A notable Orthodox scholar recently published an opinion piece saying that the Gospels don’t support the concept of the nuclear family. It seems our desire to protect the family institution, according to this scholar, is unfounded and contrary to the Orthodox faith. While there were a few errors in the scholar’s article, I would like to respond to this one in particular.
But first, a little background: A certain hierarch recently baptized two infants of a homosexual couple. Clergy have reacted in various ways. One side argues that the children were rightly baptized to give them a shot at salvation. After all, it’s not their fault they were born into the household they now live. The other side argues that a prerequisite to infant baptism is the assurance that a child will be raised in a Christian home, brought to church frequently, and be taught Christian values. For these clergy, whether a child’s parents are homosexual or heterosexual doesn’t matter as much as whether the family will fulfill those duties listed above. The couple in question seems unlikely to do so. Also, the hierarch’s performance of the baptism could be interpreted as an attempt to normalize homosexual relations and households in the Orthodox Church.
That latter point was addressed by the Holy Community of monasteries on Mt. Athos. They released a statement condemning the baptism because it may “leave the impression that it’s possible for the Church to accept any other form of family apart from the one established by the Holy Gospel.”
With that background provided, let’s turn to my defense of the nuclear family.
Is Concern for the Nuclear Family Foreign to the Gospel?
Admittedly, the scholar was at least partially correct in that neither the Gospels nor the patristic texts say much about family life. If anything, we seemingly hear opposition to it. Our Lord says, Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven (Matt. 23:9) and If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple (Lk. 14:6). In another place, our Lord says,
“’Who is My mother, or My brothers?’ And He looked around in a circle at those who sat about Him, and said, ‘Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother’” (Mk. 3:33-35).
What are we to make of these passages from the Gospels? Did our Lord and the early Church want to dissolve the nuclear family? Are we wrong in protecting it?
Our Lord did not wish to tear apart the family. After all, speaking of marriage between a man and a woman, He says, The two shall become one flesh…Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate (Mk. 10:8-9). When it comes to family, there exists a higher dimension of reality that we must properly understand.
At the beginning of both the Divine Liturgy and the Orthodox Crowning Service, the priest proclaims, “Blessed is the Kingdom…” Both these services are eschatological, they reveal to us the Kingdom to come. In the Divine Liturgy, we receive Christ’s Body and Blood, we are wed to Him in this beautiful wedding supper. In the Crowning Service, we are given an image of the Kingdom to come – the family is a little church, a little icon of heaven present here on earth.
The seemingly harsh words of the Gospels remind us of the eschatological dimension of the nuclear family. If a family is not an icon of the church, then it has lost its purpose. We are told “call no man father,” not because God despises earthly fatherhood, but because earthly fatherhood must reflect God’s Fatherhood over us for it to be genuine. We Orthodox call our priests “father” because they model and lead us to the heavenly Father. We call our biological dads “father” because – if they’re doing it right – they image the loving, nurturing, protecting Father in heaven. They receive fatherhood from God’s Fatherhood.
It’s the same with the nuclear family. The family reflects the relationship between Christ and His Church. Even when St. Paul gives marriage advice, he admits that he is speaking of both the nuclear family and the eschatological family. He quotes the same passage as our Lord about a man and his wife becoming one flesh. Then he states, This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church (Eph. 5:32). So tightly entwined with heaven are a man, his wife, and children who serve God in their household that St. Paul cannot speak of them without also speaking of Christ and the Church.
A lack of patristic usage of the word “family” isn’t a valid argument against family. If the scholar I mentioned searched “marriage” in the patristic texts, he would find plenty of support for the family. Some extreme schismatic groups of the early centuries condemned marital relations and glorified virginity. Our Church responded to these and other threats against marriage, always preserving the sanctity of marriage, and thereby of the family (which is the fruit of marriage). To ignore these debates and writings is a rather narrow-minded approach.
Besides responses to the above-mentioned historical attacks on marriage, there is admittedly little in the patristic era defending the nuclear family. The reason for that is quite obvious: nobody was attacking the concept of the nuclear family. Rarely did Fathers and councils defend things not being attacked. Until recent decades, it was generally taken for granted that the ideal secular life is for a man to wed a woman, to have children, and to raise their children in church and in the fear of God.
If anything, zeal for the family needed tempering historically. The old proverb “Blood is thicker than water” exists because families would put their own needs and desires above everything else. We have Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a classic example of the destructiveness of a family-centric outlook that ignores the family’s call to be an icon of Christ and the Church.
Our Lord, His disciples, and the Church Fathers have never wanted to break apart the nuclear family except when it fails to serve its proper purpose. At those times, our Lord reminds us that – if necessary – it is better to abandon our family and seek the Kingdom. Better to be persecuted for Christ by your family than to please them by forsaking our heavenly family, the Church.
The concept of a normal family life has always been part of the Church. It needed little defense except in those cases where overly zealous schismatics and ascetics attacked marital relations.
Today, the nuclear family is quite obviously under attack by Western society and political activists. For the Athonite monastics, the baptizing of children in a non-traditional family was the straw the finally broke the camel’s back. They felt the need to speak against this continual obscuring of the traditional family since it now involves the Orthodox Church and one of Her bishops.
I want to add that the Orthodox Church is in no way attacking homosexuals. We count among our ranks numerous monastics and laity with same-sex attraction. The Orthodox Church calls everyone to a life of repentance and sexual purity regardless of their struggle or temptations. We do not condemn homosexuals or discriminate against them at the chalice if they are living in repentance. It is the same standard for everyone. More on same-sex relationships and the stance of the Orthodox Church in America can be found here.
Photo: Portrait of a family from 1859. Unknown photographer. Courtesy of Getty Museum.