Changes in family life need not threaten Christians

By Deirdre J. Good
27 Apr 2007

Modern families are being transformed: since 2005, statistics show that more women in America live by themselves and married couples now are in a minority. Similar trends can be observed in Britain and in other parts of Europe.

Our daughters, nieces and grandchildren are growing up into a world where being single will be normal at least for longer periods of time. The social and economic implications of this new situation include the reality that single women are heads of households.

Christian commentators who see a nuclear family as normative might want to describe this new reality as evidence of a further decline in family values. In fact, this new family configuration pries open a discussion of what family values were in Jesus' time.

Paul's letters describe women like Phoebe as leaders of communities and heads of households. Households were not private and secluded as they might be today, but rather public and accessible to strangers. Heads of households, no matter how small, would have been responsible for slaves. Households then as now included relatives; in the gospels, Luke describes a household of five: father, son, mother, daughter, and mother-in-law.

Modern households might include children and ageing parents, grandchildren and grandparents, and children alongside grandchildren. As for Jesus' own family of origin, gospel writers never speak of Joseph as Jesus' father. True, Jesus prohibited divorce but then Jesus wasn't married.

Jesus was ahead of the curve in regard to single women. They were disciples, followers, conversation partners and friends. Jesus treated mothers as heads of households, married women as independent from their marriage and as single people. Women disciples and followers of Jesus included Mary Magdalene, Susanna, Joanna, and many others who provided economic support for Jesus' ministry.

Jesus’ conversation partners included single parents like the Canaanite woman whose daughter Jesus healed, and married women like the woman at the well with whom Jesus preferred to dialogue as if she were single: "You are right in saying 'I have no husband' for you have had five husbands and he whom you now have is not your husband," Jesus tells her.

Jesus' itinerant ministry implies that female and male disciples must be willing and able to leave families of origin. Luke, the gospel writer who identifies wealthy and mobile female followers of Jesus, implies that Susanna was sufficiently affluent to make a financial contribution to the mission, sufficiently free of household responsibilities to accompany the mission and sufficiently healthy to serve.

Joanna is identified by her husband Chuza, a "steward" or a governor, overseer, or high-ranking administrator, with either economic or political authority in Herod's domain, attached to his private estate or appointed over a political district. Joanna is a continuing member of the mission, and is mentioned by name as a witness to the resurrection. Has she separated from Chuza? If Joanna follows the mission as a woman who has separated from her husband, then perhaps Luke is emphasizing the magnitude of personal sacrifice which disciples are willing to make; but then, where is Joanna getting the resources she is using to support the mission?

Independently wealthy women did exist in Jesus' world, but one of the socio-economic reasons for opposition to divorce was the destitution it often imposed on a divorced woman. Perhaps Joanna has not, in fact, separated from her husband, but has gone on mission with Chuza's permission or perhaps even under his direction. Luke may be implying that Chuza the steward of Herod approves of the mission sufficiently to be willing to second his wife to it and undergo the consequent deprivation.

A resurrected Jesus first appeared to a single woman, Mary Magdalene, according to John's gospel. She is commissioned to tell the other disciples what she has seen and heard.

Family values are attributes and qualities affirmed socially and transmitted from one generation to another. Perhaps Jesus learned affirmation of women as independent followers, conversation partners, and friends from his mother. After all, she was an educated Jewish woman who almost became a single parent.

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© The author. Deirdre Good is Professor of New Testament at General Theological Seminary, New York City, NY. Her latest book is Jesus' Family Values. She writes a regular weblog. Her previous book was Mariam, the Magdelen and the Mother.

With thanks also to Episcopal Cafe USA, who are also running a version of this article.

Also on Ekklesia, by Deirdre Good: Wrestling biblically with the changing shape of family, and with Julian Sheffield: Stop colluding with bullying.

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