‘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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