Hi ladies! Today is one of my “thinking days” as I’ve been processing some new reading assignments for my classes. Hopefully these reflection days will continue to stay relevant to your every day life. If not, feel free to tune out…but hopefully you won’t. 🙂
This week I’ve been reading about Horace Bushnell, a pastor and theologian who lived in the 1800’s and placed a heavy emphasis on the importance of family in the church. Bushnell felt that the family was one of God’s primary vehicles for bringing about conversion, stressing to parents the importance of raising their children in godliness.
What is interesting about Bushnell is that he belonged to a new brand of thinking about children that was considerably more nurturing than the generations before. While not all parents before Bushnell’s time were harsh toward their kids, Bushnell represented a paradigmatic change in parenting by emphasizing the importance of nurturing children. For Bushnell, nurture was not a matter of personal preference, but it was in the best interest of the child. Bushnell made this claim long before he had any statistical evidence to back it up, but later generations would prove him right. And key to Bushnell’s understanding of nurture and the Christian family was the presence and care of a loving mother.
In some respects, Bushnell’s ideas about parenting were revolutionary. In fact, we still draw from his thinking today. However, it is also important to note which of his beliefs were Biblical, and which were culturally rooted. For instance, in the Introduction to his book Christian Nurture I found the following commentary:
“In American colonial society, women were more fully integrated into social and economic life, but in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a burgeoning industrial society gradually shut middle and upper class women out of economic roles, making them increasingly consumers rather than producers. Ministers and others preached sermons and wrote tracts hailing woman’s new role as mother and guardian of virtue and religion; her ‘place’ was in the home and in the church…Although Busnell is remarkably evenhanded in his discussion of the religious duties of both fathers and mothers in Christian Nurture, the special role of mothers in shaping the spiritual lives of their children forms an important theme of his book and evangelical Protestantism during the nineteenth century.” (p. xxix)
What was striking to me about this cultural shift was how quickly the consequences of the Industrial Revolution were assimilated into the church as “the way things should be done.” Of course, this assimilation had some positive, Biblical results: Children were valued and treasured by their parents in a manner that was thoroughly Scriptural, and parents were encouraged to play a crucial role in the spiritual formation of their kids. What is alarming, however, is the shift towards commending women based upon what they did. There is a fine line between valuing motherhood, and valuing women based upon their jobs as mothers. There is also a fine line between valuing the family, and raising it to a level of importance that surpasses the Church–which Bushnell was accused of doing. In both of these areas, the family began to encroach upon the centrality and the function of the church.
Even today we can see the fingerprints of Bushnell’s teaching. Consider, for instance, how often Christians emphasize the primacy of the family in our culture. As the logic goes, if men and women do not prioritize their familial duties, then the family will be compromised. And if the family is compromised, then our culture is compromised. After all, family is the foundation upon which our culture stands! Yet the New Testament does not present us with that same kind of urgent language about the family. It is the church, not the family, that is foundational. A majority of the parent-child language in the New Testament refers to the relationship between our Heavenly Father and His children, and when Paul commended women it was for their faithfulness to the Lord and the church, not their families.
Yes, the family is important. But Scripturally speaking the primary location of our identities is in the church, not our families. This fact gives proper perspective to the realms of marriage and parenting, and it also provides a place for singles to feel equally welcome and valued. Gospel centrality, not family centrality, is what guards us against the trappings of idolatry.
Of course both men and women can serve the Lord by serving their families. Please do not hear me as devaluing the family or calling Christians out of the home. But let us not confuse the two lest we slip into a works-driven faith in which we value ourselves based upon what we do (particularly in relation to our families) instead of Who we love. Being a good wife and mother is but a symptom of having a good relationship with the Lord, but it is the fallen human condition to reverse that order. That is why so many women suffer from low self-esteem and feelings of failure in the home, and that is also why we must return to the centrality of the Gospel over and over and over again, commending women first and foremost for their love of God and His church, and their families second. As a friend of ours once put it, in the world around us “blood is thicker than water”; for Christians it is water, the water of baptism, that is thicker than blood.