Family: Functional and Dysfunctional

The family has become so fragmented that it is difficult to describe a normal family in this addictive society. The traditional family was once the core foundation and stabilizing force of our society. Now, many special interest groups, sociology professors, and even marriage counselors who do not have a clue as to what "family values" mean are giving advice to families. According to University of Pennsylvania psychologist, Martin Seligman, "past generations were able to maintain hope through difficult times because they had three anchors of stability in all of their societies: faith in God, pride in one's country, and stability in the family" (Collins and Clinton, 51).

When we consider that almost every one out of every two marriages will end in divorce and the children will see this example of pain and failure, it is not surprising that today's baby boomers, busters, and Generation Xers have difficulty seeing marriage as a trust institution. Collins and Clinton in their work, Baby Boomer Blues, quote Neil Kalter: "There is mounting evidence now that a substantial number of children, perhaps as many as 30 to 50 percent, bear the painful and disruptive legacy of their parents' divorce for years" (62).

In the minds of many people, having children without being married, homosexual marriages, and having sexual relationships outside of marriage are fine if that is one's belief system. The breakdown of the family is cradled in moral erosion. In a society where there are no boundaries, the definition of morality develops into whatever fits the situation. Without a foundation of biblical principles, husbands and wives have difficulty understanding each other because the male and female role differences become blurred. "Communication problems are the number one reason for divorce in the 1990's. As we found out, women don't really understand men, and men don't really understand women" (Patterson and Kim, 91).

The breakdown of the family is largely responsible for this addictive society. The term "for better or worse" is more likely interpreted, "if you make me feel good and meet my needs"-centered on self.

How amazing it is to live in a day when most young people expect marriages to dissolve; when a large and growing percentage of babies are born to single mothers; when cohabitation and sexual intercourse before marriage are assumed to be normal, moral and rational behaviors; and when one out of four adults accepts homosexual couples as viable parents (Barna, 143).

William J. Bennett in his book, The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, which is based on facts and figures on the state of American society, presents alarming information. He says that since 1960, violent crime has increased by 560 percent, the number of unmarried pregnant teenagers has nearly doubled, and the number of divorces has increased by nearly 200 percent while the marriage rate is at an all-time low. James Q. Wilson, University of California, Los Angeles, says:

The contemporary legal system views people as autonomous individuals endowed with rights and entering into real or implied contracts. The liberalization of laws pertaining to marriage and divorce arose out of such a view. Marriage, once a sacrament, has become in the eyes of the law a contract that is easily negotiated, renegotiated or rescinded (Bennett, 57).

In Wilson's statement, there are two interesting thoughts: "autonomous individuals" and "marriage, once a sacrament." He deals with two key factors in this addictive society-individualism and separation from God. Selfishness, the refusal to acknowledge God, and marriage no longer being a sacrament can only lead individuals in this society to pursue themselves as god. With today's maze of family life, we are much like a dog chasing its own tail-going in circles and becoming more confused and sick. People in government are crying for more money, communities call for public forums, and some church leaders offer theories and fine-sounding arguments with little substance. Many such leaders are truly concerned but often base their thoughts on their own dysfunctional "frame of thought."

I have heard many fathers and mothers say, "I really want to be a good dad, mom, husband, or wife; however, I am not sure how-I did not have a role model." With family fragmentation, busy lifestyles, relocations, and an increase in second and third marriages, we have lost much of the continuity with the past we once had. In the past when we needed marriage or career counseling, we went to grandma. Long before there were psychologists, there were grandmas.

There is no way we can turn around this devastation of family life and its consequences in our society without first understanding God's plan for marriage and family relationships. We cannot change what we cannot see. The term "one flesh" and its meaning in the marriage relationship is foreign to most people. Concerning "one flesh," Richard Halverson said:

Their biological diversity was to be their unity, and out of the most intimate relationship humans experience came the creative power to beget life. Which is part of the image of God in man. So called "sexual freedom" violates sexuality-mars the image of God in man-degrades human nature . . . and destroys the social order. "Sexual freedom" is the final stage in man's self-alienation from God (July 17, 1991, 1).

In this chapter, we are going to trace God's plan for marriage and family relationships. To understand marriage properly, we will first look at its beginning and foundation. Genesis 2:22-24 presents to us the first marriage:

Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, 'This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, for she was taken out of man.' For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.

The first marriage was a paradigm built on a foundation of five principles.

First, God is the creator of the marriage relationship (vv22-24). This relationship was not dreamed up by a sociologist or psychologist, nor did it occur because of a consensus reached through a poll. Instead, God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him" (Genesis 2:18).

Second, heterosexuality is God's pattern for marriage. Adam was male and Eve was female (v23; Genesis 3:20; Leviticus 18:22). It is a distortion of Scripture to proclaim homosexuality as an accepted behavior in the Bible. "Those who attempt to mount a biblical case for homosexuality must completely abandon reasonable hermeneutics" (Davis, 78).

Third, monogamy is God's design for marriage. God gave Adam one wife (vv22-24; 4:1; Hebrews 13:4). Sex outside of marriage causes physical, emotional, and spiritual problems.

Fourth, God's pattern for marriage is for physical and spiritual unity (v24; Matthew 19:4-5). God describes this union as "one flesh." They are to cleave to one another, literally to be glued to each other. When two are pulled apart who were glued together, it will leave a mess as divorce does. "Marriage is an exclusive relationship. The total unity of persons-physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually-comprehended by the concept one flesh eliminates polygamy as an option. One cannot relate wholeheartedly in this way to more than one person at a time" (Elwell, 694).

And fifth, God's first marriage was designed to be permanent (v24). In Matthew 19:6, Jesus referred back to the first marriage. "So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore, what God has joined together, let man not separate." In this union, adultery, homosexuality, and promiscuity are ruled out of this holy pattern. "God instituted marriage so that men and women might complete one another and share in his creative work through the procreation of children. (Celibacy is not a higher and holier condition-a viewpoint which finds its roots in Greek dualism rather than in the Bible)" (Elwell, 694).

As we trace God's plan for marriage and the family, we see its significant role in the Ten Commandments. The Israelites had been delivered from slavery in Egypt and were enroute to the promised land when God dealt with the first of the commandments that zeroes in on social relationships. This is the first of His commandments on human interaction. This shows God's priority on the foundation of all human relationships-the family. "Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you" (Exodus 20:12).

This commandment is the centerpiece of all the commandments. The first four commandments deal with our relationship with God; whereas, the last six commandments focus on social relationships. This commandment serves as a bridge from our focus on God to our focus on interpersonal relationships. If the first four commandments are obeyed, the following six will be less difficult. If the focus on God is not present in the home, social relationships in all of society including church, school, our nation, and employer/employee relationships will suffer for lack of respect, direction, and purpose. Rules will change frequently without an anchor, and subsequent ethical decisions become the product of frail and flawed humanity. In God's pattern, honoring one's father and mother is a model of respect for God and others. Honor is learned in the home and flows into other areas of respect for various kinds of authority.

The family forms the foundation of all human relationships. This principle has, of course, been demonstrated also in the behavioral sciences. Psychologists have made a great deal (I would argue, too much) of the determinative character of our families. Those who are abused in that environment themselves often abuse; whereas, those who come from strong, loving, and supportive backgrounds are less likely to commit the crimes associated with the rest of the Ten Commandments that follow (M. Horton, 136).

As we look at today's family life, there are various kinds of family paradigms that are common in this society. A family system is the attitudes and patterns by which a family operates over a period of three generations and is characterized by each family member being a part of the whole. In observing one's family system, a person should picture himself or herself as one part of the whole family unit. When a family member has a life-controlling problem, others in the family will operate normally within their family system experience to resolve the problem.


The Dysfunctional Family
Dysfunctional families are a tragic and growing part of our society. This specific type of family is the one in which the authority line between the parents and children is blurry. In this family, it is hard to detect who is in charge. Teenagers make decisions in regard to their well-being that should be made by their parents. Sixteen-year-old Mike was permitted to drink alcohol because his parents thought he needed his space to make his own decisions. He was involved with other teenagers who were a bad influence, but the parents would not interfere with Mike's decision.

In this type of family, the parents live for and compete for the children. They learn to live their lives vicariously through their children. Some fathers may press their sons to excel in sports because they were never successful themselves. Having an unfulfilled desire to march in front of the high school or college band, some mothers may push their daughters to be outstanding majorettes. The parents blame each other for problems they encounter. They put on a good front for others and maintain a supply of defenses to cover up their behavior.

It is common for coalitions to develop with one of the parents working as an enabler to the child with deviant behavior. The other parent may have close ties to the child that is straight. If there are other children, they may not be a part of either coalition. The emotions between the parents are broken down, and they may relate to the children better than to each other.

In an attempt to maintain family stability, some parents may use another person or object to prevent the son or daughter with a life-controlling problem from exploding the family relationship. Triangles are common in dysfunctional families. A parent may sit with a problem child in a room where the television set is the third leg of the triangle. Their focus will be on the television program instead of dealing with the problem. Parents may focus on the son or daughter with a life-controlling problem in a triangle relationship to avoid issues among themselves. Triangles serve to break down communications and prolong the agony of a dysfunctional family. In some dysfunctional families, there are patterns of permissive parenting and neglectful parenting. The permissive parenting model usually has few boundaries or controls but is supportive. They tend to allow their children to make their own rules. In their view, to interrupt with firm guidance could cause harm to the child's creative mind. Neglectful parenting produces "latchkey children." They carry this label because they are in charge of the latchkey. They come and go as they please. They are left to make decisions without the support, guidance, or control of their parents. The children care for themselves.


The Disengaged Family
In this type of family there is a very strong authority line between the parents and children with very little going on emotionally. The boundaries in this family are rigid with a lack of communication. This family unit is characterized by one of the parents being legalistic or unyielding and the other parent being passive. The teenagers in this family normally go their own way.

Mary was dismayed when she found that her son was heavily involved in drugs. She was encouraged by a Christian friend to visit with a counselor. In her conversation with the counselor, she timidly discussed her son but with the understanding that the counselor would not tell her husband of the visit. She said, "If my husband learns of Joe's problem with drugs, he will hurt him." In this situation the counselor urged a meeting with both parents in order to reach a better understanding. He knew that in this type of family it often takes a family member's problem reaching a crisis point before the family responds.

The disengaged family is low on support but very strong on their rules and control. This family has many rules but without relationships. It is common in this family pattern for children to look forward to reaching adulthood so they can leave this domineering system.


The Functional Family
Judy was fortunate to be in a Christian family that had a solid family system. She was very excited about being asked to the prom by her boyfriend. Since this was a special evening, she asked her mom for permission to stay out beyond her scheduled curfew. Her mother, Polly, did not have a good reason to deny the request, but she felt in her heart that she should say no. She explained to Judy that she did not have a specific reason as to why the curfew should not be extended but she had a gut feeling that the curfew should be honored. Judy was supposed to leave the prom no later than 12 a.m.

Very upset with her mother, Judy went to her dad, Steve, seeking an intervention into Mom's decision. Steve and Polly stood together in their decision even though Judy persisted in her request. Finally, on the day of the prom, Polly in Steve's presence said to Judy, "Darling, we love you very much and we trust you; however, we do not feel good about changing the curfew."

Throughout the evening after Judy left for the prom, Steve and Polly pondered their decision and hoped that Judy would respect the curfew even though she was upset. Steve and Polly were delighted to hear the door open at the specified time. Judy had obeyed her parents and honored the curfew.

Later that morning as Judy was asleep in her bed, four teenagers were killed in a car accident. The same car Judy would have been riding in had she chosen to break the curfew skidded off the rain-slick road, went down an embankment, and hit a tree. The teenagers in the car were killed and not found until some time later in the morning. Thinking that Judy was in the wreck, Steve and Polly's neighbors were terribly shaken. When Judy and her parents returned home from church on that Sunday morning, some of the neighbors began to weep for joy when they saw her and thanked God that she was not in the accident.

Communication lines are open between the parents and children in this type of family system. Children have input into family matters; however, the parents make the final decision in regard to the child's well-being. Steve and Polly listened to Judy's request for an extension of the curfew on prom night, but they felt it was in the best interest of Judy for them not to extend it.

This family unit is characterized by a sense of family wholeness. Each family member has a feeling of belonging which contributes to their personal self-esteem. This is an open system where friends can be invited into the home without the family's feeling they must protect themselves.

The characteristics of a functional family are described by Paul in Ephesians 5:21-6:4. Each family member has a role to play in God's plan for the family. This unit functions properly when there is submission to Christ. Husband and wife are admonished to stand together as one in Christ. "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh"(5:31). Even though Judy tried to convince her father that he should side with her and permit the curfew extension, Steve stood with Polly in her decision.

Paul describes checks and balances to prevent abuse and neglect in the family unit. The entire unit operates under the lordship of Jesus Christ. In the functional family, parents are male and female, not two of the same sex cohabiting together. Wives are to submit to their husbands, but husbands are admonished to love their wives. "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (5:25). This is a strong check for husbands with no room for abuse or neglect of the wife.

Children are to grow under the godly covering of their parents. "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 'Honor your father and mother'-which is the first commandment with a promise" (6:1-2). Even though she disliked it, Judy honored her parents' decision, recognizing their authority (godly covering).

Children need to see a loving relationship between their parents. Spouses who love and respect each other contribute greatly to the children's sense of well-being. Children face far less emotional problems when parents are affectionate toward one another. It helps prepare the children emotionally for personal relationships and marriage. Parents who openly express their appreciation for each other enhance their children's sense of security.

Much attention has been given to children in this country. This has caused us to become a child-centered society. Certainly children need our attention; however, parents must guard against the love of the family being focused solely on the children. Such a focus can cause the disintegration of the marriage over a period of time. When children become the center of family love, the love affair between the mom and dad may grow cold. When the children grow up and leave home, the parents may face difficulty in staying together because the flame has disappeared.

Diana Baumrind (1967, 1978) identified three types of parents-authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive. She found that a combination of high levels of control and support, a style which she called "authoritative," is most conducive to developing competency in children. She suggested that an authoritarian style (low support and high control) produces children who have a respect for authority, but show little independence and only moderate social competence. Permissive parenting (high support and low control) tends to produce children who lack both social competence and interdependence (Balswick and Balswick, 95).

In view of Baumrind's work, we define her term "authoritative" as the functional pattern we discussed. In this system there are high levels of control and support. The authoritarian style we define as disengaged and permissive parenting as dysfunctional. It is dysfunctional because it produces unhealthy families.

The Ephesians 5:21-6:4 passage provides practical guidelines for each role in the marriage and family relationships. The key verse is verse 21. "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." This is a bridge verse between the Spirit-filled life discussed in verses 18-20 and the guidelines in verses 22-6:4. Paul shows how to take a Spirit-filled life and move it into the practical relationships of everyday living. It is noteworthy that other social relationships discussed in Ephesians 6:5-9, employee and employer, flow from the home as already discussed in the Ten Commandments. To summarize this section of practical relationships, we conclude that Paul addresses wives to husbands (5:22-24), husbands to wives (5:25-33), children to parents (6:1-3), parents to children (6:4), employees to employers (6:5-8), and employers to employees (6:9). This will work if we will let it work.

Material from Understanding the Times and Knowing What to Do
Copyright © 1991, 1997 by Turning Point Ministries
All Rights Reserved

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