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A Biblical View of Family


I recently came across this quote from John MacArthur, from a Q&A session transcript, in response to a question regarding how Christians are to live and fellowship, as compared to how cult groups function:

(speaking of cultists) “It’s a very circumscribed communal socialistic living where people who…it’s like Buddhist priests and these people, they give up all their freedoms, they give up all their ownership. They step into that kind of communal environment. That is not to say Christians aren’t responsible to spend more time with each other. But I don’t think there’s a biblical mandate about that. I think the family is the unit in Christianity that is the primary unit. That is where…and you can go all the way back to Deuteronomy chapter 6 where parents are told to lead their children to talk about God every day when they stand up, walk in the Way, rise up, lie down. The family is God’s unit by which righteousness is passed from one generation to the next.”

Here MacArthur sounds rather like a Presbyterian, covenantalist, as again he affirms what the Bible teaches and keeps a proper balance, rather than emphasizing one aspect of Christianity out of proportion to other teachings. Yet MacArthur is considered a “leaky dispensationalist” and properly rejects the covenant theology extreme of infant baptism. What a breath of fresh air, a balanced and reasonable approach to Christian living, in a world in which too many churches diverge into opposite extremes, fussing too much about certain doctrines while ignoring others. As MacArthur has said elsewhere, there really is a lot of overlapping between the old and new covenants, they are not so distinct and separate as classic dispensationalism would have it; there is grace in the old covenant, and law in the new.

After many years in Sovereign Grace Baptist churches, I clearly see the problem of overemphasizing certain teachings — oh, that all churches had pastors that teach all the doctrines with equal emphasis. Sovereign Grace churches put all emphasis on the doctrines of Grace, and how only God can work to change the heart, how depraved sinners are and how God must do a work of regeneration in the heart. Sermons deal directly with soteriology, or sometimes with the intricate details of the Mosaic system and all its sacrifices, and how these in some way or other typify Christ’s work on the cross. Yet the majority of families, including those of the church leaders (deacons), take a very passive attitude toward their parenting responsibility, with many prayer requests to “pray for our children” (either generally or specifically their own children). Since only God can regenerate the heart, this theology tends toward a passive and lazy attitude regarding the parents’ responsibilities; and so today we have a Sovereign Grace church showing the terrible fruits of this, in church leaders with very messed up young adult children — in prison, addicted to drugs and alcohol, out of wedlock pregnancies followed by marriage and divorce, and generally irresponsible kids dependent on their parents. Sure, some of it reflects societal changes, and that these Christian families live no differently than unsaved people. Yet it seems to surprise some, that even under years of solid preaching of God’s word (God’s Sovereign Grace, teaching at a much greater depth than most shallow, evangelical churches) that it has no effect in practice, the daily life.

Caught up in the goings on at this church, this contradiction baffled me for a while too — until after I started listening to and reading John MacArthur’s sermons earlier this year. What a contrast indeed! For this same Sovereign Grace church, while continually teaching the important, though abstract, soteriology, never teaches the real-world issues of faith and practical Christian living. The only references to family are generally negative, such as passing references to the sinful nature of a child. The pastor so often loves to point out how every parent sees their “little angel” turn into a little sinner, and by the age of two that child will look bold-faced at the parent and “lie like the devil himself.” Granted that such is true — but indeed, parents already know this, and so how is endless repetition of this fact of any help in Christian parenting? Contrast this pattern with great biblical sermons, such as MacArthur’s “A Crash Course in Christian Parenting,” (and many others) that give very practical yet biblically solid teaching.

Such overemphasis on soteriology, at the neglect of other important doctrines, tends to bring about a separation between theory and practice, a disconnect between the head knowledge of our salvation and the fruits of Christian living. The Sovereign Grace congregations, like all Americans generally, are just as easily caught up in the American lifestyle of excessive debt and spending — so where are the sermons about a Christian’s attitude toward finances and responsibility? When some of the people become very caught up in the American political process, such as earlier this year, never did the church address this issue, of a Christian’s proper attitude toward politics and political power.

Contrast this with a John MacArthur sermon, “The Deadly Dangers of Moralism” and this introduction: “One of the responsibilities that a preacher has is to bring the Word of God to bear upon the church and the world and to give God a voice to clarify and discern issues. So on the one hand we are called to the exposition of Scripture, explaining the Bible verse by verse, book by book. But the other hand, as well, we are called to address the issues of our time that affect us and to bring the truth of God to bear upon our understanding.”

So now I consider MacArthur’s point, and the biblical position. Yes, the Old Testament clearly taught the idea of training your children in righteousness, teaching the next generation the great wonders of God and how to live before God. The New Testament includes many instructions for parents and children, as in references in Ephesians and Colossians, also the pastoral letters of 1 Timothy and Titus.

This does not justify the error of covenantalism, that the Church replaces Israel and so we must put the children in a covenant relationship as they had in the Old, even baptizing infants into this covenant — but neither does it allow for the opposite extreme as seen in Sovereign Grace churches. Indeed, MacArthur’s position — and solid teaching to back it up — shows that (as I tried to explain to a Presbyterian friend) you don’t have to have covenant theology at a church in order to give proper emphasis to the family; or stated another way, covenant theology churches don’t have a corner on the market, as the only ones that can teach a biblical view of family. Unfortunately, many non-covenantal churches, such as the Sovereign Grace group, have erred in this neglect, but it need not be so, and I hope that other churches follow John MacArthur’s example, the proper balance of “dispensational” and “covenantal” teachings, to teach all of what the Bible has to say.

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