How Family-Centered is the Bible?

by John Starke

There’s enough circulating in the media today to discourage Christians about the future of marriage and family. In a recent Atlantic article, “All the Single Ladies,” Kate Bolick suggests we stop thinking of “traditional marriage” as society’s highest ideal. Divorce is no longer the “new” normal, it’s just normal. In the 1980s and 90s, the term “turn-key kids” was meant to represent a sad reality for children. Now the term has been largely retired because of its regularity.

These cultural developments have led evangelicals to become more family-centered, both for our own sake and also for the sake of our neighbors. Promise Keepers encouraged men to love their wives. John Piper and Wayne Grudem edited a scholarly and pastoral—in my opinion, definitive—book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, arguing for a complementarian understanding of the home and local church. The name Focus on the Family speaks for itself.

But with every response, there’s always the danger of over-correction. It’s not that I think some evangelicals have become too conservative or too traditional. I worry that they’ve simply adopted traditional cultural and societal norms, instead of biblical norms.

Zechariah and Mary

The two birth announcements in the Gospel of Luke to Zechariah and Mary reveal how a society’s “traditional” family values may not line up with God’s.

Zechariah, the priest married to a barren woman, and Mary both heard miraculous announcements about impending childbirth. Yet while Zechariah responded with skepticism and doubt, Mary responded with faith and wonder. So why would Zechariah, a priest, doubt an angel of the Lord? He knew the story of Abraham and Sarah, so the idea of an older, barren woman giving birth wouldn’t be ridiculous to him.

But consider Zechariah and Elizabeth’s situation. Some of you may know the pain of not being able to have children. It’s the feeling of 10, 20, even 30 years deeply desiring children with hopes unfulfilled. Zechariah and Elizabeth also suffered shame. Luke 1:24-25 reveals Elizabeth’s heart. She said, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”

By reproach she meant the shame that comes from known barrenness. Maybe some of you have experienced this reproach from more conservative societies, where family is held in such a high regard. If you’re nearing your 40s with no children and maybe not even married, you start to receive questions like, “When are you going to get yourself a husband?” “When are we going to start seeing some little ones around here?” You hear the whispers. Every baby shower brings guilt and shame.

Zechariah and Elizabeth also dealt with questions about whether they did something wrong to deserve barrenness. Was there some hidden sin? Worse, Zechariah was a religious leader, a priest! Can you imagine how this public shame undermined his position, his authority?

So for Zechariah, pain and sorrow turned to shame and disgrace. He held on tightly to the cultural idol of family. This idol filled his heart so that there was no room for the truth of God’s promise, even if he heard it from an angel. The good news of a coming son did not inspire joy but unbelief. It’s too late. We’re too old.

Two Common ErrorsĀ 

Reading about Zechariah and Elizabeth while studying our own age, we discern two errors common to societies when it comes to family.

First, a society can value personal independence and autonomy to such a degree that family and children become burdens. What God has provided for our joy and human flourishing, we regard as a killjoy, draining personal resources that we’d rather use to advance our own dreams, ambitions, and plans.

But there’s another wrong view. A society can make the family the most important thing. It can become an idol, something that fundamentally defines us. We regard anyone who never marries or cannot have children as somehow subhuman. They must have done something wrong to upset God.

By contrast, the Bible actually teaches a radically subversive message about the family. God, we often discover, is the cause of barrenness in women. Stories of family dynamics rarely flatter. You’ll never find a Leave it to Beaver household in the Bible. Rather, we see constant distress, rivalry, and jealousy. Usually this dynamic doesn’t result from undervaluing children. No, we see it when children become the most important thing! Not only that, Jesus also has some deeply alarming things to say about the family, sounding almost cold and uncaring—see Mark 3:31-35 and Luke 14:26.

And finally, it’s difficult to make family the most central thing for Christians when the two most prominent figures in the New Testament, Jesus and the apostle Paul, were both single. Actually, Christianity made singleness a legitimate way of life for the first time in any culture or religion.

Christ and the Church

Before you thumb your noses at traditional values on marriage and family, remember this: When God wanted to paint a picture of his great love for he church and cost of his death, he cited marriage between a husband and wife. God in Jesus Christ is the faithful and sacrificial husband for his bride, the church.

In fact, the Bible often describes our spiritual union with one another and God using the language of family. Through the cross of Jesus Christ, we see that God is no distant judge, but a Father; Jesus is not only a friend of sinners, but our brother; we share not only a common belief system, but we also live in community as brothers and sisters.

While the family cannot be so important that it invades the space in our heart that only God should occupy, we see that even from Creation, God designed marriage and family to result in a maturing society. Zechariah, however, warns us not to make family the ultimate thing. He turned it into a false god, leaving no room for the truth of the real God.

Not so with Mary! She responded with wonder and faith, saying, “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). She, too, had dreams and hopes for family. She was even betrothed. You don’t think she daydreamed of what her family might be like? We know from John 8 that Mary’s pregnancy out of wedlock was public knowledge. Many believed that Jesus was born from “sexual immorality.” So Mary endured the whispers, stares, and brooked smiles. A virgin birth was hardly family-centered in that traditional society. Might we have whispered and wondered about her, too?

Christians should have strong convictions about marriage and family. But their convictions should come from the Bible, not simply the norms of traditional societies.

John Starke is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and lead pastor of All Souls Church in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. You can follow him on Twitter.


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