Interview a dozen people on a street corner, and you may get 12 different definitions for family. The Bible’s picture is more diverse and multifaceted than we might first realize, so let’s look at Scripture’s definitions.
People seem to have their own ideas of what constitutes a family these days. A sampling of two dictionaries shows eight and nine definitions, respectively, for the word family.
I remember when I discovered some people’s concept of family didn’t match my own. Our family had just finished an early dinner. Our youngest son, who was then a junior in high school, asked permission to go to Taco Bell and hang out with some friends. I said, “Sure, what time will you be back?”
He said, “About 9 or 9:30.”
I said, “Whoa. What are you going to do at Taco Bell for three hours? I know you’re not going there for the fantastic cuisine!”
He looked at me curiously and said, “Dad, my friend’s families aren’t like our family. Most of them come from divorced homes or homes where the parents work all the time and just aren’t involved in their kids’ lives. They don’t sit around a dinner table and talk about the day like we do. For those kids who will be at Taco Bell, we are each other’s family. If we don’t care about each other and help each other, no one will. For my friends, we are family when we meet together.”
I mentor a group of young college students. When I told them about my assignment to write about the biblical family, one young man said rather passionately: “My dad died when I was only 6. For a long time it was only me, my sister, and my mom. Even though we didn’t have very much, she taught us to depend on God as our Father. If you had told me we weren’t a family just because I didn’t have an earthly father, I would have been really mad!”
It really started me to thinking about what constitutes a biblical family. Is it a narrowly defined term, or is there some leeway in how one understands what makes a biblical family? According to the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible:
In the OT family relationships are concentric, that is the married couple—husband and wife—form the nucleus of the circle, the children lie in the next circle, the grandparents, cousins, and the like on a further circle. This principle is clear in the terminology. Each term is applicable beyond the mere immediate definition to the set of relations which the term represents, e.g. the term daughter may be applied to a number of other individuals aside from one’s own female offspring, or it may be applied to any number of females who are in a specific law-relationship to the “father.”1
Two Old Testament words are commonly translated as “family.” The first is beyt, which literally means “house”; the Revised Standard Version translates it as “household.” The related New Testament words are oikia (“family”) and oikiankos (“relatives”; i.e., members of the family group). The second term is mishpaha, which can be translated broadly to include the idea of “clan” or “kinship.”
As one Bible scholar puts it, “The Hebrew family was an inclusive community, consisting not only of immediate members closely related by ties of blood or marriage. It included also slaves, concubines, foreigners, and hired servants.”2
So, it seems, the Bible does not have a narrow view of what constitutes a family. Instead, a family includes all persons who contribute to the everyday activities for the mutual benefit of those who live under the same roof.
But regardless of how we understand the Bible’s concept of family, it is clear the first family God created was Adam and Eve. This must be considered our “norm,” and our understanding of marriage and family must flow out of our understanding of this first couple. Woman was created to complement man and be a helpmeet for him, and the two of them were to bring others into the world in a nurturing environment.
But then sin entered the world. The relationship of man and woman changed (Genesis 3:16), and the first family experienced something quite different from a supportive, loving, and nurturing relationship. Instead, it became the setting for the first homicide when Cain killed his brother Abel (Genesis 4:1-12). Only a few verses later, Lamech married two wives, and the first instance of polygamy was recorded. In Genesis 16, Sarai suggested to Abram that he sleep with her Egyptian maidservant to “build a family through her” (v. 2). Jacob took two wives, Elkanah took two wives, and David and Solomon had numerous wives.
But these examples were never a reflection of what God originally intended for marriage and family. Instead, not only did polygamous marriage fall short of God’s original design, it regularly resulted in disruptive favoritism, jealousy between competing wives, and decline into idolatry.
Some might suggest that marriage and its customs were merely human inventions, subject to the definition and control of society. However, Jesus refers to the foundational statement about marriage in Genesis 2 and sees marriage not as an institution of Mosaic Law or the patriarchal social system of Moses’ day, but as part of God’s order of creation. Marital ideals are to be traced “from the beginning” (Matthew 19:8).
Biblical scholars tend to agree that the basic form of family created by God is the nuclear family, which gives the highest priority to the husband-wife relationship. Elements of Genesis 2:24 make it clear that a husband and wife’s first loyalty are to each other and not to any extended family relationship. That the man is said to leave his father and mother to be united to his wife suggests he replaces one commitment with another.3
New Testament, New Understandings
Even with that in mind, the New Testament seems to introduce a major change in understanding the family, and it provides new and creative ways to appreciate the nature of family and the nature of faith. In the New Testament, family is the metaphor used most frequently to describe church, both its nature and the relationship among those who are a part of it.
The importance of lineage in the New Testament shifted from a focus on the lineage from an ancestor to lineage from God. In Matthew, Jesus said, “do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9). The focus of family structure and family lineage changed from the “earthly father” and was replaced by a lineage from “God the Father,” accessible to anyone through Jesus Christ. Therefore, all who believed on Jesus became part of a broader family of God.4
One of our students described the importance and place of relationships within the church: “The saying is that ‘blood is thicker than water’ and that’s true—unless it is baptismal water!”
Many Christians say their church family is closer and more precious to them than their family of origin. As a preacher who has moved from state to state, according to God’s call—and who is now a long way from my birthplace—I have been extremely grateful for the folks in the church who extended love to my family and welcomed us into their extended family. I am reminded of Psalm 68:5, 6: “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families.”
Jesus gave even greater importance to relationships within the family of God than to the natural family. He said, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:50). Following Jesus often meant leaving one’s family (Mark 1:16-20; Luke 9:59, 60).5
Jesus, it seems, provided a new understanding of family—the family of God and the family of faith. According to Jesus, neither the nuclear family nor the household was the defining factor of life lived in relationship and community. Rather, one’s faith commitment and faith family were central to God’s purpose.
Nurture and Protect
So what do we conclude about the family? The physical family is the most important building block to human society, and as such, it should be nurtured and protected. Studies have shown a direct correlation between the strength of the relationship between parents and their teenagers and the teenagers’ ability to make wise choices in the face of peer pressure. Teenagers who come from close families are the least likely to be involved in high-risk behavior.
But more important than that is the new creation God is making in Christ, which is comprised of a spiritual family, the church, made up of all people who call upon the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior. This is a family drawn “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9). And the defining characteristic of this spiritual family is love for one another: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34, 35).
1W. White, “Family,” in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 2: D-G, edited by Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), 496-7.
2O.J. Baab, “Family,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 2: E-J, edited by George Arthur Buttrick (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), 238.
3Charles M. Sell, Family Ministry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 75.
4Michael J. Hester, “Family,” in The Holman Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1991), 476.
Gary Zustiak is head of the Psychology and Counseling Department at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.