What Does a "Biblical Family" Look Like?

Scot McKnight has posted a provocative piece (actually, reposted some thoughts from Scottish theologian Stephen Holmes) regarding the possibility (impossibility?) of defining what constitutes a "biblical" family.

I left something resembling the following response to his post in the comment section, but felt like reposting it here, because it is such an important topic. I have edited and expanded it so that it can stand on its own as a post. I'm interested in your thoughts on the subject.

In spite of the complexities Holmes cites, defining what constitutes a "biblical" family is not as difficult as it seems. It simply requires two tasks: (1) an understanding of the relevant scriptures themselves and (2) contextualization for any given time, place, and culture. The problem comes when we try to establish one model as normative of the actual structure of "the family." As Holmes points out, throughout Scripture, and in numerous societies throughout history, family has taken many different, legitimate forms, ranging from the contemporary, Western nuclear family model (i.e., father, mother, and children) to the extended family model, where grandparents, parents, children, other relatives, and in some cases, servants/hired hands, all live together under the same roof.

Holmes (and McKnight, it seems) is less than critical of certain filial arrangements, such as polygamy and slavery, toward which he sees Scripture as maintaining an accommodating or (at best) ambivalent stance. However, if one understands the ways in which biblical narrative teaches ethics, it is evident that Scripture consistently portrays polygamy and slavery (as we understand it) as immoral. These issues aside, Scripture offers much latitude as to the forms of family that may legitimately be considered "biblical."

To have a "biblical family" simply means to live out family life that is faithful to the principles and priorities of Scripture. The challenges and opportunities of every time and place will vary, and so must the shape of the family change accordingly. In any given time, place, and culture, our legitimate options are limited by a myriad of economic realities, in addition to the obvious biological ones (childbearing and nursing).

One thing that is certain is that it is immoral to pursue family life in a way that is destructive, or even neglectful, to children, and there is a preponderance of evidence for the types of environments in which children thrive and suffer. At the very least, they need personal nurture, not TV babysitting or (in most cases) daycare. They need lots of personal attention, especially in their earliest years, precisely when most parents are most strapped for time. Whether it's parents, grandparents, or close friends, what matters is that they receive holistic, personal nurture (spiritual, physical, emotional, developmental). The community of faith needs to step up and embrace their calling to nurture children collectively when the family cannot do it on their own, whether by exchanging childcare responsibilities with one another or by living in a mutually supportive way more generally.

One of the biggest problems I see in contemporary, Western models of family life is the trading of economic, vocational, and even recreational priorities for the priority of the nurture of children. We have exchanged economic suffering for even greater forms of suffering, the majority of which are spiritual, psychological, and social.

One of the values that makes the predominant contemporary, Western, (sub)urban model of family (i.e., nuclear family with both parents pursuing careers and attaining the material and opportunistic demands of Western society) possible is the value of the free and autonomous individual. But such autonomy is at odds with all biblical conceptions of family. The ideal of the family where each person pursues his or her own interests and goals while still maintaining proper commitment to the family is a myth. From every family member there has to be sacrifice, an acceptance of less than total fulfillment of one's vocational and economic potential.

So how does one determine what, in a given time, place, and culture, are biblically legitimate forms of family?
  1. Understand the universal, transcultural principles of Scripture which are applicable to family life.
  2. Take inventory of the social, cultural, and economic realities of one's own society (including society at large as well as one's own socio-economic situation), and the challenges and opportunities they present.
  3. Outline the various possible forms that family might take in such a society, weighing each in light of the above principles.
  4. Choose what form is best for your family, neglecting none of the above principles.
  5. Be willing to modify your family arrangements when situations change, while remaining consistent with the above principles.
  6. Finally, do not neglect prayer or seeking advise from wise counselors, especially your pastors. But test their advice by the truth of God's Word.
If we follow these guidelines, we will remain faithful to God's intentions for family, whatever the societal context.

As per the nature of blogging (over against peer-reviewed, published writing), the above thoughts are pretty sloppy. How might you correct, add to, or nuance what I've written here?

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