Why every Christian should care about family ethics

Understanding what the Bible teaches and recognizing we’re all part of a family

November 16, 2020

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our primer series on Christians ethics where a respected leader and thinker recommends and gives a summary overview of a book that helps orient readers to a certain aspect of ethics and philosophy. This series is designed to equip the local church to engage foundational texts of Christian ethics. Find the entire series here

Every one of us was born into a family. It’s true whether we’re single or married, and if we’re longing for children or if each chair around the table is full. If you have a pulse, you are someone’s son or daughter. This fact alone makes it necessary for each one of us to be able to navigate the various ethical issues that confront family life. 

But necessity doesn’t equal ease. The issues related to marriage and singleness, parenting and divorce, and gender and sexuality are emotionally and politically loaded. When it comes to these topics, we all have a personal history and preloaded assumptions that can blind us to our biases. If we want our ethical choices and the conversations we have with others who have different perspectives to be driven by biblical truth, we must spend time examining our thoughts about family life in light of the Scriptures.

And, for those who serve in ministry, the Bible gives us another important reason to study the ethics of family. Paul tells us that having the competence and character to manage a family is a prerequisite for leadership in God’s household (1 Tim. 3:4). 

These are a few of the reasons why a book like God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation, Second Edition (Crossway, 2010), is so important. In this book, Andreas J. Köstenberger and David W. Jones give Christians—and church leaders in particular— a thorough and unapologetically biblical primer on family ethics. 

Building a biblical foundation for family ethics

Köstenberger and Jones’ book begins by announcing a cultural crisis. The authors write, “It can be rightly said that marriage and the family are institutions under siege in our world today, and that with marriage and the family, our very civilization is in crisis” (15). The authors then provide a careful survey of the Bible’s major exegetical and ethical issues related to marriage (chapters 2–3), sex (chapter 4), parenting (chapters 5–8), singleness (chapter 9), homosexuality (chapter 10), divorce and remarriage (chapter 11), and family life as it relates to church ministry (chapters 12–13)—all with the goal of rebuilding a biblical foundation for family life.

The greatest strength of the book is its thorough research (the “For Further Study” bibliography for each topic is incredible) and strong exegetical work. This is noteworthy in chapter 11’s treatment of divorce and remarriage. Köstenberger helps his readers understand each biblical passage that addresses divorce—in Deuteronomy, the Gospels, and Paul—as well as both the history of Jewish and Christian interpretation of these passages. Then, in an accompanying appendix, he carefully weighs the meaning of Matthew 19’s exception clause and the Pauline exception in 1 Corinthians 7.

But it’s not simply thorough exegesis but the thoroughgoing application of the biblical text to various issues that has made God, Marriage, and Family the standard on family ethics for conservative evangelical Christians. Pastors, you will find help for premarital counseling not only in Köstenberger’s exegesis of passages like Genesis 2 and Ephesians 5 in chapters 1–2, but also in his clear discussion of marriage as a covenant relationship (73–78) and his teaching about God’s four purposes for sex (79–82, they are procreation, relationship, pleasure, and—one that less often makes it into sermons—the public good). Parents, you will find the overview of family relationships in the Bible (chapters 5–6) informative, but I think you’ll want to photocopy, laminate, and put the “eight levels of parental discipline” from the Book of Proverbs (145) on your refrigerator.

What most impressed me about this book when I first read it is the way that it thoroughly covers issues many Christians approach with little thought. Köstenberger, for example, devotes 16 pages to the use of contraception (121–137), an ethical matter with which many believers do not wrestle adequately. He does not take the historic Roman Catholic view—rejecting contraception outright—but in light of a number of passages (Lev. 21:20; Deut. 23:1; 1 Cor. 6:19), he cautions Christian couples to approach sterilization methods such as vasectomies or tubal occlusions with care. He writes, “While not every Christian would agree that sterilization involves an improper violation of one’s body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, it is vital that believers submit their personal desires to prayerful consideration of what is scripturally permissible” (125). 

When it comes to “the pill” (hormonally-based chemical contraceptives), Köstenberger is even more cautious, ultimately concluding that using this method is tenuous because, in some rare cases, it does not only work to prevent conception but instead as an abortifacient, that is, it inhibits the uterine lining “from supporting the life of a newly conceived child should fertilization take place” (126). Other pro-life thinkers have come to different conclusions from Köstenberger; See an alternative perspective in William R. Cutrer and Sandra L. Glahn, The Contraception Guidebook (Zondervan, 2005). But Köstenberger and Jones’s careful treatment equips Christians to approach difficult ethical matters without blindly adopting our culture’s assumptions. 

The need for courage with compassion

God, Marriage, and Family does have drawbacks, and one notable one is that the book is a bit dated; it’s now 10 years old. Over the last decade, we’ve seen the rise of the #MeToo movement, new questions among Christians of varying political stripes about how to weigh a political candidate’s sexual ethics, and heated debates over how evangelicals should approach sex and gender (e.g., the spiritual friendship movement, the Nashville Statement, and the Revoice conference). Köstenberger and Jones’s second edition was released five years before Obergefell v. Hodges legalized gay marriage. On my bookshelf, Köstenberger’s book sits adjacent to Russell Moore’s Storm-Tossed Family (B&H, 2018). For more up-to-date discussions of some of these issues, this book is a helpful go-to supplement.

Because every person is part of a family, it’s essential that every Christian be able to navigate issues of family ethics with a rooted biblical frame of reference.

A second concern comes in chapter 13. Köstenberger and Jones review some current trends in family ministry and provide a healthy critique of the family-integrated church movement, a model that eliminates all age-segregated programming from the life of a local church. In their overview, the authors state, “Some churches are more purist in their convictions and application of family integration, while others are amenable to combine this model with other approaches” (259). The trouble with this assumption is that the family-integrated approach isn’t as common as the authors think. The other family ministry approaches that the authors briefly mention (259, n. 20) are more widespread and have greater biblical and historical support. Timothy Paul Jones has pointed out how the imbalanced treatment given in God, Marriage, and Family could turn some church leaders off to family ministry models that would serve and help their ministry contexts

God, Marriage, and Family has other oversights, too. The divorce and remarriage chapter, while exegetically excellent, doesn’t weigh whether or not physical abuse within marriage constitutes functional abandonment. It doesn’t talk about how to help a person who struggles with same-sex attraction build biblical friendships. And, while it encourages parents to cultivate masculinity and femininity in their children (146–147), it doesn’t help parents distinguish between biblical and cultural expressions of gender. 

It may be that these oversights are just more examples of the fact that the book is dated, but I wonder if these concerns aren’t more related to the book’s overall tone and culture-war posture. God, Marriage, and Family is framed with statements about how family life is “under siege”; the authors believe that marriage and family are experiencing a “cultural crisis,” one that is “symptomatic of an underlying spiritual crisis that gnaws at the foundations of our once-shared societal values” (15, 269). We certainly need courage to stand on truth in a world that is hostile toward the Bible’s family ethic, but we shouldn’t romanticize the past; commonly-held societal values have not always been as pure as we might assume. 

While believers certainly need courage to stand for truth in the face of Satan’s lies and worldly temptations, our bold talk about family ethics must be seasoned with a heart of compassion for people. We mustn’t forget the woman who has been battered in an abusively patriarchal marriage, the teen who experiences gender dysphoria, or the young man who has been bullied because of his sexual orientation. 

Because every person is part of a family, it’s essential that every Christian be able to navigate issues of family ethics with a rooted biblical frame of reference. For this reason, I’m thankful for books like God, Marriage, and Family, and I’m prayerful that God will use resources like this one to grow us into leaders who approach family ethics with careful study, courage, and compassion.

Jared Kennedy

Jared is the husband of Megan and father to Rachael, Lucy, and Elisabeth. After serving fifteen years on staff at local churches, Jared now works as an editor for The Gospel Coalition, coaches children's ministers through Gospel-Centered Family, serves on the Theological Advisory Council for Harbor Network, and teaches as an adjunct instructor … Read More