Previous | Next

Spring 1990 · Vol. 19 No. 1 · pp. 3–11 

Family Ministry and a Theology of the Family: A Personal Journey

Dennis B. Guernsey

The tasks I have set for myself for this article are both personal-and theological. The personal task involves my own journey toward a philosophy of the church’s ministry to its families. The second task, the theological, involves a discussion of certain of my own theological reflections about a theology of the family. I conclude with a discussion of practical implications in terms of the church’s ministry.


In the late 1970s Ray Anderson, Professor of Theology and Ministry at Fuller Seminary, and I decided to organize and team-teach a new course, “Theology of the Family.” As a first step we commissioned one of the doctoral students to do a bibliographic search. We expected to find a substantial body of literature in the field. To our chagrin the student returned with a disappointingly short list of citations. Subsequent to that search, Dr. Anderson and I decided that our only recourse was to begin to think and write about the theological issues regarding {4} the family as if we were “first-generation” theologians. For Ray, the task seemed reasonable. For me, the task seemed overwhelming.

The theology of the family is emerging.

For our scholarly base at that time, we identified less than six hundred pages of substantive literature regarding the family, of which two hundred pages came from one source, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. 1 Our own contribution to the field came several years later as On Being Family: A Social Theology of the Family. 2 The dilemma we faced in constructing a theology of the family is the dilemma all face in this field. Other categories of theology, such as a theology of salvation, the church or theological anthropology have a deep and rich history of theological reflection. Much is to be gained from mining the depths of the thinking of those who have gone before. This is not the case when it comes to a theology of the family.

Since our first search of the literature and after ten years of personal reflection, I have concluded that the theology of the family is emerging much as other areas of theology have emerged. 3 In much the same way as the first-century church, it was the practitioners in the field—in this instance, those who struggled with the problems of the family—who were forging a biblical and theological perspective. Popular writers such as the psychologists James Dobson and Bruce Narramore, and even some of my own writings, were among the first to struggle with what the Bible teaches regarding the family. We were practitioners, not theologians. As practitioners, we were attempting to scratch the church where it was itching. The explosion of popular Christian literature about the family in the last twenty years is the natural consequence.

An analogy from the first-century church illustrates the historical development of the field of “theology of family.” The early church leaders were preoccupied with the doing of ministry before they were prompted by the Holy Spirit to write the documents that were later collected as the New Testament canon. Last of all, but still necessary, came the formal theologies necessary to systematize and organize the church’s thinking regarding the New Testament. Those theologies are still emerging. So also a theology of the family is emerging, just as other theologies have emerged. Those who have the greatest {5} need have the most to gain from a particular theology. These who have the greatest need are those who are doing the ministry in the area relevant to that theology.

A proposition thus emerges, perhaps controversial, but central to my own thinking: Ministry necessarily precedes theology, but is eventually monitored and disciplined by that theology. In terms of my own thinking about family ministry and a theology of the family, a second proposition comes into play: A theology of the family is most congruent with the epistemological assumptions of the social and behavioral sciences. This is in contrast with the epistemological assumptions of traditional systematic and biblical theology, that is, of philosophy and literary analysis. The epistemological assumptions of General Systems Theory and those of social ecology are more germane. 4 In our book, On Being Family, I have suggested four key underlying assumptions which will not be reiterated here. 5

In our book, Anderson and I argued that those who are most aware of both systemic and ecological assumptions, if only unconsciously, will be the ones able to think outside the lines about family ministry and a theology of the family. A cursory evaluation of the literature in the field shows this view to be true. It is the practitioners, especially the social and behavioral scientists, who are on the cutting edges of both family ministry and a theology of the family.


With the above discussion in mind, we may now define family ministry. I have come to define the concept as “the church’s empowering the people of God to relate to one another as if they are family, especially if they are.” The definition represents a movement away from a static, programmatic definition to a more dynamic and relational one.

Implicit in the definition is an assumption that in terms of the New Testament, “family” is primarily a verb rather than a noun. The infinitive form would be “to family” one another. The focus is upon how we as the people of God relate to one another, in contrast with who we are when we relate.

This somewhat unusual idea about family emerges from my personal observation and experience. The idea first occurred to me when I was participating in the White House Conference on the Family in 1979/80. I observed that the {6} goals of the Conference were never met because the participants could not agree upon a definition for the family. Those participants who represented the conservative camp insisted upon a traditional definition equating family with a mother, father, and children unit. In short, “family” equals the traditional nuclear family or household. In contrast, the non-traditional camp insisted upon a freewheeling definition almost without boundaries. According to their thinking, family was whatever you decided it to be. The two sides were never able to get together and the noble purposes of the White House Conference were short-circuited.

As I sat in the auditorium of the Executive Office Building of the White House and listened to the final briefing for religious leaders, it occurred to me that the tension between the two camps could be mediated if the word “family” were thought of as a verb rather than a noun. My systems orientation brought me to think in terms of the process rather than the content. The imperatives of the Great Commandments, “you shall love your God” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself’ were lost in the debate and conflict about the definition of the family as a noun. After all, the Great Commandments of the New Testament are relational and process-oriented concepts. My experiences since that time have only reinforced my interpretation.

A second set of observations and experiences is more cumulative, occurring over a period of years as I have moved about the country in my role as a person interested in the area of family ministry. My observation is that all too often, the practitioners in the church who are responsible for family ministries tend to focus upon programs rather than process. Successful family ministry is determined by the number of programs the church has implemented in any given year. Thus, in a tangible sense, family ministry is reduced to the showing of a film series on a Sunday night. It involves organizing Sunday school classes to deal with family themes such as marriage and parenting.

Though useful and congruent with the idea of family as a noun, a programmatic approach to family ministry is necessarily flawed. It is flawed because it tends to perpetuate a static, Victorian ideal about the family. In the crucible of the late 20th century, the Victorian ideal of mother at home, father as the sole supporter of the family, and two or more children {7} applies to less than 15% of the population. Too many people fall outside the definition. They are the widows, orphans, strangers and sojourners of the Biblical story as applied to today.

However, if “family” is primarily a verb, all that the church teaches regarding relationships is legitimately family ministry. Family ministry becomes the ecclesiastical custodian of relational theology. The mystery of the people of God as the family of God is integrated into what the church is about as a whole.

Though often programmatic out of necessity, family ministry according to my definition represents a philosophy of ministry as well as a strategy for achieving that ministry. The nurture and care of the people of God one to another and to others are the legitimate goals of family ministry, whatever forms the structures take.


Although theology emerges out of ministry as just noted, its ultimate purpose is to organize and discipline the ministry. What follows are five theological principles that seem to me to be central in the formation of a theology of the family. 6

1. Persons are created in the image of God and are of infinite value. Thus, whatever defaces or destroys that image, whether persons, laws, or institutions, is not in the will of God and is to be resisted and/or changed. 7 According to this principle, family ministry and theology must have an ethical center. The heart of a theology of the family comes out of an anthropology that is theologically centered in the imago dei. We are created in the image of God and have infinite value. Therefore, racism, sexism, and classism, etc. are antithetical to an ethically centered family theology.

2. Persons are created as relational beings to exist in cohumanity as male and female, not male or female. “God created man in his image, male and female created he them” (Gen. 1:27). I add an emphasis upon the conjunction “and.” The conjunction is not merely a word linking two nouns. It is pregnant with meaning. The “and” is the nexus of family ministry. A theology of the family is the simple but profound exegesis of the conjunction. 8

A corollary to this principle, if not a logical extension of it, is that both women and men are equally gifted and fitted by {8} God to minister within the church and to the world. Few would disagree that universally women are those who are most sensitive to relationships. 9 Therefore, whatever “family” means, those who are most sensitive to relationships, that is, women, become central to the mission of the church. Perhaps it is the chauvinism in the church that keeps and perpetuates the noun forms of the family, the same chauvinism that limits women from freely expressing their gifts in ministry.

3. The church as the body of Christ is the real presence of the incarnate Christ in the world. The body of Christ is more than a metaphor. It is a mystery. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). Jesus Christ is alive in the world today, not in some ethereal, new-age sense of the term, but in the mystery of the church as the people of God, a people who live in relationship with one another as family and with those in the world around them. Jesus Christ is alive today because we are here. The only Christ some people will ever touch will be when they touch our lives, our hands, our compassion, our ministries.

A parallel example of this principle occurs in the social psychology of intimate psychosocial networks. 10 Suffice it to say that the secular literature suggests strongly that something important happens when persons create and maintain intimate, caring relationships with one another. Both help and healing takes place. If this is true in human relationships in general, how much more so is it true when the people of God become family to one another.

Unfortunately, in the church’s ministry, the portrait of our gathering together as the people of God is a portrait more bizarre than beautiful. In making the body of Christ a vacuous metaphor, we empty the image of its meaning and rob ourselves of a powerful truth.

In contrast, when we live together as the body of Christ to one another, we experience the vitality of the living Christ. The emphasis upon family in the New Testament went far beyond the maintenance of the nuclear family, or the extended family for that matter. The emphasis was intended to make the body of Christ relevant to real people. The people of God as the family of God was to be the ultimate litmus test as to the visage of Christ in the real world. Christianity, if it is going to work, must work in the most intimate of relationships: between husband and wife, between parents and children {9}, between siblings, between believer and believer, and between believer and unbeliever. As the people of God we paint a family portrait as we demonstrate the real presence of Christ in the world through our love for one another.

4. The church is primarily the people of God and secondarily the place. This idea unsettles church finance committees who pay utility bills, salaries, and keep the “place” running. It is also a fact that the people of God both need and want a place to gather together. My suggestion has more to do with an emphasis.

The church exists wherever the people of God are. Thus, it is impossible by definition to sustain an incarnational ministry as the body of Christ if the emphasis is disproportionately placed upon where the people of God gather for a few hours per week. If the church is only the place, we will subsequently equate family ministry with content, presented to people on a Sunday morning, seated in metal folding chairs, arranged in rows, talking about family rather than becoming family to one another.

5. Family ministry takes place most naturally wherever and whenever people feel most natural. Consider this question: How likely are you to be the “real” you if you are sitting in a molded plastic chair in the church basement at 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning?

There is something innately artificial about how we are when we come to church as it is commonly constituted. “Church” too easily becomes the place where we dress ourselves up in all of our plumage and present ourselves as having our act together. Rarely do we talk about our failures and our problems in such a context. When I feel like a failure with my teenage daughter, when she is being so disruptive that I am considering finding a place for her to live outside the home, it is almost impossible to raise these issues at church in the midst of a Sunday School study on the kings of Israel. The environment is too easily artificial; it is too easily manipulated.

I am suggesting that family ministry is most effective when the people of God as the family of God come together in more decentralized ways, around a kitchen table, or a backyard barbecue. Accordingly, family ministry takes advantage of “natural events.” It takes advantage of family rituals and celebrations. The assumption is that we are more likely to deal with real life when we are safe and comfortable than when we {10} are on stage and uncomfortable.

Part of the creativity required in family ministry is to take the opportunity to influence the way the people of God and the family of God spend the hours of the week they are not at church. That is, family ministry is particularly relevant to the rest of the week, between Sundays.


In terms of an emerging family ministry and a theology of the family, such a developmental approach suggests that a pastor from Kansas City or Seattle, a marriage and family therapist or social worker from Butte, Montana, or a psychologist from Atlanta do not need permission from some textbook or systematic theology on what to do about ministry to the family in the church. Their instincts are probably exquisite.

Too often, we, especially the practitioners, have turned the process upside down. We vainly search for theological categories that will direct us, or at least free us to do the work of ministry. Consequently, the conduct of a ministry to families becomes so narrow and truncated that we get caught in methodological boxes. This is not the way it should work. In my opinion, it is not the way of the Holy Spirit.

As uncomfortable as it may be, it is a great privilege to be in the first generation of God’s people who seriously consider a ministry task to families and the theological issues that flow from it. It is also a great responsibility to encode family ministry and theology so that the generations to come will have a basis for ministry and a means of evaluating that ministry in light of the historical doctrines of the church. Someone has to “dream dreams” It might as well be us.


  1. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/I, edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F Torrance. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1969.
  2. Cf. Ray S. Anderson and Dennis B. Guernsey. On Being Family: A Social Theology of the Family. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985.
  3. I have switched to the first person, singular pronoun so as not to saddle Dr. Anderson with my conclusions.
  4. Cf. L. Von Bertalanffy. General Systems Theory, George Braziller, 1968; William Buckley. Sociology and Modern Systems Theory. Prentice-Hall, 1967; David Kantor and William Lehr. Inside the Family: Toward a Theory of Family Process. {11} Jossey-Bass, 1975; Urie Bronfenbrenner. The Ecology of Human Development. Harvard University Press, 1979; and Dennis B. Guernsey. A New Design for Family Ministry. David C. Cook, 1982.
  5. Cf. On Being Family, chapter one by Guernsey.
  6. At this point Ray Anderson’s theology has most influenced me, particularly his book, On Being Human, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1982. The reader who is familiar with Dr. Anderson’s theology will recognize his influence and note that the interpretations are mine. Anderson is free from that responsibility.
  7. For this principle and the one that follows, I am indebted to the writings of Karl Barth regarding human persons as a divine prototype (i.e., the imago dei) and human persons created as male and female in differentiated unity. cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/1, pp. 183-191.
  8. The systems implications of this principle are further discussed by the author in chapter 6 of A New Design for Family Ministry, David C. Cook, 1982.
  9. For an excellent discussion of the unique point of view women bring to society, cf. Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.
  10. Cf. Uric Rueveni. Networking Families in Crises. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1979.
Dr. Dennis B. Guernsey is Director of the Marriage and Family Counseling Program at the School of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California.

Previous | Next