Sunday, February 24, 2013

What Does the New Testament Say About Family?

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I have recently finished reading the New Testament and I am collecting my thoughts about what I read in this series of posts. Today I am writing about what the New Testament says about Family. Other entries in this series:
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  1. Slavery
  2. The Apocalypse
  3. Women
  4. Violence
  5. Sexuality
  6. Obedience
  7. Fear
  8. Blasphemy
  9. Wealth
  10. Binary Thinking
  11. Faith
  12. the Afterlife and Free Will
  13. Suffering
Christians will often point out that the bible is pro-family. There are certainly a few verses where this is unquestionably true, but is that the overall picture we get from the New Testament? Let's start with the sermon on the mount, in Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus says that if you are involved in a religious ritual and you realize that you have some unresolved issue with your brother you should temporarily abandon the ritual in favor of patching things up with your brother. The clear message as I read it here is that even though the ritual is important, family is even more important. Take care of those relationships first. This is a great message, I like it.

There are also a number of pro-family verses that take the opposite perspective, talking about what not to do, rather than what to do. 1 Timothy 1:9-10 is giving a list of bad people, and includes "those who strike their fathers and mothers". This I also find pretty hard to argue with, so we have 2 verses so far that I imagine everyone would agree are pro-family. There are also a number of verses centered on obedience, Colossians 3:20Romans 1:29-32, and 2 Timothy 3:2-5 all instruct children to be obedient to their parents. This is generally a good thing, but really does need to be tapered off as the kids grow older, and of course some parents are abusive and obeying them is not necessarily always a good thing. As often happens, the bible takes a good rule of thumb and pushed it too far, but nevertheless, as a rule of thumb telling children to obey their parents is probably a good thing. Ephesians 6:1-4 also tells children to obey their parents, but it adds that father's shouldn't provoke their children to anger, good but strange advice, it makes me wonder what environment we are talking about where this even needs to be said. While we are talking about obedience, 1 Peter 3:1,5 says that wives should also be obedient to the husband (well it says be subject to and to submit to their husbands). This is just garbage, although there are many Christian communities where this is how things are run, men are in charge of their wives as it says in the bible.

There are a few other things that the religious right here in America would like to consider "family values". Hebrews 13:4 says that you shouldn't have sex before marriage. This might sound reasonable on the surface, especially from the perspective of a parent who doesn't want their child to be hurt, but drawing that line at marriage does create some problems. The most obvious (to me) is that it encourages people to get married before they are really ready. This is particularly bad because, as Matthew 5:32 and Luke 16:18 tell us, divorce and remarriage is the same as committing adultery. And as long as I am talking about marriage, I will once again bring up that odd verse Luke 20:35 which says that if you are married then you can't get in to heaven. So strange! (Note from later: TWF mentioned in the comments of a post where this came up before that the verse is really talking about getting married after you die. If you look at the surrounding verses, this verse seems to be telling us that we can get married in this age, but not after the resurrection. Although that produces a different problem, I certainly don't like the idea of not being married to my wife in the afterlife. What does it say about how Jesus views marriage if we are only married for a small finite piece of our infinite existence?)

So far, we have a few verses that are very clearly pro-family, and we have a bunch of verses that talk about family dynamics whose value can be debated, are there any verses in the bible that are very clearly detrimental to the family? There absolutely are, Jesus repeated tells people that religion is more important than family, I imagine many Christians would be surprised to find these verses in their bible. In Matthew 4:21-22 when Jesus was gathering his first disciples, he saw 2 brothers out fishing with their dad repairing the nets. I think it is safe to assume that this was not just a family activity, but their livelihood, upon being prompted by Jesus, they followed him and abandoned their father. In Luke 18:29-30 Jesus says that anyone who leaves their family for the benefit of the kingdom of God will be rewarded in the afterlife, and in Matthew 10:34-39 Jesus says that anyone who loves their father, mother, or even their own children more than they love Jesus, they are not worthy of him. What kind of an ego-maniac would say such a thing? This is not just for other people though, Jesus treated his own family like this as well. On 2 occasions (Mark 3:31-35 and Luke 8:20-21) Jesus' mother and siblings came to see him, and he refused to see them, saying instead that his followers are his family. This last interaction I find slightly amusing actually, he's calling his followers his family, clearly implying that being family is a good thing, while simultaneously ignoring his actual family, implying that family isn't that big of a deal.

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So ultimately, we have a few verses that are pro-family and a few verses that are anti-family, and a number that can be argued either way. But ultimately it seems to me that the argument that the bible is pro-family just doesn't hold up here. Sure, Jesus tells us that resolving things with your brother, but when it comes time for him to do it he refuses to see his brother. He says that you should obey your parent but he refuses to see his mother. Actions speak louder than words. 


  1. And that doesn't even take the OT into account, where Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son was depicted as pious, parents are ordered to execute uppity children, wives and daughters are seen as chattel, ad nauseum. So much for being a pro-family collection of documents.

  2. I think you've hit the nail on the head, Hausdorff. When you dig into the details, the NT is actually anti-family, or perhaps, it is pro-family, but that "family" has been redefined to be the community of the believers. As Ahab mentions, there's anti-family stuff in the OT as well, but personally I think the anti-family sentiment is actually and ironically much stronger in the NT.

  3. I have read very little of the OT, but my understanding is that the way to immortality depicted there is through your children. Is that correct? If so, then at least the underlying theme in the OT would be more pro-family, compared to the NT in which you get to heaven through Jesus.

    In any case, I'm definitely looking forward to reading the OT and comparing the ideas.


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