A Biblical Perspective on Family

February 23, 2015

Biblical Perspective on Family

            The family is one of the most important and fundamental units of existence, particularly in a pluralistic culture such as the one typical of Bible times. Since the Bible represents multiple thousands of years of history, this paper will focus on a broader understanding of family as laid out in Scripture. First, we will start at the beginning of a new family: marriage. We will move into a short discussion on extended family and living arrangements. Third, we will address children. Finally, we will discuss the New Testament concept of the church as family.

Marriage

            Genesis 2:23-24 reveals how the first marriage set the precedent for all succeeding marriages. Adam declares that Eve is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”, and the precedent is that a man leaves his parents and is united to his wife. This was not necessarily a physical leaving, as we will see in the next section, but emotionally. As Wenham states, “when a man marries, his order of responsibilities changes: though his parents’ needs are still important, his wife’s needs are even more important.”[1] After marriage, the man would bring his wife into his household, and they would begin their family together.

            Although the two operated in different spheres of influence, marriages were between equally important partners. It is easy to look at Scripture and assume that, since the men were out making decisions at the city gates (e.g. Boaz in Ruth 4:1-2; Proverbs 31:23), the husband was more important than the wife. However, women were probably responsible for many of the skilled tasks at home such as spinning, weaving, grinding grain, cooking, as well as bearing and training children.”[2]

Extended Family

            Exodus 20:12 states the fifth commandment is “Honor your father and your mother,” and this was very important in the biblical family model. As mentioned before, a man may not have necessarily left his family physically. In fact, with a patriarchal society, it is much more likely that the man and his wife would live in a house adjoining his father’s house. As generations passed, the families would expand outwards, eventually forming small villages of 50 to 150 residents.[3]

Children

            Since much of the society was, at least initially, agrarian, children were highly prized. Even as the society changed and different occupations arose, children, sons especially, were still highly valued because of the established patriarchal system.

            Children were trained and educated at home. As Deuteronomy 6:7 reminds, faithful families were expected to train up their children in an understanding of the Law. They learned early on that respect and obedience were the best ways to honor their parents (in fulfillment of the fifth commandment).[4] Children were expected to help with chores around the house, and as they got old enough, to contribute to the livelihood of the house, whether that was farming or some other occupation. They were trained to be contributing members of society, concerned with the collective good rather than the self.[5] Finally, when a child’s parents were too old to care for themselves, the care and support goes full circle, as the child honors his parents by taking care of them in their old age.

Church

            Although the family continued to play an important role in the New Testament period, Jesus shifted priorities to kingdom relationships. It is clear from passages like Matthew 10:37-39 that Jesus prioritized discipleship over familial ties, stating that his followers must love him more than they love their fathers or mothers. However, this does not mean that Jesus’ followers must choose to be disconnected from any attachment. Instead, believers enter the family of God, with God as Father, and the whole church as brothers and sisters. The strongest ties (and primary responsibilities) were both kingdom and familial as evidenced by 1 Timothy 5:8. And, due to the strong familial connection common to the culture, belief in Christ often spread through families as units.

My Family

            I grew up in an atypical American family, a fact I have been faced with time and time again. Being of both Chinese and Japanese descent, my family inherently had a high value on familial ties. I would go to school and hear about my friends’ big family reunions over the summer. At first, I longed for something similar, because it sounded fun, but then I realized that my family would have similar “reunions” on a bi-monthly basis, simply because our families were always close.

Marriage and Extended Family

            Marriage marked a new step for my parents, but it was not as drastic as it would have been in biblical times. My parents were both living on their own, working their own jobs, when they met and got married. Similar to biblical times, after getting married, my mother moved into my father’s home. However, she is still very much a part of her family, and we still regularly get together with her mother, siblings, and even cousins and their families. My parents, in my opinion, are a good expression of a union of complimentary equals. Although they each have their roles (Mom is in charge of meals, laundry, and other “home-making”, while Dad works out of the home to pay for their home and my sister’s and my educations), they work together as a team, make all important decisions together, and, ultimately surrender everything to the Lord’s guidance.

Children

            My parents made the decision early on to keep us in private Christian schools for as long as God provided the funds for it. My sister and I have both attended Christian schools for all of our education, barring one year of my sister’s college education. On top of that, we were regularly talking about our faith, and our parents are regularly looking out for teaching opportunities. When it comes to practical skills, my mother was a bit more jealous of her home-making responsibilities than my father was over his. Perhaps it was because I am the son, but I did not learn to cook, do laundry, or many other basic chores until late in high school (my sister learned these skills roughly when I was, even though I am six years older). However, I was always out in the yard or the garage or under the sink with my father fixing things, tending plants, etc.

Church

            My parents were each the first Christians in their respective families. When they got married, they committed to raising a family according to the Bible’s principles. We have always attended church, regularly engaged in learning about our faith in age-appropriate ways (like the Adventures in Odyssey series), and prayed together as a family. In many ways, my friends at church were closer to me than my extended family, and the discrepancy in intimacy has only grown as we have all gotten older. Now that I am older, have moved out of my parents’ house, and am living across the state from them, I find that I look to church relationships to be my family.

The American Family

            The average American family is very distinct from the biblical family. It is individualistic, and often centered around self-fulfillment. This tendency toward self-fulfillment has led to high divorce rates and a plethora of broken homes. Family ties are strongest in the nuclear family, but seem weaken fairly significantly beyond that. For Christians, Genesis 2:24 is interpreted to mean a literal, physical leaving of the man from his parents, and he becomes the head of his own household.

Marriage

            Marriage as an institution is declining in value in America, and extramarital cohabitation and divorce rates soar. In addition, the push for homosexual marriages stands in clear distinction to the biblical example. Marriages are usually seen as being between two equals, though the distinction of spheres is blurred more and more. Often both the husband and the wife will work outside the house, although many household chores still fall to the wife.

Children

            Children are cherished, but births are now controlled to be more at the parents’ convenience. Often, households are limited to two children through contraceptive measures. Since many parents are both working, it is not uncommon for children to be put in daycare before starting school, or staying at a daycare after school gets out. Parent-child relationships are strained, possibly a result of our society’s intolerance toward any sort of discipline.

Church

            Church plays a minimal role in the life of many Americans. Though most claim to be religious, often their religious expression is limited to their day of worship, and does not show up in any other way. Many parents hand off the religious instruction of their children to the church completely, and do nothing to reinforce what is being taught at church.

Family and Ministry

            An understanding of the biblical perspective on family touches a special chord in my heart because I work in youth ministry. One of the key takeaways is that the church should not be the solitary place of religious instruction. Unfortunately, this is often the way that youth ministry is treated. A good reminder to youth pastors is that youth are under our tutelage for a handful of hours each week, while the students are with their parents for substantially larger amounts of time. The question that must be asked is: how can I, as a youth pastor, come alongside the parents of my students and help them to lead their children well?

            In my own ministry, I do my best to keep parents in the loop. Each week, we send out a newsletter with announcements, a recap of the message, and several conversation starters. This way the parents know what we teach each week, and they have the opportunity to follow up with their kids and continue the conversation on their own. In addition, I try to send out resources to help the parents as they navigate parenting their child. Some of these resources are information about the ever-shifting landscape of social media, others are tips and considerations for difficult but necessary conversations that parents should have with their children. Ultimately, I am seeking to help the parents have regular and ongoing conversations with their children.

            Beyond this interaction with parents, however, I really struggled with understanding how a biblical perspective on family should impact my ministry. In part, my struggle is that the bulk of my current youth group is in sixth grade, so the types of things they need to learn is very different than it would be with an older group. One thing that we have been trying to teach the youth is that the church is a family. We come together and have fun, yes, but we also learn and grow. We may not always get along, but we love each other anyway, even when it is inconvenient or unpleasant. Through camps, we have had the opportunity to show them that this church family is not limited to just the people at our church, but include people from all over. The kids have really enjoyed this, and a few youth pastor friends and I are trying to plan some inter-church group events.

            Although it is difficult for me to think beyond youth ministry, since that is what is before me right now, another passion of mine is marriage ministry, although I myself am unmarried. As American culture continues to shift its stance regarding marriage and family, a clear understanding of what the Bible teaches on family in crucial. However, it is not enough for the leaders to have this knowledge. We must pass this on to the congregation. God designed for us to live in families, to be raised in families, and to learn and grow in families. We were designed for marriage to be between a man and a woman, and for them to remain married for the rest of their lives, bearing and rearing children, and serving God with their entire beings. As culture tries to push homosexual marriage, abortion, abdication of training children, etc., we must not only teach our congregations what the Bible teaches, but we must communicate to the best of our abilities why God’s design is better than the world’s teaching. We must be able to convince not only the mind, but also the heart of the fact that God’s plan for human flourishing is far better than anything the world could come up with. We need to show, not only our married couples, but our young singles who will likely marry one day, what God’s design is for marriage. We must teach them how to thrive in marriage, how to serve one another, how to look beyond the surface.

            Finally, biblical families were multigenerational, and there were plenty of intergenerational interactions. Many of the churches that I have attended have done this poorly, and I think this needs to change. God designed families to have generations for a reason. Older generations should be able to share their wisdom with younger generations. And I do not mean college students talking with high school students. Students should be learning from parents and grandparents. Young married couples should be able to turn to couples who have been married 20, 30, or even 50 years for advice, inspiration, and guidance. The current church model is horizontally based. Ministries that keep like people together abound. Students with students. Singles with singles. Parents of young children with each other. But the church is supposed to be the family of God, and God designed family to be intergenerational. We need to shift the church model to be more vertical. We should be walking alongside people similar to us, while looking ahead and behind to encourage and lead each other in our faith journeys, and God should be at the top of our vertical church structures. A shift like this would be radical, and it would be difficult, but I feel that, if implemented well, it would lead to a church that thrives in an unparalleled manner.


[1] Gordon J. Wenham, “Family in the Pentateuch,” in Family in the Bible: Exploring Customs, Culture, and Context, eds. Richard S. Hess and M. Daniel Carroll R., (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003), 18.

[2] Ibid., 22-23.

[3] Edesio Sánchez, “Family in the Non-narrative Sections of the Pentateuch,” in Family in the Bible: Exploring Customs, Culture, and Context, eds. Richard S. Hess and M. Daniel Carroll R., (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003), 36.

[4] Ibid., 39.

[5] Wenham, 21.

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