The following video is an answer to a Curious Cat question, an over-ambitious attempt to answer a huge question that deserves detailed analysis off the top of my head. Continue to leave your questions in the comments on this blog, over on Curious Cat, or you can email me if you have my address.
Today’s question is: “Is there a biblical theology of the household you could outline for us in a YouTube video?”. Not a small question at all! This will have to be off the top of my head, so I am sure that I will miss many of the bases I would want to cover if I were doing a longer piece on the subject, but here goes.
The first thing to say about the household is that it is not just the family and it is not just the house or the home or even the domestic sphere. It is far broader than all of those things. It includes the people within the family, it includes the house, and includes the domestic sphere and things like that, but it is broader than including everything that belongs to the family. It includes the people that are within the realm of the family and people who have been welcomed into that realm. It includes animals. It includes possessions. It includes a realm of activity and dominion within the world. The household in many respects can be seen as a realm of dominion, and the realm of dominion that is the proper possession of a particular body of people bound together as a family.
It is a solidarity of life. It is a living society. It is not just an institution as a system. A system can survive indefinitely. It is not a living thing, whereas the household is bound up with the family and is something that develops over time. It is a living organism and it develops through stages. A couple get together and they form a life together, they build a world around themselves, they bear children that they welcome into that world and they accumulate possessions and influence within the world. In all of these ways, that is the household growing.
The household is the realm that is created around the family, the orbit that it creates around itself, through the gravity that it exerts upon its surroundings. It is a realm of hospitality; it is a realm of belonging and communion. You belong to a household. It is somewhere where life is experienced together, not just in solitude.
It is an orienting realm. It presents people with an interior, an exterior, an anterior, and a posterior. There is a ‘before’ represented by the family. It is something that passes on through generations. There is a continuation there. There is inheritance bound up with the household. The household is not just something accumulated by people in one generation. It is something that is built up over time. You build up your household.
It is something that moves into the future. Parents have children and they will bequeath their household to their children. They instruct their children and direct them into the future, and they recall the past. It is a realm of the interface and interaction between the generations, of the movement from one generation to the next.
In these respects, it is an elabouration of the natural reality of male and female and the family. Those dynamics by which we are formed as larger communities are ones that find their route primarily within the household and within the life of the family. Male and female, moving from one generation to the next, the relationship between children and their parents: all these sorts of things are preserved by the household, but not just those things.
It is also a realm that is opened up to the wider world. The interior is a realm that belongs to those within the household, but there is also a political reality. It engages with the wider world, and has weight within societies as a whole. We tend to think of the household within our society as just the domestic sphere—a privatized realm to which you retreat after you have done your work for the day. Within Scripture, by contrast, the household and the family are public realities with public and social and civil weight; the household is an entity that has political ramifications.
The household acts as a political entity. It is the building block of society, not just the detached individual that can be placed into these abstracted systems, these dead systems. The household is something that arises out of an organic reality and grows into something that is elabourating upon that natural institution. It is a realm of succession, as I mentioned. It is also a particular and a particularizing realm. Everyone’s family, everyone’s household is different and every household is not just a system or a technique; it is a reality rooted in a particular place, in a particular time. It is comprised of particular individual persons. It is not just an abstract system into which you can slot anything.
It is a very particular reality that is sustained through time, and as a particular reality it is something that trains us in what it means to love, to be people who are bound to a particular place and reality. Love is not just a general benevolence to all things. Love is something that particularizes its objects and is something that is elicited by our bonds with particular objects and with particular persons. The affection that you develop for a particular place, for a particular set of objects—objects that maybe belonged to your grandparents or something like that.
All of these things are bound up with what it means to be the household. The household is a rooted and embedded reality engaged with a particular world, with a world that it has been formed around the life of a man and a woman, their children, and the people within their wider scope that they have invited in. Because the family in Scripture is always a realm of hospitality, it is a realm that can include many people beyond the immediate family members. It is not just biological descendants, it can include servants, it can include strangers who are given hospitality. All these sorts of people can come within the orbit of the household, even if only temporarily.
It is a realm of provision and mutual support. It is a realm where we do not labour alone but is a realm of common labour—a common labour for a common good, the common good of the accumulated wealth of the household that is passed on. It is the shared life of the household in the joy and the fellowship and health that are shared together, and it is also a realm of sharing and teaching and preserving that knowledge that passes on from generation to generation.
Now, this household is an expression of the ordering of marriage and the family out into the world. And so if we are looking for a biblical foundation of the household, the best place to start is somewhere like Genesis 1 and 2. In Genesis 1 we read of God’s creation of the world and God’s creation of man and woman within his world for the sake of his world. He creates the man first, for the sake of tilling the earth and taming the wider earth—forming it. He places him within a garden—a realm—that is given to the trust of the man. The man has to take care of this, he has to guard it and he has to serve it and he has to maintain God’s boundaries within it—the command not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but also the privilege of eating of all the other trees. This is a realm that is given to the man for his rule and his control and for his service, and then the woman is created to assist him in that.
This realm that is created around the man and the woman is a differentiated realm. It is a realm where the man and the woman play different parts within that larger world and their relationship is ordered to and around that realm. We tend to think of marriage in abstraction from the world into which it serves, so we think about a man and a woman looking at each other face-to-face and relating to each other like that, whereas God created man and woman and the family and marriage within a world and for the sake of a world, for the sake of its service. The place of the garden in relationship to the man and the woman in Genesis 2 is important to recognize because that is constitutive in part of their relationship. It is a realm of dominion that they share in common, a realm that they are supposed to form and fill and they are supposed to go out into the wider world and bring God’s order to bear upon that realm.
Understanding it that way, I think, can help us to see why the life of a man and woman in their marriage is not just a private relationship but is this larger reality that goes out into the world. It is a realm of common creation, of common ownership, and of common rule. It is a domain that they share. The vision of marriage—of the woman—seen somewhere like the end of Proverbs is of someone who has established a great household around her. The vision that you have there is not just of the economically active woman—that is not seen as a glorious vision in Scripture, per se—the glorious vision is that this is her house that she has formed. This is her world that orbits around the life that she has at the heart of it, and the man and the woman together have created this kingdom that they share.
That is the vision that you see in embryo in Genesis 2 and which builds out elsewhere in Scripture. We can see that the fullness of a good household is when that relationship between a man and woman lies at the heart of a rich and full realm of hospitality, of ownership, of dominion, of engagement with the world and with society. It is a realm where there is a place where their life expands into something far, far greater, where their union is just a seed of a great realm of rule within the world and of hospitality for others. And so, as we abstract marriage and the family from this wider fabric of reality, we lose sight of the household because the household is what happens when that relationship is embedded in reality, engaged fully in reality, and as it forms this fabric of reality, this world around itself. And the household is, as it were, the full expression of what it means for a man and woman to be brought together and become one flesh. The one flesh is not just a private union between them, it is a world that they form around them, into whose orbit many people can be drawn.
Now, in our society, it is difficult for us to understand this. It is difficult for us to understand it in part because we have experienced multiple forms of alienation from the household, which is an organic human form of life that is elabourated into a form of engagement with the world. That form of life is placed within the world for the sake of engagement and then it develops out from that. But we have alienated labour from the household. The household is not a realm of labour for us. And so what it means to exercise dominion as the household and in the household makes less sense for us. We have alienated labour from its fruits: so we earn money, but there is less of a sense of the household being a realm of production itself, with the actions that we do and the fruit of those actions being things that we own and expressions of our dominion. The household, on the other hand, preserved that connection and it preserved the connection between character and labour.
It has also resulted in alienation from the male and female order that prevails within the household. The man and the woman are working together to create this world and so the man and the woman labour together as husband and wife. They are not usually working together side by side in everything that they do, but they are working towards a common good, towards a common end. By contrast, now we think very much of individuals interchangeably engaged within the marketplace. The modern workplace is a unisex environment where most people who work within that environment spend far more time working with their colleagues of the other sex than they do with their partner and their spouse. And so there has been a deep alienation there. This is a radically unusual form of life, which is not something that exists in most societies. The household is an organic form of life which has been developed in various different forms within different societies, but in each case it is rooted within this union of man and woman; it is rooted within the relationships between the generations; it is rooted in the particularity of place and the way that that union is elaborated into a form of engagement and interface with that particular place.
Then there is an alienation of children from parents and generations from each other. Children are increasingly outsourced to other carers, to other teachers, and so the family as a realm of pedagogy and training and orienting children into the world is no longer so active. One example of this is the family or households as a realm of labour. It would be passed on from generation to generation. It would not just be a single generation individual working to support his family in his own trade. Rather, it would be a trade that the rest of the family supported and got involved in: a father would train his son to take over the family business afterwards and there would be succession there. Now there are good and bad things within that situation, but the sense of ownership and succession and continuity are very important.
Likewise, the alienation of individuals from communities. The household is somewhere where there is a deep-rooted belonging and an identity that is given to you with all these different relationships that I mentioned. It situates you in an internal realm, a realm that is deeply shared between a group of people, the family and the other people within the orbit of the household. And that is expressed in many different ways. It is expressed with the interior language that the family can build around itself, such as in the joy of song. And then there is also a relationship with the wider world, as the family and the household are realms with authority and weight politically. It is not just the individual acting as a political agent, but the family acts and certain people act on behalf of the family, as representatives of the family.
It is a significant change within our society that we think of just individuals—detached individuals—acting in abstraction from the family, without any reference to the family and societies dealing with individuals within the family, again without reference to the family structure itself. And so the abstraction of individuals from community is another thing that needs to be borne in mind. In Scripture the ideal is the bringing together of all these different things: the idea of man and woman being joined together in a common realm of rule within the world, the idea of this realm of shared life being also a realm of dominion, that the life that is shared is not just a realm of retreat and a domestic reservation but is a realm that is deeply engaged and powerfully active, involved, productive, and creative within the world. That is the ideal.
It is something that brings together our engagement within the particular realm, within a particular bond, but it also develops that into a realm of productivity and engagement. It is also something that creates a very tight bond between the generations as a realm of succession, of inheritance, of teaching and training, of passing on skills and all these things that preserve that human bond between the generations.
Now, we have systems that take the place of the household. In many respects the modern business is a system that largely takes the place of the household as do certain things like schools and other things like that. To a certain extent, a certain weight that used to exist upon the household has now been shifted to them and that is significant as the outsourcing of all these things to other agencies gradually weakens the family in the household. When the families within our society are breaking up, that is in part because there is not much weight placed upon them. If we really need the family to survive and to do well, then we put weight on the family and it becomes strong. The family is something that is strengthened through pressure and through the weight that has been placed upon it. When there is little weight placed upon it and it is just a matter of private affiliation it becomes a lot easier to break down.
Within Scripture salvation is addressed to households. Households are not just collections of individuals but they are realms of a common life, a common engagement with reality, a common dominion. It is a realm of teaching and it is a realm which has an ordered structure to it. It is not just individuals brought together within this one container, as it were. Rather, there is a head to the household. There is also one who stands at its heart. The wife and the mother is someone who stands at the heart of the household. She is, as it were, the Tree of Life—the human tree of life—in the middle of the human garden. The garden of the household grows out of the life of the mother primarily and she is the center of gravity at its midst, whereas the father is the head of the household. He is the one who primarily represents the household into the wider world. He is the one who acts on behalf of the household into that wider world.
Again, when we abstract the household from the world and we start to have just detached families and realms of sentimental retreat, we lose a sense of what the headship can mean. The headship of Christ, for instance, is a headship that is not primarily a rule over the church but a rule over the world for the sake of the church. His powerful action out in the world is something that empowers us as his people. We are blessed in the fact that he is powerful within the world, that he acts on our behalf, that he represents us, that he is our head. And, as we have detached the family and the household from the wider society, that relationship has become confused. It has often become a sort of ingrown relationship, where the headship of the man is very much a headship that can be expressed through just petty patriarchalism, where he is trying to rule and create these micromanaging structures for the other people within the household.
That is not the biblical vision at all. Rather, the household is a realm of powerful engagement. It is a realm that is supposed to grow out into the world, a realm that is supposed to be the center of gravity for the whole of life. This is not just something that we go back to at the end of the day at the office. This is something that should be at the very heart of all that we do.
In many ways, this is a vision that would be very hard to realize within our time; we can put certain things back together, but we cannot restore it all. But what we should seek to do is to recognize the importance of building society around the human structures, the human bonds that are most important: around the bond between our labour and our life, around the bond between man and woman, around the bond between one generation and the generation that follows, around the bond between children and parents, around the bond between our character and our labour, around the bond between labour and ownership. In all these respects our society falls far short. We have a great deal of power within the world but this power tends to be abstracted from a particular relationship of love, with a realm of life, and a commitment to that realm of life, to preserving that realm, to blessing the people and providing for the people within that realm, and a realm of common ownership.
I think many of the economic issues that we face within our society—around justice and economics—relate to the breakdown of the household structure and we need to think about that. Within the New Testament and places like Acts we see the baptism of households; whole groups of people are baptized because they share a common life, a common orientation. And when the head of the household is converted that has a ripple effect for everyone within and it is almost presumed that everyone else is implicated within that. There will of course be some people perhaps within these sorts of families and households that will not want to follow and will not want to convert, but the presumption is that once the head of the household has converted everyone else is implicated within that.
Likewise, in the Old Testament, salvation occurs in household form. So Abraham and his house are brought out of Ur of the Chaldees, not just him and his wife but all the people around him, all his servants, all his wide relations as well are brought. And you see this idea of an orbit around people—that all these people are included and are saved, not just as detached individuals, but as bodies of people. Likewise with Noah, and elsewhere in Scripture we see this household principle very clearly expressed. So, for instance, as Paul declares to the Philippian jailer ‘believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved,’ the verse continues ‘both you and your household.’ Now many people would like to say that is just saying that if you are converted that you will be saved, and that if your household converts they will be saved too. But yet there is the assumption that in this shared body of life, in the shared communion of life and common belonging, that as the Philippian jailer converts his household will in natural course convert.
That does not mean that faith is unimportant for them. Quite the opposite. It means that their faith is not just this detached individual faith, it can be a shared faith of a community that they are participating in. And the presumption is if they are truly participating in that community and if the head of that community has converted they will follow suit. And so this vision within Scripture is not such that the family is automatically saved or the household is automatically saved just because the head of the household converts, but rather it is the assumption that the rest of the household is included within the life that is represented by the head and as they convert then the rest of the family will follow them in that course.
Now this has implications for infant baptism and other subjects that I will not get into here—this has already been a very rough and rambling treatment of the subject. It is hard to pull together all the threads of a subject as big as that of the household, but I hope this is a helpful start for thinking through some of these issues. These issues have great significance, not just for thinking about issues like baptism, but they have significance for thinking about the relationship between man and woman, relationship between humanity in the world, the way that we approach our economies, the way that we relate the family to business, all these sorts of things. And I hope that many of you will look into this subject more because there is a lot there to be explored and it is very important within our current situation in society.
17 thoughts on “A Biblical Theology of the Household”
Thanks for this, Alastair! It was far from rough and rambling.
You draw together the threads of Scripture to present a compelling vision for Christian family life. I really appreciate the way you treat these important issues at a deep theological level.
The only catch is trying to live out this vision in a fallen world! So often our family life falls far short of God’s ideal. May we continue to seek the grace, wisdom and strength of our perfect heavenly Father.
Yes, living this in a fallen world is exceedingly tough! Hardly any actual families will be able to achieve the biblical ideals of the household in a society such as ours. The important thing is to keep clearly in mind that we are in a fallen and imperfect world and not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good, or to advocate for piecemeal measures that exacerbate injustices and problems, rather than relieving them. Nevertheless, we should seek to put back together things that should never have been taken apart in as wise, gracious, patient, and careful a manner as we can.
This is great thanks. The question I am left with is how do we retrieve some of what has been lost through the alienation of labour/ household and husband wife relationship?
What practises do you think could be in place?
If afforded the luxury how would you envision us changing our working/ home lives to facilitate flourishing more?
I might tackle these questions in a video at some point.
p.s. What translation are you using?
I appreciate these videos, Alastair!
I searched your writing for a fuller explanation of why you’re a paedobaptist (I’m a credobaptist who’s tried to be persuaded but haven’t managed it …), and maybe just didn’t find it. If you haven’t done so before, would you be interested in adding that to your list?
For what it’s worth, I know the history of the practice; but my main objection – part of the Anabaptist objection – is that, as you note in a Curious Cat post, the overwhelming weight of the biblical interpretation of baptism (which, granted, is not that much) links it with regeneration and union with the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The second objection, which has great weight to me, is that if regeneration is necessary for salvation, and regeneration is a miraculous and “punctiliar” work of the Spirit (happens in a particular point in time, whether we can see it or not), then paedobaptism at best either …
1) affirms that infants are regenerate upon baptism (Catholic position);
2) muddies the waters by promising some form of assurance before regeneration; or
3) is just a good-faith statement that parents will raise their children toward Christianity, which is great but doesn’t seem to merit the high language of baptism
What are the primary arguments you’d use to support paedobaptism?
Thanks for the comment and the questions, Joseph!
If you leave them over on my Curious Cat account, there is more chance that I might give a full answer to them at some point.
Hi Alastair. Started following you since the THINK conference a few weeks ago. I love this and am trying to think through how this biblical theology of the household maps to the church as the household of God, but beyond the usual (but vital) questions of male/female roles and relationships. So for example, the vision of the Church in Acts 2 and 4 start to become much sharper as when seen as a household (having all things in common, selling homes and land, gathering regularly to a common meal, growing through hospitality and salvation, etc.) I’d love to hear a follow up video on your reflections of this, and how Genesis 1 and 2 and the picture of the household there (God as Father, garden as realm, man, woman, work, mission, etc.) is a prophetic picture of the Church formed in Christ and how the local church should function as household in the world. Andrew Wilson touched on this with his final slide of the conference and his closing statement that “the future of complementarity lies in seeing the Church as a family and household rather than a corporation.” I left the conference feeling like the future of the Church and advance of our mission to the world (not just complementarity) lies in seeing the Church as family and household. I feel like we’ve lost (or are losing) that apostolic and prophetic foundation to who we are as God’s people. Would love to hear your thoughts on that. 🙂
Thanks, Ian! And welcome to my blog.
The subject is such a large one, which can be explored on a great many fronts. Whether it is Christian ministry, pastoral and otherwise, the nature of Christian fellowship, Christian ‘family values’, singleness, etc. thinking of the Church in this way can impact our approach.
That said, there are a lot of things that we need to beware of, as modern people using this illustration. What family means for us is very different from what it would have meant in Jesus’ day, perhaps especially in our focus upon the family as something principally associated with young children, rather than principally being associated with adult children.
If you leave a question on my Curious Cat account, there is a greater change of my giving it a fuller answer at some point.
Will do! I’ll head over to Curious Cat. It is a large subject but a vital one. So much that has been written in recent years (decades even) about “how to do church” comes from seeing church-as-corporation rather than a church-as-household. The Missional Community movement and folks like the Crowded House in Sheffield (Steve Timmis and Tim Chester) have made some ground on this recently. I made note of your point at the the conference that household and family was more about adult children rather than young children. That was a penny-drop moment for me! I even wonder if thinking of elder-as-older-brother rather than elder-as-father in the church family is more helpful way of mapping that role to the biblical household? Anyways. Thank you! I’ll pick this up with you on Curious Cat. Really appreciate your voice into all this.