Is the “Family” the problem?

It is evident that the LDS church has made the institution of the nuclear family its centerpiece in both its external PR and internal emphasis. There are many wonderful things that can be said about such an approach. The rise and fall of the nuclear family in the 20th century is certainly an interesting moment in history and much can and should be said about this trend in the coming years. I have been doing a bit of reading lately that has got me thinking about the role of the family and the critiques it has faced by different religious thinkers.

Jesus is the most obvious critic of the family. The well-known gospel passages that advocate the dissolution of the family are difficult to make sense out of. On one hand, he sees families as being antithetical to one’s commitment to God (Mt 10:34-39/Lk 12:51-53/GTh 16, 55, 101). On the other, he adopts a more expansive view of the family which includes all those who follow God (Mt 12:46-50/GTh 99). The early Christian usage of “brother” and “sister” to refer to fellow-believers reflects this new order of families. The very early adoption of virginity as a preferred form of discipleship by both Jesus Paul and many other early Christians also points to a view of the family as somehow a hindrance in one’s membership in the Kingdom of God. (It is difficult to make sense of Jesus’s anti-divorce sayings in this context, especially given his anti-oath stance, but that problem we shall save for another day.)

I have also been reading a bit of Gandhi lately. His treatment of his own family has been much discussed and is somewhat controversial. At the same time, his critique of the family as a provincializing institution is less understood. The comparison between Gandhi and Jesus has been frequently made, and the former’s self-fashioning after the latter was also explicit. But one particular shared view seems to be a more expansive view of the family. Familial ethics are still valued, but they should not be restricted to blood relatives. Gandhi’s view of the family is actually much more broad than Jesus’s since it is not restricted to believers.

There has been a well-known argument to contextualize early Mormon polygamy as a critique of the family. Polygamous families attempted to overcome the smallness of traditional families by literally expanding the borders of the family. Husbands and wives were connected to increasing familial networks that could include hundreds and hundreds of people. Jesus, Gandhi, and early Mormons all seemed to think that there was something just too local, particular, and incomplete about traditional families. The communities they created were too small and distracted from the obligations one has to larger social communities, whether of “believers” or of all of humanity. I think that the current LDS view of “families are forever” is also somewhat of a misnomer since it overlooks the fact that eventually all of [saved?] humanity is sealed together, thus obviated familial bonds. We are all family then.

Does the current church’s emphasis on nuclear families sow the seeds of the unraveling of LDS communities? Will the tension between the particular family and the ward or church family eventually lead to the undoing of the bonds and obligations to larger community networks? Do families and a provincial view of family values conflict with ethical obligations and cause a myopic vision of one’s membership in the Kingdom?

19 Replies to “Is the “Family” the problem?”

  1. Wow, what an interesting post.
    I just want to say that these are excellent questions and that I have no good answers to any of them.
    I will say that with 2 young children, the happiest part of my day is when our little nuclear family is together. There is a joy and completeness that I don’t feel anywhere else.
    That said, I’m on the board of a local non-profit and volunteer a lot for this organization. I don’t see or hear about other ward members serving the community in similar ways. Perhaps we do need to think of family as a larger group than our nuclear family, or even our ward family. It certainly would be in line with Christ’s teachings.
    Thanks for this thread, it’s definitely something to think about.

  2. Hm, well, one thing we’d want to show first is that Jesus actually said all the things about “family” and related topics that are attributed to him in the Gospels. As you’ve noted, they don’t cohere completely.

    That said, though, I’m interested. I’ve often thought that our links between marriage, family, and salvation make the whole thing quite complicated and tend to induce a great deal of unnecessary and unhelpful stress.

  3. This is really interesting. I think there is a risk in over focusing on the family in that ethnocentricity kicks in and we begin to fail to love beyond the family. On the other hand, I see a lot of people who I worry about the kids of, because the children are left at home while the parents “go and serve”. So the Church is right in it’s position now, and Christ is right in his sayings, for me anyway.

    Glad to se mogget back, she was missed.

  4. Does the current church’s emphasis on nuclear families sow the seeds of the unraveling of LDS communities?

    Maybe, although I’d favor the reverse interpretation. The heavy emphasis on the family seems to me to coincide with the decline in the intensity and encompassingness of LDS community life, but I think the rise of family trails a bit behind the decline in community. The fall of LDS community has been going on for a long time, but a few landmarks can easily be pointed at. These would include the outmigration from Utah after World Wars I and (especially) II, the consolidation of the meeting schedule into the three-hour block that dramatically reduced the time most members spend in contact with the community, the centralization of church publications and the end of ward and stake newspapers and magazines, the surge in missionary effort under Spencer W. Kimball, the “reduce and simplify” movement associated with correlation during the 1980s and especially the 1990s and 2000s, and so forth. The rise of Mormon nuclear family theology has its own road map, but it seems to me that the momentum gathers later, and the biggest landmark dates are really in the 1980s and subsequently. It seems at least worth considering the possibility that the current configuration of Mormon family theology really arises to fill the gap left behind by the retreat of the Mormon community.

  5. “Does the current church’s emphasis on nuclear families sow the seeds of the unraveling of LDS communities?”

    Yes– because look at how many adults are living outside the realm of the nuclear family. LDS communities are family focused, and an increasing number of member adults are not living with nuclear families. If there’s not a place for single people in the “family” ward then there is no place for singles in the LDS community as a whole, and that sounds like an unraveling to me.

  6. I would never have thought of this on my own, but of course it is true. Increasingly, the church has no use for the single man except to make some single sister happy.

    A single man is looked upon with suspicion (“doesn’t he like girls?”) and a single woman is looked upon with pity (“poor thing can’t find a husband.”) This is driving single people out, and often when they do find mates they don’t come back.

  7. Increasingly? I doubt that. Didn’t BY say a single man over 30 was a menace to society? And how much outreach to singles was there in, say, 1950?

  8. I currently have two children, 5 and 4 years old. I had them because I thought it was the good Mormon thing to do; I’m not sure I was ready to have children as young as I did (and I was 29 when the first one came along). I was “pressured” into it back when I could be pressured into things of this nature. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I have them overall, and I won’t trade them for anything now, but my wife and I almost kept having more kids, beyond our emotional and (back then) financial means, simply because we bought into that utterly retarded notion that there are “spirit children who won’t be born as Mormons unless more Mormons have babies” or however the lame saying goes (there’s another para-scripture for you, Jon!). I just don’t buy into the notion that god would forgo birth into a Mormon home (and, by extension, risk handing that kid some form of pre-determined damnation) simply because my wife and I choose to stop having kids. The Mormon (over-)emphasis on the family, to the outsider, approaches a level of concern and attention that, according to a “gentile” friend of mine, makes us appear cultish.

    And yes, the hyper-uber-emphasis on family truly alienates the singles. My own brother was virtually outed over this and hasn’t come back since. He married a “gentile” just recently, and they’re very happy and great together (they lived together for 2 years before getting married – I now believe that living with someone before marriage in some cases safeguards against making a bad decision – emotionally, mentally, financially, etc.) Will god make him go to hell for it? If he does, is he just as narrow-minded about who gets salvation? If he is, I want no part of it and I’d rather hang with my brother in hell.

  9. Jessawhy,
    I am so glad that you are able to do volunteer work! I think that the issue here is not that families can be incredibly fulfilling, only that people can sometimes ignore larger obligations when the family becomes the ultimate community.

    Have we told you how great it is to see you again? As for whether the historical Jesus actually said these things, all three sayings (division in families, family as followers of God, and anti-divorce sayings) all meet the criteria for authenticity laid out by a number of historical Jesus researchers. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are authentic, but they are at least credible. In the end, however, we are stuck with the inscribed Jesus rather than the historical Jesus, so we still have to make sense out of these passages.

    Matt W.,
    You certainly hit on the paradox of the current church’s position of placing the family over the church. It is definitely good for families, but is it good for the church?

    That is an excellent observation. I think that you may be right that the focus on the family fills the gap, but it doesn’t seem to do so in any necessary way. There are a number of things that could have filled that gap, so the family as a choice for that is still worth thinking about theologically. At the same time, I would love to know if the decline of the church community really occurred as the programs were simplified, or if it took a new generation until the cultural change was complete. When I was growing up in the 80’s, the “road show” was still practiced, we had a ward luau, and a major father’s and son’s outing. It seems like these things occur less often now, but that they were remnants of that strong cultural emphasis on the community that survived the correlated reduction of community focus.

    Melanie et al.,
    I think that your point about the lack of a place for singles is extremely relevant for this question. It also affects divorcees, widows, celibate homosexuals, and others who cannot fit into the confines of traditional families. In this sense, the church community fails these people by provincializing family boundaries.

  10. One criticism of Mormonism (or Mormons) that I heard some time back on another blog was that Mormons cared too much about their families to be involved in other worthwhile civic and service organizations and causes. Most members tend to state their priorities as follows: family, Church, ______, _______. I love my family as much as the next person, but my concern extends far beyond them to my “brothers” and “sisters” (note how we retain the family language) elsewhere in the world. Didn’t JSJ say something about getting the Spirit and not being content to bless our own family but wanting to share those blessings with the whole world? I think that was said in the context of missionary work, but the principle is sound. The current vibe seems to be take care of your family to the greatest extent possible, if you have something left over, give it to the Church. And if there happens to be something left after that, I guess you could do something else with your time too.

  11. This may not be directly related. I wrote a brief essay on how the Mormon emphasis on the traditional family is the primary reason that Mormons reject egalitarian political and economic principles. We so heavily emphasized the hierarchal (and unjust) traditional family that it makes sense that Mormons would be so open to hierarchal and traditional (and also unjust) forms of political economy. Maybe I will post it this afternoon.

  12. Chris, Mormon work ethic and traditional economic views probably pre-date the hyper-emphasis on families. In a way, I think the hyper-emphasis on families is a red herring or distraction to potential members to show them that we’re not about polygamy, which is generally viewed as suspect and susceptible to a sad way of life by outsiders. The Mormon church tends to overcompensate for its weaknesses in most if not all areas in which it has had trouble in the past – culturally, theologically, socially, etc.

  13. My point is that our traditional family rhetoric has influenced us beyond the family. Our blind acceptance of capitalism has its roots in an attempt to compensate, and distance ourselves from our early communalism and the planned economy of Brigham.

  14. The family is eternal. The church is transient. The church exists in a form appropriate for each generation. Moses’ church differed from the Nephite’s form as ours differs from those and the church after the time of Christ.

  15. TT: This is an excellent vocalization of something that I’ve thought about before (if in less informed terms). Several thoughts tie into this. First, it’s interesting to me that the RLDS/CC church has decided to emphasize JS’s community focus. If you drop out the later theology you still have lots to work with but they chose to focus on his city and community building revelations. Even Truman Madsen points this out. Second, one of the basic concepts behind the now defunct temple ordinance of adoption was to join the Saints together through the highest leaders of the Church in a familial bond. And third, a friend of mine once suggested that even polygamy had this secondary effect of joining families together by strong marriage bonds. In today’s Church we have definitely abandoned this concept as originally conceived and I think that some of the suggestions given above definitely have merit.

    One of the things about our current theology that I’ve never understood is the description of relationships between earthly parents and children. Aren’t we all supposed be equals? As has been mentioned, we are all supposed to be tied together, a situation which sounds a lot more like equals to me. This emphasis on the nuclear family confuses those relationships, to me at least.

    Dave: Please don’t be so fast to condemn yourself to hell, would ya?

    AHLDuke: That’s bang on.

  16. My head is spinning. Thanks for the provoking of thought.

    Does the current church’s emphasis on nuclear families sow the seeds of the unraveling of LDS communities?

    Yes. I believe so.

    Will the tension between the particular family and the ward or church family eventually lead to the undoing of the bonds and obligations to larger community networks?

    Yes. I think so.

    Do families and a provincial view of family values conflict with ethical obligations and cause a myopic vision of one’s membership in the Kingdom?


    I think all of this is leading, necessarily so, to the re-establishment and re-empowerment of clans and tribes. Currently we don’t act in a tribal manner, despite being placed in one of 12 tribes.

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