Text: Genesis 2:18-25
The previous two weeks have covered what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. Today we cover what it means to be a family. I actually had to wrestle a bit with whether to ask “What is marriage for?” since you might think I’ve skipped over that question. But as I thought about the main points of both previous sermons, it became clear that asking “What is man for?” and “What is woman for?” already took up the question of “What is marriage for?” at least in part. In both of those sermons we showed that the Scriptures identify man as “husband” and woman as “wife.” The new element we will add today is precisely the relationship between husband and wife which produces children and creates a miniature society. In other words, we will be discussing what it means to be a family. And so we ask our third big question in this series, “What is the family for?”
What is the Family?
Before we can get to the question of what the family is for, we have to first identify what the family is. This is, once again, controversial. Today’s progressive ideology claims for itself the freedom to define and redefine the family. Primarily, it identifies the family as a wholly voluntary and often temporary arrangement entered into primarily for the purpose of maximizing individual happiness. Ideally this happiness will be experienced along with the happiness of spouse and children, but in the event that any individual’s happiness ceases to exist, the family can be reasonably dissolved. With the adoption of no-fault divorce, a law first pioneered in California and signed by Ronald Reagan in 1970, this conception of the family began to take over in America, and by 1985 (again under Reagan) it was the normative law of the land. We ought to not forget this point. 20 years before “Gay marriage” redefined marriage, no-fault divorce totally revolutionized our legal and societal understanding of the family. The negative effects have been widely-felt ever since.
The Biblical picture is that marriage is a permanent physical and spiritual union of man and woman which ordinarily produces children. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus actually interprets this as “the two shall become one flesh” (Matt. 19:5), and Paul says that this one-flesh union is so close that the woman is to be treated as the man’s own body, even by the man himself (Eph. 5:29). “He who loves his wife loves himself” (Eph. 5:28). This one-flesh union involves sexual union, by definition, and, except in the case of barrenness (which is portrayed as a great affliction), it results in the birth of children.
This estate of marriage was instituted directly by God and before the fall. Neither Church nor State creates or defines marriage, though both ought to publicly recognize and honor it. This creational estate is later taken up by Christ as a picture of redemption, with the union of Christ and His Church being described as like that of husband and wife.
After the fall, disruptions and challenges do appear in the family because of sin. As God says in Eve’s curse, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” (Gen. 3:16). This does not mean that the rule of the husband is itself a curse, but as can be seen from the fact that same expression appears in God’s warning to Cain about “sin crouching at the door,” the “desire” is a sinful desire to take control and the “ruling over” in response is reactive that, often a sort of domination and even abuse. Divorce is permitted under strict conditions, though it is always the result of someone’s sin and not an ordinary feature. The two conditions are sexual immorality and desertion (Matt. 19:8, 1 Cor. 7:15). Later Christian commentators and legal theorists have also argued that certain forms of abuse constitute “forced desertion.” In the event that a spouse must flee the marriage in order to protect themselves from serious credible threat, then the guilt lies with the abuser for forcing such desertion.
And so again, we can define the family as a permanent physical and spiritual union between man and woman, publicly solemnized, recognized, and defended, which ordinarily results in the birth of children. This family is not a collection of individuals but is itself a united whole, and it endures until the children leave and then until the death of one spouse.
What is the Family For?
“What is the family for?” Here again we consider marriage and family together, and I think the best summary can be found in the marriage rite of the Book of Common Prayer. This rite was originally limited to the Church of England, but it has become the standard English literary statement on the matter. You will all recognize these words:
First, marriage was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name. Secondly, it was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body. Thirdly, it was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity. Into which holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined.
We have then three basic purposes given for marriage: procreation, a remedy against sin, and mutual society. I would like to change the order a bit and start with the third purpose. I do this because it actually seems to be the first to appear in the Genesis narrative and also because a true marriage can exist without children. And so let us begin with the question of “mutual society, help, and comfort.”
God said at the beginning, “It is not good that man should be alone.” He adds to this, “I will make him a helper comparable to him.” The “help” in view here is not limited to the conception of children, though that is certainly part of it. It also includes companionship and shared life. As Psalm 68: 6 says, “God sets the solitary in families.” Mankind is meant to live in community, and this community involves the various members bringing things to the group which the others lack. In marriage, it is very clear that the man and woman have physical attributes that the other does not have, and their union is a complementary one. But they also bring talents and diversity of personality. This society does result in the having of children, and those children add not just new biological existence, but also new character, joy, greater community, and even friendship.
This point about children being a sort of society is actually alluded to in the marriage rite’s “first” reason. It says, “marriage was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.” This immediately brings to mind the dominion mandate, “be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). Having children is a form of making new persons. And the wife certainly “helps” the husband in this task. No children could be born without the involvement of both man and woman. This procreation is not limited to the making of children. It also includes their nurture. Parents are supposed to bring up the child in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and this will result in the praise of His holy name.
The role of procreation in the family really cannot be overemphasized. The family is the only institution which is naturally creative, and in this sense it was the first and original society. The civil government orders and protects people. The church converts people, gives them new life, and disciples them. But only the family makes people. Both Church and State are therefore dependent on the family for their basic membership. This means that both Church and State, if they are interested in their own welfare, will be interested in the welfare of their families. They will want to help assist the families and provide the conditions for the families to grow and flourish. The flip-side of this is also true, however. Families ought to be cultivating good citizens and good church-members. As some of the pastors from our denomination have put it, in a day of countless “family-friendly churches,” we need to begin crafting church-friendly families.
Having said this, however, it is still the case that the church, in its earthly form, is made up of families. The Apostle Paul says that just one believing spouse sanctifies the entire family, “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy” (1 Cor. 7:14). He also adds in Ephesians, “fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Those two expressions are both qualified by their relationship to “the Lord.” We are to train our children in the Lord, and we are to admonish them in the Lord.
And then lastly, marriage “was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication.” This sometimes strikes people as a rather blunt way to put it, but, of course, the Bible is often blunt:
Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control…if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:2-5, 9)
The simple point here is that any sexual activity outside of marriage is sin, what the Bible calls fornication. If one desires romantic union, then they should get married. Marriage is the only appropriate outlet for it. And this also means, as the Apostle says, that once married each spouse’s body belongs to the other, and thus the union is properly owed, each to the other. Willfully withholding one’s body from one’s spouse is itself sin.
Now having answered the question “What is the family for?” we are lead to some concluding observations and applications. As we all know, what the family ought to be is not always how it is experienced, especially when sin shows up. Marriage can be hard. Parenting can be hard. Being a kid can be hard. When these hard times come, we need to remind ourselves what the family is and what it is for. It is a good thing, given to us by God, to help us truly be ourselves.
A very simple rule follows from all of this as well. Prioritize your family. The family cannot be your top spiritual priority, since Jesus says we must be willing to hate mother, father, child, and spouse if that’s what it takes to follow him (Matt. 10:37, Lk. 14:26). Nevertheless, because of its nature and the greatness of its potential, the family should be your top “worldly” priority. It has been given to you. It has been given to you for your place and as your obligation. Care for it. Love it.
A good job is not worth a broken family. Lots of money and lots of possessions do not make up for a lost family. The family doesn’t even necessarily benefit from those things. Obviously you have to provide, and certain niceties do make things more pleasant, but money and possessions are always supplements. They are never the thing itself.
Once you do have your spiritual relationship to God in order, the family does become a sort of spiritual priority as well. This is because God gives commands about it and how to care for it. In fact, one of those commands is to take care of the family’s spiritual well-being. And so you ought to make your family’s spiritual well-being a priority. Remember the famous teaching of Deuteronomy 6:6-9:
And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
These verses clearly lay down a duty for parents to teach their children the things of God, and they say that we ought to do it continually, as we sit in and as we walk out, as we lie down and rise up. I do think these verses inform us about the importance of creating a specific curriculum and educational system, but more basically they simply tell us to spend time with our kids, talking to them about God. On this point, we should say that quantity time is immensely more important that quality time. Just be around your family. Share your life with them. Share your faith with them. Indeed, find your help and your completion in them.
And then lastly, remember that marriage and family is a means that God gives us to deal with sin. Husbands, delight in your spouse, romantically, but also as a companion, counselor, associate, and friend. The feelings which often inspire this kind of delight will come and go. We would be foolish to expect our relationships to remain as they are at the beginning. But, in fact, they ought to grow, mature and get better. This means we will need to work on our marriages and families. Passions, emotions, and desires can be cultivated. You can train your affections, and as a responsible Christian you must. Be in control of them and do not be controlled by them. God has given you your instructions.
Husbands, you have the primary role of initiative-taking here. A classic complaint on the part of wives is the infamous line, “But I shouldn’t have to tell you!” This can be frustrating for the husband, who in turn says, “Just let me know what I need to be doing.” But in a sense, the complaint is valid and just. The husband ought to be casting the vision, initiating the communication, keeping close conversation and relationships with his wife and children, and being generally tuned in to everything. The aloof and reactive husband is failing to lead and “bring up” his family. But wives and children also have their moral challenge, and that is to be satisfied with the husband and father and to find contentment in their roles in the family. Everyone has to exert moral effort to make the family work.
Marriage is a mirror. As Tim Keller memorably puts it, “Marriage does not so much bring you into confrontation with your spouse as confront you with yourself” (The Meaning of Marriage, 140). And the family is a school. The Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck writes, “The family is a school for the children, but in the first place it is a school for the parents” (The Christian Family, 93). And so be taught by it. Learn who you are, and impart who you are to the other members of your family. In doing all of this, you will see your own sins and need for grace, as well as the callings God places before you. Thus, the family also teaches you about God and about Jesus Christ. Embrace it. Learn it. Love it. Find yourself in your families, and as you do this in humble obedience to God and faith in His word, then you will find yourself in Him and your families will find their salvation, all to the glory of Jesus Christ and the praise of God’s name.
Let us pray.