Modern society is in the midst of the greatest shift in history when it comes to family structure.
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“An explosion of diversity.” This is how the non-profit Council on Contemporary Families described the morphing landscape of American families. Today, unmarried parents, same-sex couples with adopted children, and homes composed of serial divorcees are increasingly as common as the traditional nuclear family of a married father and mother with kids.
These changes have truly been explosive. A report from the council stated: “At the end of the 1950s, if you chose 100 children under age 15 to represent all children, 65 would have been living in a family with married parents, with the father employed and the mother out of the labor force. Only 18 would have had married parents who were both employed. As for other types of family arrangements, you would find only one child in every 350 living with a never-married mother!”
Fifty-plus years later, the world is a markedly different place.
The report continued: “Today, among 100 representative children, just 22 live in a married male-breadwinner family, compared to 23 living with a single mother (only half of whom have ever been married). Seven out of every 100 live with a parent who cohabits with an unmarried partner (a category too rare for the Census Bureau to consider counting in 1960) and six with either a single father or with grandparents but no parents.”
Now, dual-earner parents make up the biggest group at 34 percent, but the size of the other categories means it cannot be considered the “typical” American family.
According to The New York Times, these light-speed changes have stunned experts: “Researchers who study the structure and evolution of the American family express unsullied astonishment at how rapidly the family has changed in recent years, the transformations often exceeding or capsizing those same experts’ predictions of just a few journal articles ago.”
In the same piece, Andrew J. Cherlin, a professor of public policy at Johns Hopkins University, said: “This churning, this turnover in our intimate partnerships is creating complex families on a scale we’ve not seen before.”
He continued: “It’s a mistake to think this is the endpoint of enormous change. We are still very much in the midst of it.”
This is the greatest alteration in family structure in history, and it is also occurring in Britain, Western Europe, and across the globe. No matter a person’s opinion on these seismic changes—whether they are exciting signs of modern progress or that something vital is being lost—everyone should examine the potential effects.
Does It Matter?
One of the greatest shifts over the past decades is the everyday definition of family itself. The word once immediately painted a mental picture of biological parents and two-plus children. Now, the meaning is much more complex, with an endless array of home-life situations—what the Council on Contemporary Families called “a veritable peacock’s tail of work-family arrangements.”
The repercussions of this shift cover every part of society.
For government officials, a move away from married biological parents raising their own children can be worrisome. A joint study from Princeton University and the Brookings Institute stated: “Research clearly demonstrates that children growing up with two continuously married parents are less likely than other children to experience a wide range of cognitive, emotional, and social problems, not only during childhood, but also in adulthood.”
Such positive effects—which include higher education, income, occupational status, and employment rates—are even more pronounced when children are raised by their biological fathers and mothers.
Going forward, researchers must attempt to pinpoint what advantages birth parents have. And policymakers must devise ways to supplement what is lost in modern family relationships to mitigate the potential widespread socioeconomic effects in the shift away from traditional home-life arrangements.
Perhaps the groups most struggling to adapt to the new family landscape are professing Christians—a demographic that has long vocally opposed divorce and homosexuality while championing “traditional family values.”
After the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June 2015, evangelical preacher Franklin Graham told a conservative radio host the ruling was another sign that the nation is “slipping every year further and further away from the God of the Bible, the foundation that our nation was built on.”
Pope Francis—who leads the largest denomination of professing Christians on Earth—has made protecting the sanctity of family and marriage one of his top priorities. The capstone of his first-ever visit to America in 2015 was a speech during the Festival of Families in Philadelphia. He exhorted the crowd by stating, “Let’s protect the family. Because it’s in the family that our future is at play.”
Yet professing Christians are not immune to current trends. Divorce rates for them match the statistical average for the nation (though they are lower for faithful churchgoers). And opinions about same-sex marriage are steadily drifting into line with the public at large.
A Pew Research Center study stated that United States Catholics are “experiencing life in all its modern complexity. According to the survey, one-in-four Catholics have gone through a divorce. One-in-ten have not only divorced but also remarried. One-in-ten are living with a romantic partner, sans wedding, and more than four-in-ten have done so at some point in their lives.”
Among U.S. Catholics, Pew found that 84 percent believe unmarried parents living together is an acceptable way to raise children. Also, 87 percent feel the same about single parenting, 83 percent for divorced parents, and 66 percent for same-sex couples.
A main reason for this shift is societal pressures. Yet some experts see another reason for the change of ideals.
University of Iowa sociologist Kristy Nabhan-Warren told the National Catholic Reporter that Catholics do draw on their church’s moral teachings, but also look “deep into their consciences and are deciding what the moral, right thing to do is—even when that may seem to contradict teachings of the Church.”
Many professing Christians in general cannot see how a loving and merciful God would condemn cohabitating couples, divorcees and homosexuals. And many denominations have already changed their official stance to be more inclusive of lifestyles once considered utterly anathema.
Those who espouse traditional family values often look back to “simpler times” of the 1950s as the gold standard for home life.
Yet the worries in the mid-1900s were the same as today: increasing divorce, subverted gender roles, and waning religious influence. In fact, by this point in the 20th century, the West was already deep into redefining the traditional family.
The culprit? The Industrial Revolution.
A 1957 educational film from The McGraw-Hill Book Company described the shift: “Industrial expansion brought with it the growth of cities. And this too changed the traditional pattern of family life. Increasingly, families lived in apartments, not houses. This urban way of life brought with it greater individualism, more opportunities for self-expression, but at the expense of the family and home ties.”
The film compared 1950s living arrangements with the typical family of the 1880s. At the earlier time, families lived the same way parents and their children did since the colonial period—and pretty much the same as most people have for the entirety of human history.
Most families in the 1880s were a tight-knit economic unit, with father, mother, children and perhaps grandparents all working together to run a farm and home. Dad worked the fields and tended to the herds, mom kept up the home but also gardened and ensured there was food year-round by canning fruits and vegetables, curing meat, and so on. Boys learned the ropes of agriculture from their fathers and girls learned from mothers. Older daughters would often make clothes for the family. On Sunday, families did not work or play games. Rather, fathers would read the Bible to the family. The rest of the day was made up of visiting with nearby relatives.
Note the critical importance of each family member in this system. More than providing shelter, meals and emotional support—a home was an economic system. Remove any one part and success was put in jeopardy.
Industrialization utterly changed the roles of men and women. First, husbands became the sole breadwinners. Factories hired individuals, which greatly diminished the roles of women and even children. No longer was there the same united purpose, the urgency that all must work together to make a life.
Modern convenience further diminished the role of wives at home. McGraw-Hill said altering the status of women was “the greatest force of change in the traditional pattern of American family life.”
The film stated that the motivating factor for this was “the increasing employment of women outside the home: in factories, in commercial services, and in the professions. Industry offered her employment, at the same time providing her with merchandise and services that undermined her traditional tasks. Today, most women work. Not in protest against masculine domination, but out of economic necessity. New inventions in communication and ways of travel had an important impact on the traditional family pattern.”
Throughout the 20th century, grocery stores, department stores, and modern appliances replaced vegetable gardens, handmade clothes, wood-burning stoves, cow milking, butter churning, and canning—not to mention jumping in to help the husband with any farming needs.
Rather than being a crucial partner in keeping the family afloat, many 1950s wives were virtually demoted to a housemaid and babysitter. It is little wonder they entered the workforce. Dual-earner households could then afford more modern conveniences and services, which further eroded the importance of stay-at-home mothers.
Obviously, there is nothing wrong with modern conveniences. Yet most do not realize these technological niceties disrupted a system that had remained virtually unchanged throughout millennia.
Recognize that the traditional family is not a purely religious or “Christian” construct. For most of history, marriage and family has stayed much the same: a man with one wife had children. They would work together to survive. Occasionally, homes would also include grandparents and sometimes servants. At times, multiple families (usually blood relatives) all lived together.
The notion of rampant polygamy (generally in the form of polygyny, a man with multiple wives) in ancient times is not supported by historical records. The greatest civilizations all tended to stick with the traditional family model.
Encyclopaedia Britannica stated that in ancient Egypt the ideal for households was the nuclear family and that they were overwhelmingly monogamous. Greece and Rome both had laws restricting marriage to one wife. In Assyria, Babylonia, China and Aztec Mexico, traditional marriage and family were also the norm. Likely this was the case for most cultures.
In Monogamy and Polygyny in Greece, Rome, and World History, Stanford University professor Walter Scheidel supported this idea: “The notion of moderate polygyny is supported by the global anthropological record. We find that most societies condoned social and genetic polygamy…but also that most individual bonding and mating arrangements were monogamous.”
In other words, polygamy did happen, but not often.
Britannica adds to this idea by stating that polygamy “appears once to have been fairly common worldwide. Nowhere, however, have any of these been the exclusive form of marriage.”
Many cultures did allow for polygyny, and some even saw it as the goal, but most still stuck with the traditional nuclear family. One reason for this was a lack of resources. Having multiple wives was expensive as there were more people to feed and protect.
For this reason, polygamy was generally only seen among the wealthy and elite. Yet this practice seems to have been widespread because history only records the lives of leaders who could afford the “luxury” of multiple wives and concubines.
In addition, the model of the traditional family is seen over and over because it works. A father and mother with children is a time-tested, solid unit that can weather almost any hardship in life.
Of course, cultures throughout history had relationship issues. There was adultery, jealousy, divorce and every other problem that stems from human nature. But the core family structure was still favored.
What about the Bible? The Book is often used to espouse the traditional family. From the get-go, it does just that.
After the creation of man, God immediately laid out ground rules. He told human beings to, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). This can only occur through sexual reproduction. Chapter 2 puts parameters on this: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (vs. 24).
This is clearly describing a man marrying a woman and creating a family together. Jesus Christ validates this scripture in Matthew 19:4-5.
Yet there seems to be a problem. In Genesis, after stating the ground rules for human relationships, the Book then immediately appears to support polygamy and other non-traditional forms of family.
There is a lot of polygamy in its pages. Some of the greatest servants of God fell into this practice including Abraham, Jacob and David.
So did these actions negate or further explain the Creator’s command for marriage and family?
Just because God did not vaporize these men with lightning from heaven does not mean He condoned having sex and children with many women.
What many fail to realize is that biblical accounts contain lessons of both good and bad examples. The faithful Bible reader must look at the context and clear commands of God stated elsewhere to glean the overall meaning. When polygamy is present, the fruits born from these dalliances are always negative:
For Abraham, the rift between his two sons Isaac and Ishmael, born from different women, continues even to this day between the Arabs and the Jews.
Jacob (later renamed Israel) had his favorite son sold into slavery because of animosity between older half-brothers (Gen. 37).
After hatching a murder plot against a man and marrying his wife, Bathsheba, David was severely punished. God also admonished the king for having multiple wives and concubines. (Read II Samuel 12).
The Bible shows that these three men all later repented and ended their polygamist practices. To learn the crystal-clear facts about this topic, read our article “The Truth About Polygamy.”
Other men, such as Esau and King Saul, did have a number of spouses, but they were ungodly and did not represent God’s Way.
There are also three Bible passages that appear at first to support polygamy. By reading the context and examining all the facts of a specific account, however, this notion can always be disproved.
Exodus 21:10 states, “If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish.”
First know that the word “wife” is in italics in the King James Version, which means it was added by translators. The verses immediately preceding this one show clearly that this means if a man take another handmaiden as a servant.
Also, this is the only time the Hebrew word translated “duty of marriage” is used in the Bible. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible states it can mean either to dwell together or sexual cohabitation.
With the context being maidservants (not wives), this verse strongly indicates that the master of a house is forbidden from withholding food, clothing and shelter from the first maidservant—not food, clothing and sexual relations. Another, but less likely, possibility is that the man was not to refuse to allow the girl to marry.
Deuteronomy 21:15-16 is another supposed proof text for polygamy: “If a man have two wives, one beloved, and another hated, and they have born him children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the firstborn son be hers that was hated: then it shall be, when he makes his sons to inherit that which he has, that he may not make the son of the beloved firstborn before the son of the hated, which is indeed the firstborn.”
This verse is speaking of two wives throughout the life of the man. The implication is that the first spouse would have already died. Even today, people will use the term “my second wife.” Everyone understands that this means a second marriage has occurred after a divorce or death.
Then there is Deuteronomy 25:5. It states: “If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother unto her.”
The key to understanding this passage is the phrase “If brethren dwell together.” This means, if a brother is living with his sibling, then the rest of the command applies. If a brother is living with his sibling’s family, he would have been single. Again, careful reading of the context makes the meaning clear.
Nowhere does the Bible condone polygamy or any other form of marriage and family besides what is laid out in Genesis!
Even Deeper Meaning
A quick recap: Throughout history, even civilizations apart from the God of the Bible have generally followed monogamous relationships and had traditional families. Cultures over the millennia could have messed with the model. They could have favored single parenthood, same-sex couples raising children, men with wives, women with many husbands. Yet examples of this are few and far between.
The simplest reason they did not deviate too far from God’s definition of family was that His Way works. In addition, until the Industrial Revolution, moving too far from the dad-mom-and-kids model was impractical at best, and impossible at worst.
Yet there is another vital piece of the traditional-family puzzle. It is a practice equally widespread: marriage.
“Some form of marriage has been found to exist in all human societies, past and present,” Britannica stated. “Its importance can be seen in the elaborate and complex laws and rituals surrounding it.”
Marriage is found in all human societies. Think of the chances of every culture stumbling upon this institution by themselves. It is universal because God created it.
Understanding God’s true intentions for family and marriage deepens their importance. The short answer is that both show the Creator’s awesome purpose for mankind.
Genesis 1:26 begins to reveal that purpose: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…”
“Let us make,” “our image,” and “our likeness”—to whom is God speaking? Have you ever noticed this before?
Some believe that God is simply talking to Himself here—and that plural simply sounds better. Others think this is an example of “royal we” similar to how kings and queens will refer to themselves with plural pronouns in official communications. Still others think the Creator is talking to angels.
Again, one must look at the context and other supporting verses to fully understand what is being said in any Bible verse. The Hebrew word for God in verse 26 is Elohim. It is a plural word, which makes the plural pronouns make a lot more sense.
Elohim is also used in verse 1: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Why use a plural word to describe God? This question has sparked controversy among Bible scholars for centuries. Yet the answer is quite simple and found in John 1.
Starting in verse 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Word is the Spirit-being who became Jesus Christ. He was simultaneously with God and also was God.
Elohim is plural in the sense of a family. Even if parents somehow produced 1,000 children, they would still form just one family. Therefore, in Genesis 1:26, Christ is talking to someone else. This is the Father, who is the only other God-being Jesus ever mentioned. Matthew 5:48 and John 5:17 are two examples of this.
God—the Father and the Word (who later became Jesus Christ)—made man in their image and their likeness.
Jesus is known as the Son of God (John 20:31). Those who follow Christ can also become sons in the God Family. Do not make this complicated. Jesus is a Son—and true Christians can be sons, too!
Romans 8 makes this point clear: “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God…The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with Him, that we may be also glorified together. For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (vs. 14, 16-18).
There is a lot in this passage! It shows that the children of God will be “joint-heirs with Christ” who will be “glorified together” with Him at a later time.
The verses in I John 3:1-2 bolster this point: “Behold, what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God…Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it does not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is.”
What is Christ and the other sons of God joint-heirs of—what will they inherit when He appears?
Ephesians 5:5 clearly defines this “inheritance” as “the kingdom of Christ and of God.”
During Christ’s time on Earth, He constantly brought one message: that of the gospel of the Kingdom (Mark 1:15). This ties perfectly into the fact that God is reproducing Himself and enlarging his Family.
The Kingdom of God is a major theme throughout the entire Bible. It shows that Christ will return to Earth and rule with the saints (Dan. 7:18; Rev. 5:10). Ultimately, all of mankind will have a chance to become part of the God Family (I Tim. 2:4).
Let all of this sink in. It is awesome knowledge!
Yet what does it have to do with physical families?
God’s Plan reveals why family is so important to the Father and Son. It is a physical representation of His purpose for mankind—reproducing Himself. Following the biblical formula for marriage and family helps us understand God’s master plan.
Healthy relationships with physical fathers—or being a good dad to children—helps all to better grasp the relationship God the Father wants to have with mankind. Bonds between siblings show how Jesus wants to bond with those who follow Him. Rock-solid marriages between husbands and wives demonstrate how Christ loves the Church and how the Church should love Him back (Eph. 5).
Moving away from the biblical model of marriage and family hides the incredible potential for all mankind to become part of the God Family. Because of this, the Father and Christ do not want the family to be redefined in any way.
Does this mean those who have made mistakes—such as had children outside marriage or experienced divorce—have no hope for a proper relationship with God? No! He can work with anyone who will admit they are wrong, seek forgiveness and repentance, and desire to change.
The publisher of this magazine, The Restored Church of God, has many tools available to help you build up your familial relationships. A few include Dating and Courtship – God’s Way, You Can Build a Happy Marriage, Understanding Divorce and Remarriage, and Train Your Children God’s Way.
Also, be sure to read The Purpose of Marriage – Ever Obsolete? It greatly expands on the concepts covered in this article.
Determine to stick to the Bible definition of marriage and family—and reap the incredible benefits!