Just How Family-Centered Is the Bible?

There’s enough circulating in the media today to discourage Christians about the future of marriage and family. In a recent Atlantic article, “All the Single Ladies,” Kate Bolick suggests we stop thinking of “traditional marriage” as society’s highest ideal. Divorce is no longer the “new” normal, it’s just normal. In the 1980s and 90s, the term “turn-key kids” was meant to represent a sad reality for children. Now the term has been largely retired because of its regularity.

These cultural developments have led evangelicals to become more family-centered, both for our own sake and also for the sake of our neighbors. Promise Keepers encouraged men to love their wives. John Piper and Wayne Grudem edited a scholarly and pastoral—in my opinion, definitive—book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, arguing for a complementarian understanding of the home and local church. The name Focus on the Family speaks for itself.

But with every response, there’s always the danger of over-correction. It’s not that I think some evangelicals have become too conservative or too traditional. I worry that they’ve simply adopted traditional cultural and societal norms, instead of biblical norms.

Zechariah and Mary

The two birth announcements in the Gospel of Luke to Zechariah and Mary reveal how a society’s “traditional” family values may not line up with God’s.

Zechariah, the priest married to a barren woman, and Mary both heard miraculous announcements about impending childbirth. Yet while Zechariah responded with skepticism and doubt, Mary responded with faith and wonder. So why would Zechariah, a priest, doubt an angel of the Lord? He knew the story of Abraham and Sarah, so the idea of an older, barren woman giving birth wouldn’t be ridiculous to him.

But consider Zechariah and Elizabeth’s situation. Some of you may know the pain of not being able to have children. It’s the feeling of 10, 20, even 30 years deeply desiring children with hopes unfulfilled. Zechariah and Elizabeth also suffered shame. Luke 1:24-25 reveals Elizabeth’s heart. She said, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”

By reproach she meant the shame that comes from known barrenness. Maybe some of you have experienced this reproach from more conservative societies, where family is held in such a high regard. If you’re nearing your 40s with no children and maybe not even married, you start to receive questions like, “When are you going to get yourself a husband?” “When are we going to start seeing some little ones around here?” You hear the whispers. Every baby shower brings guilt and shame.

Zechariah and Elizabeth also dealt with questions about whether they did something wrong to deserve barrenness. Was there some hidden sin? Worse, Zechariah was a religious leader, a priest! Can you imagine how this public shame undermined his position, his authority?

So for Zechariah, pain and sorrow turned to shame and disgrace. He held on tightly to the cultural idol of family. This idol filled his heart so that there was no room for the truth of God’s promise, even if he heard it from an angel. The good news of a coming son did not inspire joy but unbelief. It’s too late. We’re too old.

Two Common Errors 

Reading about Zechariah and Elizabeth while studying our own age, we discern two errors common to societies when it comes to family.

First, a society can value personal independence and autonomy to such a degree that family and children become burdens. What God has provided for our joy and human flourishing, we regard as a killjoy, draining personal resources that we’d rather use to advance our own dreams, ambitions, and plans.

But there’s another wrong view. A society can make the family the most important thing. It can become an idol, something that fundamentally defines us. We regard anyone who never marries or cannot have children as somehow subhuman. They must have done something wrong to upset God.

By contrast, the Bible actually teaches a radically subversive message about the family. God, we often discover, is the cause of barrenness in women. Stories of family dynamics rarely flatter. You’ll never find a Leave it to Beaver household in the Bible. Rather, we see constant distress, rivalry, and jealousy. Usually this dynamic doesn’t result from undervaluing children. No, we see it when children become the most important thing! Not only that, Jesus also has some deeply alarming things to say about the family, sounding almost cold and uncaring—see Mark 3:31-35 and Luke 14:26.

And finally, it’s difficult to make family the most central thing for Christians when the two most prominent figures in the New Testament, Jesus and the apostle Paul, were both single. Actually, Christianity made singleness a legitimate way of life for the first time in any culture or religion.

Christ and the Church

Before you thumb your noses at traditional values on marriage and family, remember this: When God wanted to paint a picture of his great love for he church and cost of his death, he cited marriage between a husband and wife. God in Jesus Christ is the faithful and sacrificial husband for his bride, the church.

In fact, the Bible often describes our spiritual union with one another and God using the language of family. Through the cross of Jesus Christ, we see that God is no distant judge, but a Father; Jesus is not only a friend of sinners, but our brother; we share not only a common belief system, but we also live in community as brothers and sisters.

While the family cannot be so important that it invades the space in our heart that only God should occupy, we see that even from Creation, God designed marriage and family to result in a maturing society. Zechariah, however, warns us not to make family the ultimate thing. He turned it into a false god, leaving no room for the truth of the real God.

Not so with Mary! She responded with wonder and faith, saying, “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). She, too, had dreams and hopes for family. She was even betrothed. You don’t think she daydreamed of what her family might be like? We know from John 8 that Mary’s pregnancy out of wedlock was public knowledge. Many believed that Jesus was born from “sexual immorality.” So Mary endured the whispers, stares, and brooked smiles. A virgin birth was hardly family-centered in that traditional society. Might we have whispered and wondered about her, too?

Christians should have strong convictions about marriage and family. But their convictions should come from the Bible, not simply the norms of traditional societies.

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  • MF

    You said, “John Piper and Wayne Grudem edited a scholarly and pastoral—in my opinion, definitive—book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, arguing for a complementarian understanding of the home and local church.”

    One interesting note in this regard is that John Frame, who contributed to that volume and is no egalitarian and does not support female elders, says it is a bit to his right overall. (Compare his views on women teaching in his Doctrine of the Word of God‘s chapter on Preaching and Teaching). He said that James Hurley’s Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective more accurately represents his views on the whole.

  • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John

    A good brief article. More could be said about how Christ challenged us to put following Him ahead of family allegiance and how, at one point, said that the church (those who hear His words and do them) are His true family.
    I would like to see the Gospel Coalition take on the issue of “The Family Integrated Church Movement”, particularly whether it idolatrously puts the family in the center of the church instead of Christ, is divisive and counter to sola scriptura by making such a central issue out of something not found in scripture.
    One note of correction: You wrote, “made singleness a legitimate way of life for the first time in any culture or religion.” But Buddhist monasticism required singleness before Christianity.

  • Steve

    This is a good and much needed article. I often wondered about this as I once had a pastor say that he would not have me preach in his church because I was 28 and single which makes it obvious to see that God is not blessing my ministry. I wondered what he would do with Paul or Christ in that situation. Thank you for the article.

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  • http://www.everybodyillustrated.blogspot.com Melody

    Great article! As a single lady in her late 20s, it’s often frustrating to me when Christians think family is the most important part of our Christian lives.

  • Dean P

    Hey thanks MF for Frame’s comment and the heads up about Hurley’s book. I will check it out.

  • Dan Chooks

    This post is ironic for me to read today, since I just read Mark 10:29-31 this morning. As I read, I wondered why Jesus would include the idea of “leaving children” for the Gospel. This is a hard teaching (perhaps hyperbolic?). I’ve heard before that the seminaries of 50 years ago taught “ministry before family”. I disagree with this teaching and do not think it’s what Jesus is saying in principal here. That’s why I like the thesis of this post.

    My priorities are: God first, family second (wife, then children), vocation (income generation for support of family) third, ministry fourth. All of my life (and the life of each of my family members) is to be lived for the glory of God, the blessing of people, and for the joy of our hearts *together* in Jesus.

    I think Jesus includes “leaving children for the Gospel” (in the Mark 10 passage) because He knows there will be times that this must happen (i.e. Jim Elliot’s martyrdom); He does not say this to make it normative.

    Paul says, “He who does not provide for his family is worse than an unbeliever”. And as Pastor Starke points out, Paul clearly raises the bar of responsibility (spiritually, relationally, and otherwise) for husbands in relationship to their wives and children.

    I pray we will each walk in God’s grace and guidance as we seek to love and honor our wives and family, mirroring the love Christ has for His church and the Father has for His children.

  • Dan Chooks

    **meant to say “principle” not “principal”. I’m new to blog posting.

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  • http://www.redeemchristianity.org Redeem Christianity

    I love this angle! Far too much of today’s “Christian culture” is being radical to either side of the spectrum, but not radical toward the Bible, and listening to God for what He truly desires.

    Keep it coming!

  • Mitchell Hammonds

    I find it odd that we continually use language that seems to quantify the Christian life. For example, “Placing our family ahead of God… allowing something to take the place of God… 1.God 2.Family 3. Vocation… 4. Friends…” This is the type of navel-gazing (list checking) that Christ absolutely set us free from. I have no idea at what point I place my family or anything else over and above God… more often than I’m comfortable with I’m sure. What I do know is Christ has absolutely secured the “vertical relationship” that I should have with God… period. I can’t “do” anything more to add to that. God is “for me” when I wake in the morning and when I lay down at night. The human heart is an idle factory… it is incapable of “not making an idle of something” and it is for this reason Christ died and rose bodily. For our hope to be in Him. Now live without attempting to place everything in its “proper place.”

    • Stephanie Usrey

      This is the best comment thus far. Francis Chan discusses this point in a message he co-taught with his wife, Lisa, a few years ago. There is no prioritized list.. There’s just God and our hearing, believing and obeying Him (HBO).

  • http://i-never-fail.blogspot.com Craig

    The conviction of marriage should be one of the most powerful illustrations that we represent to those that are unchurched and unsaved – good post – thanks…

    I came to your blog from the church relevant site top 200 list. They have created a tremendous forum for finding new blogs that impact people.

    I hope my blog can be an encouragement to you also.

    I write it for encouragement and motivation daily.


    Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to watching the connections grow!

  • http://www.evedyahu.wordpress.com Cristian Rata

    Very useful article…I am not so sure about your take on Zechariah, but the point is well made.

    [Why the 2 kids in the sketch above? Is that the golden standard these days everywhere? I thought it was only for Romanian Baptists and most Koreans! :)]

    • John Starke

      I hope it is not the standard. We have 3 children.

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