September 2015 Feature Article
Conservative Christians perceive that there are threats to the institution of the family.
Most apparent are attempts internationally to redefine marriage to include same-sex unions. Cohabitation has become so common in some societies that they now account for nearly the same number as those who enter into marriage.
Medical technology has also made it possible to redefine parenthood. Single women now have the choice to have children without the need to know their child’s father through the use of donor sperms and artificial insemination. Marriages are more likely to end in divorce, and remarriages are not certain to hold for life.
In the Singaporean context, there is little likelihood that same-sex unions and single parenthood by choice will become mainstream. Surveys show that Singaporeans of all religious persuasions and those who are not religiously affiliated, do not approve of either same-sex unions or out of wedlock pregnancies. The government is conservative and is resistant to make changes related to family norms which may not be well accepted.
While the population, especially younger people are more open to cohabitation, housing is a scarce resource in Singapore and thus practicality will deter many from that option.
The concern of higher divorce rates is however disconcerting.
More recent cohorts who marry are dissolving their unions at a much faster rate. Based on figures released by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, among those who married in 2003, 16.1 per cent of them dissolved their marriage by the tenth year of marriage.
This is compared to the lower proportion of 8.7 per cent for the 1987 cohort. About 20 per cent of the 1998 cohort dissolved their marriage by the fifteenth year of marriage.
The forces that lead to such marriage instability cannot be attributable to mere changes in family values. Most couples are not frivolous about their marriage commitment. They believe that when they enter into marriage, it is meant for life.
However the stressors of modernity and accompanying aspirations can greatly affect what people believe is an acceptable relationship. With both husband and wife busily engaged at work, the demands of raising children and caring for one’s own parents mean that strains in relationships are very likely.
Because people today want to have authenticity in their relationships, they are unlikely to stay married if the marriage is not fulfilling what it was intended to do. There seems to be greater tolerance for divorce than enduring in a loveless and contentious marriage.
Besides the increase in divorces, the overall profile of households in Singapore is changing. The nuclear family form consisting of a married heterosexual couple with children is declining as the dominant form of household here.
Instead, because of population ageing and norms of privacy, there are more households which comprise of single persons or married couples without children. Lower marriage and parenthood rates also mean that there will be more singles in the years to come and fewer younger family members to attend to the needs of those who are ageing.
With more divorced persons choosing to remarry, there will be more blended families where children can come from two marriages. In other cases, households will comprise a divorced parent who will have to singlehandedly care for his or her child. In general, these different household types have to contend with greater difficulties in accessing adequate care.
The Christian church has always thought highly about preserving and supporting families. In response to the challenges that modern life poses to families, many churches today involve themselves in the provision of a variety of services to assist families in need.
Christian faith does not make Christians unsusceptible to family trials but provides perspectives which allow for better coping. Diana Garland in her often used textbook, Family Ministry states that, “Congregations nurture strong families by instilling values that promote strong family life, committing themselves to the challenges of loving unconditionally, celebrating joy together, making time together a priority, handling anger and conflicts in ways that strengthen rather than destroy relationships, practising repentance and forgiveness, and together serving the larger community and world.”
Besides the values imbued through the Christian tradition, churches provide practical guidance for family living through sermons and teaching and give a platform for different generations to coexist and interact. Many a church member can learn the struggles and blessings that are unique to different stages of the family life cycle just by interacting with others in the congregation.
What is it like to live as a family with an older parent co-residing in it? How do older spouses who have no children relate to each other? How can a divorced mother ensure that her children have a sense of normalcy despite their father leaving the marriage? It is easy to find suitable models within the church who thrive despite the struggles of family life.
If churches are to continue being relevant and offer strong support for families both in the Christian and broader community, they must also be attuned to the changes that are happening to the institution of family. They must accept that not all families are the same.
There is a common tendency among church-goers to advocate for how the family should be, both in form and function. Whether it is about gender roles, how married couples should relate to one another, optimum parenting styles or the role of grandparents, there are strongly held views which have the tendency of silencing other views and sometimes sidelining those whose families do not conform to expected norms.
The Scripture does prescribe what family should look like and how its members need to meet one another’s needs.
The Bible declares that marriage is between a male and female (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:4-5); sanctions sexual relationships and reproduction only in the confines of marriage (Hebrews 13:4) and stresses the obligations that parents and children as well as husbands and wives have to each other (Ephesians 6:1-4, Ephesians 5:22-33).
However the Bible does not shy away from depicting biblical characters and how far they conduct themselves from the biblical ideals of family. The fact that Jesus Christ is born in a family line full of complications is testament that God uses a variety of family types and conditions to achieve his redemptive purposes.
Churches then need to be places where people know that their family circumstances will not be unkindly judged. Concerns about being held under scrutiny, lead many members and leaders to be ashamed about sharing the realities of their family life where there might be much deep-seated conflict, violence, sexual misconduct and other characteristics deemed as “unbecoming of saints”.
Instead of shunning family arrangements which mainstream culture devalues, Christian theology provides a rich resource where family types can enjoy recognition. For instance, while singlehood may sometimes be deemed in popular culture as depicting one’s lack of ability to attain marriage, Scripture provides value to the role of singles.
Similarly the Bible extols older persons in the family and society, something which our youth-oriented society is just now beginning to grapple with. Where individuals do not have strong family ties to support them, the church provides a platform for them to find kin-like relationships.
The Christian tradition allows us to reconceptualise the concept of family beyond the structures of blood-ties and marriage. Individuals can have kin-like ties with its corresponding privileges and obligations as brothers and sisters because we share God as our Father.
Our response as Christians to the continued changes in the family institution should not be to merely decry or politicize such changes. While it is important to make a stand for biblical principles that undergird strong and stable family units, we should prioritise on what we are best at doing – offering Christian love to support and strengthen families.
Dr Mathew Mathews is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies at the National University of Singapore. He has researched on a number of family-related issues. He actively serves at Alive Community Church. These are his personal views.