R. J. Rushdoony’s central impact on the Biblical family involved his unabashed declaration that as God’s basic institution, the Biblical family is the primary force in the fulfillment of the dominion mandate and the Great Commission. While placing him in the bull’s-eye of those who disagreed with him, his thesis never nullified the God-given purpose of the church or the state, but rather placed the family as the institution that makes godly ecclesiastical and civil life possible.
But to modern man, the family is merely a convention, a convenience of growing up whereby people associate (are fed, clothed, and sheltered) by people not of their own choosing. The biological bonds are considered less and less vital as members of the family grow, eager to gain their independence from those they depended on as youth but no longer need. The current landscape (with rampant divorce, living arrangements that never involve marriage, and same-sex unions) has so diluted and polluted the definition of family that it is increasingly difficult to “come to terms” with what the Scripture means when giving commands and directives to the family.
Rushdoony classifies the family in three ways. He describes what most of us are familiar with today as the atomistic family. He states:
In the atomistic family, the individual seeks freedom from the family bonds. Father, mother, and children see the family as restraints; the basic unit for them is not the family but the individual … Neither the parents nor the children like the idea of sacrificing for the welfare and independence of the family; it is their purely individual welfare and independence which concerns them … The atomistic family sees … the rise of the Leviathan state, of statist power and totalitarianism. There is an essential relationship between family structure and cultural and political conditions.1
Modern culture places high importance on self-esteem and personal accomplishment, as though individual achievements occur independently from family assistance. Moreover, it is considered a “rite of passage” for children to grow up and “leave” their homes to become independent adults. With such a migration away from strong family life occurring on a regular basis, is it any wonder why it is hard for most Christians (let alone non-Christians) to view the family as an institution that can truly stand side-by-side in importance with the church and the state? If the family is merely the temporary provider of food, clothing, and shelter, with health, education, and welfare being taken care of outside the family, then it is hardly on a par with the other institutions, let alone primary before them.
Since many of those reading this are products of the early to mid-twentieth century, there may be some recollections of the extended family, or what Rushdoony calls the domestic family.
The domestic family … stands between the trustee family and the atomistic family. The domestic family tries to get the best of both worlds—freedom for the individual and stability for the family. The family loyalties are still maintained, but the state has become the major institution in society, and men depend more on the state than the family.2
This usurpation leaves the domestic family mostly concerned with baby and wedding showers, family reunions, graduations, and holidays. The biggest issues revolve around at whose house Christmas dinner will be served and celebrating birthdays and anniversaries.
Rushdoony presents a superior perspective and orientation to family life as ordained by God. He calls this the Biblical trustee family:
The trustee family has the most power and scope. It is called the trustee family because its living members see themselves as trustees of the family blood, rights, property, name, and position for their lifetime. They have an inheritance from the past to be preserved and developed for the future. The trustee family is the basic social power … The head of the family is not the head in any personal sense but as family head and as a trustee of powers.3
Examples are many in Scripture that illustrate the importance God places on the family. First and foremost are the family lineages that are enumerated over and over, demonstrating that God works primarily through families rather than ecclesiastical or civil jurisdictions. Accordingly, His promises to Abraham are familial in nature:
And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. (Gen. 28:14, emphasis added)
Men like Jacob, Naboth, and Cornelius are all examples of individuals who had greater concern for their trustee families than their own self-interests and individual rights.
Rushdoony wasn’t satisfied to view the family in its modern depiction and practice. He expounded upon the Biblical pattern of the trustee family. For it is only the trustee family that can hold its own against an overarching church or state.
He powerfully states:
In Scripture, the family is man’s basic church, state, school, society, welfare agency, and social power. Control of the children and their education rests with the family, but strictly in terms of God’s law. Inheritance is a family power, in terms of faith. Welfare is a family duty, not only with respect to non-related widows, orphans, and strangers (Deut. 14:28–29), but also and especially with all relatives, for “if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house [or, kindred], he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel” (1 Tim. 5:8). The authority of the husband, and of the wife, is not personal but theological and is a trusteeship for God, first of all, and then the family.4
Rushdoony makes two astute observations that are mere footnotes:
When conservative Christians think of the godly family, they tend to think of the domestic rather than the trustee family; as a result, the individual man is exalted as head of the household rather than placed strictly in a trusteeship, in a position of custodial powers.5
He also notes that the headship of the husband is not understandable if viewed from a modern perspective. He held that the current view was more worthy of reproach because it is more properly described as male chauvinism rather than an embracing of the idea of trusteeship.6 Thus, rather than a my house my rules mentality, the head of the trustee family looks to lead by means of service, education, and discernment, with an eye toward future generations and their life of service and obedience to the Living God.
Enemies of the Family
How can anyone ever understand the concept of the family of God if the earlier concept of the trustee family is overlooked and ignored?
Is it any wonder that the modern church wants little to do with Biblical law and its establishment of the trustee family? Strong families would imply and necessitate the restructuring of church programs onto Biblical grounds concentrating on equipping the saints in and through families. Programs designed for children, women, singles, men, married couples, senior citizens, recovering addicts, etc., would be replaced with efforts to build and recognize strong Biblical trustee families. Then, rather than calling for strong family values, there would be concerted efforts to reinforce godliness by affirming the structure, function, and life of trustee family life.
Likewise, the modern state has little use for powerful trustee families—those that take care of and provide for their own. How would it be possible to grow the state if the functions it has usurped were taken back and carried out by trustee families according to God’s prescribed order? Earlier and earlier compulsory school attendance laws are the most recent salvos launched against families, working to disengage children from their parents’ control and responsibility during their most formative years. Combine this with the move to socialized medicine, preserving social security, offering student loans, and more, and you see a very active and deliberate effort to grab and maintain power. For the trustee family to live as it should, there would of necessity be a very limited civil state (one that does not dangle carrots to transfer allegiance), because, as Rushdoony states, “[E]ssential government would be in its own hands.”7
Throughout his writing, preaching, and lectures, Rushdoony continued to point to the need for the restoration of the Biblical trustee family. His prophetic voice launched a return to Biblical priorities:
Our present cultural crisis is a family crisis, i.e., it is rooted in the decline of the biblical trustee family and the rise of the humanistic, atomistic family. Since 1950, however, in the United States there has been a dramatic but unheralded revival of the biblical pattern. Concern about education and the rise of the Christian school [and homeschool] movement[s] ha[s] been basic to this return to family life.8
Curiously enough, Rushdoony found younger people receptive and desirous for a trustee family and culture, enthusiastically devouring his Institutes of Biblical Law with its strong emphasis on the Biblical family. This was in stark contrast to older readers, who had a “strong distaste” to the “patriarchal” idea. He considered it a positive sign that a new generation was eager for a Biblical mandate and strong theological roots. He concludes:
The atomistic family has no future. The godly family commands the future. The future family is under God, the trustee of children, property, inheritance, welfare, and education. It governs the basic areas of social power in terms of God’s law and grace.9
What Lies Ahead
The acceptance of the idea that there is an urgent need for the reinstatement of the trustee family is only the beginning. Rethinking all areas of life and thought from this perspective is the necessary consequence. That is why Chalcedon continues to uphold Christian education (whether in a day school or homeschool setting) as a fundamental prerequisite for a future where God’s Word is presupposed and all disciplines and professions are ordered and judged based on the commandments of God.
Future treatments of this very broad subject will examine the various aspects of modern life that need to be reviewed with the corrected vision of a return to a full-orbed commitment to doing things God’s way.
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1 “The Trustee Family” Journal of Christian Reconstruction: Symposium on the Family, Vol. IV, No. 2, Winter 1977-78, 12.
2 Ibid., 11.
4 Ibid., 12.
6 Ibid., 11.
7 Ibid., 12.
8 Ibid., 13.