Mention "family government" to most Christians, especially conservative "Bible believing" ones, and thinking immediately centers on the hierarchical structure of the family: The husband is to be the head of the home, directing, providing for, and overseeing the welfare of wife and children under the sovereign authority of Christ.
The wife is to joyfully submit to her husband and, in return, her authority over the household, which extends over the children, is firmly established. The children are to honor their father and mother not only by giving verbal acknowledgment, but in their actions (see Eph. 5:22-29 and Eph. 6:4; Col. 3:17-21 and of course, Pr. 31). As true as all this is, if this is all we see, we have a defective and truncated view of family government.
Total Life Government
When we seriously consider family government from a Biblical perspective, we are astounded that so much is vested here. Almost every area that now is governed by civil government is actually a family responsibility! While realizing that civil government is a good gift from God, when properly understood and implemented, family government is by far the more practical, desirable, and, of course, Biblical administrative and supervisory unit, providing the very best context and content for regulatory overview.
One example: Today we look to the civil realm for government of health regulations and all sorts of health care. We beg for a bureaucracy that requires oversight, micro-regulating, certification, and "appropriate labeling" of every conceivable food and activity when it is almost always a food or activity that should be governed by the family. And then, when we're sick or old, we want the government to dictate our care.
But health care is first and foremost a family function. My mother took responsibility for the nutritional health of her family by the food she prepared and by what she didn't let us eat. Believe it or not, even before all the mandatory labeling and government meddling, she knew that a balanced diet and moderation in all things was the key to good health and she didn't shrink from the task of providing just that. Although she wouldn't have thought of her actions in these terms, she was governing our diets.
Both my father and mother governed our health by limiting the amount of TV my brother, sister, and I could watch before we were ejected from the house into the yard to do farm chores (my brother and I were my father's automatic gutter cleaner in the barn, thus saving substantially on the cost of automation), or simply to play ball and work off energy and calories. They further governed my health by monitoring the friends I associated with; in other words, they regulated my associations, keeping me away from ungodly people who would have corrupted my thinking and lead me into sins with definite health-destroying consequences (see almost all of Proverbs, especially 1:10-19, 4:14-27, and all of chapter 7).
The health and well being of each member of our family was always something my father and mother assumed was their marital and parental obligation. Growing up, I cannot once remember my parents thinking it was the duty of any elected (or appointed) official to take responsibility for whether or not I wore a bicycle helmet (and back then I would have been laughed off any playground if I would have shown up with a helmet, severely damaging my emotional health!). My father did require that I wear a helmet as a condition for buying me a motorcycle, however. So, throwing "cool" to the wind, I accepted the governing terms and agreed to his regulating authority. I wore a helmet.
How about smoking? No state or federal government needed here! Further, there was no call to tax the tobacco companies to cover health care costs. My father smoked most of his life and knew it was harmful to his health, but he loved them! Fortunately he threatened me with my life if I ever picked up the habit. Who says that "don't do what I do, do what I say" doesn't work? While obviously not the desirable pattern, love does cover a multitude of sins with this type of government administered at the family level where communication is personal and the motives authentic (and the threat very real).
In other words, my parents governed the daily health aspects of our family by fulfilling the role established for them by God, not by asking the city officials to draft guidelines for safe conduct. This family government-government that never seems like government-is what is sorely needed in Christian families today.
The point is, modern conservative Christian families have no problem acknowledging a husband-wife-children hierarchy, but they fail to grasp the full implications of true family government. It's more than simply requiring a husband to treat his wife and children nice; it's more than calling upon a wife to "just say yes" to the husband; and it's more than raising children that don't despise their parents. Family government is, more than anything else, total life government. It's the original Department of Health, Education, and Welfare! The family governs relationships, conduct, finances, education, worship, work, property, and almost anything else you can name. It's for this very reason that communist and socialist states always target the family for destruction and eradication, substituting the state in its place. They understand the family as a powerful institution that balances the power and scope of the state.
And further, family government is as much about being governed as it is governing. As the Roman centurion so well understood, authority is only established under authority and this is clearly exhibited within the family. Precisely because Christian families are under the governing authority of God, the husband and wife discover there are many regulating factors in family life. For instance, while as a father I govern and regulate my children, it is undeniable that I am also governed and regulated by them. Not directly of course, but through the responsibilities and obligations that are placed upon me by God. My wife and I are reminded just how much we are governed by our seven children (number eight on the way) each time we plan on going out to dinner by ourselves. School schedules, church activities, finding trustworthy babysitters, and a host of other considerations regulate our lives. A significant percentage of our family income is governed by the responsibility of placing our children in Christian schools. To a large extent the vehicles we drive are governed by the number of children we have (never try to cram nine people into a Camaro!).
The world sees the governing aspect of family life as something to be despised and avoided. They see responsibility as the limitation of the "good life," and Hollywood portrays that life through sitcoms that revolve around 30-somethings who are rootless, having neither spouses nor children. But, of course, everyone knows that government is needed; so Hollywood's answer is to seek to transfer governing responsibility from the family to the federal and state governments. While they pursue a dreamworld where no individual is responsible for anything, they create instead a culture of dependence and servitude. This is true because if one never comes under authority and learns to handle responsibility, stagnation sets in and slavery, not more freedom, results.
However, the Christian family is an institution of dominion specifically because it is under God's authority, with the parents accepting all the governing responsibilities. As parents govern and rule under God's authority, children learn to honor and respect them and submit willingly to the parents' authority, which sets the stage for a long and prosperous life for them (Dt. 5:16).
When authority is submitted to and responsibilities fulfilled, God promotes faithful servants into areas of greater leadership and authority. Hence, to be an elder or deacon in a church requires proven success in family governing (1 Tim. 3:40). An older woman can be entrusted to counsel young wives only when she has successfully governed her household and fulfilled her responsibilities (Tit. 2:3-5). Because a man or woman comes under the authority of God and learns to be governed in all areas of family life, he or she can go on to greater things, securing the confidence and admiration of those in church, business, and politics.
The sad reality is, however, that even conservative Christian families now view the family, not as a training ground for godly dominion and kingdom advancement, but as a hindrance to personal satisfaction and fulfillment. Family life is tolerated, not enjoyed, and children are seen only in terms of being wealth consumers and the source of inconvenient problems.
The Centrality of the Family
Ironically, many Christians see the responsibility of administering Biblical family government as holding them down spiritually, since they're not able to attend every church service, prayer meeting, Bible study, and small group that is offered. Somehow we have moved away from understanding the Biblical supposition of the family as the foundation upon which all else is built. The home should be a center of worship, of prayer, and Bible study and it should go without saying that it's the natural "small group" (very small, because most Christian are horrified by the prospect of more than two children) where you can and must develop and create long-lasting "relationships."
May God grant us grace and mercy and raise up strong Christian families that are governed by Christ, Who is the Word of God. May family government once more be conceived and acted upon in all the fullness that God has set forth for it and may we embrace that responsibility with faith and courage, trusting in God to lead us into all righteousness.