It is well known that the ancient Greek society was rigidly structured. Individuals within that society each had roles that they were born into (i.e. master, slave, male, female , rich, poor etc). Aristotle has much to say regarding this. For Aristotle, in order for a society to be good and just each member of the society had to accept his/her role and play it and this began in the family. So then, for Aristotle, there could be no ordered society if there were no ordered family.
This is similar talk that you might here nowadays from particular (conservative?) Christian circles. Exceedingly, the emphasis is placed on the family unit (for example). What is needed is a focus on the family. A properly ordered family will lead to a properly ordered society (for example). The purpose of life, “is lived out first within our own families then extended, in love, to an increasingly broken world that desperately needs Him.”
To be sure I have a family. I love my family. I think family is important. My goal here is not to detract from the family. No, I think that Jesus and other New Testament figures do a better job of that than I. Consider some of the following sayings of Jesus:
“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it,” (Mt. 10:34-39).
“While He was still speaking to the crowds, behold, His mother and brothers were standing outside, seeking to speak to Him. Someone said to Him, “Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to You.” But Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother,” (Mt. 12:46-50).
Who does Jesus consider his “mother and brothers”? “Whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven.” In contrast to this, John tells us that, “not even His brothers were believing in Him,” (7:5). Family within the kingdom is not necessarily the same as family in light of the world.
See also Paul’s letter to Philemon. Speculation about the relation between Philemon and Onesimus aside, Paul writes to Philemon, “for perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother,” (v.15-16).
Remember Aristotle and the structured Greek society? Each member had a role that they simply had to play. Well, Paul speaking to this very world, proclaims that, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ,” (Gal. 3:28). In the kingdoms of Greece and Rome there may very well have been structured roles to play. However, in this new kingdom, in God’s kingdom, all of the roles that would generally serve to separate folks are done away with, “for you are all one in Christ.”
Further, each role in society came with certain expectations. In Romans 13 Paul seemingly plays into this: “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities,” (13:1). Wayne Meeks argues in The Moral World of the First Christians that the ruling class in these days literally made up 1% of the population (we are the 99%, anyone?!). Paul continues on and it seems that he is arguing for this sort of structure in society: “Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour,” (13:7, emphasis mine). But then he goes on: “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another,” (13:8, emphasis mine).
So wait, what do we owe people? Tax? Custom? Fear? Honour? Nothing? Love? For Paul (in his own subversive way), as for Jesus, it would seem that this new society is founded on something other than societal and familial roles. “For you are all one in Christ.” This is a society in which the nature of Philemon’s relationship with Onesimus is forever altered—no longer slave, but dear brother. This is a society in which we are to, “owe nothing to anyone except to love one another.” This is a society based on what we might call friendship. And it is thus, as Wayne Meeks argues, that the earliest Christians were ridiculed as not only pagans but as those who were out to destroy the family.