Was the Nuclear Family a Mistake?

Last month, the Atlantic published a provocative and fascinating article which, given its title, could not have come at a more poignantly ironic moment: “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake”. The article classifies the American obsession with nuclear families as a chronological aberration of the 1940s–60s, and one that was probably erroneous. In the wake of the failure of the nuclear family, the author subtly proposes that we lean more on hybrid extended-family networks, as Americans frequently did prior to the industrial revolution.

This time of quarantine has demonstrated both the author’s insight and folly. The sad truth of the article’s observation is hard to refute: The American nuclear family has disintegrated. However, the author’s laughable folly—as demonstrated this past month—is his premise that we can evolve past it.

Our fixed dependence on the nuclear family does not mean that any stage of life or form of community which falls short of Leave it to Beaver is automatically inferior. But it does mean that when it comes to the backbone of our social-spiritual-emotional wellbeing, nothing can or will ever replace a healthy family. If we did not grow up within a traditional family setting, with a loving and committed father and mother, then we are either painfully aware of what we have missed and been deprived of, or we celebrate and rejoice in our upbringing precisely because it imitated and replaced that ecosystem so well.

Try as we may, we cannot escape the good, necessary, and eternal design of a “home-family unit”. For all our country’s free-wheeling, independent bravado, championing the strength of the individual and celebrating the fluidity of our social structures, a dirty, unspoken secret remains that the greatest driver of income inequality (not to mention countless other ailments) is single-parent households. We don’t like to talk about the power of families because, frankly, there’s not much we can do about it. At least not from the top-down. We can’t put a curfew on absentee fathers, and we can’t prevent parents from babysitting their children with screens. And if we go so far as admitting that healthy family dynamics play not just a role, but the defining role in shaping the next generation, then we have conceded at the outset that we have no institutional or legal hope of eradicating inequality. And that, of course, would be a cynical and close-minded belief, the vestige of bygone traditionalist values.

 The good and bad news of this quarantine time is that it has knocked out virtually all of the societal props which we have depended on to supplement the original, structural foundation of family. Without schools, clubs, sports, friends, and co-workers, we have been transported back in time to a pre-modern relational system, one we’ve been trying to farm out and outsource for over fifty years. Thus we have been made acutely aware of a responsibility we may shirk, but will never be able to shrug off: Cultivating a healthy family culture.

Why? Why is the nuclear family so integral to our formation as human beings—our relational, emotional, and spiritual identity? Why does our own family of origin so often serve as the lens through which we approach other relationships, and the backdrop against which we set our hopes and fears?

It is because God created nuclear families. Look at how God uses the verbage of family to help us understand fundamental, eternal realities of how He relates to His people, the Church:

"So then you are no longer stranger and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God." (Eph 2:19)

"I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty." (2 Cor 6:18)

"For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers" (Romans 8:29).

"For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he [Jesus] is not ashamed to call them brothers,  saying, 'I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise'" (Hebrews 2:11).

These constitute only a handful of the many texts which illustrate a basic point: The Christian’s reality is one of entering and living within a family.

God did not stumble upon the idea of family by happenstance, and then decide it might serve as a good analogy for the way Christians can think about their faith. God created the family for the purpose of displaying the richer, deeper union into which He brings us when we accept Jesus.

When you think about the daily functioning of a healthy nuclear family, there are elements which are simply inimitable anywhere else. That’s because God wants us, when we think about our relationship with Him, to know the depth of intimacy, the daily communication, the shared drama of life that He is inviting us into. God wants the waking-up together, the meals together, the little surprises, and the afternoon exhaustion. He wants to participate in both the exciting and the mundane. He wants us close to Him at our best and our worst.

And so, generation after generation, century after century, God has given us the illustration of the nuclear family so that we can see what we will enjoy with Him and His people forever.

Justin Poythress (MDiv, WTS) is Assistant Pastor at Christ Community Church in Carmel, Indiana. 

Related Links

"Review: How the West Really Lost God" by D.G. Hart

"Revoice and the 'Idolatry' of the Nuclear Family" by Richard Phillips

"Family Worship and Its Benefits" by Jason Helopoulos

"No Social Distance in Heaven" by Aaron Denlinger

Adoption, ed. by Jeffrey Stivason

Family Worship by Donald Whitney