Washington (BWA)--In the historic Judeo-Christian tradition, the family is ascribed a place of great significance whatever the location of the society in which it is found. Celebrated attempts have been made to destroy the bonds of family but with little or no success. Notwithstanding this, the question of the form the family should take has not admitted unanimous agreement whether in Jewish or Christian circles. One reason is that the family takes its shape in the social context in which it exists.
For many years, some have assumed that the normative form the family should take derives from what was sometimes referred to as "the British tradition" and its Greco-Roman precedents. The so-called "nuclear family" would include a man and a woman, united in publicly attested bonds following socially sanctioned mores enjoying legal recognition. Children - offspring of the husband and wife - would complete the family unit.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when missionaries took the Gospel to lands far away from their own, they tended to assume that the form of family they had in their home country was to be replicated by the people who would become the benefactors of their "civilizing" efforts.
To complicate the situation was the fact that, in some of the situations in which the missionaries served, sections of the civilizing party actually owned human beings and counted these as part of their property. As property belonging to another, these enslaved persons were not entitled to benefit from the protection of the state in the matter of family relations. The result is that the enslaved developed patterns of cohabitation that differed from those of their "masters."
With emancipation, what was to be the socially approved situation with the family of the formerly enslaved? In some cases, churches that once accepted into leadership enslaved men who lived with their female partners and children started to require these leaders to participate in the traditional marriage rituals formerly allowed only to their overlords. Forty years ago, Barbadian social and cultural historian, Edward Kamau Braithwaite, popularized the recorded exchange between a missionary and a church leader over justification for the leader suddenly being considered unsuitable to continue to hold office because his recent emancipation from slavery required him to mimic the marital customs of his former oppressors.
In the Caribbean, beginning in the 1970s, politicians have collaborated to arrive at definitive answers to the question of the forms the family may take. The result has been a raft of legislations to ameliorate the adverse position of persons living in households in so-called "Common Law Unions."
Some people once felt that determining admissible structural forms for human cohabitation that are not based on canonized social conventions is a most challenging undertaking. Is it possible that today far more difficult issues arise whose resolution will take many decades and perhaps even centuries.
Many will not dispute the church's responsibility to support the family, recognizing, for example, the contribution of the family to the spiritual formation of people in community. Not surprisingly, the 1989 BWA General Council approved a motion to encourage Baptists throughout the world "to acknowledge and endorse anew the need for the home and the family to be deeply rooted in the Christian faith."
When the General Council met again in 1994, the International Year of the Family, the BWA passed a resolution acknowledging that "since family life is under threat in all cultures, Christians must ensure effective marriage preparations, teach family members to communicate with each other, provide relevant models of parenting and benefit from the older generation of Christians."