A Biblical Theology of Family
The Practice of Theology Podcast is hosted by Tyler Kirkpatrick and exists to help the local church engage theology on a deeper level and learn how it applies to daily life. In this episode, he discusses with Dr. Köstenberger a biblical theology of family. You can listen here.
Note: The following is not a transcript, but on the whole the interview proceeds along the following lines.
Tell us a bit about your family and your publications on the subject.
Sure. My wife and I have been married for over thirty years. We have four children, two girls and two boys. The girls married wonderful husbands, and we love our family so much. I’ve written God, Marriage & Family with my former colleague, David Jones (there is also an abridgment which many use in premarital counseling, Marriage and Family). Also, my wife and I have jointly written God’s Design for Man & Woman. My wife and I have also written a book on parenting, Equipping for Life: A Guide for New, Aspiring & Struggling Parents, which is also available in abridged form as Parenting Essentials. In addition, anyone interested can go to my website, Biblical Foundations.org, click on Topics on the upper left, and then click on “Marriage and Family,” where they will find an abundance of resources on this topic.
Where is the concept of family revealed in Scripture? And how is it defined? Is this concept just one of many ways to define the family? Is the Bible giving a definitive word on the family or are we to understand it as an organic concept that changes and progresses with the times?
That’s an interesting question, because the term “family” is actually quite rare in Scripture. You find it in Ephesians 3:15, though, where Paul speaks about God, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named (the Greek word is patria; this is one of only three New Testament references; the other two are in Luke 2:4 where Luke says that at the birth of Jesus, Joseph was of the family or lineage of David; and in Acts 3:25, where Luke quotes Peter citing God’s promise to Abraham that “in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed”).
Otherwise, the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, speaks more of larger social units, such as clans, tribes, or extended families. Hebrew actually doesn’t have a term for family; the term often used is “the father’s house” (bet-ab) that is, a compound where children with their spouses would settle on their parents’ land. In the New Testament, we see in the so-called “household codes” in Ephesians and Colossians that a family typically consisted of father and mother, children, and often also aging parents (esp. widows) and household servants or slaves.
So there is a certain cultural element involved here, and while the core family consists of parents and children, other close relatives may be included in the family as well. Today in the West, we typically live together as nuclear families made up solely of parents and children, though in other cultures people still have a larger concept of family including the extended family and close relatives and their spouses. So, there is a certain cultural element in the definition of family, even though, of course, as Ephesians 3 states, God is the one who instituted the family in the first place.
In God, Marriage & Family, incidentally, we devote two entire chapters to the family, and there we define family as follows: “primary, one man and one woman united in matrimony (barring death of a spouse) plus (normally) natural or adopted children and, secondarily, any other persons related by blood.” So there we make the point that people may be widowed, children include both biological and adopted children, and family, while normally the nuclear family, may include other close relatives.
I assume you mean, why do we need a male-female married couple to be fruitful and multiply? Why not some other form of human relationship, whether outside of marriage, or same-sex, or polygamous, or whatever? Good question! Actually, the Bible is very clear that God made humanity male and female, and ordained lifelong monogamous marriage between one man and one woman.
That’s clear in the Genesis creation narrative, chapter 2, and Jesus reaffirmed God’s plan in Matthew 19, where he said, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’” So we see that in both Testaments there is a clear affirmation of monogamous marriage as the God-ordained means by which a man and a woman procreate children.
What are some of the major negative effects that stem from the devaluing of the traditional family?
Well, there are many negative effects, some theological and others social and economic. Because I’m primarily a theologian and biblical scholar, let me start with negative theological effects. The primary negative effect of devaluing the biblical family is that we dishonor God when we ignore and rebel against his design. In fact, the devaluing of God’s design is rooted in a fundamental rebellion against God.
The Bible says that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. … For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1:18–23).
People should be thankful for marriage, for God’s beautiful, wise, and good design, but rather than giving thanks, they disregard God’s plan. The result is that “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves …, to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another … (vv. 24 – 27). “God gave them up to a debased mind … filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, male, and all sorts of evil” (vv. 28-32).
So this is the biblical verdict on those who disregard God’s design for marriage and family. And that’s what we see in our society today. There is a lack of permanence in relationships. There is immorality. People are hurt. They are under God’s judgment. And society suffers as well in terms of social, moral, and financial costs.
Take divorce, for example. I come from a divorced family myself, and there are significant negative effects both on the divorced couple and on the children of divorce that often take years to overcome. More broadly, there is increasing gender confusion in our culture where young people are no longer secure in knowing they are a young man or woman, and are unsure about their gender identity. They’ve lost touch with the way in which God created them, and therefore also with the purpose for which he created them. So here is a great opportunity for us to witness to God’s good, wise, and beautiful design for men and women, both as married couples and as we disciple and mentor men and women to grow in Christ and fulfill their God-given purpose.
Is a biblical understanding of family important to understand the covenantal nature of the Bible? Do those two concepts go hand in hand?
Another great and very important question! For those who are interested in more details than we’re able to give here, in God, Marriage & Family, the entire chapter 4 is devoted to this question. Surprisingly, there are only two Old Testament references that mention marriage in connection with covenant, in Proverbs and Malachi. Proverbs 2:17 speaks of the adulterous woman “who forsakes the companion of her youth and forgets the covenant of her God.” And Malachi 2:14 says, “Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.” Especially in the latter passage, we see the understanding of marriage as a covenant.
In the Bible, “covenant” essentially means “sacred contract” or agreement in which God is either a party or a witness. We see in the creation narrative that marriage is God’s idea; God created man and woman for monogamous, lifelong marriage. We also see God bringing the woman to the man, and he is delighted. And Moses writes that the man will leave his parents and cling to his wife. So marriage is created and ordained by God, and a man and woman, before God as a witness, pledge to be faithful to each other until death.
I personally think God is not directly a party to human marriage, as the marriage is between husband and wife, but he is the one who ordained marriage and he is a witness to the marriage and keeps husband and wife accountable to the promises they have made to each other before him. It’s possible to break that covenant, such as when one of the partners commits adultery, and in such cases divorce may ensue. In this way, the marriage covenant is different from the new covenant, for example, in which God is a party and so guarantees the fulfillment of the covenant.
What do we make of the Old Testament’s portrayal of what appears to be a somewhat common pattern of polygamy?
Well, yes, that’s a very common question, and one that quite a few Bible interpreters struggle with. Readers of the Old Testament know that God’s plan is not polygamy, but monogamy. In the beginning, God made a man and a woman and brought the two together in marriage. In Genesis 2:24, Moses writes, “For this reason a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and the two shall be one flesh.” So, there is absolutely no doubt in Scripture that God’s plan is monogamy.
That plan has never changed. Then, humanity fell and rebelled against the Creator. The immediate consequence was expulsion from the immediate presence of God, relational tension between husband and wife, and eventually death. As we see in the rest of the Old Testament, and I have chronicled this in God, Marriage, and Family as well as in a later book my wife and I wrote together, God’s Design for Man & Woman, the fall had several negative consequences related to marriage, including adultery, divorce, and polygamy.
The underlying assumption throughout the Old Testament continues to be that of monogamy, but very soon after the fall we see polygamy enter the world (more specifically, polygyny, the practice of a man taking multiple wives; the corresponding term is polyandry, the practice of a woman taking multiple husbands, which is extremely rare, so when we talk about polygamy, we are essentially talking about polygyny).
In any case, why is polygamy so common in the Old Testament? Well, it is probably for the same reason why divorce is quite common, because of human sin. And we see in the case of divorce, that Deuteronomy 24 includes legislation of divorce, not because God condones it, but because, as Jesus told the Pharisees, because of human hardness of heart (Matt. 19;8).
So polygamy in the Old Testament shows how far humanity had fallen from God’s ideal, and the reason why God did not sanction it more severely is likely because he was focused on his plan of redemption in the Messiah, knowing that nothing less would help people live their lives in keeping with God’s design.
If the family, at least in terms of our earthly understanding of husband and wife, is not eternal, then what is the ultimate purpose?
Well, that’s a rather profound question, and a rather complex one as well. I’ll do my best to at least sketch out the contours of an answer. In Genesis 1, we read that God created man and woman in his image and likeness. What does it mean that God created us in hiss image male and female? I believe among other things it means that we are created as unity in plurality. Just like God, as we know now, is a Trinity, three in one, and sustains an eternal relationship where the three persons of the Godhead are together one God, so in marriage, husband and wife are two individuals yet united as one.
Of course, this transcends human logic and even math: 1 does not equal 2, or even 3. But on a higher spiritual plane, it’s true, nonetheless. As Paul says in Ephesians 5:31–32, it’s a divine mystery how two can become one. So, in marriage, we can get a taste of what it means for two persons to be united in love, and even to create or procreate. This, in turn, is another vital aspect of creation in God’s image, namely that, like God, the Creator, a husband and wife are given the privilege of procreating another human being, or even several of them.
In this way, we learn what it means for God to be Father and to care for what he has created. As parents, we love our children, and care for them, and enter experientially into what it means to be created in the image of God. In Genesis 5:1-3, we read, “This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created.” And then it says, “When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.”
So you see, just like God fathered humanity in his image, so Adam fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image. Through marriage, and procreation, we can enter into the experience of producing offspring in the likeness of God. Also, being a husband or wife and being a father or mother takes place in the realm of God’s holiness or sanctification, as God uses marriage and family to sanctify us, as a vehicle of making us Christlike and holy like himself.
Maybe it’s because of past sin, maybe it’s because of abandonment, or a whole host of other reasons, but there’s no doubt people listening to this who come from a broken home or currently live in a broken home. What would you say to those people?
Well, I understand, because my parents are divorced, and it was very hard to come to terms with that, especially when becoming a Christian. I had to learn to forgive my parents and to work through questions such as, Why did God in his sovereignty allow this to happen? Why did he allow my family to break up, with all the negative consequences and heartache that happened as a result?
It’s obviously hard to generalize, as there may be many reasons why a family breaks up, and we may be the victims or the perpetrators of wrong. That’s an important distinction to make, by the way, though it sometimes gets blurred, and victims feel guilty when they’re actually the ones being wronged.
Speaking of divorce, Jesus allows divorce for adultery, though doesn’t require it, so we should repent and reconcile, but if the guilty party is unwilling to continue in the marriage, the victim of spousal unfaithfulness is free to divorce and remarry.
If you’re in a broken home, God will become even more important to you, because you will come to know him as your loving heavenly Father who will never wrong you or abuse you. You will appreciate the unconditional love of Jesus even more, and depend on him and the healing power of the Holy Spirit to make you whole. So, I would say, if you’re in a broken home, cling to Jesus, trust in him, and he will deliver you, and heal your hurts, even though it may take time, and he will provide for you in every way.
Note: You can read more about marriage and the family in God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation. To listen to an interview on marriage and the family, click here.