The Extended Family: Cultural Artifact and Ecclesiastical Model

May 17, 2017

The Bible and the Extended Family

Over the last few weeks, we have been talking about trends in American family life. Most of what we talked about focused on the nuclear family, but it got me thinking about extended families—and, more specifically, about their role in the Bible.

In the United States, our households tend to be organized around the nuclear family. The reasons for this are complex and interrelated. Perhaps the most straightforward of these reasons is economic. It would take a lot of resources to build a house that would accommodate multiple nuclear families, and renting adjoining apartments (as some immigrants do) does little to build equity for the family.

Another reason has to do with the social and geographic mobility that characterizes American society. For example, I live in Texas, but my family is rooted in Arkansas. I have extended family members who live in Kansas, Missouri, Texas, Ohio, and Washington, D. C. Some of my family are college educated professionals, while others belong to the working class. It would be difficult to find a location that could meet the needs of such a diverse collection of individuals.

Perhaps the most important factor is the role that personal preference plays in American ideology. Americans value their independence. They want to be able to do what they want when they want. Households organized around extended families don’t allow for that. Obligations extend far beyond a person’s spouse and children. Parents, aunts, uncles, and others have to be considered.

That is how society worked in the ancient world. People did not always live in the same house/tent as their grandparents, uncles, etc., but they tended to live in close proximity to members of their extended family. Obviously, this placed some restrictions on their freedom. Marriages were arranged in order to benefit the family, and children were expected to respect the will of their parents even when they became adults (cf. Exodus 20:12).

But this arrangement also gave people a strong sense of identity. Everyday, they encountered reminders of who they were and where they came from. More importantly, it gave people a natural, reliable (hopefully!) system of emotional and economic support. Yes, you might have to put up with your meddling mother-in-law, but you also had help when you split your foot open cutting down a tree.

The contrast between these two social arrangements is interesting. We need to keep these differences in mind as we read the Scriptures. Sure enough, the Bible never says “Honor your aunt and uncle” or “Love your cousin as yourself.” Nevertheless, we will miss important historical, narrative, and theological features of the Bible if we do not keep in mind the ways the people were embedded within their larger family units.

Learning from Cultural Difference

Moreover, I cannot help but think that we have lost something in the modern world’s move away from strong family bonds. I don’t want to canonize ancient culture; that would not be an appropriate way to use Scripture. Besides, there is no way that we could turn back the clock even if we wanted to (which I’m not sure I do). But I do wonder if people need broader networks of support—and accountability—than our current social arrangements can provide. I think that the fictive kinship language that is used all over the New Testament implies as much.

Of course, that is what makes church life difficult in the Western world. Those of us who lead sometimes don’t talk enough—or in clear enough terms—about the obligations that come with church membership. People come into our congregations expecting a certain level of autonomy, and they are surprised when those expectations are not met. And when churches have tried to clearly assert their right to have a say in the lives of individuals, they have not always done so in a healthy manner (here is an example of a church that recognized and corrected its error).

The Challenge

So here is today’s challenge. Without proof-texting, talk about how we can use the family structures and metaphors found in the Bible to help people build healthy networks of support and accountability.

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