What is a Family?
by Paul Hazelden

(work in progress...)


'Family' is one of the words we use in a variety of senses.   Depending on the context, it can refer to your spouse and children, it can include your parents and siblings, and it can be extended to anyone related to you.   We can use the word to describe a church congregation or the whole human race.

More important than defining who is included in a family, we need to understand what the word conveys.   For most people, 'family' means 'family like the one I grew up in' - and we find it very difficult to appreciate just how different other people's families are.   It is difficult to build a successful marriage when the word has very different meanings to the two partners.


The Nuclear Family

Before we start to look at family life, we need to do a little work on the foundations.   For almost everyone today, the basic meaning of 'family' is a home consisting of two parents and their children.   The image is still very strong, even though most people do not live in this type of family unit.   We call it the 'nuclear family' because it is supposed to be the basic building block of society.

Unfortunately, we were not designed to live within a nuclear family, and on the whole, when we try to live that way it does not work very well.   Presumably this is one of the reasons why so few people actually live in this type of family.

Perhaps you remember the sixties' song 'Little Boxes' - referring to houses made of 'ticky-tacky.'   It talked about people living in boxes - both physical and psychological boxes.   One of the most dangerous of these boxes is the belief that a nuclear family is supposed to be self- contained.   In talking with people who have problems, I repeatedly hear this message: "we don't need anyone else;" "we will work it out on our own;" "keep it in the family."


The Mythical Marriage

The self-contained family is based on the self-contained marriage.   There is a modern myth which says that a true husband or wife will meet all your needs.   Of course, if this is true and you are unhappy, it is clear where the fault lies - your partner is not doing their job.   If they don't meet all your needs, you have clearly married the wrong person.

You don't need me to point out all the problems with this way of thinking.


The Extended Family

When Abram moved from Ur with his family, he would not have fitted into a modern removals van.   People in those days might travel alone or in small groups, but they lived in families which today would take up half a street.

In fact, the Bible does not talk so much about 'family' as 'household', or just 'house'.   It is the household which forms the basic economic and social unit - the group of people who all eat from the same cooking pot.   But even 'family' in the Bible does not refer to just two parents and their children - it means a 'circle of relatives'.

And what the Bible describes as normal has been regarded as normal throughout most of history.   Until the industrial revolution started to change the economics of everyday living for ordinary people, the extended family was taken for granted as the context in which people grew up and grew old, in which they were born and died, in which they worked and were nursed.   Your family was your life.

I am not suggesting that we should attempt to undo the industrial revolution.   I am saying that some of the consequences of the industrial revolution have been unhelpful, and we should maybe learn how to organise ourselves into social units which work.



We look back at previous centuries and wonder how people could have been so cruel.   In years to come, people will look back at today and say the same of us.   One area they will find it hard to understand is the amount of cruelty we inflict on people by keeping them isolated.

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