Regardless of your status, verses about the family are in the Scriptures for you, and everybody else to see.
My wife and I started off in a small church in West Texas. Later, when I was transferred to Ohio, we became part of a congregation that was ten times times larger. It had a full-blown youth ministry, which both of us participated in. At first I was dazzled by all the kids who seemed like cadets for the faith. But the more I got involved there with kid’s church, and then junior high and high school age groups, the more I realized some of the youth weren’t on the same page as their parents. A good number of them were quite sincere, but others weren’t buying the Christian package, and seemed to be biding their time until they could escape.
Some had gotten into sexual experimentation, drugs, and alcohol. I knew we’d hit rock bottom when during a break in a youth event, I had to go down the street to the local drugstore because one of the church girls had been caught shoplifting. But it wasn’t only the kids. The closer I worked with families the more I realized there were troubles at the adult level as well–marital tensions, addictions of various sorts, and odd, dysfunctional family habits.
To make it worse, I was a new Christian, only saved about a year and a half, and had a number of idealistic expectations. Due to the naivete of my new faith, I figured all serious Christians simply did what the Bible said to do. Those concepts were colliding with reality.
Much later, humbling came to me as well, when ideal expectations in my own family didn’t turn out.
I’ve since formulated a more accurate point of view: Anytime sinners are put together, whether at work, in church, or in a family, nothing works exactly as it ought. This is isn’t an excuse, only a statement of fact. The squeaky clean family appearance that Christians try so hard to maintain, is just that–an appearance.
The Bible shows God wanting to bless us with family, but the irony all too often is that family is something you survive. It can inflict an amazing amount of trauma. That’s why, long after leaving home, some kids still rage against the unwise and irresponsible actions of parents. Parents deeply resent the foolish choices their children have made, and all the pain it has brought into the home. Siblings feel smoldering, competitive jealousies between one another. And of course, husbands and wives feel such deep bitterness against each other that they finally pull the plug on the household.
A Christian family must learn to thrive on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not because that family is perfect, but because it’s imperfect, and needs the blessings of salvation.
For this reason, family cannot come first.
I realize this will sound counter to the family-friendly ethic that most churches champion. So let me just be clear. To emphasize family is biblical. To put family first is not.
For instance, the longest sustained commentary on Christian family life occurs in Ephesians. But Paul doesn’t begin the book with family. He doesn’t start off with techniques and tools for marriage and child-raising. In fact he picks a starting point a million miles away from any of those concerns.
Paul begins the book back in eternity, with the Father choosing us and predestinating us for glory, with the Son dying for our sins, and with the Spirit sealing us with the work of the Father and the Son. He closes out chapter one, praying that we would understand these things at heart level. Then in chapter 2, he lays out how we were dead in sin, but enlivened in Christ by grace, through faith, and were put together with people unlike us in a community of worship and growth. And so the first third of the book is hard, factual theology. It is the gospel. We must know it.
If you had said to Paul, “Okay, okay, let’s get to the practical stuff–We want to learn the six steps to having a new kid by Friday,” or something of that ilk, he would have looked at you like you were crazy. Then he would have done what he described doing for the Ephesians:
3:14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
In other words, Paul wanted us to know and experience the truth of the gospel, the facts of chapters one and two, not to set them aside and learn something we think might work better.
Then he tells us in chapter 4 to “walk” (v. 1). That is, now that you have believed the gospel, and experienced spiritual power, practice it. “No longer walk as the gentiles do” (v. 17). If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, “no longer” continue that. If there was sexual abuse in your household of origin, or violence, then in your home, “no longer.” If there was substance abuse, with you, it is “no longer.” If there was dishonesty, self-centeredness, or infidelity, with you it is “no longer.”
How do we simply break the cycle of generational sin? The power of Christ has made us something new in salvation, and so Paul tells us, “Put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (v. 22). Your family is not fated to continue any broken patterns of your past. In the gospel, you are a new person in Christ, and you are to practice this reality.
Now after knowing, experiencing, and practicing the gospel, Paul brings up family life. He didn’t put it first, because it won’t work in the number one spot. Something was needed in front if it.
Think of three diesel locomotives–the knowledge, experience, and practice of the gospel. Behind those three are the train cars–your family members. Each of them are loaded with their own problems, like so much scrap iron and cinder blocks. Yet the gospel, being the power of God, is capable of towing them. The gospel is not only something for the individual. A man once asked Paul, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:30-31). The gospel can pull your whole family into glory,
Consider the sheer number of times offenses large and small occur between the members of a family. The world assures us it is healthy to vent our displeasure, yet along with the release of what we think is exhilarating honesty, flows a torrent of fresh, damaging sinful words. On the other hand, well-meaning religious sources encourage us to suppress our hurt, keeping external peace, but driving the pain into a closet, where it becomes a cancer. What should we do under those circumstances? We must first ask if the gospel say something we need to know. Does it tell us anything about sins? Yes, in Ephesians chapter one, Christ died for our sins, and we have thus been forgiven. However, simply knowing the fact is often not enough. We may know a great many things, and yet feel powerless to do anything with that knowledge.
Does the gospel offer power? Yes, such a provision exists in chapter 3, where the Spirit strengthens us into our inner being. And so, having knelt down, and perhaps for a stretch of time, processed our offense before the Lord, we may ask Him for the filling of the Spirit. This would bring an experiential freshness of gospel truth that not only is my sin forgiven, but other people’s as well.
However, experience is not an end in itself, but must translate into practice. That is why in chapter 4 we are told to forgive even as Christ forgave us. Only after accurate knowledge, an interaction with the Holy Spirit, and obedient practice, can we say that the gospel led us.
“They’re driving me crazy!”
Another area bedeviling Christian family lies in the challenge of simple friction. Some of the differences between siblings or even between husband and wife become maddening. The gospel speaks to this problem. It tells us in Ephesians chapter 2, that Christ’s death has broken down the middle wall of enmity. That means it has disposed of the essential dislike between people, first found in a broader setting of racial or cultural disharmony, then downward into any form of enmity, including that felt between family members. This kind of knowledge is primary to the gospel leading us. Yet, power must come from somewhere to do something with that knowledge, and in fact, is resident in the Holy Spirit, as showcased in chapter 3. Then in chapter 4–the practice chapter–we are told to keep the unity of the Spirit. This is the gospel leading us out of divisive squabbles.
“I Want to Be Like Those Other People!”
Children in Christian families are all the time encountering new attitudes and beliefs in public school settings. They’re tempted to adopt unbiblical points of view, not to mention, behavior. Does the gospel say anything to Christian youth about this? Yes, we find in Ephesians chapter 1 that God the Father chose them and predestined them to glory. This means in some sense–and certainly not to create a false sense of superiority–they are special. They are different. This theology must be shown to them. However, the power of the Holy Spirit must be experienced daily to enable them to live it.
Yes, parents, this means assisting our children to learn to pray, like in Ephesians 3. And then going back to school, they must practice according to chapter 4, not to live as the darkened world does. Obviously, the gospel will scale to the appropriate dimensions of their age, maturity, and understanding. Please don’t send them off to school looking and sounding like thirty-five year old evangelists. The point is, that the gospel leads not only the adults of a family, but the children in it as well.
Many people, including religious folk, will skip the theology, experience, and practice of the gospel, and go straight to chapter 5, where they try to mimic the family. But we’re not interested in looking like a Christian family. Instead, we allow the gospel to lead us into being one.
Others read Ephesians 5, and are promptly offended. The family unit seems to them old fashioned, and oppressive.
Yet the gospel does not lead us into something that looks like 1955. It leads us into timeless truth.