Jesus, the Family and the Present Debate

The nature of marriage and the family is presently being re-negotiated in secular society. In response, many Christians are doing everything they can to preserve traditional understandings of marriage and family, thinking they are defending the Christian faith. This article attempts to help Christians think more biblically about the family, in order to help us better respond to the current debate around the family.

Jesus on the Family

Jesus’ teaching on the family was radical and unexpected in his day. He took the principle of “leaving” and “cleaving” in Genesis 2:24 to be a foundational mandate for the created order. And along with it, he took the fifth commandment, to “Honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12), to be an abiding mandate for Israel and his disciples as the People of God. Yet it is clear that Jesus had in mind a fundamental re-prioritization of the family. For example, in Matthew19: 29 Jesus calls on his disciples to leave houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for his sake. Any decision to follow Jesus as Lord potentially involves a call to abandon blood-relatives – on account of one’s new-found faith in Christ. This is a question of changed allegiances at the very deepest level. As a result, some have labeled Jesus a “breaker” of families rather than a protector of the family.

In addition to re-prioritizing, Jesus also redefined family. For example, in Matthew 12: 46-50, he draws the focus away from his human family (Mary and his siblings), and instead points to his disciples saying, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother”. In this way, Jesus distinguished between his own blood-relatives, and those who are his spiritual family, prioritizing faith and its communal belonging and expression over familial, blood-related belonging.

The Church as Family

An important example of how the early church embraced Jesus’ reprioritization and redefinition of the family can be found in the outcome of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. Whereas the early Jerusalem church was predominantly Jewish in its make-up, the ruling made by the Council was that entry into the faith-community was not on the basis of blood-dependent ethnicity, but on the basis of one’s confession that “Jesus was Lord”. According to Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. Thus, entry into the early church was not blood-dependent, but faith-dependent. And by extension, belonging to the Christian faith required those who had been given entry to the faith-community, to demonstrate their faith on the basis of confession, mutual obligation and ritual means, in the form of baptism and the Eucharist. The apostle Paul employs family-like language to congregational relationships, on the basis that they were “sons and daughters of God”, (2 Cor 6: 18), and they were to treat one other as adelphoi, as brothers and sisters in the Lord (Rom 14:10-12; Eph 6:23-24).

 Significance for Today

On the basis of this brief excursion into the teaching of Jesus and the early church on the family, we observe three keystone realities. The first is that Jesus (like King Midas of old), transforms everything he touches … and this includes the family. His re-defining and re-prioritizing of family manifests itself in a change of emphasis from family as blood-community to family as confessing-community. The second is that the way we demonstrate our new kinship is the way we treat each other as “children” of God. Tragically, many churches experience pitched battles over differences in theology, preferences for worship-style, and conflicting personality-types. But viewed from a Jesus’-eye-perspective, the best way to measure our love for God is the quality of the love we have for one another (John 13:34). And the third is that family – whether viewed in terms of blood-relations (via the family of origin) or faith-relations (via the confessing church) – must demonstrate the values of the kingdom of God. So the measuring-stick for both will be righteousness, truthfulness, justice, and living for God as a matter of “first priority” – this is what the family of today (and the future) must be and strive to become if it is to remain ‘Christian’. If Jesus’ teaching on the family in his day was radical and unexpected – his teaching on the family in our day continues to be equally challenging and provocative.

Dr Stuart Devenish- Director of Postgraduate Studies, Tabor


Diaspora Families and Pastoral Care

Immigration is contributing to the growth of the Australian Christian community, with some of these diaspora families seeking out multi-ethnic rather than mother tongue culture congregations. The presence of these families brings tremendous blessing, but it can also create new challenges, especially when it comes to pastoral care, as they may operate with different family needs, values, practices and expectations. In this context, cultural intelligence (the capacity to function effectively cross-culturally), particularly CQ Knowledge and CQ Strategy, becomes significant.[1] Read More

Book Review- The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God

Book by Tim Keller with Kathy Keller- Penguin Books, 2013

The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy and Kathy Keller is one of the best books on marriage that I have read.  It is written not just for married couples, but also for single people.

Based on a very popular series of sermons delivered to a congregation of mainly single people at the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, the Kellers argue for the goodness of both married and single life. They draw from their own experience as a married couple, and a close reading of the classic passage on marriage in Ephesians 5: 18-33, to present a realistic view of marriage (“You never marry the right person”), and to argue against what they see as the pathological idolization of marriage, and its opposite, the fear of commitment to marriage in our western cultural context. Both single and married people need to realize that, as wonderful as marriage is, it only works best if it is not held up as the ultimate in and of itself – the “Real Marriage that our souls need and the Real Family that our hearts were made for” can only be found in the love that God has for us, and our true brothers and sisters in the Christian community who share our ultimate hopes.

The great strength of this book is how the Kellers talk of marriage in a way that is shaped by the gospel:  “This is the secret- that the gospel of Jesus and marriage explain one another.” The secret of marriage, they insist, is not in finding the perfect partner, but in loving and caring for the partner that you are married to – it is the ongoing decision to love, and keep on loving, despite imperfections, just as Jesus loves his church. Each partner “giving themselves up for the other,” like Jesus did for us.

In one chapter Kathy tackles head on the widely misunderstood notions of authority and submission within marriage. To remove the “toxicity” from these ideas, we are to understand both in the light of Jesus’ example; who without domination exercised all authority (as the Lord who serves), and without loss of dignity submitted completely to the Father’s will (as the exalted servant): “In Jesus we see all the authoritarianism of authority laid to rest, and all the humility of submission glorified.” “Both women and men”, Kathy says, “get to ‘play the Jesus role’ in marriage – Jesus in his sacrificial authority, Jesus in his sacrificial submission.”

The mission of marriage – what marriage is for- is also to be understood in the light of Jesus’ ultimate purpose in shaping us into his glorious image. Husbands and wives become spiritual friends when, through their honesty with one other, their loving service to each other, and their gracious embrace of each other, they seek to encourage the work of God in each other’s lives, helping their partners become their true selves. “Most people, when looking for a spouse,” Kathy says, “are looking for a finished statue when they should be looking for a wonderful block of marble.”

Is the view of marriage as unselfish service of the other hopelessly unrealistic? In one of the most important chapters, the Kellers point out that Paul’s discussion of marriage as mutual, Christlike submission and love is prefaced with the injunction to keep on being filled with the Spirit (Eph 5: 18). It is only in receiving the fullness and joyfulness of the Spirit (who is the outgoing lovingness of God poured into our hearts), that we are able to transcend our own neediness and self-centredness, and genuinely think of others. This is an attractive way to live, whether you are married or single, and it is the true expression of spirituality.

Book Review by David McGregor, Senior Lecturer in Theology – Tabor


A conversation about Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife: My Story of Finding Hope after Domestic Abuse

A conversation about Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife: My Story of Finding Hope after Domestic Abuse by Ruth Tucker (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016) with Bruce Hulme and Dr Melinda Cousins.

Bruce Melinda, I came across this book by Ruth Tucker and found that you’ve recently read it too. Through her own story and theological reflection, she explores how particular views of male headship/female submission can perpetuate domestic violence (DV), which can include physical, sexual, psychological and emotional violence. Not a light topic! What did you make of it?
Melinda It’s a harrowing read; she is very open and vulnerable about the abuse she experienced.  I don’t think the book fully answers all the questions it raises, but her story is one that is all too common and therefore so important to tell, particularly given that as a well educated Christian theologian, she doesn’t conform to some of the expectations people might have of DV victims.
Bruce You think it’s common?
Melinda The most recent ABS statistics show at least 1 in 4 women have experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or former partner. Two Australian studies in the 1990s and a 2006 British study found there is basically no difference in DV rates within the church. Even if those studies are dated, there’s no reason to think the numbers have shifted significantly. But this doesn’t seem to be a topic that we talk about too often in our churches.
Bruce Perhaps we think the problem is ‘out there’; it is confronting to think of similar statistics reflected in Christian communities. The issue did find a public voice two years ago in Sydney circles starting with some Sydney Morning Herald articles by Julia Baird, but there hasn’t been much since.
Melinda I remember that. At the time Julia and an anonymous woman who had experienced DV, ‘Isabella Young’, received a flood of communication from women sharing similar stories. I was horrified when a pastor in my own denomination wrote a response saying he was unaware of DV within our churches. That’s certainly not been my experience.
Bruce Your experience?
Melinda I know numerous stories from women in our churches who have experienced DV. I have my own story of a relationship I was in when I was younger that was physically violent and justified by the misuse of Scripture.
Bruce I don’t tend to hear those stories …
Melinda I think that’s the challenge. Because specific data is hard to come by, we can think the issue doesn’t exist in our churches. But the stories are there if we will listen and provide space for them. Tucker’s book is an important voice in that conversation.
Bruce So it’s a significant issue. I wonder, though, about the causal connection Tucker makes. I was horrified at the way her husband—a pastor—blatantly misused headship/submission to justify his abuse; clearly loving his wife as Christ loved the church didn’t feature. So is it fair to blame a complementarian viewpoint if the perpetrator isn’t faithful to every aspect of that perspective?
Melinda Some have critiqued Tucker’s book saying that her husband was not a ‘true complementarian’. However, while it may not be the cause, the teaching he received provided him with justifications for his behaviour. Without wanting to get into a debate on the merits of complementarianism itself, I think it is worth pointing out – as Tucker does – that proponents of that view have often heavily focused, rightly or wrongly, on male headship and authority and wifely submission. In our cultural context, where we know that two Australian women are killed each week by their partners, and given that DV is about controlling behaviour, we need to be extremely careful that we are never heard as giving licence to that. How willing are we to name the issue of domestic violence from our pulpits? Do we have systems in place to respond to someone experiencing it? Would we ask them to stay in danger? Would we even believe them?
Bruce That’s the challenge, whatever perspective you take on the complementarian-egalitarian ‘debate’. In fact, Tucker names that as central to the problem; headship vs. mutual submission has been fashioned as a proof-texting debate, rather than as an opportunity for stories to be heard and responded to. The book steps in that direction. But what levels of response are called for, do you think?
Melinda I think the book raises some questions worth asking about complementarianism itself, even if Tucker herself does not provide the best articulation of an alternative viewpoint. Her book also reminds us that we don’t speak into a vacuum on this issue and so need to be extra careful lest we provide abusers with justification for their actions. Most of all, I hope it raises our awareness of stories like this. Too often we can pretend that the church is only made up of ‘happy families’; we can assume DV doesn’t happen among our people. If we take the statistics and stories seriously, we would instead operate from the assumption that there are both perpetrators and victims of DV in our congregations right now. How does knowing that shape the way we preach and teach?


If this is an issue that you would like to address further, a good resource is J. McClure and N. Ramsay (eds.), Telling the Truth: Preaching Against Sexual and Domestic Violence (Cleveland: United Church Press, 1998), especially chapter 9 “Preaching about Sexual and Domestic Violence”. This book grew out of a consultation on preaching and sexual and domestic violence held by the Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. This book is now out of print and can be downloaded for free at

Rev Dr Melinda Cousins-

Bruce Hulme-

Being the Family of God

Many of the songs we use in worship include familial language. For someone who grew up in church in the 1980s, the song “Father Welcomes” by Robin Mann, with its gentle, flowing melody (“Father welcomes all His children to His fam’ly through His Son, Father giving His salvation Life forever has been won”) immediately comes to mind. More recently, Third Day produced “Children of God,” which includes the lyrics “We are the saints, We are the children, We’ve been redeemed, We’ve been forgiven, We are the sons and daughters of our God.”

These songs often leave us feeling warm and fuzzy. They usually focus on the blessings and benefits that come with being members of God’s family.

The basis for the use of such familial language is, of course, the biblical text itself. The OT talks about God as father (although not as frequently as we might expect). In Jeremiah 31: 9, for example, the Lord declares “for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.” While in the NT we find key passages such as Romans 8: 14-17, where Paul announces that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” and “have received a spirit of adoption…heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (cf. Gal 4: 6-7).

But what did the biblical authors have in mind when they used familial language? Failure to ask this question means that we will simply rely on a process known as “cultural reflex”, whereby we uncritically import modern notions and perspectives onto the ancient text. This can be particularly problematic when we are dealing with social institutions such as marriage and the family. Some of the key points of difference between ancient and modern conceptions can be summarised in the following table:

Family/marriage in the modern world Family/marriage in the ancient world
The primary driver for marriage is the love of two individuals The primary driver for marriage was the need to secure the wellbeing of the households of which the two individuals were a part
The basic family unit is defined along conjugal lines (father, mother, and their offspring) The basic family unit was multigenerational, with primary emphasis on blood ties
Exogamous marriage (marriage outside of the immediate kinship group) is the norm Endogamous marriage (marriage within the immediate kinship group) seems to have been the norm (at least in ancient Israel)

But perhaps the key difference – the one that would be most noticeable to us if we were to travel back to ancient Israel – was the extent of the responsibilities that came about because of membership in a family. Being a member of a family brought with it certain privileges and blessings (not least of which was its positive contribution to an individual’s psychological wellbeing, including a sense of belonging), but it also brought with it significant duties and obligations, especially when one member or group within the extended family network was experiencing difficult times. While everyone contributed to the wellbeing of the family in their own unique ways, the role of the go’el (often translated as kinsman-redeemer) was particularly significant. Such an individual was expected to avenge the murder of a relative (or rape of a sister, Num 35: 9ff), to raise a male heir to his brother who died childless (levirate marriage; Deut 25: 5-10), to redeem land lost within the clan (Lev 25: 23-28), and to maintain (=support) a fellow kinsman and/or his dependants or redeem them from debt (Lev 25: 35-55) (Pilch, 2012: 117).

One of the reasons given for the frequent use of familial language in the NT is the disruptive effect that Christian conversion might have had on pagan households. Throughout the world today, converting to Christianity (= the decision to become a member of God’s family) may result in the expulsion from one’s birth family. While this is less common in modern Australia, it is likely that many people in our congregations come from families which are “broken” in some way (whether through divorce, substance abuse, unhealthy relationships, etc.). How then do we, the church, be the family of God? What might this look like in our context – with both its privileges and responsibilities?

In the limited space available, let me give one suggestion. Due to the nature and demands of the modern workforce, it is becoming increasingly common for people to have to move to find employment (this is especially the case for young people who are looking to get their foot in the employment door after graduating from university). These people often end up establishing themselves in a different city from the one in which they grew up. This means that when they come to have children they often lack the support structures (especially the help of their parents) that family provides. Conversely, this dynamic also means that grandparents no longer have easy “access” to their grandchildren, and thus miss out on the joy that young children bring. In this context a vital ministry would seem to me to involve creating linkages between “grandparentless” new parents with “grandchildrenless” grandparents. Of course, we would need to be careful in how this is done; there should be an appropriate level of concern for child safety, for example. Such a ministry, however, has the potential to be a blessing for all involved, a tangible expression of familial love for those who are united by the bonds of faith, embodying the concerns of a God who we praise as the one who “sets the lonely in families” (Ps 68: 6, NIV).

Dr Aaron Chalmers- Head of School Ministry, Theology and Culture

MANNA- Family

Welcome to our second edition of Manna!

We thought we’d choose an uncontroversial topic this time around so we decided to focus on family. Inside you’ll find thoughtful articles on Jesus’ radical redefinition of the family, what it meant to be family in the ancient world and what it might therefore mean to be the family of God in the modern world, and a “conversation” between two of our faculty around an important recent work on domestic violence. I hope there is something that interests and engages you.

You’ll also find some information about a one-day conference we have planned for November in Adelaide: TheologiCon, an exploration of pop culture and the Christian faith in the 21st century. If you are a ministry leader, engaged with young people, or just have a passion for pop-culture, I’m sure you’ll love it. Further details will be available on the web shortly, and we’d really appreciate it if you could help spread the word.

Over the last couple of months I have been reminded again and again by the two pillars that hold up this place: the grace and provision of God and the support of Churches who work in partnership with us for the sake of the Kingdom here in Australia. As always, we’d love to hear from you. If you have any feedback, questions or comments, please contact us at

Look out for the links to our articles in the coming weeks. If you would like hard copies sent to you please email

In His Service,

Dr Aaron Chalmers

Head of School (Ministry, Theology and Culture)

Director of the Centre for Promotion of Church Health