Long before our children enroll in school, they learn in the classroom of the family. They listen in the living room. They study in their mother’s arms. They observe over eggs and toast. And day by day, they absorb deep lessons — only some of them spoken.
The family, Herman Bavinck writes, is “the first and best school of nurture that exists on earth.” Even more, “a person’s becoming human happens in the home; here the foundation is laid for the forming of the future man and woman, of the future father and mother, of the future member of society, of the future citizen, of the future subject in the kingdom of God” (The Christian Family, 92, 108).
God made families to nurture children into the fullness of their image-bearing humanity. And families do so, in part, by teaching children what it means to belong — to find their place in God’s world and God’s church, discovering how their unique me fits into a larger us. Families are meant to be microcosms of the kind of community God created us for: one of unity and diversity, of the harmony and the dance.
Which means that authority and submission, nurture and obedience — all saturated with Christ — are not elective credits in the school of the family, but part of our core curriculum.
Bodies and Bowling Leagues
What does it mean to be a member of a family? We can answer in two strikingly different ways, drawn from two definitions of member.
“Family membership finds its roots in Eden, not Babel; it belongs to creation, not the fall.”
When we use the word member, C.S. Lewis observes, we usually mean almost the exact opposite of what the apostle Paul meant. To be a member of Mrs. Smith’s fourth-grade class, or a member of the Tuesday night bowling league, is to find yourself among those like you: a fourth grader among fourth graders, a bowler among bowlers. Apart from a few exceptions, every member in the classroom and the league shares the same responsibilities and privileges.
But as Lewis writes, “By members . . . [Paul] meant what we should call organs, things essentially different from, and complementary to, one another, things differing not only in structure and function but also in dignity” (“Membership,” 163–64). To call two fourth graders “members” is one thing; to call a finger and an eyeball “members” is quite another. The former emphasizes unity; the latter emphasizes unity unfolded in wonderful, almost wild, diversity.
Where modern membership is quantitative and egalitarian (each member is one more of the same kind), biblical membership is qualitative and complementary (each member is a different kind in the same whole). Here, hands and feet join ears and eyes to form one fantastically varied body. “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12).
In Christ, we belong to a body, not a bowling league. And God begins preparing us for that body through membership in the family.
Finding Ourselves in a Family
When we speak of a family, our words often acknowledge their basic unity. We speak of the father, mother, and three children next door as “the Davidsons” or “the Wilkersons,” not as “those five people.” Nevertheless, family unity enfolds rich diversity — so rich, in fact, that the family members “are not interchangeable.” Lewis continues,
The mother is not simply a different person from the daughter; she is a different kind of person. The grown-up brother is not simply one unit in the class children; he is a separate estate of the realm. The father and grandfather are almost as different as the cat and the dog. If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure. Its unity is a unity of unlikes, almost of incommensurables. (164–65)
The glory of the family lies, in part, in that the father is not the son, the daughter is not the mother, the brother is not the sister, and yet together they are still “the Davidsons.” The “unity of unlikes” that we find in the family remains a living witness to the kind of membership God designed us for — and how we find our place within it.
Individuality Within Unity
Notice a paradoxical wonder: On the one hand, true membership gives us a striking individuality. On the other hand, that individuality becomes ours only as we embrace, with vigor, the member God has made us to be. Ours is an assigned identity, not an invented one. Like a hand in the body, we become ourselves only as we stop trying to walk like feet and instead welcome our distinct hand-ness.
George Jr. finds his place not by usurping his father’s role, but by pouring his personality into the mold of sonship and brotherhood. So too, Mrs. Davidson discovers her identity not by acting like her husband, but by bending her powers toward the fulfillment of wifehood and motherhood. As Lewis writes, “We shall then first be true persons when we have suffered ourselves to be fitted into our places” (173).
When we enter this world, we find ourselves in a family — and in the best families, we also learn how to find ourselves there: not by stealing another’s place, nor by striking out on our own, but by seizing our allotted “unlike” with gratitude.
No wonder, then, that in Christ, family distinctions are not erased, but redeemed. Family membership finds its roots in Eden, not Babel; it belongs to creation, not the fall. So, here in the gospel age, the Spirit does not blur family differences, but adorns them. Authority, submission, nurture, and obedience all take their places as characters in the gospel story, each singing its unique lines of Christ’s surpassing worth.
To be sure, we do find a remarkable spiritual equality in Christ. Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Yet once we enter the gate that reads, “One in Christ,” we still find husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, children and brothers and sisters (Colossians 3:18–4:1; Ephesians 5:22–6:9). In Christ, the household becomes a stage for redeemed diversity, where we display the gospel’s power to forge true membership.
In Christ, husbands and fathers do not lose their authority; they finally find Christlike authority. Wives do not cease to submit; they finally submit with strength and freedom. Children do not stop obeying; they finally obey their parents “in the Lord” (Ephesians 6:1). And as these various members grow deeper into themselves, they may begin to taste something of the truth that, as Lewis writes, “Authority exercised with humility and obedience accepted with delight are the very lines along which our spirits live” (170).
In Christ, God restores us to ourselves. And he does so, in part, by restoring us to the relationships where we become human and learn to belong.
If God intends the family to function as our first classroom for true membership, then we should not be surprised if the world, the flesh, and the devil strive to make the family a classroom for something else entirely — often by either exploiting or flattening family diversity.
We’re increasingly familiar today with the first distortion, in which a husband or father hides abuse beneath “authority.” He treats headship as a license to bully, belittle, and burden his family, rather than as a calling to carry the heaviest cross. Passing the crown of thorns to his wife and children, he chooses one of gold for himself instead. Little wonder that some of those taught in his classroom require years of patient instruction before finding any good in authority.
On the other side, however, is the error of flattening the family. Lewis sees this impulse in the encouragement that children address their parents by first name: “Frank” and “Martha” rather than “Father” and “Mother.” We see it today in similar attempts to blur boundaries between husband and wife, parent and child, son and daughter — which amounts to, as Lewis writes, “an effort to ignore the difference in kind that makes for real organic unity” (165). A society bent on sameness will pretend the family is only a group of two adults plus dependents, not a father and mother with sons and daughters.
“When we walk into God’s household, we find unity-in-diversity streaming forth from our three-in-one God.”
Children tutored in modern “membership” will be ill-prepared when they finally walk into the membership of the body. How will they respond to the discovery that they cannot choose to be an ear or an eye, but must embrace the spot assigned to them by God’s providence and equipping? When they read that they must submit to their pastors? When they are confronted, again and again, by Christ’s uncompromising lordship?
Unless we have tasted and seen at home the goodness of being “fitted into our places,” of rendering glad obedience to humble authority, we may not have a palate for it elsewhere.
What Homes Are We Building?
When we walk into God’s household, we find not bare unity, nor random diversity, but unity-in-diversity streaming forth from our three-in-one God. And he means for our little households to increasingly reflect his own.
Are we, then, building the kind of household that prepares our children for God’s household — the kind where everyone is united and no one is the same? Where authority is offered in love, submission with respect, discipline with nurture, and obedience with joy? Where manhood and womanhood, parenthood and childhood are celebrated and cultivated? Where the river of personality runs strongest between the banks of God’s assignment?
Our homes cannot help but be schools of nurture. And in that classroom, our children desperately need to see loving unity rising from the soil of profound diversity. They need to hear heaven’s far-off harmony, and see the first steps of the dance that God invites them into forever.