pheological and Social Perspectives on Family
Some observe a crisis in the Christian family in the United States today. There are challenges to how Christians define the nature and function of the family, and many are confused with how to incorporate the best sociology research into understanding this bedrock of society. Our approach is to consider the biblical, theological, cultural, and sociological perspectives on family life in an attempt to integrate secular knowledge with the truth of Scripture. In chapter 1 we present a theology of family relationships based on what the Bible says about relationality through the Holy Trinity: God as parent in relationship to the children of Israel, Christ as groom in relationship to the church as bride, and the Holy Spirit in relationship to all believers who are empowered to live in rightful relationships as brothers and sisters in Christ. The emergent theology of family relationships highlights the elements of covenant, grace, empowerment, and intimacy as family members strive to maintain their unique individuality within family unity.
In chapter 2 we introduce two sociological perspectives. The systemic perspective, which views the family as a unit of interrelated parts, concentrates on the relationships between family members. The developmental perspective focuses on the bio-psycho-socio-cultural impact and various stages of individual and family life. By integrating these sociological perspectives, we will discover some of the basic marks of a resilient family.
A Theological Foundation for Family Relationships
Developing a Theology of the Family
How can we best use Scripture to learn God’s intention for family life during the new millennium? A common approach is to pick out the key verses from the various scriptural passages dealing with the family. These verses are then arranged as one would arrange a variety of flowers to form a pleasing bouquet. However, such use of Scripture presents problems when Christians come up with different bouquets of verses and then disagree as to what the Bible says about family life. This method of selecting certain verses about the family can be compared to strip mining. Ignoring the historical and cultural context, the strip miner tears into the veins of Scripture, throws the unwanted elements aside, and emerges with selected golden nuggets of truth. Too often, this type of search for God’s truth about the family produces a truth that conforms to the preconceived ideas of the miner doing the stripping.
Prominent among the golden nuggets that are typically mined are New Testament regulations regarding family and household relationships (e.g., Eph. 5:22–6:9; Col. 3:18–4:1; 1 Tim. 2:8–15; 6:1–2; Titus 2:1–10; and 1 Pet. 2:18–3:7). These passages indicate early Christianity’s concern for order in three basic household relationships: between husband and wife, between parent and child, and between master and slave. New Testament scholar James Dunn (1996), however, emphasizes the importance of considering the total context of scriptural passages about family life. Dunn notes the problem when scriptural texts are read without considering the social, historical, and cultural context of the time of writing. Although the motive of discovering hard-and-fast rules for household life is understandable, a “problem arises
here when we try to make the household codes into timeless rules which can be simply transposed across time to the present day without addition or subtraction” (62). Doing so would mean that we accept slaves as part of God’s intention for family households. Dunn concludes that such an approach is an abuse of Scripture.
In contrast to a strip-mining mentality, we take a broad view by considering relevant biblical references as well as a theology that offers deeper meaning and concrete principles of living in our complex, postmodern world. By way of analogy, we base our theology of family relationships on relationality within the Holy Trinity and throughout the Old and New Testament descriptions of God in relationship. The use of analogy is crucial to understanding the correspondence between God and humanity. Relying on analogy to build our theological model is based on a more theological interpretation of Scripture (TIP). One of the main ways to engage in TIP is using typological approaches that identify types or prototypes in one passage of Scripture that are developed in later passages. Further, these typological approaches allow us to develop a biblical theology associated with the type or prototype by connecting passages across the Scriptures. This is very different from citing one or two passages as proof texts for one’s position. There are two main dimensions of typology in interpreting Scripture (Parker 2018). The primary type in this kind of reading is horizontal typology, which occurs when an Old Testament figure or institution corresponds to or is an adumbration for a New Testament figure or institution. The initial analogy is between God and Adam. That is, God makes Adam as an image bearer and covenant partner, which foreshadows Christ as the Covenant Keeper on humanity’s behalf.
Trinitarian Relationality The first humans were created to be covenant partners with God, entailing stewardship of God’s creation. What we read in Genesis 1 and 2 reflects the formation of covenants between lords and vassals (Horton 2006). God as the Lord declares his works; he speaks, and his empowering Word accomplishes his will. Then, God creates and appoints humans—Adam and Eve—to represent him in his covenant relationship to the creation. “With God’s act of creation, the relations between the persons of the Trinity finds its analogy between God’s relations with his people and the relations between the
people themselves and the covenant community” (Horton 2012, 124). As with all covenants, there are blessings, responsibilities, and consequences for violation.
We believe humans are created by a relational, triune God to be in meaningful and edifying relationships. The good news is that Scripture presents a model of relational life in the Trinity—God is one yet composed of three distinct persons. Stanley Grenz puts it this way: “The same principle of mutuality that forms the genius for the human social dynamic is present in a prior way in the divine being” (2001, 48). Building on this truth, our starting point in developing a theology of family relationships is to recognize that, by way of analogy, relationships between family members reflect the relationality within the Holy Trinity.
Relationality is the primary vehicle for humans to carry out their covenant responsibilities. Image bearing does not connote ontology; in other words, the imago Dei describes our status in covenant relationship with God (Grenz 2001; Horton 2012; Strachan 2019), not necessarily humanity’s psychological makeup. Genesis 1:26–27 states, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness. . . . So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” The us connotes the triune Godhead (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), who in unity created humankind in the image of God (imago Dei). Throughout the Bible, unity and uniqueness are simultaneously described as the relational aspects of the Godhead.
The task of image bearing entails a threefold commission from the Creator (Fowler 1987). First, Adam and Eve—and then all people—are to govern or be responsible stewards of the creation. Second, image bearers engage in developing or liberating creation. In other words, humans function as image bearers in developing the potential of the created order. Finally, image bearing entails redemption of the aspects of creation that have been marred due to human fallenness and sin (Gen. 3). Humans do this redemptive work when they remove or ameliorate the effects of sin (e.g., when teachers support at-risk students to achieve academically). Middleton summarizes the threefold commission this way: “The imago Dei designates the royal office or calling of human beings as God’s representatives and agents in the world, granting authorized power to share God’s rule or administration of earth’s resources and creatures” (2005, 27). Unity with God as image bearers means exercising one’s unique ability to govern, liberate, and redeem creation.
Applying image bearing to family relationships, Gary Deddo (1999) draws on Karl Barth, when he states that “the nature of the covenantal relationship between God and humanity revealed and actualized in Jesus Christ . . . [is] grounded in the Trinitarian relations of Father, Son, and Spirit” (2). As distinction and unity coexist in the Godhead, so are they to exist among family members. Deddo states, “In the revelation by the Son of the Father through the Spirit we come to recognize the activity of the one God apportioned to each person of the Trinity. The Father is the Creator, the Lord of life; the Son is the Reconciler, the re-newer of life; the Spirit is the Redeemer, the giver, the conveyor of this life which is given, sustained and renewed” (36). Family relationships are analogous in human form to this divine model. As the three distinct persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit— mutually indwell a trinitarian fellowship, so are family members to mutually indwell a family fellowship in similar ways.