Chick-fil-A and the Biblical Definition of the Family Unit

Almost a month ago the editor of the Biblical Recorder, which is the news journal for North Carolina Baptists, interviewed Dan Cathy, the president and CEO of the Chick-fil-A restaurant chain. Early in the article Cathy is quoted as saying, “We don’t claim to be a Christian business… But as an organization we can operate on biblical principles.” At the very end of the article he gives an equally vague response to a question about family, which has caused quite a stir in recent weeks on Internet news and discussion sites:

Some have opposed the company’s support of the traditional family. "Well, guilty as charged," said Cathy when asked about this opposition.

"We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that.

"We operate as a family business … our restaurants are typically led by families — some are single. We want to do anything we possibly can to strengthen families. We are very much committed to that," Cathy emphasized.

The controversy is that the “guilty as charged” statement by Cathy could be, and has been, interpreted as a remorseless expression of bigotry in the ongoing same-sex marriage debate. Such interpretations are not without context. For example, Equality Matters reported that in 2010 Chick-fil-A donated nearly $2 million to organizations which oppose same-sex marriage.

In my view, using wage labour to fund campaigns for marriage restriction puts Chick-fil-A squarely on the wrong side of the struggle for liberty and equality on at least two counts. However, what I find most intriguing is that Cathy thinks there is a “biblical definition of the family unit.”

It seems unlikely to me that Cathy finds his definition of family elucidated in the Old Testament. Despite being a somewhat eclectic collection of writings — drawn from various genres, times, places, and agendas — the Old Testament does present something of a narrative with Israel as the protagonist in which family is nation. But the families Cathy refers to, the kind who run his fast-food restaurants, seem a far cry from the ancient Hebrew tribes who at times defined and established themselves through genocidal slaughter (see for example Joshua’s conquest of Canaan after the exodus) and strict adherence to dietary and sacrificial codes.

Marriage in the Old Testament is not always consensual, allows for polygyny, and consistently treats women from within a framework of property rights (even when prescribing laws aimed at protecting them from abandonment [e.g. Exodus 21:7]). At one point in Deuteronomy, while enumerating a few limitations the Israelites must place on their king, “wives” is listed between the capital goods of “horses” and “silver and gold” as things which the king must not acquire too many of (Deuteronomy 17:14-17). I don’t think these sort of archaic treatments of marriage are what Cathy has in mind as defining properties of a biblical family.

What about the Gospels? Jesus (himself famously conceived out of wedlock) does in fact have a few things to say about family. There is that time his mother and brothers came looking for him while he was preaching, and he completely de-emphasized the importance of biological relation:

Then Jesus' mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.

Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

And then there is his teaching on divorce (Matthew 19:1-12). I’ve argued elsewhere that when Jesus quotes Genesis 2:24 (“That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh”) he intentionally disregards the etiological story about Woman being made from Adam’s rib and substitutes the much more naturalistic explanation of Genesis 1:27 (“male and female He created them”) which, in my opinion, works just as well as an explanation for same-sex marriage and non-binary conceptions of gender attraction.

His disciples complained that a total rejection of divorce was also a rejection of marriage as anything worth bothering with. Jesus didn’t disagree, but replied that those who could accept the teaching should (Jesus himself never married):

The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

Later in the same chapter Jesus indicates the low importance he places on family:

And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.

And this even stronger version of the teaching as reported by Luke:

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”

I think we can safely conclude that those, like Cathy, who set out to “strengthen families” have not been influenced much by the teachings of Jesus on the topic.

What about Paul’s epistles? Like Jesus, Paul was unmarried. He viewed marriage as simply a mechanism for containing sexual desire:

Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

Although he does make it clear that marriage isn’t a sin; it is merely a bad time:

But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.

In Ephesians 5:21-33 Paul gives some marital advice. It starts off simple enough, even if it’s rather patriarchal (“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands…”), but then gets tangled in a metaphor in which the husband represents Christ and the wife represents the church body. When he realizes his metaphor has gotten away from the realm of practical advice, he brings it back down to the mundane (you know, just in case the married couples of Ephesus hadn’t yet considered love and respect):

This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
— Ephesians 5:32-33

In the next chapter he goes on to urge children and fathers, and slaves and masters, to get along with each other. Cathy doesn’t completely share Paul’s view of family, that marriage is at best a necessary evil and that slavery is okay — although in the cases of same-sex marriage and wage slavery it appears that he does. (For the same advice from Paul without the metaphor, see Colossians 3:18-24.)

But on the whole, between the hyper-nationalism of the old testament and Jesus’s Cynical rejection of family in the New Testament, I fail to see any specifically biblical foundation for the sort of Western bourgeois “traditional” family unit Cathy and other Christians are so keen to support.

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