We are at an interesting and perhaps unprecedented time in history when our understanding of family is being confronted and our definition of family is being rewritten. The social norms of Western society and the laws of Canada are changing fast. Things that only a generation ago were considered inadvisable, immoral, or just plain evil are now considered good, normal, and worthy of celebration. Things that not long ago were considered the mark of a crumbling society are now considered marks of an advanced society.
So what is a family, anyway? Where did it come from? Who has the right to define it?
Ask the culture around us about the origins of family and you’ll probably hear that over billions of years humanity evolved from lesser organisms and along the way we created family as a means of protection and social organization. Family arose from within the human mind as we evolved and as we adapted to life in a hostile world.
Ask Christians and I hope you’ll hear something different—that God created human beings in an instantaneous act and that from the beginning he bound people together into those groups we call family. Family arose from within the mind of God as he created us in a perfect world.
It’s almost impossible to over-emphasize the difference this makes. Why? Because if we created it, we define it and we are accountable only to ourselves. But if God created it, he defines it and we are accountable to him.
God Created Family
So let’s briefly trace the origins of family as God describes it in the book of Genesis. Whatever else God wants us to understand from his creation account, he wants us to know this: this is his world and everything in it has been created by his hand. And this gives him the right of ownership over it.
As we come to the sixth and final day of creation, we see God creating humanity, his crowning achievement. While God made everything, he made humanity a special thing. Humans are different from everything else because we and we alone are made “in his image” and “after his likeness.” There are ways in which we resemble God, in which we bear the attributes of God. God has left his fingerprints on us in a unique way.
Humanity was made in the image of God, and humanity takes two forms. Verse 27 says, “In the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.” There is one humanity, but it’s made up of two sexes who equally share the image of God.
In chapter two we get a fuller account of how God created humanity. In verse 7 God creates the first man, whom we know as Adam, then in verse 18, he creates the first woman, whom we know as Eve. God took a piece of Adam’s body and used that as the raw material to make this companion for him. Verse 21 continues the account: “So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’”
Now Adam had his companion. She is described as his “helper.” That doesn’t mean that she was mere hired help to do his bidding. She was essentially a “corresponding counterpart” to Adam. She complemented him—she was different from him in such a way that she completed what was lacking in him to carry out God’s will for humanity. The mission God assigned to human beings could not be accomplished by male alone. Just as God’s image was only fully displayed in male and female, God’s will could only be fully completed by male and female.
Moses, who wrote Genesis, left us a little editorial note here to explain what happened when the two came together, and this is where we are introduced to family. Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Looking back at this first wedding ceremony, Moses tells us that something has happened here—something that still happens at every wedding. When a man and woman are married, they leave their birth families in some ways and form a new family. (See Leave and Cleave Like a Strawberry.)
What do we learn from all this? We see that God created people and God created family. This is crucial: he didn’t just create humans and set us free on earth as unattached, independent beings, but he also created a foundational human relationship that bound us together. The basic relationship or social structure for humanity is family. We need to point out that it’s not government. Family is pre-political—God does not give government the authority to define family in any way except according to the Bible.
What is a family, then? I think this is a solid definition drawn from the Bible (and adapted from Andreas Kostenberger): A family is one man and one woman united in marriage plus, primarily their children by birth or adoption; and secondarily, other persons related by blood. A family on its most basic level is a man and woman united in a marriage covenant. That forms a family.
We expect that in most cases a married couple will add children to the family. Children don’t make a family—they join an existing family. We call this the immediate family, and it’s the primary sense of family—mom, dad, kids. But even while the couple forms a new family, they do not completely detach from their siblings and parents and grandparents, so that bond of extended family remains as the secondary sense of the word. Again: A family is one man and one woman united in marriage plus, primarily their children by birth or adoption; and secondarily, other persons related by blood.
I will continue adding some further thoughts on family in the days ahead.