‘Family’ is a slippery word!

Family has high cultural currency. And for Christians is has high theological currency as well. So it's not suprising that the correct application of the word gets used, claimed and argued about.

It's also not suprising that more metaphorical uses abound.

But it's a slippery one to tie down. And sometimes we slide from one usage to another without noticing that we are doing it.

Here are just a few quick observations:

1. Family as biological relation

  • In the biggest sense, the common brotherhood and sisterhood of the human race makes us responsible to one another: a duty to love and a duty to treat one another equally.
  • In the more narrow sense, most people think it right that biological relations have some claim upon our loyalty, care and identification.
  • This bond might be broken, denied, replaced, but it is a starting point of human relationships.

2. Family as legal relation

  • Of course for families to continue, there needs to be procreation — and so there comes an indirect relationship of the 'in-law' for example.
  • And families open themselves up to others as well, through things like adoption, to legally bringing someone into their biological lineage.

3. Family as home

  • But none of these immediatley require the establishment or recognition of a home. For home is another concept of family, and one that is most commonly talked about in the West.
  • What makes a legitimate 'family'? What alternative forms of 'family' must be accept or recognise? In these conversations we are talking about what makes a 'home' (or pattern of alternating homes) 
  • And the definition of 'family' and 'home' here is an expectation of stability and contiuity — despite mobility.  This kind of family establishes a legal entity. 
  • So a share house, or a friendship is not a 'home' in this sense. These temporary 'homes' are not 'homes' in the sense that we talk about when we call them 'families'. 
  • But more things can and should be a 'home' than simply a nuclear, biological family. Single parents, Uncles and Aunts who become primary carers, gay parents, single bachelor brother and spinster sister committed to support each other in a long-term way, extraordinarily devoted platonic friendships and so on. Some of these might be legally protected and recognised, others not.
  • And these 'homes' can bring into them people who are legitimate, if temporary, participants in the family: live-in family empoloyees (including servants), foster children, boarders, extended families members studying abroard and so on.

4. Family as the people of God

  • Now then Christians are also adopted into God's family. God the Father is our Father, God the Son is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters, and so we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.
  • There is a new priority and duty to this heavenly father, and these spiritual siblings, that in certain contexts overrules our loyalty and commitment to our biological and legal family. There is a protection and accepatance here that might substitute for reject from our famliy home.
  • But this relationship is not a full replacement or nullifying of our biological families, whether Christian or not. In many respects the loyalties and duties of our biological family remain and should meet certain needs rather than the church.
  • Indeed, clearly I can't give the same intensive and lifelong devotion to all my millions of Christian siblings around the world that I can and should give to my biological siblings. So clearly I need to be careful with how I think through the application of this spiritual relaitonship.

5. Family as the local church

  • The local church is called the 'household of God', so in some ways this provides a much more bounded sphere of responsibility, than all the people of God around the world. It is easier to love them as 'family' in a way that gets closer to a normal family.
  • Although even then, even a smallish church of 50 people is larger than a nuclear family: very few families have 25 brothers!
  • Moreover, the mobility of Christians means that we leave local churches and cleave to other local churches, in a way that we never do from our biological or immediate families.
  • Once again, this means we must be careful about carelessly and recklessly importing all sorts of expectations into the local church simply because we think we know what we mean by 'family'.

6. Organisational or community family

  • Lastly, sometimes Christian organisations speak of the relationships within the organisation as 'family': 'the Geneva Push family', 'the St Mark's staff team family'.
  • This is not exclusive to Christians, the metaphor is a natural one, and so can be adopted by subcultures (the rollerblading family) and businesses (the Vodafone family).
  • But there is extra weight to this concept in a Christian organisation: for we ARE brothers and sisters in Christ, and so it seems to be at first hearing a very legitimate concept.
  • The important distinction, however, is that in these contexts, the bond that is being described is the bond created by the organistion. The peculiar affection or loyalty is a loyalty created by both being in the organisation, not fundamentally by our faith in Christ.
  • So properly speaking, this use of family is really closer to the secular usage—the Vodafone family—than it is the spiritual usage. To fudge this one is to impose onto organisational relationships certain levels of spiritual and relational depth that are not required simply by virtue of being part of the organisation.

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Getting from the Old Testament to the New Part 2: resolving contradictions

Part 1: Putting things in historical order

It is sometimes hard to read and understand the Old Testament as Christians. Which means it is also hard to preach and teach the Old Testament, and difficult to answer questions from sceptics about the Old Testament.

The overall idea of biblical theology is very help in this: seeing how the Bible is one book, with one great theme; one big story, with a climax in Christ, his work and its fulfillment. Books like According to Plan by Graeme Goldsworthy, and teaching content like Strand 2 at National Training Event is so brilliant.

But the details of working from particular passages from the Old Testament remains obscure even to those who have mastered the basics of biblical theology. And so we can fall into two errors:

Every passage gets forced into a simplistic mold, sapped of any unique insight, flattened out. Preaching on the Old Testament becomes an odd exercise in expounding the text and then ignoring it in a clumsy jump to the gospel.
The overall framework is used to justify the move to the New Testament, without taking the time to see how this movement is implicit in the Old Testament texts themselves. As a result to sceptical hearers this move appears strained or even irresponsible.

This little series is my attempt to give more detail to this move, in a way that can be concretely applied to particular texts.

Part 2: Resolving Contradictions

Some apparent contradictions in the Old Testament text are not bound up with biblical theology, and so are not relevant here:

  1. Mysterious aspects of God's nature and his interaction with space and time
  2. Apprent factual discrepancies

But a bunch of others are created by the fact that the Old Testament is preparatory and incomplete: it is slowly revealing the full nature of God's saving plans. In fact God sets up 'imperfect shadows' of the things to come, and so there is a kind of 'contradiction' between commands related to these shadows and the ultimate reality.

So another unfortunate acronym: PRIORITIES

Is the Paradox Resolvable?

This first step is to check whether the kind of apparent contradiction we are dealing with is actually a 'contradiction' cause by biblical theology. That is, it an unresolveable mystery of God's nature? Or simply a matter for harmonisation? Then that's different. But if it's not those, then we might be dealing with a biblical theology matter.

Is something Ineffective because of sin?

Some things put forward in the Old Testament fade away due to their inadequacy, because of sin: the specialness of Israel, the kingship of Israel, righteousness by the law. This suggests to us that they are not the 'full story'.

Is something merely Outward?

Another kind of ineffectiveness is beacuse of weakness. So the law is external: it doesn't change the heart. The temple is too small: not even the highest heavens can contain God. Geneological Israel is just about human descent, not genuine faith.

What thing is more Recent (and so clarifying) or more Intial (and so fundamental)?

There are two ways the New Testament shows us that something passes away: sometimes a former thing is superceded by something that comes later. And sometimes an earlier thing 'trumps' later, lesser additions. And sometimes it's both. So in Hebews 7 we are told both:

  1. The Melchizedek priesthood is announced in Psalm 110 in a way that supercedes the Levitical priesthood AND
  2. The Melchizedek priesthood comes before the Levitical priesthood and is paid tribute by the Levitical priesthood

A similar argument is found in Galatians 3, about how the promise is an initial priority, being given 430 years before the law.

Is the Termination announced?

The  flow of biblical theology is seen especially clearly when the God prophetically announces the termination of Old Testament shadows and types. The prophets are full of declarations that the 'time is coming' when things will 'no longer' be the same. These texts make it especially clear how 'apparent contradictions' will be resolved in the gospel.

Is an Improvement announced?

Sometimes the way in which a 'contradiction' is resolved is by God promising to 'improve' the Old Testament shadow: offering a divine king, for example; or writing the law on our hearts.

Is something Established?

So then, we need to ask how it is that God decisively establishes one aspect of his Old Testament revelation in a way that abolishes/improves/fulfills the partial Old Testament revelation. So in establishing the promise to Abraham which is received by faith, the law of Moses — as a distinct covenant — is abolished. Or by declaring all foods clean, the reality that all of the Creator's world is to be received with thanksgiving is established.

What Solution is offered?

And finally, where the 'contradiction' in the Old Testament presents us with a problem of sin, then the gospel provides a 'solution' in pardoning sin and transforming human beings.

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