Matthew W. Kingsbury
We are at the beginning of the end of the American family as it has been known for generations and generations. As I've discussed this over the years with other pastors, we can no longer assume husbands and wives know the duties they owe one another, let alone how the Bible defines those duties. Parents do not teach their children basic manners, let alone the catechism. Hence, it seems to me churches and pastors will be increasingly obliged to teach congregation members what they never learned at home (that is, how to be families), or they will never find men who rule their households well to serve as elders (1 Tim. 3:4).
Some have responded to this crisis by moving toward "family-integrated churches," whose purpose is to organize the local congregation so as to inculcate and support healthy families. By implication (and sometimes by flat-out statement), the church exists to support the family. While I share the heartfelt grief over the consequences of cultural sin in the lives of Christian families and the sincere desire to see covenant children grow up in our holy faith, this perspective gets the relationship between the church and family exactly backward. Instead, as I seek to demonstrate in what follows, the Christian family exists to support the Christian church.
We begin by observing that marriage is a temporary, for-this-life-only institution. Although marriage is given us by God for several reasons, its main purpose is to symbolize the relationship between Christ and his church, as the Apostle Paul teaches in Ephesians 5:25-32. This primary and exemplary purpose is more central to the institution of marriage than childbearing, which is the means by which a marriage becomes a family.
What do the Scriptures say?
Interestingly, no text in Scripture teaches that bearing children is a universal purpose of marriage, that is, something which should characterize every marriage. While Psalms 127 and 128, among other passages, say children are a blessing, they do not say every marriage ought to produce children.
Genesis 1:28 records the "dominion mandate" given to the first married couple: "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth." Some assume, therefore, that married couples ought be about the business of filling the earth with more people. However, God gave Adam and Eve this commandment not because they were a married couple, but because they were the married couplethat is, all mankind. Hence, the dominion mandate is given to all humanity and is to be carried out by humanity as a whole, but not necessarily by every human being. To put it another way, if Genesis 1:28 means every marriage ought to produce children, then every marriage ought also to be dedicated to agricultural productivity.
For some, Malachi 2:15, God seeks "godly offspring," clearly proves God wants every Christian marriage to produce children. Although the proper translation of the text is in dispute, as a comparison of Bible translations will show, we will assume this version of the verse is correct. Of course, to interpret it correctly, we must consider its context. Malachi's overall theme is God's indictment of Israel for not following his law and not serving him alone. In our text's immediate context, the problem is that Judah's men have been divorcing their godly wives and marrying pagan wives; there is no indication the Israelites were refusing to bear children. Hence, the focus here is not on "seed," but "godly;" that is, faithless Israelites were not raising children trained in the Word of God and taught to love him alone. The sin indicted by Malachi 2:15 is wicked child-rearing, not an absence of childbearing.
Thus, while Scripture and common sense acknowledge a close tie between marriage and the creation of a family, the Bible does not teach that God instituted marriage for the sole, or main, purpose of bearing children. The clearest texts on marriage's purpose are Genesis 2:24 and 1 Corinthians 7:1-9, both of which clearly emphasize the creation of a one-flesh relationship; in other words, sexual union. Referring back to Genesis 2:24, Ephesians 5:31-32 says " ‘[t]herefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church." In other words, the constitutive act of marriage is given to teach us about the church's union with Christ. Thus, a marriage which produces no children and, accordingly, never becomes a family (properly speaking) has nonetheless fulfilled its God-ordained purpose.
Marriage's symbolic function will be moot in glory when we have perfect union with Christ, and so it will pass away: "For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage" (Matt. 22:30). If marriages pass away, then so do families. The family, in its nuclear form, grows out of and depends on a marriage for its existence; therefore, whatever is true of the greater (marriage) is true of the lesser (family).
Even in this life, families are temporary. They are regularly broken up and reorganized as children marry and form their own families. In fact, whenever children grow up and go out into the world, their parent's authority ends. For practical purposes, this also effectively dissolves the family. Of course, I do not deny the enduring nature of kinship ties which persist as family members go their own ways, or even when a divorce occurs. When I speak of family dissolution here, I am using the word "family" in its most narrow, technical sense, i.e., the nuclear family.
If marriage is for this world only, then families too are temporary and will not continue into glory. They are unlike the church, which is eternal. For the Christian, this life is an ongoing search to enter the permanent Sabbath, which is to say, permanent worship. "So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience" (Heb. 4:9-11). In Revelation, especially beginning in chapter 19, we see the church continuing her essential work of worship forever. Christians are now gathered into a worshiping community so they might worship for all of eternity as part of Christ's church.
Here we turn to a central biblical principle: the eternal is more important than the temporary. This is brought out in Hebrews 11:10, 13-16:
For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. . . . These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
These were able to abandon their temporary city because they had a better one which is heavenly and eternal.
Families are like the rest of this world: impermanent and continually passing away. Therefore, families have a diminished importance within a Christian taxonomy of values, especially when compared to the church. While the church is eternal and will not find her perfect expression until glory, she has begun and lives out that life already, in the here and now. The church manifests the eternal and heavenly in the middle of a temporary and earthly world. Because she is eternal, the church is more important than the temporary family.
In light of these considerations, we turn to Matthew 10:34-37 and 12:46-50:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.
Because the eternal church has precedence over the earthly and temporary family, Jesus demands loyalty to himself first and last. In a decision between Jesus and his church versus the family, Jesus wins. This is simple when parents are unbelievers and guilty of obvious sin, but less obvious when one has Christian parents who attempt to usurp the church's authority.
For example, a father becomes convinced of exclusive psalmody, instructs his family to stop attending services at the OPC of which they are members, and begins leading worship at home on the Lord's Day. In that instance, his fifteen-year-old communicant son should respectfully defy his father and attend the worship service called by his elders in order to receive the ordinary means of grace (Word, sacraments, and prayer) which are necessary for all Christians and can only be found when the church has gathered together. To the extent a family serves the church, one should gladly obey one's parents; but to the extent they rebel, one must choose Christ's eternal family, the church.
Jesus has set up the church as the Christian's new family: our only Father is God. "And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven" (Matt. 23:9).
Here, then, is the proper relationship of the family to the church: because the church is eternal, the temporary family must work to make its members better church members.
While fathers have authority to rule their families, they do not have spiritual authority over them the way elders of churches do. A father is qualified to rule his family by virtue of impregnating his wife and by the covenant of marriage. An elder is qualified to rule in the church by virtue of possessing spiritual gifts recognized and tested by the congregation and other elders. Thus, families are not, technically speaking, small churches, but gatherings of believers who can either help or hinder one another's Christian walk.
Husbands and wives, parents and children are bound to certain duties within their families by God, but each of these relationships is informed by and subsumed into their eternal Christian-to-Christian relationships. When the Apostle Paul enumerates family duties in Ephesians 5-6, he begins with "[submit] to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Eph. 5:21; he does something similar in Col. 3-4). With all its particularities, the family is just like every other sort of Christian relationship: an opportunity for mutual exhortation and encouragement so that through our labors the Holy Spirit might prepare each of us for the glorious wedding of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, with his bride, the church.
Rather than family-integrated churches, the Scriptures call us to have church-integrated families, in which service to our Lord and faithfulness to his bride are modeled and taught daily. Such families, I believe, will not simply produce elders, but, please God, generations of believers who rejoice in their heavenly citizenship.
Matthew W. Kingsbury is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as pastor of Park Hill Presbyterian Church, Denver, Colorado. Ordained Servant Online, December 2010.