Read an Excerpt
LIVING THE FAITH COMMUNITY
By John H. Westerhoff III
Church Publishing, IncorporatedCopyright © 2004 John H. Westerhoff III
All rights reserved.
THE CHURCH AS FAMILY
The family and family life have changed and are changing. Most of us have experienced some of the resulting disease, but few of us know the cure. Those of us who are Christians know instinctively that the church holds the clues to the cure; but in our experience the church, at best, has addressed only symptoms while the disease remains.
With the birth of a child, parents raised in the church typically think first of baptism. For some, the reason may be fear: Baptism is a magical act to convince God to do something for our child, something that God would not do unless we performed the correct ritual. For others, the reason may be custom: Baptism is an act expected of decent parents. For still others, the reason may be the desire to share with their children life in the body of Christ. Still, in spite of our various reasons, all seem to sense unconsciously that they can't go it alone. If their children are to have Christian faith and live the Christian life, they will need to be nurtured in that faith and life. And that cannot be done adequately outside a community of faith.
While the family will always be a primary context for nurture, the modern family's authority is limited; a complex configuration of societal forces impinge upon its influence. In the nineteenth century, when Horace Bushnell wrote Christian Nurture, it was important to stress nurture within the family. But we cannot frame a contemporary theory of Christian nurture based upon an image of the family or of the church from another era in history. Because we face unique problems in our day, new understandings must emerge.
Throughout church history, both singleness and marriage have been considered Christian vocations. While in some periods one or the other was thought more holy, the church has maintained that both are proper contexts in which to do the will of God and witness to the gospel. Unfortunately, in our own day many people have assumed that only marriage can lead to meaningful life.
As a result, some who should remain single get married and destroy the relationship. Others feel inadequate and unfulfilled because they never have the opportunity to be married. Some feel guilty because they do not wish to be married. Still others have connected singleness to priesthood or the "religious life" and therefore have denied ordination to people who also choose marriage.
But life, whether single or married, requires community. Therefore, it is the church—a faith community—not the cultural family, which is essential to Christian faith and life. The foundation of Christian life is life in the church.
Jesus consistently denied primary obligations to his cultural family and committed himself unreservedly to his "faith family." The clearest statement we have about Jesus' attitude toward family relations is a passage from Mark's account of the gospel (3:7–35). Surrounded by his followers, hounded by critics, and now pursued by his frightened mother and distraught family members, Jesus answered the question, "Who are my mother and brothers?" by saying, "They are those who do the will of God!"
Jesus announced that from that point onward kinship would no longer be defined biologically. Jesus claimed as members of his family those who shared his vision and acted accordingly. The members of his own cultural family were not excluded from this new fellowship, but neither were they automatically included.
In Matthew's account of the gospel, Jesus is even more radical. Here he speaks of dividing cultural families in the name of a faith family (10:34–37). Nevertheless, Jesus never condemns the family as an institution or suggests that living in a cultural family is not part of God's intention for humankind. He simply puts the faith family first and suggests that those who relinquish traditional family ties will gain a new and ultimately more important family to nurture and sustain them in faith.
The first great crisis in the life of the Christian church was related to biological kinship. Paul made it his life's work to convince Jewish Christians that the inheritance of God's promise to Abraham came not through bloodlines but through radical faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The future of the church depended on altering—that is, broadening and expanding—the notion of kinship and covenant relationships. While showing deep concern for the cultural family by acts such as baptizing whole households, the church understood itself as an expression of the family of God and asked for a familial commitment from its members.
Those who embraced the gospel were members of cultural families, but Jesus called them out of their families and into a new family—a family not identified by genealogy or even clan association but by the covenanting of God with them. This new family was regarded as the household of God and, according to its self-understanding, was the family through whom all other families would be blessed. For Jesus and the early church the Christian community offered a new kind of family, gathered together and united in a common faith and life, a community between the natural family and society and, on occasion, a community in tension with both.
Before exploring how the revolutionary character of the gospel transformed the notion of the family, it is important to examine the history of the cultural family. Through much of history and in most cultures, human beings have not lived in a nuclear or even an extended family. Rather they have lived in social units best described as clans or tribes. Tribal families or clans—groups of persons and assorted kin forming a close residential community for the mutual benefit of its members—are a basic unit of human life.
While nuclear family units can be found in the ancient world, the tribe was the basic social unit. In the world of biblical history, the tribe was the basic unit of meaning that shaped and defined reality. When the Old Testament speaks of a family, it is referring to a tribal family that (being patriarchal) included a husband, his wives and their children, his concubines and their children, sons and daughters-in-law and their offspring, slaves of both sexes and their children, dependents such as the parentless, widows, and illegitimate children, aliens such as the sojourner passing through, and all the marginal folk who chose to live among the group.
However, as human life became more complex, the tribal family necessarily and wisely split into a primary unit of life known as the extended family and a number of secondary social institutions. But the term "extended family" is misleading because the name implies that the nuclear family is normative and that the extended family is composed of numerous nuclear families. In reality, the nuclear family is a restricted family, a late adaptation of the extended family, which itself was an adaptation of the tribal family.
This so-called extended family was comprised of three or more generations living together and interacting for one another's mutual benefit—essentially a kinship group living in a common household or in close geographical proximity. Society assumed responsibility for those who did not live in these extended families and for facilitating harmony among the various family units.
A functional analysis of the tribal family reveals five significant functions:
1. Reproduction provided the means for the tribe to replace its dying members and perpetuate itself;
2. Nurture provided the means to sustain and transmit the tribe's shared understandings and ways of life, as well as those skills necessary for survival;
3. Security provided the means to protect tribal members from disaster, external attack, illness, and feebleness;
4. Physical survival provided the basic means of production and a necessary division of labor to meet needs such as housing, clothing, and food;
5. Support provided the means to meet various human psychological needs, such as intimacy.
Later, most of these functions were at least partially adopted by the extended family. But with an increasingly industrial economy and an emerging urban, mobile society, the nuclear family emerged and passed on an increasing number of these functions to the state or other social institutions.
Today these secondary institutions have assumed significant aspects of all the family's societal functions, save procreation. (From a biological point of view, the society can now take over this function.) Nurture is increasingly conducted in nurseries, in day-care centers, in schools, and through the mass media. Security is provided by insurance companies, retirement centers, fire and police departments, and hospitals. The provision of food, clothing, and shelter, and the division of labor necessary for this provision have been assumed by business and industry. Support, while still centered in the family, is increasingly supplied by clubs, voluntary associations, professional therapists, and counselors.
The contemporary cultural family is slowly being dispossessed of all its functions; even procreation is considered optional rather than essential for group survival. The place of the family and expectations of the family have radically changed during this generation. In no previous period of history has the social order been organized as it is now or functioned the way it now does. We are the first people to try to live and maintain life within the particular societal structures we have created.
The family is a configuration, culturally and historically influenced, of which there are countless variants. Throughout history the cultural family has adapted to changing social realities, but not in any evolutionary progression. In America, for example, up through the eighteenth century the family was understood as a little church and commonwealth that closely shared the wider society's understanding and ways of life. Then early in the nineteenth century the family became a separate entity, defining itself in part over and against the society. The new family became the family of refuge, a bastion of repose, orderliness, and unwavering devotion of persons to each other. With a sharp delineation of roles and responsibilities, husbands worked in one world according to one set of values, and women and children lived in another world safe from the pressures, temptations, and evils of the world outside. To this homeland the man of the family would retreat for refreshment and renewal. So it was that the eighteenth-century Puritan family of social integration gave way to the nineteenth-century Victorian family of escape. The twentieth century marks one more radical shift in the history of the family.
Today we witness a continuing transformation of the family. The changes involved are not in themselves either good or evil; but like all other social realities they can be either or both. Surely the Christian family cannot be identified with any particular social pattern. As believers in Christ and members of his church, Christians can choose to live within various family relationships: extended families, nuclear families, single-parent families, and families without children, to name just a few.
From an historical perspective, the family has always been changing. Knowing this, we gain nothing by constructing in our imaginations the "perfect family" or a "Christian family." What many people call the "normal family"—a mother, father, and their children living in a single household, with the mother working at home and assuming primary responsibility for child-rearing—is not necessarily the healthiest or best model for family life.
Many different styles of healthy family relationships are possible among Christians. Who comprises a family, how the family is structured, what roles each member plays, how long children live at home with their parents, how much attention fathers pay to infants, what work mothers perform outside the home, whether it is God's will to bear children, and whether one is called to marriage or singleness: All these issues have various Christian answers.
Surely the Christian family cannot be identified with any particular pattern. Whether or not it is Christian depends upon the faith of its members and the character of the life it shares, not upon its structures, the roles persons play within it, or the functions it performs. It is irrational to conclude, as some have done, that the ideal Christian family is the nuclear family with roles defined by sex.
The cultural family is not dying, nor is the nuclear family outmoded. The family, in its various manifestations, continues to play a crucial role in the social order. It continues to influence significantly the lives of its members.
But the family has changed. It is now a dependent social unit of consumption, rather than an independent unit of production. The state increasingly has assumed the functions of nurture traditionally reserved for the family. People live longer, more choose singleness, the family unit becomes smaller as more choose not to have children, and the generations live independent of each other. The family has become more dependent upon society's political, social, and economic institutions and less dependent upon its own members. Marriages are increasingly comprised of equal partners living in both independent and mutually satisfying relationships. The number of those who decide to live together outside the covenant of marriage, in both homosexual and heterosexual relationships, is increasing, as is the number of those who divorce. Whether these trends continue or are reversed, some form of the cultural family will exist and play a significant role in the lives of many people.
At the same time, the political, social, and economic institutions of government are changing radically as well. Larger and more impersonal, they are increasingly competitive, specialized, bureaucratic, and out of touch with the people. Created to serve humanizing forces within society, they tend to evolve into alienating structures with dehumanizing programs.
Some governmental leaders today advocate that this trend be reversed. As appealing as that perspective may sound, it is clear that we cannot return all responsibility for human life to the private sector. Governmental services are essential to modern life, and they can—indeed must—contribute significantly to justice and humane life. But they cannot replace other social units or satisfactorily assume all the functional responsibilities of the family.
The responses to this contemporary family situation are varied. Some long to return to the past by recreating the traditional (somewhat imaginary) cultural family; but we can't go home again. Some strive to recreate the tribal family by constructing communes; but unless we are to reverse history, communal life is not an option for North American society in general.
Despite these realities, the typical family, though perhaps well-suited to the mobility of the contemporary era, can never be a fully adequate social unit for human life. Nor can the social, political, and economic institutions we have created to support the family and address human needs. Attempts to reform and humanize both the family and the state and its related institutions, while important and necessary, can never be adequate or sufficient. For neither family nor government nor the two together can satisfactorily address the human problems and needs of our modern communications society. A third alternative is needed.
That alternative is for the church to become a mid-community, that is, a faith community that exists between the family on one side and the society and its institutions on the other. In other words, I am recommending that the church become for Christians the most central, foundational unit of societal life.
The issue for the church, therefore, is not how we can humanize or help the family and the state to be more humane and effective, but how we can reform the church so that it can become a faith community for the humanization of all individual and social life.
The first difficulty with this concept is that we often do not think of the church as a faith community. For most people, the church is one voluntary association alongside others, one of the many clubs or societal institutions to which they choose to belong. Further, we commonly think of Christian life from an individualistic or, at best, an organizational perspective, but rarely from a communal perspective.
Excerpted from LIVING THE FAITH COMMUNITY by John H. Westerhoff III. Copyright © 2004 by John H. Westerhoff III. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.