Modern Families

I’m not generally one for making alarmist, apocalyptic statements worthy of a Hollywood voice-over, but indulge me just this once:

The year is 2016, and the family lies in ruins.

Perhaps a more accurate statement is that the traditional two-parent family is in ruins. Or the traditional two-parent-family-with-both-parents-of-all-the-children-still-being-united-in-a-heterosexual-marriage-type-of-family is in ruins. I don’t want to denigrate or deride families of other compositions. A family is a family, regardless of how it came to be. Stepparents often fill in the gaps left by birth parents in ways which far surpass the biological progenitors. Adopted children are loved every bit as much as those sharing the DNA of the adults in the family. These can be wonderful, beautiful things.

What I lament, however, is the absolute lack of significance granted to the family unit itself.

We all know the numbers. Over half of all first marriages end in divorce, and that percentage skyrockets when you get to second marriages, third marriages, and beyond. Why? No-fault divorce, mainly. Again, there are legitimate reasons for divorce, but most marriages today don’t end because of abandonment or abuse (the growing rate of adultery will be discussed later). They end simply because one spouse wakes up one morning, looks at the other spouse, and thinks, I don’t love you anymore. The concept of love as a choice is foreign to most people, particularly Millennials (my generation) and younger. The “for better and for worse” in their marriage vows (themselves taken lightly) means only the first half when actually put into practice. Contemporary society redefined marriage long before any court did, trading a sacrament of sanctification serving as the basis for a family for an agreement of convenience designed to make me (and only me) happy. Since no one can provide 24/7 bliss to another human being, people feel like their marriages aren’t what they signed up for — which they’re not, really — and tear up the contract.

But the rise of divorce is only part of the equation. Most people my age and younger don’t even marry, or, if they do, will live together first. The biblically accepted order to arrive at a family is 1) get married, 2) move in together, 3) have sex, 4) have babies. Nowadays the process is practically inverted: 1) have sex, 2) move in together, 3)have babies, 4) get married. The marriage is the result of societal pressure to become a legal family in the advent of pregnancy or birth of a child. (We used to call those “shotgun weddings” and typically frowned on them.) Marriage is viewed as unnecessary since you can enjoy some of the benefits (e.g. sex, companionship) without the commitment. (We’re a commitment-phobic society, really.) Some never marry the parent of their child — sometimes for good reasons, admittedly, but sometimes not.

The same logic spurring the rise of cohabitation has fueled a rise in adultery. “If my marriage isn’t sexually satisfying, I have the right to look elsewhere for that satisfaction,” they say, “since marriage is about my personal happiness anyway.” That’s just the basic, no-frills model of infidelity. But many marriages are “open,” meaning both spouses are free to sleep with whomever, whenever. Swingers are married couples who get together to sleep with each other’s spouses. Some (far from all, but some) bisexual people are permitted by their spouses to have sex with a member of the same sex since that’s a desire and means to happiness they, of the opposite sex, can’t fulfill. Or they invite the desired person to a ménage à trois. I was getting a haircut this week, and one stylist was telling another she (the other) needed to get back together with her ex. “But I’m with Y now!” “Is that the baby daddy?” “Yeah, and we’re married!” “Well he’s not as good for you as X is.” (You can imagine the awkward lull in conversation after they discovered what I do for a living.) But even that becomes acceptable when marriage is only about happiness — and so is sex. Then you have pornography use and its ilk, which for all intents and purposes is infidelity, too. Promiscuity among married folk: it may not be something new under the sun, but our acceptance of it and lack of guilty/shame concerning it certainly seem to be.

All of that to say: without a proper view of marriage, the family never stood a chance. Children are shuttled between custodial parents. Kids are effectively raised having two lives and, frequently, four or more “parents” and an abundance of step- and half-siblings, any one of whom may be gone at any given time to be with his/her other parent. No stability, nothing solid. Only change and shifting sands. Little wonder so many children have behavioral problems. Others have a stable home, but with only one parent or with their grandparents (birth parents optional). Beyond even the kids, though, is civilization itself. Can we thrive in an anything-goes world where no one has a sense of permanence even about their marriage, their identity, and/or their family role?

Well, enough complaining. What can we as Christians do about it? Here’s my less-than-comprehensive list of ten suggestions.

  1. Love everyone regardless of their family make-up or lifestyle.
  2. Teach, preach, and maintain the biblical ideals concerning marriage, sex, and the family.
  3. Offer support groups for victims of divorce, including children (and adult children of divorce).
  4. Offer support to single-parent families. Make them feel welcome and help them get involved in the church as you help out with things they may need done at home.
  5. Provide support for grandparents raising their grandchildren. Help out at home, babysit, provide support groups for the grandparents and activities for the children to allow the grandparents some much-needed time off.
  6. Become advocates for adoption and support families with adopted children.
  7. Provide marital counseling to those in danger of divorce while encouraging proper responses to abuse and neglect.
  8. Connect hurting families to healthy families in your church for fellowship, mentoring, and listening ears.
  9. Offer programs on marriage and family to children and youth to show them healthy, biblical relationships and standards before they learn unhealthy behaviors elsewhere.
  10. Know the resources available to families in your community (counselors, pregnancy crisis centers, etc.).
  11. Bonus: Pray.

These things won’t magically solve the problems of modern families, but they may make a difference in your own corner of the world. God established marriage and family. It’s our job to fight for them.

Save the Baby Humans

I recently put my first bumper sticker on my car. Prior to this, I’d always had a sort of mindset which rebelled against using my vehicle (and thus myself) as free advertising for anyone, regardless of my feelings toward said entity or cause. (“I can’t let people know whom I supported in the election! If people want my opinions on things, they can ask!”) A few weeks ago, however, I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse: a rather cute-looking cartoon member of an endangered species with a sign reading, “Save the baby humans!” And it was free! (I guess you get these kinds of offers after you sign so many petitions or join enough mailing lists.) So I got one and slapped in on the back of my car below my ichthus (Jesus always get free advertising space). Now my car boldly invites everyone to join the pro-life cause.

It’s a biblical cause, to be sure. To borrow some scare tactics language, legalized at-will abortion is nothing sort of a legitimatized genocide. Countless lives have been thrown away on a whim, simply because they were unwanted or inconvenient. Yes, the unborn are still alive in a very literal sense, even if our language says otherwise. Think about it: we rarely call a fetus a baby; no one would call a man a father before the birth of the child; and we count age beginning at the date of birth, not the (generally fuzzier) date of conception. For all linguistic purposes, we use a completely different vocabulary when discussing an unborn human being. And so they have no right to live.

Scripture tells us a different story. Repeatedly throughout the Old Testament, prophets and poets alike acknowledge the reality that life begins at conception. Job 31:15 speaks of God as “the one who made me in the womb,” acknowledging God’s hand in the creation of a new human being, a creative act carried out in the womb. It also implies God’s knowledge of the unborn as a distinct individual. Likewise Psalm 139:13-16 says, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” God’s knowledge of an individual life and his recognition of personhood clearly begins in utero, long before birth. Each person is known to God fully in the womb, and He considers them His creation from the time of conception.

Isaiah 44:2 and Jeremiah 1:5 are also standard passages in the discussion of personhood and abortion. Each acknowledges God’s hand at making them in the womb, but Jeremiah goes a step further. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” he writes, “and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer 1:5). Again, we are known to God before birth as distinct persons capable of being granted gifts and callings.

But the New Testament also tells us more than that. God knows us at conception — and we are capable of knowing him as well. The beautiful meeting between Elizabeth and Mary in Luke 1:39-56 makes this abundantly clear. Verses 39-41 read: “Now at this time [immediately after the conception of Jesus] Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” The unborn John the Baptist recognizes the unborn son of Mary as the Son of God in fetal form. There can be no mistaking this passage as meaning something else. Life begins at conception.

If life begins at conception, as it clearly does from a biblical viewpoint, we’re left with dealing with the ending of that life. The easy place to begin is the Decalogue. Exodus 20:13 gives us the relevant commandment: “You shall not murder.” (I know, I know; the King James says “kill,” but there are half a dozen words in Hebrew for killing. This one, ratsach, is the one for murder or slaughter.) That in and of itself should be enough, but let’s keep going. A chapter later in Exodus 21, the Torah lists the killing of an unborn child still being carried by his/her mother (or the causation of a premature birth so that the infant dies) as a grave offense (vv. 22-25). Not only is all life protected by the law of Moses, then, but also specifically the life of the unborn.

It seems fairly obvious that abortion constitutes the willful killing of a living human being. There remains debate in some Christian circles, however, about abortion in certain circumstances (such as a child of rape or a birth which would endanger the life of the mother). All I can do here is state my own opinions, as this isn’t going to be an issue resolved by someone’s blog (try though we may). I hold the belief that abortion in any situation is still murder. In the latter case, it’s a horrifying decision whether or not to terminate the pregnancy. Either way, someone is going to die, and either way, that death is going to come as a result of a conscious decision. I personally feel I would place both lives in God’s hands and pray for His miraculous intervention. (You’re thinking that this makes me a horrible person, I know: to gamble the life of my wife and unborn child on a literal miracle. And you’re also right: it’s not only my decision to make, and I haven’t been put in that position in the first place. You’re also thinking Christian ethics has long held it is permissible to lie and take a life to save a life under special circumstances. Your criticisms are all valid.) In the case of a pregnancy resulting from rape, it’s another horrific situation. A new life has been created because a woman was violated by a man she might not even know. How could we possibly expect her to give birth to and care for that child? Because it’s still a human life. It’s not going to be easy. It’s not something anyone would ever want to have to do. But it’s still a human life, and that’s worth something — even death on a cross.

This leads to a fundamental question in the abortion debate: is this an issue of women’s rights? Is this a woman exercising her right to control what happens to her physical body, or is it something different? I will be the first to say a woman has every right whatsoever to make decisions about her body. No other person, male or female, has that right. Period. The problem arises when we realize, however, that in pondering abortion, she’s making a decision about another human being and another body. Is that human being inside her own and relying upon her for life itself? Yes. But it’s still an error to say it’s exclusively a matter of her own body; another human being is in the equation. And since that human being cannot speak for itself, someone else needs to.

I realize these are poorly-worded and probably unpopular opinions; I considered not voicing them at all and instead opt to explain myself in-person to those who ask, as it would be much easier to communicate tone and nuance that way. Regardless, the matter deserves the full treatment, even if it’s coming from a single white male who will never have the honor of being pregnant.

At the very least, we should all agree on this: while we lobby — and rightly so — to save the trees and the baby whales, we should be doing something to save the baby humans, too. And it might start with getting a bumper sticker.

A Trinitarian Perspective on the Family

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.