Posted: 13 December 2015

Advent: Can God use dysfunctional families?

The Christmas season is commonly held as a time for family. So each week our Advent calendar includes a reflective piece from Krish Kandiah exploring the biblical view of family.


There is no single Hebrew word that directly corresponds to what we in the West refer to as 'the nuclear family'. In the Old Testament, three words inform the Hebrew understanding of family:

1. ševet – this is often translated as ‘tribe’ and denotes ethnic origins.

2. bêt ab – this can mean a family consisting of parents and children (Genesis 50:7–8) or a wider group consisting of multiple generations of relatives (Genesis 7:1; 14:14).

3. mišpahâ – this usually refers to a ‘clan’, and often has a territorial as well as a relational significance (Numbers 27:8–11; Judges 18:11).

The Old Testament is full of examples of varied family structures. Though the first human marriage is clearly monogamous, it is not held up as a model of human flourishing – particularly as the first two children are a murderer and his victim. There are examples within Israel’s central story of polygamous families such as the patriarch Jacob with his two wives and 13 children. There are instances of harems and concubines – most famously Solomon, the wisest man on the planet, with 700 wives and 300 concubines. There are also references to single parent families, blended families, foster families, kinship carers and adoptions. Interracial marriage too was practised and is both commended (in the Book of Ruth) and forbidden in Nehemiah 13:23-27.

The New Testament removes any barrier to mixed race marriage, encourages monogamy rather than polygamy, and forbids adultery. The New Testament both encourages singleness as a high calling and also honours the relationship between a husband and a wife as a visual aid for the relationship between Christ and the church as outlined in Ephesians.

We must beware of assuming a contemporary understanding of family fits neatly into the pattern of families described in the Bible. Even the most renowned biblical families are radically dysfunctional and yet within the grace of God greatly used by him to do good in the world.

Do you find it challenging or reassuring that God has used radically dysfunctional families to do good in the world? Can you see any ways in which you read in your own ideas into scripture rather than allowing it to speak from its own authority?

This piece is an adapted section of Krish’s essay ‘Six theological theses on the family and poverty’ in our theology paper, ‘The Heart of the Kingdom: Christian theology and children who live in poverty’


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