One phrase stood out in the comments on the sad headlines about the plight and death of little Alfie Evans last week. This heart-wrenching case moved many across a large number of countries. Ross Douthat wrote of a wider “tendency to arrogate power away from the family” to “the system” in “the coming world of post-familialism”. It is “not just an issue for extreme medical cases, it applies to many other situations in our post-modern culture as well”. Government begins to assume the roles, responsibilities and rights of parents. But they are moving into a space that modern society is vacating. Post-familialism means moving beyond the family as the most basic unit of civilisation. It is replaced by individualism and personal fulfilment. Even where families exist modern life seems to have eroded relationships. The Bible focuses on family a great deal, we need to follow its cue.
Few wrote more extensively about how to shape family life according to Scripture than William Gouge (1575–1653). He takes his foundation principles from Ephesians 5:21 “Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God”. This means having the same affection towards one another, “serving one another in love, according to the Apostle’s rule. Let this duty of submission be first well learned, and then all other duties will be better performed”.
Gouge stressed that the family is the foundation of the Church and nation. It is like a beehive “out of which are sent many swarms of bees”. God first placed us into a family (and it is important to note that married people are a family) and provided for the future of mankind in that way. Gouge notes that “husband and wife, parent and child were before” rulers and subjects, ministers and congregations. When God destroyed the world with a flood he preserved humanity by means of a family. “A family is a little Church and a little commonwealth”. It is the training ground for authority, order and obedience in society.
Gouge was a member of the Westminster Assembly. This body of pastors and statesmen also focussed on the family in the documents they carefully crafted for the Church. They showed of course how the Church is a family and how adoption brings us into God’s family. Various members preached and wrote about the reformation needed in the family so that it would be glorifying to God.
One of the contemporaries of the Westminster Assembly who ministered in London was the presbyterian Robert Abbott (1588?–1662?). He published a book in a similar vein to Gouge called A Christian family builded by God. He uses the verse Psalm 127:1 to show how families must be built by God or they will not be happy and blessed. In a practical way he goes on to consider this in different aspects of family life. Building a Christian home is not simply about going to Church and having some Christian interests and activities that influence the family in a vague way. He also shows how members of the extended family have a role in the family. How does God build Christian families?
1. The Importance of God Building the Family
The first government there ever was in this world was in a family. The first disorder there ever was in the world was also in a Family. All the disorders that have every happened since have sprung from families. If families had been better, Churches and communities would have prospered all the way along. It would be and would have been a thousand times better with them if:
- young and old had been right set before they entered into a family;
- the family was founded in marriage in the Lord;
- relations between wife and husband, children and parents were conducted in a holy way according to the rule of Christ;
- the house been furnished with a wise, holy, and careful father and mother of the family;
- the house had furnished with just getting and giving.
2. The Materials With Which God Builds a Family
If we want to have blessed families we must get them built by God. Husband, wife and children must not be like rotten posts or like straw, hay and stubble on a good foundation. They must be built by God. The whole house must be finished and furnished by God. Abraham was built by God and see how he teaches his family (Genesis 18:19). Joshua was built by God and see what he says (Joshua 24:15). Naomi was built by God and notice what is said about her (Ruth 1:16 and 3:1).
If a whole family is built in this way, what a joint serving of God there is. Husbands, and wives are faithful; children are obedient; goods are blessed. Most complain (and they have just cause) that husbands are drunkards and tyrants, wives are stubborn and children are disorderly. More complain that there is little love, much contention, many fights, floods of drunkenness and volleys of oaths. The reason of it all is because they are not built by God.
3. How Does God Build Families?
God’s building is a family well ordered by the Word of God. It is an orderly head and orderly members in fitting mutual relations with each other. An orderly head is one who can with good conscience say, “I will walk within my house with a perfect heart” (Psalm 101:2). Orderly members are those that depend on the head and can say with a good conscience what Ruth said to Naomi in Ruth 1:16.
The Word of God is the rule by which this house is built. A house must be built “through wisdom” (Proverbs 24:3-4). Not the wisdom of the world, for that is foolishness: but that of the Word. We may use common sense and natural wisdom to establish good order in the family. We read of this in Scripture (Proverbs 31:15-16). But beware of natural wisdom that conflicts with God’s Word. Observe four rules in this: (a) It must not prejudice the honour of God; (b). It must not prejudice the truth of a good conscience; (c) It must not prejudice the justice which is due to man; and (d) It must not stretch further than our callings. First consider whether the thing to be done is lawful or unlawful; second whether it is within your calling.
We should be concerned about the way that the state encroaches on the rights of parents and undermines the family. We need more than this however. We need families built with the right foundation of Christ and His Word (Matthew 7:24-27). Without the right foundation we can have successful careers, bank balances and to do lists but not blessed families. We will build but we will “labour in vain” (Psalm 127:1). If families lack such a foundation it will affect the Church and Nation who are in turn built on families. Let’s start with ourselves.
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