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  • Rev Peter Chan (BPCEC)

What Is A Family?

5:21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.

6:1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— 3 “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”

4 Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

Ephesians 5:21-22, 25-28; 6:1-4

In my thirty-one years of pastoral ministry, I have been reminding myself that there are two areas of my life that I tread very carefully whenever I am preaching, teaching, and counselling: namely, marriage and family (especially parenting). As pastors or church leaders, we are often being judged by what people perceived or pre-concluded about our marriage and family.

In my marriage preparation classes (MPC), whenever I am doing family-of-origin history with couples, I would assure them that whatever they share with me about their family of origin, including their parents’ marriage (according to their perceptions), I would not judge because none of us come from a perfect family and/or have a perfect marriage. What is more important is to discover God’s grace at work in our marriages and families despite their imperfections.

In the Bible, we see many dysfunctional marriages and families. Yet, we see God’s grace demonstrated through the marriages and families of the patriarchs (Genesis), David (Samuel and Kings), and even prophet Hosea.

Before I go into sharing the concept of what is a family, allow me to share two real-life stories that I encountered in my pastoral counselling.

We Are Family Until I Disagree and Disown You

Joe and Joyce have been married for some years and together they have two sons, one preschool and the other in primary school. Personal and story details have been modified to prevent identification. Also, I have sought permission from the couples.

Joyce called me to ask if I could meet up with her and husband as both were having heated disagreements and arguments over the subject of discipline with their children. Joe was very harsh in the way he disciplined the children. He would resort to anger, harsh words, and physically throwing them out of the house for hours. Joyce was very troubled by his approach and often ended up quarrelling with him over the issue of child discipline.

So, we met, and they shared their stories.

I suggested to them doing a survey of the history of their respective family-of-origin. They agreed. I would focus on Joe since the issue at hand had to do with his growing up experience. When it came to the part about his parents’ parenting with him. Joe started showing his anger as he described how he hated the way his father had disciplined him when he was a very young boy. Even at a young tender age of five, his dad would throw him out of the house over a small issue of him not wanting to eat his meal. Instead of coaxing him, his dad condemned him with harsh words and threw him out of the house till late night. Joe shared that he hated his father for his harsh approach to discipline and lack of encouragement throughout his childhood and teens.

It was good that we did the family-of-origin history despite they had been married for some years and did not do that in their marriage preparation class. As Joe narrated his horrifying experience of his father’s approach to parenting, I pointed out to him that he was doing exactly what his father did with him. He was doing the very thing why he hated his father. His father’s way of parenting with him was something Joe disagreed and detested!

Another issue surfaced during out sessions on marriage counselling. Joyce was appalled at Joe’s intention to announce disowning his father and sister. There were some serious disputes among them that were historical baggage.

During one of our marital counselling sessions, I asked Joe what his family tree would be like if he had proceeded to disown his father and sister. Next, I asked Joe how he would explain to his children those missing figures and links in the extended family tree. What if he told his children as it is, that he disowned them because he disagreed and disputed with them? What would then be his message to his children about what is a family. Would it not be a family is until he disagreed and disowned its members?

I was glad that Joe was an intelligent and reflective person. After some personal reflections and discussion with Joyce, he reconciled with his dad and sister. Joe’s action had monumental impact on his children’s understanding of what a family is despite our disagreements, we decide to sort out and stay connected!

We Are Family Until I Disagree and Depart

Amos and Angie came to see me to prepare for their upcoming marriage. As part of their marriage preparation, I told them they had to do a session of family-of-origin with me. They agreed and so we did a very long session together.

During the session, it was discovered that Amos had a very rough growing up experience in the family. Though dad was a highly educated person and had a good paying job, he would come home stressed from work. Then, he would be easily agitated and beat up Amos and his older brother whenever he perceived them misbehaving. He would beat them with his belt. Amos and his older brother really hated the frequency of the pain and suddenly flare of temper. The beatings continued on even when the boys were growing into teenagers.

When Amos just completed his GCE ‘A’ Levels exams, he hatched a plan secretly with his older brother. He planned to purchase a ticket to Canada and never to return home! Amos diligently and carefully saved up enough for the one-way air-ticket. Surprisingly, his older brother did not dissuade him; instead, he became an accomplice and abetted Amos in the act.

Unfortunately, his hope of being accommodated by his aunt over there did not work out. As a result, he wandered around working all sorts of odd jobs to survive. Despite the hardships, Amos had no thoughts of returning home. Partly, he was afraid of facing the music, especially the dad’s possible violent reactions.

Of course, the parents were in pain over his departure and disappearance. Somehow, they managed to contact him. They appealed for his return and assured him of no reprisal if he did. Amos returned home. Parents did not say anything about his escapade; the family “pretended” as if nothing had happened.

Subsequently, Amos went overseas to study and became a believer. Nonetheless, his relationship with his dad especially was one of avoidance. They had nothing to say to each other for fear of conflict.

During our session on family-of-origin history, I asked Amos what he thought about his two-year escapade and experience alone overseas. Amos was all positive about it. He thought the experience had taught him a lot of invaluable lessons on personal survival and caregiving.

Next, I asked Amos what his action of “running away from home” say about his understanding of what constituted a family. Amos clarified. I put it in another way. Now that he is going to be married and would be a father subsequently, how would he interpret the escapade and experience? Also, how would he explain to his children?

Amos thought for a long while and I could see he was really thinking hard. He realised that the two-year escapade and experience would not be positive when interpreted in the context of family. He realised he disagreed with dad and decided to depart to end his relationship with him and family. His action had defined for him that family is until he disagreed and departed!

I further asked Amos what that would mean for his wife-to-be, Angie? Is there a need for him to reconsider his view of marriage and family to reassure Angie (and future family) that he would never leave or abandon her or them despite disagreements, disputes, and difficulties?

Amos was obviously “shocked” by these serious questions and more so what they mean for his family of origin and the marriage-family to be. He agreed that he needed to correct his view on marriage and family - that a family seeks to stick together through disagreements, disputes, and difficulties.

Having success in “reconstructing” Amos’ thoughts and views on marriage and family, I pushed further with another question, “Is there a need now for Amos to work on reconciling with his parents, especially with dad? Is there a need for this to ensure a complete and healthy extended family tree?”

I was impressed with Amos’ willingness to work on these questions raised in the session.

Next, I was at their wedding. When it came to Amos the groom to say words of thanks. He went forward from the lectern to the father and gave him a hearty hug. I was near enough to witness the affections expressed to one another between father and son. I concluded that Amos must have had reconciled with his dad!

What is a Biblical Marriage and Family Covenant?

Whenever I conduct MPC, I begin with the foundational lessons on the understanding of the difference between covenant and contract. Many contemporary marriages are based on contract, which consist of terms and conditions for performance. And when there is non-performance or “under” performance, each one is free to quit!

However, a covenant marriage is based on our understanding of how God relates to those whom He calls a permanent commitment to bring to pass God’s purpose and plan. In the case of God’s covenant with us, it is always unilateral as we may promise but we cannot be persistently and consistently faithful in keeping it.

The concept of covenant in marriage and family comes from the book entitled, “The Family: A Christian Perspective on the Contemporary Home” (5th Edition, 2021), by Jack and Judith Balswick. Interestingly, Jack and Judith are married, and they are sociologists.

In the case of covenant in marriage, a man and a woman come together to pledge a lifetime of love and loyalty - “until death do us part!”

The pledge of love and loyalty is the promise to love and be loved, the initialising of a covenant relationship between husband and wife. The pledge to LOVE and be loved is to be manifested in three ways in the marriage so that there is growth of intimacy. Many married couples think that the pledge to love and be loved is professed once and for all at the wedding. The pledge to love and be love needs renewal of commitment, not even on anniversaries, but a daily decision to love and be loved!

First, there is the promise to FORGIVE and be forgiven. Both husband and wife promise to practice GRACE by choosing to forgive one another by keeping no records of wrongs. Both also agreed to seek forgiveness from one another when there is wrong committed. This GRACE element in the covenant is consistent with Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

Second, there is the promise to SERVE and be served. Both husband and wife promise to practice EMPOWERMENT by choosing to serve one another, always looking to each other’s needs. I like the concept of Christian married couples as fellow submitters as they heed Paul’s exhortation, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21) Also, the Christian married couple are servants, always seeking to serve one another; they are servant lovers. Did not Paul exhort the Philippians to imitate Christ with these words, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)

Third, there is the promise to KNOW and be known. Husband and wife promise to promote intimacy in the marriage by seeking to allow himself/herself to be known by the other. No deliberate attempt to hide from one another. Hiding promotes secrecy and it destroys intimacy in the marriage. In contemporary marriages, there is one area of secrecy that threatens intimacy in the marriage. In the area of finance, many married couples decide to have separate private accounts and set up a common account for bills and payments. If I cannot trust my wife in the area of finance, I will find it hard to trust her for many things! It is one thing to decide to have one spouse having better self-control to plan and control the finance, but it is quite another to keep separate accounts and keep them private! This practice does not promote growing in knowledge.

Knowing one another does not stop there on the day of the wedding, it is just the beginning of a lifetime of discovery. Why? Because both husband and wife are growing and developing persons. In marriage counselling, I have couples saying something like this, “He/She is no longer the man/woman I knew when I married him/her!” Somewhere, along the way, they have stop discovering one another and grow in their love and thus acceptance of one another.

In contemporary Singapore society, one huge hindrance to knowing for married couples is when children come along. Their conversation inevitably centres on children. If wife is the primarily looking after children’s education and caregiving, she might end up doing reporting whenever she talks with husband. It may be the other way round.

The diagram on the covenant of marriage shows that when there is living out of the covenant of marriage, there will be growth in intimacy. On the reverse, when couple refuses to practise grace in forgiving, empowerment through service, and intimacy through in-depth sharing of self, there is further distancing. I have said to couples in MPC that long before the legal divorce takes place, there is already an emotional divorce!

Family is Expansion of Marriage Covenant

Let me say it upfront: marriage is complete without children. This truth should remove the anxiety and stress facing couples who are struggling with fertility issues. However, this statement does not relieve Christian married couples from fulfilling the mandate to “be fruitful and fill the earth”. In Christian parenting, it is a disciple-making process as we seek to raise our children to know, love, and serve Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, to and for the glory of the Triune God!

Recently, I was in church on Sunday right after service for fellowship in the hall. A couple came up to me to greet me. Next, he told me he would get his teenage daughters to come over and meet me. When the two girls came, the husband said to them, “Girls, you should thank pastor. Without him, you would not be born and are here today. He chided me when I told him I did not want to have a family!” It was so encouraging for me to know that the couple experienced the joy of obeying God’s creation mandate and the Great Commission!

How should members of a Christian family conducts relationship with one another? Simply, same principles in the marriage covenant apply: love (to love and be loved), grace (to forgive and be forgiven), empowerment (to serve and be served), and intimacy (to know and be known).

When our children come along in the family, our marriage covenant expands to include them. However, our children will have no idea of what the covenant of this family entails except by watching how parents relate to each other. More things are caught than taught! We may instruct them on what is loving, true, gracious, and good. That is well and good. But they are going to learn more from what we say and do, and how we relate to each other as husband and wife!

One day, when our three boys were still very young (between ages 3 to 9), my wife and I had a sharp disagreement. We were not talking kindly to each other. Then, out of the blue, our oldest boy, leaned forward to the front seats between us said, “Daddy, you must say sorry to mommy because you were rude with her! Mommy, you must say sorry to daddy because you were also rude with him!” Unfortunately, our anger got the better of us, and we replied harshly to our eldest boy, “Shut up and sit back!”

That evening, we went to our oldest boy and said to him, “Sorry for what we did this afternoon. It was wrong that we were rude with you. You were right, daddy and mommy needed to apologise to one another for being rude.” Next, we hugged him affectionately!

That little episode and experience provides us a good reminder that our children are quick to learn from us, positively and negatively. They learn from us that we need to apologise and forgive one another. But, that afternoon in the car, they saw a completely opposite thing. If we had not apologised to him and explained, the negative example we provided unwittingly would have a lasting impact on him and his siblings.

Our Challenge Ahead...

We are living in a society where marriages are failing, and families are falling apart. We no longer can assume a child has complete parents, or that his present parents are biological parents. Christian married couples are not spared from the shocking and saddening statistics.

Instead of trying to convince the world of God’s wisdom in instituting marriage and family as the primary building blocks of society and nation, we should do more on living out the biblical covenant of marriage and family. Yet, as we are seeking to do so, our marriages and families are imperfect, but they are full of truth, transparency, grace, and love! Soli Deo Gloria!

Rev Peter Chan is married to Diana for thirty-two years and they have three grown-up sons between ages of 25 and 31. He is currently the Executive Secretary for Ministry for Youth, Education, and Missions with The Presbyterian Church in Singapore (PCS). He has been pastoring several Presbyterian churches for thirty-one years. He has been actively preparing couples for marriage and counselling couples for marriage and family issues. Currently, he is pursuing his studies leading to a Master of Counselling with Flinders University / Executive Counselling Training Academy (ECTA).

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