(This is another chapter from a book I recently released called “Beautiful and Believable: The Reason for My Hope.” It is available here, and an ebook version is available on Kindle, Apple Books, and Kobo.)
Does Christianity have a compelling and beautiful vision for family life? Some ancient religions required child sacrifice. That is not a beautiful vision for family at all! Some would say that the Christian vision for family is likewise ugly. It is too rigid and too patriarchal. Does the Christian vision for family make you think “that sounds right, that is consistent with a good and loving God”? Is the Biblical vision for family beautiful, or ugly? It is beautiful, for the following reasons.
There is a beautiful vision for parenting.
To begin with, child sacrifice was strictly forbidden under the Old Covenant law. God’s people were to be different from other peoples of that day who did indeed sacrifice their children. The place near Jerusalem where people sacrificed their children was eventually used as a garbage dump as it was despised by God’s people. It was called Gehenna, which many English Bibles translate as ‘hell.’ God’s people were expressly forbidden from sacrificing their children. This already was a positive step for family life!
But are there any other good parenting tips beyond “don’t sacrifice your children”? If you happened to read through the entire Bible this week, you might say, “I did not see too much on parenting.” If parenting is all about technique, then no, the Bible does not say much. However, if parenting is about character, then the Bible has much to say. Let us consider one example from Galatians:
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.Galatians 5:19-21 (NIV)
Not only will those who “live like this” not inherit the kingdom of God, they will also make life miserable for their children! Let us read what comes next:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.Galatians 5:22-24 (NIV)
Those who live like this will be appreciated by their children! Who wouldn’t want to grow up with parents whose character is marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control? Techniques in parenting will vary according to culture, but the good character of a parent can make for beautiful parenting in any society.
Character development is also good for marriage, which is also great for family life. This brings us to our second point.
There is a beautiful vision for marriage.
While we find polygamy quite often in the Old Testament, things are different in the New Testament. In speaking about marriage, Jesus focused, not on the people from the Old Testament who practiced polygamy, nor on the law, which allowed for polygamy, but on the creation account:
Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”Matthew 19:3-6 (NIV. Quotations from Genesis emphasized)
This return to the original vision for marriage paved the way for women to be on a more equal footing. Polygamy naturally leads to someone being in charge of “the clan,” a supreme leader. Monogamy more naturally allows for the possibility of an equal partnership.
Further, the Biblical vision is of covenant faithfulness and loyal love between two people. Such covenant faithfulness, based on God’s covenant faithfulness, is a beautiful thing and enables family life to be settled and stable. It is a beautiful thing to grow up in a home where one’s parents are in love,…with each other!
There is also a beautiful vision for leadership and submission in marriage:
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.Ephesians 5:21-27 (NIV)
Perhaps that does not sound beautiful to everyone. Women being under the thumb of a controlling man sounds ugly. Indeed it is. However, let us dig deeper. When leadership is about control, it is ugly. When leadership is about care and responsibility, it is beautiful. Notice the focus on the lengths Jesus went to in his care of, and love for, the Church. He was willing to die for the Church! There was a great expectation placed by Paul on men here to love sacrificially, an expectation which was not prevalent in that day.
Likewise, when submission is about giving control over, it can be ugly. When submission is about trust, it is beautiful. When a man loves a woman the way Christ loves the church, trust is built.
This passage is not about men taking control without building any trust. It is about harmony between two people in care and trust. It is a beautiful vision that was quite radical and affirming of women when it was first written. Let us not forget verse 21, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Love, trust, and mutual submission makes for great family life.
There is beautiful flexibility in the Christian vision for Family.
Although Jesus focused in on the creation account of marriage, something you do not find in the New Testament is a push for everyone to be married with children. Jesus himself affirmed that not everyone will be married with children in Matthew 19:10-12. The Ethiopian eunuch, who did not fit the mould of “married with children” was welcomed into the Kingdom in Acts chapter 8. Paul encouraged people to remain single in 1st Corinthians chapter 7, or to get married! There is flexibility! While married with children is a beautiful vision, it was not an expectation in the New Testament church. It should not become an idol in ours. If you are single, or have no children, you are not a second class citizen in the Kingdom of God. No one should feel like second class citizen in a church because of they are not married with children. No one should feel like second class citizen in a church period.
Since there is flexibility in not forcing everyone to fit the pattern of married with children as set out in the creation account, is there also flexibility with leadership within the family? Can it be based on giftedness and capacity rather than gender as Paul indicated in the passage quoted above? My wife takes the lead in a number of areas of our family life. She is so much more capable than I am in many things! Let us remember that Paul was writing to a people steeped in a patriarchal way of doing things. Many of us take Paul’s writing as a signpost along the way toward a more equal future, rather than the final destination.
Continuing to think about equality, Proverbs, chapter 31, is often thought to be about “the virtuous wife.” It is often pitched to women, that they should be more like that ideal woman. However, I think it was written for men. The lesson of Proverbs 31 for men can be summed up as “don’t micro-manage your wife, she excels without your interference.” Proverbs ends with this instruction:
Honor her for all that her hands have done,
and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.Proverbs 31:31 (NIV)
This description of the capability of a woman must also be considered a part of the overall Biblical vision for family. The flexibility of the Biblical vision for family is a beautiful thing.
As the father of an openly gay child I also have to wonder if the flexibility also extends to the nature of marriage covenant as exclusively between a man and a woman. I have seen a gay marriage that was beautiful. I have also seen the ugliness of Christians fighting about it. This is an important question which affects people deeply.
There are those who say that even if they became convinced that Christianity is true, they would still not want to be a Christian because it has a very patriarchal, homophobic, transphobic, and constrictive vision for family life. Indeed, some Christians live out a constrictive and patriarchal vision and expect others to do likewise. However, digging deeper into the writings of the Bible we discover a vision for family which is beautiful in its vision and flexibility. It is indeed consistent with a good and loving God.