The Contingency of "the Christian Household"
What follows is the introduction of a paper (The Historical Contingency of “the Christian Household”) that I will be reading at the inaugural Priscilla & Aquila Research Conference this week. I’ll post a link to a video recording of the full paper once it is available. To stay in the know, make sure you have subscribed.
In July last year a well known Christian leader in the US tweeted about the changes wrought on marriage, sex, family and relationships across the last few decades. He wrote about how the US has departed from “a Christian ethic of romance, sex, and family in popular behaviour. Our nation has never completely adhered to that ethic, but the radical departure from it started in the 1960s”
Even a basic understanding of twentieth century American history—and indeed, twentieth century Western history—would suggest that this leader has put his finger on something. The second half of the last century was characterised by revolutionary change across the social, cultural, political , legal and ideological spectrum. And, in many ways, the household was indeed ground zero for this change. A radical departure did indeed start in the 1960s.
But what was it a departure from?
For this leader, it was a departure from the “Christian ethic of romance, sex and family”. Other evangelical commentators frequently express similar concerns but using different language, such as the “traditional family”, the “natural family” or perhaps the “biblical family”.
Traditional, natural, biblical. These adjectives are frequently used as synonyms of not simply what the Christian family or household should be, but alsowhat it used to be and what it ought to be once more.
However, there are important questions for us to ask of these descriptors. For instance:
What exactly makes a household a Christian household, as opposed to a not-Christian household?
What might we say is traditional about this form of the household, and exactly how far back does that tradition go?
While it might be self-evident that there is indeed something natural”about family, to what extent is the way we humans do family necessarily also cultural?
When we speak of the biblical family, what parts of Scripture define what exactly that is and in what way do they do that?
These questions and others like them suggest that the definition of the biblical, traditional, natural, Christian household is in actual fact an immensely complex task.
Norwegian theologian, Halvor Moxnes, explains why this is so:
It is not, therefore, sufficient to study what ‘family’ is ‘in itself’: it is always part of a wider societal context and has a cultural meaning. In order to understand the function and the place of the family, we must have a grasp of the larger social pattern of which it is a part.
To put it another way, the institution of the household is not some abstract reality that can ever exist in pure theory; as a kind of timeless idea out there. Every family, every household, is embedded in a particular time, in a particular place, in a particular context. As Moxnes writes, it is ‘always part of a wider societal context’.
The human household is a historically contingent reality.
That the household is contingent doesn’t mean there is nothing fundamental about it. It doesn’t mean there is no unchanging theological truth that needs to be brought to bear on this topic. But the household's historical contingency does mean that we ought to be slow to conclude that there is one “timelessly right” expression of exactly what the household is, has always been and is always meant to be. It means that as Christians, we must be very cautious about designating one particular historical form or expression of the household as the traditional, natural, biblical or even Christian household.
To better understand the implications of the household’s contingency we are going to trace its broad contours back through the eras of Christian, and even pre-Christian history, before finishing with some broad conclusions about the implications of this for the way we think about the “Christian household” today.
The Christian Household and the Contemporary Nuclear Family
However, before we embark on that historical journey, we first need to flesh out what is usually meant by the contemporary evangelical reference to “the Christian household”. If the biblical or traditional family needs to be recaptured in today’s society, then what precisely are its hallmarks? What are its features such that we will know whether we have rediscovered and reapplied it?
A 2021 Desiring God article is a helpful entry point into this discussion. According to the author of ‘How Does God Define Family?’, the family is:
The husband-and-wife pair, along with their children (for as long as they remain under the parents’ care)
From a Christian theological perspective, family defined this way seems entirely unobjectionable, doesn’t it? And this definition certainly provides an important counterpoint to the devastating fragmentation that is occurring between husbands and wives, parents and children in Western society today.
Christians typically use this basic definition interchangeably with the phrase “the nuclear family”. In this sense, the answer to the question of what is the traditional or biblical Christian family seems a fairly straightforward one. It’s the nuclear family—mum, dad and kids living together in a stable environment.
However, things are more complicated than that.
You see, in answering the question ’How Does God Define Family?’ the author doesn’t write just that one simple sentence and call it a day. Instead, he fleshes out his simple definition of the Christian household by exploring how this basic nuclear family unit operates within its broader societal context. He discusses the way in which this self-contained household chooses (and chooses not) to engage with those who are not part of it including extended family, the wider community around them, friends and the church.
To put it another way, the nuclear family is never only defined by the relationships that exist between members of that household. Rather the nuclear family is also defined by the extent to which it does and does not relate to those outside that household
And that’s why the “nuclear family” is often used irresponsibly and at times even disingenuously in Christian discourse on this topic. Over and over again, contributors to that discourse present the definition of the Christian household as obviously basic and entirely straightforward – mum, dad and kids living together in a stable environment. We’re told that is all the nuclear family means. But in both theory and practice, that is not only what the contemporary construct of the nuclear family actually means.
When the term was originally coined in the early twentieth century (most likely by Austrian-Hungarian anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski) it referred not simply to the sense in which a husband, wife and children were vitally linked to one another in relationship, but also to the sense in which that relationship was considered central to broader networks of relationships, to the community more generally.
Dad, mum and kids were the nucleus of the atom. A whole series of other relationships were intimately connected to and indeed revolved around that nucleus. Together, the nucleus and all the other relationships combined to the whole communal atom.
However, during the course of the twentieth century, this notion of the nuclear family underwent significant reconceptualization. Eventually, it became this:
The nucleus of the atom moved from being that which the larger relational system was intimately connected to a progressively detached, isolated, and self-contained unit in its own right. The nucleus moved from being the core of the atom to being separate from the atom.
The relationships which had once revolved directly around the nucleus were now off to the side. Furthermore, the nucleus came to primarily interact with those other relationships as it determined to be in its own best interests.
The same Desiring God article demonstrates this shift. Immediately after the author gives his definition of family as husband, wife and children he goes on to say:
The family certainly loves and supports other social groups, particularly the extended family and church community, but the natural or domestic family is never absorbed or replaced by these groups. Instead, families love and support others precisely by being the right kind of families.
In the context of this article, the author presents the family unit as a self-contained, self-sustaining singular identity that is separate from, rather than part of a bigger whole. His argument—which is highly representative of Christian discourse more generally—is that the nuclear household best supports other networks of relationships precisely by being distinct from and separate from them—by focusing on being the “right kind of family” in and of itself.
Now we could talk about this for a lot longer, but we have roughly 3000 years of household history to make our way through! So in the interest of moving on, let me give you what I think is a very concise definition of what is actually meant by the phrase “the nuclear family” in our day and age—and so also what Christians tend to have in mind when we refer typically to the traditional, natural or biblical household:
In today’s world, the phrase nuclear family conjures up an image of a domestic unit comprising two parents and their children who live together in a single-family residence and who share a deep affective intimacy with one another… Under these conditions, the modern nuclear family is an institution that is characterized above all by privacy.
Keep that definition in mind as we rewind three thousand years and begin to explore the historical (and theological) contingency of the household…
I’ll post a link to the full recording of the paper presentation once it is available. Subscribe below to make sure you are notified.
Halvor Moxnes, "Introduction," in Constructing Early Christian Families, ed. Halvor Moxnes (London: Routledge, 1997).
Steven Wedgeworth, "How Does God Define Family?," July 9, 2021, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/how-does-god-define-family
Wedgeworth, "How Does God Define Family?."
Keith R. Bradley, Discovering the Roman Family: Studies in Roman Social History (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1991), 6.