The 1990’s have seen the deterioration of the traditional American family, and the rise of the blended or patchwork family. The normal father, mother, and two children model has become mother, step-dad, brother, step-sister, and sister, etc. Included in the term patch-work family is the broken family, where neither spouses are together any longer, or the people who started the family were not married in the first place. Confronted with the breakdown of the traditional family, we as Christians wonder how to minister to people in non-traditional family structures, and we also wonder what standards we should uphold in our own families.
The problem is not a new one. Although the circumstances were different, much the same questions about family arose in the early church. The Roman family was a very important part of the Roman empire, so much so that legislation was passed to keep more marriages together.1 The family or household was a key building block for the Empire socially, economically, and politically: “…the household represented the ultimate constituent of the political community.”2 The Roman family was a direct descendent of the Greek family, sharing similar philosophy and practices. However, both had as much dysfunction as does today’s American family.
From the writers of the New Testament and other Christian writers, we see how the Christians adapted to this Greco-Roman family environment. Christianity held a higher standard for the family, one that created a more favorable environment for all members. Both broken families and stable families were now part of a larger family, the family called the church.
Greek And Roman Views Of Family
The Romans’ sense of family flowed from their Greek predecessors, making the Greek and Roman families quite similar. Writing in the first century B.C., the Roman writer Cicero said this about the family: “It is a great thing to share the monuments of common Ancestors, to participate in the same religious rituals and to use the same tombs.” (On Duties, 55).3
The philosophers of Greece and Rome painted a picture of the family throughout their writings. First of all, the Greek view of women was very low, almost putting women on an animal level. Romans were not quite as harsh, but they still held to male superiority, a view that transferred into marriage relationships. The wife was subordinate and dependent on the husband.4Her life revolved around his; she was confined to the household and was to obey him as would a daughter. If the wife “did something wrong” she would answer to her husband, and he would decide her punishment.5 She would also worship his gods, for, as Plutarch states: “it is becoming for a wife to worship and know only the gods that her husband believes in…”6 Wives were also called on by Plato to tolerate their husbands’ sexual infidelity.7
In addition, not only was the wife subordinate, but everyone under the roof of the household was to obey the oldest living male.8 The children and the slaves were under his authority, and this authority included the power of life and death over children and slaves.9
In an effort to reduce the power of the male over his wife, the Emperor Augustus passed a law that would keep a married woman legally under the house of her father, but this only proved to complicate matters more.10 The daughter’s family would then share control in the affairs of the married couple, and this frequently caused squabbles that led to divorce and broken families.
The picture of the Roman family system into which Christianity came seems grim, but first-century families did have some strong characteristics. The subordination of all members to the father of the household seems to us like a oppressive feature, but that depended on who the father was. There is evidence of some very loving husbands/fathers in letters and on tombstones. One letter from Cicero to his family tells how much he misses his wife, and how he longs to be with his children.11Another tombstone mourns the “sweetest most chaste, and exceptional wife.”12 Loyalty to one’s family and the family’s religious practices was very important. Ovid, a Roman writer, observes that “it is good to offer incense for the gods of your clan.” He also writes that a brother who is disloyal should stay far away from the family.13Furthermore, the way the family system was set up meant the household would be composed of many people, including slaves and their children.14 This made the Roman family quite large, offering shelter and food for those who may not otherwise have that chance. But while Roman families had good points, overall the family system was oppressive and created many bitter and hurt people.
Christianity Offers A Better Way
Born in Palestine, Christianity started as a group of ordinary Jewish people who believed that a man named Jesus was the savior of the world. It spread throughout the Roman empire, pulling in people from all walks of life and of all ages. Christianity entered into the Roman family system, while at the same time opposing some of it practices.
Basically, Christianity made a struggling Roman family system better by changing the rules. Early Christian leaders called husbands and wives to a higher standard, telling fathers/masters to treat all in the household kindly, affirming the inclusive Roman family but also including all people in the larger faith community.
In Ephesians 5:21-35 Paul requires husbands and wives to submit to one another in their relationship. In so doing, he calls Christian husbands to a higher standard than that of culture. He says: “Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). Paul goes beyond the cultural norm by telling the husbands who legally have control over the wife to use their position to serve their wives. He calls husbands to love their wives with the same spirit of servanthood that Christ showed in loving all of us.
Paul also calls Christian married couples to break from Roman tradition. Quoting Gen. 2:24, he urges the husband to leave his parents and be joined to his wife, contrary to Roman culture where the father or oldest male of the family had complete control over the new family.15 Richard and Catherine Kroeger also suggest that Paul is also calling the wife to break with that tradition.16
This same call for husbands to love their wives and their wives alone is echoed in other Pauline writings and in the Church Fathers. Colossians 3:18-4:1, Ignatius’ letter to Polycarp, Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians, and the Epistle of Diognetus all call Christian marriage to a higher standard than the surrounding culture.17
Paul also calls the Christian father to more than the cultural norm. The father, as head of an entire house, also must treat his children and slaves with kindness, and so be respected in return. Ephesians 6:1-9 gives the father/master the guidelines for treating the other members of the household, but the passage also calls the slaves and children to respond in obedience. Again Paul is working within the cultural bonds, but asking for a higher standard. Slaves could be killed for disobedience, but now Christian masters would not do this because they themselves are slaves to God and will seek to mirror Christ’s forgiveness (Matt. 18:21-35).
Romans had an already high standard of education for their sons; now Christians are to go further and teach all their children about Christ. The Christian household must take on a godly atmosphere of love and respect, as led by a servant leader who models Christ.18
What about the already broken families, the widows, orphans, the divorced, and those who were disowned by their families because of their faith? The Roman families had a habit of buying as slaves people who were less fortunate, giving them work, shelter, and food, even a place to raise their children. However, these slaves were sometimes abused or sold. Now, within the institution of the church, a more inclusive family with a higher standard was born. Jesus says in Matthew 12:48-50: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?…. Here is my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” The church is the new family.
The Pastoral Epistles emphasize this fact; Verner says that these letters characterize the church as the Household of God.19 This family theme for the church is evident throughout the New Testament (1 Tim 5:1-2, Heb. 10:19, 1 Cor. 6:6). Christians are now brothers and sisters with total strangers. Again this works with a culture that stressed the family in politics, economics, and social structure, but unlike the Roman structure, the church cares for the ones that do not have family and have no place in society (such as widows, who are accepted and cared for, brought into a new family so that other families now become their own [1 Tim 5:3-5].) This church family has become an alternative to the Roman household.20 It is better than the Roman household in which oppression and selfish control were dominant. The church offers love, and fellowship, and can lead the way to salvation. Where the Roman family fulfilled the economic, social, and political, and even emotional needs of people, the Church goes farther — fulfilling not only those needs but the most important need, the spiritual.
However, Christianity also brought division into the culture of the Roman family. Persons who became Christian remained part of their own family, but were still expected to worship the family gods. For Christians, worshipping idols was not acceptable and the family ties would be strained for these Christians. Some Christians lost their ties altogether: “when children or wives alone were converted, they were expected to abandon their family”.21 When that happened, the church could become a surrogate family, to meet their needs and guide them in the Christian life.
The Roman family of the first century appeared strong but was full of dysfunction. The traditions and roles that it had shared with Greek culture for hundreds of years could be very oppressive. Out of this structure God provided people a better way, one of love and servanthood. The traditional Roman family values were too low: God now called family members to higher standards in their cultural roles, and provided the family-less with a new family unit, the church.
Today as we see dysfunction in American families and the answer remains the same: Christ Christians are to have a higher standard for their family life than the culture, and the church is to be a family for those from broken families.
Gardner, Jane F. and Wiedemann, Thomas, The Roman Household: A Sourcebook. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Hodge, Peter, Roman Family Life. London: Longman, 1974.
Kroeger, Catherine, Social World Of Early Christianity. CH 208: Gordon Conwell, Spring 1996.
Kroeger, Richard and Catherine, The Classic Concept Of “Head” As “Source”: A Paper Hamilton, MA: Gordon Conwell, 1995.
Kyrtatas, Dimitris J., Social Structure of the Early Christian Community. New York: Verse, 1987.
Meeks, Wayne A, The First Urban Christians: Social World Of The Apostle Paul. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.
Osiek, Carolyn. What Are They Saying About The Social Setting Of The New Testament. New York: Paulist Press, 1984.
Scripture from Disciple’s Study Bible, NIV. Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 1988.
Staniforth, Maxwell, Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers. London: Penguin Books, 1987.
Treggiari, Susan, Roman Marriage. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.
Vemer, David C. The Household of God: The Social World Of The Pastoral Epistles. Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1983.
- This refers to the system of sine manu which kept the married daughter legally in the father’s household during the marriage. Treggiari, Susan. Roman Marriage. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991. pp. 459-60.
- Gardner, J., and Wiedemann, T., The Roman Household. London: Routledge, 1991. p. 2.
- IBID. p. 2.
- This can be seen in the writings of Aristotle, Plato, Xenophon, and Pythagean to name a few. Treggiari. p. 202.
- Hodge, Peter, Roman Family Life. London: Longman, 1974.
- Meeks, Wayne A., The First Urban Christians. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983. p. 25.
- Treggiari, p. 201.
- Kroeger, Richard and Catherine, The Classical Concept Of “Head” As “Source”, p. 5.
- This meant if the slave or child did something wrong against the father he could have them killed. Gardner and Wiedemann, p. 5, or the father could choose to abandon a baby if it was crippled or a girl Kroeger, Catherine, CLASS LECTURE CH 208. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, 1996.
- Kroeger, Richard and Catherine, p. 16.
- Hodge, p. 21.
- Gardner and Wiedemann, p. 53.
- Ibid. p. 38.
- Ibid. p. 3.
- Treggiari. p. 15-16.
- The word from Eph. 5:21 meaning submit could mean to attach one thing to another which fits this context, inferring that both of them should break the family bond that controls them. Kroeger, Richard and Catherine, p. 18.
- All these texts are from Early Christian Writings except for the Bible text.
- Hodge, p.27.
- Verner, David C, The Household Of God: The Social World Of The Pastoral Epistles. Chico, Ca: Scholars Press, 1983. p. 127.
- Osiek, Carolyn, What Are They Saying About The Social Setting Of The New Testament. New York: Paulist Press, 1986.
- Kyrtatas, Dimitris J. Social Structure Of The Early Christian Communities. New York: Verse, 1987. p. 135.