Marriage and Family: Vital Institutions in Crisis

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Long-held assumptions about marriage and family, and their value to society, are being challenged by modern social critics. What is a happy marriage, and a healthy family? Your Bible explains why these are so important—for your life, and for society as a whole.


Is marriage out of date? Can the family be redefined without consequences? Does it matter whether we accept "alternative lifestyles" alongside traditional marriage and family?

We are living in truly momentous times. The historic pillars of Western civilization—biblical religion, marriage and the family—are under siege and crumbling. In the last half of the 20th century the fundamental building blocks of human society were compromised, corrupted and rejected at an alarming rate—and the trend is only accelerating.

Glenn Stanton, a social research analyst, makes the stunning observation that "the family in the Western world has been radically altered—some claim almost destroyed—by events of the last three decades" (Why Marriage Matters, Stanton, p. 17). He states further that "the scale of marital breakdowns in the West since 1960 has no historical precedent… there has been nothing like it for the last 2,000 years, and probably longer" (ibid., p. 20). He quotes demographer Kingsley Davis' lament that at "no time in history, with the possible exception of Imperial Rome, has the institution of marriage been more problematic than today" (ibid., p. 25). Stanton concludes that "of all the social problems facing American civilization, the decline of marriage and the breakup of the family is unquestionably our most pressing problem… it is the common denominator driving other social ills" (ibid., p. 18).

But just how serious is this growing trend? What has caused this striking social transformation? Where will it lead? Are there solutions that will salvage and restore the institutions that underpin stable human societies? As we will see, the Bible holds vital keys!

Values and Consequences

Many analysts recognize that the social and sexual revolution that erupted in the 1960s has had momentous consequences. The slogan of anti-war protestors—"make love, not war"—and the efforts of intellectuals to liberate society from "repressive, puritanical, Victorian" morality separated sex from marriage and morals, unleashing a wave of sexual promiscuity that swept around the globe. The feminist crusade labeled marriage a form of slavery for women and urged women to initiate sexual liaisons when they felt like it. Divorce laws were relaxed and divorces increased, single parent homes multiplied, and cohabitation rates skyrocketed. Social engineers proclaim that we have "matured" and entered a new age of freedom and tolerance. However, history reveals that there is a darker side to this modern wave of naïve social change.

In the 1930s, British anthropologist Joseph Unwin studied how sexual values influenced the course of history in more than 80 different cultures, including ancient Babylon, Greece and Rome. He noted that when sexuality was confined to marriage, societies reached a higher level of civilization—they built bigger cities, made greater efforts to manage their environment and raise their standard of living and asked more probing questions about the meaning of life. He also noted that societies allowing sexual freedom were consistently of a lower order, and that when great civilizations lost respect for the value of marriage and morality, and began pursuing "easy" sexual relationships and alternative lifestyles, those great civilizations declined and crumbled. So consistent was the evidence that Unwin concluded: "If we know what sexual regulation a society adopted, we can prophesy the pattern of its culture" (see Stanton, pp. 47–51).

Other authors echo the same conclusions. One Harvard sociologist wrote that "the regime that permits chronically excessive, illicit and disorderly sex activities contributes to the decline of cultural creativity" (The American Sex Revolution, Sorokin, pp. 106–107). Historian Jim Nelson Black commented: "The entire record of human history confirms that despair and disaster are the natural consequences of irresponsible self-indulgence. A number of Americans [and others] want to ignore that dark reality" (When Nations Die, Black, p. 216). Theologian Carl Henry resorted to biblical terms when he warned that the "increasing rejection of monogamous marriage, the ready accommodation of divorce… the legitimization of homosexuality and lesbianism as alternative lifestyles" will lead to a "cultural Armageddon" (The Twilight of a Great Civilization, Henry, pp. 26, 174). The demise of marriage and the family, and the rise of rampant divorce, cohabitation and unrestrained sexual desires will bring consequences contributing to the demise of our own civilization. That is why it is important to understand the significance of this modern social transformation.

Causes and Solutions

But what has caused this rapid demise of marriage and the family? For anyone willing to look, the contributing factors are not hard to find. Author Black states that the rise of relativistic thinking in the 1960s convinced many Americans that "they could trade responsibility and genuine commitment for sensual self-indulgence and self-gratification. Church and state, marriage and family, and many of our most sacred traditional values came under attack. The moral underpinnings of society were discarded in the name of personal freedom and self-actualization" (Black, p. 216). Talk show host Jim Bohannon comments that when people began "doing their own thing" in the 1960s, families began to disintegrate. He observes that "doing your own thing, for parents, means splitting up over just about any provocation. It seems easier to divorce than stay married these days. Divorce has easy to follow steps, and a legion of lawyers to guide you. Marriage comes with no owner's manual, and is… hard work sometimes" (America in Crisis, Bohannon, p. 71). Researcher Stanton writes that many today are "unable or unwilling to make the kind of commitment marriage requires" (Stanton, pp. 27–28).

Former Secretary of Education William Bennett blames liberal theologians who question the importance of marriage, rationalize away moral absolutes, accept alternative homosexual lifestyles and endorse "new" family structures that include same-sex couples adopting children (see The De-Valuing of America, Bennett, p. 222). In the last 30 years, the liberalizing of divorce laws in American and other Western countries that permit marriages to be terminated at will has had a disastrous impact on the family (see The Marriage Problem, Wilson, pp. 99–101). Family life specialist Dennis Rainey faults parents for not clearly teaching their children, by word and example, that cohabitation and pre-marital sex are sinful and wrong (Building Strong Families, Rainey, p. 16). A large segment of Western society has accepted false teachings that divorce is often a good solution to family problems and has little permanent effects on either adults or children, that cohabitation can be good preparation for marriage and that the definition of a family can be altered without consequence.

As a result of these misguided influences, many today have no clear idea of what marriage is all about, and have no idea why families exist or what normal family relationships should look like. Numerous scholars recognize the need for dissemination of proven and tested standards that people can use to improve their own marriages and families. Professor James Wilson asserts that our current troubled state of marriage will not change "unless there is a powerful cultural reassertion of the value of marriage" (Wilson, p. 216). Our "mature"—yet gullible—cultures must come to understand that the benefits of intact, first-time marriage far outweigh any other alternative, and that cohabitation, premarital sex and "new" definitions of families are poor substitutes for the real thing.

Traits of Healthy Families

What qualities do strong, healthy families possess? What can you do to improve the quality of your family life? Columnist and researcher Dolores Curran surveyed 500 family professionals and identified 15 traits that strong families all shared. Each of these traits can be nurtured and developed in your own family.

A Healthy Family:

  • Communicates and listens
  • Shares table time and conversation—they eat together
  • Affirms and supports one another
  • Teaches respect for others
  • Develops a sense of trust among members
  • Has a sense of play and humor
  • Has a balance of interaction among members
  • Shares leisure time—they do things together
  • Exhibits a sense of shared responsibility
  • Teaches a sense of right and wrong
  • Has a strong sense of family in which rituals and traditions abound
  • Has a shared religious core
  • Respects the privacy of one another
  • Values service to others
  • Admits and seeks help with problems

(from Traits of a Healthy Family, Curran)

Origin and Purpose

But why do marriage and the family exist? How did they come to be? Intellectuals have foolishly speculated that human beings learned to marry and form families because this gave us an evolutionary advantage over our supposed animal ancestors, aiding the survival of our species because it helped us better hunt for or raise our food, and gain protection against dangers outside the family. Such simplistic and materialistic thinking assumes that there is no higher purpose for human existence, and simply ignores what God has revealed in the Bible. Yet since this kind of thinking is so widespread today, it is not surprising that many have no idea of the real origin and purpose of marriage and family—even though the Bible makes it plain!

From the Bible we learn that human beings are not animals; rather, they were created in the image of God, their Creator (Genesis 1:26–28). They were to "be fruitful and multiply"—to have children—and to learn to rule on the earth. God intended that sexual relations should be confined to marriage, and defined marriage as between a man and woman who become husband and wife (Genesis 2:21–25). An ideal family consists of a biological father and mother and their children. To try to dignify a relationship between two men or two women as a "marriage," or to redefine the family as anything other than husband, wife and children is simply to pervert what God intended—and is an abomination in His sight (see Leviticus 18:22; Romans 1:22–32). God does not mince words or indulge in "politically correct" terminology.

The Bible reveals that one key purpose of marriage is the rearing of "godly offspring" (Malachi 2:15). This is why adultery and sexual immorality are wrong (Exodus 20:14; 1 Corinthians 6:18–20), and why God "hates divorce" (Malachi 2:16). Divorce destroys the essential stability of the family and leaves permanent scars on adults and children (see Stanton, chapter 5). Marriage and family are also a training ground for greater responsibilities (1 Timothy 3:1–5, 12). The revealed purpose of human life is that we can ultimately become members of God's divine family (Romans 8:14–17; 1 John 3:1–3; also request our free booklet Your Ultimate Destiny). The Bible explains that relationships within the family are designed to picture relationships in God's spiritual family (Ephesians 5:30–33), and spells out specific God-ordained roles for husbands and wives within marriage. Men are to lead but are commanded to love their wives (Ephesians 5:23–29) and dwell with them according to understanding—appreciating how their wives differ, and learning how to meet their needs (1 Peter 3:7). A wife must also learn to love her husband and be "submissive" to his leadership, following the example of the great women such as Sarah (1 Peter 3:1–6). Sarah was not a brainless "doormat"; she was an intelligent woman who followed God's instructions for women (Proverbs 31:10–31).

Building Strong Families

Strong, healthy families do not "just happen"! They result from following specific guidelines. For any family, culture or civilization to thrive and grow—and not decline and crumble—sound values must be passed on to the next generation. This is why the nation of Israel was instructed to teach their children the laws and commandments of God (Deuteronomy 6:1–9).

Abraham was chosen to be the father of the faithful (Romans 4:11) because he taught "his children and his household… that they keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice" (Genesis 18:19). Righteousness is defined as keeping the commandments of God (Psalm 119:172). The Bible plainly states: "You shall therefore keep His commandments… that it may go well with you and with your children after you" (Deuteronomy 4:40). The Bible warns that serious consequences will result if we ignore or reject God's commandments (see Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28).

God fully intended that parents and religious leaders understand and explain the biblical instructions concerning marriage and family. This is why it is important to understand the purpose of marriage, and the role the family plays in preparing future sons and daughters for the Kingdom of God. Anyone who wants a strong marriage and family must prepare—physically, mentally and spiritually—to handle the roles and responsibilities that God outlines in the Bible. Regrettably, today, even many professing Christians try to reason around and reject as "old fashioned" the roles for husbands and wives clearly explained in Scripture (see Ephesians 5:22–33; Colossians 3:18–21; 1 Peter 3:1–7). Anyone who marries and starts a family must also count the cost and be willing to pay the price (in time, commitment and persistence) that is required to succeed. Today, however, when problems arise, many opt for an "easy" divorce (in spite of the documented long-term consequences) and jump into remarriages (even though the failure rates for second and third marriages are higher than for first marriages). Excellent summaries of research on successful marriages are available for anyone who wants to build a strong marriage and family.

Another motivation for building and maintaining strong marriages and families is an understanding of the real tangible benefits of first-time marriages that are seldom mentioned today in our politically correct societies. Many studies show that married couples are in general healthier, physically and mentally, than people who cohabit, separate, divorce or remarry. They live longer, take better care of themselves, have lower rates of alcoholism and suicide, display lower stress levels and enjoy more fulfillment in their lives. On the other hand, people who chose alternatives to first-time marriage generally experience more problems (see Stanton, chapter 5). Those who cohabit before marriage divorce more frequently. Divorce leaves life-long scars on both children and adults. Single-parent homes are "the single largest stumbling block to academic success" when children enter school (Bohannon, p. 72). This is not welcome news to those who promote alternative lifestyles. Stanton observes in his remarkably informative book that "a culture wise enough to favor marriage over the myriad 'alternative' family structures will reap the benefits of healthy, strong, happy, sound, productive, and long-lived lives" (ibid., p. 95).

The Bible clearly teaches that "God is love" (1 John 4:8) and that we are to learn to live godly lives by learning to love God and to love our neighbor (Matthew 22:36–40). The closest neighbors we will ever have are found in marriage and the family: husband, wife, father, mother, children, aunts, uncles and grandparents. As we learn to love—to show care, concern, respect, understanding and forgiveness—we develop the very character of God our Father. This is why it has been said that "the family is where character is planted and grown. It is the place where civility and respect for others are nurtured and cultivated. If the soul of America [and other nations] is to be restored, it will be done in one home, one family at a time, and in the church we assist by proclaiming God's truth for the family. We need a family reformation" (Rainey, p. 15).

God's Church strives to recapture the true biblical values of marriage and the family by turning "the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to their fathers" (Malachi 4:5–6; Luke 1:17). This mission of the Church will become the mission of Jesus Christ and the saints in the coming kingdom, when there will be a "restoration of all things" (Acts 3:19–21). Those who are willing to invest time and effort to learn how to build strong marriages and families, founded upon sound biblical principles, will become the teachers in tomorrow's world (Isaiah 30:20–21). They will have the amazing privilege of showing all mankind the way to real happiness in human families, as they grow to become members of God's own family.

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