Every family faces the reality of conflict. Conflict is not, by nature, a necessarily destructive force. Some families endure conflict and emerge stronger, more unified. Other families face conflict and descend into dysfunction. As Christians, we are not immune to the reality of conflict. Yet instead of having dysfunctional dynamics in our families, scripture reminds us that it is possible to have a family functioning in a holy dynamic.
How is this possible? To understand this, we have to look at the three core relationships in many families: spousal, parent-child, and child-parent.
A godly, spousal relationship has to work with the understanding of mutual submission, as in “submit to one another” in Ephesians 5:21. Why is it so difficult to submit to one another? The word submit here is hupotassō which means “to rank under.”
Many of us are taught (sometimes unintentionally) from the beginning to look out for #1 – meaning ourselves of course. From the very beginning we live with the motivation of seeking what is the most beneficial for us, even if it harms others. Even in marriage we see this as couples do not work together as a team and instead act as competitors.
Instead, for a marriage to function in a holy way, each spouse must rank the other first in terms of priority and importance. Imagine how much better a marriage would be if both partners had each other’s back? You would not have to worry about looking out for yourself because your spouse is looking out for you. Likewise, your spouse would be comfortable looking out for you because they would know that you have their back. Mutual submission here would lead to mutual support.
The whole of what scripture says about marriages only seems to work when mutual submission is in play. Wives can choose to revere their husbands because they see the strength in his humility. They can revere a man who willingly puts her benefit over his pride. Interestingly, Ephesians 5 issues more reminders to husbands than to wives. God uses such beautiful imagery here (ESV) to describe how a godly husband “nourishes” and “cherishes” a wife. Husbands glue to or hold fast to their wives, entrusting his heart to her rather than keeping her at arms’ length. To be a godly spouse, it takes Christ working in us so that we can see our spouse not through the prism of past wrongs but through the prism of grace. Anything short of this leads to conflict, competition, and distrust.
I’m a parent with young children, so you are like me, this isn’t always the easiest facet of life to function in a holy way. Your children don’t always listen, life is stressful, and there are a thousand excuses to just not live up to the standard.
However, scriptures call us to something higher. “Train up” a child (Prov. 22:6) and nurture a child (Ephesians 6:4) – these verses displaying parenthood in a positive way. Too often we tear down our children rather than building them up. It’s just easier. I have family that have never heard “I love you” from their parents. Somehow they are just supposed to know it.
Yet instead we need to care for, encourage, build up, nurture, and create an atmosphere for emotional and spiritual health for our children. Our children might love the idea of a heavenly father when they have a nurturing mother or father here on earth. Instead of creating obstacles for our children to “get over” in therapy later on, we should be giving spiritual legacies of love to embrace and pass on.
The last category is probably more difficult for children or parents of teenagers than for others. Children (regardless of age) are called to obey and honor their parents. When I was a teenager, I was wholeheartedly dedicated to the idea that I would only obey my parents when I felt like they had earned it. I would honor them, if I felt respect by them.
Now while that might be natural, it’s not godly. It’s remarkable and somewhat inconvenient that none of the scriptural commandments provide an escape clause. We cannot let another person’s behavior dictate our own faithfulness.
How can we honor the God whom we can’t see when we don’t honor the parents whom we can see? Furthermore, we are not God and our viewpoints are imperfect and limited. So even the excuse of only treating people in a godly fashion when they deserve is undermined as we cannot always see our own faults or flaws.
It would be easier (but not guaranteed) that those older than us would treat us with respect when we first treat them with respect. Lots of relationships devolve into a “you first” mentality in which we expect the other party to be the first to encourage, love, and sacrifice for the other. We as children (whether you are 5 or 50) can still choose to show love, respect, and honor to our imperfect parents.
Break the Cycle
In our families, it’s time to break the cycle. Disrespect and selfishness often breeds more disrespect and selfishness. On the other hand, godly attitudes might breed more godly attitudes. Mutually submissive parents provide an example to their children. Respectful children provide an example to the parents whom they honor.
All the while, we need an infusion of grace in our lives. We do all of this “for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). Only by Christ and in Christ can we have family that are rooted in holy dynamics rather than destroyed by carnal dysfunction. Perhaps we should call out again, “Give us our daily bread, O Lord” and may the Holy Spirit help us in our weakness (Rom. 8:26).