April 2001 Cahill

A Christian Social Perspective on the Family


Abstract: A truly Christian family identity should not isolate families from “the real world” but should convert families to love the neighbor and serve others. Yet the “family values” rhetoric in much public discourse too often leads in other directions. Clearly, we want to build strong families with strong moral and spiritual values. But a Christian gospel spirituality connects love of God with love of neighbor. And in the teaching of Jesus and the example of the first Christians, love of neighbor means forming inclusive communities of rich and poor, high and low, Jew and Gentile.

In a 1557 tract “The Nurture of Children” Menno Simons-the leading theologian of the Radical Reformation-exhorted parents to raise their children in “godly, unblamable conduct, in all humility, righteousness, love, peace, unity, mercy and obedience to every word of God.” However, he also warned that children are born with an evil, sinful flesh from Adam and that their “native disposition” must be “broken, suppressed and destroyed” by the rod if necessary. “Keep them away from good-for-nothing children,” Menno continued, “from whom they hear and learn nothing but lying, cursing, swearing, fighting and mischief.”[1]

Today we might choose somewhat different methods to cultivate in children the “good will” and “kindly love” Menno counseled. Unfortunately, however, Menno’s concern that children be trained in Christian virtues that are in tension with the surrounding society continues to be relevant. Throughout history Christian families have been coopted by existing social structures-with their inequities of race, gender and class-as often as they have challenged them. For example, although fourth-century church father John Chryosostom clearly demanded that Christian families serve the poor, he also agreed that women should be subordinate to men in all things. The leading Protestant reformer Martin Luther called families to embody love in their internal relationships, but he did not hold out much hope for transforming society to be more just. In contrast to Luther, Calvin-and especially the Puritans-actively established a Christian presence in the world that was capable of remaking the institutions of civil society and even government. However, they used religious symbolism-especially the analogy of family order-to reinforce strong gender, class and economic hierarchies.

If Menno is right that “the world desires for its children that which is earthly and perishable, money, honor, fame and wealth,” how might we, living in different historical times, teach our children to love and serve God in the world around us while modeling a counter-cultural ethic of community that minimizes class distinctions and encourages economic sharing?


The first Christians would likely have found the contemporary language of “family values”-emphasizing solidarity in family identity-highly suspect, if not outright condemnable. Families in the ancient world commanded intense loyalty, and in return secured one’s status and advantages in society. Pagan philosophers and rulers dictated that family relationships be subject to the internal authority of the paterfamilias and the external authority of the civil government and the laws. Jesus’ teachings, on the other hand, implied far-reaching changes in traditional understandings of family order and control. The early Christians committed themselves to a new community of believers in Christ in which loyalty to the family hierarchy was superseded by solidarity with other believers in a mix of family and class standings. The new family of Christ subverted customary ways of allocating power and resources within the larger society. Although status distinctions were never entirely abolished, Christians formed a new metaphorical family, less tied to biological kinship and more class-inclusive than the cultural norm. Their challenge to conventional understandings of family structure made Christian communities seem dangerous to the cultures in which they took root.

What was the cultural context or background for early Christian family life? The family in the Greco-Roman culture of the first century was a highly important social institution organized to favor the prerogatives of male elders and the elite classes, and to favor access to material and social goods for their inferior dependents. Belonging to a family and holding a prescribed place within a household was a central part of individual identity and a precondition for most people to enjoy the goods and benefits of their local community. Families also mediated the interests of surrounding religious and political hierarchies, as reflected, for example, in norms regarding marriage, procreation and the transmission of property. Thus, controlling the family-its land, property, marriages, procreation of children and internal ordering-enabled the tribe, village, city or state to control individuals, groups and social classes.

Similarly, the Jewish culture of Jesus and those who first followed him had a long tradition of respecting family and lineage as the foundation on which Israel’s covenant with God was established, and the conduit through which faith and traditions were extended to new generations. The family-or the “father’s house”-was the strongest source of identity and inclusion for the Israelite person. Jewish families were extended, composed of all the descendents of a living ancestor, except for married daughters, who became part of their husbands’ families. In such a family, 50 to 100 persons might live together in a cluster of houses, sharing common courtyards and cooking facilities. In the ancient Israelite family, the birth of sons was critical to preserve the father’s house and its patrimony, especially the ancestral portion of land that enabled the family to be self-sufficient.

From ancient times the family was the basic unit of Israel’s social structure, serving both military and judicial functions; likewise, it was the basic economic unit, in which inhered rights and responsibilities in relation to the land; and it was central in preserving the covenant relationship with Yahweh, communicating the faith, history, laws and rituals of the nation from father to son.[2] The identity of the individual was thus corporate before it was personal; and the basic corporate form of belonging was the patriarchal family existing within God’s covenant people.

In the Galilean towns and villages where Jesus carried out his ministry, the family remained the basic social unit. Family authority and family loyalty were key to identity and survival. At the same time, however, the Israelite faith tradition also resisted the boundaries of family loyalty by urging care for the “widow and orphan,” as well as hospitality for other poor and needy persons who did not belong to one’s own clan. Exodus 22:22-27 expresses God’s compassion for the “neighbor” who cries out, and commends lending money to the poor among God’s people.[3] In fact, in the pre-exilic edition of Deuteronomy, dating from the seventh century, there was a remarkable shift in the traditional duty of the family to care for its members, in which the responsibility of each Israelite now extended to include his neighbor. According to Deuteronomy’s “brother-ethic,” proclaimed in the “jubilee year,” “any needy Israelite, regardless of family or genealogy, has a claim upon his more prosperous neighbor, a claim grounded in the fact that the people as a whole are called by God to be a holy people.” Deuteronomy also extended the rights of women somewhat, by giving male and female slaves the same right of release and by protecting women against false allegations about their chastity.[4]

In summary, the Jewish family had a long and strong history of collective identity, pride and cohesiveness, commanding individual fidelity, protection of its honor and devotion to mutual well-being-primarily of other member families in one’s own clan. As in Roman and Greek culture, the family was religiously sacred, passing on religious identity (including membership in the priestly caste) with family belonging, and sanctifying norms of family behavior by grounding them in the divine will. However, a complementary ethic of care for all the needy expanded the family’s moral outlook and advanced an inclusive sense of community.


In the teachings and examples of Jesus, the theme of communal inclusion found even clearer expression. Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom of God as present and available to those who were commonly regarded as “dishonorable”-sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors (probably associated with imperial oppression), those ritually unclean by disease, slaves, gentiles and women-was shocking, though not without precedent in his parent tradition. The Beatitudes (Mt 5:3-11; Lk 6:20-26) constantly reversed the usual expectations about honor and shame. Jesus told his followers to give freely without expectation of return (Mt 5:38-48). These sayings about family ties were clearly iconoclastic since such practices represented the overthrow of cultural norms like self-identification with one’s family, loyalty to the family above all else, strict hierarchy within the family and reciprocal favoritism among families.

In a few notorious instances Jesus seemed to indicate that family bonds are even incompatible with discipleship. Luke depicts the adolescent Jesus as acting in complete disregard for parental feelings when he stayed behind on a family excursion to pursue theological conversation with religious elders (Lk 2:41-51).[5] Mark portrays Jesus’ uncomprehending relatives as believing him to have gone mad, and their interest in taking him home as a defense of family honor, which Jesus, the intended beneficiary, quickly rebuffed. Indeed, Jesus repudiates his family’s responsibility for him and his kin ties to them: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, sister, and mother” (Mk 3:28-30). In a formulation that both dissociates the honor of women from biological maternity and distances Jesus from his familial origins, Luke portrays a Jesus who deflects praise of his own mother from her role in giving birth and nursing him: “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk 11:27-28).

Even more strongly, Jesus dichotomized discipleship and family by seeming to demand that family relations be completely repudiated and abandoned. In response to Peter’s avowal that “we have given up everything and followed you,” Jesus responded that anyone “who had given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel” would be repaid in abundance in “the age to come” (Mk 10:28-30). To follow Jesus will divide one’s household. Indeed, “if anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:25-26).

These pronouncements are baffling to those who see care for parents and children, or loyalty to spouses, as important moral duties. Their meaning comes into focus, however, in the context of the patriarchal family of the first century, where familial forms of faithfulness served to demarcate social approbation and status and provided structures through which material and social well-being was assured for some and denied to others. Loyalty to one’s own group, and dedication to the status of that group over all others-even at the expense of whomever stands in its way-is incompatible with a life of mercy, service and compassion for the “neighbor” in need, for the social outcasts and the poor existing on the margins of society, and certainly with mercy to competitors for prestige or resources with whom one has experienced longstanding enmity.

Jesus thus used familiar behavior patterns as a foil for his message about the reversal of standard social relationships. In the parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-24) Jesus says that the reign of God is like a father who behaves in an unusual manner, by forgiving the son who has shamed the family and welcoming him back even to the extent of sidelining his obedient elder brother.

Yet Jesus was sympathetic to others who suffered or pled with him on behalf of family members, especially parents distraught over the illness or death of their children: the synagogue official whose daughter is at the point of death (Mt 9:18-26; Mk 5:21-43; Lk 8:40-56), the military official with a sick son (John 4:46-53), the Syrophoenician woman with a sick daughter (Mt 15: 21-28; Mk 7:24-30) and the father whose son is possessed by a demon (Mt 17:14-20; Mk 9: 14-28; Lk 9:37-42). These stories reveal parents in apparent states of concern for children for their own sakes, not merely in view of the future advantages that children offer to parents.

Children in Jesus’ social world were not generally regarded as having value in their own right; hence the common practice of exposing infants, which the early Christians rejected. Jesus’ saying that one must become “like a child” to enter the kingdom of heaven had an impact precisely because of children’s negligible status. Childlikeness can symbolize the transformation of priorities and the radical countercultural lifestyle required of disciples. Disciples were not to pursue status in worldly terms, or seek to control others to enhance their own position. Like children, they had to accept weakness and social scorn, be obedient and willing to be trained, and comply with the demands placed on them by the community formed around the gospel. Instead of seeking recognition for their own greatness, those who would enter the kingdom must become like children, “the last of all and the servant of all” (Mk. 9:33-37; Mt. 18:2-5; Lk. 9:47-48).

The disciple finds and serves Christ in “the least of these” by recognizing them as Christ’s true family, to whom he refers as “my brethren.” To be one in the family of Christ is to welcome compassionately those whose suffering is within our reach, to take care of their basic needs for food and clothing and to offer assistance in time of sickness and travail. The family of Christ includes not only the “stranger” but even the criminal-the one who stands convicted of wrongdoing. Matthew 25, the so-called “parable of judgment,” offers a beginning definition of what is required for a family to be truly Christian. In its resounding lines, “the Son of Man” proclaims “to those on his right hand”:

Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. (Mt 25:31-46)

In contrast to the socially respectable family types of their day, Jesus’ disciples were socialized into a “new family” of those even now living under God’s reign. One expression of this redefinition of the true family of Jesus can be seen in the association of the disciples-who were not Jesus’ biological kin- with children and by Jesus’ characteristic references to God as Father. Beyond establishing a personal relation between the believer and God, this metaphor shifts loyalty from the paterfamilias to God alone. The fatherhood of God does not necessarily have to be understood in patriarchal terms. Indeed, it can challenge human fathers to forego prerogatives that derive from their power over their dependents, if God’s fatherhood is imbued with the divine qualities of mercy, forgiveness and perfection that Jesus urged the disciples to imitate. If God alone is “Father” for the disciples (Mt 23:9), then the authority and power of the human patriarchal father is vastly diminished or even rejected in the Christian community.[6]


What is the relevance of the “new family of believers” to the biological family and the household? On the one hand, the early churches often took shape in households. Yet the early Christian missionary movement had radical social implications in part because it converted individuals independently of their obligations to the patriarchal household. This created conflict with the expectation that subordinate members of a family would follow the religion of the paterfamilias. It was also offensive to the political order, since the patriarchal household was the paradigm and basic unit of organization of the state.

Then what about the Haustafeln or “household codes” of the deutero-Pauline letters? These codes of hierarchy and subordination provide a complicated and disturbing field on which to display the sometimes conflicting commitments of early Christianity to renew and to radically challenge bonds of family and kinship. The passages prescribe mutual duties of household members and indicate ways in which new norms of Christian identity were incorporated into traditional domestic structures. Based on the considerable research carried out on these codes over the past two decades, current scholarly interpretation has shown that the codes are essentially an accommodationist or realist attempt to give Christian values a practical meaning within the limits of hegemonic social expectations about family, class and gender.[7] The household codes thus manifest a double dynamic between the creative values of the faith community and their social context. They illustrate the Christian commitment to engage faith and the new life in Christ with the world, even though such engagement is risky. That does not mean, however, that the particular kind of accommodation to society advocated in the codes was justified historically, much less that it is still normative today.

Biblical scholar David Balch has provided evidence that the Christian codes are related to standard Greek provisions for “household management,” going back to Aristotle, with similar examples in authors like Dio Chrysostom, Seneca and Cicero.[8] In the Hellenistic precedents, household management was discussed in the context of the order of the city, which the household was to reflect and support (cf. the instruction in 1 Pet 2:13-14 to be obedient to the emperor and his governors).[9] Since the new Christian religion faced the same slanders as did other novel or anomalous cults in the Roman world, the authors of the Colossian code and its later versions were motivated both to encourage more conformist behavior in Christian households and to redact Christian teaching and texts so that they could serve an apologetic function for outsiders-for example, Romans fearful that their wives, slaves and children would be “seduced by bizarre foreign cults.”[10]

Christian household codes illustrate several points of difference with Hellenistic examples. First, fulfillment of duty was given a specifically Christian or Christological motivation, especially in Colossians, where the phrase “the Lord” is repeated seven times (e.g., “you serve the Lord, Christ” [Col. 3:24]). Since “lord” could be used for any male superior, associating Christ with the male head of household is encouraged by this rhetoric, even while it also proposes a higher framework for construing the relations of family members. Whereas the “realized eschatology” that the author of Colossians generally advocates, along with his resistance to the powers and rulers of this world, could have combined into a “message of empowerment” for all who enjoy the spiritual riches of faith in Christ, the letter works instead to resubmit the gifts of women and slaves to the patriarchal order.[11] Ephesians goes even further, four times comparing the male elder directly to Christ as head of the church, e.g., “the husband is head of the wife just as Christ is head of the church” (5:23).

However, it is characteristic of the Christian codes that slaves were addressed directly (e.g., Eph 6:7), illustrating that they were incorporated into the community. That would have been highly unusual for Greco-Roman culture, in which directions for household management never treat slaves as subjects of instruction. Ephesians reminds the slave owner of the Master in heaven to whom both master and slave are subject-thus undermining the paterfamilias’ right over the slave and enjoining a duty to treat slaves justly. Wives and children were also addressed directly in the biblical Haustafeln, which promoted the duty of the husband to be fair and loving-not unknown in pagan examples.

The mixed effects of these codes are by now well in evidence. On the one hand, they encourage the embodiment of Christian values in everyday relationships, expecting that, even if believers or the community cannot completely change their social milieu, they can still have a significant impact within it. The household codes must be contextualized as instructions for churches whose physical space, worship and morality were in fact never separate from the complex web of domestic, social and economic relationships in which believers participated and defined themselves. The house church, parallel to households generally, was in the first generations after Christ a center for worship, hospitality, religious education, communication, social services and mission or evangelization.[12]

The codes did not prescribe the kind of behavior one “went out” from Christian community to do, nor did they envision a realm of Christian practice “set off from” or “over against” ordinary life. The Christian movement began in the house church as a transformation of ordinary life itself, and was undeterred in its reforming impetus by the fact that some aspects of ordinary reality proved inimical to the gospel. “Christianity,” James Dunn has argued, “recognized that it had perforce to live within an inevitably flawed and imperfect society and sought to live and witness within that society by combining [what seemed] the proven wisdom of that society with commitment to its own Lord and the transforming power of the love which he had embodied.”[13] The household codes model a process of interpretation, wherein the family is constantly challenged and redefined by its Christian identity, even as it responds to other historical and cultural influences, in an ongoing dynamic of formation and transformation.

On the other hand, particularly because more revolutionary challenges to family and class were part of the memory of the risen Jesus from the beginning, one might well maintain that the house communities could have and should have been even more radical in reconfiguring the domestic order.

Thus, both the New Testament itself and the social world of early Christianity attest to tensions and contradictions between Christian identity and cultural forms of family life. The families and households of early Christians were integral components of what today would be called “civil society,” codependent with other important axes of social identity and agency, including economy, religion and politics. Jesus’ preaching of the reign of God and the disciples’ experience of living as the body of Christ called Christians to form new, inclusive families of brothers and sisters in Christ, or of children of God. This alternative was radically different from the strictly ordered domain of the ancient Mediterranean patriarchal family. Converts not only continued to live, for the most part, as members of their own families and households, but those groups of kin and co-residents provided the first foundations of Christian affiliation and assembly. Thus the new Christian family, based in kinship and household communities, had the potential to reorient larger attitudes and practices regarding race, ethnicity, religion, gender, class and economic status. And Christian families began to implement these changes, although never perfectly or completely.


I conclude with five constructive recommendations for Christian family life, along with a word about the likelihood, even inevitability, of failure to follow them fully. The first two address the natural, human functions and importance of families; the latter three address the Christian conversion of family bonds and roles.

1. Christian families should be grounded in the kinds of human relations that promote family well-being in general. Key among them are sexual relationships characterized by faithful commitment and responsible procreation, including long-term shared dedication to the welfare of children; equality, dignity, respect and reciprocity among adults, and between adults and children in ways appropriate to their age and maturity; affection, intimacy, empathy and mutual support among family members.

2. Family roles should promote social well-being, by educating for economic and political participation, including respect for the rights and fulfillment of the responsibilities to others that are part of the common good.

3. The kinship family’s well-being is for Christians integrated with, and to some extent relativized by, the inclusive nature of the Christian community as the “new family of Christ.” Christ’s new family potentially reaches out to all those who are weary and heavy-burdened, whether Christian or non-Christian.

4. The natural pro-social role of families is shaped for Christians by a preferential option for the poor. In institutionalizing just treatment and just access to goods across society, those who have been previously excluded must be first included. Although justice in its own right may be interpreted as having such a preferential or remedial component, the Christian imagination will be formed to highlight this priority in a special way and to sustain its importance in the face of conflicting practical claims.

5. Christian families will place their moral commitments in the context of a relationship to God and will train the moral imagination to see human relationships in the light of the reign of God. Adults should serve as models to children, including them in the life of a faith community through liturgy, eucharist, social events and service activities. Such practices form Christian identity within family life, embodying the meaning of Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor in practical relationships in the church, in a circle of family and friends, and in the larger community and society.

Of course, while it is simple and obvious to state that Christian families will incorporate Christian “spirituality” and prayer, creating a contemporary Christian family spirituality in culturally available, meaningful, and powerful symbols and rituals may prove to be difficult. Here churches can learn from the experience of families, and here the white middle-class families typifying “mainline” and even well-established evangelical churches can learn from Christians of diverse ethnic groups, social classes and cultural traditions.

As all of us who aim to be Christian families struggle to achieve even one or two of these goals, we realize that the Christian life is truly the way of the Cross as well as a journey to redemption. Sometimes our aspirations are ridiculed or rejected by our culture, or simply considered unrealistic or irrelevant. Worse, the process of trying to live as Christian families makes us all too acutely aware of sin and failure in our own lives and in those of persons we love. Every family experiences situations that cause fear, anger, grief, guilt and shame. Few continue for long without developing hurtful patterns of insensitive, manipulative or angry behavior; few parents can honestly say they have loved their children unselfishly and with wholehearted acceptance of their children’s independent needs and identities. Many marriages and families break apart; sex is often exploitative, even within marriage; violence and abuse break out more frequently than we will openly admit. Children do not receive all the care and understanding they deserve from parents; elderly parents do not receive the patient devotion and respect that their years, if not their behavior, have earned them. Christian parents too often fail in attempts to pass on their faith in a vital way to children; children in turn cause parents pain by abandoning or betraying their most treasured moral and spiritual ideals. Even without notable disasters, family life over the years invariably brings with it stresses and strains, hurts and disappointments, that too often become hardened into bitterness and alienation.

Even when family life seems rewarding and successful in itself, the social concern of Christian families can be very hard to sustain. At most, it seems, we can teach ourselves and our children to look with greater understanding on different kinds of families undergoing their own trials and seeking their own rewards, and to offer our time and resources rather sporadically to help other families in trouble or to make community life better. We are too consumed with our own family’s well-being, which for some of us seems very, very difficult to secure. Family life, even for Christians, often serves to bring home Menno’s point that believers “must take upon themselves the heavy cross of all poverty, distress, disdain, sorrow, sadness, and so must follow the rejected, the outcast, the bleeding and crucified Christ.”[14] Our own sins and our need for forgiveness should make all Christian families slow to judge others and quick to offer support, even while we persistently and courageously speak up for the family relationships and social conditions that we believe will enhance family life for all. The Christian family is not the perfect family, but it does promote fidelity, compassion, forgiveness, and concern for others, even strangers.

In striving to embody these virtues, a family-however imperfect its success-lives in the presence of God and begins to transform its surroundings. A Christian family is such a family.

[*]Lisa Sowle Cahill is the J. Donald Monan, S.J., Professor at Boston College where she teaches in the theology department. Portions of this essay appeared in revised form in chapters 2 and 6 of Lisa Sowle Cahill, Family: A Christian Social Perspective (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000).
1. Menno Simons, “The Christian Nurture of Children,” in The Complete Works of Menno Simons, trans. and ed. John C. Wenger (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1956), 947, 949, 951.
Return to Text

[2]. C. J. H. Wright, “Family” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David N. Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 2:761-69.
Return to Text

[3]. J. W. Rogerson, “The Family and Structures of Grace in the Old Testament,” in The Family in Theological Perspective, ed. Stephen C. Barton (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1996), 36.
Return to Text

[4]. Ibid., 37-38.
Return to Text

[5]. Carolyn Osiek, “The Family in Early Christianity: ‘Family Values Revisited,'” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 58 (Jan. 1996), 9-10.
Return to Text

[6]. Elisabeth Schssler Fiorenza, Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984) 91.
Return to Text

[7]. See David L. Balch, “Household Codes,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, 3:318-20; and James D. G. Dunn, “The Household Rules in the New Testament,” in Barton, The Family in Theological Perspective, 43-63.
Return to Text

[8]. Aristotle, Politics 1.1253b. 1-14.
Return to Text

[9]. Balch, Household Codes, 318.
Return to Text

[10]. David L. Balch, Let Wives Be Submissive: The Domestic Code in 1 Peter. Society of Biblical Literature Monograph Series (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1981), 65-121; see also Elisabeth Schssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad, 1983), 290-91.
Return to Text

[11]. Mary Rose D’Angelo, “Colossians,” in Elisabeth Schssler Fiorenza, ed., A Feminist Commentary, Vol. 2 of Searching the Scriptures (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 321-23.
Return to Text

[12]. Carolyn Osiek, “Women in the House Churches,” in Common Life in the Early Church: Essays Honoring Graydon F. Snyder, ed. Julian V. Hills and Richard B. Gardner (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1998).
Return to Text

[13]. Dunn, “Household Rules,” 61.
Return to Text

[14]. Menno Simons, “The Cross of the Saints,” in Wenger, The Complete Writings, 583.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
A Christian Social Perspective on the Family