When we walk into God’s household, we find not bare unity, nor random diversity, but unity-in-diversity streaming forth from our three-in-one God. And he means for our little households to increasingly reflect his own.
Long before our children enroll in school, they learn in the classroom of the family. They listen in the living room. They study in their mother’s arms. They observe over eggs and toast. And day by day, they absorb deep lessons — only some of them spoken.
The family, Herman Bavinck writes, is “the first and best school of nurture that exists on earth.” Even more, “a person’s becoming human happens in the home; here the foundation is laid for the forming of the future man and woman, of the future father and mother, of the future member of society, of the future citizen, of the future subject in the kingdom of God” (The Christian Family, 92, 108).
God made families to nurture children into the fullness of their image-bearing humanity. And families do so, in part, by teaching children what it means to belong — to find their place in God’s world and God’s church, discovering how their unique me fits into a larger us. Families are meant to be microcosms of the kind of community God created us for: one of unity and diversity, of the harmony and the dance.
Which means that authority and submission, nurture and obedience — all saturated with Christ — are not elective credits in the school of the family, but part of our core curriculum.
Bodies and Bowling Leagues
What does it mean to be a member of a family? We can answer in two strikingly different ways, drawn from two definitions of member.
When we use the word member, C.S. Lewis observes, we usually mean almost the exact opposite of what the apostle Paul meant. To be a member of Mrs. Smith’s fourth-grade class, or a member of the Tuesday night bowling league, is to find yourself among those like you: a fourth grader among fourth graders, a bowler among bowlers. Apart from a few exceptions, every member in the classroom and the league shares the same responsibilities and privileges.
But as Lewis writes, “By members . . . [Paul] meant what we should call organs, things essentially different from, and complementary to, one another, things differing not only in structure and function but also in dignity” (“Membership,” 163–64). To call two fourth graders “members” is one thing; to call a finger and an eyeball “members” is quite another. The former emphasizes unity; the latter emphasizes unity unfolded in wonderful, almost wild, diversity.
Where modern membership is quantitative and egalitarian (each member is one more of the same kind), biblical membership is qualitative and complementary (each member is a different kind in the same whole). Here, hands and feet join ears and eyes to form one fantastically varied body. “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12).
In Christ, we belong to a body, not a bowling league. And God begins preparing us for that body through membership in the family.
Finding Ourselves in a Family
When we speak of a family, our words often acknowledge their basic unity. We speak of the father, mother, and three children next door as “the Davidsons” or “the Wilkersons,” not as “those five people.” Nevertheless, family unity enfolds rich diversity — so rich, in fact, that the family members “are not interchangeable.” Lewis continues,
The mother is not simply a different person from the daughter; she is a different kind of person. The grown-up brother is not simply one unit in the class children; he is a separate estate of the realm. The father and grandfather are almost as different as the cat and the dog. If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure. Its unity is a unity of unlikes, almost of incommensurables. (164–65)
The glory of the family lies, in part, in that the father is not the son, the daughter is not the mother, the brother is not the sister, and yet together they are still “the Davidsons.”