Children needing more than two parents?
This is the case being made by California State Senator Mark Leno, who says that for children to be really protected, the state must be able to assign legal parentage to more than the child’s mother and father. How many more? As many as the adults in play desire. Biological parentage now bends to legal parentage simply because adults who want to create these experimental families have access to the court system. No children have asked for such thing. But Leno explains his bill is necessary because it “brings California into the 21st century, recognizing that there are more than Ozzie and Harriet families today.”
Beside the “Ozzie and Harriet family” being a fictitious Hollywood creation, does the arrival of the 21st century demand we fundamentally change our collective and historic understanding of parenthood? Sociologically and anthropologically, no society anywhere has found an alternative to the gold-standard of parentage—-a married mother and father—-for providing the health, safety, educational and life-opportunities that thriving children require. Mountains of careful and diverse research consistently show that not a single one of these new “alternative family” forms emerging over the last 40 years have done so. But here we are, continuing to invent them all the same, all under the illusion of progress.
Theology of Family
So how should Christians who don’t consider themselves “culture warriors” think about such developments? Does Christianity possess a theology of family and parenting that should guide our thinking?
First, there are clear examples in Scripture of many different folks caring for children. Extended families and close friends are common to nearly all families. The 12-year-old Jesus, returning home from the Passover feast in Jerusalem, made the first day of the trip in the company of his extended family, and Mary and Joseph trusted them with such a task. At least that was what they had believed. In reality, the young Messiah was still back in the big city, being about his Father’s business (Luke 2:41-49). It took Mary and Joseph three full days to find their boy. Jesus lived in a large family circle with real family drama.
So we should not think of a proper family as only mom, dad, 2.1 children, and a faithful dog named Rex. The nuclear family is surrounded by extended groups of important folks: grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, and so on. And a variety of extended families make up every village. And villages make up towns. And towns make up states. But only two people in these nuclear confabs can be a child’s parents. Except in special circumstances, such as adoption, parents are the man and woman whose genetic offerings created the children from their loving union. And every culture finds the need to establish a reliable means to keep this man and this woman together to raise, protect, and provide for their offspring. This necessary social glue—-tying the father to the mother and their child—-is called marriage. It is a common grace that God has given to all human cultures throughout history and each has embraced and practiced some form of marriage between the two halves of humanity.
Wired Into Humanity
We can even observe a theology of parentage in the writings of secular anthropologists. Based on their careful and sustained observations of human experience in diverse cultures around the world, they testify, whether they realize it or not, to what God has wired into humanity.
This observable wiring is reflected in the first two humans God created. Creating a man for a woman and a woman for a man, God does not first command them to found a church, business, or university. He first directs them to engage each other in the loving intimacy of the marital embrace and produce children. And God saw fit to provide the first children with only two parents. He didn’t short-change them by limiting the number of parents to two.
Later, when God regretted that he made man and wiped the earth clean through the flood, his plan was to re-establish humanity through two parents, Mr. and Mrs. Noah, and their three sons with their wives. God did not restart the human race with four sets of two parents because it was the “cultural norm.” He did it because that is what he desired to do. Because it was the way he wired us, what he made us for as unique, sex-distinct God-imaging humans.
Jesus’ Nuclear Family
And finally, consider how God came into our midst in the incarnation. Jesus had a mother, in the young Mary. She was with child, divinely conceived by the Holy Spirit. Joseph was a non-essential, confused bystander in the drama. But the Father did not leave it that way. He wanted his Son in the flesh to have a dad in the flesh, so Joseph was commanded by the angel to step up and be a husband to Mary and a father to this special child (Matthew 1:20). And he did.
The young Jesus—-the God/child—-had a human mother and father because God took pleasure in it being that way. God’s work here is a profound and divine statement of the special and essential roles that mothers and fathers play in the life of every child. Everyone who has ever lived is a part of this basic human nuclear trinity as a child of a mother and father, and then typically, as a mother or father themselves forming the next generation of these fundamental human trinities.
Both the books of divine and natural revelation teach us about parentage. We who live in the 21st century must not arrogantly assume we can change or improve upon what God lovingly and wisely instituted, and nearly all human cultures at all times have practiced.