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Can Christian Theology Save the Family?

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.

images (1)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.

  • Christian Vagabond

    I don’t think there’s any merit to the belief that Christianity theology has the only answers. If you’re really serious about maintaining the traditional family model and discouraging more modern family models, then you have to look to the cultures that have been successful at doing so, namely Islam and Hindusim.

    The two factors that distinguish our culture’s modern values with the traditional values espoused by central Asian cultures is: A) the degree to which women are allowed to have a say in their lives and their future, and B) the degree to which parents and grandparents are expected to have final say on the choices their adult children make.

    In the case of Bavinck’s argument, infidelity hasn’t ravaged the sustainability of the traditional family. What has changed is that wives are viewed as people with rights of their own, and they are no longer expected to tolerate infidelity.

    To a large degree, past generations assumed that a marriage would be between a virginal wife and a sexually experienced husband. Affairs weren’t necessarily socially accepted, but wives were expected to endure them. The main concern was ensuring that the husband did not abandon his family. Nowadays wives can insist that their husbands will remain faithful, and women have more social leverage to stand up for themselves if husbands mistreat them or have an affair.

    But the biggest factor is whether a culture is individualistic or collectivist. Collectivist cultures prioritize family over personal preferences: Your parents choose your spouse for you, you live with your parents and grandparents under one roof, and social taboos are strictly punished. Ours is an individualistic culture. Personal goals take priority, adults are expected to leave their parents, and the emphasis on the individual robs society of any leverage to police social taboos. The concept that causes the most damage to the traditional family is the one Americans (including evangelicals) love the most: freedom.

    • Andy

      No, the biggest factor, and I think the underlying purpose of the post, is that the God’s purpose for the family has been largely forgotten. Individualist or Collectivist aside, all have fallen short, and have deviated from God’s family plan.

      Do you believe that Christian theology alone offers hope of salvation? If so, I believe that Bavinck’s analysis of the hope for the family (Christian theology) stands.

      • Christian Vagabond

        I do believe that Christianity alone holds the hope for salvation, but the shifts in family dynamics and values is a sociological topic. Christianity can’t be used to analyze these changes in scientific terms any more than it can be used to analyze the growth of online commerce.

        I’m not sure what you mean when you refer to God’s plan for the family. God has different plans for each family.

    • Ryan

      Thanks for the feedback Christian. I have to challenge your comparison of the Christian understanding of the family to Islam (which subjects women and encourages polygamy) and Hinduism (which has deities that glorify promiscuity and sexual perversion). A Christian theology of the family reflects the relational dynamic of God’s character, his love for his children, the gospel, redemption, and the relationship between God and his people. Islam and Hinduism can’t claim to have a similar theological framework that offers hope and a mission for the family.

  • Chris Taylor

    Yes! It is one of the gifts God has given the church. And yet, any one of the gifts by itself is not likely to bear nearly as much fruit as many gifts combined. So, we along with a theology of the family, a theology of the church, and a theology of missions.

  • Rhoda

    I think that is so true that we must focus on God’s commands rather than the spirit of the age. We see other Christians using non-Biblical reasons to end their marriage and we think that means it’s OK. But we need to look at what God tells us to do in the Bible, not what other people say. And we should act and speak to our spouses in a way that honours God regardless of how they act towards us.

  • Phil

    It seems to me that the understanding of family that is advocated here ignores 1 Corinthians 7.

    But, then again, those verses are deeply problematic. So probably best to ignore them (or hand-wave them away).

    • Michael in Dublin

      you regularly make comments without following the plain sense of the language of the passages that you quote while ignoring others. Paul had much more to say on marriage and family eg Ephesians 5:1-6:4. If we take his words to heart, we will have stronger marriages and families.

      If you were to apply your method of Bible interpretation to every other book you read you would make complete nonsense of them all. You conveniently ignore the way language normally works and the link between the way it is structured with the context and how inextricable this is with the meaning.

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  • Steve Martin

    Good theology is important.

    But proper theology never saved anyone.

    We are saved by Christ and His calling us and choosing us…often in spite of our theology…not because of it.

    • Steve Martin

      I know what you mean (the point of the piece)…I was just making a point about expecting too much from theology.

      Maybe ill timed.

  • Phil Kassel

    This all goes to our hermeneutical approach. What is the method by which we exegete the Scripture? Please don’t check out on this thinking I am trying to sound all theological and seminarian (if that is even a word :-) ). Every Bible reader uses this whether they realize that is what it is called or not. It is all in how we interpret the Scriptures. I think one of the main battles arising in the church today and could possibly be a question of reformational magnitude is, “what is the biblical relationship between the institution of the family and the Great Commission?” A century ago it was the battle of inerrancy. While that is still an issue today, the greater issue is on the sufficiency of Scripture. The same main Scripture text we use to defend inerrancy (2 Timothy 3:15-17) also speaks of sufficiency. With that said, I think the clear pattern in Scripture shows not only the importance of a family but even more that it is essential to the Gospel. I believe the Scripture teaches that the family is God’s plan A in world evangelism. The enemy knows this and is doing quite a work in destroying the family. God designed the family to be His primary method of world evangelism through generations. The “Shema” (Hebrew pronunciation of the word “hear”) is still critical to Jews today. They recite it morning and evening. It is referring to Deuteronomy 6:4-9. To them, (even though I believe they miss the deeper significance of the Trinity), still hold that this is one of (if not the) most important O.T. texts. Jam packed in these few verses describe what the rest of the Bible supports and teaches. I say all this because I believe the Bible doesn’t just put emphasis on having a nice family but that the family is critical to the Gospel. I like what Tim Kimmel says: “Our homes are the single most strategic influence in our society. The strength of our family determines the health of our churches, the impact of evangelism, the spread of world missions, the conscience of our political leadership, the character of our military and police force, the heart of our educational system, the ethics of our scientific community, and the morality of our arts and entertainment industry.” Healthy families = healthy churches. Healthy churches = healthy communities. Healthy communities = healthy cities. Healthy cities = healthy states. Healthy states = healthy nation, etc. It starts in the home but it is essential to the Gospel. I could go on and on but felt compelled to contribute. Blessings to all of you and may we honor Him in our approaches, responses to one another, and in our humility.

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