God could have chosen to make each human being separately out of the dust, observed Martin Luther, as He did Adam. But instead He chose to populate the earth from generation to generation by inventing the family.
When in marriage a man and a woman become husband and wife, they are entering a vocation, a calling from God. This union may well lead to another calling, that of being parents.
For Luther, the doctrine of vocation was not so much a matter of serving God in one's work as it was an understanding of how God works through human beings. God gives us our daily bread through the vocation of farmers, bakers, truck drivers, retailers, and checkout clerks. God heals through doctors, protects by police officers, teaches through teachers, and cares for His people spiritually through pastors.
Though God works through the vocations of even non-Christians to exercise His providential care, Christians all have multiple callings: in the church, in their work, as citizens, and as members of a family.
There are even different callings within the family, each of which is a sphere of love and service to the others: husband, wife, father, mother, son, and daughter. Luther even considered being a child to be a vocation. A man is a husband to his wife, a father to his children, and still a son to his parents as long as they live. Each relationship entails specific kinds of responsibility, love, and service. Each relationship is also a means by which God blesses those who are touched. The husband is to be a blessing to his wife, and the wife to her husband, channels for God's manifold gifts to one another.
Parenthood-though so commonplace as to seem ordinary-may be the most miraculous calling of them all, the one in which God's workings are most dramatically evident. The husband and wife join physically and engender a new human being. Then they must take care of the child, tending to his every physical and emotional need. Then they must teach the child as he grows, showing how he is to treat other people, correcting his bad behavior, shaping his character, explaining what he needs to know, and initiating him into adulthood.
More than that, as Spenser points out in his great wedding poem "Epithalamion," to beget a child is to beget an immortal soul, and parents' larger goal is to fit their children for heaven, "of blessed Saints for to increase the count." To help in that process parents teach their children God's Word, take them to church, make sure they get a godly education, and guide them through the big and small trials of their lives.
This process goes on through time for generations and generations, as children grow up to have children of their own, whereupon they grow up to have children, until both the earth and heaven are indeed filled with a particular couple's "large posterity."
And yet, it is God all along who is working in the family, bringing a man and a woman together and calling them into marriage, creating new life in the mother's womb, providentially caring for children through the sometimes fumbling ministrations of mom and dad.
The family is God's invention. He protects it in the Ten Commandments-"Thou shalt not commit adultery" and "Honor thy father and thy mother"-and His Word uses the family as a way to talk about God Himself. Since our dependence on Him is that of a helpless baby to a loving parent, we are told to address Him as "our Father." Since His relationship to us in Christ is as loving and intimate as that between a groom and his bride, the church is called "the Bride of Christ." Husbands and wives are told to emulate the relationship between Christ and the church in their relationship with each other.
The church is for believers, but God blesses even those who do not know Him with families, which become the foundation for every other social and cultural institution.
This is what the family is, by God's design. Its center is marriage, God's way. But today many people think there is a better idea: marriage, our way.
We live at a time when husbands and wives routinely divorce each other, even though Jesus warns human beings not to break asunder what God Himself has joined. Even when marriages stay together, they are often torn by marital discord, even though it is a violation of God's calling to make each other miserable.
We live in an era of child abuse. Although the popular culture pretends to consider child abuse a terrible thing, the worst form of child abuse is legally and socially acceptable, namely, abortion. It is the vocation of parents to care for their children, not to kill them.
Although the family is the basis of culture, as any anthropologist will say, today parents often find themselves having to protect their children from their own culture. Instead of helping parents teach their children to control themselves, to act morally, and to mature into adults, our society-in its entertainment industry, its schools, and its government-often seems to undermine parents and to be at war against children.
And now we are presuming to re-engineer the family itself. Why should marriage be just for a man and a woman? That isn't fair. Why shouldn't men be allowed to marry men, and women be allowed to marry women, if that is their choice for sex? Vermont has now passed a law allowing homosexuals to form civil unions, and many churches and theologians-whose liberal theology encourages them to throw out Scripture in favor of whatever the dominant culture dictates-are clamoring for same-sex marriage.
People ask, What business is it of the state to regulate people's sexual practices and living arrangements? And if two people love each other, why shouldn't they have the legal benefits of marriage?
The answer is that sex-by God's design for all of His creation-is a family value. That is, sex is designed to engender children. The institution of marriage and the family is about having and raising children. (While it is true that some married couples cannot have children, the structures and the legalities of marriage are still designed around this purpose.)
The state's interest in marriage has nothing to do with people's sex lives, but with the primal social function of bringing children into the world. A family is not just a set of individuals who have sex with each other, nor is it a set of individuals who love each other. Rather, it is a biological unit, grounded in how God made us, and a social unit. The state's authority derives from the family, not vice versa. Human beings-whether state legislators, federal bureaucrats, or church conventions-cannot simply pass a law to change what marriage is.
How have we come to this point? Some of today's confusions about family date from the time when our culture began to treat sex as an end in itself, and to separate it from procreation. People have always wanted the pleasures of sex without its result, namely, children. "Sex without responsibility" captured the unique selling proposition of the prostitution industry. In the latter half of the 20th century, technology made that proposition universal.
One does not have to be a Catholic or to reject birth-control entirely to recognize that contraceptives had a profound effect on the culture's mores about sex. Separating sex from procreation meant that each could go his separate way.
Sex without the family commitments of marriage became socially acceptable. Sex became a matter of recreation, a jolt of physical pleasure, unconnected to family attachments. This led not only to promiscuity but to the acceptance of pornography and the constant sexual stimulation of our entertainment industry, in which sex obviously has nothing to do with having children. Homosexuality too makes perfect sense, if sex is seen as simply a type of pleasure one can have, apart from its biological purpose.
Often, instead of bringing couples into marriage, sex becomes an occasion for breaking up marriages. In their lust for unrestrained sexual pleasure, people consider the marriage bond too constraining and start looking for other partners.
Most seriously of all, the separation of sex from procreation means that when sex by accident does produce a child, it is nothing more than an unwanted byproduct. It becomes perfectly acceptable, under this mindset, to get rid of the unwanted "product of conception" (to use a common medical euphemism) by means of abortion.
Once our culture began approving of sex without procreation, the next phase of our dehumanization could begin: procreation without sex.
It is no longer that unusual to conceive children via artificial insemination in a culture dish. When the sperm and egg are from a married couple and the microscopic baby is planted inside the womb of the otherwise infertile mother, this might be a valid use of the medical vocation. But increasingly, the baby is placed in a surrogate's womb, so that the woman who gives birth to the child is not the biological mother. Another option now available is to buy sperm and eggs from commercial businesses that harvest genetic material from Nobel prize winners or beauty queens, enabling would-be parents to have "designer babies" with no biological heritage from themselves.
As reproductive technology becomes more and more sophisticated, as the human genetic code is cracked, and as genetic engineering becomes bigger and bigger business, expect more to come. Not just cloning, not just the genetic engineering of children according to our consumer preference, but childbirth itself may become a relic of primitive medical practices. Once an artificial womb is perfected, genetic material can be controlled in the lab, in a way it cannot be in the human body. It is understandable that women in labor may well, at the time, wish they could have a baby some other way. In the not too distant future that may become technologically feasible. We have conquered other kinds of pain, transcended the limits of the body in other ways. Freeing women from the pains of childbirth may well be seen as the final step in the emancipation and full equality of women.
At that point, the family will be technologically obsolete. A woman or a man-with no longer any distinction between them-can take a child off the rack, or have one made according to specifications. If individuals are too busy gratifying themselves sexually, the task of repopulating the earth could be taken up by the state, which could manufacture the workers it needs, raise them in 24-hour day-care centers, and socialize them in parentless schools.
The double helix of the DNA molecule may become a microscopic Tower of Babel. On the other hand, God did not let the Tower of Babel stand, and He is unlikely to let us undo His invention of the family.
Since family life is a calling, rather than something we come up with on our own, it has a way of changing people. Rugged independent types find themselves yearning to find someone to marry. And once they are called into marriage, intrinsically selfish individuals find themselves wanting to put another person first for a change. Career couples who never intended to have children suddenly want to have one, and when they do, the baby becomes the most important thing in their lives. Veterans of the sexual revolution, once they have a child, often became moral conservatives. They don't want their child to live the way they did.
The family is under attack. But families are also fighting back. And this is one war in which families really do have God on their side.