Introducing 'The Family' by Jack and Judith Balswick

After a day of work in which my husband had looked after our kids (a role reversal for us), I returned home hoping for a few quiet stories on the lounge, followed by family dinner and the normal bedtime routine. Perhaps that was unrealistic... Instead I was faced with almost unremitting tantrums and misbehaviour until we managed to get them to sleep. At one point, I turned to my husband and said, "Is this normal,...or is there something wrong with our kids?"

I'm sure I'm not the only parent who has ever asked this question at a difficult time in their family life. How do you reconcile the biblical ideals with the realities of human frailty and our modern way of life - while getting a four year old to pack away her dress-ups? Here's hoping Jack and Judith Balswick's The Family will shed some light! The authors' aim is to build a Christian theology of the family as a 'bio-psycho-social' system, and in so doing to meld their biblical understanding of family with the most current sociological perspectives on the marks of a resilient family.

The Balswicks state early on that their desire is to avoid 'proof-texting', instead using Trinitarian theology to derive concrete biblical principles. I found their first chapter clear and persuasive, as they outlined four main pillars of Christian family: covenant; grace; empowerment; and intimacy. I particularly liked the way the idea of a family covenant was thought out - moving from a unilateral covenant made by the parents, into a mature, reciprocal covenant as children grow - and how this was contrasted with the impoverished idea of the modern marriage/family contract. Of course this covenantal view of family life comes from the fact that we have a covenant-making God (hooray for that!!), and clearly the concept of the place of grace within family life also stems from the nature of God's character and His dealings with us through Christ. The idea of empowerment was intriguing. In contrast to the worldly idea of power as something which must be carved out for oneself and used to assert self and dominate others, within this biblical model, power is used to empower others to be all that God has made them to be. The first person is also thereby empowered in the relationship, leading to mutual enrichment. This made me think of Christ's 'empowering' servanthood in Philippians 2. Even in this introductory chapter, this has been a good corrective to my own thinking about parental authority. I sometimes fall into thinking that I need to enforce my authority in a coercive way, otherwise my kids might get 'out of control'. This idea of empowerment coupled with grace/forgiveness has helped me to think creatively about ways to guide and discipline my kids...

As much as I dig Trinitarian theology, I had a few difficulties with the way this was used to discuss marriage in the following section. Using Genesis 1:26-27 as a basis, the Balswicks argue that it is the relationality between male and female that constitutes the image of God. This is not a new argument, but in this chapter I think it is used to hold up marriage as a superior way of life, in somehow replicating the Trinitarian relationship. They even suggest at one point that marriage is what it means to be truly human!! If this was the case, why did Paul say it was better to be single? And what of Paul's metaphor of the marriage relationship reflecting Christ and the church?

Although there was much that I found interesting and helpful in this section on marriage, I had another point to question. In their desire not to use 'proof-texts', it seems as though the authors have actually ignored sections of the Bible that speak directly about marriage, such as Ephesians 5:22-33. Wanting to eschew the discussion about submission, instead they promote the concept of 'mutual submission' as though it cancels out the verses that follow. As difficult as those verses might be for us to understand and apply in our cultural context, surely in any theology if Christian marriage we have to grapple with them, rather than simply dismiss them?