The Historical & Cultural Contingency of the Christian Household

In his edited volume, Constructing Early Christian Families, Norwegian theologian Halvor Moxnes argues that “household and families are not objective facts, they are social systems that are human constructions. As cultural constructs they are given ‘meanings’” (p.18). That is to say, the familial household is a contingent reality—a human institution that is always and ever deeply embedded within, informed by and reciprocally formative of the broader social and cultural context in which it is historically located.

Despite this, there lies within contemporary evangelical discourse an insistent tendency to depict “the Christian household” (or “the biblical/traditional family”) as a timeless, ahistorical and culturally independent construct. Indeed, recent decades have witnessed consistent evangelical enthusiasm for a reinstitution of “the Christian familial household” as the most necessary enterprise within Christian social action—an urgent return to the way things are “meant to be”. And yet, generally unexplored in such an ethical mandate are key questions such as what makes a household genuinely Christian (as opposed to the alternative); when appeals to the “traditional” family are made, how far back does that tradition actually go; what parts of Scripture actively define “the biblical household” and how do we undertake the responsible hermeneutical and cultural translation of those ancient Mediterranean, biblical insights for the sake of a contemporary, western, post-Christian society?

In this paper I will critique the contemporary evangelical presumption that “the Christian household” rightly exists as a timeless and unchanging social construct of meaning. In dialogue with scholars past and present, sociological and theological (including Moxnes, Radford Ruether, Bradley, Grant, Coontz and others) it shall be evidenced that, far from being an ageless and abiding theoretical reality, the contemporary imagining of “the Christian household” is not only deeply historical, but very recently historical at that. It is not only inherently cultural but very heavily influenced by contemporary western culture. In surveying the complexity of Christian household formation, character, experience and significance across the sweep of history and culture, I shall demonstrate that what evangelicalism urgently needs is not so much a reinstitution of “the Christian household” in today’s culture, but rather a faithful Christian theology of the household for today’s culture.

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