Fostering Wholeness in Family Life: Biblical Principles for Wholeness
The Word of God speaks “about” parents and children, their tasks, their relationship with one another, their place etc. The Lord gives his people clear instructions as to what is required of them. The Word of God also speaks “to” parents and children. This in itself is a wonderful matter and something we should not step over too quickly. Our LORD speaks to adults and children. He gives adults as well as children a place in his covenant. God is not the God for adults only, but claims our children for Himself also. Children are not half-members, or members on a trial basis, but full members of God’s covenant and congregation, no less than adults. The Lord shows this in instructing the parents how to deal with their children and the children how to respect their parents.
Some Principles for Fostering Wholeness
To work this out and come to some principles for fostering wholeness in family life, we do well to look first at the Old Testament. The fifth commandment comes to mind,
Honour your father and your mother that your days may be long in the land which the LORD your God gives you.
The commandment addresses the children. They too fall under the heading: “I am the LORD your God.” This is a biblical principle for wholeness. The LORD who redeems his people claims the lives of parents as well as children in the service of thankfulness. You can also think of the task given to parents to instruct their children in the fear of the LORD (Deuteronomy 6). The LORD gave feasts, ceremonies, and landmarks which “forced” the parents and the children to talk about the mighty deeds of the LORD in the past. This is a principle of wholeness as well. As parents and children we are to confess the mighty deeds of God. Yes, the children come to know these mighty deeds and so learn to trust in the LORD through instruction by the parents. The book of Proverbs, too, is filled from beginning to end with practical instruction to parents and children. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and thus also a principle for wholeness in family life.
In the New Testament this is no different. Not only did the Lord Jesus come into this world as a baby and grow up as a child, He also called the children to Himself and blessed them. Furthermore, the apostles also addressed parents and children showing them their tasks in the Lord. One of the most well known passages is Ephesians 6:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Within the letter to the Ephesians, the part in which Paul writes about leading a life “worthy of the calling to which we have been called,” this wholeness is also addressed. You can also say, Paul writes about this within the context of the renewal of our lives in the power of Christ and by his Spirit.
Be Subject to One Another
I do not want to go into detail about the specific instructions given to the parents and children, but ask your attention to what precedes them. I like to deal with Ephesians 5:21. Here we first have to deal with a translation problem. The Revised Standard Version (RSV) translates this verse as follows: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This means the RSV takes these words as a command (“Be subject”). In addition, the RSV uses the words of verse 21, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” to introduce the relationships that Paul deals with further, namely between husband and wife, parents and children, masters and slaves.
The New International Version (NIV) follows the same idea. It translates: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Also here verse 21 is a separate sentence. The difference is that in the printed page this sentence functions as the conclusion of the section that starts in 4:17, which has as heading: “Living as children of Light.” In addition to this, a note on this verse in The NIV Study Bible reads:
The grammar indicates that this mutual submission is associated with the filling of the Spirit in verse 18. The command ‘be filled’ (v. 18) is followed by a series of participles in the Greek: speaking (v. 19), singing (v.19), making music (v.19), giving thanks (v.20) and submitting (v.21).
The New King James Version follows this grammar and correctly translates verse 21 as follows: “submitting to one another in the fear of the God.” We are not dealing here with a new command or a new sentence, but a further application of the being filled with the Holy Spirit of verse 18. The connection is not in the first place with what follows, but with the verses that precede, in which Paul has written about the work of the Spirit of Christ. Verse 21 is the conclusion of a sentence that starts in verse 18. “Be filled with the Holy Spirit.” He contrasts this with being filled with wine, which is not good for that leads to debauchery. This being filled with the Holy Spirit is seen, or manifested in several ways: addressing one another in psalms, singing and making melody. It is seen in giving thanks to God the Father, and it is also seen in being submissive to one another.
This grammatical point is not a minor detail. The instruction of verse 21 is to be connected to what Paul says about the Holy Spirit. You can also say, this being submissive is the work of the Holy Spirit. Yes, what is the work of the Holy Spirit? It is to renew the people of God. The Spirit opens what is closed, brings to life what is dead. He opens up the lives of sinners. He shows his power in making people ready and willing to serve God. He makes people clean. He makes people beautiful in that they begin to live to the honour of God from the heart. He does this by the Word of Christ. Listen, look what He does. He makes us address one another in psalms. He makes us sing and make melody. He makes us give thanks always and for everything. He also makes us become subject to one another. Submissiveness is the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of God’s children. Before we come to read about the husbands and wives, the parents and children, the masters and the slaves, we first are reminded of this fruit of the Spirit: being subject to one another.
I stress this because submissiveness can have a negative ring in our ears, in the ears of parents and children. When children hear that they have to be subject, or submissive, they almost automatically resist. As parents, we don’t like it either. Human nature doesn’t like it. Submissiveness is seen as defeat. Stand up for yourself and don’t let others tell you what to do, is the answer. Submissiveness is seen as something passive. You let things happen. But that is not how the Bible speaks about submissiveness. It is an activity, a spiritual activity. It is not a defeat, it is a victory, a spiritual victory. It is as wonderful and important as addressing one another in psalms, as singing and making melody, as thanking God always and for everything. The Holy Spirit makes us willing and ready to be subject to one another.
Respecting the Task or Calling of the Other
Having criticized the RSV and NIV for grammatical incorrectness, I must add that their approach is not without reason. It cannot be denied that the words of verse 21 are also closely connected to what follows. That scholars see these words as a change from the one paragraph to the next is not so strange. In what follows Paul uses this concept of submissiveness several times. He will say to the wives that they have to be submissive to their husbands, to the children that they have to obey their parents, that certainly involves submissiveness, and to the slaves the same applies. There is definitely a connection. Notice, however, that in the verses that follow this submissiveness is coming from one side: wives to their husbands, children to their parents, slaves to their masters. The reason for this is that the husbands, the parents and the masters all have a position of authority. The renewing work of the Holy Spirit does not make people into revolutionaries who throw all existing structures over board. The Spirit helps to recognize and respect the structures as given by the Lord God Himself, in marriage, family and at work.
It is striking that in the verses that follow Paul speaks of being subject when he addresses one side. It is striking, because in verse 21 he addresses both sides, be subject to one another. Again this shows that verse 21 is an instruction in its own right. This being subject is mutual. That is remarkable, for how can two be subject to one another? How is this possible? Authority means one is to lead and the other is to follow. Paul addresses this in the verses that follow. Before he comes to these particular instructions he says: be subject to one another. It is a general principle that precedes all the other instructions, or, you can say, this must characterize how each one functions within a relationship, as a result of being filled with the Spirit of Christ.
To be subject to one another means that we respect the task or the calling the other has. This task, or calling comes from the Lord. Human nature says I take care of myself. Emancipation says, I don’t want to be ruled by anyone. The Holy Spirit helps us to recognize our place before God, not only my own place but also the place of the other. In the way I fulfil my task I have to show that I respect the other’s task before the Lord. No, the Lord does not take the difference between parents and children away. Think of the texts that teach children to obey their parents, and fathers to bring up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. In fulfilling my task as parent or child I seek the best for the other, and do what I can to give the other the room to serve the Lord. That makes people beautiful. That is wholeness. That is the love 1 Corinthians 13 sings about. We do not demand a place for ourselves, but see each other’s place before the Lord.
Here we are dealing with family relationships, the relationship between parents and children. The Lord gives each a place. If we are first of all concerned about our own place, and our own rights then we do not show that we walk in the Spirit. The relationship between parents and children is so easily damaged by pride and refusal to be the least. The relationship between parents and children can also be damaged in that we are too concerned with our own task and do not recognize the task of the other. That counts for both sides. I want my child to do what I think is best. Surely this is done with the best of intent, but yet it is not giving the child room to serve the Lord in his own place. Or, as a child I want my parents to give me all the freedom I desire, not recognizing that my dad or mom have a task before the Lord. That is the point here.
All too often we end up being against each other as parents and children. It becomes a battle. The Spirit says, stop that, and before you say anything more see your place before God and see the other’s task before God. Now, do your utmost to help the other fulfil his or her task before the Lord. You see, that does not put parents and children at the same level, but it places us together before the Lord. What can I do as parent to help my child fulfil his or her task in our relationship before the Lord? What can I do as child to help my dad or mom fulfil his or her task before the Lord?
Who says that submissiveness is passive? It is a spiritual activity. Who says that submissiveness is a defeat? It is a spiritual victory, as wonderful as singing and praying.
Out of Reverence for Christ
It all sounds wonderful, but it can be very difficult. Certainly we all fall short, every parent, every child. There is no perfect parent, there is no perfect child. That does not mean we can dismiss these words as a dream. Paul includes the words: “out of reverence for Christ.” He works this out in what follows in showing each group what they have in the Lord.
These few words, are very rich words: “Out of reverence for Christ.” When we deal with submissiveness we are directed to Christ. He was submissive in everything. I think of what Paul writes in Philippians 2. He humbled Himself all the way to the cross. But then Paul also says: “have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” Christ was submissive in our place. In being submissive He atoned for our sins and shortcomings, also our sins as parents and children. The grace of Christ binds a family together. At the same time we may say that being subject is not a dream, for He gives us the strength. He works it in us by his Word and Spirit.
We have a task as office bearers in this regard as well. We have to encourage and help parents and children. As you do this you become aware of your own shortcomings as well. The help we may give is not to come across as, “look how well I can do it”, but we may direct the families to the grace and Spirit of the Lord. Surely we all stress the importance of praying and singing together as family. It is equally important to show the need to be subject to one another, out of reverence for Christ.