Relationships with members of our family by marriage (part 3)

In-laws need not be out-laws

 By Dr Dixie Chua.

The Chua family

A marriage is not just the union between a man and a woman before God, it is also the joining together of two families with very different backgrounds and cultures. Often times these differences can cause great tensions and friction in a marriage. Many people avoid talking about in-law relationships because it is sensitive and difficult to discuss. We thank God that Christians can always turn to the Word of God for wisdom and guidance in navigating any messy situation in a godly and wise manner so that God’s name will be glorified in our marriage.

Examples of troubled in-law relationships in the Bible

In-law problems are not new, and there are many examples of troubled in-law relationships in the Bible. Isaac and Rebekah had problems with Esau’s two Canaanite wives. When Esau was forty years old, he took as wives Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite. And they were a grief of mind to Isaac and Rebekah(Gen 26:34-35). These two women worshipped foreign gods. On top of that, there were cultural and religious differences that brought difficulties into their relationships. They dragged Esau to their wild parties and he became a disgrace to his parents. No wonder Isaac and Rebekah were grieved by them.

Jacob had constant conflicts with his father-in-law, Laban, since the first day of his marriage. Cheating and scheming against each other were common occurrences during Jacob’s stay in his father-in-law’s household. The relationship became so bad that Jacob had to plan a secret escape with his two wives, two concubines and 11 children from his father-in-law. When Laban finally caught up with Jacob’s party, they had a long argument accusing each other of wrongdoings. Finally they made a covenant at Mizpah. Laban said to Jacob, May the LORD watch between you and me when we are absent one from another(Gen 31:49).

Many of us have misunderstood the meaning of this verse. We often use it as a parting verse for our friends when they have to leave us. We pray that God will bless us and keep us though we are at different places on earth. That meaning was foreign to them. What Laban was saying was that, “Jacob, you had better not ever come back here again. Because if you cross over to my land, I am going to kill you and the only help you can get will be from your God!” As far as we know from the Scriptures, they never met again.

David’s father-in-law Saul, treated him badly and attempted to kill him many times. Had it not been for God’s protection on David’s life to preserve him for His own purpose, David would have perished under Saul’s hand. When Jonathan, Saul’s own son, tried to help David, his brother-in-law, his father scolded him saying, You son of a perverse, rebellious woman! Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness?(1 Sam 20:30). David suffered a lot under the hand of his father-in-law.

An example of good in-law relationship in the Bible

Thankfully not all in-law relationships are unpleasant. Out of all the difficult relationships between in-laws we find a beautiful story in the Book of Ruth of the faithfulness of a daughter-in-law towards her mother-in-law. They maintained a very sweet and intimate relationship throughout bad times and good times in their lives. The immortal words Ruth said to Naomi have encouraged people throughout the ages and have also been quoted as wedding vows: Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following you; for wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God(Ruth 1:16).

Eugene and I also used this verse from the Bible as our wedding vow. When we said “Your people shall be my people”, we really meant it and we pray to God that we will always keep that vow. It is not easy but we have to keep reminding ourselves that Eugene’s parents are my parents, his siblings are my siblings and my siblings are his as well.

As Christians, it is our responsibility to maintain godly relationships with our spouses’ families. In time to come, it will be our duty to have godly relationships with our children’s spouses when we become parents-in-law.

Relationship with your spouses

Before we look at our relationships with our in-laws, we must understand the biblical principle of marriage: God’s design and intention for the marriage relationship between a man and a woman. There are tons of books published concerning this subject. I  will highlight the main points here for the purpose of understanding our relationships with our in-laws.

(1) Marriage relationship

In the Book of Ephesians, Paul outlines for us many aspects of our relationships; in chapters 1 – 3 he points out to us our relationship with the Lord, in chapter 4 he gives us  general principles of our relationships towards others and in chapters 5 – 6 he stresses on the specific relationships in the family. In a family, the husband-wife relationship comes before all other relationships, even the parent-child relationship. Then he touches on the employer-employee relationship.

In the husband-wife relationship, he mentions the role of the wife first because the wife occupies a very important position at home. She is like the ‘superglue’ that glues everything in place so that they will not fall apart. Behind every well-organised Christian home, there is a virtuous and godly wife, for the husband cannot do it alone. But no matter how capable a wife is, her calling is to submit to her own husband as to the Lord (Eph 5:22).

Speaking as a wife, I think one of the greatest challenges for a married woman is to be able to lovingly submit to her husband under all circumstances ‘as to the Lord’. She is to show honour and respect to her husband always. All wives need God’s grace and help to be able to that. Paul then exhorts the husbands to love, lead, and serve their wives as they receive that kind of respect and honour from them. Paul also mentions in other epistles that a man who is not relating properly to his wife has no business being involved in teaching and leadership positions of the church. That is a very high calling for him.

(2) One-flesh concept

Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). 

The Bible makes it very clear that the husband–wife relationship is a life-long exclusive one. It is more important than the parent–child relationship. In marriage, a man and his wife become one-flesh, like two pieces of paper glued together and if one were to tear them apart, both will be spoilt. Someone once said, “To get married is like ‘committing suicide’. You have to die to yourself, join to another person and you two become a totally different entity.”

If a man is not ready to leave his father and mother and to be joined to his wife, he is not ready for marriage. This also applies to a woman. But what does leaving father and mother entail? It is not just moving out of the house. It is not to cease honouring and supporting them. It means to form a new unit with your spouse, to develop a new godly culture in your own home, to cultivate biblical, helpful and good tradition to honour the Lord, and to provide a stable, loving and secure environment for your children to grow up in.

Leaving father and mother includes, not just the physical, but the mental, emotional, psychological, traditional, and financial states. After marriage, a man forms one unit with his wife and he has to make independent decisions with his wife apart from his parents. He has to determine to make his wife the most significant person in his life. This is to follow the model of Christ and the Church. The Church is so important to Christ that He was willing to die to redeem her. A man’s relationship with his wife is serious, as it reflects his relationship with God.

(3) Give parents-in-law the same honour and respect as one’s own parents

We should maintain friendships and relationships with parents of both sides but they must not be the dominant factor in our home. They should feel that they have gained a son or daughter, and not have lost one. Help your spouse to maintain a loving, considerate relationship with his family by birth. Knowing more about your spouse’s family will help you to be more understanding towards your spouse’s behaviour and reaction to different situations. Any ungodly aspects in life should be worked through and humbly corrected between you two.

Relationship with your in-laws

Understanding the one-flesh concept can help us in our relationship with our in-laws. I would like to highlight a very delicate relationship, namely the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship. We hear many horror stories about this relationship from story books, movies and even personal experiences among our friends. How do we deal wisely with problems that arise from this relationship? These are very complex and multi-faceted problems. Sometimes the mother feels that she has lost the affection of her son to a woman outside of the family and the wife feels that she is competing with his mother for the love of her husband.

They come from a different culture and background with different likes and dislikes. When relating to each other, there are certain tensions and uneasiness. Many daughters-in-law complain about the things mothers-in-law do and say that offend them. My advice to younger sisters who come to me with this kind of problems is, “If you do not like the things she says or does, go into your room, take a diary and write them down, not for the purpose of bringing them up one day to quarrel with her but to remind yourself that these are the things you will not say or do to your future daughter-in-law if God so blesses you with one some day. For what you appreciate that she does for you, write them down also and remind yourself that if you have a daughter-in-law, these are the ways you will treat her. In time to come you will be a better, wiser and more godly mother-in-law to the next generation.” In that light, your mother-in-law will become your tutor and instrument of sanctification in life.

When I first came to Singapore, I knew nobody except the one I was about to marry. I did not know how to relate to the people in Eugene’s family. They came from a very different background that I knew nothing about. All I knew was that they were not Christians at that time and I had the responsibility to witness to them. The turning point, when I felt very close to my mother-in-law was when I was in the hospital labour ward. I was in great pain after the doctor induced me and Eugene was holding my right hand while his mother was holding my left to give me comfort and encouragement as tears rolled down my face.

I told them to go home as I did not know when the baby would arrive. My mother-in-law said, “How can we leave you when you are in such pain!” At that moment I said to myself, “Now we have something in common – labour pain.” There is at least one reason for us to love our mothers-in-law, they went through great pain to give birth to our husbands. We should respect, honour and love them as our own mothers.

When we become parents-in-law, we must respect the biblical concept of our children “leaving parents and cleaving to each other”. Leave our married children to create their own dreams, memories and family traditions for their children. We can give them advice when they come to consult us and encourage them to build strong families based on the foundation God has laid down in the Bible.

Brothers- and sisters-in-law

For the singles, you will have in-laws too, in the form of brothers- and sisters-in-law. No matter how close you are to your siblings, remember, when they get married, their loyalty is to their spouses and not to you. So do not be shocked to find that your close siblings are no longer able to take care of you as much as before they were married.

My oldest sister was very close to me when we were young. But when she became attached, I got very jealous and refused to write to her when she was in the UK studying in the nursing school. I was not prepared to face that shift of loyalty. We have to learn to accept these changes in life and respond to them in a godly manner.


Relationships of any kind have never been easy because we are all sinners by nature. By the grace of God we can learn to live in peace with others as Paul exhorts us in Romans 12:18, If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.God places us where we are for a good purpose. He gives us these people to love, to care for and especially to evangelise to if any of them are not in Him yet. Even if situations turn against us, we must remember God’s Word, Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord(Rom 12:19). We have to maintain a good Christian witness among these people and to reflect God’s glory and love in our lives.  Even if there is only one non-Christian in the family, your home is your mission field and your responsibility is to preach the Gospel to that person. 

Used by permission from Fishers magazine, produced for The Fisherman of Christ Fellowship, Singapore ([1]The FISHERS Magazine [Issue 219]

Dixie Chua  has many gifts: in music, literature and preaching God’s Word. She did cancer research  and worked as a clinical biochemist. She quit her job and served in the church full time before retirement.  She  is an editor of Fishers magazine and has written a book Footprints in the Snow (free) an autobiography recounting God’s wonderful grace in her life.  Her husband Dr. Eugene Chua is an elder in Fishers of Christ Fellowship


*Relationships Part 1: “God’s Precious Gift”.

*Relationships Part 2 “With members of our family by birth”.


1 The FISHERS Magazine [Issue 219]

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