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.
 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and children) no longer represents the household pattern of most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. At the same time, the
extended family typical in traditional African societies is
receiving new attention. In
significant ways, the Bible endorses the extended family model and
even supplements it with a kind of fictive kinship.The burgeoning concern
about family life and the Bible has spawned many new
volumes. 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. 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.
 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.… 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. 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.
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
 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
 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).
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.
 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). 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
 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….
 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
Moral Action and Blood Kinship in the New
 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. 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
Hypothetical New Testament "Ten Commandments" on the
 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
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
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).
 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….
 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
 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)….
 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. 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.
 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
 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
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Theologian Matthew Lamb provides a sobering dictum in Latin
- Vox victimarum vox Dei.
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….
 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.
 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
(Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1989),
pp. 150-152, 154, 155-156, 157-158, 159, 164, 165-166.
Used with permission.
© August 2002
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 2, Issue 8
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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
 John S. Mbiti, African Religions
and Philosophy (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970), pp. 138-40.
 J. Deotis Roberts, Roots of a Black
Future: Family and Church (Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press,
1980), pp. 24-29, 39-44.
 Charles Wallace Smith, The Church
in the Life of the Black Family (Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press,
 Marian Wright Edelman, Families in
Peril: An Agenda for Social Change (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1987), pp. 51-94.
 Martin, Family Values, pp.
 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.
 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.
 Martin, Family Values, p. 44.
 W. E. Burghardt DuBois, The Gift
of Black Folk (New York: AMS Press, 1971 ), p. 341.
 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."