The family is central to the biblical ethic. It is the primary image of the relationship of the saints to God. The work of Christ was required to bring about regeneration and adoption, making believers heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. And the book of Revelation culminates in the wedding feast of the Lamb. Given the significance of this concept, what does it mean to live a life “worthy of this calling?” What should family members look like? To answer these questions we turn to the biblical narrative.
Why was the family instituted? God’s observation in Genesis 2:18 that “it is not good that the man should be alone” does not contradict the sevenfold “it is good” of Genesis 1. Rather, it gives us a correct notion of man. Individuals were not made to exist in isolation, but in community, just as the triune God exists in community. Because we are created in the image of God, we are relational beings. The difference between God and man is that the persons of the Godhead don’t grow into perfection where humans do. Since “it is not good that the man should be alone,” God made “a helper fit for him.” God created woman and established the family, along with other significant social structures to meet this need. God designed the family to be the primary institution to give children the moral and rational tools to subdue the earth. God created the bonding that naturally occurs (that is, family ties) as well as natural instincts and declared them good. However, the structure of family and community are useless without some sense of moral direction and purpose. So, God gives the law. We are to love God first and our neighbor as ourselves. The law requires equal respect for all image-bearers and protects their basic rights. The law also requires social responsibilities, establishing obligations upon individuals to promote those social institutions (for example, family) needed for people to grow into responsible stewards of God’s will on earth. Genesis carefully balances the significance and purpose of the family.
Adam’s sin destroyed the Genesis balance, bringing alienation from God, ourselves, others, and the world. Satan’s victory “appeared” final. Death reigned supreme over mankind. But God came bringing the Great Reversal. He put hatred between Satan and the woman and between their offspring. “He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (3:15). Bruising (crushing) the heel is a painful injury; bruising (crushing) the head is fatal. God cursed the serpent, declaring that God would bring victory and life to man through the seed of the woman. Adam understood God’s promise and named his wife Eve “because she was the mother of all living” (v. 20). Moses tells us this hope continues through Abraham to all the nations of the earth (12:3), and Paul informs us that it is complete in Christ (Gal. 3:29).
But how? The moral law reveals man’s guilt. How can guilty persons come into the presence of the holy God? The ceremonial law shows us that the death of a substitute provides the way. Isaiah prophesied the coming of the Messiah who gives us peace with God by bearing our sin (53:5–6). What’s more, this salvation reaches “to the end of the earth” (49:6). Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). Before He ascended to His Father, Jesus tells His disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:18–20). This job is for the whole family of God, not just its leaders. Paul closes his letter to the Romans: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom. 16:20).
Mark tells of a confrontation between Jesus and His family. Thinking Him insane, they desired to seize Him (Mark 3:21). The crowd tells Jesus: “‘Your mother and brothers are outside, seeking you.’ And he answered them, ‘Who are my mother and brothers?’ And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother’” (3:32–35). His “easy dismissal” of His family does not contradict the teaching of Genesis. Rather, His action illustrates the Genesis balance. Jesus knew He was the prophesied sacrifice, for He refers to Isaiah 53:10 when He says He came to give His life as a ransom (Mark 10:45). He knew His work was essential to salvation. At first, because many of His family did not understand this, the family structure designed to promote the plan of God was actually hindering it. Hence Jesus says that those who do the will of God are His family. However, Jesus is not rejecting the importance of the family. Mark also records Jesus’ condemnation of the scribal tradition, which allowed a son to declare his property an offering to God, freeing him from the filial responsibilities of the Law (Mark 7:11–13), and Paul says that God’s servant who does not care for his own family is worse than an infidel (1 Tim. 5:8).
Jesus knew that truth is like a BB balancing upon a razor’s edge. A little to the left or right (it makes no difference) and you fall into error. Jesus was also aware of what we call “slippery slopes,” for He condemns the attitude that leads to sinful acts as well as the external acts. But Jesus knew that there are always more than just one slippery slope. The Bible teaches both the importance of the family and that its purpose is to cultivate faithful stewards to rule so that God’s will is done on earth.
Living in a time when the family is under attack, the real danger is idolizing the family. We hear “the family first” and may be tempted to say “amen.” But Jesus will have none of this. When family is first, God plays second fiddle. The idolization of the family is a problem that kept many Jews from coming to Christ. Their pride in being the natural seed of Abraham (John 8:40) kept many of them from the Christ who calls His people from all the nations.
We are now ready to answer important questions. Firstly, what should the family look like, and what vision should it have? Clearly, individual families should be unified, actively pursuing the growth of all its members. Since this growth must be consistent with the purpose of the family, the larger family of God should consist of people from all nations. Indeed, our individual churches should reflect this truth in their membership as they actively promote discipling the nations. More than being just interested in increasing heaven’s population, we should desire that God’s will be done on earth. This is neither an exclusive call to foreign nor home missions; rather, we must pursue the delicate balance. Believers must first care for their own (1 Tim. 5:8), but we may idolize neither our family nor our nation.
Secondly, how do we achieve this goal? We need to understand rightly the church militant. This is not a call to arms, nor is it a call to out-shout our adversaries. The church militant reminds us to let our light shine so that men might see our good works (that is, love of God and love of neighbor) and glorify the Father (Matt. 5:16). We must cultivate this love and keep the new commandment Christ gave us, that we love others just as Christ loved us (John 13:34). The new commandment is that we exemplify Christ’s self-sacrificing love. In fact, Jesus tells us that this visible demonstration of love is what enables others to know we are His disciples (v. 35). And in His High-Priestly Prayer, Jesus prayed for this visible love within His church “so that the world may believe” (John 17:21). We need to imitate persistently Christ’s self-sacrificing love, because the brighter it shines the more effective is our work. When Abraham’s children balance faithfulness to God’s word with an appreciation for legitimate cultural expressions of that truth, this light shines brightly.
What effect should this have on our outreach? Churches often reason, “Since resources are limited, helping the poor and oppressed hurts our evangelism.” But this is wrong. Not only are we to help the poor and oppressed, we are to do good to our enemies. Jesus tells us to love our enemies so that we may be sons of God (Matt. 5:43ff.). This does not teach that we earn our sonship. Instead, the sons of God love as God loves, and God makes the sun rise on both the evil and good. In fact, Jesus here teaches that demonstrating love in these difficult situations is the true test of love. If we only love those who love us, our love is the same as the publican’s. But love also shines most brightly when done in difficult situations. A small candle in the dark is more easily seen than a big candle in bright sunlight. Directing resources toward the poor and oppressed is not only a true test of our love, but a chance for it to shine brightly. Remember, Jesus prayed for this display of love so that the world might believe. Rather than hurting, this would help our evangelism.
Devout Christians sometimes balk at this because they think it sounds liberal. True, liberal theology emphasizes love to the neglect of truth. But the family of God is to emphasize love and truth, trying to keep the BB on the razor’s edge. Perhaps, in conclusion, we should emphasize that true obedience requires awareness of all slippery slopes, and not so focusing on one that we unconsciously slide down the other. What should the family of God look like? Individually and corporately, it should look like Christ who carefully kept the balance between inward unity and outward mercy.