Six theological theses on the family and poverty

Evangelicals have a fantastic tradition both of caring for the poor and of strengthening the family . Sadly we often keep these two concerns separate from one another and may have thereby inadvertently exacerbated underlying problems. In this short paper I propose six theological theses that may help us both understand and redress the balance.

1. The family is an essential part of God’s shalom and necessary for the flourishing of creation.

The first thing that is said to be wrong in the universe – even before the fall – is isolation: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” God’s intention for human flourishing was not isolated individuals in pious private relationship with himself. Human companionship has always been an essential element of God’s shalom. The observation of the inadequacy of isolation is the corollary of the blessing of God on humanity:

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them:
“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
As part of human companionship families in all their various forms are a seminal part of what it means to be made in the image of God. In their vice regent role of ruling over creation as God’s vassals, reproductive fruitfulness is encouraged as the family is commissioned by God as part of his good created order. Men and women in “a relationship characterized by harmony and intimacy between the partners”, share the privilege and responsibility of being made in the image of God and with that the call to steward creation together with their offspring. Children are included in God’s purposes for the benevolent and godly task of “making something of the world.”

Numerous authors have characterised the shalom of God in terms of four essential relationships :

1. Relationship with God
2. Relationship with others
3. Relationship with place
4. Relationship with self

God’s intention from the beginning of his Word is that each of these relationships is rightly ordered. All four of these creational relationships connect with family life as human beings image God best in community as we care for creation together and in so doing find our sense of identity.

2. A Christian view of poverty must be genuinely holistic.

Because all four dimensions of ‘shalom’ are damaged at the fall, poverty exists. There is spiritual poverty as human beings are alienated from God; and relational poverty as human relationships fall short of representing the gracious compassion and humility of God, leading to every level of breakdown in human relationships from genocide to bullying, from rape to the neglect of children. Material poverty exists as there is breakdown between humanity and nature as seen in climate change, exploitative land grabs, and multinational companies polluting water supplies to such an extent that a billion people do not have adequate access to food or clean water. Finally we see poverty of being – where human beings face personal alienation leading to poor aspiration and self-image.

None of these factors can be explored or explained fully in isolation from the others. Material poverty receives the most public attention – with pictures of starving children rightly causing great concern. But personal breakdown, relational breakdown and spiritual breakdown can all be contributive factors or direct consequences. Conversely material wealth can also be a cause of other forms of poverty.

A robust Christian theology of family and poverty will therefore take into account this holistic view of the shalom of God.

3. Family structures are diverse and contextual

There is no single Hebrew word that directly corresponds to what we in the West refer to as the nuclear family. In the Old Testament three words inform the Hebrew understanding of family:

1 ševet is often translated ‘tribe’ and denotes ethnic origins.
2 Bêt ab can mean a family consisting of parents and children or a wider group consisting of multiple generations of relatives.
3. Mišpaḥâ usually refers to a ‘clan’ often with a territorial as well as a relational significance.

The Old Testament is replete with examples of varied family structures. Though the first human marriage is clearly monogamous it is not held up as a model of human flourishing – particularly as the first two children are a murderer and his victim. There are examples within Israel’s central story of polygamous families such as the patriarch Jacob with his two wives and thirteen children. There are instances of harems and concubines – most famously Solomon, the wisest man on the planet, with 700 wives and 300 concubines. There are also references to single parent families, blended families, foster families, kinship carers and adoptions. Interracial marriage too was practised and is both commended and forbidden . The New Testament removes any barrier to mixed race marriage, encourages monogamy rather than polygamy (especially for leaders ), and forbids adultery. The New Testament both encourages singleness as a high calling and also honours the relationship between a husband and a wife as a visual aid for the relationship between Christ and the Church . Additionally the New Testament also encourages parents that their role is analogous to God’s Fatherhood of all humanity .

We must beware of anachronistic retrofitting into scripture of the Western post-Enlightenment nuclear family as the norm, even the most renowned biblical families are radically dysfunctional and yet within the grace of God greatly used by him to do good in the world. .

4. Family boundaries are to be strong but porous

The resilience of family covenant relationships like marriage in the Bible appears in marked contrast to the temporarily binding legal arrangements that are the norm in contemporary Western societies. In an increasingly disposable society the sociologist Zygmant Bauman draws attention to “the new frailty of family structures, with many a family’s life expectation shorter than the individual life expectation of any of its members” . The Bible offers us a picture of long-term familial ties that last for generations. Heritage, honour and social expectation all help to provide the social glue to support covenantally faithful relationships.

But even when it comes to looking at the New Testament, we must be careful not to assume that these values were universally held in a golden age of family cohesion. Divorce was common in the ancient world: under Roman law marriage could be dissolved at the request of either partner and also in the Jewish culture where marriage could only be dissolved at the request of the husband. Jesus himself offered a countercultural commitment to marriage – significantly raising the bar of the grounds for divorce in his own day. Similarly there are strong injunctions for children to obey parents and then later in life to provide for parents . The Bible demonstrates a strong commitment to strengthening family commitment and cohesion.

Alongside the strengthening of familial covenant there is also a very clear call to refuse to allow the boundaries of kith, kin or clan from excluding ‘outsiders’. Responsibility for the care of the alien and the stranger, the widow and the orphan is not outsourced to an anonymous state mechanism, but instead becomes the responsibility of every family . Hospitality and compassionate self-sacrificial service are expected to be demonstrated to all without distinction. Jesus’s parables of the Good Samaritan famously demonstrates that traditional ethnic divisions between Jews and Samaritans should not be a barrier for sacrificial hospitality. Someone’s ethnicity, marital status and gender are not to be barriers for the showing of love. Indeed the collective term for all those who are not our family are “neighbours” and even the concept of enemy is relativised.

Interestingly Christ’s followers are to demonstrate their family likeness to their heavenly Father by loving their enemies. So rather than family being devalued by the inclusion of others, quite the opposite is true: family life is strengthened by having porous boundaries towards the other.

The modern Western nuclear family has generated what often amounts to a ‘radioactive’ exclusion zone around the family. Outsiders are quarantined from the prized core of the family. The proverbial Englishman’s home is his castle betrays the strong defences we often feel we need to put up to protect our families. Not only outsiders, but even older generations of the same bloodlines are often excluded. This has not led to stronger families but rather weaker families starved of the linking and bonding social capital that could offer support to marriage and family life and denying the family the opportunity to grow in godliness as they seek to mirror God’s character to the vulnerable. The wider extended family network that seems to be the norm in biblical history provides the possibilities of intergenerational connectivity. But also built into the law and prophets of Israel was the continual reminder to keep the boundaries between family and non-family. Kith and kin were to include the stranger, the orphan, the widow and the vulnerable.

The book of Ruth demonstrates an exemplary interracial marriage, openness to the outsider and corporate and familial responsibility for the vulnerable as well as a very clear link to the prized messianic bloodline. In fact, though pure Israelite genealogies might have been expected to be highly valued, in Matthew’s Gospel – the genealogy of Jesus highlights the inclusion of the other, the outsider, as a central part of its construction. Jesus modelled in his life both a commitment to his family as a single man and yet continually called his followers to include the excluded and marginalised.

5. There is a tension between family responsibility and personal responsibility

The book of Proverbs contains strong censure for the sluggard, the lazy and the fool . These ideas are reiterated in the New Testament where anyone who does not provide for the needs of their family is described as “worse than an unbeliever” . But alongside the emphasis on individuals taking personal responsibility for themselves and their family members, the Bible contains oft repeated and clear calls to generosity.

These biblical texts (and others like them) have prompted a range of theological responses to the responsibility of family, state and individual to poverty.

Prosperity Theology – argues that health and material provision are the signs of God’s blessing on a faithful life and therefore either explicitly or implicitly argue that poverty is a sign of God’s judgement on a sinful life. This can lead to either false hope that if one confesses their sins, experience spiritual renewal or confess ancestral sin there will be an automatic transformation of a believer’s financial situation.

Undeserving Poor – these texts have also been co-opted into a polemic that makes a clear and strict demarcation between the “deserving rich” and the “undeserving poor”. The assumption is that the poor deserve their lot. If they had only been wiser or more hardworking they would not face their current woes. The problem with this view is that there are many clear examples in the Bible of undeserved poverty. For example: Israel under Egyptian slavery, Job and most notably Jesus himself who said: “Foxes have holes, birds have nests but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” The common sense wisdom of the proverbs must be interpreted with care – avoiding mechanistic and judgemental application – as the radical wisdom of Job and Ecclesiastes demonstrate.

Liberation Theology – argues that the primary calling of the church is to challenge and replace unjust structures that lead to oppression and poverty. But without adequate attention to the four-dimensional shalom of God – it seems insufficiently holistic.

Naive Paternalism – unwittingly many Christians provide well-meaning aid but in a form that actually takes responsibility and dignity away from those that are being ‘helped’. Sadly this may actually exasperate rather than alleviate poverty . For example, the provision of ‘handouts’ can sometimes incentivise rather than discourage those that have a propensity towards laziness creating unhealthy dependency-based relationships. Hence Paul’s stipulation as to who is eligible to be added to the ‘widows list’.

A mature biblical theology of poverty and the family will have to leave room for the following:

• General principles that encourage diligence and personal responsibility and challenge laziness and shirking, while protecting the vulnerable.
• Modelling of ways of giving respect and empowering the poor rather than patronising and creating dependency. For example Boaz’s obedience to the Levitical gleaning laws that did not give grain to the widows and strangers but instead gave them access to the farmland and allowed them to gather what they needed for themselves. Encouraging both proximity and dignity to those being helped.
• Recognition that systems and structures unfairly disadvantage some so that their circumstances rather than their character have been the predominant cause of their poverty.
• Recognition that families carry the responsibility to care for their members as well as those that are isolated or excluded from their families.
• Commitment to sacrificial but informed generosity.

6. Family relationships are both strengthened and relativised by the church – and also to be an eschatological foretaste

The church is more than an event, a gathering, or a place to hear preaching or even to receive the sacraments. The church is also to be a family, the household of God . Christians are described as God’s adopted children, brothers and sisters in Christ, unified by the Spirit who is our bond of peace. Older women are to be like mothers to us, younger women like sisters, older men like fathers and younger men like brothers. The metaphor of the church as family must inform both ecclesiology and praxis. In fact the church family relativises blood ties as we see when Jesus responded to the disciple that informed him that his mother and brothers were at the door:

““Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said: “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Or again when speaking of those who through persecution would be estranged from their families Jesus argued that the church is to function as a substitute family for those that lose theirs due to persecution. For some church has become a provider of religious services, a spectator event or a necessary penance. The church is called to be the community of faith – the household of God.

There can be no place for a Christian practice that idolises or idealises the family. Biological ties are very important but are ultimately secondary to obedience to God. Obedience to God should drive Christians to invest into their families, be faithful to their spouses, honour their responsibilities both to their relatives and to their neighbours drawing on the empowering presence of the Spirit and the model of the person of Christ. But if there is ever a choice between obedience to God or family – obedience to God must take priority. Indeed Rodney Clapp has argued:

“It is a salutary rebuke to the church’s overvaluing of family to remember that Jesus was seen as a family breaker.”

Conclusion

In this all too brief survey of some the key themes of a biblical theology of the family and poverty. We can see that a holistic, non-paternalistic and realistic view of poverty is coupled with a commitment to a strong familial unit that welcomes rather than excludes the marginalised, demonstrating the hospitality, grace and fatherhood of God.

This paper (with references) is published as part of the Children Society’s The Heart
of the Kingdom Christian theology and children who live in poverty report.

One thought on “Six theological theses on the family and poverty”

  1. Hi Krish

    This is really useful material, thank you. You mention the “nuclear family” three times and always with an element of negativity: i) it’s not mentioned in the Bible ii) it’s only been the norm since the enlightenment and iii) it can be radioactive.

    Do you think the traditional nuclear family (Mum, Dad and kids) should hold any special place in Christian thinking as an ideal to be aspired to?

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