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Connecting Church and Family, Part 2

  • Andreas Köstenberger with David W. Jones Authors
  • 2010 1 Jul
Connecting Church and Family, Part 2

[Editor's Note: The following excerpt is part two in a series taken from chapter 13 of the recently released god, marriage, and family: rebuilding the biblical foundation, second edition by Andreas Köstenberger with David W. Jones, © 2010 Crossway Books]


Read part 1 here, part 3 here.



In light of the survey of the biblical teaching on marriage and family in this book and of the brief survey of the nature of the church above, we return to the all-important question: What are the respective roles of the church and of the family, and how do the two relate to each other? We turn first to the church. The church is said in the New Testament to have a variety of roles.10 First, it is called "a pillar and buttress of the truth" (1 Timothy 1:15). In a godless culture, it stands as a witness to God's revelation of truth and to God's redemption in Christ. Unlike the church, which is composed only of the regenerate, marriage, while divinely instituted in the beginning, is entered by regenerate and unregenerate alike. For this reason marriage and family as such cannot serve as sufficient vehicles of God's truth. It is the church, not the family, that is therefore primarily charged with preaching the gospel to a lost world and to fulfill the Great Commission.

Second, the church is called to worship God and to evangelize and to disciple the nations (Matthew 28:16). The eleven received this commission as representatives of the church, having (temporarily) left their natural family ties, which signified that following Jesus took absolute priority even over kinship relations. They received the Great Commission first and foremost as representatives of the nascent church, not as heads of families. Likewise, in Acts, Paul and Peter, Barnabas and Silas, and the other protagonists of the early church's mission are shown to engage in gospel preaching in their function as ministers of the gospel apart from their familial roles. In fact, several of them, including Paul and Timothy, were in all probability unmarried. Even in cases where those engaging in evangelistic preaching were married, marriage and family commitments were in some ways viewed not as the preferred vehicle or context but as a burden or necessary encumbrance in this life (see esp. 1 Corinthians 7:32), and the roles of preacher/church planter and father/head of household were distinct. When Paul targeted entire households in Acts (the familiar examples include Cornelius, Lydia, the Philippian jailer, and Crispus; see Acts 10:24; Acts 16:15, Acts 16:31; Acts 18:8), therefore, it was in all likelihood not because he held to a "family of families" ecclesiology but because he addressed himself primarily to the heads of household in his cultural surroundings in view of their influence on the other members of their household.11 This continues to be a very viable strategy today in many contexts, though it should be viewed primarily in terms of evangelistic method rather than as theologically normative or as the only biblical way to organize or evangelize. In terms of discipleship, too, it is the role of the church to disciple the nations (Matthew 28:19). Believing parents have an important role to play, but this does not alter the fact that it is the church that was given the charge to disciple individuals and to teach them to obey all that the Lord Jesus Christ commanded them to do (Matthew 28:20).

Third, the church is called to administer the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper (e.g., Matthew 28:19; Luke 22:19; Acts 2:42). This authority, likewise, is vested in the church. There is no indication in Scripture that fathers in their role as heads of households are called upon to administer baptism or the Lord's Supper for their respective families. This is a function of the church and its leaders, not of individual or collective family units.12

Now that we have identified the role of the church, let us turn briefly to the second question: What is the role of the family? The family and the church are not identical, nor does the family serve as the core structure of the church. What is the family's role in God's larger, overarching plan? In short, the family's primary role is to care for the physical, social, and spiritual well-being of its members. This includes the kind of provision, protection, and care with which the familial head was charged in Old Testament times and which is still characteristic of New Testament families (cf. Ephesians 5:25; 1 Timothy 1:18).13

The family is also the environment for procreation and childrearing. This, of course, is one of its core characteristics, to help fulfill God's creation mandate to humanity to "be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28). This understanding is also supported by the fact that the curse following the fall affected both areas of male provision and female childbearing (Genesis 3:16). While some, both in ancient times and today, have sought to disparage natural procreative functions and called those who would truly be spiritual to forsake their natural calling as wives and mothers (see, e.g., 1 Corinthians 1:1, 1 Corinthians 1:12; 1 Timothy 1:15; 1 Timothy 1:1, 1 Timothy 4:3), God's Word holds the roles of father and mother in high esteem. The church will therefore uphold God's noble vision of marriage and the family in stark contrast to much of the surrounding world which finds greater significance in the pursuit of self-fulfillment, material wealth, or other substitutes for God's true calling.14

Finally, anyone in a given family who is spiritually converted is to use his influence in his natural family to witness to Christ and to lead other family members to him (1 Corinthians 1:14; 1 Peter 3:1). Thus "families find a place in the Christian reality as the redeemed exercise influence in the familial sphere."15

The family is indeed of vital importance for the survival and flourishing of human society, and families that pattern themselves after God's revealed will in his Word are absolutely critical for sustaining a vibrant church and a morally intact society. At the same time, there should be no confusion as to what the family is and is not: the family is not the church, nor are the two to be "united" in the normal sense of the word of two—the family and the church—becoming one.16 The family of God is not a family of nuclear families but a gathering or body of true regenerate believers organized in a given locale as a local congregation under duly constituted leadership regardless of their family status. The family and the church each have distinct roles and serve distinct purposes in God's plan. They each have particular spheres of operation and powers and authorities. While there is a certain amount of overlap, these two entities should therefore not be confused or unduly collapsed into one.


Having adjudicated the respective roles and proper relationship between the church and the family, the set of follow-up questions naturally arises: How, then, can the church support the family? And how can the family undergird the church? It goes without saying that due to the vital importance of marriage and family in God's plan from the beginning, the church should do everything it can to strengthen the marriage bond and family ties. It should teach young couples the proper biblical roles of husband and wife and God's plan for them to establish a family and should encourage existing marriages and families to witness to God's goodness, wisdom, and faithfulness in Christ to the surrounding culture. It should pattern itself after God's plan for the natural household in which, as mentioned, the older, mature generation trains and disciples the younger members. It should also recognize that some of its members may be called to remain unmarried for the sake of God's kingdom and integrate them fully in the life of the church.

It is also evident that the church in the West has often not done a very good job in nurturing marriages and natural family units. It has frequently failed to affirm the husband's headship in the home and the father's central role in the family. As such, the unbelieving world—which has witnessed the disintegration of God's established order in the home and the demise of male leadership in the family—and the church—with its failure to affirm, nurture, and encourage biblical patterns for marriage and the family—have sadly joined forces to further weaken the biblical foundation for marriage and the family in our culture. Without collapsing the distinctions between the church and the home, the church ought to make every effort to make strengthening marriages and families a vital part of its mission. In particular, it should respect the need for families to spend adequate time together so the parents can nurture their children spiritually. Having a church calendar full of events and programs which leaves little time for the family and has its members running ragged will do little to strengthen the vital family bond.

What seems beyond dispute, then, is that the world is weakening marriages and families in many ways, and that even the church often fails to counteract these disintegrative forces by neglecting to conceive of its mission in terms that strengthen marriages and families. (At the same time, it should be noted that some churches are well aware of this need and are making a sincere effort to encourage families.) What is less clear, however, is how the church can reverse this trend. In this regard, it will be important to distinguish between theology and method. With regard to theology, it will be important to be grounded in the biblical teaching on the nature and function of the church. With regard to method, there should be a certain amount of flexibility and openness to a variety of approaches. It will also be important not to confuse theology with method and to charge those who differ from us in method with being unbiblical simply because they do not agree on the specific remedy.

What is needed is a church model that strengthens and supports marriages and families and does so on the basis of a robust biblical understanding of the nature of the church. The man's leadership in marriage and the home and the need for wives to submit to their husbands and for children to obey their parents are part of this. The importance of intergenerational or multigenerational ministry which does not unnecessarily segment the church into disjunctive, isolated individual units but builds on natural affinity groups, including flesh-and-blood ties, is vital as well. At the same time, the local church leadership has the right and the authority to devise ways to disciple its members, including young people, that may legitimately involve gathering them together and instructing them in peer group settings. Using a peer group structure does not necessarily mean that the natural family structure is subverted but may helpfully complement and supplement it. [Check back for part 3 of this series, "Connecting Church and Family," coming this week at]

[Editor's Note: Taken from chapter 13 of the recently released god, marriage, and family: rebuilding the biblical foundation, second edition by Andreas Köstenberger with David W. Jones, © 2010 Crossway Books]

Andreas J. Köstenberger is director of PhD Studies and professor of New Testament at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. He is a prolific author, distinguished evangelical scholar, and Editor of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. Dr. Köstenberger and his wife have four children.

David W. Jones is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Jones is married with two children.


10. The following discussion is of necessity suggestive rather than comprehensive. For more thorough treatments see Erickson, Christian Theology, 1060-69, who discusses evangelism, edification, worship, and social concern; Grudem, Systematic Theology, 867-69, who identifies worship, nurture, and evangelism and mercy; and Dever, "The Church," 809-15, whose discussion proceeds along similar lines as those of Erickson and Grudem.

11. Paul's references to believers meeting in households (see, e.g., the examples in Romans 16), likewise, do not necessarily imply that the apostle held to a "family of families" ecclesiology but merely indicate that many of the early church gatherings met in people's homes. The fact that Paul and Peter address themselves to Christian wives and husbands in Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, and 1 Peter 3 is best taken as evidence that these writers were concerned to help people live in keeping with their Christian beliefs as they carried out their respective roles in their family and work relationships.

12. This is not to deny that Scripture allows a considerable amount of latitude as to who may administer the church's ordinances. In fact, there is little explicit instruction given in this regard. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to suggest that baptism be observed "within the fellowship of the church wherever possible" (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 984; emphasis his) and "that some officially designated representative or representatives of the church be selected to administer it" (ibid.; see the discussion on pp. 984 and 999, respectively).

13. See chaps. 5 and 6 above.

14. For a critique of feminist approaches see Margaret Elizabeth Köstenberger, Jesus and the Feminists: Who Do They Say That He Is? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008).

15. Webb, "Family-Integrated Church Movement (Part 3)."

16. Thus the title of Eric Wallace's book, Uniting Church and Home: A Blueprint for Rebuilding Church Community (Round Hill, VA: Hazard Communications, 1999), is potentially misleading.