What Is a Family, Anyway?

What is a family? It’s a simple question, but one that is surprisingly difficult to answer. I suppose it may be easy enough if you ask it in only one place and to only one kind of people, but I live in Toronto, the most diverse city in the world. One Sunday I went around my church asking, “What is a family?” I spoke to people who have immigrated from several different countries across several different continents and the answers were all a little different. Is a family what we refer to as a “nuclear family”—dad, mom, and the kids? Or is it what we might refer to as a “multi-generational family”—dad, mom, the kids, and at least one set of parents? Or could it even be what we call an “extended family” so it extends all the way to aunts, uncles, and cousins? Answers can vary dramatically based on culture.

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Let me give you three quick glimpses of family, all from people in my church.

  • Family is a husband and wife, their children, plus the husband’s parents. The cultural expectation is that parents will raise their children to adulthood, then the children will take in the man’s parents and care for them in their old age. It’s the responsibility of the children to reciprocate the love and care their parents gave to them. (Since only one son can bring the parents into his home, the others are expected to help financially.)
  • Family is a husband and wife, their children, plus a large number of extended family members. Conrad Mbewe has explained this from his Zambian context, saying that according to that system, his biological father and his father’s brothers are considered his fathers, and his biological mother and her sisters are considered mothers to him. Not only that, but the wives of his father’s brothers are mothers and the husbands of mother’s sisters are mothers. So if his father has three brothers and his mother has three sisters, and all marry, he’s got seven fathers and seven mothers. While he may still have a special relationship with his biological father and mother, he owes honor and respect toward all of these fathers and mothers, and has some responsibility toward them.
  • Family is mom and dad, plus their children. One person told how his mother recently made it clear that she has no expectations of her son and his family beyond making occasional visits. If she becomes a bother in her old age, she will refuse to interfere with their lives, but instead move to a nursing home or choose physician assisted suicide. She has worked hard in life, has saved diligently, has done her child-raising, and is now eager to have a quiet, comfortable retirement.

Looking around the neighborhood, things get more complicated still. What about that household where mom has divorced and remarried? Her new husband is part of her family, of course, but is her new husband part of her children’s family? What about the husband and wife who have one biological child, one adopted child, and one foster child? Who is part of that family and who is not? What about the couple who has never married but has a child together? Are they a family? And what about the same-sex couple next door who has adopted one child and conceived another through surrogacy? Are they a family?

So what is a family, anyway? It’s a simple question, but when you really think about it, the answer seems surprisingly complicated.

I am asking the question because this summer I’ve been tasked with delivering a whole series of conference messages on the family and am finding a lot of my presuppositions just don’t work in a context that is massively multicultural and also massively socially progressive. Sure I could speak to myself and my own experience, but that would not serve so many other people in their unique situations. I’m trying to prepare these messages about family, but haven’t even been able to satisfactorily define a family!

As a Christian, my great concern, of course, is to answer the question from Scripture, though even here answers aren’t perfectly easy to come by. A man is meant to leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, which sounds like total separation (Genesis 2:24). But when it comes to caring for impoverished widows, Paul places the responsibility on one or even two generations of her relatives: “But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God” (1 Timothy 5:4). Jesus rebuked religious leaders who would give their money to causes instead of using it to cover the needs of their parents (Matthew 15:1-9).

So at this point I’d like to solicit your input. As Christians give so much attention to creating healthy families and building strong families and reaching new families and supporting existing families, who or what is it that we are trying to reach? What is a family, anyway?