Any discussion of the theology of the family must begin with and proceed from a Trinitarian perspective. The pre-existent Trinity exemplifies the family system, consisting as the godhead does of three persons united as one by unconditional love. Human beings, created in the image of this triune God, possess inherently a relational aspect. The relationship between the creation and the Creator, as typified by covenants, extends into the relationships between members of a family – and, indeed, to those between states. Finally, it should be recognized that the family is the primary social unit, making it the crucible of Christian discipleship and the first means of fulfilling the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20.
First, the Trinity models agape, true unilateral, unconditional love. Even though the godhead is comprised of the three persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the three form a cohesive unity (Deuteronomy 6:4). This bond evidences itself in the way all three persons have equal status within the Trinity, regardless of their respective roles. For example, the Son is obedient to the Father not out of a filial obsequiousness based in a sense of inferiority, but rather because the Son loves the Father irrespective of any external factor. Unconditional love provides the conduit for the relationships between each of the three persons. It is insufficient, however, to say that the three become one because of loving relationships; it is necessary to say that the Three-in-One is love itself, and the innate nature of that love is what provides for the relationality of the Trinity.
This relational nature is evidenced in humanity being created in the imago Dei. Even though many debate the exact meaning of being made in the image of God, perhaps the strongest contender is that humans are designed for relationships. Just as the Trinity exists in a state of relationship, so, too, must people be in a relationship. Since human beings are born of a mother and conceived by a father, it logically follows that even procreation is designed to create new life in the context of a relationship: the family. God then establishes His own relationship with the family and the individual by means of covenant. This covenant, for Christians, is the means by which redemption and reconciliation is achieved: imperfect people relate to a perfect God through a covenant achieved initially by the atonement of Christ and that is lived by ascribing to the rules and relationship mandated by God.
Covenant plays a large role in family dynamics. A covenant grounded in unconditional love is, in the West, the basis for Christian marriage. The two spouses covenant together to create a new family while vowing to remain faithful to each other to the exclusion of all other possible partners, and the vows are durable throughout any negative life events. The covenant provides a basis for the governing of the relationship. It may be extended to delineating roles and navigating other potential sources of conflicts such as money, in-laws, sex, and time management. As long as the covenant conditions are fulfilled, all will run smoothly. Thus the covenant relationship between God and humanity serves as a model for other relational covenants such as those between family and state or family and church.
This foundational relational – and foundationally human – social system functions as the first means of disciple-making. As children are born into a family, they enter a covenant community of unconditional love geared for a relationship. It is necessary for the family to teach those children their religious beliefs in order to aid them in attaining a relationship with the Trinitarian God. The earthly, nuclear family of the child is under special obligation to see to it that the child receives instruction in the faith. Discipleship begins in the home when parents begin the indoctrination of their children. It is true that the church plays a critical role in disciple-making, and children receive age-appropriate discipleship instruction from the church through various programs such as Sunday school and youth programs. If these lessons are not reinforced in the home, however, it is possible (and perhaps even likely) that church teachings will fall by the wayside. Children learn by observation; if the parents do not exhibit a behavior in the home, then their children are less likely to exhibit it themselves. The family who displays Christian virtues and the unconditional love of the Trinity will raise children of similar beliefs and behaviors.
This has implications on how families view the social order. The family as basic social unit also comprises the basic Christian unit. Indeed, the family serves as a ready metaphor for the Church: all believers are brothers and sisters and share a common Father, God Almighty, the creator of heaven and earth. Ideally, this relationship between Christians is patterned after the pre-Fall intent of Creation: a world free of conflict that is defined by healthy sexuality, mutual empowerment, and Trinitarian relationship. All of these aspects were damaged by the Fall. Human sexuality has been twisted to become, in popular opinion, little more than a means of personal gratification; families are marked by power plays made by parents and children alike; and love is always contingent upon what someone can do for someone else. The role of the family, in both the church and the world, is to model the pre-Fall creational intent in order to remind society and the community of believers of the Trinity’s plan for the world.
The doctrine of the Trinity, then, has many implications for the family in society. Its model of relationship and unconditional love serves as the first example of how families are to conduct themselves. It also speaks to how family life should be grounded in covenant and how parenting is also a means of disciple-making. The Trinity shows us the pre-Fall intent of Creation, and this state is the true objective of the contemporary church in society, accomplished by espousing the values and relationality of the creational intent.