For some time now, Giles Fraser has played the role of passionate sponsor for the full inclusion of LGBTI people within the Church of England. Whilst his unflagging advocacy provokes a certain admiration, it also leaves him prone to making rash, gratuitous statements – particularly when they concern his opponents. Previously, I examined Fraser’s attempts to celebrate the emergence and rise of “forged” family groupings by trivializing the concept of the modern nuclear family. Fraser’s claims were as fallacious as they were bold: issuing pronouncements regarding the supposed novelty and unimportance of this particular family type, despite there being almost no evidence to support such confident assertions (and a wealth of data to contradict them).
Being a man of the cloth, Fraser also tried to freight his argument with the imprimatur of Holy Writ, insisting on biblical ambivalence regarding the biological, two-parent family. He went so far as to claim that Jesus himself was vehemently opposed to the idea as (at best) a poor facsimile of the divinely-centred ideal, preferring a kind of “fictive kinship” grounded in shared allegiance to God. Having scrutinised the first half of his recent essay and found it wanting, I now turn to the essay’s second, “theological” stage. Unfortunately, it fares no better – suggesting that Fraser’s grasp of biblical interpretation is just as uncertain as his engagement with social science and history.
Fraser, the New Testament, and the nuclear family
We may begin by scrutinising Fraser’s major theological claim – namely, that Jesus and the New Testament authors were hostile to the idea of the nuclear family. To be sure, there are certain things he gets right. He observes that “membership of this new family [i.e., the family Jesus inaugurated] is not premised on biological kinship but on baptism” – that is, upon confessional faith in Christ as Lord. This is true, so far as it goes: Jesus repeatedly relativised the notion of the “natural” family through his teachings and actions (e.g., Luke 9:59-60). With his epoch-shifting ministry, he created a new kinship group around his own person. Membership within that family was not a token of genealogy or biological inheritance, but was secured through obedience to the Father. The chief expression of this obedience was, of course, devotion to Christ himself.
Matthew 12:46-50, which Fraser cites, captures this sentiment admirably. Jesus’ response to his own family’s entreaties points allusively to the fact that he intended to construct a familial community whose members shared a common commitment to performing the will of God. Other passages in the Gospels, such as Luke 8:59-60, also reveal a man convinced that wholehearted devotion to both him and his mission – exceeding the demands even of one’s biological family – was an individual’s principal obligation. So stringent was this requirement that Jesus employed a familiar form of Hebraic hyperbole to describe the “hatred” one should feel towards one’s family if authentic discipleship within the company of God was to become a reality (Luke 14:26).
At first glance, it would seem that Fraser’s argument is sound. But to relativise something is not to denigrate it, and relegating one’s biological family to a position of secondary importance hardly provides warrant for the dubious conclusions he reaches. Nor does the New Testament always present its readers with a simple binary choice between natural and spiritual families, as if the two were inherently antithetical.
Despite subordinating the natural family within the hierarchy of kingdom priorities, Jesus and his followers nevertheless held in high esteem several key ingredients composing modern “nuclear” kinship types. Take the notion of enduring heterosexual marriage, seen as the bedrock and mainspring of stable, biological families. Far from trivializing the marital bond between a man and a woman, the gospels regard a person’s ongoing fidelity to the “one-flesh” union with their spouse as an important manifestation of Christian discipleship. So clear is this teaching that Richard Hays confidently concluded: “permanent, monogamous marriage is [according to the NT] the norm; Christians are called upon to see their marriages as expressions of discipleship and to renounce divorce…”
A high view of marriage can be gleaned from Jesus’ own comments on the topic. Although the synoptics report Christ’s words with slight variations, they are united in recounting his near-absolute foreclosure on divorce, as well as his grounds for doing so (e.g., Mark 10:1-12). Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have Jesus root his view of lifelong, covenantal marriage in the creation mandate: man and woman were created for each other (Gen 2:23-24), “yoked together in a union so permanent and inviolable that only God has the right to dissolve it” (so Gerald Hawthorne). The depth of this bond was such that husband and wife were seen, not as two discrete parties to a contractual agreement, but as a new, composite entity (Mark 10:8).
Jesus endorsed and re-affirmed this ideal in his confrontation with his opponents; indeed, rooting marriage in God’s founding vision for creation only served to underscore its sacral importance. His appeal to Genesis 1-2 and its evocative “one-flesh” image reveals a belief in the permanency, complementarity, and monogamous character of marriage. It also needs to be stressed that by pointing to those texts, Jesus implicitly affirmed one of the central purposes of marriage, namely, the generation of children. God’s creation of man and woman for each other is viewed as a crucial manifestation of their status as his image-bearers. And as those fashioned in his likeness, they, too, possess the capacity for creation – seen chiefly in their ability to generate new life. Pace Fraser, this is all a far cry from being an “enemy” of the nuclear or natural family. Moreover, one of the more common precursors to the new family types he tends to laud – i.e., the dissolution of an existing marriage – is prohibited as a violation, not simply of the marital bond, but of one’s pledge to follow Christ.
What the evangelists chose to include of Jesus’ teachings in their own works is, of course, indicative of their own theological and ethical concerns. For all the ambivalence they evince regarding natural families within the new covenant community, they seem to adhere to positions that many modern advocates of the nuclear family would warmly endorse. Whilst Mark’s critical depiction of Jesus’ family (3:31-34) is consistent with his sketch of discipleship as a journey requiring sacrifice of even the most intimate associations, he is far from anti-family. As New Testament scholar Stephen Barton has shown, Mark, like the other evangelists, upholds the creational ideal concerning marriage, whilst also affirming the Old Testament commandment that children honour their parents (7:9-13) – indication that the ongoing integrity of the biological family was of signal importance to both Jesus himself and the Second Evangelist.
Context matters. The note of scepticism that runs through parts of the New Testament is often directed at what the family had become symbolically within the belief structure of a major strand of Judaism at the time. N.T. Wright observes that the nation (and within that, the family unit) “stood alongside other symbols, sustaining the entire Jewish worldview”. Within the fractious, besieged environment of first-century Judaism, family, food laws, and Sabbath-keeping acquired near-talismanic significance; at least for some sects, the overriding aim was to police the boundaries of the community as stringently as possible, in order to guard against the dilution of its ethno-religious identity. The early Christians didn’t object to the biological family per se, as something inherently “bad” to be discarded, but to the idolatrous importance with which some had imbued it. Whilst Jesus never saw the natural family as ultimate, we have reason to think he viewed it as good and necessary.
What about the Old Testament?
It goes without saying that much of what the New Testament teaches in regards to marriage and the family is, like so much else, deeply rooted in the soil of the Old Testament. That much is obvious from the brief survey of Jesus’ attitude towards divorce and his appeal to Genesis 1-2. But rather than engage with the formative influence of such texts, Fraser seems to prefer the rather facile claim that the Old Testament offers a muddied view of matrimony and the family. Thus, his confidence that the Hebrew Bible is quite “relaxed” about many of its heroes having multiple wives. Whether a series of discrete vignettes about different individuals amounts to a unified attitude is questionable. A much surer case can be made that multiple marriages are, broadly speaking, viewed as a perilous departure from what the Creator instituted at the beginning (Gen 2:24) – one that arises from, and indeed precipitates, moral decline.
It is no coincidence that Lamech, whose sinful arrogance outweighed that of his murderous ancestor, Cain, is also the first recorded person in the Old Testament to marry more than one woman (Gen 4:19-23); as Old Testament scholar Victor Hamilton suggests, the association of these two elements – moral cruelty and polygamy – is rather telling. And what of Solomon, to whom Fraser himself refers? One can only conclude that 1 Kings 11:1-13 has been excised from his Bible, for it is there that the biblical narrator forges a fairly clear connection between the king’s voracious appetite for wedded bliss and his eventual apostasy. True, part of the problem lay in the fact that Solomon married women from the surrounding nations (as opposed to Israelite women), but the association with such a prodigious “collection” of wives and spiritual corruption is surely implicit in the text: if one’s priorities are carved up with the addition of a single spouse (cf. 1 Cor 7:32-35), imagine how diluted devotion to one’s Sovereign might be with 700 of them. The upshot of all this is that the Hebrew Bible is, to say the least, far more cautious about polygamy than Fraser assumes. Grudging concession to the mores of the day? Probably. “Perfectly relaxed”? Probably not.
It’s true that the concept of family has changed significantly since the documents of the Old Testament were produced. Levirate marriage, patriarchalism, concubinage, and clan structures: practices such as these, which were simply part of the warp and woof of Israelite culture, have vanished; they are boundary markers between different historical eras, and thus different understandings of family formation. Even so, certain crucial features persist, which genetically links past and present iterations of the family. OT scholar Joel Drinkard has written of the foundational role Genesis 1:27-28 and 2:24 can play in developing an Old Testament conception of family. According to Drinkard, some of the attributes composing contemporary nuclear families – including biological-sexual differentiation, or the establishment of distinct family units (“leaves his father and mother…”) – find strong analogues in those texts. He wisely concludes that despite the many stages of evolution the family has undergone since the era of ancient Israel, “much remains remarkably unchanged over that same span”.
Leaping over logical gaps: an unreliable evangelist for “modern” families
Fraser doesn’t merely use scriptural teachings to argue against the nuclear family; he also seeks to press them into service to argue for modern or bespoke family types, including same-sex kinship arrangements. This is another significant leap in logic. There is no essential connection between a covenant “family” grounded in common faith and one framed by same-sex eroticism; their claimed equality as biblically-viable kinship structures is little more than an instance of free association. We may agree with Fraser that acts of solidarity and mutual care within the gay community during the early-AIDS crisis were expressions of noble human impulses. Who would want to say otherwise? But it’s difficult to take seriously his subsequent conclusion that those relationships and kinship structures are more firmly rooted in Scripture than the natural family – especially when one considers what many of its key passages actually say about family formation, marriage, and sexual relationships.
If anything, the biblical evidence points in the other direction. The Jesus who de-centred the biological family in favour of an eschatological community unmoored from genealogy is also the Jesus whose radicalisation of marriage and divorce would make even many modern conservatives blush. That he did so on the basis of Genesis 1 and 2 would seem to automatically rule out the very relationships Fraser celebrates. The Paul who counselled virgins to remain unmarried, thereby cutting across accepted cultural norms (1 Cor 7:8), is also the Paul who condemned homosexual relationships, not merely as an offence against traditional sensibilities, but as an affront to the cosmic order God has instituted (Rom 1:24-27).
These are only the most explicit corollaries to what is implicit elsewhere in the Bible. Yes, Fraser attempts to link Scripture’s proscriptions against homosexuality with a lack of patriotism, but they remain unconvincing. Even if one accepts this as a rationale for the Old Testament’s sanctions (for to engage in sexual acts that deny the possibility of children is to frustrate the survival of the nation), it makes no sense of Pauline prohibitions against same-sex erotic activity – precisely because the Apostle wasn’t writing to ethnic communities that relied for their persistence on procreation. Fraser, it seems, has simply tried to smuggle in his favoured versions of family formation with the entirely unobjectionable claim that the New Testament recognizes certain forms of extended or fictive kinship structure.
Some concluding thoughts
In no way does my critique invalidate the general notion of “forged” family groups. Many of them remain legitimate – indeed, honourable – manifestations of gospel-leavened kinship arrangements. One of the New Testament’s controlling narratives has God graciously adopting those whom he has called, thus grafting them into the covenant community (Rom 8:15-17, 23; 11:17). Or what about John 19:26-27, and the crucified Messiah’s pronouncement of a new kinship arrangement between Mary and the one whom he loved? A more poignant example of “blended” family formation would, I submit, be difficult to find.
Galvanized by the moral power of this vision, many traditionalist believers have resisted the urgings of modern culture to atomise or isolate family units. At their best, some have even sought to imitate God’s boundless generosity via their own acts of adoption. Meanwhile, the malign suggestion that religious conservatives are predisposed to idolize the nuclear family fares quite badly: traditionalist Christians who daily imbibe the wisdom of Scripture are more likely to warn against the family’s potential to usurp God’s position as the ultimate object of one’s allegiance. This hardly resembles the kind of fetishizing insularity Fraser attributes to those whom he opposes, and reveals a greater depth of insight than charges of “blindness” would suggest.
A final word. One of the themes of Fraser’s essay seemingly implies that the views he criticises have more to do with (right-wing) political calculus than with genuine attempts to grasp reality. Although there is some truth to this, his effort to deconstruct religiously conservative claims en masse as ideologically-driven power plays yields meagre results. The biblical data indicates that however much political machinations may have adulterated these claims, they’re not ultimately grounded in conservative revanchism. Nor are they driven in the main by wistful nostalgia for a bygone era. Rather, they are rooted in something far deeper – namely, an (imperfect) effort to “live rightly in the world” according to principles embedded in the created order and revealed in Holy Writ. Fraser’s dismissals notwithstanding, religiously conservative views concerning sex, marriage, and the family embody patterns of thinking whose origins lie at the very core of that sacred testimony.