Throughout history concepts of the family have always been emerging and changing in response to social, cultural, political and religious ideas, developments and contexts.
In agricultural societies, families often included relatives of different generations and sometimes even men, women and children who were not related but worked and/or lived under the same roof, in the same household.
Current references to the “nuclear family’’ as the basic cell of church and society would not have been understandable to people in the early church or in early modern Europe.
Families consisting of the type “mother, father, son and daughter” are a relatively recent arrival in our cultural history, a consequence of the demands of industrialisation and urban living. In these circumstances, the nuclear family has been a promising model of family life.
However, today in the absence of historical and theological reflection, it is often taken to be the primary or standard model of a “proper” family. Occasionally, it has been misunderstood as a sacred institution; it has become an idol of societies and churches in the West.
Biblical concepts of the family transcend biological considerations and refer to larger households including relatives of different degree and generation, visitors, and workers, helpers and slaves. Here, table fellowship makes the family. When we reconsider family boundaries today we could well be inspired by such larger frameworks of family life.
At a recent visit to St Benet’s Hall, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich reminded the audience that the church ought to be present in all areas where human relationships are formed, but most certainly also wherever human relationships have broken down.
Hence, experiences of successful family life as well as experiences of relational failure and fiasco must both concern our understanding of the church today.
The Christian church is not an assembly of the perfect, but a community of people seeking God’s creative and reconciling grace.
The increasing number of people who live alone are not at all present in the, at times too many and moralising, statements on the “Christian family”.
Are these so-called one-person households of no concern to our reflection on the family? Should Christian discourses on the family not include these persons as well as single parents, widowers and divorcees? Who is in and who is out of our family categories? Ought we not to understand the entire church as God’s family and thus widen the perspective beyond reductionist images of the nuclear family?
Even so-called patchwork families ought to be of interest to the Christian church. It is the attention to Jesus Christ that unites a Christian family, not the adherence to shifting codifications of its boundary. The particular family set-up of Jesus of Nazareth does not correspond to traditionalist images and romantic expectations of family life. His was a sort of patchwork family. Moreover, when in John’s gospel the dying Jesus asks the disciple to take his mother Mary into his house, we see yet another witness to a broader notion of the family (Jn 19:25-27).
There is nothing wrong with living in a nuclear family and contributing to its wellbeing. However, what is wrong is to argue that this form of family life was the highest model for a successful Christian life. It is ironic that many Christians who insist most loudly on the pre-eminence of the nuclear family have themselves chosen a different form of life – be it as celibate priests, bishops, religious nuns or monks.
The beauty of Christian life lies in its great variety of forms of discipleship. Christian witness is not bound to particular culture-specific models of family life. Rather Christian faith seeks to respond to God’s vocation to live a life in a community characterised by mutual respect, love and hope. Married life and married life blessed with children, celibate life in religious communities, life as single parents with children, life alone, life in an orphanage, life in prison and captivity, all of these and many other forms of life need to be considered in terms of their respective contribution to the larger Christian family.
All of them deserve our critical attention and loving support.