I want to begin this article by quoting an old, secular, now less-well-known proverb, namely, “Charity begins at home and justice next door.” This proverb underlines the importance of character and responsibility being first built in the home before one can exercise them in the society at large. This is the thrust of this article, namely to attempt to demonstrate the key role family plays in shaping the character of society.

The Definition Of Family

Defining the term “family” is important, particularly in the wake of the penchant in our time for the re-definition of long established ideas. For instance, we now have terms such as “gay family”, which of course bears little resemblance with the biblical definition of family as found in the cultural mandate:

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth’” (Gen. 1:27–28).

Here we see that God created man and woman and commanded them to multiply (bearing children is implied). And again, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24), where we are given a definition of marriage that a “gay relationship” cannot answer to. We, therefore, define family as consisting of one man (husband), one woman (wife) and children (biological or adopted). In terms of the African context, which practices an extended family system, we may even define it as one man (biological or adopted father) and one woman (biological or adopted mother) and dependents (biological or adopted or fostered).

The Primacy Of The Family

The first and smallest institution of God is the family: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Out of this emanated children, of course. R. L. Dabney encapsulated this when he wrote, “Wherever human society is, there the parent is. Every man was once a child; every human existence begins in a parental relation.” The Lord in his inscrutable wisdom established the family first, to provide man with shelter and an educational control before he would be ready to face society.

We also notice that the Lord used the concept of family to Abraham, who was very young in the faith at the time, to communicate the glorious truth of salvation by faith alone in Christ: “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’” (Gen. 12:1–3).

Scaer supports this when he writes: “Genesis is an ancient version of the story of ‘One Man’s Family.’ This is not only the story of Adam’s family, but the stories of Noah’s, Abraham’s, Isaac’s and Jacob’s families. The Old Testament demonstrates that God does not work haphazardly in history, because he attaches himself to certain persons and family groups… The family provides the structure of salvation in the Old Testament. But…the family provides no guarantee of salvation. Cain is forever the symbol of those who apostatise…”

To my mind, it is no coincidence that the first book in the New Testament, the Gospel of Matthew, opens with a long genealogy starting from Abraham to the Lord Jesus Christ. This underscores the importance of family in the redemptive purposes of God, leading to the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour from sin. In it, God is reminding man that the family is an important means in the hand of God to bring about salvation. Jesus Christ placed his stamp of authority upon the central place of the family by choosing to come into the world via a family in order to fulfil the purposes of God. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son [Jesus Christ], born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4–5).

The primacy of the family is also seen when God uses the language of household (2 Tim. 3:15), to describe the church. For instance in Gal. 6:10 we read, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” Eph. 2:19: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” In these verses one cannot miss the family concept in the mind of God.

We further note this primacy of family in the selection of church officers. The Bible places a lot of importance on the domestic competence of would-be elders and deacons. We read: “Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Tim. 3:2–5). This requirement is also underscored in Titus 1:6–7.

In addition, the Apostle Paul uses the relationship between a husband and a wife to describe and illustrate the great mystery that obtains in the relationship between Christ and the church (Eph. 5:32). The oneness attained in the husband-wife relationship (Eph. 5:31) is a semblance of the deep indivisible and never ending unity that exists between Christ and his body–the church.

Prov. 22:6 which says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it,” suggests that the training children receive when they are still growing up will stand them in good stead when they are living out their lives later in society. Society may and will bring its pressures to bear upon them to let go of their values, but their early training will keep them steadfast and inspire them to achieve great things for the society. Here it is clear that the training of the child in the family will have a direct impact on his character in society.

Father Abraham is a good example of how the training of his children yielded a good result in society. We see his children acting out their knowledge and convictions on justice (which they no doubt learnt from their father) when they had to deliver their cousin Lot, who had been taken captive by his enemies.

We read in Genesis 14, “When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, 318 of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. And he divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and defeated them and pursued them to Hobah, north of Damascus. Then he brought back all the possessions, and also brought back his kinsman Lot with his possessions, and the women and the people” (Gen. 14:14–16).

We learn from the example of Abraham, and elsewhere in the Scriptures (e.g. Eph. 6:4), that it is the duty of every guardian to bring up their children (dependents) in the fear and admonition of the Lord. This practice will mean teaching them the Scriptures and the doctrines of the Christian faith, modelling the Christian life by their good example (Deut. 6:7) and applying corrective discipline where necessary. This is how parents and guardians build the character of their children and also prepare them to live in and affect society.

The Relationship Between The Family And The Society

In God`s divine wisdom, the principle of family is what must be applied in order to run and manage any institution in society. There must be leadership (as husbands have — 1 Corinthians 11:3) in any institution. There must be people who submit to that leadership (as wives do — Ephesians 5:22–23; Colossians 3:18). There must be obedience (as is expected of children/dependents — Ephesians 6:1) to the laid-down rules just as in the smallest institution in the world – the family. If anyone abrogates laid-down procedure there must be discipline (fathers discipline children — Ephesians 6:1–5, Hebrews 12:5–9).

One church elder in Missouri, USA, put it this way: “It is said that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If we were to look at the various aspects that make up a society and refer to them as links, we would see that one of the most important links in the chain of society is the family. And it appears that Satan is doing his best to weaken, if not destroy, that link. God instituted the family structure and it is a vital link in the chain that makes a solid society. If Satan succeeds in destroying the family structure… then society as we know it will crumble. Our nation will fall from within as did ancient Rome.”

How The Family Character Affects Society

Having attempted to show that the family is the crux of every institution, in society, we can now safely draw three conclusions on how and why family affects society.

Firstly, it is the building block of society. No society can be built minus the family (Gen. 1:26–28; Gen. 2:24). It, therefore, means that without family there can be no society or institution of any kind. Hence, if we must change the character of society we must build character in the family first.

Secondly, it is the place of learning. The family is the real school of society. All character, education and fashioning of every individual stems from what is taught and learnt in the family (Deut. 6:7–9; Prov. 22:6). This is primarily the function of guardians (especially the men) to teach, develop character and be good living examples to the family members.

Thirdly, society reflects the family. As I have already tried to show, the family unit, which the God of the Bible was and is keen to preserve, has fragmented. The damaged character we see today in any society is a reflection of the breakdown of the family institution. Today there is a rise in immorality, corruption, divorce and sexual abuse because of the breakdown of the family. The need of the hour, therefore, is the biblical reform of society through the biblical reform of the family, and this may involve a great deal of sacrifice.