How Should Church & State Support the Family? Part 1: What Makes a Family?

Christopher Benek

Recently I was asked to speak at an event outside Oxford in the UK. My task was to introduce a question for discussion to an esteemed group of leaders focused on issues surrounding the family. The question I was to introduce was: What is the responsibility of the state and organized religion, if any, in shaping and supporting modern family units?

As a way of facilitating discussion around this question I offered a Biblical perspective that I think forwards the conversation in a particularly meaningful way.

In the synoptic gospels there are parallel accounts in Matthew 12, Luke 8 and Mark 3 that depict Jesus out doing the Lord’s work – healing people, pointing out the religious absurdities that have arisen from religious authorities like myself, casting out demons and combating arguments that have the modern equivalency of fighting off misguided, late-night tweets. Then, in a spirit similar to C.S. Lewis’ claim that Jesus either is who he says he is or that he is a lunatic or a liar – members of Jesus’ family show up with inquiries that insinuate that they may have initially been leaning toward the latter two possibilities.

When Jesus is notified that his family is outside looking for him – inevitably to tell him to stop making such a commotion about town and to just come on home – Jesus then responds curiously: “Who are my mother and my brothers?" Then pointing to his disciples – he says: “Here are my mother and my brothers – For whomever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

This is a provocative point by Jesus and I think that it is important because it provides a definition of family that is non-traditional by many standards. If we are to take Jesus’ proclamation at face value then we must consider the possibility that the modern family is not simply to be defined biologically, but maybe more importantly, it may need to be defined by an ethic that promotes actions that encourage the formation of virtue in persons.

If we were to take this position of Jesus’ to its logical conclusion in a Christian context, for example, then we might contend that such virtue is that which insists on enacting the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Anything outside of this principle would not be an ethic that organized religion or the state should necessarily feel compelled to actively support. Of course this would mean that a collaborative set of first principles would need to be identified and agreed upon by religious organizations and state entities that would be understood as societal priorities for supporting families. This collaborative set of first principles may be one way that the state and organized religion might helpfully shape and support modern family units.

Admittedly such focus would be less concerned with what combination of persons defines a family and more on what systemic processes of formation help to create holistically healthy families. This would not serve to negate biological relationships, or deny how gender can contextually help to positively shape familial units, but it also would not limit emerging definitions of family that meet practical needs.

A prime example of where developing definitions of family might need continued consideration arises with emerging technology. Humanity’s engagement with emerging tech is increasingly challenging our understandings of human identity forcing us to consider what it might mean to be human across the scope and scale of possibility and what that possibility may mean for our relational needs. Organized religion, which actively deals with questions of identity and ultimate meaning may be helpful in advancing people’s understanding of what family both is and could be.

Reality Changing Observations:

Q1. How do you define family and what is your basis for doing so?

Q2. What do believe is the optimal configuration of a family and why?

Q3. What virtue formation do you believe is most needed for providing healthy families?

Comments (1)
No. 1-1
Elias Kruger
Elias Kruger


For question 1, it is hard to get away from traditional, biological family. Yet, I must confess that in a context where child-bearing is not key to survival, people leave longer and marriages are breakable contracts, we need to expand the definition. This is especially true for single adults who often find themselves far from their family of origin but without a nuclear family or their own. How can they become family to others?