My wife and I recently returned to the restaurant where we spent our final Saturday evening before our wedding. As we settled in, our eyes focused across the room to the table where we sat 16 months ago, sharing plans of travel, butchering the pronunciations of French dishes, and preparing to create a family.
We recollected how a middle-aged couple at the bar overheard our conversation that night and turned to offer their experienced input. “Just wonderful, you two look so in love,” chimed the tipsy husband. “Go large with the wedding,” the wife interjected, “everything goes downhill from there.” Her cynical tone and disillusioned eyes undermined her husband’s every word.
Evil Hits Close to Home
It didn’t take long after our wedding for us to discover that the opportunities to wreck a family are legion. “An entire army of evils besieges the life of the family,” wrote the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) in his timeless work, The Christian Family. Bavinck listed just a handful of evils that threaten the well-being of the home:
the infidelity of the husband, the stubbornness of the wife, the disobedience of the child; both the worship and the denigration of the woman, tyranny as well as slavery, the seduction and the hatred of men, both idolizing and killing children; sexual immorality, human trafficking, concubinage, bigamy, polygamy, polyandry, adultery, divorce, incest; unnatural sins whereby men commit scandalous acts with men, women with women . . . the stimulation of lust by impure thoughts, words, images . . . glorifying nudity and elevating even the passions of the flesh in the service of deity.
When “marriage loses its delight,” Bavinck observed, “it turns into unbearable drudgery.” The couple at the bar knew this grim reality all too intimately. The truth is that no family evades the consequences of evil.
Is the Family a Failed Project?
“There has never been a time when the family faced so severe a crisis as the time in which we are now living,” Bavinck declared. During his age, scientists attempted to reduce the origin and nature of the family to naturalistic explanations. Monogamy, fidelity, and nurture had no legitimate moral or sacred foundation. Science determined the utility of the family, rendering it too flawed for modern people. Intellectuals suggested replacing marriage with free love, familial bonds with social compacts, and parenting with scientific nurturing methods.
Bavinck found that shifts in artistic expression subverted the family as well:
Today, now that realism has taken over in art . . . people take pleasure in describing life after the wedding and in marriage, presenting it as one huge disappointment, as an intolerable cohabitation, as a desperate situation of misery and duress. Poetry is then introduced into this situation by means of sinful passion, forbidden affection, unnatural lust; these are glorified and smothered with glitter at the cost of love and fidelity in marriage.
There never has been an ideal age for the family—and we certainly aren’t in one today. From music award ceremonies to Woody Allen films, popular culture has not smiled kindly on the family. Even more, the hunger for financial success has brought injury to many existing families and diminished the appeal to create new ones.
According to Time magazine’s Top 10 Things We Learned About Marriage in 2013, “our in-laws have an evolutionary reason to hate us,” “low drama divorce is possible,” and “same-sex marriage keeps winning.” Number one on the list concludes: “a person could get dizzy trying to pin down the definition of a family.” Dizzying indeed.
Does the problem lie in the institution of the family itself? Would the world be better off if we abandoned the family altogether?
Call for a Theology of the Family
Bavinck believed that Christian theology alone could offer hope for the family in his day and ours. He wrote, “Christians may not permit their conduct to be determined by the spirit of the age, but must focus on the requirement of God’s commandment,” showing “in word and deed what an inestimable blessing God has granted to humanity” with the gift of family. The following points—deduced from Bavinck’s work—provide a helpful foundation toward developing a theology of the family.
God created the family beautiful and good. God is the most committed advocate for the family. “The history of the human race begins with a wedding,” and God himself officiated it. He created a compatible partner for Adam as a gift, blessed the couple, and commanded them to bear his image, multiply families, and subdue the earth (Genesis 1:28). As Bavinck said, “God’s artistic work comes into existence bearing the name of home and family.” God created humans to reflect the relational love within the Trinity, and he appointed the family as the supreme instrument toward this end.
Sin has ravaged the family. When Adam and Eve first disobeyed God, they “sinned not only as individuals” but “also as husband and wife, as father and mother.” Sin delivered a devastating blow to the home. It introduced “disunity between Adam and Eve,” filled “Cain with hatred against Abel and incited him to fratricide,” and it “led Lamech into polygamy.” Sin poisons the health of our relationships—first with God and consequently with spouse, parent, child, sibling, and neighbor.
Christ offers the family hope. God did not leave the family in defeat. In fact, he still had big plans for it. After the fall, God promised Eve that her offspring would conquer evil (Genesis 3:15). As Bavinck writes, “In the Son born from her, the woman and the man once again attain to their calling.” Jesus Christ is the only human being to never sin against his Father in heaven and his family on earth. His death for our sins offers hope for forgiveness and reconciliation not only with our earthly families but also with God our Father. Although earthly marriages remain imperfect, they represent the love between Christ and his people more than anything else in creation. Bavinck concludes his book with these hope-filled words: “The history of the human race” also “ends with a wedding, the wedding of Christ and his church, of the heavenly Lord with his earthly Bride.” In Christ, the family finds significance, purpose, and hope.