Why families need fathers and mothers

In the latest contribution to the ViaMedia.News series ‘Does the Bible Really Say…’  Dr Hayley Matthews addresses the question ‘ Does the Bible Really Say… that a family needs ‘a Mummy and a Daddy’?’[1]

Dr Matthew’s argument.

Her answer to this question is ‘no’ and she gives six reasons for this answer.

First, she argues that in the Bible there is no mention of the ‘nuclear family’ consisting of a father and mother and their children. Instead people live in multi-generational households consisting of people related by blood and marriage in a variety of different ways plus servant and slaves.

Secondly, in the Old Testament we see ‘God flouting conventional family ties in unexpected ways through his grace’ by choosing to give blessing to people who are not the first born sons (as in the case of Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Joseph and David) and by passing on his blessing through ‘non blood-line outcasts’ (such as Ruth, Rahab and Mary).

Thirdly, in the New Testament,  Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:50 about his true brothers and sisters being those who do the will of his heavenly Father refer not to the creation of a new biological family, but to the formation of a new household in which those who have previously been outcasts are all welcomed as equals and can call God ‘Abba, Father’ (Romans 8:15).

Fourthly, there are three key turning points in the history of Israel which rely entirely ‘upon non-biological family structures,’ namely the adoption of Moses by Pharaoh’s daughter, the adoption of Esther by Mordecai and the gestation of Jesus ‘to an unmarried Mum from Nowheres-ville.’

Fifthly,  ‘There is biblical precedent for… households to take many forms; single parents, adoption, surrogacy, foster-care, blended and wide-ranging extended families, male, female or a mixture of the two.’

Sixthly, the gender of parents does not matter because there are numerous reasons why two parents of different genders may not be on the scene and because child psychology tells us ‘that what children need are orientation, order, exploration, communication, movement, manipulation of objects, repetition, precision, imagination, facing and constructively responding to error ‘ and  ‘None of these things are gender specific.’

Dr Matthews’s overall conclusion is that:

‘Our call, into our own and God’s households are far beyond all-too-brief biological couplings but based instead upon grace, forgiveness, fidelity, steadfastness, gentleness, kindness, self-control, selflessness, a sense of the ridiculous if not of humour and love beyond measure in an ever-growing ripple of relationships that ever broadens into the eternal household from which and to which we are called. That’s what makes a family…’

The problems with this argument.

There are a number of problems with this argument.

First, while it is true that in the Bible people tend to live in extended households this does not negate the existence or importance of nuclear families made up of parents and their children.

The first and foundational family unit in the Bible is a nuclear family consisting of Adam and Eve and their children (Genesis 2:18-5:5) and thereafter the Bible consistently recognises the existence and importance of the familial relationship between fathers and mothers and their sons and daughters. We can see this, for example, in the command to ‘honour your father and your mother’ in Exodus 20:12, in the exhortation in Proverbs 6:20  ‘My son, keep your father’s commandment, and forsake not your mother’s teaching’ and in the instructions given to husbands and wives and their children in the letters of Paul (Ephesians 5:21-6:4, Colossians 3:18-21, Titus 2:4).

Rather than the household being an alternative to the nuclear family, in the Bible the household is the larger domestic and economic unit within which nuclear families still have a distinct and important existence of their own.

Secondly, while it is perfectly true that God can and does bypass first born sons in favour of some other child of the family, none of the examples given by Dr Matthews negate the importance normally given to primogeniture in the Bible, nor do they undercut the importance that the Bible attaches to the biological relationship between parents and children.

If we take the case of Jacob, for instance, we find that Esau, as the first born son of Isaac and Rebekah, would have been the one to receive a blessing from Isaac had he not ‘despised his birthright’ and traded it to his brother Jacob for a ‘pottage of lentils’ (Genesis 25:27-34). For another example, David is chosen to be King of Israel rather than his older brothers because this was a new appointment that was not dependent on family ties and because God, who ‘looks on the heart,’ saw that David rather than his brothers had the qualities needed in a king (1 Samuel 6:1-13). David’s place in his family was irrelevant to the issue.

Thirdly, Dr Matthew’s depiction of Ruth, Rahab and Mary as ‘non-blood line outcasts’ is misleading. Ruth and Rahab are not Israelites, but become part of the people of Israel through their commitment to the God of Israel (Ruth 1:16, Josh 2:8-14  6:25) and both become carriers of God’s blessing because they have children as a result of marriage (Ruth 4:13-22, Matthew 1:5). At the point when the angel comes to her and she conceives Jesus, Mary is a respectable young Jewish girl and even though she is asked to put her reputation and life in jeopardy by giving birth as a result of a supernatural conception, God ensures that she has a husband and Jesus has an earthly father (Matthew 1:18-25). As numerous nativity scenes testify, Jesus’ earthly family (‘the holy family’) was thus a nuclear family consisting of a mother, a father and a child (with other children being added later).

Fourthly, it is simply not the case that in the New Testament God creates a new household rather than a new family.  In the New Testament the Church is indeed ‘the household of God’ (Ephesians 2:19), but the form this household takes is a new family in which Christians really are brothers and sisters to each other by reason of their relationship to the same heavenly Father. The difference between this family and normal biological families is that this new family is a result of the supernatural action of God rather than human sexual activity. This point is made explicitly in John 1:12-13:

‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.’

Fifthly it is true that both Moses and Esther were adopted and that Mary was not married to Joseph when Jesus was conceived. In these three cases God does indeed work through ‘non-biological family structures.’ However, the fact that he does so for specific reasons on the occasions does not negate the importance of biological family structures as the normal means which God has established to take forward his purposes in creation.

In Genesis God creates human beings in his image and likeness as male and female and commands than to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:26-28). He then establishes marriage between one man and one woman as the family structure through which this command is to be fulfilled (Genesis 2:18-25) and this ordinance remains in place throughout the rest of the Bible.

Sixthly, this means that while it is true that we see lots of different types of households and families in the Bible, when children are not the offspring of a marital relationship between a husband and wife or when a mother or father is not on the scene this always means that something has gone wrong. There is no case in the Bible in which an alternative family structure to a father and a mother and their children is seen as equally desirable. When children are born out of wedlock, or there is a polygamous family structure, or one or both parents are dead and there are thus  widows and orphans, this is a sign of the brokenness of the world stemming from the Fall and not what would have been the case had God’s original intentions for his human creatures been fulfilled.

It is true, as the charity Home for Good argues[2], that adoption and fostering are extremely important forms of Christian service that can achieve an enormous amount of good. However, the good that they achieve lies in helping to mend that which has been broken. Were this not a broken world neither adoption nor fostering would be required since all children would be living with their married parents.

Seventhly, Dr Matthews’ reference to the finding of child psychology fails to acknowledge that decades of research evidence clearly shows that both the marital status and the sex of a child’s parents does matter.  As David Ribar puts it:

‘Reams of social science and medical research convincingly show that children who are raised by their married, biological parents enjoy better physical, cognitive, and emotional outcomes, on average, than children who are raised in other circumstances.’[3]

In similar fashion, Michael Nazir-Ali notes:

‘…the mounting evidence that children who grow up with both their parents are, on the whole, better off than children with lone parents or step -parents, whether that is in terms of mental health, educational performance, crime or sexual behaviour. This is not, in any way, to devalue the sometimes heroic effects of loving single parents or step-parents. It is simply to note the importance of biologically-related families against the frantic and increasingly successful efforts to deconstruct them.’[4]

What all this evidence indicates is that pattern of family life ordained by God, in which children are brought up by their married biological parents is the gold standard for child well being and needs to be supported accordingly by both the Church and the state.[5]

Finally, it is not the case, as Dr Matthews suggests, that ‘what makes a family’ are the characteristics of ‘grace, forgiveness, fidelity, steadfastness, gentleness, kindness, self-control, selflessness, a sense of the ridiculous if not of humour, and love.’ For a family to function properly these elements will certainly need to be present, but they are not what makes a family.  A human family is created through biology, marriage or adoption, while God’s eternal family is created through supernatural grace received through faith and baptism.

Conclusion.

Dr Matthews has not succeeded in showing that the Bible does not say that ‘a family needs a Mummy and a Daddy.’  On the contrary, the Bible tells us that the form of family life ordained by God at creation. is one which requires a father and mother. God ordained that human beings should be fruitful and multiply and that this should happen through two people of the opposite sex entering into marriage and having children as a result. Furthermore, while the effects of the Fall mean that this pattern of family life will never be perfect, the evidence we have shows that it is the pattern that is most conducive to human flourishing.

What we can say, therefore, is that the testimony of both Scripture and natural reason show us that human beings need families and these families need fathers and mothers.

M B Davie 3.7.19

[1] Hayley Matthews, ‘Does the Bible Really Say….that a Family Needs a ‘Mummy and a Daddy;?’ at https://viamedia.news/  29 June, 2019.

[2] Home for Good, at  https://www.homeforgood.org.uk/

[3] David Ribar, ‘Why marriage matters for child wellbeing,’ in The Future of Children: Marriage and Child Wellbeing Revisited, Vol 25, No.2, 2015, p. 12.

[4] Michael Nazir-Ali, Faith, Freedom and the Future (London : Wilberforce Publications, 2016), p.126.

[5] For a detailed study setting out the evidence for this claim see Brenda Almond, The Fragmenting Family (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006).

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