Writing a generation ago, sociologist Christopher Lasch pointed to the weakening of the family as the most significant and dangerous development of our times. In his book, Haven in a Heartless World, Lasch described the breakdown of the natural family as a calamity for the society at large, as well as for the individuals whose lives are so directly affected.
Tellingly, he also wrote this: “The first thing to understand about the present crisis of the family is that it did not materialize overnight.” Indeed, it did not. The current crisis of the family must be traced to economic, political, social, and ideological causes. But there is another cause as well. The family crisis is a theological crisis, and this must be the church’s first concern.
The first theological fact about the family is the truth that the natural family (the family consisting of married parents of the opposite sex and their biological and adopted offspring) is not a product of human social evolution. The Bible reveals that God created human beings to live and to thrive within the context of the family, constituted on the foundation of marriage.
Genesis reveals God’s act of creating human beings as male and female, uniting them in the covenant of marriage, and assigning to them the responsibility to multiply and to exercise both dominion and stewardship. The perfection of marriage was made clear by the fact that the man and the woman were naked in the Garden, and they were unashamed.
Christians affirm that the family is one of God’s most essential gifts to his human children, and that honoring the Creator’s design for marriage and the family is the pathway to glorifying God and to human flourishing. God gave marriage and the family in creation to all peoples everywhere, and as a testimony to this fact, every thriving society has found its way to marriage and the importance of the family. The family is the most basic unit of society, and if it is not honored and protected, a society cannot long survive.
But the second theological fact about the family is our even greater need for marriage and family as protections in a world marked by sin. In a fallen world, marriage and family become even more important, and not less. In such a world we need the protections and comforts offered by the covenant of marriage. The mutual obligations of husband and wife, the promise of fidelity, and the joys of life together take on a whole new importance in a world of dangers, toils, and snares. The gift of children and the commitment to raise them within the committed boundaries and protections of the family point to the importance of both father and mother to the safe and healthy development of both boys and girls. The Law includes detailed instructions on the protection of the family and how it is to be ordered.
The third theological fact about the family is the continued affirmation of the family within the redeemed people of God – the church. As the Gospels make clear, loyalty to Christ exceeds that of any family commitment, even as the church becomes the family of faith, embracing within its life all who come to faith in Christ and into the life of the church. And yet, Christians are explicitly instructed to honor marriage, to raise their children in the faith, and to order their family according to the Scriptures.
The fourth theological fact about the family is that this life has implications for the eternal life to come. There will be no marriage or giving in marriage in heaven, but our faithfulness in marriage and family in this life has eternal implications and consequences. The family that is ordered by the Gospel of Christ will be based on a marriage that pictures Christ’s own love for the Church and will extend to children who are raised in the admonition of the Lord and are confronted with the Gospel and its promises.
The family is indeed in crisis. A recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that fully 40 percent of all babies born in the United States in 2011 were born to unmarried mothers. Divorce rates are catastrophic and unprecedented numbers of American adults are never marrying, creating a new non-marital underclass that passes on disastrous consequences that will harm generations to come. In some American neighborhoods, children and teenagers have never even been to a wedding, since marriage has simply ceased to exist as an expectation. Even when parents are married and live in the same house with their children, many of those children are actually raised by the mass media, with older children and teenagers often living in a digital world that is quite disconnected from their parents.
The social pathologies pile up in shocking statistics, but the greater tragedy is the injury in individual lives. Christians know that the family cannot save us. Only Christ can save. But we also know that God loves us and that he has given us marriage and the family for our protection and flourishing. The church must face the truth that the family crisis is, first of all, a theological crisis. Christians must recover a biblical understanding of the family and live before the world, celebrating and sharing the joys and satisfactions that the Creator gives us in this precious gift. We must live honestly before the world, knowing that our honest acknowledgement of our own need for God’s grace in our marriages and families is a testimony to our need for the grace of God shown us in Jesus Christ.
Christians are rightly concerned about the family crisis in the society, and we must work to protect and defend the family against its enemies. We must be heartbroken witnesses to the dangers the family crisis has brought, even as we are joyful witnesses to the reality of marriages and families restored.
But, long before the society at large will care about our perspective on the family crisis, the church must humbly and faithfully show the world what God intended from the beginning, for his glory and for our good.
Before anything else, the family crisis is a theological crisis. And a theological crisis is the church’s responsibility. In other words, the first responsibility in addressing the family crisis is ours, and ours alone.
This article was originally written for a special edition of The Baptist Messenger (Oklahoma).
I also did a podcast on this article with Brian Hobbs, editor of The Baptist Messenger. You can listen here.
The Baptist Messenger also published a full range of articles on “The New Normal: Exploring Family Values in Society Today." The articles can be found here.