Speaking of Faith, a radio program from American Public Media, features an interview with New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson on marriage, family, and divorce (via Verbum Ipsum). Professor Johnson unnerves some Christians by presenting lectures entitled, “God Doesn’t Like Families,” and discussing what he sees as a scriptural ambivalence toward families that stands in sharp contrast with modern-day American family values central to many Christians’ worldview.
Luke Johnson says that the vigorous pro-family message coined in our time is not to be found easily in the New Testament. The New Testament does not provide Christians with a positive living model of marriage. Muslims have a prophet who married several times and fathered children. Jews have many examples of marriage and family in all its complexity among the patriarchs and matriarchs. But Jesus never married. Jesus' disciples left their families behind to follow him. Later the apostle Paul remained celibate and preached this as a moral ideal to new Christians. In short, modern Christians inherit in scripture a deeply conflicted message about whether and how marriage and family matter. For Luke Timothy Johnson, this does not mean that modern people can't consult Christian tradition for guidance. But taking it seriously means acknowledging its complexity and its contradictions.
Certainly much of the Christian focus on family values stems from the changes wraught on the American family in recent decades: the rise in divorce, cohabitation before marriage, social and economic factors that have created the two-income family, single parenting, expanded rights for women, same-sex marriage, the seemingly toxic moral environment in which we raise children, etc. Many Christians pour energy into the traditional family as a defensive move against a culture that is shifting all around us.
Of course, in many ways the embrace of traditional family values is beneficial to the Christian community. Who doesn’t want to protect children from bad influences? (see Matthew 18: 5-6) But in other ways it can be more harmful, for instance, with the attitude among some Christians that singleness and childlessness are considered suspect (despite Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7).
Prof. Johnson suggests that the New Testament calls Christians to move beyond the narrow circles of family and instead see ourselves as part of a larger group of God’s people:
And so clearly one problem within one version of Christianity is a kind of idolatrous posture with regard to family, so that a family is not only necessary, which all of us would acknowledge, but that it's also sufficient. And losing that edge which is essential to the biblical tradition the prophetic edge of moving beyond family, moving behind kinship into a larger world which is God's creation.
Jesus' perspective seems to line up with Johnson's; in passages like Matthew 12:46-50, Matthew 10:35-37, or Matthew 19:29, traditional family bonds are subordinated to the larger body of Christ, in which we find our true family.
Is he right? Is an over-emphasis on our biological, nuclear families causing some Christians to miss out on a Biblical call to a bigger and more important family? How do we resolve this tension between what our particular Christian culture says about family and what the Bible says about our larger family in Christ?