Gospel & Culture blog
By Ken Nehrbass
This is a series of blogs on the theology of culture, which really can be a "theology of everything" if culture is everything we think, have and do as members of a society. In this post, I provide some direction for the theology of family, which begins (as with all other cases in the "theology of" culture) by asking about the purpose, structure and authority of family.
The purpose of family as a cultural system
The purpose of all aspects of culture, more generally, is for humans to flourish. Marriage, being one of the first institutions God instituted (in Eden), was explicitly for our flourishing. Somehow the "leaving and cleaving" (Gen 2:24) when a man and wife are committed to each other unto death guarantees flourishing. Primarily, this seems to relate to the fact that there is no other social relationship where we see distinct persons referred to as "one." In this sense, marriage reflects the Trinity better than any other relationship; and this reflection is for our own instruction. The Father Son and Holy Spirit are eternally creating, communicating and loving; and marriage is where this sort of intimacy is to be found primarily, among all relationships. Note that the term for wife, "helpmate", is not derogatory- in fact, God refers to Himself as a helpmate more than 15 times in the OT.
What about the purpose of other relationships in the family? Family, including extended family relationships, are God's way of ensuring elderly are taken care of when they cannot take care of themselves (1 Tim 5:8) - of ensuring small children are "trained up in the way they should go" (Prov 22:6) so they can be flourishing members of society - of ensuring that wealth is produced and inherited (Prov 13:22).
Ultimately, the chief end of marriage and family, like the chief end of all humankind, is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. The family is the locus of some of the greatest joy we can possibly experience, when we are experiencing the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). Note that all the fruits of the spirit must be lived out in social relationships (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness all are social experiences). And when things go wrong in the family - from divorce to dysfunction to abuse at home, these are the basis for some of the saddest and most traumatic experiences we can face.
The structure for family as a cultural system
Family relationships are God's plan for us function "in the image of God" than any other relationship: The metaphor of the Father-son relationship reflects God's provision and protection of all people (1 Cor 8:6, Eph 4:6). The metaphor of mothers protecting their children reflects God's care and compassion for all people (Matt 23:37, Isa 66:13). The relationship of man to wife reflects Christ's sacrificial love for his Church (Eph 5:25-27; 2 Cor 11:2). The metaphor of being born to earthly parents represents our lostness without adoption into God's family (John 3:3; 1 Peter 1:23); the metaphor of adoption represents moving from enemies with God to friends with God (John 1:12). And the relationship of brothers and sisters is a metaphor for our permanent commitment to Christians around the world, with whom we share one Heavenly Father (1 John 3:14; Mark 3:35).
A theology of marriage and family requires thinking through gender relationships. Many theologians have suggested that the New Testament advice about structures in family (1 Cor 7:14, 1 Tim 2:9-15) are meant to limit, not expand, a male's authority (Taber, in Stott and Coote, 1980, p. 126). Others suggest that the gender roles are not about capability, but references to the order of creation (1 Cor 11:8-11; 1 Tim 2:12-13).
Some have noted that God's intended structure for families is that they be full of children-- a theology somewhat pejoratively named "quiver theology" Because of psalm 127, 3 - 5
3 Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one's youth.
5 Blessed is the man
who fills his quiver with them!
He shall not be put to shame
when he speaks with his enemies in the gate
This brings us to the issue of those who do not fit the prototype of "happily married with many children." If spouses and children are the sources of blessings, the way we function according to the image of God, then what about those who are unmarried or have no children? First of all, we are not designed to find our identity and ultimate worth in these relationships -our ultimate fulfillment and worth comes from being children of God. Paul's words in 1 Cor 7:27-29 show that spouses (or any other family relationship) should not become idols for us-- just as Paul learned to be content in all circumstances, the Holy Spirit enables believers to have the fruits of the Spirit in times of barrenness or childbearing, marriage and widowhood-- when marriage and singleness are easy and when they are hard.
The authority for family as a cultural system
The authority, then, for marriage, does not come from the state, but from God. That's why many church leaders are arguing that however the public sphere decides to define marriage (civil unions, or whatever), the state cannot define for the church what marriage is.
Variations of family as a cultural system
Families malfunction (that is, they fail to flourish) when they mar the image of God. For example, if the marriage union reflects the image of God as the two become one, then divorce mars that unity and intimacy (see Matthew 19:6). Many of the world's cultures espouse an ideal of lifetime monogamy; but some cultures, at least in practice, look the other way at divorce, infidelity, polygamy or polyandry. To recover the image-bearing aspect of a flourishing family ideal, cultures would need to emphasize marriage as a permanent, monogamous union.
What about arranged marriage? Note that scripture doesn't outright prescribe either arranged marriages or "love marriages." And both systems can be acceptable if they encourage flourishing rather than malfunctioning. For example, when arranged marriages make an idol out of wealth, alliances, or corporate honor, they can begin to malfunction. Remember that the ultimate purpose of marriage is not wealth, alliance or the accumulation of honor- it is to represent the intimate relationship of the Trinity, and to be the primary place we experience the fruits of the Spirit. "Love marriage" too can become an idol when it places individual happiness over these actual purposes for marriage.
What about endogamy? The list of taboo relationships is pretty short, and doesn't include cousins- in fact, the marriage of cross-cousins is common around the world, as it was in the Ancient Near east. Some Christians from cultures where the marriage of a parallel cousin is encouraged point out that Moses condoned such marriages in Numbers 27.
For an in depth look at 500 years of Christian scholarship on the theology of the family, see Brown, S. and Pollard, J (eds).(2014). Theology of the family. The National Center for Family Integrated Churches
© 2015 Kenneth Nehrbass. All Rights Reserved.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor