For the past two weeks, I’ve been naming the challenges with focusing the struggle for gay rights within the church on the issue of marriage. Today, I propose a new, more inclusive way to discuss embracing people of all sexualities: family.
Note: This post is the third in a series on the need for more inclusive language and a broader focus within the Reconciling Ministries movement for queer inclusion in the United Methodist Church. It arises from a series of conversations with other activists in the movement, and from my seminary coursework on social change. The first post is here. The second is here.
Language about family values is already well-loved in the church, and has been unfortunately co-opted by those who define it too narrowly as “a married man and woman and their children.” If we look back to the life of Jesus, his ministry calls us to define family more broadly, and embrace all we meet as our siblings. Look at Mark 3:31-35, where Jesus refuses to place biological family over the family of God.
We have the chance to affirm, loudly and clearly, that families come in all shapes and sizes. Especially now, when ministers are facing trial for refusing to treat their own children as second-class citizens, we must not lose sight of the power of family, or let “family values” be defined to exclude us and our experiences.
It is important that we be clear when we talk about family that we are defining it this broadly, but we do not need to always be specific. Here are some subtle ways we can make it clear that the family of God includes everyone:
Marriage is not the only way to form a family. We all have family members who are related to us in different ways. Some share a biological connection. Some have become our family members through marriage or adoption. We also speak of having a church family, where the membership rites bind us to one another. It is easy to extend this metaphor to other relationships of great care, especially in a time when many people live far away from their biological family and build strong networks of friendship to support one another. Acknowledging these relationships as family makes us all stronger and more secure.
A family doesn’t mean a household. Instead of limiting the term to the parents and children who live together, we must remember that our families stretch beyond the people we live with. This allows us to celebrate the important relationships people have with one another that are not marriage, and once again to build better support networks.
A family can be any age and contain any number of people. Too much of the focus in the marriage debate has been on the biological function of a man and woman having a child. As many rightly point out, there are many heterosexual couples who either cannot or do not wish to have children. This does not delegitimize their marriages. Similarly, a family does not require that any specific person be present. There are families without mothers, families without fathers, families without sisters or brothers. Some families are full of young children, and some are full of old people. Some are tiny and some are large. All are valuable and important.
Families can be chosen. Queer community has always been good at redefining bonds of kinship, as many of us have had difficult or impossible relationships with our families of origin. This is a strength that queer culture can bring back to the broader church. People of all kinds of sexuality grow up in unhealthy families, and should not feel forced to stay connected to abusive or harmful relationships simply because of a bond of blood. While we can love and hope for healing for everyone, we know that boundaries are important, and we should open the ability to choose the people who are most loving and most supportive as one’s family.
Families can stay connected in spite of disagreement. As our church struggles to find a way through our conflicting definitions of family, we must reaffirm our wish to stay in relationship with one another. This is the hardest part for me; and I think the burden here is on those who seek to set boundaries around the family. We must make a table that is open to all, and that often means not talking about what the other does that we find distasteful. There are spaces and ways to disagree respectfully, and many families struggle to learn those skills. Perhaps just as some families turn to therapy, we as a church family need to seek outside assistance to learn to love and support one another through our conflicts.
Language of family is open to people of all genders, all sexual orientations, and all relationship styles. As Christians especially, we are called to build families that transcend old, broken systems.
Every family has strengths, and every family has weaknesses. As one family in Christ, we are called to support and care for one another.
Those are family values I can get behind.