Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Jesus and Paul may not be as 'pro-family' as we like to believe

It is the time of the year again when the topic on "family" is widely discussed, due to the Pink Dot gathering on 13 June 2015. The "Wear White For Family" movement has gathered momentum in response, especially among Christians.

There are widespread assumptions about what "family" is among Christians. It is commonly perceived that family is about a tightly knitted group of members who share the same gene pool (through procreation done within the confine of faithful and lasting marriage) that commits to spend weekends together, support and care for one another, celebrate each other's birthday, and if possible enjoy overseas vacation annually. And of course, to do all these consistently, the family members (especially the parents) have to be educated, socially adaptive and economically driven.

This is the prevalent social imaginary of what family means. And among other things, it is also a significant contributor to a country's annual GDP. Christians likewise think that this is what our religion teaches about family.

Nonetheless, what does the New Testament really teach? Here are some thoughts to consider.

1. Jesus may not be as pro-family as we would like to think.
There are three instances where Jesus teaches against family ties. First, Jesus strongly objects against those who want to maintain their family ties at home while at the same time wanting to be his disciples:
As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” He said to another man, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:57-62)
Second, Jesus dismisses the blessedness of parent-child relationship in favor of obedience to God:
Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” (Luke 11:27-28)
These two examples are commonly interpreted as Jesus' teaching on priority between family well-being and God's kingdom; that we must prioritize God over family in situation when we need to choose between the two. For instance,
 "[The] spiritual principle that following Jesus ought to be every Christian's first priority continues to apply, and where this brings an individual into conflict with his or her natural family obligations, he or she must first seek God's kingdom and his righteousness (Matt. 6:33)."
(Andreas J. Kostenberger and David W. Jones, God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation [USA: Crossway, second edition 2010], 102.)
This interpretation makes our family responsibility a subset of Christian religious obligation:
"While Jesus places people's obligations within the larger framework of God's kingdom, however, this should not be taken to imply that Christians are to neglect their family responsibilities. As Paul would later write, "But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Tim. 5:8)."
(Ibid, italic added.)
This explanation seems reasonable for the two scriptural passages above, yet it does not have the same explanatory effect to the following passage where Jesus sees himself not only as someone who brings division in family but as someone who also wishes for it:
“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:49-53)
As it is not so easy to read priority into this passage therefore one usually explains this anti-family passage by confining its relevance and application to Jesus' three-year ministry before his death:
"Clearly, Jesus' physical presence on this earth and his three-year public ministry necessitated unconditional physical following of the Master in a unique way."
(Andreas J. Kostenberger and David W. Jones, God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation [USA: Crossway, second edition 2010], 102.)
What I find intriguing is the hermeneutical decision that pro-family readers make. The steps can be stated as follows:
Step 1: We assume that "family" has unquestionable value in God's kingdom. (It must be so because it feels so right---especially to those who cherishes family ties. Something that feels so right must be valuable to God.)

Step 2: Therefore when Jesus teaches against family, he is not subverting existing family ties. Jesus is either highlighting priority of our obedience to God over our familial allegiance, or teaching lessons that only applicable in his three-years ministry on earth.
Such hermeneutical decision has a problem. In order to take Step 2, we need to assume that Jesus sees familial responsibility as part of our service or obedience to God (let's call this 'Step 2's assumption'.) Without Step 2's assumption, we have no ground to read Jesus' teaching against family as prioritizing God over family, nor can we read into Jesus that he subsumes family responsibility under obedience to God.

At this point, pro-family readers would cite the principle of letting scripture interprets scripture. For instance, they will point out that Jesus cared for his mother when he was on the cross (John 19:26-27). This scripture shows that Jesus is pro-family and so it is the basis for Step 2's assumption. 

The problem with this principle of scripture interprets scripture is that it simply pushes the hermeneutical puzzle a step back, which in this case we are the ones who choose which scripture to interpret the contested passage. As much as one can invoke John 19 to support Step 2's assumption, one can equally highlights Jesus' disrespecting his mother by calling her "woman" (John 2:4) and his disregard for his familial ties (Matthew 12:46-50) as basis to reject the assumption.

In the end, we cannot reach a solid hermeneutical reason to cast Jesus either as pro- or anti-family.

2. Apostle Paul may not be as pro-family/marriage as we would like to think too.
The apostle has said many things about domestic affairs (Ephesians 5:21-6:9, 1 Timothy 3:4, 5:1-16, Titus 1:6, etc). Nonetheless, Paul does not appear to be pro-family/marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. After Paul has written much about his view, he summarizes:
What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not... For this world in its present form is passing away... An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord. If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better.
(vv.29-38, italics added.)
The apostle does not see commitment in marriage as a subset of devotion to God. In fact, he understands family ties as distraction; family takes away our devotion to God. Paul even thinks that celibacy is better than marriage and setting up family.

Pro-family readers would point out that Paul mistakenly thinks that the second coming would happen in his own lifetime, therefore such urgency for undivided devotion to God.

But this explanation does not work because Christians are generally taught to live as if Christ is coming back anytime. Hence it does not make a difference if Paul thinks Christ would be back soon or not. (This approach resembles the hermeneutical decision to confine the application of Jesus' teaching to his three-years ministry on earth, as one can draw from the "present crisis" in 1 Corinthians 7:26.)

Pro-family readers would also point out that Paul qualifies that these verse are his own judgement, not God's command (v.25).

What this approach misses is Paul's other qualification made on his own judgement, that his view is empowered by the Holy Spirit (v.40), and so they are as trustworthy as God's command by divine mercy (v.25).

Therefore we cannot reach a solid hermeneutical reason to cast Paul either as pro- or anti-family too.

I do not know what historical circumstances have contributed to the shaping of our contemporary social imaginary of "family". As far as I can tell, the idea of "family" that many Christians prize and champion today is not so immediately acknowledged by Jesus and Paul. 

This post is not to side with either the pink or the white. My sole interest is in examining how biblical texts are being used today, and raise questions over the assumptions we modern readers bring to the scripture.

I hope this would help readers to re-look at their hermeneutical approach to the Bible so that we are more cautious when making statement about God's view on matters dividing the society.