It is not only families in crises that need to reflect on the biblical idea of family. Even those who are getting along without major hiccups need to stop and take stock. That is because the biblical goal, or the mark that God has ordained for us, is “fullness of life”. Surely, this applies to family life as much as it does to every other aspect of human life. So mere crisis avoidance is not enough. We are obliged to keep 'fullness' as the yardstick for measuring the vitality and wholeness of our family life.

This is an exalted and exacting requirement and is unique to spirituality. One aspect of wholeness is the harmony between what men see and what God alone sees: the outer and inner lives we live. It is unrealistic to require ‘perfection’ from an approach to life that confines itself wholly to the external. What is possible in this sphere is the ‘perfection of appearances’. Ironically, the more we get obsessed with perfecting appearances, the more we neglect the truth of our inner lives; whereas the latter is the spiritual priority [Ps. 51: 6,10]. The most universal pattern of imperfection is hypocrisy or the contradiction between appearance and reality. Unlike the worldly outlook, in which compartmentalization is not a major hassle, integration is of the essence of spirituality. Hence, what ‘is’ must also be what ‘appears to be’. That is the essence of the ‘truth’ that Jesus exemplifies. Truth of this order is the very foundation of perfection and fullness of life. This explains why Jesus who came to empower us to enjoy fullness of life [Jn. 10:10], reveals himself as the truth [Jn. 14:6] and urges us to be perfect [Mtt. 5:48].

We need to turn to spirituality precisely for the reason that makes us want, when ridden wholly by our instincts, to flee from it. It does not help to complain that the Bible confronts us with standards too exalted to be realized. Instead, we need be grateful that this very thing saves us from the inertia of complacency, and impels us along the path to perfection. The lowering of standards has done no one any good. It serves only to perpetuate mediocrity. In every area of human endeavour to which we attach any significance at all, the crossbars of excellence are being raised continually. Why shouldn’t this apply to family life as well?

The biblical worldview is informed by a profound optimism concerning the human situation. It accepts no easy limit to what human beings can do or attain. According to the Psalmist, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” [Ps.139:14] and God has made us “a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned (us) with glory and honour” [Ps. 8: 5]. There is something spiritual, therefore, about pushing the familiar limits of our attainment in order to reveal the glory latent in our creation.

As a rule, very few perform in any area to their full potential. Not even the best of athletes, for example, attain even 80% of their muscle tonus, except perhaps in moments of rare inspiration. Diverse human potentials remain underutilized. In the words of T.S. Eliot, we are ‘living and partly living’. Our routine life is a wasteland of under-performance. It is for this reason that most people live in a state of boredom and low self-esteem. The full utilization of human potential is a spiritual duty and it is the defining aspect of being ‘good and faithful’ servants [Mtt. 25: 21]. Inspiration points to the presence of something more than the human. God is the context of our maximum actualization and empowerment. So there is a great deal of practical wisdom in the words of Jesus that we can be fruitful if we abide in him. 'Faith' grounds and roots us in Jesus. To be grounded and rooted thus is to be able to access powers and resources that are truly miraculous. So it makes good sense that those who have faith in Jesus do extraordinary things [Jn. 14:12]. If you have faith as large as a mustard seed, said Jesus, “you can say to this mountain, 'move from here to there' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” [Mtt. 17: 20]

The mark of a Christian family is not that it is free from conflicts and tragedies. Mere sterile merits and virtues are not enough. Christian family should embody fullness of life. The biblical approach to family is based on this article of faith. Some of the distinctive prescriptions in this context may seem exaggerated or utopian if this goal, namely fullness of life, is compromised. Husbands and wives need not, for example, “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” if they do not wish to attain fullness of life. It is perfectly possible to co-exist even for a lifetime without such a discipline. The duty to seek perfection or to attain fullness of life is not mandated by any jurisprudence or cultural tradition in the world. It is a unique spiritual prescription.

Our indifference, even allergy, to spiritual principles and demands is almost wholly on account of the mark we set for ourselves. If it is to live like everybody else, according to the “patterns of the world” [Rom. 12:2], the need for spiritual discipline will not be obvious or palatable to us. Spiritual principles seem unhelpful to the pursuit of worldly goals. “Abundant life” is a spiritual goal. Even when this goal is accepted in theory by the world, it is misunderstood for “abundance of possessions”. It was for this reason that Jesus emphasized, “a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” [Lk. 12: 15]. This highlights the logic of the need to receive and live by spiritual resources as well.

The implication of what we have seen so far is that we need to be clear as to the basic model, or paradigm, for our family life. Merely preserving the gloss of religiosity over a family modeled on the patterns of the world does not take us far. And it is an abuse of religion to see this only as an escape-route from the harmful consequences of one's worldly pursuits. A family becomes Christian only because it is Christ-centred and, therefore, feels committed to producing the fruits of righteousness in its total life and culture.

From the beginning of times, therefore, family has been seen a critically important sphere of witness and spirituality. The Genesis account of creation reveals that being in mission is basic to this God-founded institution. Predictably, family became the key theatre for the epic battle between God and Satan, good and evil. The infiltration and corruption of this institution was, and continues to be, the foremost satanic strategy to frustrate the purposes of God.

Consequent to the Fall, family relationships were recast on the pattern of 'desire' and 'domination' [Gen. 3: 16], which comprise the dynamics of the mindset of power and the ‘war of wills’ it activates in relationships. The Fall degraded the basic culture of family as an institution. It corrupted the garden of life into a wilderness of aimless wandering and substituted fruitfulness with futility. Indifference infiltrated into relationships of intimacy. Consequently, man-woman relationships begin and end as the encounter of strangers, in contrast to the biblical norm of ‘man and woman becoming one flesh’ [Gen. 2:24]. Hospitality turned into hostility, as in the instance of Cain killing his brother Abel [Gen. 4:1-9]. The redemption and regeneration of family is, therefore, a crucial emphasis in the mission of Christ. There are ample indications that Jesus saw the transformation of the individual and the redemption of family as necessarily inter-linked. It was not enough, for example, for Jesus to call Zacchaeus down from the sycamore tree and have a good 'heart-to-heart' with him on the roadside. He deemed it essential to go home to Zacchaeus. The result was, “Today salvation has come to this house” [Lk. 19: 9]. Church itself is meant to be the ‘household of faith’. This implies, among other things, that church life must be a role-model for family. Every congregation must have a healing influence on the families that comprise it, and not become a source of worldly infection to them!

Since the Fall, the institution of family stands at the meeting-point between spirituality and culture, Church and the world. There arise two possibilities from such a situation. First, family could be a means for spiritually renewing culture. This makes parenting a missionary activity. Family culture is mandated to be redemptive. Approached this way, parents become sensitive to the need to nurture in children especially those values that the society compromises in order to prosper in the world, but are necessary for its regeneration and wholeness. When a whole society is fleeing from the demands of truth, as is the case today, truth-speaking becomes an important part of Christian family culture. When the prevailing culture becomes uncaring, selfish and indolent, the Christian family culture must endeavour to be sensitive, caring and compassionate. As Goethe says, “If only every man would sweep his own doorstep, the whole city would be clean.”

The alternative is to let family be a penetration-point for the prevailing culture into the life of the Church and of the faith community. Almost the whole of one's habits, tastes and strategies are learned at home. If family is shaped by the culture of the world, the same culture will necessarily reach and overwhelm the life of the Church. This danger is particularly acute today on account of the unprecedented invasiveness and pervasiveness of modern culture. Family, which is envisaged to be the nursery of a healthy society, today stands in real danger of mirroring the sickness of the society. The world around us is floundering. So is the family. Relationships within the family seem not to be improvements on relationships outside of it. Barring exceptions, life is lived superficially and functionally in both sectors. The patterns of the world prevail, at times in acute forms, in the life of the Church in matters relating to money, position and self-aggrandizement.

While this seems a gloomy scenario, the encouraging truth is that its underlying cause is not very complicated. As a rule, big problems result, mostly, from the long-term neglect of simple principles, though it is a widely held myth that solutions are complicated and amenable only to specialist-treatment. But the fact that the cause is simple does not mean that it will seem feasible or acceptable to all. This is where the Bible guides us through the light of revelation. The Bible begins, virtually, by alerting us to the likely degeneration that family is vulnerable to. The Fall is not only the tragedy of two individuals but also of the institution of family. The rest of the Bible chronicles God’s initiatives to restore love, peace and joy to human life.

The Bible reveals that the foundation for family has been weakened by the Fall. Sin penetrated this institution through the disobedience of Adam and Eve. The seminal impact of the Fall on family is in terms of the man-woman relationship. The Fall shifted its foundation from love to power. While love creates relationships of equality and companionship, power creates relationships or arrangements of “desire” and “domination” which are, significantly, the two words that God uses in describing the nature of man-woman relationship on account of the Fall [Gen. 3: 16]. 'Desire' is the seed of power. It includes not only the desire to dominate, but also the desire to be dominated. The desire to be dominated is presupposed in the desire to dominate. Those who are submissive in powerlessness become tyrannical in the exercise of power. Husband and wife are to submit to each other [Eph. 5: 21]. They must submit to love, not to power. Abuse is inherent and inevitable in power. It is when a people prostitute their freedom that tyrants are born, even if this awareness comes only too late and at a heavy price. It takes a husband-wife collaboration to sustain a relationship of cruelty and misery. The pity of it is that often both parties may not be adequately aware of the roles they play in degrading their family life into a hell upon this earth.

It is instructive to unpack this “desire-domination” syndrome as a drama of man-woman collaboration in a state of fallenness. Power is the shaping factor of this syndrome. Desire is the passive, and domination the active, element of power in the dynamics of relationships. The meeting point between the two is 'ownership'. Man prefers to demonstrate the ownership of woman; whereas it is enough, comparatively, for woman to be inwardly assured of a sense of belonging. Proof that clamours for periodic demonstration is a male obsession; whereas assurance -its female counterpart- is content to be inwardly experienced. It is within this dynamic that the war of wills takes place between the male and the female. ‘Desire' chooses the strategy of 'submission', which may seem to be the opposite of 'domination'. When this 'submission' is situated in a context of 'power' this too becomes a subset of power. Submission of this kind may well be motivated, consciously or otherwise, by control-orientation. One may stoop also to conquer and so resort to what might be described as manipulative subservience. Whether consciously meant to be so or not, such subservience induces men to be dependent.

But power is a domain of instability. The elements that operate in it can, and do, switch roles. Hence hen-pecked husbands -husbands who are cast in the mould of 'desire' rather than of 'domination'- are a logical necessity. Practically all husbands are 'henpecked' in patches. Ironically, these may well be also the moments of their humanness within the paradigm of power. Relationships governed by the “desire-domination syndrome” afflict men and women in different ways. It tortures the male with a sense of deep-seated insecurity, which is the necessary accompaniment and punishment of power. Power breeds insecurity. A state of insecurity abounds in irrational fears and anxieties. Anxiety results from the frustration of the basic goal of power, which is the control and domination of the partner, if only to attain a modicum of emotional security. Therefore, the more insecure the man gets the more desperately he tries to control his wife. Mistrust, violence of various kinds and chronic cruelty are the dubious and desperate means by which this is sought to be achieved.

As for the woman, the desire-domination syndrome holds out a different, but complementary, malady. The male penchant to dominate, and the need to have this domination proved at least to oneself every now and then, threaten to turn the woman into a commodity: an item of male ownership. This undermines the self-worth of the woman, which is already under siege on account of unequal social and cultural conditioning. She fights back through strategies that are meant to assert and if possible demonstrate her worth. Such strategies include, among others, the refusal to communicate, emotional and physical boycott, punitive carelessness, vindictive self-deprecation, and so on.

From the above, it should be obvious that man-woman relationship stands in danger of subverting the biblical goal of 'fullness of life' as long as it stands on the foundation of power. Theoretically, the best scenario that could be envisaged in such a situation is a 'balance of power'; similar to the 'balance of terror' that averts the outbreak of hostilities between nations. This is the goal that underlies the feminist discourse on empowering women in the relational context. Balance of power is a correlative of 'equality' within the paradigm of power. In practical terms, however, this makes deep and enduring relationships virtually impossible. Power corrupts human intimacy and infuses all-round alienation into relationships. This embitters the partners who live aggrieved and burdened with a feeling of being given a 'raw deal' by each other. The ultimate irony inherent in power is that it houses only a world of victims. Family, engineered on the principle of power, can only be an asylum of victims. And, as a rule, the victimizers are the first to project themselves as victims.

The biblical approach to this situation begins with the assumption that this is not the norm but a perversion of what God had meant for the human species. What was envisaged as a relationship of total commitment in love, has been degraded into a theatre of conflict, because the foundation has shifted from love to power. The radical remedy for this universal malady is a return to the lost foundation of love. It is in this light that Paul's instructions to husbands, wives, parents and children are to be understood.

Significantly, Paul prefaces his teachings in this respect with the instruction to husbands and wives “submit to one another” in the fear of the Lord (Eph. 5: 21). This is quite the opposite of the 'balance of power,' the very aim of which is to rule out, if possible, submission of every kind. Mutual submission, in contrast either to the balance of power or to the subjugation of one by the other, is nourished by a culture of love and can work or make sense only within it. Seen through the spectacles of power, this looks neither desirable nor possible. Mutual submission involves a redemptive rejection of power as the shaping principle of the relationship involved. Balance of power gravitates towards a polarization of relationship, whereas mutual submission makes for their dynamic integration. This enables them to become ‘one flesh’ (Gen. 2:24).

Paul's teachings in Ephesians 5:22-6:4 can be examined under two broad heads:

  1. Instructions for wives and husbands
  2. Those for parents and children.
The discipline he prescribes, within the matrix of the wisdom of the Word of God as a whole, is the spiritual window through which we propose to view the panorama of family life as an incarnation of fullness of life in this mixed-up world.


[Serialized from recently published book]

Sign-posts to Fullness of Life
By : Rev. Dr. Valsan Thampu

[Faith and Family: Signposts to Fullness of Life addresses the foundational issue of our times: wasting of the family. Tragedies arise, often, out of trivial things. Fortunately, the remedy too is simple. We do not have to move mountains to heal our homes. But we do have to turn a new leaf. Sadly, moving a mountain rather than turning a new leaf appeals to most men and women. Those who refuse to make even minor adjustments move inexorably to desperate remedies like divorce or suicide. Millions of men and women live in avoidable domestic purgatories. That should not happen to you. Healing and happiness can come to your home. This book tells you how. ]

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