Why Grace does not destroy nature – a response to Martyn Percy on the Bible and the nuclear family

Professor Percy’s five fold argument.

In the latest instalment of the ViaMedia.News series ‘Does the Bible Really Say…’ series, Professor Martyn Percy addresses the topic ‘Does the Bible Really…Advocate the ‘Nuclear Family?’ [1]

In his article Professor Percy gives five reasons for rejecting the idea that Christianity is ‘right behind the nuclear family.’

First, he appeals to the teaching of Jesus, declaring:

‘Jesus advocated leaving one’s parents for the sake of the Kingdom. The siblings too, got some short shrift from Jesus. He told his disciples to go do likewise, more or less.  Moreover, don’t even think about loitering at your parents’ funerals; there is kingdom work to be done. The dead can bury the dead.’

Secondly, he argues that the Bible ‘contains many patterns of family life’ and that the Old Testament in particular ‘offers us dozens – literally – of ‘family patterns’, which ‘should not necessarily be honoured today.’  As an example, he refers to the story of Rachel and Leah in Genesis 29-30, both of whom are married to Jacob, and both of whom offer him their maids so that he can beget children by them.

Thirdly, he argues that the founders  of four of the world’s great religions, Moses, the Buddha, Mohammed and Jesus were all adopted:

‘Moses was abandoned by his birth mother and left to float in a small coracle in the River Nile, and had the good fortune to be picked up by the daughter of one of the Pharaohs, and nurtured as one of her own.  Mohammed was orphaned at the age of six, or perhaps earlier, and was brought up by his uncle in the ancient city of Makka.  The Buddha’s mother died when he was less than a week old, and he was raised by her sister.  Jesus, of course, according to Christian orthodoxy is not exactly the child of Joseph, since Christian tradition claims no human intervention in his genesis.  Although Mary is clearly his mother, Joseph is not his biological father.’

According to Professor Percy this matters because it places the dynamic of adoption at the heart of these religious traditions.

Fourthly, the early Church based itself not on the pattern of the nuclear family, but on the pattern of an oikos, an ‘extended household incorporating kith and kin, servants, slaves, tutors, workers, dependents and contributors.’

Fifthly, as an oikos the Church was an outward facing body that ‘took to adoption quite naturally’ and adoption is something that is central to the Church’s life:

‘… just as churches, congregations and individuals Christians understand or experience themselves as, in some sense, ‘adopted’ by God (as Paul suggests), so they in turn, find themselves adopting others.’

It is for this reason, Professor Percy contends, that:

‘… the churches, at their best, function like adoption and foster homes.  They welcome the unwelcome; they love the unloved; they embrace the excluded.  The Church was not meant to be a cult or a club for members, any more than the Christian vision for ‘family’ was ever meant to be ‘nuclear’. It wasn’t.

The early church took in widows and orphans. The early church was extensive and open in character.  It embraced slave and free, Jew and Gentile.  It will have embraced married and unmarried, and young and old, citizen and alien.  If the Church wants to recover a vision for mission and evangelism, and plead for the restoration of moral foundations in contemporary society, then appealing to the sanctity of the ‘nuclear family’ is not the way forward.’

How should we respond to this argument?

The first thing to note is that Professor Percy seems to be operating with a very misleading understanding of what is meant by a ‘nuclear family.’

Implicit in his overall approach to the significance of the nuclear family is a contrast between a nuclear family and a body that is open to adopting the outsider. His central argument seems to be that the Church should be the latter rather than the former.

However, the generally accepted definition of a nuclear family is ‘the basic family unit consisting of the mother and father with their children.’ [2] What is important to note is that these children are not necessarily the biological children of the parents concerned. From time immemorial children have become permanent members of nuclear families through adoption with the mother and father becoming their mother and father and the other children in the family becoming their brothers and sisters. Furthermore, nuclear families have often had other people living with them as ‘part of the family’ for greater or lesser periods of time, whether other family members, foster children, or just people in need of a home.

Professor Percy’s suggestion that nuclear families are inherently closed entities which exclude outsiders is thus simply untrue.

Secondly, he is also misleading in his account of the teaching of Jesus. Although he does not give specific references, he seems to be referring to two passages from St. Luke’s gospel.

The first of these references is Luke 14:26:

‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.’

At first sight this appears to be a clear repudiation by Jesus of all family ties. However, this would contradict Jesus’ own criticism in Mark 7:9-13 of those who reject their family responsibilities, and, as George Caird notes in his commentary on Luke, this is not actually what Jesus’ words mean:

‘To hate father and mother did not mean on the lips of Jesus what it conveys to the Western reader…The semitic mind is comfortable only with extremes – light and darkness, truth and falsehood, love and hate -primary colours with no half-shades of compromise in between. The semitic way of saying ‘I prefer this to that’ is ‘I like this and hate that’ (cf. Genesis 29:10-31, Deuteronomy 21:15-17). Thus for the followers of Jesus, to hate their families meant giving the family second place in their affections. Ties of kinship must not be allowed to interfere with their absolute commitment to the kingdom.’ [3]

The second is Luke 9:59-62 where we read

‘To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ But he said to him, ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God’

This again looks like Jesus rejecting the importance of family duties, but as Caird points out, the point of the saying is rather to warn would be disciples:

‘….to reckon with the conflict of loyalties which discipleship inevitably brings. In normal circumstances it is good that a man should have a home of his own in which he can perform his acts of filial piety to his parents, whether in life or in death, and show affection to kindred and friends. All this is part of that family life which God has graciously appointed for his children. But a man must be prepared to sacrifice security, duty, and affection, if he is to respond to the call of the kingdom, a call so urgent and imperative that all other loyalties must give way before it.’ [4]

What this means is that Jesus does not teach that Christians have to leave their parents or reject their siblings. What he does say is that even family ties, vitally important though they are, have to take second place in our loyalties to the demands of God and his kingdom. God has to come even before family if there is ever a conflict between them.

Professor Percy’s second point, that there are many patterns of family life in the Bible and these should not necessarily be honoured today, is true so far as it goes. We are indeed not called to follow dysfunctional forms of family life such as we find in Genesis 29-30. However, we know this because the Bible itself tells us that such forms of family life are a departure from what God ordained at creation

As I noted in my previous article responding to Dr Hayley Matthews:

‘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.

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.’[5]

However, the existence of such broken forms of family life does not negate the importance of the pattern of family life instituted by God at creation. This pattern remains a key part of God’s provision for human well-being and so Christians need to live within it themselves and to teach and support others to do the same.

Moving on to Professor Percy’s third point, what he says about Moses and Jesus requires important qualification.

First of all, Moses was not ‘abandoned by his birth mother.’  The story in Exodus 2:1-11 is instead about how Moses’ mother and sister ensured that he survived Pharaoh’s threat to kill all the sons of the Hebrews people. The story tells us about how a Jewish family took care of one of its own in the face of the threat of genocide and how this action then became the basis for subsequent deliverance of the Jewish people as a whole. It is thus a story precisely about the importance of family ties.

With regard to Jesus, it is not true that Christian orthodoxy says that there was no ‘human intervention in the birth of Jesus.’ What it says is that there was an indispensable human role in his birth which consisted in Mary providing the egg that was made fertile by God, carrying the resultant baby to term, and giving birth to him when the time came (Luke 1:26-2:7). The traditional title theotokos (‘mother of God’) used with reference to Mary expresses this point by insisting that in his human nature God the Son did have a mother and that that mother was Mary.

The biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus are about how Jesus, who already had a familial relationship with God the Father from all eternity as God the Son, also acquired a human family consisting of his human biological mother, Mary and also a human father, Joseph with siblings then coming along later. Rather than having no family Jesus thus has two.

Turning to Professor Percy’s fourth point, as I also observed last week, it is mistake to argue as he does that the early Church was a household rather than being a family:

‘… 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.’[6]

We have already noted that the Bible tells us that Jesus was, and is, a member of two families. He is the eternal Son of God, but also a member of human nuclear family with a mother and a father and brothers and sisters. What the Bible also tells us that all Christians also belong to two families. They are members of their earthly families, but they are also by grace, through adoption (Galatians 4:1-7), members of an eternal heavenly family with God as their Father and Jesus and all other Christians as their brothers and sisters.

Living rightly as a Christians means living rightly as a member of both families. As members of human families Christians are called to love and honour their parents and to love and care for their spouse and their children (Ephesians 5:21-6:4, Colossians 1:18-21, Titus 2:4-5) and as members of the heavenly family they are called also to love God and all their Christian brothers and sisters (1 John 4:7-21).

With regard to Professor Percy’s final point, there is no contradiction between the Church affirming the sanctity of the nuclear family and being an outward facing body ready to welcome everybody regardless of who they are, or the circumstances of their lives.

God has created human beings to live in families consisting of married parents and their children and so it is the calling of Christians to affirm this truth and the consequent importance of everyone living rightly as members of such families. However, God has also created the new supernatural family of the Church and it is the calling of Christians to welcome everyone into this new family and to teach what it means to live rightly as a member of it. That is the point of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.

Conclusion

For Professor Percy, it seems, grace abolishes nature. For him all that matters is the existence of the Church created by the grace of adoption with natural human families totally disappearing from view. However, as St. Thomas Aquinas famously affirms ‘Gratia non tollit naturam, sed perficit’ (grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it).[7] In the case we are considering grace perfects nature because it allows those who are members of natural families to become members of the eternal heavenly family without ceasing to be what they already are.

There are, of course, as Jesus warned us, occasions when we may need to put the requirements of our membership of our heavenly family before membership of our human families, but the latter still remains in place and we are called to honour it as much as possible.

In addition, it is also important to note that when human families are Christian families  membership of the earthly and heavenly families should go together, with the human family acting as what the Christian tradition has called the ‘domestic church,’ in which people are brought up from childhood by their human parents to know the truth about God and what it means to live as his children.[8]

M B Davie 9.

[1] Martyn Percy, ‘Does the Bible Really…Advocate the ‘Nuclear Family?’, ViaMedia.News, 5 July 2019 at https://viamedia.news/.

[2] ‘Nuclear family’, The Chambers Dictionary, 9ed (Edinburgh: Chambers Harrap, 2003), p.1023.

[3] George Caird, Saint Luke (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1963), pp.178-179.

[4] Caird, p.141.

[5] Martin Davie, ‘Why families need fathers and mothers,’  3 July 2019, at https://mbarrattdavie.wordpress.com/.

[6] Davie, ‘Why families need fathers and mothers.’

[7] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, I, 8 ad 2.

[8] This is the vision of family life which lies, for example, behind Luther’s Small Catechism of 1529 which is designed for the father as the head of the family to teach to the household and behind the statement in the Book of Common Prayer marriage service that marriage was ordained ‘for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord and to the praise of his holy name.’

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