What’s family for?

Generational family photo with overlaid question: What's family for? Identity or responsibility?

While reading a recent Atlantic article about family estrangement, I came across these sentences:
“For most of history, family relationships were based on mutual obligations rather than on mutual understanding. Parents or children might reproach the other for failing to honour/acknowledge their duty, but the idea that a relative could be faulted for failing to honour/acknowledge one’s ‘identity’ would have been incomprehensible.”

What to expect from family?

It got me thinking. What do I expect from my family relationships? Do I act out of duty with my family, or do I expect family members to affirm my identity? Should I feel slighted if my unique traits are belittled or ignored, and would that ever lead me to become estranged from my family?

Neither of these seems right.

A relationship maintained only out of duty sounds dire, but a relationship without duty would result in extreme self-centredness. For instance, it would imply that one could abandon an elderly relative suffering from Alzheimer’s who no longer recognised you. Surely this can’t be right.

As I usually do, I turned to the bible for help.

First off, the word ‘family’ in the bible has a broader definition than the way we use the word. It describes the nuclear family and immediate relations that we so often use it for and one’s clan, tribe and nation.

Family obligations

The responsibilities that come with being part of a family are modelled for us by the characters we read of in the Old Testament and articulated in Moses’s laws. We should bring up younger members, provide for, help settle and establish our families (Genesis 45, Leviticus 18, Deuteronomy 25). If we’re older, we should set a good example for those who are younger (Joshua 22), and our obligations to family members continue to their death and beyond (Judges 16 & 21).

Family as identity

On the other hand, our families help define who we are, and we have the privilege of representing them to others. Whole families are shown mercy because of one member’s actions (Judges 1:25, Jeremiah 3). Yet be warned, a whole family can be cursed and killed because of one person (2 Kings 11). Sadly, experiencing problems with one’s family is nothing new. Gideon expected to be judged and mocked by his family so acted in secret (Judges 6). Yet there is hope; when we join with the rest of our family, we can do difficult but necessary actions like repenting (Zechariah 14) and joyful ones such as being baptised together (Acts 16). All told, a family can contribute heaps of positive attributes to our identity and bring out the best of us. In return, by representing our family well, our actions can bolster its reputation.

In conclusion.

It’s not a case of either/or. Family is not just a responsibility. Neither is it only a place for us to express ourselves, secure in our identity. It is both of these, and I pray for all those estranged from theirs that they would experience healing and renewal.


DislocatedChristians exists to create and support a community of like-minded people. Our prayer is that you’ll find some echoes of your dilemmas with church and culture in these pieces, and it will encourage you to know others have the same struggles. Please like, comment on or share our articles if you’ve found them helpful. We’d be immensely grateful if you could follow us, click towards the bottom of the page.


Just as we are each a work in progress, so too is DislocatedChristians. Sometimes we’ll get things wrong, and we hope that you’ll forgive us and continue to stick around when that happens.

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