By Paul E. Boatman
In a rapidly changing culture, Christians look for a foundation for healthy life. We can’t ignore what’s happening around us. But we can decide how to handle our homes.
Family! This oldest of all institutions of God stirs amazingly conflicted images in the current American cultural climate. Some have Norman Rockwell-style family memories. Some view traditional family values as an evil to be fought and destroyed. Some enshrine idealized images of the family in a way that smacks of idolatry. Each of these perspectives may be found among leaders of American churches.
• 40 percent of all births are to unmarried women. Children born in such situations are more likely to experience poverty, low academic achievement, and a host of other social ills.
• Approximately 50 percent of marriages end in divorce—the rate is much lower for first marriages and much higher for remarriages. Only half of all Americans count stable marriage and family as a major value.
• Family stability is lowest among the uneducated and the poor, and highest among non-Hispanic immigrants. Asian immigrants exhibit stronger family values than white or black Americans.
• Cohabitation has moved from a “trial marriage” mind-set among young adults to becoming commonplace among all age groups, even senior citizens.
• Media seems intent on “normalizing” the abnormal via matter-of-fact portrayals of almost every family pattern but the traditional. (For amplification of the above trends, explore www.pewsocialtrends.org.)
The Biblical Record
Popular culture perceives family as a merely evolutionary development. Not so, for Christians. The foundation for biblical teaching on the family is Genesis 2. The account unquestionably notes the creator’s affirmation of the Eden couple as a prototype of “family.” The concept of marriage as “a union between one man and one woman” is absolute (Genesis 2:24), especially when placed in context of all other direct biblical teaching regarding the family.
Yet the biblical record includes many instances of marriages that are not monogamous, but still described as “marriage” with no pejorative allusions. Some of those polygamous relationships also give evidence of multigenerational family dysfunction. The children of Jacob via Leah, Rachel, and his two concubines illustrate profound personality and relational dysfunction. (See Genesis 37, 38.)
Similarly, among David’s multiple wives, two of them bore children—Amnon, Tamar, and Absalom—whose legacies include incestuous rape, murder, and treason (2 Samuel 13–18). God’s work in the midst of such dysfunction is evidence of a level of grace we still seek.
The Bible clearly is not a handbook on “How to Have a Happy Family.” Direct, family-specific instruction is sparse.
The fifth of the Ten Commandments is specific to family relationships and certainly has implications far beyond the simple obedience of children. “Honoring” parents is a way of affirming mutuality of family bonds throughout life. Families may use Social Security and eldercare agencies, but such resources do not eliminate accountability for caring for parents with late-life needs.
The seventh and tenth commandments both bespeak a reverence for the marital covenant which, when consistently observed, can provide security and stability both for spouses and all family members. When love is the main mode of family relationship, stability is empowering.
The great shema passage, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, clearly identifies the family as a primary context for educating children in the most important life values. Moses’ discourse evokes an image of a family in which interactive communication occurs with the will of God highlighted, both intentionally and incidentally.
The book of Proverbs has numerous family-oriented adages intermixed with diverse teaching on implementing godly wisdom. One can imagine a parent and child walking along the road (Deuteronomy 6:7) when the father carries out the Mosaic directive by saying, “My son, if sinful men entice you, do not give in to them” (Proverbs 1:10).
Even apostolic instructions on family, of which Ephesians 5:21–6:4 is the most extensive, are offered with a nod to the command of Moses.
If one wonders about the relative scarcity of direct commandments regarding family, it should be observed that every commandment has some application to family, whether the directive relates to worship, holiness, truthfulness, or respect of relationships and property. The family is the primary incubator of godly living. Many hundreds of years after Moses, additional generations of God’s children were hearing further interpretations and implications of the commandments as they apply to life together in the family.
It is notable that the core teachings on family were first offered to nomadic peoples living in the wilderness. The teachings were applied without revision as Israel went through numerous transitions, from theocracy, through monarchies, through exiles and enslavement, to involuntary incorporation into a predominantly pagan empire. As the world changes dramatically, God’s understanding of, and will for, the family is consistent.
Two thousand years ago God chose to nurture his unique Son in that same kind of family context. Jesus was born into a developing family with in-place parental figures, a man and woman married to each other, active in the practice of their faith, with siblings who were concerned for him when they could not understand his behavior, and with a mother who stayed with him even to Calvary. In dying, Jesus had family support that went beyond that of all but one of his apostles.
Political Movements and Pressure Blocks
Throughout the centuries, the changes in culture are phenomenal. “Family” has remained a constant in most cultures. Through most of the 20th century, the teaching of churches largely conformed to biblical teaching. However, two major philosophical categories increasingly challenged family values. Socialism and secular humanism—accurately discerning that strong family structures would work against their atheistic moorings—began assaulting the family. In more recent years, some church groups that have largely forsaken their biblical orientations have joined in disparaging the family, redefining and marginalizing it.
The roots of this antifamily attitude are not recent. In the 1906 booklet entitled Socialism and the Family, self-identified socialist H. G. Wells declared,
Socialism repudiates the private ownership of the head of the family as completely as it repudiates any other sort of private ownership. Socialism involves the responsible citizenship of women, their economic independence of men, and all the personal freedom that follows that, it intervenes between the children and the parents, claiming to support them, protect them and educate them for its own ampler purposes.
Note the self-conscious intent to change all historic relationships, including replacing the role of the family. Wells adds, “Socialism, in fact, is the State family. The old family of the private individual must vanish before it.”
It is easy to see the applications of this mentality among contemporary political movements and pressure blocks. When schools, social agencies, or government assume prerogative over the function and definition of family, the integrity of the family is compromised.
This is not to suggest all families and all in-family abuse should receive a blanket blessing and protection from the state. Ungodliness and abusiveness should never be tolerated. Family in every age has been subject to dysfunction. But the family that is reasonably pursuing the character development of its children should not be intruded upon by a government that lacks a sense of boundaries for its own empowerment and is hostage to aggressive power groups who are clamoring for approval of their own ungodliness.
In defending the biblical family, we need to be careful not to get caught in our own time warp, confusing what is familiar with what is truly biblical. Certainly, none of the biblical writers were suggesting the normal family function is for the husband/father to leave the house early in the day to go to work in a store/factory/office, being paid a good salary based on competence and gender, with the stay-at-home wife charged with care of the children. This image relates to an industrial/capitalistic society that exhibits many patterns detrimental to family health.
An interesting media circus is currently playing out around a seemingly benign publication. Under pressure from LGBT activists, Highlights magazine for children in its February 2017 edition included a picture of same-sex parents and their children packing the car for a family vacation. Feeling unaffirmed by the magazine’s previous absence of overt presence of families with homosexual parents, Kristina Wertz used a Facebook posting to get action. Her criticism specifically related to Hello magazine, a Highlights publication for children age 2 and younger. Wertz described feeling “keenly aware of the message kids’ books send to tiny minds,” adding, “There is a deep need for books that positively reflect back the diversity of the world around us.”
The scenario illustrates a strategy: Those who wish to change perceptions of what makes a family seek much more than simple acceptance or tolerance. They seek positive reflection, affirmation. Those who, for whatever reason, choose not to affirm may be subject to accusations ranging from microaggression to hate speech.
A wider-scale confrontation continues to unfold in relation to public or institutional bathroom usage by transgender persons. It was expressed thusly in a small town in my area: The parents of a third-grade boy chose to affirm his desire to act on his feeling that he is a girl. Hence the parents announced to the school that he would enter fourth grade as a girl with a feminine name. The school is expected not only to change his name, but to affirm the child’s use of the girl’s restroom. Predictably, other parents resisted this last item, as they pondered both immediate and long-term implications of this change of privacy. Do parents have a right to protect the toileting privacy of their children?
Which Came First?
Stepping back from these specifics, we observe that in diverse areas the family as we have known it is being challenged. The challenge is of a “chicken and egg variety,” with uncertainty as to which came first, the family breakdown or the major value changes. They seem to be interactive. But most challenges that disturb us are results of the failure.
Families that fail to incorporate biblical values as a normal and intentional part of family life should not be surprised when family members act in ways that are opposed to either family values or biblical values.
Marriage partners who do not implement biblical patterns of love and respect in the relationship are already acting outside the covenant, and further covenant violation becomes probable—divorce may ensue or hostile wrangling may become the family norm.
Children who lack the security and accountability of positive parental models and appropriate boundaries and empowerment are likely to act out in ways that reflect the lack of moral maturity.
The African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” in its original context suggested that the community supplements the family in bringing a child to maturity. Some in current culture call for community to displace the family in much of its child-formation process. I would offer an alternative. The best resource for raising a child is a healthy family, undergirded by Christian commitment, with a church that is committed to transforming the community.
Paul Boatman is a pastoral consultant living in Lincoln, Illinois.