For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:9–12).
The fact that change will be only partial and imperfect in our human social systems is no excuse for retreat from a radical response to modernity. It is essential that Christians neither deny nor be paralyzed by the serious disruptive effects of postmodernity. They must be both realistic and optimistic. Contemporary society is currently staggering from the blows of modernity and postmodernity. Within this context, the people of God must call for and serve as salt and light, affecting the transformation of American culture.
Support Structures Our focus in this chapter has been on how a biblical family structure can be created in the face of modern/postmodern society. But the family does not exist in a vacuum; it is vitally connected, for better or for worse, with community and society.
The family, the community, and society are interrelated support structures. We have suggested that a trinitarian theology and the four relationship principles of covenant, grace, empowerment, and intimacy are biblical themes on which to pattern family life. We believe that the corresponding biblical ideals for community and society are koinonia and shalom.
Extended Families Families need caring communities in which they can find a sense of identity and social support. In cultures where the extended family is the basic social unit, nuclear families have a built-in support community. The basic social unit is in large measure determined by the level of societal complexity.
There are two lines of thought regarding the future of the family in postmodern societies. The pessimistic view is that the fragile, isolated, nuclear-family system will become even weaker. Those making this prediction suggest alternatives, such as nonmarital cohabitation and temporary marriages, which would provide the flexibility needed in contemporary society. The optimistic, utopian view is that the emerging electronic revolution will serve to reunite work and family life. As parents
work at home on computers and teach their children, they will develop closer relationships. Apprentices learning the work will come to live within the home for a while, and nonrelated extended families will emerge. Although some of these developments are occurring today, only a minority of families benefit.
Koinonia in Communities The New Testament concept of koinonia refers to a community in which Christians are united in identity and purpose. In the New Testament prototype, members of the church voluntarily shared all their possessions. They joined in both politeia (civic life) and oikonomia (family life). Koinonia came to represent a new type of community between the all- inclusive, impersonal state and the exclusive, blood-based household.
We believe that families need the support of koinonia. Mass societies, characterized by impersonalization, urbanization, industrialization, rationalization, dehumanization, relativism, bureaucratization, and secularization, make koinonia difficult. Churches that practice koinonia emphasize small groups and the relational themes of covenant, grace, empowerment, and intimacy. The members of these groups take time to know one another and care for one another in a variety of ways. They also reach out to the greater community and general society. A recent study reported that married couples benefit most when there is a koinonia-like overlap between the network of friends of the husband and the wife. When one’s spouse had more contact with the other’s network members, one was more likely to “(a) view the spouse as a reliable source of support, (b) open up to the spouse, and (c) discuss health issues with the spouse” (Cornwell 2012, 229).
The Church The primary locus of koinonia is the church. In form the church should resemble a family; its members, after all, are described as the children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul writes, “And I will be your father, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty” (2 Cor. 6:18); and “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19).
The church, then, is to be a family to families and a source of identity and support for isolated nuclear families. In becoming a community of faith, the church must avoid the pitfall of exclusivity and the tendency to accept only certain types of people. It must welcome the widowed, the orphaned, the handicapped, the poor, the single person, and broken people and families. Social-science research is beginning to give clear evidence of the positive effect when this is practiced in the church; as an example, a recent study reported that greater religious participation of single mothers correlated with more positive children’s behavior and the less likelihood of problem behaviors (Petts 2012).
The church can become a family to families if it follows several principles: (1) The church must be a place of diversity, including people of various social classes, races, ages, backgrounds, and religious experiences. (2) The church needs to be a place where people can get to know one another intimately. Opportunities need to be provided for people to share their burdens and joys in small groups. (3) The church must create (or re-create) roles for all its members. Working together as multigenerational teams (young and old) to focus on spiritual formation, worship, hospitality, peace, justice, and so on is a good example of using a diversity of gifts (differentiation) to serve the whole body.
What can the church do to ensure that everyone feels at home? Single people need to be integrated into the body as mature equals who give of their talents to serve the church community. Married and adult singles should view one another as rich resources as they form relationships to deepen faith through fellowship and service. Mentoring or spiritual friendships can be established to encourage and empower others in their growing faith. Women must be encouraged to freely exercise their gifts in the church. The gap between clergy and laity must be minimized so that the pastorate is not viewed as a more important career or calling. Thus, clergy need to be willing to share the ministry, and parishioners need to accept responsibility and opportunities for ministry.
In short, the empowerment process must be practiced in the church. Participatory Bible studies and sermons can focus on communal church life and ways in which to love, forgive, serve, and know one another. Further, individuals should have the freedom to express their faith creatively. The decline in traditional symbols and language is an opportunity to explore and experiment with new worship expressions. We must be liberated from our
fixation on words or the old ways of doing things, which has impoverished communication, and be more open to diverse ways of expressing God’s love. As an inclusive family of families, the church should welcome worship and the arts, including the contributions of artists, poets, dramatists, and dancers.
Shalom in Society Society is larger than, more abstract than, and more distant from the family than is community. It encompasses political, economic, educational, and religious institutions, each of which entails a complex hierarchy and roles regulated by an integrated set of norms. While it might be easy to picture how communities can be vital sources of support for family life, it is more difficult to imagine ways in which mass society and its institutions can be sources of support.
There is a grave need to build a society in which institutions promote the well-being of the family. Perhaps more than anything else we need a fresh understanding of the role of society in family life as depicted in the Old Testament. In contrast to our modern individualistic emphasis, family members in ancient Israel held a strong sense of corporate solidarity and identity with the wider community. The family household was not separate from but was formed, shaped, and sustained by society.
The Old Testament concept of shalom characterized Israelite society. Shalom is usually translated “peace.” However, this peace is to be understood not merely as absence of conflict but as the promotion of human welfare in both material and spiritual ways. Such a society is poignantly described in Isaiah 11:6–8:
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
Shalom is present in a culture characterized by justice and righteousness as well as peace. For example, chronic unemployment and oppression of the
poor needs to be eliminated before shalom is present. One way to deal with poverty is to provide the poor with food, shelter, and clothing. Although this is all well and good, if the underlying causes of poverty are not dealt with, shalom is still not achieved. Shalom entails giving the poor a means of helping themselves. A society characterized by shalom does not treat people unjustly, nor does it disempower or patronize them. It takes action in terms of housing and work opportunities.
Shalom is present when social structures empower the family. Shalom is not present when economic institutions demand time at the expense of one’s family; move employees every two years, making it impossible to establish roots in a community; or provide the unemployed no opportunities to earn a living. Shalom is not present where oppression, racism, and discrimination prevent minorities from gaining access to jobs. Shalom is not present when the elderly are denied sufficient resources and health benefits or when divorcées and their children live at the poverty level and laws make it difficult to stay connected with their children. We could go on and on about the multitude of other ways societal structures damage family life.
Hope for the Family and Society Stable and strong family life can be achieved by recapturing and practicing the biblical concept of the family, which entails covenant love and manifestation of that love through grace, empowerment, and intimacy. God intends for covenant love, the basis for intrinsic moral authority, to be supremely experienced and exemplified in the context of the family and society. Our own society has increasingly come to depend on coercive political and economic means of control, demonstrated by the fact that social relationships are characterized more by contract than covenant, more by law than grace, more by compulsion than empowerment, and more by alienation than intimacy.
The cornerstone of the moral order of society is families based on covenant love, which manifests itself in sacrificial acts for others. Self- giving begins with the family, spilling over to enrich and order society. Our Lord Jesus taught and modeled that we must extend covenant love to our neighbors: “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple