The Church and Societal Change

Previously we looked at the first societal change from pre-industrial to industrial. Then we looked at the second societal change from industrial to post-industrial. In this post, we look at how the church has changed with society.

Today in the secular sphere, to the extent that people talk about the challenges or failures of the transition to modernity, the aim is almost always at the Enlightenment or political philosophy (or maybe secularization). Patrick Deneen’s recent book Why Liberalism Failed is a perfect example of the genre. But China is a non-Western, non-liberal society that’s seeing many of the same transformations as us. Even if we restored the divine right of kings, it would not address the many problems created by industrialization and its aftermath. These challenges are much more rarely discussed.

Inside the church, we often hear pastors talk about changes in society going on today or in the very recent past. I almost never hear them talk about these fundamental shifts, especially from pre-industrial to industrial, and how they have radically altered the nature of marriage, family, and even the church.  To the extent that Christians or others do talk about this, most of what I’ve seen proposes some type of communitarian localism à la Tocqueville as a response. That may be a start but is woefully inadequate to the scale of the challenges posed by industrial and post-industrial society.

The chart above represents a big challenge to the church in important fundamental respects. For example, we have to figure out what the instructions and stories in the Bible mean to us today.  Again, the entire Bible was written against the backdrop of pre-industrial society. But we live in industrial and post-industrial society.  Here’s a question to ponder as a thought experiment.

How many Christian pastors, theologians, writers, etc. can you name who promote ideas about the sexes, marriage, and family that would be strongly rejected by (or even be offensive to) both industrial and post-industrial societies? Or to put it another way, do you know any pastors, etc. advocating any distinctly pre-industrial idea about the sexes, marriage, or family?

I can name maybe one or two. I’m guessing you can’t name many either, if any. I don’t think it proves anything, but it’s an indicator that we might possibly be reading modern cultures into scripture. We are so completely alienated from pre-industrial culture today we can’t even really relate to it. It’s too bizarre for us to take seriously even though it’s the culture of the New Testament church. We preach about the type of community the church is suppose to represent and bemoan that we don’t seem to have it today, but never seem to put 2 and 2 together to understand that the New Testament church was created in an era of thick community while we live in one that is not only typified by thin community, but which is also fundamentally hostile to any forms of thick community. We haven’t grappled with what it means to try to build the kind of church called for in the Bible in today’s world, or even considered whether or not it’s really possible without some sort of complete withdraw à la the Amish.

A second challenge is that in industrial and post-industrial society, marriage and family is incredibly structurally weakened. Today the household is basically about companionship and consumption – and we’re going to consume whether we are married or not. This puts enormous pressure on the companionate bond between husband and wife to sustain the marriage. Their emotional bond becomes the core of the family. But all human relationships have rough patches over the long term. This means every marriage will face repeated moments of crisis during those times. No wonder there are so many divorces. Being emotionally on the outs with your spouse poisons the only real thing the marriage was providing in the first place. By contrast, in the pre-industrial era there was no food, no clothing, no one to take care of you when you were sick, no one to care for you when you were old, etc. if you were not part of a household. That’s why the Bible shows so much concern for those like the widow and the orphan marooned outside the household system. Today, your life outcomes are still much better if you are married, but people are far less dependent on the household to sustain their lives than in previous times.

The best Christian presentation of the challenges posed to the family by industrial society is by Stephen B. Clark in his landmark 1980 opus Man and Woman in Christ.  He calls industrial society “technological society” and notes a slew of problems in it facing the family in terms of isolation, emotional bonds, child rearing, and the role of men and women. He writes:

[T]he nuclear family life tends to be unable to carry the heavy burden for personal and emotional support that technological society lays upon it….Technological society is dominated by functional situations which demand much from the individual and give little in return. Since the kinship network is no longer strong enough to assist and the other stable relationships groupings have weakened or vanished, the conjugal family must shoulder the full burden of this support.  In addition, the absence of other family functions tends to make this one function the focal point of family life. This emotional intensity produces a strain on the conjugal family which it is not always able to cope with.

The position of the family within technological society is precarious. It performs essential functions for the wider society, but in so doing it must operate according to a principle of social structure diametrically opposed to this society. Consequently the family undergoes serious tensions, and its future in technological society is in doubt.

Man and Woman in Christ is by the far the best Christian book on the sexes I have read. Unfortunately, it’s out of print. But I was able to obtain permission to distribute Chapter 18, which talks about the challenges facing the family in industrial/technological society, and Chapter 19, which deals with the effect of modern ideologies on the family. You can download and distribute them in PDF form.

Interestingly, one of the divides in the church I highlighted back in Masc #13, that between the “positive” and “neutral” world Christians, seems to follow these cleavages. Roughly, the positive world church embraces an industrial era paradigm (while adopting a few post-industrialisms) while the neutral-world church embraces (with some reservations) a post-industrial one. I will point out one substantive challenge to each of these groups to get people thinking about the topic.

The positive world church sees clearly the negative implications of post-industrial society but fails to appreciate that the industrial era, with non-productive nuclear family households stripped of most of their pre-industrial functions, also has problems. One specific area they have not seriously addressed is the role of women.  The pre-industrial era had a strong sex role division of labor, but the woman also had a significant and highly valued productive capacity in the home. For example, in the famous passage in Proverbs 31, the husband is at the gates of the city, fulfilling his role as head of household in civic life. This wife is at home, but there is helping to administer a vast household enterprise.  In industrial society, the wife is reduced to a homemaker. This may have suited some women temperamentally or during certain stages of life such as when caring for young children, but it provided limited opportunities for women with high IQs or an orientation towards production to put their talents to use. This was part of the complaint of the early second wave feminists.  The industrial era non-productive housewife who focuses on childrearing and keeping house is itself a historic anomaly. (The male’s industrial era role, in which he is predominantly away from the home, also brings problems).

Ultimately the Baby Boom generation reared in the 1950s industrial nuclear family rebelled violently against it, providing at least a prima facie case that something was wrong.

The neutral world church tends not to have thought much about these transformations either, other than at a facile level (e.g., equating the household productive function of women in Biblical times with women working in an office today when neither husbands nor wives in that era worked in a job as we know it).  They critique industrial era marital and sex role norms, correctly in some cases, but mostly for the purposes of adapting themselves to post-industrial ones instead. They see their role as mostly one of adapting to rather than challenging or attempting to shape societal changes, many of which they see as positive. They tend to share contemporary society’s view of the past as a benighted age.

For example, it would appear that the neutral world church is in the process of redefining their theology of the church to make it more explicitly non-familial. We see this clearly in the attacks on “making an idol out of the family.” Or those saying that Christians have a “prosperity gospel” view of the family. Or in the stressing of singleness as a valid Christian calling and calls for the church to be more accommodating to singles. These churches, especially the urban ones, face the real problem that many of them have congregations that are majority singles. How to handle that is a difficult pastoral problem. From what I’ve observed they are taking the easy way out by embracing a form of post-familialism.

My guess is that they will in effect say that the family of God is the real family, not earthly family, and that too think too highly of the earthly family is sinful. This will be presented as being more faithful to scripture and the early church, as opposed to the worldly family paradigms of the 50s that had been normative for the church. They won’t be wrong in criticizing the 50s, but their theology will be more reflective of contemporary society than the early church. We won’t hear much of Paul’s instructions to women from the pastorals, such as that widows under age 60 should remarry, for example. Nor of things like the Westminster Large Catechism’s inclusion of  “undue delay of marriage” as a violation of the Seventh Commandment (Q139).

This will be a failure even if it succeeds because post-familialism is over the long run usually harmful to the individual (as folks like Brad Wilcox have tirelessly documented) as well as society. You’ll note that the US elites have by and large insulated themselves from the most harmful consequences of post-industrial society. They still tend to ultimately get and stay married (the only segment of our society that does). They tend to have children. They don’t practice sexual libertinism or advocate it for their children.

In fact, it’s interesting how often the behaviors of certain segments of the elite resemble pre-industrial society. Political families, for example, are essentially household enterprises. Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama were not just homemakers, they were key co-producers in their husbands’ political careers, then ultimately their own endeavors. Children are often brought into the family business. In some political dynasties we see a true multi-generational extended family business, as with the Kennedys and Bushes.

Pastors often do the same. Pastors, even urban ones, are overwhelmingly married, often marrying young. They tend to have bigger families. The pastor’s wife is generally a critical contributor to church life. They sometimes live onsite in a parsonage. And they also often bring their children into the business. Think about Brian and Bobbie Houston of Hillsong. They built the church as a couple. Their son Joel is a key songwriter and member of the Hillsong United band, and co-leads Hillsong NYC. Another son leads Hillsong Los Angeles. Their daughter is involved in youth ministry in Australia.

The frequent involvement of children in political and pastoral businesses is interesting given societal taboos on nepotism in an age of meritocratic bureaucratic authority.  I’m not complaining. I think these people are following a very healthy model. They found a way to incorporate some of the strengths of the pre-industrial household into their lives in a way that is compatible with the modern world. I just wish they touted it more.

Regardless of what they might say about post-familialism for others, they sure aren’t buying it for themselves. No many how much they talk about how their marriages remind them of just how much sanctification they still need, they wouldn’t trade their own family for all the gold in Ft. Knox. As always, watch what people do much more so than listen to what they say. What’s more, if marriage is the paradigmatic symbol on earth of the union between Christ and the church, what does it say when a Christian community abandons marriage as the normative institution in which to build a life?

So what should we do? I don’t know. But we need to think about this much more seriously and deeply. We need to look at how the theology of the Bible does or does not embed pre-industrial social forms. We need to stop holding up the 1950s suburban family as the Platonic form of the family. But nor can we embrace a post-familial vision for the church. We should be less invested in the cultural norms of both industrial and post-industrial society, and be open to things that might conflict with both. We cannot go back to pre-industrial society, but what can we do to more authentically live out God’s word today, and to mitigate some of the biggest deficiencies of the industrial and post-industrial household structures and sex role norms, in a way that works for today? How should we engage with, or against, today’s societal forms? These aren’t easy to figure out, but it’s critical to do.

This post was taken as an excerpt from The Masculinist Newsletter #26.

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