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

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24