The Bible and Black Families: A Theological Challenge

[1] The perception that families are in crisis has increased greatly in recent years…. On the one hand, today we find a yearning to return to pristine biblical teachings and “traditional family values,” but on the other hand, too many either see the Bible as irrelevant to the modern family crisis or, worse still, refuse to be shaken from their parochial, dogmatic usage of it.

[2] This chapter examines the Bible’s many words about family life and its significant silences on the subject. In fact, the Bible may not be suitable as a rule for traditional family values. It surprises us in its profound messages on blood kinship and the need to recognize and appreciate kinships beyond blood relations. The simple fact is that the nuclear family model (father, mother, and children) no longer represents the household pattern of most American families.[1] At the same time, the extended family typical in traditional African societies is receiving new attention.[2] In significant ways, the Bible endorses the extended family model and even supplements it with a kind of fictive kinship.[3]The burgeoning concern about family life and the Bible has spawned many new volumes.[4] However, scarcely any of this literature treats the condition, needs, or predicaments of diverse Black families and households. Of course, John Mbiti’s book, African Religions and Philosophy, helps distinguish the African household, which traditionally includes grandparents and other blood relatives, from the European nuclearfamily paradigm.[5] Also, there are many studies on Black American families written from the perspective of sociology, the allied health sciences, or political science. Very few of these, however, have emerged from Black academies of religion or the Black Church.

[3] There are two exceptions. In Roots of a Black Future: Family and Church, J. Deotis Roberts acknowledges that in many quarters, the Black family in America is in trouble. He goes on to examine the causes and implications in light of the Black family’s African background.…[6] Wallace Charles Smith, in The Church in the Life of the Black Family, explores the Black Church’s potential as an “extended family” and outlines elements for Black family theology.[7] We still lack a study on the possible ways in which the Bible provides insights and challenges for the doing of theology through a revitalized ministry to families in general and, given the complexities that beset them today, Black families and households in particular. [8]We must ask how to discern the relevance of the Bible for a modern social milieu that differs so dramatically from that of ancient Palestine, Africa, or the Greco-Roman environment.

[4] Within the Bible, we do not find a monolithic, static view of family life. Rather, we find changing attitudes, values, and practices as God’s Word seeks expression in diverse ancient cultural settings. I will suggest that while the nuclear family is commendable in some respects, neither in biblical times nor today can discussions of family life be restricted to the nuclear family model. Furthermore, we will show that the New Testament has a distinct concern for greater priority on quality relationships in the household (Greek: oikos/okia), which emerges as a theological paradigm for membership in the Household of God. We shall also encounter some of the limitations – indeed, dangers – of popularizing simplistic and literalist usages of the Bible, which is so much in vogue today in electronic media religion and American churches, whether they are Black, Hispanic, white, or Asian. I will then suggest a creative agenda for the ministry of the Black Church – a challenge for today and the years ahead.

The Family as a Patriarchal Household in the Old Testament
[5] There is a long-standing tendency on the part of many to romanticize Old Testament portrayals of family life as either uniformly monogamous or harmonious. Actually, early Hebraic society showed less interest in monogamy than it did in variations of polygamy (Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar of Gen. 16; Jacob, Rachel, Bilhah, Leah, and Zilpah of Gen. 30)[9]. Likewise, Hebraic family life frequently reflected tensions between brothers (Cain and Abel in Gen. 4; Jacob and Esau in Gen. 27; Joseph and his brothers in Gen. 37) and between sisters (Gen. 30). Even incest was not excluded, for Hebraic life depicts daughters, such as those of Lot, who engage in sexual relations with their fathers (Gen. 19:36). It sanctions Tamar’s seduction of her father-in-law, Judah (Gen. 38; cf. Matt. 1:3). Here again, the purpose is to continue the blood line of God’s people through successive covenants. By contrast, when there is no honorable theological motive, as in the case of the man who has intimate relations with his mother-in-law (1 Cor. 5), there is a strong biblical rebuke. These examples demonstrate that God uses a range of possibilities in forming families and households, often as the result of preexisting tensions and social pressures. One could say that the Old Testament appears to display a divine flexibility in advancing God’s purposes through diverse patterns of family and household life.

[6] Irrespective of the diverse structures of Old Testament households, the Bible consistently places emphasis on the need to honor one’s father and mother. This is the fifth commandment of the Decalogue (Exod. 20:5; 21:12; Deut. 5:16; Lev. 19:3).[10] Some might construe this bestowal of honor on one’s parents to mean that the early Hebrews envisioned social equality between men and women in Hebraic society. The honor to be given to one’s mother derived from the love and care that she was expected to exhibit toward her children, but she herself remained in a subordinate position as wife/concubine to the father of the household. Throughout the Old Testament, the dominant authority figure is consistently the father; his sons were next in prominence in the social hierarchy….

[7] Despite the popular tendency to do so, it is quite inadequate to resort to simplistic, literalist approaches to the Old Testament, as if it provides us with ready-made guidelines for addressing the needs of today’s Black families and households. In Black communities and others, Church leaders and the laity alike have allowed themselves to imitate the popular biblicist and proof-texting tendencies of street-corner evangelists, insensitive missionaries, and electronic-media preachers. Many people in the Church, including church-school teachers and pastors, tend to pick and choose biblical texts that suit their own tastes and personal values, without making much attempt to reflect critically on how these values often only mirror their own narrow socialization. Furthermore, Church leaders barely study the ancient historical and cultural background that gave rise to this Word of God. What is forgotten is that the Bible confronts us with a series of theologically motivated histories of ancient communities (including families and households) in crisis or struggle, trying to make sense out of constantly changing socioeconomic and political circumstances. Biblical authors were both creative and flexible as they adapted successive divine revelations. Too often today, we neglect this fact and are not instructed by it….

[8] There are ways we can appreciate both the perennial relevance and adaptability of Old Testament traditions as part of God’s ancient Word. It may be that too many churches today have allowed selfishness, individualization, snappy condemnations, and the scramble for ecclesiastic power to retard their ability to discover new life from the Scripture. Nevertheless, a decisive challenge still confronts the Black Church: to break down the dividing walls of its own imitative socialization and acculturated, institutional self-understanding. These elements separate the Church from the needs and aspirations of her oppressed people who have been relegated to the margins of an affluent but often hostile larger society. That the oppressed languish so is a continuing symbol of our collective brokenness.

Moral Action and Blood Kinship in the New Testament
[9] Many who consider themselves to be Christians and strive for family stability and moral decency derive much comfort from the categorical ways in which the New Testament seems to provide clear-cut guidelines on aspects of family life and human sexuality. Rather than struggling with the complexities or ambiguities of the text, such individuals devise quick formulae for simple daily living “above reproach.” In some ways, these practices are well-intentioned and even admirable. What responsible person could question the goals of family stability or moral decency? Indeed, our churches have long taught that the New Testament has a normative or prescriptive function for Christian living, despite the fact that people at times appeal to the same text to substantiate completely opposing views on agiven issue.[11] Still, it is very easy to construct a hypothetical chart of ancient New Testament teaching that would seen to make matters easier for those who can only be secure with a “simple faith” in the pursuit of stable and decent households. But a quest for simple faith can lead to self-righteous dogma and condemnation, rather than the acceptance of the penitent, forgiveness, mercy, and love. I could offer, for example, the following composite of ten seemingly straightforward New Testament teachings:

Hypothetical New Testament “Ten Commandments” on the Family
[10] 1. Honor your parents (Mark 10:19; Matt. 19:19; Luke 18:20; Eph. 6:2).
2. Wives, be submissive to your husbands (Col. 3:18; Eph. 5:32; 1 Pet. 3:1).
3. Husbands, love your wives (Col. 3:20; Eph. 5:25, 28).
4. Children, obey your parents (Col. 3:20; Eph. 6: 1-3; 1 Pet. 3:7).
5. Do not divorce (Mark 10:11, 12; Luke 16:18; Matt. 5:32; Luke 11:17).
6. Do not prevent the children from coming to Jesus (Mark 10:13-16; Matt. 19:13-15; Luke 18:15-17).
7. A divided household will not stand (Mark 3:24, 25; Matt. 12:25; Luke 11:17).
8. Love thy neighbor as thyself (Mark 12:32; Matt. 5:43; 19:19; 22:39; Luke 10:27; Rom. 13:8, 9; James 2:8).
9. Young men should control their passions (2 Tim. 2:22; Titus 2:6).
10. You are obligated to provide for your relatives, especially your own (nuclear) family (1 Tim. 5:8).

[11] If we lived on an isolated island as part of a homogeneous network of families, these ten guidelines, all well-attested in the New Testament, could constitute a new Decalogue. We would need only add references regarding adultery, fornication, temptations, and coveting (desiring and trying to take fraudulently things that do not belong to you). However, we do not live on such an island. We exist in a modern, rather complex social milieu and technological market economy that intrudes on our daily living with a wide range of conflicts and pressures (media, outside peer or professional loyalties) that often are beyond parental or family control. To invoke some simplistic “new Decalogue” extracted from the New Testament is ultimately very inadequate and a most questionable procedure. Obviously, our listing of guidelines proceeds from the presumed traditional needs of the abstracted idea of an ideal family. As such, they are highly subjective and arbitrary. We arrive at them by editing out parts of the original text, ignoring the original intent or context of the passage, and minimizing the ways other New Testament passages might show a changed perspective that would require qualifications….

[12] God is the pre-eminent parent and householder in the Jesus tradition and elsewhere in the New Testament. So impressed is Matthew with his idea that he compares his own interpretive task with the work of the Kingdom of God, which Jesus equated with that of a household “who brings out of the treasury what is old and what is new” (Matt. 13: 52b). Likewise, the parable of the prodigal son, Luke’s old treasure, can also obtain new pertinence. In Luke 15: 11-32, we find a father and his two sons. These three are symbols of a new householder (God), the youthful sinner, and the rigidly loyal, mature brother who is consistent to a self-righteous fault. Of course, this parable is open to different interpretations. Is it a story about sinners, about two brothers, or a social drama? Actually, this parable may be Luke’s reinterpretation of Deuteronomy 21: 18-21, where both parents are instructed to bring the stubborn and rebellious son to the elders of the city, to be stoned to death! In Luke’s possible reinterpretation, capital punishment is replaced with God’s mercy and compassion.

[13] Irrespective of the interpretation, it seems inescapable that the parable of the prodigal son has something to say about the nature of family relations that should be practiced within new households. The younger son returns in a wretched condition to the household after squandering his inheritance in riotous living. By all conventional standards, he now merits nothing, and he knows this. Indeed, that is exactly what he would get, if the matter were left to his older brother. Yet the parent, who is also the householder, sees him from afar, rejoices, and begins to teach both sons the true power and meaning of extending undeserved love (agape), forgiveness, mercy, and compassion. The parent here neither holds the younger son’s irresponsibility nor the older son’s anger and jealousy against him. Rather, he makes possible a reconciliation between brothers by taking action that has the potential of breaking down the walls between members of the household (cf. Eph. 2: 13-22)….

[14] Although in Matthew, Mark, and Luke one receives the impression that Jesus so redefined the criteria for kinship with him that he minimized the role of parents, it should not be forgotten how frequently he quoted the fifth commandment, “Honor thy father and thy mother.” His earthly parents, especially Joseph, may not have received much attention in his ministry, but is clear that they took pains to provide Jesus with careful religious instruction (Luke 2: 41-52) and were always ready to have him return home, no matter what the neighbors were saying (Mark 6:1-6). His mother remains near even at the end, and one suspects that Joseph had once again traveled with Mary to Judea. If one considers the portrayal of Joseph as a sensitive and protective father, willing to travel into Egypt to protect his son, it is scarcely thinkable that he changed for the worse later. [12]The only reason we hear so little about Joseph is that in the emerging new Household, the focus becomes fixed on God as a loving parent whose Household Jesus opens so widely.

[15] Then too, the apocalyptic framework of many sections of the New Testament diverted attention away from the details of traditional parental functions and duties. The early Christian apocalyptic vision ushered in a new priority for actual and potential parents, one which (if accepted) would enable them to make the agape normative for living in the Household of God. The result could be new family life-styles and parental understanding of their children and the neglected children of others (“neighbors”)….

Listen to the Blood
[16] The prolific Black philosopher and historian W. E. B. DuBois hardly qualifies as a commentator on the Epistle to the Ephesians, but he does offer a profound image that assists us in specifying the conceptual core of Ephesians. In the postscript of his The Gift of Black Folk, W. E. B. DuBois writes as follows (emphasis mine):

[17] Listen to the Winds, O God the Reader, that wail across the whip-cords stretched taut on broken human hearts; listen to the Bones, the bare bleached bones of the slaves, that the line the lanes of Seven Seas and beat eternal tom-toms in the forests of the laboring deep; listen to the Blood, the cold thick blood that spills its filth across the fields and flowers of the Free; listen to the Souls that wing and thrill and weep and scream and sob and sing above it all. What shall these things mean, O God the Reader? You know. You know.[13]

[18] It would be easy for activist Blacks, whether in Brazil, South Africa, or the United States, to find in DuBois’s poetic invitation a clarion call to bitterness, cynicism, and social protest. The litany of historical atrocities against Blacks finds enough parallel among too many Blacks who show their marks of oppression by alarming rates of fratricide and other antisocial or countercultural activities that often account for the disproportional rate of incarcerating Blacks or committing them to mental hospitals. By listening only to the winds, bones, and blood invoked by DuBois, Blacks would only be listening with one ear. There is another blood for believers to hear with the other ear – the blood that symbolizes hope, new citizenship, and membership in the Household. Listening to the blood that the author of Ephesians has in mind can encourage a renewed, quality homecoming by the alienated, oppressed citizens who are so often treated as strangers in their native land.

[19] Many New Testament authors give us a mandate to let Christian evangelical work enable others to enjoy a constant “Homecoming” – not only the one experienced by the prodigal son, but also the one experienced by the uncharitable, jealous, self-righteous older son. Today the institutional Church often seems casual, inept, or rigidly moralistic in relating to the needs and problems of Black families and households. Unfortunately, the Church in our time tends to adapt to the prevailing winds of the larger culture. She seems unlikely to accept the challenge of being a transformer of culture or a home for the homeless by making the Word genuinely adaptable for new life among all God’s children – no matter how seemingly blemished or brutally oppressed. Such realities prompt us to explore how the theological process at work in the Bible impels the Black Church to new vistas of faith and a new listening to the blood in order to witness more effectively on behalf of the Household of God.

[20] Theologian Matthew Lamb provides a sobering dictum in Latin – Vox victimarum vox Dei.[14] Translated, this means “the cry of the victims is the voice of God.” If Black Church leaders have learned anything from the experience of Afro-Americans in the United States over the years, there should be no hesitance in admitting three things. First, racial hostilities and oppression, subtle and blatant, have made Afro-Americans one of the most victimized groups in American life. Second, these hostilities and oppression have allowed the Black Church to become the most significant institution of power in the Black community today. Almost inevitably, the first serious Black contender for the Unite States presidency had to be a minister! Third, white racism, whether “benign neglect” or manifest harassment, has, since slave days, had a deleterious impact on the stability of Black families and households, many of which cry out, not realizing their cries are the voice of God….

[21] To learn from the liberation theologians is for the Black Church to develop a new respect for and appreciation of the hurts, needs, and hopes of Black families and households as loci for “doing theology.” Again, there is the challenge to listen to the blood. This means discarding the biblicist’s simplicities of literalism and proof-texting. It also means discarding the other-worldly preoccupations of slave religion or the tendency to lord over as Ole Pharaohs in Black enclaves, and thus drain, in exploitative and self-aggrandizing ways, the limited resources of Blacks! In this, all are guilty to some extent, perhaps as unwitting proponents of a Black bourgeois Christianity imposed on Black families and households in need of vision, new listening, openness, and loving service where the people are so that they can arrive where we want them to be.

[22] To hear the voice of God as the cries of our victimized Black families and households is not to present our faith as a religion of don’ts and moral condemnations. Rather, it becomes an agenda of presenting the faith in light of the contingencies of their situation. It means struggling to discern how the Church can become the healing, understanding, and loving agency of God’s mercy to those who cry out, irrespective of how much those cries seem at times to be but a whisper from the churched and the unchurched in the Black community…. By “listening to the blood” of Christ, believers can place themselves on the threshold of a new partnership between Bible, theology, Black Church, and Black families. We are called to witness again, in our time, as prophetic “Households of God.”

From Troubling Biblical Waters: Race, Class, and Family
(Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1989),
pp. 150-152, 154, 155-156, 157-158, 159, 164, 165-166.
Used with permission.

[1] One must point out, however, that in 1974 only 37 percent of the United States household units were on the nuclear family model; 11 percent were couples with no children at home, 12 percent were single-parent families, 11 percent were remarried nuclear families, 4 percent were extended-kin networks, and 25 percent were simple or commune-type groups. See Letty M. Russell, The Future of Partnership (Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press, 1979), pp. 89, 94, 185.

[2] For an exception, see Joanmarie Smith, “Grandmothers, Aunts, ‘Aunts,’ and Godmothers,” in Gloria Durka and Joanmarie Smith, eds., Family Ministry (Oak Grove, Minn.: Winston Press, 1980), pp. 169-81.

[3] The use of family terms to refer, in antiquity, to members of certain synagogues, churches, clubs and cults is noted by Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983), pp. 87-89.

[4] Herbert Anderson, The Family and Pastoral Care, Don S. Browning, ed. (Philadelphia, Pa.: Fairness Press, 1984); Thomas M. Martin, Christian Family Values (New York: Paulist Press, 1984); Elizabeth Achtemeier, The Committed Marriage (Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press, 1976); Delores R. Leckey, The Ordinary Way: A Family Spirituality (New York: Crossroad, 1982); Theodore Mackin, Divorce and Remarriage (New York: Paulist Press, 1984).

[5] John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970), pp. 138-40.

[6] J. Deotis Roberts, Roots of a Black Future: Family and Church (Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press, 1980), pp. 24-29, 39-44.

[7] Charles Wallace Smith, The Church in the Life of the Black Family (Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1986).

[8] Marian Wright Edelman, Families in Peril: An Agenda for Social Change (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987), pp. 51-94.

[9] Martin, Family Values, pp. 24-33.

[10] The bestowal of honor on one’s parents continues to be a primary obligation in the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha and was paired with ancient Jewish teachings on the need to love one’s brother, even Gentiles, in areas of the diaspora, according to Pheme Perkins, Love Commands in the New Testament (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), pp. 19-20.

[11] Martin, Family Values, p. 110; Richard N. Longenecker, New Testament Social Ethics for Today (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), pp. 14-15; Willard M. Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women (Scottsdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1983), pp. 192-228.

[12] Martin, Family Values, p. 44.

[13] W. E. Burghardt DuBois, The Gift of Black Folk (New York: AMS Press, 1971 [1924]), p. 341.

[14] Matthew L. Lamb, Solidarity with the Victims (New York: Crossroads, 1982), p. 1. James H. Cone, Speaking the Truth (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986), p. 8, even insists that “there can be no Christian speech about God which does not represent the interests of the victims in our society.”