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Several weeks ago, my 8-year-old daughter and I stumbled into a conversation about the family structure within our home. Although my husband and I embrace a complementarian dynamic, it’s not the centerpiece of our dialogue with our children. Daddy and Mommy simply try to love each other well, we try to serve each other with kindness, and we expect our children to learn to do the same. And yet, there are times when we must intentionally and more obviously apply headship principles, particularly when there is a disagreement or an issue affects the long-term direction of the family.

This was one of those times. As a result, I was giving my daughter a Cliffs Notes version of how husbands and wives relate. Halfway through my explanation, she interrupted me and exclaimed, “Oh, I get it—you follow daddy because he’s a man and men are bigger and stronger and older.” Unfortunately, she did not get it. In her defense, most of her confusion came not from missing the reality of headship but from not having all the pieces and thus missing the bigger picture.

This kind of incomplete understanding of family life is not limited to 8-year-old girls, however. As we strive to honor God’s Word, we devote tremendous effort to understanding the nuances of Scripture and its application. But because we deal so often in details, we can easily miss the bigger picture if we don’t regularly step back and remember what God’s design is all about in the first place.

This has become increasingly apparent as children grow up moral but somehow unregenerate. It has become increasingly apparent as women struggle to understand their significance comes through Christ and not their casserole. And it has become increasingly apparent as we splinter into groups defined not so much by the Cross but by our private applications of headship and home life.

So even in pursuing beautiful, God-honoring families, perhaps we need to remember how the gospel relates to our homes. Specifically, we must remember that the significance of family life lies not in structures or standards but in displaying our love for God and for each other.

Gospel 101

So if the “bigger picture” means loving God and each other, why does the New Testament devote so much ink to tracing the frame of Christian family life? Why are elders judged by their homes and widows evaluated by their domestic history?

The key to understanding how home life and spiritual life relate is as simple—and as complicated—as the gospel itself. The gospel is fundamentally about transformation, not simply conformity; about restoring brokenness, not simply avoiding it; and about relationships, not simply roles. The family structures we embrace are not goals in and of themselves. They are ultimately made for the benefit of loving relationship, for the larger goal of loving God and each other.

Reframing our conversation this way allows us to concentrate on God’s purpose for every one of us—being made into the image of Christ. It also provides clarity when we deal with passages that can easily be misapplied, passages that can feel like burdens instead of blessings. Passages like those in 1 Timothy.

In discussing the office of elder in a local congregation in 1 Timothy 3, Paul details the qualifications of a man fit for the position, including whether he has healthy home dynamics. Because we understand that Christ’s love for us informs our homes (and not the other way around), we recognize that this passage must be more than a list of standards to be met. Instead it deals with answering the question of whether the man has truly been transformed by Christ: does he truly love God and his neighbor as himself? How will you know? Look at his life, look at his home. Has the gospel become so much a part of his identity that he lives it out even in private? Does he love behind closed doors?

In 1 Timothy 5, the qualifications for widows being brought under the care of the church are strikingly similar. And in 1 Timothy 2:15 and 5:8, Paul connects both men and women’s standing before God with how they interact with their families. Again, our domestic structures do not convey grace upon us—thank the Reformation for that bit of theological corrective—but our domestic life will be the first place the gospel reveals itself.

Moral Proximity

If Christ is changing us into people who love him and love each other, if our love and faith are real, they will first find expression with the people closest to us, the people within the four walls of our homes. If you can’t love there, you can’t love anywhere else. If you aren’t learning to say no to yourself in little areas, if you can’t submit your will to your husband’s, how do you expect to submit it to Christ? If you can’t love sacrificially, if you can’t daily die for the good of your wife, how do you expect to do it for the sake of the kingdom?

This is also why, among other reasons, hospitality is so significant to proclaiming the gospel. Hospitality invites others into close proximity—it invites them to become our neighbors—not to display our Pinterest-perfect rooms and Food Network meals, but to display our Spirit-led, Spirit-empowered relationships. To display wives and husbands who value and honor the differences between them instead of belittling each other; to show families that love and sacrifice for each other and forgive despite deep hurt; and to model not simply children who obey their parents, but parents who are patient and merciful when they do not. And ultimately we can do this, not because we have imposed legalistic structures onto our homes, but because Jesus has changed us from the inside out.

Trust me, your neighbor will know the difference.

Microcosm of Grace

Reframing how home life relates to the gospel also frees singles and those without children from feeling spiritually inferior. In the end, the issue is not about your marital or parental state—as good and valuable and sacred as those may be. The issue has always been, “Do you love those closest to you well? Do you love your neighbor?” All of us have opportunity to do that.

In this sense, home is magical in that it is a microcosm, not of traditionalism, but of gospel transformation. But the home is not the only place this happens. Work, school, church—all these places and the relationships surrounding them give us ample opportunity to display and practice the change that has taken place in our souls. Here, in our everyday relationships, the Holy Spirit is visibly changing us from glory to glory and making us into Christ’s image in real, practical ways.