What is a Family?
The word 'family' is used in various senses. First of all it refers to the nuclear family, traditionally Mum and Dad and the children. Then sometimes we ask someone, "Do you have a family?" meaning, "Do you have children?" But we also use the word in a wider sense to include close relatives such as grandparents and grandchildren, uncles, aunts and cousins. In other cultures, family means the extended family, often living under one roof, under the authority of the senior male, though this is also changing with growing urbanisation and Western middle-class values penetrating other societies.
When we look at the Old Testament, emphasis is on ties of kinship, extending from generation to generation and from the immediate family to the tribe. We need not assume, however, that the extended family meant that married sons continued to live in their father's house. Genesis 2:24 makes it clear that "a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife..." Jacob and Esau both moved away from their father's house (tent) and came together again to bury him (Genesis 25:29). There is also a stress on the human family in general in that we are all descended from Adam, and on the promise that in Abraham all the families on earth would be blessed. The family, based on the creation ordinance of marriage, is for all human beings, and God's redemptive purposes include the family.
Genesis 1:28 contains God's command to our first parents to "be fruitful, increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it". Children were regarded as a blessing and reward from the Lord (Psalm 127:3, "Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him") and childlessness looked upon as a great hardship. The passing on of the covenant obligations of the Law of God was seen as central to the life of Israel (Deuteronomy 6:6, 7, "These commandments that I gave you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up"). The family was the prime means of educating a new generation of the covenant people. The truth was passed on through the family. There was also special provision for the widow, the orphan and the displaced. God made it clear that he had a special place in his heart for those whose families were devastated for various reasons (Psalm 146:9, "The Lord watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow").
The New Testament uses two words for family, one meaning house or household and the other, used more rarely, meaning lineage or descent. They occur together in Luke 2:4, which tells us that Joseph was "of the house and line of David". Thus Jesus was born into a human family which knew its roots. Despite Joseph not being his genetic father, he was his legal father and it is instructive that God made this provision for his own son who came into the world, "born of a woman, made under the law."
We have no time to trace the development of Jesus through his boyhood, during which "he was subject to" Joseph and Mary, through his growing realisation that he had come "to be about his Father's business", to his working as a carpenter, possibly supporting the family, to his leaving home at the age of about thirty to begin his public ministry which would culminate in his death and resurrection. We note in passing his changing relationship with his human family and his determination to do his father's will above all else. He made provision for his mother, Mary, on the cross. After his resurrection and ascension, his brothers, opposed to him before, were now foremost among his disciples.
We note his presence at the wedding of Cana of Galilee, his strict teaching about marriage and divorce, his delight in blessing little children, his appreciation of the hospitality of the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, his pronouncement that some choose to be eunuchs (that is living a single, celibate lifestyle) because of the kingdom of God and his readiness to flout the conventions of the day in both speaking to women and honouring them as being the first witnesses to the resurrection. We also note his hard saying that we must love him more than we do our own families, even than our own lives. It is only as we give him the rightful place in our lives that we can truly serve our families best.
The Epistles give us much teaching about marriage and the family. What I want to highlight is the fact that God has revealed himself to us as Triune, existing eternally in relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Made in his image, "it is not good for man to be alone" (Genesis 2:18). "He sets the solitary in families" (Psalm 68:6). We are made for relationship – with each other and with God. He is the pattern for family life, for from him "his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name" (Ephesians 3:14, 15). Also the pattern for the husband-wife relationship is set for us by the love of Christ for the Church, his bride in Ephesians 5:22-33. Practical instructions about family relationships are given by both Paul and Peter.
Paul makes it plain in 1 Corinthians 7 that he has chosen a single, celibate life-style for himself, though he does not elevate it above marriage. In Galatians 4:27 he quotes the prophecy of Isaiah to the effect that "more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband". I believe this gives encouragement to childless and single people that they can have the blessing of spiritual children as they commit themselves fully to the Lord and witness for him.
Peter picked up the promise to Abraham: "The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call" (Acts 2:39) and "through your offspring all families (or peoples) of the earth will be blessed" (Acts 3:25). Whereas in Old Testament times, the nation of Israel was God's people, it was never with a view only to their blessing but to the blessing of the whole world. Now the Church is the household or family of God in a special way (Galatians 6:10, Ephesians 2:19). We are adopted into the family of God and now are his children with all the privileges of sons and daughters of God. Therefore Christians are brothers and sisters and we should bear the family likeness and play our part in the growth and maturing of each family member.
How do we apply the teaching of the Bible at the end of the 20th Century? Traditional patterns of family life have taken a beating in recent years. The emphasis on individual freedom and fulfilment, the increase in promiscuity, cohabitation, breakdown of marriages, new methods of treating infertility, the increasing demands of the homosexual lobby for recognition of same sex marriage and greater social mobility and instability have all contributed in different ways to a crisis of major proportions. Single parents often struggle to bring up a family and children suffer from lack of a secure home background as they cope with multiple relationships.
I would like to touch on two aspects of the teaching of the Bible with regard to the family: the importance of the nuclear family within the context of its wider connections and the church as the family or household of God.
We all belong to families, most of us with a network spanning several generations and this helps us to understand our identities. Some people sadly have lost connection with their families for various reasons. Often nowadays there is a strong desire to find one's roots and trace one's genealogy. This seems to conflict with the trend of family breakdown, but reflects our human need for a knowledge of our identity. When the church appears to holdup the traditional nuclear family as the norm and the ideal, we are immediately accused of stigmatising those who do not belong to such families, especially single parents. How do we deal with this? We must continue to uphold Scriptural teaching on the sanctity of lifelong marriage and the importance of both father and mother in the procreation and rearing of children. But this does not mean that we should discriminate against or reject those who do not fit into the usual pattern, such as single-parent families. Rather we should accept them and do all we can to support them in their particular situation.
What then is a family and why is it so important for Christians? Most of the comments I'm going to make are based on Edith Schaeffer's brilliant book, What is a Family? The family is a living, constantly changing network of relationships, reflecting the passage of time, the growth and ageing of its members, the addition of new members and the removal by death of some. The family, based on the links of marriage and blood-ties (and in some cases adoption), is wider than the nuclear family, but integral to it is the parent-child relationship. Despite all the changes with the passage of time, there is something stable and permanent about the Christian family, based as it is on God's covenant promises. There is the passing on of the truth of the Bible from one generation to the next by teaching and example. There is the maintenance of relationships between generations and between the new nuclear families which form by marriage.
I notice there is no seminar in the conference on the upbringing of children, so I thought I would touch briefly on that subject. I believe there is no greater responsibility on the family than the nurture and guidance of our children. As the Fifth Commandment makes clear, the parent-child relationship is foundational in setting the ethical standard for all other relationships. The early experience of children is extremely important for their development as people. Good early upbringing does not guarantee a smooth passage through adolescence, but it is a great help! The family provides that balance of freedom and form, love and discipline, security and adventure which enables children to grow up to be self-disciplined, confident and caring adults. The family is the secure balanced environment in which our children learn about handling human relationships, discover their own individual gifts and talents, are encouraged to develop these fully by stimulation and encouragement, and are gradually initiated into the responsibilities of the adult world. All this requires time and effort. It does not happen automatically. It demands thought, planning and creativity.
Both mother and father are important in the process of bringing up children. While it is sometimes necessary to depute care of young children to childminders or nurseries, the ideal is the constant care of the mother in the early years. Fathers too must spend quality time with their children. I recommend Rob Parsons' book The Sixty Minute Father to give ideas on how to do this. As well as the need for spending time, there is the need for good communication. If this is established early on, it is much easier to keep it alive when the difficult teenage years come. Discipline should be reasonable, consistent and lovingly applied. Praise, commendation and encouragement are more effective than negative criticism and prohibitions. Speaking naturally to our children about spiritual things and praying with them about all the needs of the family, along with a consistent Christian character will go a long way towards nurturing their tender faith. When we make mistakes, as we all do, we must admit them and ask for their forgiveness.
As well as being a haven of stability and security the family should also be open to receive others through hospitality. A fine balance has to be struck here, especially by the dedicated Christian couple who are determined to open their home for the Lord's sake. Time must also be set aside which is sacrosanct for the family. Otherwise the stresses become too great and the marriage and the children will suffer.
The family, as well as being the prime source of values, personal identity and growth, is also important as an economic unit and as an educational control. The children learn the economic realities of life and learn to use resources in a shared rather than a selfish way. Although parents depute the education of their children to the school system, they must never abdicate their responsibility as the prime educators. Greater partnership between parents and schools will result in better educated and better disciplined children. I believe there is more opportunity for this than ever before.
Once children leave home there is need for continued communication and support. Communication has never been easier than today. And yet it has probably never been poorer, due to various factors. It is a good idea to have periodic family reunions, including as many of the wider family circle as possible, spanning as many generations as possible. Sadly some families usually come together only at funerals. The family is a huge but underused resource of shared memories, practical wisdom and cross-generational interaction.
The Church as a Family
How then does the church function as a family and how is it related to the family in the usual sense of the word? The church is made up of families and is itself a family, the household of God. There is room for all ages and conditions in the family of God. Each one has a contribution to make as well as blessings to receive, whether old or young, child or parent, single or married, divorced or widowed. The church cannot replace or usurp the place of the nuclear family, but it can and ought to support it, while making room for those who for various reasons are separated from their own nuclear family either by distance or estrangement. There was a time when a local community functioned almost as an extended family, but this is no longer the case even in rural areas. Congregations should organise themselves to function in this way. It ought to happen naturally, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, as each part of the Body of Christ does its work in upbuilding the whole, but sadly this does not always happen.
For a Christian congregation to function as a family, there must be good leadership. The head of the congregation is the Lord Jesus Christ, not the minister or the eldership. They are under shepherds of the flock and as such have to be servant leaders. Their role is to encourage all the members to play their part in the family life of the congregation. Because of the exclusive ring to the phrase "family service" (people tend to think it is for families with children) it might be wise to replace it with "all age service". Then those who feel excluded because they have no immediate nuclear family in the congregation, or are single, or have no children, will not feel discriminated against.
The family nature of the congregation should never be intrusive into the privacy of individuals and families. There is no place for the kind of "heavy shepherding" which tends to interfere with individual freedom and family responsibility. Rather it should be supportive and positive in its nature.
I leave you to think up ways to work this out in practice, but I would like to make a few suggestions. First of all, we can practise hospitality in our congregation, making sure that there is a good mix of people, young, old, married and single among those we invite. Then we can encourage the formation of small groups for fellowship, Bible study, some kind of activity, witness or service. We can organise a visitation programme of young people going to visit older folk, or those unable to come out any longer. The contribution made to the life and witness of the congregation by the women, the singles and the young people should be recognised and appreciated.
And finally, when the church functions as the family of God it will be an effective missionary agency among those who suffer from the increasing fragmentation of society. The love that cements the bonds of a family is always outward looking and not self-absorbed. While we should do all we can to persuade Government to pursues policies which support the family, our effectiveness in commending family values will largely depend on the quality of the life of our own families and congregations. "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers" (Galatians 6:10).