuclear, and those that are are not the norm, they are an ideal, like Mr and Mrs Cunningham: perfectamundo.
Our call, into our own and God’s households are far beyond all-too-brief biological couplings but based instead upon grace, forgiveness, fidelity, steadfastness, gentleness, kindness, self-control, selflessness, a sense of the ridiculous if not of humour and love beyond measure in an ever-growing ripple of relationships that ever broadens into the eternal household from which and to which we are called. That’s what makes a family; correctamundo!
About the Author
Revd Dr Hayley Matthews trained for ordination at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. Her PhD – No Faith in Equality and Diversity – was supervised by Lancaster University Management School, begun during her curacy at Lancaster Priory. Since then she has written and broadcast on a wide range of issues around gender and sexuality including a Temple Tract – Grace and Power: Sexuality and Gender in the Church of England. Hayley has been a regular broadcaster with the BBC on regional and national religious programmes, Chaplain to MediaCityUK, Salford and Manchester Universities, the Army and Rector of Holy Innocents in Fallowfield. Hayley is currently Director of Lay Training for the Anglican Diocese of Leeds, a Trustee of the William Temple Foundation and sits on the Foundation Committee of York St John University and writes as a guest blogger for ViaMedia.News and the William Temple Foundation.