Recently, a temporarily dippy person asked me, “Are you single or do you have a family?”
So I answered, simply, “Yes.”
“Which is it?” he asked.
“Both,” I replied. “I am single, but I did not materialize on a street corner in a clap of thunder! I have parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins, nieces and nephews, and aunts and uncles. So the answer to your question is yes, I am single, and yes, I have a family.”
He laughed as he realized the stupidity of his original question.
But it betrays something very important: nowadays a family is a married couple and their children. Of course, we hasten to include single-parent families as an afterthought. We even have to stop and think about whether an orphan living with an unmarried aunt is a family or not.
The Modern Nuclear Family
The concept of the nuclear family is as about as old as the concept of the nuclear bomb. Even our most recent ancestors would find our definition of the word family very limiting, very odd, and perhaps even bizarre. Before World War II, a family included all living relatives, all ancestors, and even people who aren’t legally related, such as brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, third cousins, or even close friends. For instance, when my mother was growing up in the 1930s, she had an aunt who was really just a friend of the family by modern estimation.
Today, especially in politics, the contemporary meaning of the word family is found more in whom it excludes rather than in whom it includes.
The word family appears increasingly in modern translations of the Bible, but neither biblical Greek nor biblical Hebrew possesses a word that means what we mean when we say family! Where we speak of families, the Bible speaks of households. The translators put in the word family, not just to make their translation more accessible to us, but partly also to make our wallets more accessible to them. There is a practical reason for this. In this day and age, the more a Bible translation appears to uphold family values, the more it will sell. What good is a Bible translation if no one reads it? And who will read it if no one buys it?
But we should also understand what the Bible means by household.
The Biblical Household
If we read about the conversion of Lydia in Acts 16:11-15 while holding in our minds the modern idea of a nuclear family, we get the wrong picture. We think perhaps of a single mother who invites Paul and his retinue to stay in her modest apartment. Or we might wonder how Lydia explained everything to her husband when he got back from his trip! We imagine him stumbling over Paul and his friends, exclaiming loudly, “Who are all these people? Are you daft, woman? I leave on a short trip, and come back to find you’ve joined some cult, and they’re living here right in my house!” Since Acts does not record Paul beating a hasty retreat from Lydia’s house when her husband returned, we can see we need to correct the picture.
A biblical household combined the features of a modern family and a modern business. The family members, the employees, and the slaves all lived together in the same house, which functioned both as a home and as a place of business. In the Roman Empire of the first century, slavery was by no means an enviable status. However, slaves were members of the household, and under some circumstances they had inheritance rights (see Luke 20:9-16). The master had a legal obligation to provide them with room and board, which is why people sometimes sold themselves into slavery. We know from archaeology that, in the first century, women sometimes headed households and that successful businesswomen were not unusual. For example, the largest building in Herculanaeum, a suburb of Pompeii, was a businesswomen’s club. Since Herculanaeum was buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, we know that the club was thriving at the same time as the events in Acts. We also know that Lydia must have been wealthy, because she was a dealer in purple, a very expensive upper-class luxury item in those days.
So if we read about the conversion of Lydia in Acts 16:11-15 while holding in our minds the historical context and the biblical concept of a household, we get a different and more accurate picture. We realize that Paul converted a wealthy and influential member of the business community, along with all her relatives, employees, and slaves, and that when she invited Paul and his retinue to stay in her house, they had luxury accommodations. Since Lydia is firmly in command, it is apparent that she is not married and is the head of the household herself. (After all, Acts 16:15 says it was her household.)
The Household of God
So when we read in the Bible about households—or in more recent translations, about families—we must understand that twenty-first-century suburbia hadn’t been invented yet. There were no household appliances, so there was a domestic staff. The household was both a family and a business; it included the family members, the upstairs maid, the gardener, the cook, the file clerk, the valet, the receptionist, the salesman, the stable hand, the swineherd, the housekeeper, the accountant, and the governess—and everyone lived together in one house. Well, that would have been a rather large household, but you get the idea. The members of the household were empowered to carry out the master’s business. Imagine a farm in the American Midwest during the last century, such as Dorothy’s home situation in the movie The Wizard of Oz, or the household in the British television series Upstairs Downstairs.
Likewise, the household of God includes the family members (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), the angels, the prophets and apostles, as well as the rank-and-file believers, who are being adopted as sons. We all live together in one house. We are empowered to carry out the business of our household, which is to redeem every human soul. We are not only loved by God, we are also sent by God. We are the agents of His providence in the lives of sinners, that they might come into fellowship with Him.
Theological Problems with ‘Family’
The problem with translating household as family is that it is very conducive to the gnostic heresy, which exists both inside and outside the Church. Outside the Church, we call it New Age philosophy. Inside the Church, it causes theological irregularities.
The modern concept of the family of God has numerous theological problems, not the least of which is the violence it does to the Greek and Hebrew terminology and to the underlying legal metaphors in the biblical text. The family of God is not a biblical doctrine, it is a gnostic doctrine adapted to the circumstances of our age. It gradually causes us to change our theology, our religious vocabulary and even the text of the Bible to suit it.
The phrase family of God allows us to think of the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, the angels, and us as human beings as members of one family. As members of the same family, we are one in essence, which means we differ only in our relationships and roles. In saving us, Jesus is doing us a great kindness, by helping us realize that we were really entitled to God’s riches and blessings all along. However, this deprecates Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, which now seems to be a somewhat extreme form of therapy, and it diminishes God’s grace to us, because God’s grace consists not in giving us a heritage, but in reminding us of a heritage. Since we have blurred or even erased the line between the human and divine, we diminish Jesus. People now speak of “Jesus and God” rather than “Jesus, our God” —a subtle change in wording that belies a fundamental shift in thinking. It is impossible for an outsider to hire on as a family member—I have never seen a want ad advertising a vacancy for uncles—so the modern concept of the family of God permits us to think of unbelievers as outsiders from whom we must protect the family. We end up fighting sinners instead of rescuing them!
Not only does this modern gnosticism allow us to neglect Christian obedience, by changing God’s commandments into tips for happy living, it actually encourages us to disobey.
The Biblical Faith
In truth, God stoops lower and lifts us higher than modern gnosticism can even dream.
In the biblical concept of the household of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the family members, the angels, prophets, and apostles are his slaves, and the rest of us are just the livestock in the field—in fact, Jesus calls us His sheep. We were created to be in full fellowship with God, but because of Adam’s disobedience, we are now in the predicament that is the consequence of Adam’s original sin. We are like people who live in a ghetto, because their millionaire ancestor squandered their fortune by gambling on the horses. Our predicament is that we have become spiritual animals who face the finality of death in great distress. There is an essential difference between us and Jesus Christ, because we are only God’s creatures, while Jesus is God Himself, incarnate as a human being. Because of His infinite mercy, grace, and love, Jesus became as one of us, to save us from this predicament, by dying on the cross to undo the damage done by our ancestor. But Jesus does much more than restore us to our original state! He causes us to be adopted as God’s sons. His death on the cross transforms us from the lowliest of the hired hands to the very sons of the Father. As sons, we share in the wealth of the family, but more importantly we have both the authority and the responsibility to conduct God’s business in this world. We are saved from death, but there is an extra bonus: on the last day the Father conducts a performance review and gives us awards, based on how well we carried out our part of the business of His Kingdom.
Understanding the New Testament Better
Now we can understand the Epistle to the Hebrews, because the concept of the first-century household lies at its core.
Keep in mind that if you are doing business with a household, you are on far firmer ground if you are dealing with the son rather than with a servant, just as today you would be on firmer ground if you have an agreement from a company’s attorney than you would be if you just had the word of a rank-and-file employee. As the Son, Jesus is the authorized business agent of the Father, and as such has more authority than any of the servants.
In Hebrews 1:1-14, the writer argues that Jesus, as the Son, is superior to the angels, who are servants of God in heaven. Because heaven is God’s dwelling place, we might think of the angels as the household servants; the maids, the janitors, and the office staff. The concept of ‘angel’ in biblical times includes not only the separate spiritual creatures we think of as angels, but also any theophanies—a ‘theophany’ is appearance of God in humanlike form. The term Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament corresponds to our word theophany, which means an anthropomorphic manifestation of God. Therefore, the anthropomorphic appearances of God to Moses were called angels, and that is why the Epistle to the Hebrews says that the Old Covenant was given by angels.
In Hebrews 3:1-6, the writer argues that Jesus, as the Son, is also superior to Moses. Because Moses and the other prophets serve God on earth, we might think of them as the field hands. In Ezekiel 34:1-31, God depicts the leaders and prophets of Israel as God’s shepherds and the people as God’s sheep.
A modern business consists of the board of directors, the executive officers, the rank-and-file employees, and temporary contractors. God’s household consists of the members of the Trinity, the angels, the prophets, and us sinners. In an ancient household, the son was empowered to enter into binding agreements, contracts, and other legal commitments. In God’s household, the Son is the member of the Trinity who performs that function toward us. Therefore, in Hebrews 10:19-39, the writer argues that if we have a deal with the Son, who is on the board of directors, so to speak, we are in far better shape than if we were dealing with an angel in the legal department or a prophet in contract administration. If we reject a deal offered us by a prophet or an angel, we can always hope that some other functionary will offer us a better deal. But if we reject the Son’s best and final offer, to whom can we go? No one, because we are already at the top! Therefore we should stick with the Son and work things out with Him.
There is no other name under heaven by which we can be saved, but Jesus Christ. Therefore, if you have offended Him, do not seek another, and don’t try to go over His head. You cannot find another, because there are none, and you cannot go over His head, because He is at the top. The message of the Epistle to the Hebrews is: “Stick with Jesus.”