How Does God Define Family?
Last year, acclaimed editorialist David Brooks argued that “the nuclear family was a mistake.” Brooks held up the older example of extended-kin networks as a superior model, but he also expressed interest in “nonbiological kin” and “familylike” relationships.
More radically, “Black Lives Matter” has proclaimed its desire to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure.” At this same time, warnings against the “idolatry of the family” are becoming more and more common. At their best, these arguments are concerned to remind us not to put the earthly good of family life ahead of faithfulness to Christ (as Christ himself says, Matthew 10:37). At their worst, however, they insinuate that family duties should take second place to church programs or forms of charitable work, political activism, or even revolutionary social arrangements.
To think rightly about the place of family in our lives (and in God’s plan for the world), we need to allow our imaginations to be formed by the Scriptures. In doing so, we’ll make use of the whole of the Scriptures, as well as the best of Christian history for accountability and support. We will see that groups like the Presbyterian Church in America are correct to state that “the family, as ordained by God, is the basic institution in society” (PCA Book of Church Order 49-4).
“Families love and support others precisely by being the right kind of families.”
And we will see that this family is defined as the husband-and-wife pair, along with their children (for as long as they remain under the parents’ care). The family certainly loves and supports other social groups, particularly the extended family and church community, but the natural or domestic family is never absorbed or replaced by these groups. Instead, families love and support others precisely by being the right kind of families.
Opening (Wedding) Bell
The Bible opens with a solitary individual, but he isn’t allowed to stay that way long. “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). God then brings every animal to the man in order to be judged and named, and the result is that “there was not found a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:20). The story emphasizes his need for a certain sort of companionship, and so Eve is created from his own side (Genesis 2:21–23).
The New Testament explains that woman was taken from man and for man, that the two might become one (1 Corinthians 11:8–9; Matthew 19:5). This picture stands in contrast to all theories that suggest marriage is simply a human construct, created and perhaps abolished according to the will of the individuals. Rather, marriage is natural. Marriage is creational.
Genesis also adds another layer to this family order: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Thus, we can see a basic distinction between the husband-and-wife pairing and the broader family network.
So, the clan structure or extended kin group is actually a collection of conjugal families who live together for certain social, political, or economic purposes. These purposes can and do change according to historical circumstance and economic need. There is no biblical mandate for any one particular social arrangement. Throughout the Bible, we see agrarian settlements and urban communities, extended family tribes and more limited domestic families. But the basic starting point remains the dyadic pair. The two who came from one also return to one, and this pair can and does separate from other pairs without losing its identity.
Of course, this original pair was created for a certain purpose. God had told them to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion . . . over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). As the language of Genesis 5:1–3 also makes clear, the male and female, who were made in the likeness of God, make children after their own image and likeness.
Procreation, then, is not added to the marriage merely voluntarily, but is rather one of the original purposes for the marriage. Herman Bavinck goes so far as to suggest that this childbearing is itself a reflection of God:
The two-in-oneness of husband and wife expands with a child into a three-in-oneness. Father, mother, and child are one soul and one flesh, expanding and unfolding the one image of God, united within threefold diversity and diverse within harmonic unity. (The Christian Family, 8)
Bavinck goes even further, arguing that this domestic arrangement is itself the foundation for all other social order:
The authority of the father, the love of the mother, and the obedience of the child form in their unity the threefold cord that binds together and sustains all relationships within human society. . . . These three characteristics and gifts are always needed in every society and in every civilization, in the church and in the state. Authority, love, and obedience are the pillars of all human society. (9)
Isn’t the Church Our Family?
Christian debates on this topic often come to one particular objection. Isn’t the church our new family? And if so, shouldn’t the community of the church challenge, and perhaps redefine, what we mean when we talk about the family?
To answer this, we will need to use some systematic theology. Jesus does indeed say that we must be willing to hate our family for his sake (Luke 14:26). And he does teach that “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:50). Paul also teaches that we should treat older men in the church like fathers, younger men like brothers, older women like mothers, and younger women like sisters (1 Timothy 5:1–2). But these passages must be understood as referring in the first place to the spiritual realm.
“As we focus on the family, we focus on how the family can imitate Jesus in living sacrificially for the sake of the world.”
The spiritual kingdom is, as John Calvin explains, “the life of the soul” (Institutes 3.19.15). It concerns the individual’s direct relationship to God in Christ, and it is an unmediated forum of total equality. All believers must know what they believe themselves and must be able to relate to God on their own. The only mediator, priest, or husband is the Lord Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5; 2 Peter 2:1; 2 Corinthians 11:2). In our standing before him, there is no male nor female, Jew nor Greek (Galatians 3:28). We are all siblings under one God and Father.
But if we took these passages in a solitary manner, in such a way as to displace earthly marriages and sexual distinctions, then we would have to contradict the other passages that speak of men and women as such or of husbands, wives, and families. No, the same New Testament is clear that husbands love their wives (Ephesians 5:25) and wives submit to their “own husbands” (Ephesians 5:22). In the spiritual realm, all Christians are jointly the bride married to Christ, but in the temporal realm — our life in the body on this earth — there are still distinct family units that relate to external family units as friends and associates. All social order depends upon this very basic distinction.
Now as Christians, we are called to seek first God’s spiritual kingdom (Matthew 6:33). So, we teach our own families to do just this. They are to study God’s word, pray at all times, place their faith in Christ, and do good to others. But they always do this as humans on the earth, which means that those in families do so as families.
Families in the Church
Of course, not everyone has a family. For some, family life has been disrupted due to death, divorce, or great sin. Christians mourn the loss in each of these situations and gladly offer alternative means of support. We see various cases of adoption in the Bible, including by cousins (Esther 2:7) and even in-laws (Ruth 1:16–17). Indeed, in the case of Ruth, the adoption appears to be of the mother-in-law by the daughter-in-law. Ruth goes on to marry and start a new family, taking Naomi along with her.
There are also cases of celibacy, some voluntary and some not (Matthew 19:12), and the New Testament teaches that Christians should use such a calling to maximize their service to God (1 Corinthians 7:32–35). For those who have this calling, it is a true good, and it can even be considered something of a heroic exception. Christians with this calling can work for the kingdom in ways that married Christians cannot. This is why Paul prefers the celibate Christian life (1 Corinthians 7:6–8).
At the same time, he recognizes that such a calling could never be normative, and elsewhere he recommends that young widows remarry rather than remain single (1 Timothy 5:14). The celibate life is therefore to be celebrated for those who have that special calling, but the married life is to be expected for most.
In fact, when Paul addresses the need to care for needy widows in the church, his rule is that widows who still have family members should go to them for care first (1 Timothy 5:4), and that the church as a church should prioritize widows who are “left all alone” (1 Timothy 5:5). Jesus himself recognized a need to care for Mary in a way that was distinct from his care for other women (John 19:26–27).
“The biblical goal is for sanctified households to grow up in Christ and bear witness to him in all the world.”
In another place, Paul will even redirect questions about church teaching back to the home. If there is a question or a debate, the women should ask their husbands about it “at home” (1 Corinthians 14:35). The basic principle here is consistent with principles of authority and jurisdiction throughout the Bible: take care of your home first (1 Timothy 3:4–5). This has been called the principle of subsidiarity, and it simply means that we care for others best when those nearest in relationship and jurisdiction hold the primary responsibility. To do this, the church must have families.
Family and Its Friends
As we build our families, however, we do not isolate them from the rest of the world. We still have relationships with our parents, along with a duty to help care for them as they age (1 Timothy 5:4). We still make place in our lives for friends, as even Jesus did (John 15:15; John 11:3, 5; John 21:20, 24). And in the church, we still love each other and “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2).
The best way for families to maintain and cultivate these relationships is by refusing to see them as competition. And that means refusing to see them as rivals or as alternative social callings. The difference between family and friends is precisely that family becomes one and creates a singular identity, whereas friends retain their individual identities even as they unite around common pursuits. Families make friends when they know this difference and embrace it.
This means that precisely as we focus on the family, we focus on how the family can imitate Jesus in living sacrificially for the sake of the world. We do this not by ceasing to be families but rather by being families in the fullest and truest way. The biblical goal is for sanctified households to grow up in Christ and bear witness to him in all the world.
So, while some may call for the end of the nuclear family, we cannot so easily dismiss the God-ordained family unit (a married couple and children) without tampering with the foundational building block of both society and the church. Instead, we reaffirm the family as the first society and then use it to build more and more societies by God’s grace and in Christian charity.