There’s some interest in a post by Stephen Holmes, a fine theologian in Scotland with a fine book on theology and tradition (Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology
I read something today – it doesn’t matter what; it was a denominational statement from overseas, and so not very relevant – that made a fairly familiar gesture demanding support for ‘Biblical’ patterns of family life which, in this case, included support for the vocation of motherhood and a resistance to cultural pressures that encouraged mothers to go out to work, an encouragement not to limit numbers of children borne within the nuclear family, and a claim that, within the nuclear family, there was a proper leadership to be exercised by the husband and accepted by the wife.
Now, any or all of these points may be good ethical advice (although allow me to express some serious doubts…). Any or all of them may even be demanded by the gospel (although allow me to express some profound disagreements…). But to describe them as ‘Biblical’ is clearly ridiculous……..
Why ‘ridiculous’? Well, between them, they assume a normative situation of a nuclear family (i.e., a cohabiting unit of mother and father with their birth-children, and nobody else) which has easy access to safe and reliable contraception and which is economically productive only away from the home. A family living in this situation cannot possibly be living according to ‘Biblical’ patterns, simply because every facet of the situation highlighted in the previous sentence is a modern Western reality, unknown to the Bible (and indeed to much of history since, and to much of the world today).
Stephen Holmes, after sketching mistakes in a well-known book that seeks to argue for this sort of “biblical” theory for family and male-female relations, continues with this:
In my experience, the rhetoric of ‘Biblical’ family (in the West – perhaps it is of some use elsewhere?) normally works like this: what is being celebrated is a patriarchal vision of being a nuclear family that has its origins in the industrial revolution and is now – thankfully, in my humble opinion – rapidly being displaced. In industrialised societies, for a little while, Mummy looked after the kids while Daddy went out to work, and (amongst the white middle classes who defined reality in their own terms) grandparents were nowhere to be seen. This pattern of economic dependence and generational isolation disrupted earlier traditions of family living, and re-ordered gender relations in far-reaching and often very unhelpful ways. Of course, in pre-industrial society almost no-one ‘went out to work’: Mummy, Daddy and the kids all worked on the farm, along with other members of the extended family and various servants who lived with them. Even amongst the nobility, tradition holds that the man held the sword, the woman the distaff – he was engaged politically, she economically; his freedom to enter into public life was based on the fact that she earned the money for the household. This at least echoed some aspects of the Biblical witness (Prov. 31:23-4)…
And he goes on then to sketch what a more historically-accurate “biblical” family might have looked like:
If we choose to base our concepts of what is ‘Biblical’ on the Bible, not on a conservative grasping at an idealised version of our grandparents’ experience, then the basic thing we find is astonishing variety. Families are polygamous and multi-generational; re-marriage and fostering are common and sometimes required; slaves are a significant part of the family unit; marriage can be a political act, or the result of rape, and is rarely based on romantic attraction; etc. I think it is true to say that there is not one single nuclear family (a shared household of wife, husband, and birth-children only) in the entirety of the Scriptures – certainly, it can hardly be presented as a normative pattern.
So, what are we to do? Holmes continues:
So what is ‘biblical’ family life? It seems to me that we have two options: we could look for a centre of gravity within the variety that we can describe as normative, and push for this. I do not in fact think that this is possible, but if it were, it would as a minimum involve polygamy and slavery. Alternatively, we can find permission to explore a wide variety of patterns of living together, since a wide variety is witnessed to in Scripture. We can see things that are less than ideal (polygamy; slavery; patriarchy; …) and things that witness beautifully to the gospel if they can be lived out in the messy particularities of human life (revolutionary mutual submission – Eph. 5:20; …). But defined gender roles? I think of an old friend of mine, recently ordained in Australia; Heather and I had the privilege of sharing marriage preparation classes with him and Su. When asked what roles he thought should belong to his future wife in their marriage, he responded ‘pre-natal childcare. And breastfeeding.’ The rest was up for creative re-interpretation in the light of the gospel and the circumstances in which they were called to live.That’s Biblical. Far more so than the strident attempts to impose cultural idolatries with which I began.