Many of the songs we use in worship include familial language. For someone who grew up in church in the 1980s, the song “Father Welcomes” by Robin Mann, with its gentle, flowing melody (“Father welcomes all His children to His fam’ly through His Son, Father giving His salvation Life forever has been won”) immediately comes to mind. More recently, Third Day produced “Children of God,” which includes the lyrics “We are the saints, We are the children, We’ve been redeemed, We’ve been forgiven, We are the sons and daughters of our God.”
These songs often leave us feeling warm and fuzzy. They usually focus on the blessings and benefits that come with being members of God’s family.
The basis for the use of such familial language is, of course, the biblical text itself. The OT talks about God as father (although not as frequently as we might expect). In Jeremiah 31: 9, for example, the Lord declares “for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.” While in the NT we find key passages such as Romans 8: 14-17, where Paul announces that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” and “have received a spirit of adoption…heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (cf. Gal 4: 6-7).
But what did the biblical authors have in mind when they used familial language? Failure to ask this question means that we will simply rely on a process known as “cultural reflex”, whereby we uncritically import modern notions and perspectives onto the ancient text. This can be particularly problematic when we are dealing with social institutions such as marriage and the family. Some of the key points of difference between ancient and modern conceptions can be summarised in the following table:
|Family/marriage in the modern world
||Family/marriage in the ancient world
|The primary driver for marriage is the love of two individuals
||The primary driver for marriage was the need to secure the wellbeing of the households of which the two individuals were a part
|The basic family unit is defined along conjugal lines (father, mother, and their offspring)
||The basic family unit was multigenerational, with primary emphasis on blood ties
|Exogamous marriage (marriage outside of the immediate kinship group) is the norm
||Endogamous marriage (marriage within the immediate kinship group) seems to have been the norm (at least in ancient Israel)
But perhaps the key difference – the one that would be most noticeable to us if we were to travel back to ancient Israel – was the extent of the responsibilities that came about because of membership in a family. Being a member of a family brought with it certain privileges and blessings (not least of which was its positive contribution to an individual’s psychological wellbeing, including a sense of belonging), but it also brought with it significant duties and obligations, especially when one member or group within the extended family network was experiencing difficult times. While everyone contributed to the wellbeing of the family in their own unique ways, the role of the go’el (often translated as kinsman-redeemer) was particularly significant. Such an individual was expected to avenge the murder of a relative (or rape of a sister, Num 35: 9ff), to raise a male heir to his brother who died childless (levirate marriage; Deut 25: 5-10), to redeem land lost within the clan (Lev 25: 23-28), and to maintain (=support) a fellow kinsman and/or his dependants or redeem them from debt (Lev 25: 35-55) (Pilch, 2012: 117).
One of the reasons given for the frequent use of familial language in the NT is the disruptive effect that Christian conversion might have had on pagan households. Throughout the world today, converting to Christianity (= the decision to become a member of God’s family) may result in the expulsion from one’s birth family. While this is less common in modern Australia, it is likely that many people in our congregations come from families which are “broken” in some way (whether through divorce, substance abuse, unhealthy relationships, etc.). How then do we, the church, be the family of God? What might this look like in our context – with both its privileges and responsibilities?
In the limited space available, let me give one suggestion. Due to the nature and demands of the modern workforce, it is becoming increasingly common for people to have to move to find employment (this is especially the case for young people who are looking to get their foot in the employment door after graduating from university). These people often end up establishing themselves in a different city from the one in which they grew up. This means that when they come to have children they often lack the support structures (especially the help of their parents) that family provides. Conversely, this dynamic also means that grandparents no longer have easy “access” to their grandchildren, and thus miss out on the joy that young children bring. In this context a vital ministry would seem to me to involve creating linkages between “grandparentless” new parents with “grandchildrenless” grandparents. Of course, we would need to be careful in how this is done; there should be an appropriate level of concern for child safety, for example. Such a ministry, however, has the potential to be a blessing for all involved, a tangible expression of familial love for those who are united by the bonds of faith, embodying the concerns of a God who we praise as the one who “sets the lonely in families” (Ps 68: 6, NIV).
Dr Aaron Chalmers- Head of School Ministry, Theology and Culture