Marriage and family didn’t just evolve, but today’s families definitely aren’t living up to what God designed. Understanding His plan can help us build better families now and prepare to take our place in His perfect, eternal family.
The Bible claims marriage is symbolic of a great and wonderful mystery (Ephesians 5:32). It also describes the result of God’s amazing love in family terms:
“Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!” (1 John 3:1).
But these superlatives stand in stark contrast with the realities of modern families. Given the miseries so many experience, marriage and family can seem to be outmoded institutions that we must evolve beyond.
Accident or design?
How did marriage and family become the nearly universal building blocks of societies around the world throughout history? Some who believe family is a result of evolution believe monogamy was just a mistake.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Fathers are biological necessities, but social accidents.” She believed other social structures could easily have evolved that didn’t include a continuing role for fathers.
Evolutionary biologist David P. Barash wrote, “Monogamy is under siege from our biology itself. Men are typically larger than women, have more muscle mass, are more inclined to violence and become sexually and socially mature later. These traits are characteristic of an animal species in which one male competes with other males to mate with multiple females” (“Is Monogamy Over?” Time, Sept. 21, 2015, p. 64). Yet he also said:
“Even though monogamy isn’t natural and therefore isn’t easy, it does offer the benefit of biparental care. It’s rare for any species to engage in biparental care unless the males are guaranteed that they are genetically related to the offspring—confidence monogamy alone can provide. And because human children need so much parental assistance, protection and investment, humans, perhaps more than any other animal, especially benefit from monogamy.”
Other scientists have cataloged additional advantages of marriage and family. The June 13, 2016, Time cover feature summarized some of the benefits of marriage even in our rapidly changing modern world:
“At the same time, new evidence keeps piling up that few things are as good for life, limb and liquidity as staying married. ‘Couples who have made it all the way later into life have found it to be a peak experience, a sublime experience to be together,’ says Karl Pillemer, a Cornell University gerontologist who did an intensive survey of 700 elderly people for his book 30 Lessons for Loving. ‘Everybody—100%—said at one point that the long marriage was the best thing in their lives.
“‘But all of them also either said that marriage is hard,’ he adds, ‘or that it’s really, really hard’” (p. 38).
(The benefits to children of a strong two-parent family have been documented in many studies. See the sidebar “Family Facts” for some of these.)
But are marriage and family just a chance fluke of evolution, institutions that we are evolving out of? Or is there a reason for the benefits—and the challenges—of these most intimate relationships?
From the beginning
God claims the credit for the creation of marriage and the family.
When Jesus was asked about divorce, He put the subject in context:
“Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:4-6).
God designed the intimate relationship of marriage to be exclusive and lasting—and to be a type of the deep bond between Jesus Christ and His Church (Ephesians 5:32). He intended marriages to produce godly offspring, with the family reflecting the eternal relationship He wants with us (Malachi 2:15; 2 Corinthians 6:18).
Was there a design flaw in the relationships God created? No. But we have deviated from the divine design.In spite of these divine purposes, human failings soon blemished the beautiful relationships God intended. Adam and Eve succumbed to temptations that led to much harder living conditions and a battle between the sexes. Their first son gave in to jealousy and killed his own brother. And family life has generally gone downhill from there.
Was there a design flaw in the relationships God created? No. But we have deviated from the divine design. Human choices of shoddy materials (such as replacing love and commitment with lust and selfishness) and construction shortcuts (such as premarital sex, lack of preparation and lack of dedication) prevent the building of the perfect relationships God laid out in the Bible.
The design has been resilient enough to provide benefits to millions over the millennia. But our variations on the family have all had deep flaws and produced far too many tragic evils, from dysfunctional families to abuse. We must not confuse these human failings with the original perfect institutions God designed.
Rediscovering the divine design
The Bible gives many keys to developing the kind of relationships God intended. Let’s quickly look at four of them.
- Love and respect. The apostle Paul summarized key instructions to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5:33:
“Let each one of you in particular so love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
Love and respect are keys to all relationships, but what this passage, beginning in verse 22, seems to be saying is that by loving his wife unselfishly as Christ loves the Church, the husband is fulfilling a deep need for his wife and making it easier for her to respect and love him. Likewise, the wife’s respect fulfills her husband’s deep need and makes it easier for him to love and respect her. All this contributes to a healthy atmosphere of mutual submission and appreciation to God (verses 20-21).
- Nurture and honor. Ephesians 6:4 instructs parents to bring up their children in the “training and admonition of the Lord,” or as the King James Version puts it, the “nurture and admonition of the Lord.” Parents must lovingly teach their children how to live a responsible, godly life in an encouraging way that does not “provoke” them.
Children are reminded to “honor” their parents, in accordance with the Fifth Commandment, the “first commandment with promise” (verse 2). Learning early to honor and submit to authority increases the chances their lives will go well and last long (verse 3).
Again, nurture and honor can benefit many relationships, but they are especially helpful in the parent-child relationship. Learn more in our articles “Raising Children: The Early Years,” “Helping Our Children Grow” and “Fifth Commandment: Honor Your Father and Your Mother.”
Learn more about these and other biblical and practical tips for happy marriages and families in the “Relationships” section of our LifeHopeandTruth.com website. Understanding the ultimate purpose for these foundational relationships can help us see past the challenges and frustrations of today to a life full of meaning and joy as the children of God forever.
Sidebar: Family Facts
Here is a brief snapshot of statistics about families around the world:
“Using data from 100 countries around the globe, … family instability is higher in countries where more children are born to single mothers and cohabiting couples. … In other words, marriage seems to be associated with more family stability for children across much of the globe, whereas cohabitation is typically associated with more instability” (World Family Map 2017).
- “The average out-of-wedlock birth rate for OECD countries [35 industrialized nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] is 40%” (The Economist, Nov. 25, 2017, p. 16).
- Of the 17 countries with information, “between 30 percent (South Korea) and 78 percent (Argentina) of adults around the world are completely or very satisfied with their family life” (World Family Map 2017).
Here are some statistics from the United States:
- “In 1960, just 5% of all births occurred outside of marriage. By 1970, this share had doubled to 11%, and by 2000 fully one-third of births occurred to unmarried women. Non-marital births continued to rise until the mid-2000s, when the share of births to unmarried women stabilized at around 40%” (Pew Research Center).
- “While marriages are less stable than they once were, they remain more stable than cohabiting unions. … About one-in-five children born within a marriage will experience the breakup of that marriage by age 9. In comparison, fully half of children born within a cohabiting union will experience the breakup of their parents by the same age” (Pew Research Center).
- “From 2015 to 2016, reports of illicit drug use in the past 30 days decreased for eighth graders from 8 to 7 percent, but remained steady for 10th- and 12th-grade students, at 16 percent and 24 percent in 2016” (Childstats.gov).
- “Today 28 percent of households have just one person living in them—an increase from 13 percent in 1960” (U.S. Census Bureau).