Chapter 2: “The Family Pew” and the Church Today

Confronting the Idolatry of Family: A New Vision for the Household of God
by Janet Fishburn

Chapter 2: “The Family Pew” and the Church Today

For most of American history a belief that America is a Christian nation has sustained the ideals of the American Dream. Since fulfillment of the dream depends on a nation of moral citizens, the role of churches has been associated with the support of family life. Since the early 1960s American culture has become increasingly secular in outlook. Just as schools are no longer dominated by a Protestant ethos, American morality is no longer dominated by standards considered Christian. There are few broadly shared standards for ethical behavior in American culture today.

Although no new national myth has emerged in place of the long-standing belief that America is "God’s new Israel,"1 it is clear that American culture is a secular culture. Even though American people are very religious, that does not mean the culture is devoted to serving the God of the historic Hebrew and Christian traditions. The broken connection between Christian religion and American culture leaves Protestant churches in the ambiguous position of being conservers of the values of a Victorian worldview.

Role confusion is a classic sign of cultural transition. As early as 1960, sociologists of religion reported that pastors and laity experienced congregations as fragmented.2 That was only the beginning of the larger cultural transition that has continued ever since. By 1970 there was evidence of role confusion among pastors and laity. Both groups reported feeling unclear about their respective roles in the church. Continuing redefinition of ministry and ordination procedures indicates that role confusion in the church has not yet been resolved.

During the 1960s change in sexual behavior and family roles led some social theorists to predict the end of the family. In retrospect such responses seem overly dramatic. But they are evidence of the extent to which an intact family, performing "God-given" roles at home and in the world, is essential to belief in the American Dream. Articles in church periodicals and nonreligious news magazines alike predicted a dark future for America as the divorce rate began to climb. The prediction of the end of the family as a social institution was wrong. Changing moral standards, and changing roles for men and women do not mean that the family has come to an end. It does mean that most Americans no longer believe in a Victorian family ideal.

Church leaders typically respond to major cultural transitions about twenty to thirty years after social institutions begin to change. The churches of America are culture-conserving institutions. Even the most liberal denominations like the Unitarian Universalists function to conserve the cultural commitments of the middle-class status-quo. Despite the equality acquired by women and Afro-Americans during the 1960s, members of middle-class churches are still relatively unaware of the extent to which most congregations are still sexist and racist. Victorian dualisms continue to be operative in a congregation if members separate church life from daily life.3 It is dualistic to believe that American culture is secular but church members are sacred, as if they do not live in "the world." It is dualistic to perpetuate roles and traditions that subordinate women to the authority and wisdom of men, either in the church or in the family.

The continuing power of Victorian ideals is evident in the fact that after twenty years of ordaining women to ministry very few women have been appointed or called to become head-of-staff in a larger congregation. The very term head-of-staff has masculine connotations, just as Christian educator almost always means a woman. It is dualistic to perpetuate a division of program responsibility between a lay-led Sunday School staff and a pastor-led church program.

The Impact of Victorian Dualisms on Protestant Pastors

Confusion in the church today about ordained and non ordained leaders is related to a lack of clarity about the role of the family and the role of the church in faith formation. The historic Protestant expectation that the pastor has primary responsibility for interpreting Scripture to the people through preaching and teaching changed in the nineteenth century. Responsibility for teaching about the Bible and Christian tradition began to shift to two other locations -- "the Christian home" and the Sunday School.

According to the script of the American Dream, the family was essential to the hope for "a Christian America." Since parents were expected to nurture citizens according to a Christian standard of moral behavior, church leaders assumed that children would learn Christian attitudes from their parents at home. Parents were also expected to teach their children about the Bible and Christianity. The Sunday School was started to provide Christian nurture and knowledge of the Bible for poor children who lacked the advantages of middle-class family life. In this sense the home and the Sunday School were both expected to be "a little church" in which children and young people could learn the moral values of Christian citizens.

The Christian home has not functioned as a center for family Bible study for well over a century among most church members. Yet a persistent myth about the family as a little church reappears whenever the future of the family in America seems doubtful. In such times Protestant church leaders double their efforts to encourage parents to play their "God-given" roles in making sure that their children will be Christians.

Attempts of pastors to encourage parents to have family devotions does little more than induce guilt. Membership patterns in most denominations encourage adults to join a church without any serious preparation for living a Christian way of life. Many do not even know about, let alone practice, a disciplined life of faith -- daily Bible reading, meditation, and prayer. Adults who lack knowledge of Scripture and prayer can hardly be expected to communicate faith to children at home. Since 1960, new curriculum intended to reinforce Sunday School lessons by asking parents to teach their children at home, has been introduced by several main-line denominations. The outcome is inevitably disappointing. The fallacy in this approach is exposed in the following observation.

One of the sacred cows of the evangelical subculture is the family altar. In our thinking it has stood as the norm for a healthy Christian family.... Central to the problem of the family altar has been the unexamined acceptance of it in theory, while the non-practicing silent majority listen with respect, feeling a bit guilty at this hiatus in the family life.4

The evangelical subculture is not alone in uncritical acceptance of family-related sacred cows. Recent Episcopalian attempts to develop a curriculum that would engage parents in the "catechesis" of children at home also failed. This is only a new word for the long-standing Protestant commitment to the idea that the Christian family should be a little church. Only in a tradition where adults continue to refer to the family life of individual church members as "the Christian home" would pastors, educators, and theologians have continued to believe for so long that parents are more important than the church is to the faith of children.

The idea that parents can or should worship with children at home assumes that church members who become parents are committed, self-disciplined Christians who model Christian behavior at home. Continuing fruitless attempts to make the family an agency of the church assumes that church-related parents are spiritually mature Christians.

The weak link in this chain of sterile admonitions to nurture children at home comes from the Victorian belief that children learned to be Christian first at their mother’s breast. The significance of mother-love and piety on the faith commitments of their children was overrated by Victorians. Continuing belief that the children of a Christian mother will automatically be Christians accounts for some of the unrealistic expectations about the family in the church today. The importance of "the Christian home" in the religious socialization of children has been so taken for granted that until quite recently the formative power of the congregation has been neglected.

The Family as a Means of Grace

Salvation in the Catholic tradition depends on having access to the means of God’s grace primarily through the church. Traditionally, the priest has been more important than Protestant clergy as mediator of grace through the sacraments. During the nineteenth century, the spiritual power attributed to parents -- especially mothers -- gradually undermined the priestly role of the Protestant pastor as an agent of God’s grace. Ever since, there has been less importance attached to regular participation in worship and the Lord’s Supper among Protestants. The power attributed to parents in the faith formation of their own children means that the Protestant family was expected to function as a means of grace in the lives of family members.5

The way church programs are organized reveals the operative understanding of the church about the role of the pastor. Most Protestant pastors in Victorian America believed in the sanctifying power of the Christian home. Faith in the nurturing power of the Christian home was shared by both liberal theologians like Horace Bushnell and conservative evangelists like Dwight L. Moody. Moody would not have disagreed with Bushnell’s belief that "a child should grow up not ever having known himself (sic) to be anything other than Christian."6 Bushnell believed that if a young child was influenced for good early enough in "a Christian home," a conversion experience during the impressionable teen years would not be necessary. The only real difference between a Bushnell and a Moody concerned whether children must also have a conversion experience in order to know that they are Christian.

These assumptions about the faith formation of children in "a Christian home" are a deeply embedded legacy from the Victorian period.

To understand the Christianity of this period [Victorian] we must look not only at public symbols of civil religion . . . but at the sacramental character of the home. Domestic Christianity provided Protestants and Catholics with a sense of stability in a climate of social and religious change. For Protestants the ideology and symbols of the home served as an alternative to sectarian splintering by presenting an agreed-upon notion of an eternal, God-given, Bible-based family life.7

Implicit belief in the power of a good woman as a moral influence in the lives of children and men continues wherever Christian nurture in a good home is believed essential to the process of becoming Christian. The expectation that a mother or a motherly Sunday School teacher could teach the Bible to children gradually eroded Protestant concern with careful interpretation of Scripture. This practice implies that any Christian can understand and teach the Bible. It raises the question as to why a pastor is needed.

Dualistic Attitudes About the Roles of Men and Women

The belief that one can grow up never having any identity other than that of being a Christian depends on the unbiblical assumption that children are born innocent and that human nature is malleable -- a clean-slate theory of moral development. It assumes that a child will become like the most influential persons and ideas experienced early in life. If a child has positive moral influences and Christian nurture from birth, Christian identity will imperceptibly take shape over the years. Christian faith, from this point of view, is as natural as biological development. Given a good mother and a positive environment, any child should flourish; or, lacking Christian nurture at home, a positive Sunday School experience may do.

Horace Bushnell was typical of almost all Victorian social theorists and pastors.8 They described human nature in dualistic terms by misconstruing the meaning of the New Testament concerning "spirit and flesh." They constructed a doctrine of sin out of a New Testament observation that sometimes "the flesh lusts against the spirit." From this they concluded that since the lower "animal" nature tempts the "higher" spiritual capacity of human beings, most sin is sexual in nature. To them the higher nature or "spirit" meant mind and conscience, the faculties of reason.

They reasoned that if the mind is filled with good ideas -- like Bible stories and tales of moral virtue -- most people will act accordingly. That is why Bushnell considered the early influence of parents at home so terribly important. Parents provide not just attitudes about life but the earliest content of the mind as well. There was the possibility that the "flesh" could lead a good person astray at any time of life, if "animalistic" urges overpowered the "spirit." But temptations of "the flesh," especially among men, was the great source of sin. The steady influence and love of a good woman was the countervailing influence most likely to keep Christian men from corruption by unmanageable sexual desire.

Any Victorian would have readily agreed with the philosophical injunction that the virtuous person will put "reason in the driver’s seat," lest the conscience be overwhelmed by some sudden outburst of passion. They assumed that people or groups appearing to them to be less intelligent -- and thus less reasonable -- had a limited capacity for sexual self-restraint. By definition, homosexuals were unreasonable and animalistic. Black people were more like animal "flesh" than human "spirit," even if not responsible for that situation. Homosexuals and black men were expected to commit crimes of a sexual nature.

The emergence of leaders like George Washington Carver gave hope that some "Negroes" were educable. In both cases, civil rights could be -- and were -- denied to homosexuals and black persons because they failed to meet the culture’s definition of human "spirit," meaning a reasonable and sexually self-controlled person.

Although white women were considered the moral superiors of men, they were denied civil rights on other grounds. From the perspective of the family ideal, women already played a crucial though indirect role in the public arena as wives and mothers. Their husbands could speak for them in public life. Belief in the pivotal role of the family in American culture made it difficult for many in the church to see any need to support suffrage for women. It seemed unnecessary.

These views on human nature and sin were stated explicitly in most religious literature during the Victorian period (1830-1913). Although their language would sound quaint today, a dualistic view of human nature torn by the lure of the flesh against the spirit has simply gone underground. It is still the basis of judgments made in American culture about who is and who is not an acceptable and reasonable person. This view of human nature lies behind attitudes considered "racist" and "sexist" today. The courts still assume that a reasonable person would not commit a crime; that is why a "crime of passion" can be attributed to temporary insanity!

In her study of Protestant and Catholic attitudes about "the Christian home" between 1840 and 1900, Colleen McDannell shows how Protestants came to rely on the mother, rather than the father, as the priest in the home. This division of labor in the home is reflected in a similar way of thinking about church programs and in attitudes about church leaders.

Protestants maintained the virtue of home worship but slowly moved the father out of his position as the household priest while moving mother into her role as family minister and redeemer. Moral instruction -- a teaching ritual -- came to replace worship as the primary goal of Protestant family devotions. This instruction was child-centered, mother-directed, and individual. While paternal authority continued to be acknowledged and male involvement desirable, fathers were increasingly edged out of a Protestantism which stressed innocence, personal piety, individual education, and the sanctity of domestic sentiments.9

Until pastors become aware of the ways in which the dualisms of the Victorian family ethos have been institutionalized in the church, confusion about their own role as spiritual leaders in a congregation will continue. Victorian attitudes about male and female roles are perpetuated by the division of labor between the Sunday School and church.

These attitudes still affect the way pastors feel about tasks they associate with Christian education. Many pastors, male and female alike, have an aversion to any association with the Sunday School. Like the father in the Victorian family, the pastor was edged out of a role in educational ministry in the congregation. The outcome is a dualistic attitude about preaching and teaching. Ordination is associated with preaching and a primarily masculine authority in the pulpit, while the domestic or feminine task of teaching is associated with laity who teach -- Sunday School teachers and non- ordained Christian educators.

The dualism of separate but equal roles associated with men and women in ministry is perpetuated in denominations where pastors are ordained, but Christian educators are consecrated. This is a clear indication that the spiritual power and authority of Christian educators -- usually women -- is subordinate to the spiritual power and authority of pastors -- usually men. The separation of Christian nurture and teaching from the role of the pastor has greatly diminished the importance of the teaching office of ordained ministry.

According to Victorian ideals the family table was fully as important as the Lord’s Table to faith formation. It was certainly more accessible. When mothers were expected to teach the Bible to children at home, they were more important than a pastor in forming the spirit of a child. The power attributed to Christian nurture at home implied that the Bible is the book, not of the church, but of the Christian home. That is one of the reasons that the Bible has been a best seller in America.

Although most of these attitudes are unfamiliar to mothers in the church today, they remain the presupposition of educational ministries in most congregations. A modern mother would not think of herself as the priest of the family. Change in family living patterns makes it difficult for a family to gather daily for a common meal, let alone set aside time for family devotions. Nevertheless there is still more concern about the dwindling importance of the family meal than evidence of desire among Protestants to gather more often at the Table of the Lord.

Although life in most families has changed radically since 1960, family-pew attitudes appropriate to life in the nineteenth century are still associated with the meanings of Sunday School and Church.

"Sunday School and Church": A Structural Dualism

The Religious Education Association was founded during the early decades of the twentieth century. The Christian educator as a church "professional" who is distinguished from an ordained pastor is a fairly recent phenomenon. The founding of the R.E.A. represents formal acknowledgment that the teaching task associated with women in the home had moved into the church in the role of the Sunday School teacher. The teaching role of women gained professional status when churches began to hire paid professionals to supervise all Christian education. This approach to faith formation in the church still presupposes that love is learned in "the Christian home." That is why pastors and Christian educators rarely see that the quality of relationships in the life of a congregation is a part of Christian nurture.

The programmatic structure in most congregations still reflects Victorian assumptions about the role of Christian parents in the faith formation of children. Movements in the church to restore the Sunday School to the formative role it once played in the life of a congregation should be evaluated in terms of where members are expected to acquire Christian attitudes about life. If a desire to re-energize the Sunday School still presupposes that Christian nurture occurs in the home, Bible study in the Sunday School, and worship in the church, this will perpetuate long-standing misconceptions about "the Christian home."

In practice, there is often competition between the role of the pastor and worship-related church programs and that of the Sunday School in faith formation. Each part of this double program structure claims to be necessary to the faith formation of members, while ignoring the role of the other. Most congregations have "Sunday School people" and "Church people" who rarely meet, even in worship. When Sunday School and worship are held at the same time, this tells members that either learning about Christian faith or the importance of worship and the sacraments to Christians is optional. The competitive nature of this programmatic dualism is most obvious where a separate building to house the Sunday School -- the Christian education unit -- stands side by side with the sanctuary.

People who participate in the "opening exercises" of the Sunday School learn an ethos. Their identity as Christians is influenced by that ethos. The Sunday School was once a major religious institution in its own right, with its own staff, its own budget, and its own worship. This is still true in many congregations, but on a smaller scale.

The Sunday School was once the evangelistic wing of many congregations, recruiting new families through Sunday School children. That is why church leaders who want to bring back the past imagine that church membership decline can be reversed by rebuilding the strength of the Sunday School. The Sunday School had, and still has, a worship tradition with its own music. There may be a Sunday School songbook different from the hymnal used in worship. Sunday School songs are more evangelistic: they often stress personal piety.

Pastors sometimes feel as if they are competing with a "Sunday School theology" in their attempt to lead a congregation. That hunch is correct. There is a difference in the spirituality, the beliefs, and the language used in the worship of the Sunday School and that of the church. A pastor who ignores the Sunday School runs the risk of letting the Sunday School form the faith commitments of members. This is most likely in small-town and rural congregations where allegiance to the Sunday School is still more powerful.

Opening exercises in the Sunday School have no sacramental element. This exercise in folk religion may include a homily or object lesson presented by a lay leader. The suspicion of some pastors that this ritual represents laity "playing church" is not entirely unfounded. The fact that opening exercises are usually didactic and instructional in nature can influence attitudes about worship in the sanctuary. That may be one of the reasons that so many adults like the children’s sermon in worship. They may be more comfortable with moralistic teaching about what a child should do than they are with proclamation about what God is doing.

Practices associated with a Sunday School theology represent continuing uncritical allegiance to the ethos of "the family pew." It is the way laity express their belief that the children of church members are born into the church. The implicit reason for most recent innovations in "Sunday School and Church" programs is the same -- to insure that the children of members will join the church.

The Victorian belief that children who are born to church members will automatically grow up to be Christians has not changed. Instead, expectations about the nature and responsibility of church membership have been adjusted. This is especially obvious in current confusion over the purpose of confirmation classes. This minimal period of instruction about church membership is often the last formal learning experience of church members. An adjusted expectation reflects the desire of parents and pastors to keep children and youth in the congregation long enough to confirm their baptism.

Innovations in infant baptism may also inadvertently encourage belief that anyone born into a church family is a Christian. Some pastors now introduce a newly baptized infant as a new member of the family of God, a brother or sister in Christ. To the theologically untutored this may convey the idea that the act of baptism makes a Christian, or that baptism is essential to salvation. This identifies baptism with church membership in a way that diminishes traditional Protestant reliance on growth in faith through lifelong access to Word and sacrament in corporate worship.

If this description is accurate, then -- in practice -- the sacrament of infant baptism may be identified with salvation in a way similar to Roman Catholic theology before Vatican II. If coupled with less emphasis on preparation for confirmation, the Protestant practice of infant baptism may seem essential to the salvation of infants and children in congregations where few members ever open a Bible.

The theological justification for infant baptism depends on the commitment of parents and members of congregations to the task of rearing the children and youth of the church "in the nurture and admonition of the Lord." However, if church membership is not experienced by adults as a way of living in the world that depends on faith in Jesus Christ, infant baptism may only foster spiritual complacency and reliance on an empty ritual.

The inclusion of baptized children of church members in the Lord’s Supper may be a genuflection to continuing illusions about the efficacy of "the family pew."10 The practice of infant baptism and the inclusion of children in the Supper implies a belief that the faith of parents is more important than the congregation to the faith of children. Telling parents that they must now decide when their children are ready to participate in the Supper is like telling them to conduct worship at home. It presupposes that parents are persons of deep faith capable of conveying the importance of the Supper to their children.

These innovations related to the sacraments reflect an implicit theology in which the element most crucial to living the Christian life is missing --the attitude of faith in Jesus Christ that is essential if teens and adults are to appropriate the grace promised to them in their baptism. The church does give access to God’s love and grace through baptism to all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ. The reception of God’s grace through baptism does not automatically confer new life on the recipient; participation in the Lord’s Supper does not necessarily change the recipient of bread and wine.

Christian faith is not inherited; each generation, each individual, must learn faith anew.11 Recent Protestant innovations in membership procedures and sacramental practices are only the logical extension of long-dysfunctional assumptions about the faith formation of persons in the home, in Sunday School, and in the church.

Protestant membership rituals have always included baptism and a profession of faith. The form of the ritual and expectations of participants vary widely. Today, most Protestant denominations require members to be baptized and to profess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. The acknowledgment that Jesus Christ is Lord can be a life-changing event. All too often a profession of faith is no more than a perfunctory membership ritual identified only with attending confirmation classes. It follows that the incorporation of new members who have already been baptized and confirmed into a congregation will require little more than attendance at a new-member class in which loyalty to the congregation is cultivated.

If infant baptism, the confirmation of baptismal vows, and new member rituals do not require a potential "member’’ to know, do, or be anything in particular, no one should be surprised that congregations lack spiritual vitality. If these rituals require no clear commitment to regular worship, disciplined study, and participation in ministry by members, then there is little reason to expect church members to be different from the members of any other voluntary organization.

Family worship services and family ministries are attempts to cope with a cultural transition that threatens the viability of the present organizational structure of most congregations. It is obvious that "Sunday School and Church" are not what they once were. Yet, to add "family ministry" as another category in a long list of educational ministries is a mistake. Unless there is a new approach to the role of churches in relation to the family life of members, programs designed for "Christian families" will only reinforce unrealistic expectations about "the Christian home."

Christian faith has been domesticated wherever family loyalty and love dominates the commitments of members. It seems fair to say that there are members in every congregation for whom family commitments are the strongest motivating force in their religious beliefs and practices. If family loyalty controls the events that matter most in the life of a congregation, the faith commitments of that congregation are misplaced. If love of family is stronger and deeper than love for Jesus Christ, this is family idolatry.



1. For an account of the mix of biblical imagery with patriotism in the thought of religious leaders and political figures in the nineteenth century, see Conrad Cherry, God’s New Israel (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971).

2. Thomas Charles Campbell and Yoshio Fukuyama, The Fragmented Layman: An Empirical Study of Lay Attitudes (Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1970).

3. There has always been a tendency toward dualistic thinking in the Christian tradition. The dualisms described here represent a particular form of dualistic thinking.

4. Charles M. Sell, The Enrichment of Family Life Through the Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), p. 218.

5. See Janet F. Fishburn, "The Family as a Means of Grace," Religious Education 78 (Winter 1983): 90-103.

6. Horace Bushnell, Christian Nurture, 1888. Reprint. (New llaven: Yale University Press, 1967), p. 50.

7. Colleen McDannell, The Christian Home in Victorian America, 1840 - 1900 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), pp. 151-52.

8. In an era of hearty disagreement about theology, the Christian nurture of children in the "home" was one area of common agreement. See the review of Christian Nurture by Charles Hodge, a leader of the Princeton theology, in Mark A. Noll, editor and compiler, The Princeton Theology: 1812-1921 (Phillipsburg, NJ.: 1983), pp. 177-84.

9. McDannell, Christian Home.

10. The inclusion of children in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was recommended in The United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. around 1970. At about the same time the age of first communion was lowered in Roman Catholic congregations. The inclusion of all baptized persons in the Supper is new to Protestants though it has a long history in Eastern Orthodox tradition.

11. A similar line of argument is found in Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), p. 10. Also see Stanley Hauerwas, "The Family as a School for Character," Religious Education 80 (Spring 1985): 272-85, for a similar analysis of the way this reasoning about the family in character formation "can too easily turn the family into an idolatrous institution."