By Kevin Guenther Trautwein
* This article originally appeared in the January 2020 edition of Lendrum GraceNotes.
In our busy modern world— a world where the gig economy can provide your meals, your shelter, and anything you may need— what does it mean to be family? Can ancestry.com or a DNA testing kit tell us who we really are? Family is a notoriously difficult concept to define, and it can vary quite a bit in different times and places.
For the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs, the family or household could include hundreds of individuals, including men with several wives, maybe 3 or 4 generations of children, slaves or servants (either captured in battle or sold to pay off debts) and their partners and children. And in Roman times, it was not uncommon for an adult male to be adopted into a wealthier or more prestigious family, and sometimes even to displace the natural-born children as the heir of the estate.
In some Indigenous Canadian cultures, the children of your parent’s siblings are your brothers and sisters (not “cousins”). Several people might be “Mom” or “Dad” to a child, and be given the same respect and authority. Social reality often means more than mere biology.
The term “nuclear family” was first used in the early twentieth century to describe a Western way of being family that was prevalent in Europe from the 16th – 19th centuries— the model of mother, father, and their children.
As a PBS video on family puts it,
“[K]inship, or the recognition of relationships between people within the same community or biological family, plays a huge role in how we define our family structure. Yes, everyone all over the world has a biological ancestry, but who and what we call our familiar relations is not that cut and dried.”
A different term, “fictive kinship”, describes forms of close social ties that aren’t based on blood ties or marriage ties. And one of the ways the church in the first two centuries functioned was as a fictive kinship group, because the members saw each other as sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers.
It started with Jesus. When he told his followers, “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:50) he created a new family unit: the family of God. The early church continued this practice when they called each other brother and sister. The apostle Paul even used this fictive kinship to assist the runaway slave, Onesimus. Paul urged the slave-owner, Philemon, to receive Onesimus back “no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother” (Phil 1:16).
To be family is more than just to like each other; it is also to take responsibility for each other. When a brother or sister is hungry or lonely, we assist them, even if we might walk past a stranger. Because they saw themselves as family, early Christians accepted the responsibility to care for people toward whom they would otherwise have no obligation.
In their custom of mutual aid and support, Mennonites continue the practice of the early church. A perfect stranger, moving to Edmonton to attend university, often finds a ready-made family at our church. We bring meals to each others’ homes, we give each other rides, we even offer a place to stay. Mennonite Your Way is a hospitality network founded in 1976 to connect travelers and hosts who open their homes with no expectation of compensation – just like family. As they say on their website: “In all relationships let love and generosity flourish.”
Jesus asked his followers to open up their categories of family, to extend their sense of compassion and responsibility beyond their small tribal affiliations to include people all over the world. As children of God, Jesus teaches that we are not merely friends, or even neighbours. We are “strangers no more, we’re sisters and we’re brothers now” (Worship Together #442).
So when the winter is cold and your car won’t start, or when your tap is broken, who do you depend on? When you’re traveling and you run into trouble, or if you’re lonely and you just need to talk, who’s there for you? It doesn’t matter if you live with a partner or children or parents or alone, you have a family, and you are loved.
If there’s something weird and it don’t look good, Who you gonna call?