Traditional Families Are NOT Holier Families

Family is a great gift from God. It is a community, created by God, that is designed to foster love and create trust. Our families form for us the foundations of how we see the world, and help support us as we live into our individual dynamic voices. There is arguably no context that helps us learn to live and serve those around us better than a family.

What makes a family however is not always clear. Normally we look for some standard markers (Mom and Dad, maybe a sister or two, possibly a brother). These people would certainly be called members of our “family,” and each of them is certainly a blessing and helps define the disposition of any family that is blessed enough to have them. There is a danger, however in making these standard markers of family into the “ideal” family. Many times families have grown out of irregular circumstances, happenstance, and providence. As Christians we can never forget that our OWN induction into the family of God is not through standard markers but rather though the irregular circumstance of adoption (Romans 8:15,23; 9:4; Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5).

There are some today that argue that because many of the family structures that exist in our contemporary society are not “traditional” they must therefore also be in some ways “inferior” or less “holy”. Although, it is true that having a healthy family with both a mother and a father is a great blessing, there can be equal blessing in other arrangements as well. In light of our irregular reception to God’s family, the appropriate response for a Christian to make in light of the multiplicities of non-traditional family structures that we are faced with today must look towards affirming that which forms Christ rather than that which simply fits an ideal.

There are some within the church today who would oppose the formation of a good family simply because the family doesn’t fit the image of the ideal family. For example, some single women who feel called to the vocation of motherhood, but have not found a husband (or have even desired a husband) have been discouraged from adoption because they would then be creating a “single parent family”. This kind of thinking is putting the carriage before the horse in all of the worst ways. In this case the opponents of adoption are seeking to deprive a child of the good of a mother simply because the good of a father is not present. This is a fallacy of the worst kind. Any time a child without a stable family is brought into relationship with someone who can give them a context of security and help them to grow into a healthy and whole person this is a good thing. This relationship is made even better if the person who helps create that stable environment is willing to commit to that person as a family member. The role of the church when these new kinds of families emerge is not to reject the new structure for not fitting into a neat paradigm, but to serve the place in which this new paradigm may need extra support.

The Church is a community of broken people who have been adopted into God’s own family, we have found support for our brokenness and a source of healing in the power of the cross. THIS community is the primary family that we are all called to be members of and serve within. In the Bible there is a call to live our whole lives, even our family lives, in radical ways. For example, in early Christianity families were instructed to live in mutual submission to one another (Ephesians 5:22-33), instead of submitting to the pater familias ethos of the world of the Roman Empire, which called for the man to rule over his home absolutely. Christians were called out of the structures of cultural stability into a form of christological humility. This principle is still at work today. If we let cultural norms, or even biological normailty to govern what is and is not good than we have ceased serving God and have become idolaters (putting cultural constructions in the place of christian charity).

Although I believe that God did create all of us to have both mothers and fathers, I don’t believe that the only thing that can determine who our fathers and mothers are should be if their genitals were involved in creating us or if we happen to share an address with them. To be the church reflected in Holy Scripture is to become fathers to the fatherless and mothers to the motherless. In fact this is one of the few things that we are told can make us truly religious in the best sense of the word (James 1:27).

What fosters a good family is not the kind of people that make it up, but the quality of the love that is shared. I don’t care who makes up a family as long as its members are growing in love, joy, peace, and all the rest of the attributes we read about in Galatians 5: 22-23. No matter how perfect the outside might look, it’s what is growing inside that matters, and anytime a new member is invited in to share in that growth, that is a moment to rejoice in. That is indeed exactly what Jesus own mother did when she found out that she was soon to be the mother in a very untraditional family:

My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid.
- Luke 1:46

May we respond with the same attitude of humble praise and faith to all the people God calls into our own families. For in doing this we becomes a demonstration of the unconditional and untraditional love found in the family of God.

How to Read the Psalms and other Biblical poetry
Keeping “Pro-Life” Consistent
Eastern Orthodoxy and the Pope: Eastern Perspectives
Ending Hunger: A Brief Bibliography
  • Sunny

    This conversation about what kind of family ideal is being held up by the church is exactly the conversation that I was having this weekend with some fellow Christian women who have been frustrated and hurt by the church holding up the "American ideal" as the "church ideal." It can be very dangerous and hurtful to do so, especially when traditional family becomes the main focus and is idolized in a church setting, instead of our adopted primary relationship as brothers and sisters in the kingdom.

  • Ben Steel

    What's the telos of the concept of family? You also said that you don't care what the family is made up of as long as there's a quality of love present…couldn't it be argued that the "ideal" ability for humans to express the kind of nurturing love which goes into raising the next generation is through a family with a father and mother? Not to say other situations can't do that, but simply that the unique differences between men and women help offer the healthiest possible balance.

  • Gordon


    This post reminds me of the Catholic teaching on confession. The Church teaches that in the case of mortal sin, reconciliation with God is necessary and the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) is the regular means of achieving that. However, the Church does not exclude the possibility of reconciliation outside of that sacrament. As they say, "God is not bound by His sacraments."

    In the same way, the birth father-mother-child(ren) structure is the regular means of achieving family as humans. Is it possible to create a family in a different way? Yes. Is that family in some way inferior or regrettable? No, just as a non-sacramentally reconciled person is both fully-forgiven and a reason for rejoicing. However, and I think this may be where we disagree, the prefferable means for creating family is the biological. It is not simply "a way" through which family is formed, but rather "the way" that God laid down in perfect creation. It is this model that is reflected in the Natural Law.

    Circumstances resulting from the sin and death of this world have sometimes put us in the position of creating a family by another means, but "it was not always this way." If we lose this understanding, we lose the fact that God preferred to have us grow from His branches from the beginning, rather than be grafted on.

    Clarifying Question: In your example of a single woman wishing to adopt, are you merely criticizing the position that the child should have have no adoptive parents rather than have one or are you also saying that a married couple, all other things being equal, should not be given preference over a single man or woman?

    Great post as always.

  • Jesse Ray

    We do not hold up ideals and goals to make other people “feel bad.” Ideals are expressed so that people reach for the greater good. When we choose to begin building a structure, we look to build it on solid ground, a give it a strong foundation. I would never choose to ignore plans of the architect and only lay half the bricks lest my building be in danger of toppling.

    I realize there are wonderful examples of single-parent families and terrible examples of traditional families. There are amazing and heroic single mothers, and they should be held up examples for other single mothers to follow, and supported by the church. However, a mother who’s lazy husband deserts her with the children has NOT arrived at her situation the same way as a single woman who likes children but not the idea of a husband.

    I agree with you that a family can take many shapes, but I disagree that all shapes should be equally sought after.

    The Holy Family: “Jesus, Mary & Joseph” has always been held high as an example for Christians families throughout history. God chose Mary to be his earthly mother. He did not involve Joseph physically in this event. Yet, an earthly father would not be found lacking in Jesus’ life: we know that God went out of His way to capture the heart of Joseph to be Jesus’ foster father.

    There are unfortunate that events occur in the life of a family which are out of our control–death for instance, can take the life of a mother or father. This is a sorrowful event. Joseph did not remain through Jesus’ ministry. We do not point to this and say “see, women don’t need men to raise kids.” Instead we lament the fact that a parent is missing, and we try to fill the hole the foundation as you mentioned in your paraphrasing of James 1:27
    “…the church reflected in Holy Scripture is to become fathers to the fatherless and mothers to the motherless.”
    Notice how the author of your quote felt the roles of “mother” and “father” to be so important that the people of the church should make it a priority to “fill-in” the role of that missing parent.

    To say that you “don’t care who makes up a family as long as its members are growing in love, joy, peace” sounds nice and flowery, but can easily be mis-interpreted by our sexually-confused culture-at-large. Many people might take that to mean that any form of family structure should be equally sought after (and equally acceptable and praiseworthy) if it makes them feel good.

  • Alan Cherney

    I really like Gordon's and Jesse's comments, and if I were to write my own, it would get a bit redundant.

  • Joan

    Unfortunately I think there is a huge gap in this conversation. One the one hand, when it comes to speaking about which is holier: a traditional or nontraditional family; there is indeed among many Christians a dichotomy between the two..and their actions and attitude towards those who do not have a traditional family have severely hurt and even alienated them. To be holy, we must be continually striving after holiness, and no matter what sort of family we have we must strive after that holiness for ourselves, and for others. You make a good point that as a church we are called to serve one another and provide support so that all can grow toward Christ in all situations, not to judge and condemn and alienate. Which is what your article is addressing.

    That being said, there is another problem we face in society and in our churches: many families are being broken up and degraded by nonChrist-like actions everyday. Sexual immorality is rampant and many Americans are taught that marriage is good as long as it is self-serving, (This person makes ME feel good, fits into MY life, fits MY standards) and once these things are no longer true it is acceptable to leave and seek out MY interest. So unlike the Christ who was completely self-giving. These are problems all families, regardless of their structure face.

    So the big question is what model should the Church set up? I would argue that Christ has given us a few models to follow as Christians. There is the beautiful image of Christ as the bridegroom to his Church; a marriage where Christ gives Himself fully for the other and we, the church fully respond and reciprocate that love back to Him. There is the example He set up with His disciples, leaving behind fathers and mothers to follow Christ's example, reaching out to all those He encountered as His brothers and sisters. In this there is a model for all of us, married or single, with children or without children, to follow as we strive for holiness, and to model Christ to one another.

    Therefore it is important to be clear that as Christians we seek a family that models Christ's example, in whatever situation we have been placed. I would argue that a single mother who adopts is following Christ's model because she has provided a mother to a child who had none. Our role as the Church is to fill in the father and the brothers and the sisters for that child. For the single person who is not called to marriage, we become their brothers and sisters as Christ was to His disciples. Family structures that do not model Christ should not be sought after because they do not model Christ (rather than because they don't have a quote "father, mother etc..) and this applies to all families structures.

    We as a church are called to Affirm all that follows the example of Christ.

  • Alan Cherney

    FYI the facebook version of this conversation has plenty more.

  • Brent Stubbs

    "The Church is a community of broken people who have been adopted into God’s own family"

    True! But, what is not true is that we have been adopted into a broken Family; which is what every single parent home is. Great kids can come from broken homes, but the broken homes are not the cause and the effect is just an accident of the brokenness. In almost every case, the broken homes have to compensate to fill in the gaps for what is "God ordained and natural"–not ideal.