We are seeing a universal pursuit of equality, a yearning to eliminate all distinction based on birth or property and not on personal value, a strong push for independence and freedom. In church and state, in family and society, in vocation and business, each person wants to see their own rights defined, wants to cast their own vote, and wants to stand up for their own interests.
In this pursuit there is much that we can accept as required by the times in which we live, much that we can appreciate as completely legitimate. In the name of Christianity we cannot disapprove of much of this, for this religion, more than any other religion or ethics, has highlighted the value of the human personality. The human soul is more valuable than the whole world. But this pursuit may enjoy our sympathy and support—and can work beneficially—only to the degree that it is directed by religious-moral principles and is guided by the law of God.
The person who pursues simply and only independence ends up glorifying the will to power, the right of the strongest; and because such anarchy cannot be tolerated, he is one day reined in by someone stronger or forcibly put in chains by society itself. The individual and the community can live in peace, even as husband and wife, parents and children, government and citizens, employer and worker, only if a moral authority stands over them, defining the rights and duties of both and guarding the interests of each.
A Law Rooted in Conscience
And that in fact is the case. The individual person is not free; he cannot do what he wants. He is not only limited by his environment, but he also senses that he is bound by his conscience and is responsible for his thoughts, desires, and actions. Similarly, society is not sovereign and almighty, but bound to ordinances that God has established for it. For society itself is grounded in moral principles. Indeed, people committed to a materialist or socialist viewpoint have supposed that society with all its relationships and goods should be a product of economic, material circumstances. But this teaching directly contradicts reality.
Even though society exerts influence on its members, society itself is always composed of people who come not only with a body and a stomach, but also with a heart and a soul, an intellect and a conscience. No matter what interests may induce people to form a connection with each other, these are always people who are morally responsible and may not do whatever they may happen to desire or want. Sometimes, in fact, such connections are formed with a view to protecting spiritual and moral interests, such as, for example, science, art, charity, compassion, etc.
But even if it involves purely material interests, like developing a mine, cultivating the soil, producing various material goods, etc., then still these always involve people who are in a particular relationship with each other, who respect each other as people, and who are subject to a common law for all their thinking and acting.
Before anything else, a society is a complex composite of moral relationships. It matters very little if these moral relationships are incorporated into the law as legal regulations; occasionally codifying a right is proof that such moral relationships no longer possess adequate security in people’s consciences. But from their very origin, they rest in the spiritual, moral nature of the human person and their ultimate firm footing lies there; a law that is not rooted in conscience is powerless; a people’s economy is based on their ethics.
The Nursery of Love
If this indeed is the case, then once again we see the extraordinary significance that the family possesses for the moral well-being of society. For there in the family from the moment we enter the world we get to know all those relationships that we will enter later in society— relationships of freedom and connectedness, independence and dependence, authority and obedience, equality and difference.
And we get to know them in the family not in an abstract academic way, not by theoretical instruction, but practically, in and through life itself; all moral relationships are embedded and interwoven in the family, in the bonds of blood, and they are rooted in the origins of human existence. In the family we get to know the secret of life, the secret, namely, that not selfishness but self-denial and self-sacrifice, dedication and love, constitute the rich content of human living.
And from the family we carry those moral relationships into society. One who has learned to honor his father later respects the authority of those through whom it has pleased God to rule over him. One who has truly loved his mother cannot violate another woman’s honor. One who views the family servants as housemates cannot become a tyrant over his own employees. The family is the nursery of love and inoculates society with such love.
We need that love if there is going to be any reform within society. Not selfishness, not greed, not thirst for domineering, but love is the foundation and the cement of the Christian society. Christianity is not the architect, but the soul of society. One who destroys the family is digging away the moral foundations on which society has been established as a moral institution.
But one who exalts the family and outfits leadership with love rather than selfishness, such a person does a work that pleases God. For God is love and love is the law of his kingdom.
This is an adapted excerpt from The Christian Family, written by Herman Bavinck in 1912 and translated by Nelson Kloosterman in 2012. It is reprinted here with permission from Christian’s Library Press.