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Biblical Family Formation

January 2005
By: David O'Leary
I'll confess. I've yelled at my kids—many times. I don't yell at them much anymore—mostly because they are away at work or college now. So how can I talk about the formation of a biblical family? It's simple. I know the need for the grace of God. And grace is the foundation for a Biblical family. Though as a pastor I teach and use a lot of techniques, my hope for my family rests on God's grace to me through Christ. That's what my marriage rests on, and that's what my ministry rests on. Whether it is your ministry in a pregnancy center, your relationship with your peers or your spouse, or the foundations for your family, we must have the grace of God, or we miss it all.

There are books, there are seminars, there are loads of tapes and videos, but to the extent that they tempt us to trust in our own competence, they tempt us to depart from grace. So let me ask you about God's grace in your family, particularly in your priorities and goals. How high a priority is your family? Does it come before your ministry and career? I'm not suggesting that your family override every aspect of your ministry and career. After all, we do have to get up and go to work. But does your family take priority?

I remember my daughter's first swim meet. She was not a strong swimmer, and she finished two laps behind the rest. As I stood alone at the end of the pool, shouting encouragement, I realized what it means to be a father. I would gladly stand on her side before the whole world, no matter what others thought. I'm her father. Like most people, I am tempted to consider what others might think about the standards I use for rearing my children. However, I have discovered that when I rely on the grace of God, I can give my children the love and nurture they need without regard to what others think. Would I risk my job or ministry for my family? Yes. God's grace will sustain me through any risk.

The relevance of this for family building is great. Unless I can communicate to my family that I am confident in God's grace no matter what others think, I will teach them to rely on themselves rather than on God. Self-reliance is the opposite of faith and will make my family and me unbelieving and proud.

What is your goal for your family? Is it to keep them safe at all costs? Then how will they ever come to a Lord who calls them to take up the cross? Is your goal to give them material goods? Then why do you volunteer in community service? You would make more money using your time elsewhere. Certainly one of your goals is to see your children saved, but isn't total discipleship under the Lord Jesus the whole goal? In our family, we have expressed our goal this way: That we and our children (1) Live wisely in a fallen world; (2) Know and love God; and (3) Live up to who we are in Christ.

Living wisely in a fallen world
We tell our children that escaping this fallen world is not their main purpose in life. While we seek to teach them what is right and true, we also alert them to the dreadful effects of the Fall in all of life. We emphasize the glory of fallen humankind so that our children will grow to appreciate the fruit of people who are made in God's image, whether art, literature, government, or science. At the same time, we emphasize the Fall of glorious humankind so that our children will see the uncanny ability we humans have to distort and twist what God made good.

The result of this is that our children grow in compassion for this lost world, while being on guard against the idolatry found in every human act. As a simple example, not only would we keep our children from inappropriate videos, but also we would instruct them to approach Christian videos with the perceptive eyes of God's Word. Then they will benefit from the good and reject the evil, all the while remembering that "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

Knowing and loving God
We want our family to know that God is good. Adults often give children the impression that God's goodness is shown only through happy events. If the job continues, if the illness is cured, if the ministry prospers, then God is good. Our goal is that our children "taste and see the goodness of the Lord" in all things. When we model our joy in the Lord in all circumstances, our children come to rely on God's goodness at all times.

For example, many of us who serve in Christian ministries struggle with finances and lifestyle. In our family, we are careful to communicate that whether we are in plenty or in want, God is our source. We could provide more for our family if we made money our goal. We do not make money our goal because God is our joy, and we rest on His goodness. I am not advocating low pay for those in Christian ministries. I am simply reminding us all that our children need to know that we are fully aware of the consequences of following the Lord, and we consider those consequences worth abiding in the light of His goodness.

Living up to who we are in Christ
This is the greatest challenge in building a family. Our obedience and good deeds do not save us. We sin and fall far short of the goal. Yet, as freeborn children of our heavenly Father, we walk in "newness of life" (Romans 6:4). God's grace enables us to know and confess our sin "without fear of God's rejection, and that same grace enables us to serve God as sons and daughters without the dread of never measuring up. How much that changes our approach to building the family! We should follow God's pattern. I embrace my children even when they sin because my love for them is not conditional. They do not need to measure up before they are accepted. At the same time, I encourage them to do the things that please God and their parents.

Building a godly family will not come from simply employing the right parental techniques. Techniques are useful, and you know many of them. But what we must do for our families is to rest in the grace of God and model that grace for them. As in all things, when we trust completely in Him, He will produce the fruit.

David O'Leary is married and has four children. He pastors a church in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He holds degrees from Tufts University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary (M.A.R., M.Div.), and Covenant Seminary (D.Min.). He can be reached at

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