It’s some months now since I read a headline in The Daily Telegraph. “We should applaud the end of the nuclear family, says top judge”. I read the story with interest and a growing sense of anger and then checked to see what other newspapers were saying about it.
The story concerns Sir James Munby, the President of the High Court’s Family Division and Head of Family Justice. Munby oversees the operating of Family Courts in England. As the papers put it, he is our ‘top family judge’.
Sir James had just given a public lecture at the University of Liverpool. It was offered as one of the ‘Eleanor Rathbone Social Justice Public Lecture Series 2017-19’. And according to one of the commentators I read, this senior judge took the opportunity to make ‘the most subversive attack on the very notion of the family ever launched by a public official…’
Well, I went away and found the speech (you can read it in full on the official website of the judiciary, www.judiciary.uk). And I found that the newspapers for once hadn’t exaggerated.
‘What is the family?’
Munby begins with a brief historical introduction, sketching out the achievements of Eleanor Rathbone, a mid-20th century social reformer. He then states the question he intends to discuss: ‘What is family law?’ But then he says this (long quote coming up — you need to read it to the end):
‘However, before turning to consider this question I ought first to address the logically prior question: What is the family? Time was when most people probably thought the answer was not merely clear but obvious. Today it is more complex. In contemporary Britain the family takes an almost infinite variety of forms. Many marry according to the rites of non-Christian faiths. People live together as couples, married or not, and with partners who may not always be of the other sex. Children live in households where their parents may be married or unmarried. They may be brought up by a single parent, by two parents or even by three parents. Their parents may or may not be their natural parents. They may be children of parents with very different religious, ethnic or national backgrounds. They may be the children of polygamous marriages. Their siblings may be only half-siblings or step-siblings. Some children are brought up by two parents of the same sex. Some children are conceived by artificial donor insemination. Some are the result of surrogacy arrangements. The fact is that many adults and children, whether through choice or circumstance, live in families more or less removed from what, until comparatively recently, would have been recognised as the typical nuclear family. This, I stress, is not merely the reality; it is, I believe, a reality which we should welcome and applaud’.
Well, I can’t challenge Munby’s description of the UK scene. He’s giving us a powerful picture of the chaos into which our society has descended. He knows the reality of what’s happening. But how does he finish up? By declaring that it is a ‘reality which we should welcome and applaud’.
According to Munby, we should be delighted when children grow up with a single parent, two parents or with three people they think of as their parents. We should welcome the fact that some children live in a home where their father has two or more women in tow or their mother has two or more men.
We should applaud the fact that children may be brought up by two men, though related to neither of them. In short, we should rejoice that there are so many family units that bear little or no resemblance to ‘what, until comparatively recently, would have been recognised as the typical nuclear family’.
‘Typical nuclear family’
What does he mean by a ‘typical nuclear family’? He means a family composed of husband and wife, bonded to one another for life and bringing up their children together. We should ‘welcome and applaud’ the fact that many adults and children, whether by their own choice or by circumstances beyond their control, live in groups where that traditional father/mother/children structure has gone.
Well, I’m not surprised by the fact that the man who heads up the Family Division of our legal system holds such views. The only surprise is that he’s willing to say them on the record. Perhaps it’s because he’s due to retire this summer. Could it be that he can, at last, say openly what he has been pushing for all along?
It’s worth noting that almost the whole paragraph which I’ve quoted was repeated from an earlier speech given to the Law School in Edinburgh in March 2018. But he left out the final sentence then. In that speech he simply described the scene. He’s waited to the last moment before his retirement to nail his colours to the mast and to declare that he welcomes the end of the traditional family. If he had said it any earlier, there might have been awkward questions asked. But now he can say the unsayable and walk away.
The Victorians — and us
I’ve looked back at some of Munby’s earlier speeches. For years he’s been openly scornful of the Christian view of marriage and family life. In his March 2018 speech he talks about ‘the legacy bequeathed by the Victorians…’
‘…it went without saying that the basis of the family was a marriage that was Christian (or if not Christian, then its secular or other religious equivalent) and, at least in theory, lifelong. Thus, Sir James Wilde’s famous definition of marriage in Hyde v Hyde: “I conceive that marriage, as understood in Christendom, may for this purpose be defined as the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others”.’
He goes on to talk about this as a ‘very narrow view of sexual morality’ and rejoices in the various steps by which the legal system has jettisoned the ‘Victorian’ view of family life, though declaring that there is still much to be done.
Munby is not alone
Of course, Munby is not alone among lawyers. Nor are lawyers alone in their opposition to the traditional family. There are politicians (of all parties), educationalists, academics and social workers who share his hatred of the Christian — i.e. biblical — view of marriage and family life, and are working to root out its last remnants from national life.
And of course the media and Big Business are ready to promote the anti-family agenda. Steve Rose, in an article in The Guardian (30 September 2017) listed out some of the TV dramas currently pushing alternatives to the traditional family:
‘If there is any TV show that comprehensively detonates the idea of the perfect traditional nuclear family, it’s Transparent. The story’s main arc is the decision by Pfefferman patriarch Morty, played by Jeffrey Tambor, to come out (messily, of course) as transgender to his three grownup children…
Flicking between recent TV shows, it seems that “unconventional” families are actually pretty common. A big deal in the US this year has been This Is Us, which was nominated for 11 awards at this year’s Emmys. The story explores another unorthodox family setup: a white couple who adopt a black orphan baby when one of their premature triplets dies at birth. As the show progresses along parallel timelines, these three disparate siblings, and their parents, discover and come to terms with their complex family ties.
We have also got Modern Family —already renewed for a 10th-anniversary season — which honours its title with its non-nuclear setup; Two and a Half Men (two brothers and their son/nephew); The New Normal (gay couple, their surrogate mother and her daughter); and The Fosters (lesbian couple and their various biological and adopted children). It’s as if TV has finally acknowledged that ‘non-traditional’ is another way of saying “normal”.’
Three anti-family beliefs
Let me list out three beliefs that have been pushed by the anti-family elite and which are increasingly taken for granted across our society. I believe these three ideas lie behind nearly all the anti-family pressures we’re facing.
(1) Personal autonomy
We should all be free to make our own choices without reference to any external law or moral code — at least unless our choice causes direct and measurable harm to someone else.
How does this work out in practice? It means that a woman should be free to abort her unborn children; anyone should be free to adopt any sexual practices that attract them and to have sexual relations with anyone else or with any number of people. A person should be free to marry any person or more than one person — and to dissolve the marriage if and when it suits them.
Equally, a person or persons should be free to form a promiscuous group which defines its own rules for sexual behaviour. Women have the right to act in a sexually provocative way, give consent to sexual relations, and then withdraw that consent at any point.
Everyone should have the right to choose their own ‘gender’ (i.e. sex); in other words, to adopt a male, a female or an indeterminate/ fluid identity for as long or as short a time as they wish. Whatever anyone chooses, it is the duty of society to respect their choice and to support them in their chosen identity and lifestyle.
Of course not everyone who accepts the basic principle — freedom to make your own choices — would argue for all the examples that follow. But all those examples, to a greater or lesser extent, are already enshrined in our legal system, or are being advocated by different lobby groups.
And if you talk to most people under the age of 50, they will overwhelmingly accept the main principle — that people should be free to do whatever they choose. Hence the result of the recent abortion referendum in Ireland. People voted overwhelmingly for the constitution to be amended because the issue was presented as ‘should a woman have the right to do what she chooses with her body?’ The resounding answer from two thirds of voters was ‘Of course she should’.
Likewise, if you asked most younger people, ‘if a man is bored with his marriage, should he be free to walk away from it?’ their answer would be ‘of course’. They’ve been conditioned from childhood to believe that nothing is as important as personal choice.
(2) Equal rights and roles
There should be no fixed pattern of roles within families, by which any member can claim authority over any other.
Munby, in his 2014 lecture, looks back to the bad old Victorian days when ‘the relationship of the husband and wife within that marriage was fundamentally unequal’ — ‘protection on the part of the man, and submission on the part of the woman’.
Furthermore, he goes on to say, ‘the relationship of parent and child was in large measure left to the unregulated control of the father’. To him, this is horrifying to look back on. Why? Because this ‘Victorian’ pattern of family life has been replaced by the dogma that no member of a family should be able to exercise authority over another.
So what would a ‘modern’ family look like? What do the modernisers want in practice? They want mothers and fathers (if a child has a father and a mother) to play identical roles in bringing up the child. The old idea that the mother should devote herself to the care of the child while the father goes out to work in the world is, they say, an insult to women.
So, they argue, society must be regulated in such a way that women can have children (if they choose to) but not be expected to care for them day by day. They insist that no woman should have to submit to her husband in any way or be dependent on him financially.
They are determined that children should be free to follow their own wishes without restraint from parents. (Remember that under the ‘named person’ scheme in Scotland, children were told that they should report their parents to their state-appointed guardian if the parents didn’t allow them, for example, a say in how their room was decorated!).
They are anxious to take from parents the right to discipline their children — at least physically. In fact, some ‘education experts’ argue that a parent must seek ‘consent’ from a baby before changing his/her nappy (if you don’t believe me, search YouTube for a video clip discussing this very thing).
Of course, we have to say again that not everyone in authority, let alone all the people we meet, would back all those statements. But it is now the mainstream view that all family members should have their own rights, enshrined in law.
And anyone who asserts the Bible view that the husband is the head of the family, the wife his helpmeet, and that the children should submit to parents, will be regarded as holding a very dangerous position. Indeed the authorities may feel the need to intervene in any family where such views are upheld.
(3) The supremacy of the state
The state, not the parents, is finally responsible for the upbringing and welfare of children.
You remember the Alfie Evans case? Baby Alfie was dying of a rare degenerative condition. The hospital and doctors decided that they must end the baby’s life because there was no point in trying to save such a hopeless case. His parents appealed to the courts but the courts upheld the doctors. The pope intervened and a hospital in Rome offered to take care of the child and to cover all costs.
But the judges of the Supreme Court would not allow the child to leave the hospital to be flown to Italy. The parents had to accept that decision but pleaded that the child should at least be allowed to come home to die. Again they were refused. The doctors turned off the ventilator and the baby died in hospital.
Many people were outraged: some signed petitions on behalf of the parents. But the courts declared that the law was clear. The state, not the parents, must decide what is in the child’s interests.
From time to time I listen to, or read debates about home education. And again and again I hear ordinary people saying the same thing: ‘Home schoolers need to be regulated. Parents can’t be allowed to decide for themselves what their children should be taught or how. The authorities should be intervening to make sure that the children are being properly taught ‘modern values’. After all, the state must decide what’s best for the children.’ It’s taken for granted.
How should Christians respond?
Well, I’ve tried to give you a picture of the world in which we’re living. How should we as Christians respond? Let me make three points.
(1) We need to have a clear understanding of the Bible’s teaching on families.
We believe that there is such a thing as a ‘normal’ family. It starts with a marriage between one man and one woman. They come together in an exclusive, public relationship which is intended to be lifelong. They have equally important but different roles to play in their relationship. The man is the leader, the wife his follower and helper. He must love her sacrificially; she must submit to him.
The man and the woman become one flesh, sharing all that they have and are. As they ‘know’ one another, emotionally and sexually, children may be born out of their union and together they bring up their children. The mother will have the primary responsibility for their immediate care while they are young; the father will be ultimately responsible to guide, discipline and protect them until they leave the home in order to get married themselves.
Why do we have this view of family life? Because it’s traditional? Because the Victorians took it for granted? Because we were brought up that way? No, because the Bible tells us that this was the way God created human beings to live. Human beings were designed physically and psychologically to live in this way. If they discard this pattern and try to produce a different one for themselves, they will damage themselves and their offspring.
We need to be sure of what the Bible teaches about family life and the reasons it gives. And we need to be able to explain it to others. Our children, as they mix with the wider society may well begin to question the way they’ve been brought up. We need to be able to show them from the Bible that this is God’s way and that God’s commands are wise and good.
And it’s not only our children who need instruction. We’re going to meet Christians who have never been taught what the Bible says and have just accepted the views of society. We have to be able to present God’s word about family life to them.
Could you do that? Are you clear about the Bible teaching? Would you be able to take people to the key passages in Genesis, in Psalms, in Proverbs, in the Song of Solomon, in the Gospels, in the New Testament letters? No, I’m not going to quote them here. I’d prefer that you go away and study them for yourself. And if you don’t know where to start, your pastor or elders should surely be able to help.
(2) We need to be firm yet compassionate in upholding God’s standards for family life within the church.
We need to be aware that people who are converted from non-Christian backgrounds are likely to be completely unfamiliar with Christian standards for family life. Some will find it hard to understand or accept the views we have learned from the Bible. To them, those views may seem absurd, unreasonable or impossible.
Remember, we’re dealing with people who have been conditioned, I could say brainwashed, by society into a very different mindset. What seems obvious to us may seem utterly bizarre to them. We’ll need to be very patient, accepting that it may take a very long time for some things to fall into place in their minds.
Some will come to us already damaged and hurting because of their choices or the choices of others. Children who have been brought up in unstable households are unlikely to be stable in their own personalities and relationships. Folk who have been abused or rejected are likely to be traumatised and may show it in all sorts of bizarre behaviour patterns. People who have been involved in unnatural lifestyles may find it very hard to break off what has become habitual.
And those who have found friendship and community in the company of those who shared their lifestyle may find themselves terribly lonely and isolated when they come to Christ. They will need to be welcomed and supported lovingly if they are not to be drawn back into the old associations.
Some who come to us will still be involved in relationships that we would regard as wrong. They may be tangled up in very complicated family circumstances. If it’s evident that they are repentant and trusting Christ we must baptise them and bring them into membership although there may be many issues still to be resolved.
And some issues may never be resolved in this world. Imagine a man who deserted his wife and moved in with another woman with whom he’s now fathered two children but who doesn’t want to marry him. Now he comes to Christ. He wants to make amends for his past. What is his responsibility? What is ours?
Should he leave his two children? Should he stay with their mother and live with her unmarried? Should he try to persuade his wife (from whom he’s never been divorced) to have him back? There are no easy answers to such questions. We will need to be very wise, very patient, very gentle.
And it’s not only new believers who may struggle to grasp, or to live by biblical standards of family life. As I said above, there are many churches and Christian groups where there is no firm stand taken on family issues. People who come from those churches may find our stand very difficult to accept. Yet we must continue to uphold God’s Word — patiently, compassionately, lovingly.
(3) We need to make our family lives visible and attractive to unbelievers.
Yes, there are many people who think the Bible’s teaching on relationships and family is old-fashioned, stupid, repressive, inhuman. Well, they’re wrong. The reason God has given us the commands he has is because they’re the way to contentment, peace, wholeness. So we must let people see that that’s so. We need families that shine — families where the relationships between Christian husbands and wives and children are beautiful.
And then we need to let our friends and neighbours see the reality of godly family life. Some may sneer. But others may recognise that this is something different and wonderful. There are people who know that the world’s advice isn’t working. Well we need to show them that God’s advice does work. And who knows? For some, that glimpse of God’s perfect wisdom may be the start of their search for him.
So even if you’re single yourself, pray for the families in the church. Pray that they’ll match God’s pattern for family life and that that will be a powerful witness to the world. Here’s the Bible’s picture of a godly family. Turn it into prayer.
Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD,
who walks in his ways!…
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine
within your house;
your children will be like olive shoots
around your table.
Behold, thus shall the man be blessed
who fears the LORD.
The LORD bless you from Zion!
May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life!
May you see your children’s children!
Peace be upon Israel!
Amen and Amen!
This article first appeared in the monthly magazine and on the website of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport. www.gbcstockport.org.uk