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


Family as a Social Construct
If the family institution is an entirely cultural artifact, then it is a social construct, and can therefore be deconstructed and redefined. If culture is, as D. Stephen Long defines it, “Our cultivation of language, action, habits, gestures, thoughts, etc. for specific purposes”[1] and if “Many, if not most, philosophers now think of these [natural] laws as ‘projections by humans upon nature in general.’” so that “We give nature its order,”[2] then the Christian family has no real foundation. The “natural laws” that govern the family are human projections and are cultivated by humans for their own purposes.

Patriarchal Oppression
On this premise, arguments have been made that the “traditional” family structure (and by this they mean the Christian family structure) as we know it is a form of systematic oppression, existing to keep the head of the family (the father) in power. Chris Wiley summarizes this problematic perspective well when he writes “Without cosmic points of reference by which a father and a husband can be said to represent a higher authority, paternal authority, otherwise known as patriarchy, is perceived to be the imposition of a father’s arbitrary and selfish will.”[3] Wilhelm Reich takes it a step further, arguing that a patriarchy is a microcosm of authoritarian politics, claiming “the father’s economic position as well as his position in the state are reflected in his patriarchal relationship with the other members of the family. The authoritarian state has a representative in every family, the father; in this way, he becomes the state’s most valuable tool.”[4] This gave Reich a moral ground on which to defend the sexual revolution, which according to Carl Trueman “has one great goal, the destruction of the family… for the family is the primary means by which values are transmitted from generation to generation.”[5] The argument follows that if the Christian family structure serves as a cultural incubator for systematic oppression through a patriarchal hierarchy, then not only can it be demolished, it should be demolished. Hints of the patriarchal oppression theory can be found in the work of some Christian thinkers, such as Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr, who considered the family an evolutionary development[6] and said that the family is “the source of that ‘alter egoism’ which is a more potent source of injustice than the egotism of the individual,”[7] wrote that “the tyranny of the husband and father in the family has yielded only very slowly to the principle of mutuality. And it is significant that women have never been able to overcome… male autocracy in modern social life without using other than purely rational weapons against it.”[8] However, the idea of the tyrant father-husband is not a Biblical one. God the Father loves His Son.[9] Christ the husband lays down His life for His bride, the church.[10] Christian families are founded on the giving of the self, and the father sets the example.[11] This principle of selflessness was also enacted in Israel through family-based institutions like the kinsman redeemer and Jubilee.

Lifestyle Family
Some secular thinkers have insisted that having a family is still important. Auguste Comte believed that “the love of his family leads Man out of his original state of Self-love and enables him to attain finally a sufficient measure of Social love.”[12] He held the family could be an intermediary between self-love and social love; a universal love for fellow people. The question then remains, what kind of family? The answer would seem to be, whatever kind we want. If there is no intended design for the family, and if the family is simply an intermediary for social love, then family is a lifestyle choice, “a means of self-expression.”[13] The lifestyle family does not have to adhere to any standard, it just has to adhere to the desires of the individuals within the family, whether those desires are in agreement with God’s desires or not. Nevertheless, the lifestyle family model is becoming more accepted in Christian circles. Rodney Hunter, writing in the Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling, regards marriage and family as vocations, which he defines as “a socially structured personal choice.”[14] He also lists homosexual couples alongside other couples who do not engage in procreative sex, saying that they “require an understanding of family life capable of including but not ordered around the traditional physical and social foundations.”[15] David French, a political commentator who identifies as a conservative Christian, also writes “LGBTQ Americans now enjoy more rights to form their own family… than at any other time in American history…”[16] His statement assumes that individuals have the authority to form a family in whatever configuration they deem fit.

Egalitarianism as a choice
The egalitarian approach to the family, while it may be more Biblically defensible on the grounds that marriage occurs between a man and a woman, still appeals to the lifestyle family ideal by redefining the roles of husband and wife. Markus Barth writes in his commentary on Ephesians that, “the Pauline definition of Christ’s love and its application to marital love cannot be used for legislation or casuistry of any kind. It is not a timeless principle or absolute truth, but a counsel given at a special time under special circumstances…”[17] Once again, we see the evident assumption that family roles are not by design but are cultural in origin. Barth’s statement leaves us with two important questions: first, if it is not to be taken even as a timeless principle, how should it be taken? Of what use is it to us?[18] Second, if we cannot use Christ and the church as a model for the relationship between husband and wife, what shall we use? Again the answer seems to be whatever we want. For example, Ralph Turnbull suggests that family leadership can be determined by personality, positing that “the dominant one, whether man or woman, may or may not be the defined leader of the home. It makes little difference so long as both partners can agree and collaborate in leadership responsibilities.” [19]

Egalitarianism as a Doctrine
Some attempts have been made to argue for egalitarianism as another possible interpretation of scripture. Addressing the debate between egalitarians and complementarians, Sarah Sumner writes “The heart of this debate pertains overall to the fundamental mystery of what it means to be a man or a woman. We know that women have babies and men do not. But other than that, the differences between men and women are not entirely clear.”[20] She seems to either believe the Bible does not clearly distinguish differences between men and women, or it is irrelevant in light of the corporeal similarities between men and women. She continues in this line of thought, stating that “egalitarians, being Thomists, assume it is obvious that God’s plan for women accords with nature and reason. Complementarians, being Scotists, don’t see that as necessary. By contrast, they assume that it is obvious that God’s plan for women doesn’t have to be connected to anything else in God’s design.”[21] This reasoning seems somewhat backward. Her argument only makes sense if nature and reason preclude God’s stated intention. However, if God (using the language of Aquinas) is the principle from which nature and reason take their existence, then God’s purpose comes first, and nature and reason align to His will. Finally, in summary, Sumner writes “Complementarians want Christians to believe that women’s worth is equal to men’s, egalitarians want Christians to believe that women’s rights are equal to men’s.”[22] The question is not one of “worth” or “rights”, but of God-given authority. Nadab and Abihu were ordained priests, chosen by God.[23] They had the right to practice their priesthood as God had ordained. They did not have the authority to practice their priesthood outside of God’s design.

What we assume about the family will influence the way we read and interpret scripture. The Bible is saturated with family language, from the story of creation in Genesis to the last chapter of Revelation. God is the Father and the husband of Israel. Jesus is the Son of the Father and the husband of the church. The church is the bride of Christ. Christians are sons and daughters of God the Father. Family imagery is used in trinitarian doctrine,[24] in eschatology, and in ecclesiology. Family and church life in the New Testament are so intertwined that Verner says “to treat the household as a separate topic is to depart from the way in which he conceptualizes the Christian community.” [25]

Thus, our assumptions about the family affect more than our marriages and our children; they affect our churches, our worship, and our doctrine. What happens in the family does not stay in the family. Yet it would seem that many Christians are coming to conclusions built on foundations that adhere more closely to secular assumptions than Biblical doctrine. Jesus said “everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them will be like a sensible man who built his house on the rock. The rain fell, the rivers rose, and the winds blew and pounded that house. Yet it didn’t collapse, because its foundation was on the rock.” In a culture where divorce is all too common,[26] more churches are dying than are being planted,[27] and the doctrinal integrity of Christian institutions are quickly disintegrating,[28] we need to question and examine the foundation on which we are building.


[1] D. Stephen Long, Theology and Culture: A Guide to the Discussion (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2008), 3.

[2] Ibid., 18.

[3] Chris Wiley, The Household and the War for the Cosmos: Recovering a Christian Vision for the Family (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2019), 75.

[4] Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism: Translated from the German Manuscript (New York, NY: Orgone Inst. Press, 1946), 34. Note: Reich’s belief that the family is a microcosm of the state runs parallel to the Christian belief that the family is a microcosm of the church. In a way, he has the right idea about family function, but the wrong starting point.

[5] Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 262-263.

[6] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (New York City, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952), 2.

[7] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation, vol. 1 (NEW YORK, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949), 109.

[8] Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, 46.

[9] John 5:20, 15:9; Luke 3:22

[10] John 3:16, 10:11; Romans 5:8

[11] Eph. 5:25; 1 Tim. 5:8

[12] Auguste Comte, A General View of Positivism. Translated … by J.H. Bridges., trans. John Henry Bridges (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1908), 104.

[13] Rodney J. Hunter, Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000), 406.

[14] Ibid., 407.

[15] Ibid., 407.

[16] David French, “Pluralism Has Life Left in It Yet,” The Atlantic (Atlantic Media Company, November 18, 2022), last modified November 18, 2022.

[17] Markus Barth, Ephesians: Translation and Commentary on Chapter 4-6 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974), 704.

[18] 2 Tim. 3:16

[19] Ralph G. Turnbull, Baker’s Handbook of Practical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1967), 220.

[20] Sarah Sumner, Men and Women in the Church Building Consensus on Christian Leadership (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 265.

[21] Ibid., 275. Note: According to Sumner, “Thomists insist that God’s commands and God’s creation correlate directly with one another”, while “Scotists believe that God’s commands need to correlate with nothing but God’s will.” (p. 275)

[22] Ibid., 40.

[23] Lev. 10:1-2

[24] “Westminster Confession of Faith,”, last modified September 16, 2020.

[25] Verner, The Household of God, 128.

[26] Glenn Stanton, “Factchecker: Divorce Rate among Christians,” The Gospel Coalition, last modified September 25, 2012

[27]  Yonat Shimron, “Study: More Churches Closing than Opening,” Religion News Service, last modified May 27, 2021.

[28] Kumar, Anugrah. “’Heresy’: Worshipers Leave Cambridge Sermon in Tears over Claim Jesus Has Trans Body, Crucifixion Wound Is Vagina.” The Christian Post. Last modified November 27, 2022.



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

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