Early Christian Family Values

The juxtaposition of the readings from Philemon (9-10, 12-17) and the Gospel of Luke (14:25-33) place in high relief the issue of ancient Christian family values and, much to the surprise and chagrin of some, they do not replicate the values, necessarily, of either Mayberry or Riverdale or whatever bucolic Smalltown is burned in your memory. In the first instance, ancient Christians held slaves, a common reality in the Roman Empire and in the ancient world in general. Jennifer Glancy’s book, Slavery in Early Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2002), is a good introduction to this harsh reality of one aspect of Christian family values. It is not that Christians were unique in holding slaves, but that an outright condemnation of slavery is difficult to find amongst the early Christians. Paul’s letter to Philemon, for instance, does not impugn slavery directly, which was a legal institution in the Roman Empire, but it does call on Philemon, to my mind, to release the slave Onesimus into Paul’s care. Is this because Onesimus has become a Christian (v.10)? Is it because he has become "useful" to Paul’s ministry (v.11)? Or is it that Paul sees in Onesimus the full humanity of the child of God he has always been (vv.16-17)? Paul in other letters, Galatians 3:28 springs immediately to mind, does speak quite clearly of the boundaries shattered in Christ that reveal the basic humanity that binds all people together. The true family is the family of God. Note that Paul speaks of both Philemon (v.19) and Onesimus (v. 10) as his spiritual children, whom he brought into God’s family. They are now also his brothers. This spiritual family is the one that now takes precedence.

Notice, too, that Paul puts a lot of weight on Philemon to do the right thing by releasing Onesimus, but will not command it (v. 14). Paul does not have the Roman law on his side, but why not demand that Philemon do the moral thing as a Christian? The emotional pressure Paul exerts is powerful – that should be acknowledged – but I think it is important that proper actions be done out of love. Families function best not when parents force morality on their children, but when children internalize the love of God and act on it. Paul knows this. Philemon will learn it. And I believe that Onesimus gained the true benefit of it: the surpassing freedom of living in Christ and the freedom from slavery which Philemon granted him. So Onesimus came to know the value of belonging to a spiritual family which Jesus states takes precedence over one’s earthly family. The language of "hating" father and mother which we see in Luke 14:26 is a comparative Semitism which does not translate perfectly to Greek, but it indicates that the love of Jesus must supersede that of earthly family ties. The word "hate" works in this respect: it does not allow us to soften the impact of Jesus’ teaching that children, wives, husbands and parents are not first! "Anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:33). In light of this, we might see family, if it pulls us away from Christ, as either a possession or something which "possesses" us. Clearly this is not a teaching designed to encourage hatred within families, much less abuse of each other, but to shape our loves and loyalties: true love of family is love that cares not simply for the things, the possessions, of this world, but most significantly for the things of the world to come. That is the family to which we truly belong, forever, and that is where true value resides. Focus on the Ancient Christian family places value where it belongs, namely, in God’s kingdom. John W. Martens

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