Families are not the church, should be free to define themselves

by Bill Tammeus

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The recent Synod of Bishops on the family has moved me to think some thoughts about families that some people may consider heretical.

But before I get to that, a few disclaimers:

I love my current blended family, I loved the family my first wife and I created when we gave birth to two daughters and I loved my family of origin -- and continue to love those who are left in it. I'm one of four children reared in a home in which our parents' marriage lasted 54 years, until the death of my father. Was it a perfect marriage? Don't be silly. No marriage is perfect.

Were we a perfect family when my sisters and I were growing up? Stop with the ridiculous questions, already. But all four of us siblings continue to love each other today and to be in almost daily touch even though we are scattered from coast to coast -- California to North Carolina, with Missouri and Illinois in between. Thanks, Internet and phones.

I am the father of two daughters. When my marriage to their mother ended after almost 27 years, it was clear that ours was one more imperfect union. But I love my daughters immensely. They and their children and I are geographically and emotionally close. I also love my four stepchildren, and my wife and I (married now almost 19 years) have done our best to create a blended family whose members care about each other.

So there's all that. But there's also this: Family is not the most important or even the primary mechanism or means God uses to bring people into God's larger family. Family is not the structure that serves as a channel of divine grace and, in the end, salvation, however that is defined. Nor is it the appointed organization through which its members most effectively wrestle with eternal questions.

Rather, those roles are for the church.

I am far from the first person to react with mistrust when the words "traditional family values" are spoken. They have become code words for an imaginary set of traditions in which, almost certainly, a male head of a household, relying on a twisted reading of such biblical passages as Ephesians 5:22, dominates the roost.

It's impossible to find any biblical warrant for the so-called ideal American family of one husband, one wife and 2.3 (or so) children. Families, in fact, always have come in different shapes and sizes and, until modern times, it has been unusual for anyone to claim that this or that version of family is normative for all and exists with the specific blessing of God.

It wasn't until the 1970s that scholars began to do much academic study of families and their structures throughout history. They found many different models in many different cultures, of course, so to use the phrase "traditional family values" is to raise the questions of whose tradition and what values.

In many ways, families should be able to define themselves. That is, if a household containing a mother, father and three children constitutes a family, why can't a household containing a grandmother, two grandchildren and a cousin? Or a legally married (or simply cohabitating) gay couple with an adopted daughter?

I don't want to devalue families. They are structures, ideally, within which children learn how best to be adults. They can be deep wells of love and support. It's within families that people exercise responsible parenthood. And on and on.

But families are not the church. They are structures of tradition, not sacred vehicles that dispense the sacraments, shape divine worship for all or act as the body of Christ on earth. When we confuse family with church we degenerate into the kind of idolatry of family that one regularly hears on such tedious radio shows as "Focus on the Family." Enough of that.

Is that heretical? Only if you idolize families.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for The Star's Web site and a column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. E-mail him at wtammeus@gmail.com.]

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