Focus on the Family?

The family has been, and is a matter of great concern, both from the personal and public realms. Most would affirm that strong families are our foundation and our future, and they form the ideal structure of society.

Jonathon Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, once wrote: The family is not just one social institution among others; nor is it simply one lifestyle choice among many. It is the best means we have yet discovered for nurturing future generations. … Of all influences upon us, the family is by far the most powerful. Its effects stay with us for a lifetime. It is where one generation passes on its values to the next and ensures the continuity of a civilization.

We resonate with what he wrote. We see the family as the moral centre of society and the most important means of passing (godly) values from one generation to another (cf. Deut 6:1-9, Psalm 78:1-8). We also see it as the place where love and care are expressed and experienced. Spouses are to love and respect each other; children are to be cared for and provided. To ignore or neglect such a responsibility is condemned in the strongest terms: If anyone does not provide for his … immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever (I Tim 5:8).

On a personal level, we see the family as a place of peace, an island of serenity and support where we find refuge from the hard world of commerce and politics, and an oasis from the harshness of a difficult and demanding world. For many, having a family or being part of one has been a positive and pleasant experience. The promises of family life have become a reality.

Sadly though, the experience of others has been otherwise. I have listened to the numerous quarrels and frustrations couples face, and children listening to their parents fight and damn each other. Parents and (teenage) children shout at and walk out on each other. Marital and family life has been, for these, a (bitter) disappointment and a disillusionment. The enormous potential for satisfaction and fulfillment, for emotional refueling is replaced by neglect and tension, pain and shame, and by distancing and alienation.

Marital and the family life today is threatened in our culture. The impact of (post) modernity though not without its blessings, has been a bane. Our world is also a very busy and hurried one. Couples do not feel that they have time to devote to each other and/or their children.

Stress is the order of the day, with ever increasing workload, and with children’s education as the number one priority and worry. It is accentuated by the phenomenal increase of dual-career families and gender role changes, which in turn may have caused traditional authority patterns to change. The increase in divorce rates, family violence and abuse are alarming, and so are the increase in all kinds of addictions which has direct impact on the family.

In the light of these, it is understandable for both the church and the families themselves to give due attention and regard to strengthen marital and family life. It takes sheer hard work (involving time, energy, skill, give-and-take, etc.) and there’s no short-cut. There are also valuable and biblically valid features inherent in focusing on marriage and the family.

But there are problems too. An over-emphasis on the family can make it an exclusive unit. It puts the nuclear family and its privacy over the good of others. It leaves the public and church life untouched by the ideals of the kingdom of God, while maintaining its private comfort and order. It encourages blithe individualism and erodes the sense of the common good. In its aim to be a private haven, this version of the family often displaces the church and the kingdom of God.

So, we ask, Is the traditional family biblical? Are we placing too much emphasis on the nuclear family? As I read the Gospels and the Epistles, I have come to this simple conclusion: That however good a family may be, like possessions, reputation and other kinds of relationships, it must clearly subordinated to the mission of the kingdom of God, and the will of God.

Jesus bluntly demands, Leave the dead to bury the dead; you must go and announce the kingdom of God (Luke 9:60). He suggests a recent marriage is an inadequate reason to delay answering the call of the kingdom (Luke 14:18-20). And echoing his childhood words in the temple, he deems that his true mother, brothers, and sisters are not his biological kin, but those who do the will of God are (Mark 3:35). No man is worthy of me who cares more for father or mother … son or daughter more than me, who does not take up his cross and walk in my footsteps (Matt 10:37-38).

For the Christian, the biological family is to be valued and esteemed. However, it must still be subordinated to the will and kingdom of God. It must be extended to the church, the family of God, and embrace all – singles, widows, single parents, domestic helpers, and extended family members.