What Does the Bible Say About Family Relationships?

A Sermon preached at Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA, by Coty Pinckney in May, 1993

The American family is falling apart. Consider the following statistics. In 1950, about one out of every 20 children born in this country was born to an unmarried woman -- and there were very few abortions. By 1990, more than one out of every 4 children was born to an unmarried woman -- and hundreds of thousands more were aborted. Approximately half of all marriages that take place this year in the U.S. will end in divorce.

Experts have told us that if we decrease the number of children per family, increase the education of parents, and spend more on government programs to improve child welfare, we will have higher "quality" children and improve the well-being of those children. But as Barbara Dafoe Whitehead points out in an article entitled "Dan Quayle Was Right" in the April, 1993 issue of the Atlantic Monthly -- hardly a conservative periodical -- we have done all these things. And what have been the results? Child poverty has increased substantially faster than poverty among adults. Juvenile crime has seen a similar rapid increase. School performance has declined. The teen suicide rate has tripled, and other measures of less severe emotional problems have escalated dramatically. Whitehead blames many of these problems on the demise of the two-parent family, writing:

If we fail to come to terms with the relationship between family structure and declining child well-being, then it will be increasingly difficult to improve children's life prospects, no matter how many new programs the federal government funds. Nor will we be able to make progress in bettering school performance or reducing crime or improving the quality of the nation's future work force -- all domestic problems closely connected to family breakup.

What is wrong with families today? The Biblical answer is clear: We have believed society's lies and ignored Biblical truth. What are some of these lies? Here are three:

Society's lie #1: Men and woman are essentially the same. The Bible tells us that, while equal before God, we are different in important ways

Society's lie #2: We need to stand up for our own rights and demand that our own needs are met -- even if that means breaking a solemn marriage vow, deserting our children, or rebelling against our parents. As Whitehead reports: "Fewer than half of all adult Americans today regard the idea of sacrifice for others as a positive moral virtue." What does the Bible tell us? "He who seeks to gain his own life will lose it" and "it is more blessed to give than to receive."

Society's lie #3: Children are a burden, or, at best, an ornament, or, perhaps, an experience. It's useful to have one in order to go through the experience, but take care that you don't spoil your life prospects by having too many. The Bible says: "Children are an inheritance from the Lord; the fruit of the womb a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one's youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them." (Psalm 127) Children are God's; we "inherit" them from him, to bring up and hold in trust. They are gifts, rewards; our lives are filled by being poured out for them.

Let me pause here to say how much I appreciate the task this church assigns those of us who stand up here to preach. We are asked to "preach the word . . . in season and out of season" (2Tim 4), whether it is popular or not. Today's topic is difficult; I wouldn't touch it if I had to get up here & give my opinion or draw lessons for you from my own experience. I know there are some of you listening today who have much more experience and wisdom in these matters than I. But we who speak are asked to study the Bible diligently and, to the best of our ability and on the basis of deep prayer, to make clear to you the teaching of the Word of God. So I ask you today to listen carefully, with an open mind, and then act as those faithful Bereans in Acts 17 who, after hearing Paul speak, "searched the Scriptures daily to see if the things Paul said were true."

So this morning we will ask three questions, and try to discern the Biblical answers:

(1) What were men and women created to do? How do we differ?

(2) What is the relationship between husband and wife in a marriage founded on Biblical principles?

(3) What is the relationship between parents and children in a family founded on Biblical principles?


Turn in your Bibles with me to Genesis chapter 1, beginning in verse 26:

Then God said, let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground. So God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)

This passage implies that two aspects of God's image found in humans are that we are created to rule, and that we are created to be in relationship. Thus, in some sense our sexuality is a reflection of the image of God. Now turn to chapter 2, in which we will read verses 7, 15, 18, and 21-25:

The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. . . 15 the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to serve* it and watch* over* it. . . . 18 The Lord God said, 'It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.'. . 21 So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man's ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, "WOW*, this is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman for she was taken out of man." For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother and hold* fast* to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.

This is all we know about man and woman in God's perfect creation. The very next verse describes the temptation that leads to the fall. So what can we discern from these verses?

First of all, note the relationship between Adam and Eve. The man & woman were in a perfectly intimate relationship. There was no hiding, there were no barriers between them. The man is to "hold fast" to his wife. This Hebrew word -- traditionally translated "cleave" -- is not a sexual term in this context. In several places in the Old Testament the same word is used commanding the Israelites to "hold fast" to God. It signifies the unity of man and wife, the degree of commitment and bonding between them. The next phrase -- becoming one flesh -- is clearly sexual, but also how much more!

Second, what does this passage tell us of the differences between man and woman in the perfect created order? There is no definitive theology here, but there are several intriguing hints. I would like to propose that this passage suggests that MAN IS PRIMARILY FUNCTIONAL IN ORIENTATION while WOMAN IS PRIMARILY RELATIONAL IN ORIENTATION. What do I mean by "functional" and "relational?" Man is functional because he receives his greatest satisfaction from performing a task or accomplishing a deed. Woman is relational because she receives her greatest satisfaction from building up of relationships. There are at least three hints or clues that suggest this conclusion:

HINT 1: What material is used to create the man and the woman? Man is made of an inanimate substance -- dust -- while woman is made from part of another person.

HINT 2: What tasks are they assigned? For what purpose was each of them created? In verse 15, man is put in the garden to "work" or "serve" it; to "take care of" or "watch over" it. It is interesting to note that man was created to "serve" and "guard" the creation. This word translated "work" in the New International Version that I have rendered "serve" is the same word that God uses when he speaks through Moses to Pharaoh saying "Let my people go that they may serve me in the desert." Man's relationship to creation is not domineering, but one of tending, serving, and guarding.

Well, what is the task of the woman? She is created, in verse 18, as a "helper suitable" for the man. The word translated "helper" is a military term; "ally" is a possible translation. But in the Old Testament the word usually refers to God, frequently coupled with "shield" -- "My help and my shield." Psalm 121 includes these well-known verses that shed some light on the meaning of the word: "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills. From whence cometh my help? My help cometh from the Lord who made heaven and earth." Thus, this word does not imply any difference in importance, or any type of hierarchy between man and woman. The difference is in focus. Man's focus tends to be on the created order; woman's focus tends to be on serving people.

HINT 3: For hint number three we need to turn to chapter 3 and the results of the fall. As we read, note that the results for each are frustration & pain in their primary area of focus: relationships for the woman, working creation for the man. We read beginning in verse 16:

To the woman he said, "I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you." To Adam he said, "Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, 'You must not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you; thru painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat the food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken. For dust you are, and to dust you will return." (Genesis 3:16-19)

Let's consider the woman first. As a result of her sin, she will experience frustration and difficulty in her family relationships, both with her children and with her husband. The phrase "your desire will be for your husband" is talking not about sexual desire but about the desire to dominate and control. Note that the same phraseology is used by God in speaking to Cain in chapter 4 verse 7: "Sin is crouching at the door; it desires to have you, but you must master it." This interpretation is supported by the next phrase -- "yet he will rule over you." The woman will experience frustration in her marriage, in which she will desire to dominate and control her husband, but in the end he will dominate and rule over her. Now, have we seen the word "rule" used with regard to the man and the woman prior to this? No. Man's rule over woman is a result of the fall, part of the frustration that woman experiences after that event. This is not a command to man -- "you shall rule." As we shall see later, this is not a prescription for a Biblical marriage.

Well, what about the results of the fall for man? His frustration, his toil, is with respect to the created order, the ground. Thus, if this functional/relational difference between man and woman is correct, God points out to each of them that their sin will hurt them in the very area they care about the most. This is the essence of sin; we hurt and destroy what we love and want most.

In conclusion for this section, let me emphasize that these functional/relational differences between men and women are differences on a continuum; relationships and function are both important to all of us. Each of us is at a different point on the continuum; the differences between men and women are true in general, not necessarily for every two individuals. I encourage you to reflect on your own experience, and see if this perspective makes sense in understanding yourself and members of the opposite sex. Most of all, I encourage you to search the Scriptures to see if these things are true, to dig more deeply into this and other passages in order to figure out what God tells us about differences between men and women.


The second question we want to deal with this morning is the following: What is the relationship between husband and wife in a marriage founded on Biblical principles?

Please turn with me now to the book of Ephesians, chapter 5, verse 18. We will mainly be looking at the section beginning in verse 21, but notice that Paul gives us the command to "Be filled with the Spirit" in verse 18. In the Greek, the next 3 verses are a continuation of this sentence as Paul tells us four ways we exhibit this filling of the Spirit: speaking to one another, singing & making music in our hearts, giving thanks in everything, and then, in verse 21, "submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ." Note that each of us is to submit to other believers; this is part of being filled with the Spirit, part of becoming Christlike. Submission is not a topic for wives only; it is an appropriate attitude for every Christian -- as it is so clearly exhibited in Christ himself.

Paul now explains how this idea of mutual submission works itself out in the home, first with regard to wives and husbands, then with regard to parents and children. As we read this section, note how, if you accept the functional / relational differences between men and women, Paul's command to the wife is to do what is hardest for her; Paul's command to the husband is to do what is hardest for him. Let's read beginning in verse 22:

Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her TO HIMSELF as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church -- for we are members of his body. "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a profound mystery -- but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. (Ephesians 5:22-33)

Paul commands the wife to submit to and respect her husband. He tells the husband to love his wife. Why doesn't he instruct the wife to love her husband? Because, for a woman, loving her husband is relatively easy. But as we saw in Genesis 3, "her desire shall be for her husband," she desires to dominate and control her husband. So submitting to and respecting the husband are frequently a woman's hardest tasks.

Well, what about this word, "submission?" What does it really mean? The Greek word is a military term, and a military analogy may help us to understand it better. Imagine a case in which a nation is fighting a war, and two army corps have been fighting in separate locations, under two generals of the same rank. The commander-in-chief instructs the two army corps to come together to do battle with the enemy at a particular location. In such a situation, the commander-in-chief must name one of the two as commanding general of the engagement. The other must submit to the leadership of the commanding general. Now, the commanding general, if he is wise, will seek the counsel of his subordinate. He will listen to his subordinate's advice, especially to that general's assessment of the qualities and capabilities of the units under his command. Ideally the two generals will agree on an overall plan for the engagement. But if they do not, in the end the commanding general must assume responsibility and decide on the course of action to be taken. The subordinate general must submit -- even if he is convinced that the chosen course of action is a mistake. Why should he submit? Not because the commanding general is smarter, wiser, or more senior than he, although he may be; not because the commanding general's plan is superior to his, although it may be; but he submits because the commander-in-chief, with the good of the country in mind, has placed him under the command of his fellow general. What happens if the subordinate general disobeys orders, and tries to carry out his own plan? The two corps will act in an uncoordinated fashion, and then the enemy is likely to defeat the two parts of the army one by one, leading to disaster for the country.

This is the true meaning of "submission." There is no implied difference in worth or ability -- just as the two generals may have been of the same rank and skill. Instead, submission implies that one person voluntarily agrees to follow the leadership of another for the good of everyone concerned. This point becomes obvious when we consider how the word is used elsewhere in the New Testament. Christians are told to submit to the government -- at a time when they were living under despotic rulers like Nero. Jesus submits to the Father; indeed, Jesus is said to have been in submission to his earthly parents. Clearly, Jesus was not inferior to his parents, nor is he inferior to the Father; Christians of that era were clearly more righteous than those governing them. Nevertheless, the Bible tells us that submission was the proper attitude in each case. Thus, submission for the wife means that she willingly acknowledges the headship of her husband over her, and has confidence in God that He has set this authority over her for her own good.

Turning now to husbands, tell me if this is what Paul says: "Rule over your wives with an iron fist; make her obey your every whim." Is this what Paul says? Not at all. Instead, Paul tells husbands to love their wives -- How? "As Christ loved the church!" How did Christ love the church? He gave himself up for her, he died for her, he poured himself out for her. And what was the result of this sacrifice on his part? He presented "TO HIMSELF a radiant church without stain or blemish." And this happens to us also. One of the central paradoxical truths of Christianity is that those who seek to please themselves in the end are the most miserable, and those who seek to serve others in the end are the most blessed. Husbands who serve their wives selflessly, who build up their wives spiritually, will usually end up with a beautiful, fulfilling marriage that will more than meet their every need.

Now, where did Paul put all the words about "headship" and "submission?" Did he tell husbands "make sure that your wives acknowledge your headship and submit to you?" Did he tell wives "nag your husband whenever he is not acting selflessly towards you?" Not at all. Each partner is to check him or her self. Further, as we pointed out when looking at Genesis, note that there is no mention of the husband "ruling" over the wife anywhere in this passage. In many ways these injunctions to the marriage partners are parallel. The emphasis is different because of the differences between men and women outlined above, but essentially the two partners are to have the same attitude towards each other. Neither partner is to try to ensure that his or her needs are met, or to stand up for his or her rights. Neither partner should be badmouthing or telling demeaning stories about the spouse when out with friends. Each should be looking out for the other's welfare, looking for ways to serve the spouse, building each other up, seeking advice from each other, not dominating or trying to dominate.

One more point that is frequently misunderstood: the passage does NOT say: Wives IF YOUR HUSBAND LOVES YOU AS CHRIST LOVED THE CHURCH, then submit to him. Nor does it say: Husbands, IF YOUR WIFE SUBMITS TO YOUR HEADSHIP, then love her. These actions on our part are to be unconditional. Other Scriptures make this point obvious. 1 Timothy discusses the case of a believing wife and an unbelieving husband, saying that her submission could lead to her husband becoming a believer. The first chapters of Hosea tell the opposite story, that of a faithful husband and a wife who has become a prostitute. God has Hosea actually go and buy back his wife at the slave market when she has sunk as low as she can go -- thus exhibiting the same type of love that God shows to us. So our love for our husbands or wives is to be unconditional.

Now, what does this mean for a dysfunctional marriage? Clearly it does not imply that a woman should continue to take physical abuse from her husband. Nor does it imply that a spouse must continue to live with a partner who is continually engaged in sexual relationships outside the marriage. As James Dobson says, "Love must be tough;" sometimes love requires that we take severe action. At times this may require physical separation until such time as a correct marriage relationship can be resumed. But the point of the passage is that all such decisions are made not because of the welfare of the individual alone, but considering the welfare of the marriage partner even more highly than one's own.


With that, let us now turn to our final question: (3) What is the relationship between parents and children in a family founded on Biblical principles?

Recall that we have already mentioned that children are an inheritance from the Lord, not burdens, ornaments, possessions, or experiences for the parents. What does Paul tell us in this passage? We'll continue reading in chapter 6 of Ephesians:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord for this is right. Honor your father and mother which is the first commandment with a promise -- that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth. Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:1-4)

As with the husband and wife, Paul instructs each of us to do that which is most difficult. These commands are not easy, they are not natural. Naturally, children will rebel and dishonor their parents. Naturally, fathers will become overbearing, expecting too much and frustrating their children. But God calls us to something different. Children are given two injunctions: to obey and to honor their parents. Obedience is doing what one is told, willing submission to the authority relationship imposed by God. Once again, this authority relationship does not imply a difference in worth or intelligence. (Thank God -- I wouldn't want to compete with my children in intelligence). But children are to obey their parents for the good of the family, to build their own character -- even when the parent is wrong, as he surely will be at times. Honoring parents is somewhat different. Honoring implies respect, building up one's parents, not putting them down to your peers, not taking family differences of opinion outside the home.

Parents are given three injunctions here: to instruct, to train or discipline, and not to exasperate. Instruction is the responsibility of the parents, something our society seems to have forgotten. We cannot depend on schools alone to educate our children academically; we cannot depend on Sunday School alone to instruct our kids in the Word of God. In Deuteronomy chapter 6, God says through Moses: "These commandments I give you this day are to be upon your hearts, and you shall teach them diligently to your children" at all times. Parents have the responsibility to instruct their children in God's word by example and direct teaching. Let us make sure we live up to that responsibility.

Secondly, parents are to train, or discipline their children. Once again, our attitude needs to be one of servant leadership. Discipline must be for the good of the child, not because our feelings were hurt or because we had a bad day at the office. We must discipline our children, even when it is a chore and inconvenient -- and, believe me, administering correct discipline can be a chore for the parent. The child must be assured of our love, and must realize that that very love will not let us tolerate defiant disobedience on the part of the child. This can be a first step towards the child gaining an understanding of the love, justice, and grace of God. Finally, our actions and attitudes must never exasperate our children, or anger them unnecessarily. We must not frustrate them or make them give up hope by expecting them not to behave like children, or expecting them to act beyond their years. Our instruction and discipline should be building them up, not tearing them down. One key to this is ensuring that we have our children's interest truly at heart, and not follow the world in doing what is right for ME.

Let us now draw some of these threads together in conclusion. The world tells us: "Look out for your self." The American family is in such a mess in large measure because of this attitude. How can we deal with this huge problem, "the American family?"

If these problems are to be solved, it will not be through government programs or institutional reform. The only solution to the problem is for American families to change, one by one, your family, my family; the solution is for each of us to know Christ, for Him to change our hearts, so that we may be able to follow the Biblical injunction to think of others more highly than ourselves, to place the needs of our family members above our own.

So as we close, please ask yourself these questions:

Do I know Christ? Have I acknowledged Him as Savior and Lord? Have I asked Him to give me the power to reflect his love to my family?

Jesus tells us, "Apart from me, you can do nothing" (John 15). We certainly cannot follow his command without his strength within us. If you do not know him, ask him into your heart now, today. Feel free to discuss this with me, or one of the elders.

If you do know Jesus as Lord, ask yourself:

Am I respecting and submitting to my husband?
Am I giving myself up for my wife?
Am I obeying and honoring my parents?
Do I consider others’ welfare above my own?
What can I do -- today -- to serve my family?
In what areas do I need my spouse's forgiveness? -- Seek it today.
In what areas do I need my child's or parent's forgiveness? Seek it today.

May God give us the grace and strength to serve him by serving our families.

The statistics concerning the American family are taken from the Whitehead article referred to in the text. To Steve and Erica Lawry of Parakaleo Christian Ministries, Stanford CA I owe the terms "relational" and "functional" with reference to the differences between men and women. To them I also owe "Wow!" in Genesis 2:24! Scripture quotations are taken for the most part from the New International Version; I have placed asterisks in the few places where I have changed the translation based on word studies.

Copyright © 1995, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

This data file may not be copied in part, edited, revised, copied for resale or incorporated in any commercial publications, recordings, broadcasts, performances, displays or other products offered for sale, without the written permission of Thomas C. Pinckney, tpinckney@williams.edu, c/o Community Bible Church, Harrison Ave, Williamstown, MA 01267.

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