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Evangelical Christianity

Evangelical Christianity

Evangelical Christianity entails being born again (John 3:3) and then experiencing a progressive conformity to the image of God in Christ over the lifespan. Evangelical Christianity understands marriage and the family in light of biblical understanding and Christian experience. It offers a normative vision of family life and relations aimed at embodying Christian convictions in everyday life. The family thus bears important theological and ethical significance as an arena where Christian beliefs seek daily expression and where future generations are raised and nurtured.

History and Overview

The origin of the term religion, however, can shed some light on its early history. It lies in two understandings of the Latin verb, religio. It denoted a binding or fastening together and eventually came to indicate a reverence and fear of deity. Religio also denoted a restraining or holding back. While the former points to the reverential aspects of religion, the latter points to the ethical restraint role of religion's bridling of human motives and impulses. Hence, religion is seen etymologically as a force that reconnects human disjointedness, restrains errant impulses, and gives uniqueness, identity, and integrity to the individual.

Evangelical Christianity embodies these characteristics, and its understanding of the family exhibits a wide range of historical influences. From the ancient Jewish tradition, Christianity derives the convictions that sex is a good of creation ordained by God for procreation and pleasure; marriage and the family are human institutions and ordained by God and can be understood as a covenant; and women and men have dignified roles in marriage and family life. In addition to the themes from Hebrew scripture, the writings of the New Testament offer an abundance of thought on marriage and the family. As a result, the use of scripture can vary widely from one interpretation to the next and often depends on views of the authority and function of scripture developed independently from reflection on marriage and family life. Perhaps because it assumes an understanding of the Old Testament or because it is less predicated on the social structure of a single people, the New Testament has much less to say about the family as a sociological unit. Although not denying the value of strong internal ties in a traditional Jewish family (see Luke 1:17), Jesus would not permit such ties to stand in the way of one's decision to follow him (Matt. 10:35–36). Genesis 2:24 is cited with approbation twice in the Gospels (Matt. 19:5; Mark 10:8) and twice in the Pauline corpus (1 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 5:31) as indicating the close bonds between husband and wife and, therefore of the family unit. The Greco-Roman tradition influenced Christian thought through its contention that marriage is a secular contract entered by consent of the individuals and dissolvable by legal action and that any felt religious dimension to marriage and family life is a private matter.

The history of the church sheds more light on the construction of Christian belief as it relates to marriage and family. Augustine of Hippo, for example, proclaimed the family as a social institution ordained by God that helped to insure three goods: offspring, marital fidelity, and enduring commitment. Augustine's position greatly influenced later thought and is seen to have set the terms, if not the outcome, of theological debate. By the time of the Reformation, four criteria for a valid Christian marriage had emerged: consent, contract, church ceremony, and consummation. These were based chiefly on Augustine's synthesis and the laws and customs of medieval Europe. The foundational impact of the Reformation on the Protestant Christian understanding of marriage and family was to eliminate the requirement of a church ceremony and with it the sacramental (but not the symbolic) character of marriage. Family life was upheld by the Reformers as a secular reality especially blessed by God. From the sixteenth century onward, elements of romantic love involving personal fulfillment and physical pleasure became incorporated into a popular understanding shaping Christian thought to where it began to see the family as a means of self-expression. This became the precursor for modern psychology's influence on religion in general, Protestant Christianity specifically, and its shaping of Christianity's practice and view of marriage and the family.

Evangelical Views of Family Relations

Christian marriage and family life is regarded as a sacred and creative calling by all Christians. It is a basic biblical teaching. Marital union in Christ appeals to divine grace for support and fulfillment of a natural union of a man and a woman. Whereas the Orthodox teaching and practice of marriage is understood in sacramental terms, emphasizing the ecclesial, salvific, and eschatological dimensions of the married life, most Protestants find other expressions and concepts to describe the marital union. Although unwilling to formulate marriage and family life in precisely sacramental terms, Protestants generally stress that this union is a profound spiritual commitment and covenantal relationship. The biblical teaching and the church's participation in assisting the couple to preserve and complete their marriage are held as basic by all Christians. Most Protestants tend to limit the role of the clergy and the church in marriage, as contrasted with the Orthodox teaching, because for them marriage is not constituted by the marriage rite.

Biblical wisdom is paramount to the Evangelical faith in fulfilling God's direction for the family. However, the purpose of the scriptures is not to give a detailed description of the stages of family development or specific instructions for dealing with the diversity of challenges and tasks that face parents and their children. Still, there are specific commands and promises given to parents and children in the Bible. Subjects like discipline (Prov. 22:6), good communication (Eph. 6:4), and familial responsibilities (1 Tim. 3:1) are certainly addressed. But it would be a mistake to look at the Christian scriptures as a textbook on family functioning. Lewis Smedes (1976) observed that what Protestant Christians generally hold as true is that it would be more helpful to look to the Bible as informing us about human life as a whole, so that we as humans can increasingly understand and evaluate our experiences as people in our nuclear and extended families.

Protestant Christians see the family as a social institution entered into by a private contract that may be blessed by the church. Where explicitly religious dimensions are present, they are thought of as bolstering the couple's private consent. The spiritual foundation for the family is thus by choice and orders the physical, social, and personal foundations of the family covenant with God. Because of this, the Christian family relies heavily on the church and Evangelical community for nurturing family life through its understanding of Scripture, tradition, and experience. The pastoral care provided by the church assists this process by making accessible the social skills and psychological insights helpful to it, and by offering assistance in articulating the theological and cultural context within which a given Christian family seeks to live.

The Christian church is an advocate for the family. There has always been something like what is called the family to protect and nurture those who are young. In modern times, however, there has been an exploration into the ways in which the whole human story might be told in terms of household events. The history of Israel is often carried by family stories. Although the continuity of the church as the New Israel is not dependent on family lineage, the early Christian community is often described in family metaphors. The Bible everywhere assumes the significance of the family. The church has sought throughout its history to establish and maintain the sanctity of the home. It has taught that the family is the vehicle for God's continual creation and rule.

In contemporary times, the evangelical community has strongly supported family values. Although there is some divergence within this segment of the church on specific topics, this generally means that evangelicals share a common worldview—assumptions about the universe, about God, about human beings, about right and wrong, and about lifestyle. This evangelical worldview, for example, is often viewed as anti-divorce, pro-life, anti–gay marriages, and so on; in short, it is a conservative view dedicated to preserving the traditional family. Within this context, the evangelical community promotes family education. Marriage preparation and enrichment as well as child-rearing are clear examples of this. The evangelical community prizes opportunities to intentionally sponsor instruction in areas related to strong family values (Collins 1995).

Few would argue that the family is not of special concern to the Christian church. For Christians, it was the church that validated marriages and legitimated the birth of children. For most of its history, the church's care for families has centered on landmarks of birth, puberty, marriage, and death as primary modes of care that enable individuals and families to live through the stress that usually accompanies change and loss. Preparing for, sustaining, and nurturing the family in a normative vision, however, is nowhere more apparent than in moments of tragedy in family life. Divorce, abortion, death, adultery, suicide, depression, spouse and child abuse, and a host of other devastating moments in family life are not understandable for Christians apart from a sense of how the Christian faith would have us see and respond to them. In the absence of that vision, Christians lose sight of what the family is about, and thus it and its tragedies are governed by other beliefs and experiences.

The family is an organism of change. Some of that change is unexpected. Some of it is inevitable as individuals within the family grow up and grow older. Because the family is always changing, adaptability is one of its essential characteristics. To believe in a God who is always making something new means that change is an unavoidable dimension of each family structure.

Despite wide diversity of form and function throughout human history, the family has fulfilled God's intent to provide a context for creation and care in order to ensure the continuity of humankind. From the perspective of Evangelical Christianity, however, the family can never be an end in itself. In order to be a vital human organism, the family is always moving outside itself for the sake of justice, peace, and freedom in everwidening human communities.

See also:Family Ministry; Family Values; Interfaith Marriage; Protestantism; Religion


collins, g. r. (1995). family shock: keeping families strong in the midst of earthshaking change. wheaton, il: tyndale.

smedes, l. b. (1976). sex for christians. grand rapids,mi: eerdmans.

les parrott

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