Elisabeth Elliot was an incredible woman whose impact on generations of Christians can’t be overstated. She can teach us much about the importance of family in the Christian life.
Elisabeth strongly believed in the power of the ministry of family. In fact, the way she presented her philosophy of ministry was through stories—stories about her own family. Her upbringing shaped her views on the family. The book she wrote about family ministry begins with the birth of her mother. She wanted her audience to understand the legacy and effect of godly parents. She believed that one of the most effective forms of ministry was parenting. Her life reflected this belief. The way she lived and chose to pursue the will of God in this area spoke louder than the words in her books.
Because of the early and untimely death of her first husband, she only had one child, Valerie. She realized that the Lord had called her to a quite different life than her own mother. While Elisabeth was ironically never able to live in a traditional family setting, she was able to minister to and encourage many through her unique life experiences. After a long life of service and fearlessly seeking God’s will above her own, Elisabeth Elliot passed away at the age of 88 on June 15, 2015, after living with dementia for a decade.
Let’s take a look at how Elisabeth thought about the Christian family.
Values of a Christian Family
Elisabeth emphasized the importance of cultivating a life of prayer within the family. She explains the way her father chose to do this: “My father did not push us to prayer, he led us to prayer—first by that consistent example of being a pray-er himself, then by asking the blessing” (Shaping 57). Her father and mother were both godly examples of prayerfulness to her as a child. Her father taught their family to be in the habit of praying before bed and first thing in the morning, and praying as a family before meals. He also suggested that his children make daily and weekly prayer lists of their own.
She also highly valued an “ordered home.” Organization probably isn’t our first thought when we think of our relationship with God! Elisabeth saw keeping things in order as acknowledging God’s arrangement of authority and time (1 Corinthians 14:33).
With a family of six, her father ensured that the family was always on time. Her mother made certain the children followed their schedule. Elisabeth saw this as a discipline that reminded her of God’s own orderliness. While some may call her mother a “nag,” Elisabeth saw it as the importance of instilling the sense of “place.” With that came a sense of purpose within her sense of place. She believed that a disordered home was a physical reflection of a disordered soul.
Elisabeth believed that Christ wasn’t represented in the home if there wasn’t tender love (Ephesians 6:4). Parents must strive to show incarnational love to their children. A father should spend time with his children. This means both making time for them and prioritizing them. When he spends his recreation time, he should spend it with his kids going for a walk, reading a book aloud, or just playing with them. It gives the child a sense of “belongingness,” mirroring the way that believers in Jesus belong to our Heavenly Father.
For a woman, Elisabeth saw performing motherly duties and teaching daughters to perform them as incredibly important. This comes in part from her strong belief in the role of a woman. A mother should pass on God’s truth about womanhood through not only her example, but also through direct teaching (Titus 2:3-4). Some examples of engaging daughters in motherly duties are having them help to change diapers, do laundry, and care for younger siblings.
Elisabeth has been criticized by many feminists that disagree with her views on women. We agree with Elisabeth’s view, however. It’s not our place to choose what we think our role should be. God already decided that for us (Romans 9:20). His perfect will is far better than what we could come up with. Elisabeth didn’t see God’s vision for women prioritizing serving the family in the home as limiting—she saw it as freeing. The immense impact she had on the world was not in spite of her being female, but because of it.
Another quality that Elisabeth holds dear is sacrificial authority. She explained this both in the context of a husband and wife relationship as well as a parent and child relationship (Colossians 3:18-20). Sacrificial authority requires self-denying love. It means that there’s give and take in a husband-wife relationship. For a parent to child, it means setting rules (based on love) and reinforcing positive behavior (not just scolding negative behavior).
Trust is another trait of great importance. Elisabeth explains that, for a child, “trust in God begins with his trust in the word of his parents” (Shaping 113). In addition, she believes that “truthfulness is the foundation of faith” (115). Therefore, a child should be able to trust the word of his parents to build a strong foundation of faith. Elisabeth expressed her frustration towards parents who believe that lying is a sin, yet cannot follow through with their word (or rather their mindless threats) to their children. A child quickly loses trust in a parent who does not follow through with action on a promised discipline or punishment.
Sin and Grace in the Christian Family
Elisabeth intentionally patterned her family and lifestyle after God’s Word. Secondary sources spoke so highly of her that it’s difficult to find negative points in her life ministry.
However, her family growing up seemed like a difficult place to be a sinner. She retold a story about a time when she wanted to see what it would be like to sin very boldly and deliberately. She chose to steal a Mickey Mouse watch from her cousin Essie’s house. However, upon the thought of having to confess this to her aunt and cousin, she took the watch back. She couldn’t endure the idea of having to let down or disappoint her parents.
It’s not a bad thing at all that Elizabeth’s parents instilled in her a strong conscience at a young age. In fact, a healthy fear of causing her parents grief by her sin reflects a godly fear of the Lord, for, “by the fear of the Lord one turns away from evil” (Proverbs 16:6 ESV).
However, Elizabeth often feared being a disappointment to her parents, or displeasing them. Sometimes this negatively impacted her view of God.
We do grieve God by our sin (Ephesians 4:30), and so the fear of dishonoring him will keep us from sin (Proverbs 8:13), but when we do sin we should not expect that it has caused him to change his mind about how he feels about us. God knows that we’re sinners, but if we have faith in Jesus, he has clothed us in the imputed righteousness of Jesus. Thus, regardless of how many times we fail, God is pleased with us because of the righteousness of Jesus.
If this is true, Elisabeth’s philosophy that children should seek to please their parents is missing a key element. Parents should try to communicate to their kids that their love will not waver based on the behavior of their child, though certain actions do have consequences. Grace and the acknowledgment of sin should be more regularly incorporated into the household. For sin is not just a reason for shame, but an opportunity to admit our brokenness and need for the Savior.
Living Like Elisabeth Elliot
Elisabeth Elliot would not want you to model your family or relationships after her; she would want you to open the Bible, and discover what God has to say about family and relationships. The Bible was Elisabeth’s compass for life. In it she found God’s will for how to live in every area of life, including the home. Because of Elisabeth’s deep love for Jesus Christ, she sought to obey God’s Word to the best of her ability. The beauty of a Christian family does not spring from perfect people, but from people striving to live in obedience to God’s good design.