Family ties

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba!Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. — Galatians 3:23-29, 4:4-7 NRSV

This is one of those passages that has always resonated with me on a number of levels. The part that seems to reach a lot of people is “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female” to use a shortened form. It seems to say that in Christ there is equality, no matter what the national origin, economic and social status or even gender. It sets up a universality of all humankind under Christ in a passage that people quote and seem to say they believe in, although sometimes there is a person or a group they just can’t seem to see fitting in that equality category.

Another part of this passage that hits home with me is the part about being adopted. I was adopted as a child but I grew up knowing one of my birth parents. Some years ago I took a class in Biblical anthropology and did my research paper on the Biblical custom of adoption. What I found was somewhat different and yet so very similar to the adoption I knew from my own experience. The Biblical adopted child was often given a home by childless couples who needed someone to care for them in their old age as well as to inherit and continue the family name, line and business. An adopted child was exactly equal with a child born to the family, and upon adoption, all loyalty and responsibility to the birth family ceased and the adoptive family became the group to whom the adoptee owed life, loyalty and responsibility. I was surprised at how similar adoption was given the differences in time and culture. I also knew, though, that there were often people who did not accept the adoption as wholeheartedly as might be. There was always one person who used the phrase, “You aren’t really a member of the family. They had to take you….”

Some of this comes up for me when I hear the arguments about the consecration of women bishops and those who consecrate them. A faction of the church simply cannot accept chromosomally XX people wearing mitres, ordaining priests, confirming confirmands and leading a diocese. Bishops must be XY, just as Jesus was XY and so were all his disciples (of course, Mary Mag and others were XX and were part of the group surrounding Jesus and supporting his ministry, despite the angst that might have caused by uppity women in those days). I’m not sure how they can read the passage from Paul and draw some sort of boundary around what he says about belonging to Christ, heirs of Abraham and fully children of God. It seems to me that any and all of those described as adopted are full members of the family, regardless of what Aunt Maggie or a faction of the church says.

The church has, for generations, had a skewed idea of what Paul’s message of equality meant. First of all, if they weren’t Jewish males, they were not eligible for discipleship. Then Jesus had a coterie of women surrounding him in his ministry and Paul acknowledged the gifts of women like Junia, Prisca and others as co-workers. Either they were equals or they weren’t. As Christianity spread, this group or that was considered “unequal” to the task of answering God’s call; if you were a member of a certain ethnic group, or national group, race or even gender, you were not suitable and any protestations of a deep and heartfelt call from God was simply preposterous. In our own church, how many decades did it take to accept not just the personhood of African Americans and Native Americans but their very ability to answer God’s call to ministry and position in the church? It took quite a while, and it has only been in recent memory that they have been accepted fully. It took longer for women to be able to answer the call to ordination. XY was ok, XX was still suspect. Then the argument turned to women in the episcopate of the Cof E (and other national churches). Are they equal or not? Their baptism covenant says that they are, but there are still nay-sayers that say they are baptized members but they can’t possibly answer a call to the priesthood or episcopacy because Jesus didn’t have women disciples and traditionally women have been relegated to the back pews and instruction from their spouses, teachers, priests, bishops and officials — all male. If baptism makes us all heirs, and adoption makes us all part of the same family, why are we still making distinctions between who is acceptable and who is not, based only on gender, race, orientation or any other single characteristic that is a part of who they are? At least here in the US, the adoption seems to have taken and the adoptees, male and female, are all in the will as equals even if sometimes they are still further down the dinner table than they could be.

If God has adopted us, and God calls us, who are we to say we find this or that one unacceptable? Are all baptized people members of the family or not? I think Paul had the idea that they were, and he operated in a world where differentiation was very much a part of life. God — well, God has God’s own set of rules but at the outset, “Male and female, he created them.” Sounds like they were part of the family to me. Granted, we’re not going to like everybody equally; there are some families where this one doesn’t like that one and that’s that, but that’s human nature. God doesn’t call us to like everybody — just to love them. I’m closer to some family members than to others, but they’re still family, whether or not we share the same gene pool, blood type or blood relation.

I have to look at who I accept and who I relegate to a lesser position, who I consider really a member of the family and who is just there because the family had to take them in. Come to think of it, having to take someone into the family isn’t such a bad thing; it makes me realize that there are some who need the ties, the home, the relationships a family offers, and in turn, they can add a lot to the mix in a positive way. Maybe I just need to remember that a family is a family by choice, individuals can choose to belong or not. I also need to look at who is I think is suitable and who is not — and why. Is it just because tradition says so? Or is there something in tradition that says yes but that that can be ignored because more of history and tradition says no than says yes.

Most of all, who am I to say “God, this just won’t do. This person just is not suitable.” Sounds like the height of hubris to me. I wonder — if God calls’em, can we (or I) really say no? Sometimes a graft onto a root stock makes for a much stronger, healthier plant. Bet that works for families (and churches) too. I bet God thinks so too.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter

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