A few years ago the Family First political party arose, with strong links into the Christian church. It struck me at the time that perhaps we were putting more emphasis upon the family than the Bible does. The debate around marriage equality has raised the question again with the claim that children need access to a family unit that includes a mother and a father. I wonder if we have not bought in way too heavily to the idea of the nuclear family, giving it a prominence in our thinking and our priorities that does not exist in the Bible.
When we turn to the creation stories there is no strong link between marriage and procreation. The concept of marriage is introduced in Genesis 2, where it is not linked to procreation but to companionship, a resolution to the problem of human aloneness. Procreation is mentioned in the creation stories but it is in Genesis chapter 1 where the command to be fruitful and multiply is given to humankind as a collective.
When we turn to the Gospels Jesus is highly critical of family structures of his time. Yes, he affirms the bond between a husband and wife (Matthew 19:1-12) and a need for children, even when adult, to honour their parents, but at the same time he declares that his family is not his biological family but the community of those who do the will of God (Mark 3:31-35) and that there will be no family structures in the coming of God (Matthew 22:23-32).
Throughout the rest of the Bible the household structures of the time are far broader than our nuclear families. They were typically multigenerational and included both blood relatives and servants/slaves (Exodus 20:8-11; Colossians 3:18-24). While they are recognised as the context within which people live, nowhere are they or any other family structure endorsed.
The upshot of all this is that it seems to me that the Bible is much more ambivalent about family structure than our rhetoric suggests. Perhaps we should focus less upon an “ideal” family type that is nowhere endorsed in Scripture and focus more on building households of various types and communities of faith that fulfil many of the functions we wish to ascribe to families, that are places where men, women and children give and receive love, care, and kindness.