Framing the Picture of God’s Family
In the grand arc of Scripture, we see again and again that there are two heads of households that vie for dominion over every person: the Good Father and the Father of Lies. Reading the Scriptures through this frame opens up a wealth of deeper understanding that I wish to explore just a little here.
We are all knit together in our mothers’ wombs as children of the Good Father. But after birth, many of us quickly begin to encounter the power and influence of the Father of Lies. If our parents are selfish or dishonest, it is difficult to maintain our identity as children of the Good Father; indeed, we may never be conscious of Good Fatherhood at all. We are enslaved by the control of the Father of Lies because our parents are so enslaved. Whether it was by their free choice or by the influence of their own parents makes little difference when it comes to the effect of this evil dominion on their children.
Parents are not the only influential persons in a child’s life, of course. Teachers, priests, peers, and others can be influential in revealing or obscuring the fact of God’s true Fatherhood for young people. Even children of saintly, loving parents can be lured into slavery by other agents of the Father of Lies. But thanks be to God, even children of malicious and deceitful parents can discover the truth through other agents of the Light.
We should not dismiss lightly, though, the possibility of belonging to the household of the Evil One. And this possibility is not eliminated by apparent membership in God’s “chosen people.” Jesus told the religious leaders who were seeking to entrap him (aka the Pharisees):
You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. (Jn 8:44)
Joining God’s Household by Marriage or Adoption
In researching ancient Jewish marriage traditions recently, I came upon a stunning fact: adoption simply was not practiced in ancient Judaism, even though it was practiced elsewhere in the Mesopotamian world at the time. A person belonged to the family into which they were born, and the only opportunity to “change” family belonging was for women to marry into a new family. Circumcision signified the man’s belonging to God’s chosen family, and by marriage a woman became a one-flesh member of that family as well. The levirate marriage laws signified that a woman’s belonging to her new family was more fundamental than which particular man within it shared a bed with her. Jesus counseled that a wife could not be severed, morally, from her marriage family by the whims of divorce. Being cut off from family was a fate worse than death, which is why Scripture exhorts over and over again to give particular solicitude to the widow and orphan. The primary obligation to renew the family ties for widows and orphans fell to the Kinsman Redeemer. There would not be (so far as Old Testament Scripture records) anyone who might adopt them simply by choice.
So when the New Testament uses the language of adoption repeatedly, this is indeed a new thing that God is doing. The language of betrothing us to Christ to bring us into God’s family and adopting us as sons is largely interchangeable; the former appealing to the Jewish members of the Christian community and the latter to the Gentiles. The point of both being, no matter which “household” we were born into, we are invited to intimately and permanently enter into belonging in God’s household.
Sex and Salvation in I Corinthians 6-7
In my last post, I explored a little how understanding our identity as betrothed to Christ illuminates I Corinthians 6-7 and its “concession” to earthly marriage. I’d like to take it a little further here, delving into a couple of the more difficult verses in this passage.
“For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” (I Cor 7:14) Most people think this verse means that spouses are supposed to “convert” each other, and wring their hands when this doesn’t happen. But if St. Paul believed that becoming one flesh with a member of God’s household makes the spouse a member of God’s household by that very oneness (regardless of the spouse’s confession of faith or lack thereof), this verse would make perfect sense. Likewise, the biological children of members of God’s household are brought up knowing the Good Father and are therefore holy.
Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, the two shall be one flesh.’ But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun πορνείαν [translated sexual immorality]! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body, but the [one who] πορνεύων [commits sexual immorality] sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body. (I Cor 6:16-20)
In my last post I discussed that the “price” mentioned in the last verse here likely refers to the bride price required to contract a betrothal. Given the prevalence of temple prostitutes in the world of the early Christians and the explicit reference to our bodies being temples of the Holy Spirit, it seems that this passage is focused specifically on sexual relations with a temple prostitute (or similar sexual activity related to cult ritual), despite the disputed translation of πορνεύων. Verse 18 also contains one of the few instances of the word ἁμαρτάνει, the common root meaning “to sin” but using the aorist tense in Greek, connoting sin as a condition or fact rather than a discrete, repeatable instance of sin. (John also uses this term when he says “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him,” (I Jn 3:6) and “We know that those who are born of God do not sin.” (I Jn 5:18) Since John in the same book teaches that “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves,” “aorist sin” must mean something substantially different from the sins that Christians continue to commit after receiving new life in Christ.)
Letter to the Galatians: An Extended Meditation on Membership in God’s Household
Another very interesting exercise is to read the book of Galatians as a whole, keeping this frame of belonging to God’s household front of mind. I will not make a line-by-line analysis here, but describe the sweep of the thing as I read it. The Jewish people are born into God’s household by the promise given to Abraham. But they are “minors” who need the law as their “disciplinarian,” and who have little more rights than slaves due to their immaturity. Therefore, even Jews need to receive the Spirit of adoption in order to enjoy the freedom of adult sons and daughters of God. The Gentiles now are offered to come into God’s family as adults, through the Passion of the one offspring of Abraham, Jesus Christ. (Gal. 3:16) There is no reason for the Gentiles to revert to being treated as immature children under the law. Instead, St Paul offers an analogy to the slave and free children of Abraham to exhort the Galatians to reject legalism:
Now you, my friends, are children of the promise, like Isaac. But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh [Ishmael] persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the scripture say? “Drive out the slave and her child; for the child of the slave will not share the inheritance with the child of the free woman.” So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Gal 4:28-5:1)
This freedom from the law is not to be used as “an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (5:13-14) When we recognize each other as all equal heirs of God’s household, we should see each other’s burdens as our own and take pride in the good works of the family of God, without competing against one another or envying one another (6:2-5, 5:26).
(Understanding the unified ownership of goods and burdens within the household of fidelity—οἰκείους τῆς πίστεως, Gal 6:10)—helps resolve the apparent contradiction in chapter 6 between verses 2—“bear one another’s burdens”—and 5—“for all must carry their own loads.” Between these two verses Paul writes “all must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride.” (v. 4) This seems all the more contradictory with “let us not become conceited” (5:26), until one looks at the Greek word that is translated “neighbor” here—heteron (ἕτερον), the “other.” By contrast, the word for “neighbor” in the “single commandment” cited above is plesion (πλησίον), which literally means a person nearby. Paul is not telling the Galatians to take pride in their individualistic actions, but to take pride in the good deeds of their own household of faith, which includes forgiveness and sharing burdens within the family. By contrast, they should not be judging or comparing the work of another (heteron) household, such as Jews who are still under the law.)
An Exhortation on Reading Our Sacred Family History
Scripture is most illuminating and life-giving when we understand its grand themes and lessons, which often are lost from view when it is sliced up for liturgical readings or proof-texting purposes. I have just explored a couple of longer segments that often are misunderstood, using the overarching frame of belonging to God’s household to bring clarity and coherence. I am not a trained “Scripture scholar,” but I believe the Word is living and effective and illuminates itself when it is read holistically with openness to the Holy Spirit. I encourage everyone to prayerfully re-read passages that have previously confounded, in broader textual context and with the “household membership” frame of reference, and see what new insights the Spirit illuminates for you.