Posted by: vicholdsforth | February 25, 2010

Three Steps Forward, Four Steps Back: What Families from the Past Want to Tell the Church Today (Part 1: Introduction)

Today I’d like to begin a series based upon the research I did as a graduate student at Wheaton College.   If you are concerned about the state of the family today, or if you like history, I think you will find it interesting.  Enjoy!

Jonah’s attitude toward pagan culture is an old standby for the church.  Avoid outsiders, and when you can’t, protest against them.  Lament the sorry state of things.  Call God’s judgment down.  Imagine, with pleasure, the punishment to be visited on the disobedient.  Meanwhile, make yourself as comfortable as possible.

Pastor and author Mark Buchanan offers a disconcerting picture of the North American evangelical church.  Our unsaved neighbors, unfortunately, view this picture all too frequently.  Citing Matthew 24:12, many Christians believe people are getting “worse and worse,” and flee to the safety of their carefully constructed Christian cocoons to wait it out until the rapture comes.  Others yearn for a bygone era that, they believe, better represents God’s design for home, church, and nation.

Are people becoming more evil as time marches on (or as this age draws to a close)?  Perhaps; however, it may simply be that we have more and better technology with which to do evil more quickly and on a larger scale than in earlier times.  Moreover, modern technologies such as television and the Internet make information, including coverage of atrocities committed around the globe, more accessible than ever.  Additionally, in our culture, stories that make the news are frequently the ones with the greatest shock value, not the most significant or most representative happenings of the day.  Finally, most of us are simply ignorant of history.  For example, few people know that comic books readily available to children in the late 1940s and early 1950s featured storylines containing gruesome torture, dismemberment, and sexualized violence; or that the first drive-by shooting occurred in 1919.  Or that in colonial America, the number of women who became pregnant out of wedlock outnumbered those who were the members of a church by two-to-one.  Or that no-fault divorce and abortion (and its post-delivery counterpart, exposure) were common practice in the Roman Empire.  There is disagreement within the Christian community regarding whether or not people really are “getting worse.”  We can, however, definitively state the biblical response to the ungodly culture in which we find ourselves, and it is not “cocooning,” nor is it trying to recreate a bygone, and largely romanticized, era.  Rather, our Lord exhorted us to serve our neighbors as “salt and light” (Matt 5:13-14).

We’ll drop in on families at key points in history to glean insights into how they interacted with their respective cultures and communities, then mine this wisdom from Christian families of ages past to discover what insights it holds for contemporary families striving to be salt and light…instead of caterpillars.  We’ll look at four key historical moments:  the Roman Empire, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, and the Psychedelic Era.  The Roman Empire is significant as the birthplace of the Church and the setting for the writing of Scripture; and, as in post-modern America, not a “Christian” nation.  Once the original apostles had died off, it didn’t take long for freedom tempered by holiness to be replaced by asceticism.  Soon, the denigration of marriage and family life became the mainstream teaching of the church.   So the next historical moment to which we will turn our attention is the Reformation, especially the teachings of Martin Luther, since it was he who, after a millennium and a half, reinstated marriage as a legitimate choice for Christian adults, and family as a vehicle for faith formation.

Of all the events of recorded history (with the exception, of course, of the Incarnation), the Industrial Revolution stands apart as the single most influential moment for families.  It precipitated cataclysmic changes for society in general, and families in particular.  Urbanization, child labor, and the home/workplace schism all introduced profound changes in family life.  Although many evangelicals view the male breadwinner/female homemaker family structure as biblically ordained, we’ll see that it has only been since the completion of Industrial Revolution, coupled with a brief moment of economic prosperity, that such an arrangement has been remotely possible for even a fraction of the population.

The Psychedelic Era of the 1960s is noted for sexual experimentation, the drug culture, radical feminism, no-fault divorce, and the advent of child-centered parenting.  Traditional morality and social institutions were thrown off in an attempt to provide individuals with the opportunity to live without constraints.  Contemporary families are, in many ways, still reeling from the social upheaval of a generation ago.  Many adults struggle with the trauma surrounding the breakup of their parents’ marriage, or regrets connected to a decision to experiment with sex or drugs.  Today’s parents turn from one expert to another in search of parenting advice because consensus no longer exists in their extended families or communities.  Tolerance is now the supreme value.  Rather than being able to turn to their communities and traditional institutions for support and guidance, contemporary families, instead, are struggling to piece together a value system amidst the fallout of the Psychedelic Era and the whatever-works-for-you philosophy of post-modernism.  Unfortunately, Christian families seem to be struggling just as much as everyone else.  Let’s spend some time looking into to the truth of Scripture and the wisdom of Christian families who went before us so that we may truly be salt and light to our culture rather than indistinguishable from it.

Tomorrow:  Ancient Rome…it’s not like home!

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