Pastoral Perspectives

Redefining the Family

On the 24th of June, thousands of Singaporeans converged in Hong Lim Park for the annual Pink Dot event in support of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) communities. This was also the first Pink Dot since the repeal of penal code Section 377A criminalizing gay sex. When I first saw the report on Straits Times, the lead photograph above the headline caught my attention. It was an aerial shot of the event with attendees organised in a light formation spelling out the word “family” in rainbow colours. This represented their theme for 2023: “Celebrating All Families.” No informed observer would fail to notice the pointed polemic behind the tagline. It was a sharp riposte against the rhetoric of social conservatives who believe the societal changes pursued by LGBTQ+ activists would ultimately cause the weakening of families and family values in Singapore. 

Pink Dot spokesperson Clement Tan confirmed this in no uncertain terms. At the launch of this year’s event in May, he said, 

“Family should be a source of love, safety and comfort. However, LGBTQ+ people experience so much rejection and hurt, not only from family members who may struggle to accept us, but from segments of society who espouse harmful messages that pit us against ‘family values.’ The idea that LGBTQ+ people are a threat to families is preposterous. We have families too, and we love them and stand by them every day. These messages not only drive a wedge within Singapore society, they also divide households by turning family members against each other.” 

Clearly, the theme was a pushback against social conservatives. 

ST photo: Gin Tay

It was also a thinly veiled protest against the government’s decision to pass Article 156 along with the repeal of Section 377A. Article 156 is a constitutional amendment intended to preserve and protect the heterosexual definition of marriage, and in turn uphold the traditional family with a heterosexual couple at its core. In 2022’s National Day Rally, our Prime Minister explained that the reason for this was because “We believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Children should be born and raised within such families. The traditional family should form the basic building block of our society.”

Local sociologist Dr Teo You Yenn disagrees with such a conservative outlook. Speaking in a panel discussion at the launch of Pink Dot, she brought up how the structures in Singapore limit the way people conceive of families and are harmful. Since LGBTQ+ persons also value and desire family relations, a narrow concept of family is strongly exclusionary to the diversity of persons and situations present in society. For our LGBTQ+ persons and non-traditional families to thrive in our society, the idealisation of family with a heterosexual couple at its nexus must be chipped away by changes to regulations, policies, and laws. 

In her closing statement, she said, 

“When ordinary people value family and family ties, it is because the family can be a place of love and support. But realising the potential of the family is not up to the individual … It depends on social conditions that recognise or deny a family as a family, and thus allows or disallows it to act as a unit. So, to have one’s family be recognised as real and legitimate is very important for maintaining that family over time and across circumstances.”

Hence, the Pink Dot this year made the point that LGBTQ+ persons and activists are pro-family, contrary to what social conservatives may insinuate. LGBTQ+ persons need and want acceptance from their families. Howver, they experience rejection from them because they have been negatively conditioned by how family has been traditionally conceived. Furthermore, the traditional definition of family is too narrow to include the diverse kinds of families present in our society. This narrow definition must give way “to embrace families of all shapes and sizes.” In other words, Pink Dot has flipped the narrative around to portray the stance of social conservatives as being less pro-family than that of the LGBTQ+ activists. 

Initially, this filled me with great consternation as I am a Christian with conservative views on the family and I do not find Pink Dot’s narrative to be true. However, on deeper reflection I realised that their attempt to redefine what is family is not novel, after all, it was our Lord Jesus Christ who first redefined the concept of family for Christians. In the Gospel of Matthew, while Jesus was speaking to the crowds, he was sought for by his mother and his brothers. Instead of responding to them, he turned to his disciples and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Mt. 12.49-50). In this way, Jesus redefined family such that it was no longer defined by marriage or biology, but by faithfulness to him: those who are Christians in the church are now family. In an age where family was narrowly defined by nuclear family of father, mother, and children, Jesus redefined family around himself. 

In fact, the gospel he preached was not exactly pro-family. He claimed it would divide families when some members believe in him, and some do not. Yet, those who believe in him must love him above their father and mother. Those who are faithful to Jesus may end up losing their families, either because they get rejected by them or they leave them for the sake of following him. Even so, they are not to value allegiance to family over allegiance to him (Mt. 10.34-39). Many Christians in Asia today still experience disapproval or even rejection from their parents in their attempt to be faithful to Jesus. I shudder to remember how difficult it was for me to go to church on Sundays despite the firm warnings from my mother not to. Even more painful were the altercations and silent treatment that followed.

Hence, in consolation to those who suffered the loss of family Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mk. 10.29). For those who lose their families out of faithfulness to him, they will gain a larger family in the church. Fellow believers are now truly brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers to each other, not defined by blood or marriage, but by adoption into God’s covenantal family through our Lord Jesus Christ in the bond of the Spirit. (For those who have grown up in Christian families in church, it is hard to perceive the radicality of Jesus’ redefinition. Addressing each other as brothers and sisters in the Lord seems quaint and more metaphorical, as it no longer bears the weight of painful loss and joyful gain.)

In some ways this alienation from family is also what many with non-heterosexuality face. Not a few of them would have come out to their parents as LGBTQ+ persons only to face rejection and shame. As a result, they yearn for love and acceptance which they are only able to find in the LGBTQ+ communities. They have been estranged from their natural families but found new families in others who share the same estrangement and social cause. One need not strain too hard to see where the similarities lie.

Where the difference lies is that Christianity does not seek to eradicate the normalcy of a family formed by a heterosexual couple—it considers such a natural arrangement to be good and ordained by God for the preservation and flourishing of human civilization. Instead, it applies the natural relations of brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers to those who not naturally related. It is one thing to regard someone who may not be naturally related as family, but it is another to say that any kind of non-heterosexual arrangement should be regarded as family in the eyes of society and the state. The latter is in no way pro-family as it is detrimental to the nurture and upbringing of children—a crucial function of families.[1]

Be that as it may, I realised that instead of being viscerally upset with the narrative of Pink Dot and with their desire to redefine the family, I ought to be filled with sympathy for those who have been alienated from their families because of their non-heterosexuality. Even if I do not agree with Pink Dot’s ideology, I wonder if the church could be a loving and accepting family for people with non-heterosexuality—if they could find brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers in the church? I pray so. After all, the church is not just a congregation of biological families but a large spiritual family. Our Lord Jesus Christ welcomes all who come to him, and anyone who comes to him are to find family within his loving embrace. 

[1] For more details on this I refer you Eliza Lian-Ding, “Same-Sex Parenting: A Matter of Orientation,” in Homosexuality, the Bible and the Church, ed. Keith Lai, Terry Kee, and Foon Ngian Ngoei (Singapore: National Council of Churches Singapore, 2021), 119–36.