The family is the basic institution of society, but in the world of modern social science, this is an inadequate statement.
The humanist studies the family in terms of its social implications, just as he studies the creation in terms of its physical characteristics. Sociological studies do not help the Christian understand the family, however, any more than naturalistic studies give him the whole picture of the world around him. The Christian cannot understand the family outside its divine institution and calling, any more than he can understand the creation without its Creator. There must be a theology behind both our social science and our natural science.
God the Sovereign is the Creator of all things, including the family He established before our fall into sin. As man and wife, Adam and Eve represented a social unit instituted by God. The family unit begins with marriage, not with children.
My father, R. J. Rushdoony, wrote and spoke extensively on Biblical law and frequently noted that rabbinic scholars counted 613 laws in the Torah. It is the paucity of that number which is of interest. The laws that bind the average modern citizen today could not be comprehended in 613 volumes! Still, of 613 laws, many had no penalty enforceable by men. The tithe was required by God, but not enforceable by the priests. Prostitution was called an abomination but was not punishable (unless, as it often did, it constituted adultery). The powers of legislation and enforcement were limited in both church and state.
The most important form of government in the Bible is neither the state nor any ecclesiastical authority. It is the self-government of the individual who is aware of his moral obligation to obey God.
The most important social unit of government is the family. The family is where we first learn God’s Word, first worship Him, first are educated to serve Him, and first learn our social responsibilities. None of this precludes the necessary functions of church and civil government, but man’s first and primary environment ought to be that of family.
The Resurgence of the Family
The importance of the family means that its resurgence constitutes a social change of historic proportions. The opposition to homosexual “marriage” is evidence of a resurgent concept of family. Perhaps more significant is the Christian day and homeschool movements of the last forty years, for this represents a reclamation of one sphere of government from the state.
True Biblical government reform will be less in passing Biblical laws than in denying the state unlawful powers, and then returning them to individuals, families, and local jurisdictions. God’s law does not necessitate state action so much as individual action. The best way to reform government is to cut its revenues drastically, severely reduce its programs and payroll, and sell its office complexes on the free market.
God’s Law is Personal
God is a person and His law is His; it is a personal law. That is why He calls Himself a “jealous” God, one whose “wrath” can be aroused. Offences against God and His law are personal offences against the Creator and Lawgiver.
Our concept of law should be personal. We do not get that understanding from statist law, which we see as randomly enforced, impersonal, and bureaucratic. In the family, law is personal and ethical. Behavior is good or bad and judgment is handed down with righteous indignation by mother and father.
Though the family is personal, it is not a narrow, insulated institution. The family is the most dynamic institution of all. When I married, I acquired a whole new set of relatives. My family was half-new to me. When my daughter married, she likewise acquired and incorporated new members to her family. Her children will add to both sides of this family. Such an institution is far from insulated or narrow in its perspective or its structure.
The Biblical family reflects the personal application of God’s law to daily life. It was the family that gave the first fruits of its newly-bearing trees to God. The family redeemed the firstborn of man and beast with an offering, and so acknowledged that all belonged to God. It was the family that funded most social work through the tithe, God’s tax of at least a tenth of all increase. The civil tax was a uniform head tax on all men and so represented the more limited role of the state in Scripture.
A Family-based State
Even in the affairs of state, the family played a major role. There were elders of tribes and nations (Num. 22:4,7; Gen. 50:7; Dt. 31:28) and of geographic areas (Jud. 11:5-11). The leadership of elders persisted even in captivity when tribal distinctions were being blurred (Jer. 29:1). There were elders of the priests (2 Kin. 19:2; Jer. 19:1) and elders that represented royal households (Gen. 50:7 and 2 Sam. 12:17). Elders represented cities (Dt. 19:12; 21:3,6; 21:19; 22:15; 25:9) and had to be consulted even by the autocratic Ahab before a declaration of war (1 Kin. 20:7). After Jethro’s suggestion and God’s ordering, the families were grouped into tens, fifties, hundreds, and thousands. Elders presided over each. Archaeologists have been able to approximate the distribution of Jews outside of Palestine by the number of synagogues in a community, each of which required a minimum of ten families. Government, both ecclesiastical and civil, was by elders; it was patriarchal.
Patriarchal societies are conservative and stable, and this is why modern liberals hold them in contempt. They are conservative not because they are limited to a vision of the past, but because they are particularly conscious of the need to provide a proper environment for the growth and expansion that each generation represents. Just as rich men do not feel the need to gamble on get-rich-quick schemes, the family will always be suspicious of the potential harm of social engineers.
The Cult of Democracy
Too much modern “conservative” thought buys into the progressive destruction of limited government. The victory of the North in the American Civil War dealt a blow to the limited, localized government of our Constitutional republic from which we have never recovered. After the Civil War our republican concept of government was gradually replaced with the cult of democracy. Thus, a generation later, Woodrow Wilson could successfully appeal to democracy to justify American involvement in World War I, over the limitations imposed by the Constitution on the use of a drafted military.
Democracy was promoted as the newfound goal of America, and this was represented by the “one man, one vote” principle. The direct election of Senators replaced their selection by the state governments, making them represent the individuals of the state (already the function of the members of the House of Representatives) instead of the states in their corporate status as the creative members of the republic. Shortly thereafter, women were given the vote, a consistent application of the democratic principle but an abandonment of the family as the essential representative of society (with the father’s vote representing the whole family.)
Ostensibly, democracy was to empower the people. The word is now synonymous with freedom. In reality, democracy places the atomistic individual up against the monolithic state, with regional, local, and family government increasingly stripped of authority.
Democracy has not led to a freer citizenry in America. Democracy took a free America and in the name of “the people” has made it a land of high taxes and endless regulation by a powerful central government, and an economy built on debt management rather than capital. This is the democracy we seek to spread around the world. Democracy has been very cruel to “the people” to whom it gives lip service. Democracy has given us statism, not freedom.
Godly government (personal, familial, church, vocational, etc.) cannot proliferate in this poisoned atmosphere. Our calling is to exercise dominion in every area of life and thought, and this is impossible in a statist environment.
Statism is always a house of cards that will eventually collapse from its own inherent weaknesses. Our calling is not to destroy, however, for judgment belongs to God. We are not called to revolution but to dominion, to a reconstruction, a rebuilding on the firm foundations of God’s law and the certainty of His Lordship and the advancement of His Kingdom.
The family is so central to Scripture that it is the most frequently used model for our relationship to “our Heavenly Father” and to our “brethren” in the family of God into which we are “adopted” and made “heirs” together with Christ.
The Ten Commandments and the Family
The family is the only institution directly protected by four of the Ten Commandments.
The Fifth Commandment most clearly commands us to honor our parents. This is not an appeal to merely personal regard. We are to treat parents and familial elders as occupying a position of value and importance as ministers of God’s order. Patricide or matricide required the death penalty (Ex. 21:15), but so did the parental breaching of the family responsibility; sacrificing a child to Molech required the death penalty of the offending parent (Lev. 20:2-5).
The Seventh Commandment’s prohibition against adultery guarded against betrayal from within the family. Adultery in the family is the equivalent of treason in the civil realm. Adultery is more than a crime against a spouse; it is a betrayal of the family as a covenanted unit of godly life and law.
The Eighth Commandment forbids theft. Property in ancient Israel was controlled by the family, not by individuals. When the Promised Land was divided, it was given to families, not to individuals. Rural property could not be permanently sold, only leased until the jubilee year, every 50th year. The family was more the trustee of the property than it was the owner. Inheritance was thus also regulated. Theft was not personal; it robbed the savings of multiple generations and the capital potential such wealth represented.
The prohibition on coveting in the Tenth Commandment also protected the family’s wealth. Coveting precedes theft; it is the desire for wealth outside the legitimate method of acquiring it. Coveting is not merely wanting to have something; it is the desire to obtain it by fraudulent methods, even if such methods follow the letter of man’s law. Much modern wealth transfer represents covetousness in thought and act. We can say that Marxism is a defense of covetousness, as is philosophical liberalism. Every April 15th a substantial amount of each family’s wealth is stolen from it by the covetous state, and all inheritance tax represents the same covetous goal.
When modern democracy cast off the covenantal patriarchal family in favor of individualistic, atomistic man, we adopted in its place a romantic view of the family. The family was “home, sweet, home,” but not our strength and protection. A romantic view of the family will not revive our social order any more than a romanticized view of “dear, sweet Jesus” will change men. It is not enough to cherish the family; we need to show it honor by restoring it to strength.
- Mark R. Rushdoony
Mark R. Rushdoony graduated from Los Angeles Baptist College (now The Master’s College) with a B.A. in history in 1975 and was ordained to the ministry in 1995.
He taught junior and senior high classes in history, Bible, civics and economics at a Christian school in Virginia for three years before joining the staff of Chalcedon in 1978. He was the Director of Chalcedon Christian School for 14 years while teaching full time. He also helped tutor all of his children through high school.
In 1998, he became the President of Chalcedon and Ross House Books, and, more recently another publishing arm, Storehouse Press. Chalcedon and its subsidiaries publish many titles plus CDs, mp3s, and an extensive online archive at www.chalcedon.edu.
He has written scores of articles for Chalcedon’s publications, both the Chalcedon Report and Faith for all of Life. He was a contributing author to The Great Christian Revolution (1991). He has spoken at numerous conferences and churches in the U.S. and abroad.
Mark Rushdoony lives in Vallecito, California, his home of 43 years with his wife of 45 years and his youngest son. He has three married children and nine grandchildren.