Is it time to nuke the nuclear family?

1950s Family

The nuclear family dropped onto the world stage in the 1950s and has become an idolatrous substitute for what God teaches us of family life.

Short history quiz. When did the nuclear family appear on the world stage?

a. When God gave us direction in the Book of Leviticus for how families were to be structured.

b. When God established the first family in the garden.

c. When Social Security and other transfer payments became large enough to make independent living affordable for grandma and grandpa — roughly the mid-1950s in the U.S.

Answer? C, of course. Adam and Eve initiated a gigantic, multi-generational clan. Their sons may have had their own households, but their descendant Moses was the patriarch who led a family estimated at 1 to 4 million (!!) relatives into the wilderness. The Levitical household included multiple generations, some of whom were begotten by multiple wives and female slaves.

My own family included three generations on the same farm until the early 1960s on my mother’s side; my father spent part of his childhood living close enough to his grandmother to remember eating grapefruit warm, ripe, and sweet from her trees.

And as I research my family’s history, I find households that look far more Levitical than nuclear: a Colorado clan large enough to run both a farm and the local pharmacy; a trader (I’m going to guess) who eventually brought his Cherokee bride and several of her children down from the Blue Mountains to live on the Georgia farm where his English bride and her children were established.

The New Testament tells us that an elder should be the husband of only one wife. This leaves me wondering, in light of the lifestyles of its day: does it mean never divorced, as we’re prone to interpret it? or without multiple wives and concubines from assorted tribes demanding attention and potentially dragging him off the Gospel track?

It also has Christian women clamoring for clarification in countries where AIDS or gender-selective abortions have skewed the ratio of men to women in the adult population. Where many men are dead from AIDS, could Christian polygamy be an acceptable option to safely repopulate the country? Where few women live due to selective abortion, could shared Christian wives allow roving mobs of angry young men to settle successfully into responsible adulthood?

Here in the U.S., the nuclearization of the family has created anxiety among educated parents (who seem to live in a frantic rush as they seek to ensure outstanding resumes for their children), entitlement among children (who understand that they are the center of their parents’ universe), and an almost complete loss of the civic core of our culture. We’ve lost any ability to learn from our elders because we are nowhere near them. They were left behind, somewhere between the third and fifth career move, which was of urgent importance because it would allow us to better ensure the future advancement of our children.

Among those less educated, the nuclear family has long since fissioned into its most rudimentary elements, combining and recombining in ways no one could have predicted 50 years ago: here a household of children raising themselves; there a teenage girl briefly coupling with her second or third “baby daddy”; there a household of young men creating good incomes for themselves and their various relatives from pursuits quite outside the law; everywhere grandmothers and grandfathers raising children ignored by their youthful birth parents.

And I say, with the Christian conservatives: the problem is that we have forgotten God’s model for the family. And I say, against the Christian conservatives: the problem is that we have forgotten God’s model for the family.

It’s time to nuke the nuclear family. God’s plan for the extended clan — His relatives looking after His relatives — is always best.

Have you found a way to be part of a multigenerational Christian ‘family’? What’s it like for you?

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About Carlene Byron

Writer, editor, publicist, communications project manager ... I've written technology and infrastructure; I used to edit New England Church Life and The New England Christian and I've freelanced to publications ranging from Commonweal to Christianity Today. I'm now living in my hometown in Maine and am speaking about global perspectives on suicide prevention.
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4 Responses to Is it time to nuke the nuclear family?

  1. Jenny says:

    How does a multi-generational patriarchal household allow a man to leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife (Genesis 2:24)? And how does polygamy and shared wives allow each man to have his own wife and each woman to have her own husband (1 Corinthians 7:2)?

  2. Those are good questions, and I think they give good insight into how broadly God’s bibilcal commands address a wide range of circumstances and times. After Genesis and before Corinthians, God gave specific commandments for how to manage households with multiple sets of relatives living in extremely close proximity and even concubines within the household (e.g., Exodus 21:10, Leviticus 18:18).

    The case that would be made under certain global conditions today is that in some countries most men will be entirely without wives and most women entirely without husbands due to sex selective abortion, sex selective infanticide, and the sex-selective impact of certain STDs. So in order to fulfill the injunction “it is better to marry than burn” [with desire … and one might also add, frustration, rage, and degrading behaviors] polygamy or polyandry would be the better fulfilment of biblical guidance on marriage.

  3. SethCaddell says:

    Interesting post. I’m not sure I’m a fan of polygamy, but I can see the argument for it could be strong in the right situation. You ask a lot of good questions, and raise some issues that too many of us Christians are ignoring.

  4. One thing I find interesting is that everyone is responding to the international issues and no one to the US issues. It’s really hard to live as an extended family or clan here. We’re too mobile, too socially isolated, and too focused on our individual nuclear family’s “best” interests. It’s hard to remember that we aren’t a nuclear family; we’re just a tiny part of God’s Body … and if any part of that Body is hurting, we’re supposed to feel it (and presumably then do something about it, since who ignores pain in their Body?).

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