ArticlesFamily by Design: Sacred Institution or Social Construct?

Family by Design: Sacred Institution or Social Construct?

By Sam Brown, Worship Leader at First Baptist Church of Brownwood

This is part 1 of 2 in a series on the family written over different perspectives of the family and the implications that come with each perspective.


GK Chesterton once called the institution of the family “the one anarchist institution” insofar as “it is older than law, and stands outside the State.”[1] In one sentence he reminds us of what many people, even Christians, have forgotten about the family. According to the Bible, God founded the family when He first created mankind.[2] It is therefore older than human law. And when He established the family, He did so for all people.[3] It is therefore outside the jurisdiction of the state. Bearing this in mind, there are two definitions of institution we might use. The first is a “society or organization founded esp. for a particular purpose.”  The second is an “established law, practice, or custom.”[4] A Biblical understanding of the family would hold that it is primarily the former, and consequently the latter. The family was ordained by God with a purpose in mind, and established as a law to which Christians adhere. What Christians have taught about the family has changed over time because their foundational understanding of the family has changed. Where Christian teachers have fallen short, secular teachers have taken up the slack and have further distorted what we understand the family to be. Subsequently, work needs to be done to regain a thoroughly Christian vision for the family.

Family by Design

It takes two people to found a family: a husband, and a wife. In Genesis God made the first woman from the rib of the first man.[5] Aquinas held that there was a sacramental reason for this: “For by this is signified that the Church takes her origin from Christ. Therefore the Apostle says (Eph. 5.32): This is the great sacrament; but I speak in Christ and in the Church.”[6] He posits that the creation of the first husband and wife are shadows of Christ and His bride, the church. This is reinforced in the New Testament.[7] He also points out the significance of the woman being formed from the rib while the man was asleep, “for from the side of Christ sleeping on the Cross the Sacraments flowed – namely, blood and water – on which the Church was established.”[8] In this, we have our first hints of the New Covenant and a conceptual foundation through which to understand the marriage covenant. This is not to be understated. Indeed, Pastor John Piper affirms that “the highest and most ultimate purpose of marriage is to put the covenant relationship of Christ and His church on display.”[9] 

Headship and Submission

The covenant relationship is expressed through the headship of the husband, the submission of the wife, and the permanence and intimacy of their union. Aquinas made the case for the husband’s headship from Genesis 2, writing “Just as God is the principle of the whole universe, so the first man, in likeness to God, was the principle of the whole human race.”[10] He also cites Paul as confirmation: “From one man He has made every nation of men…”[11] It is further confirmed elsewhere in the New Testament[12], and mirrors the relationship of Christ and the church.[13] Aquinas also (to the surprise of many modern readers) argues that these roles are not indicative of superiority or inferiority, but are solely a matter of authority. He writes that it is indicative of “the social union of man and woman, for the woman should neither use authority over man, and so she was not made from his head; nor was it right for her to be subject to man’s contempt as his slave, and so she was not made from his feet.”[14] 

Faithfulness and Intimacy

Faithfulness and intimacy are integral to the way the covenant roles of headship and submission are carried out. Marriage is permanent because it is an act of God, and it is intimate because it is the joining of two people into one.[15] Faithfulness in marriage is meant to imitate the never ending faithfulness of God to His people and of Christ to His church. The separation of divorce is detestable in God’s eyes because it lies about His character. As Piper puts it, “It involves misrepresenting Christ and his covenant.”[16] The perfect unity of Christ and the church is realized under the loving headship of Christ and is to be imitated by the husband and wife.[17] Thus, the corresponding roles of the husband and wife are acted out within a covenantal relationship of loving intimacy and unyielding faithfulness. This relationship is the soil from which a covenantal family is grown.


The ultimate purpose of marriage is to display the covenantal relationship between Christ and the church. The penultimate purpose of marriage is God-glorifying dominion through the raising of families. Upon creating the man and woman, God commissions them to “be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it.”[18] Aquinas made a distinction between the tasks of filling and subduing and reasoned that “it was necessary for woman to be made… not, indeed, as a helpmate in other works… but as a help in the work of generation.”[19] A man could not subdue the earth alone, and so procreation is necessary to see this command through. Aquinas also points out that every person is an eternal, living soul and that “it is fitting that the multiplication of individuals should be the direct purpose… of the Author of nature, Who alone is the Creator of the human soul.”[20] An argument could be made, therefore, that the wife’s role as a helper in creating new human beings is a more direct role in fulfilling God’s plan to fill the earth with worshipers. If this is the case, her calling as the bearer of new human souls may be higher than the man’s; it certainly is not lower.

The Family and the Church

It is common for Biblical scholars to approach family directives in the Bible as cultural and historical byproducts, and therefore irrelevant today, except as contextual frameworks of interpretation. If this were the case, we would expect a high degree of discontinuity between Paul’s instructions for Christian families and God’s instructions for Israelite families, given the disparity of their own cultural contexts. What we find instead are very similar patterns, for very similar purposes. According to David Freedman, “The emphasis on sharing, meeting needs, equality, and generosity strongly recalls the economic ethic of the OT and has roots in its household ethos” and that “the household, for the Israelite, was the place of inclusion, authority, and spiritual continuity … The same three features are noticeable in the household-church pattern of NT Christianity.”[21] Family imagery is used so often in the New Testament that Robert Banks claims “the comparison of the Christian community with a ‘family’ must be regarded as the most significant metaphorical usage of all.”[22] These scholars emphasize New Testament family directives as a metaphorical model for the church. However, neither the church nor the family should be regarded solely as metaphorical blueprints; when put into practice, they each give life to the other. David Verner confirms this, saying, “Household and church are not conceived… as separate settings, but are seen together as the unified sphere of the Christian community.”[23] The assumption that the family has a natural design and purpose given by its creator is therefore more consistent with a holistic reading of the Bible, and it matters because it serves as a model and primer for worship and community.



[1] Gilbert K. Chesterton, The G.K. Chesterton Collection: 50 Books (London: Catholic Way Publishing, 2014), p. 313, Kindle.

[2] Gen. 1:27-28; Mark 10:6-9

[3] Gen. 1:27-28, Gen. 2:20-24; Gen. 3:20

[4]  Elizabeth J Jewell, ed., The Oxford American Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus (New York, NY: Berkley Books, 2001), 430.

[5] Gen. 2:21-22

[6] Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica of Saint Thomas Aquinas, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins, vol. 1 (Chicago, IL: Enc. Brit, 1952), 490.

[7] Eph. 5:25-27; 2 Cor. 11:2, Rev. 19:7-9

[8]  Aquinas, Summa Theologica, vol. 1, 490.

[9] John Piper, This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 25.

[10] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, vol. 1, 490.

[11] Acts 17:26, Holman Christian Standard Bible

[12] 1 Cor. 11:7-9

[13] Ephesian 5:22-25

[14] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, vol. 1, 490. Note: Modern readers may have a hard time imagining authority without superiority, but Aquinas helps by describing the relationship of the persons of the trinity. In volume 2 of Summa Theologica, he writes “we attribute to the Father something of authority by reason of His being the principle, still we do not attribute any kind of subjection or inferiority to the Son, or to the Holy Ghost.” (p. 181) This is not the same kind of relationship as that between husband and wife, but it does give us an example of authority without inherent superiority.

[15] Mark 10:6-9

[16] Piper, This Momentary Marriage, 25

[17] Eph. 5:29-33

[18] Gen. 1:28

[19]  Aquinas, Summa Theologica, vol. 1, 489.

[20] Ibid., 517. Note: Aquinas is answering whether humans would have children in the state of innocence. He argues that since the commission comes before the fall, and since a single man and woman could not have filled and subdued the earth alone, God’s intention for procreation is the increase of souls, and procreation would have existed even in “the state of innocence”.

[21] David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992), 768.

[22] Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Historical Setting (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1980), 53.

[23] David C. Verner, The Household of God: The Social World of the Pastoral Epistles (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1983), 23





*The views expressed are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pastor’s Common

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