The Church and the Family Crisis:

by Don & Carol Browning

Don S. Browning, who teaches at the University of Chicago Divinity School, is directing a research project on religion, culture and the family. Carol Browning is a professional musician and a student of the family.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, August 7-14, 1991, pps. 746-749. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Research shows that none of the alternatives to the intact nuclear family (first marriages) performs well the task of rearing children. Neither the state nor the church can be a substitute. If the church is interested in helping society raise strong, healthy and self-directed children, it must help produce as many intact first marriages as possible.

Are families declining or simply changing? This question continues to provoke heated debate in our society. Some say that while family forms are changing, families are not in trouble. These same people say that the problems of the family are temporary dislocations caused by evolutionary social change. Such a view implies that once church and society adapt to these developments, the health of families will improve. Our view is far more somber. We believe that the family is deteriorating

Families are changing, yes. For instance, the so-called traditional family—families in which the father works outside of the home while the mother does the domestic chores and raises the children—is being profoundly altered. Proportionately far fewer of these families exist today than at the turn of the century or even 30 years ago. It is more accurate, however, to call the traditional family the "modern family." Its rise paralleled the emergence of modern industrial societies. This form of the family is decreasing in number primarily because more wives and mothers are joining the labor force. The traditional or modern family in this specific sense is only some 250 years old. In spite of the claims of certain fundamentalist and conservative religious groups, this family form is not God’s ordained plan. Nor is it the family plan revealed in Scripture.

The idea of the nuclear family, on the other hand, refers to a bonded mother and father raising one or more children. Both mother and father may be employed, they might both work part time, they may both stay at home with the children, the mother might work while the father raises the children, or they may function together within an extended family or household. The so-called traditional or modern family was nuclear, but not all nuclear families are traditional.

Although the church need offer no special defense of the modern family, it has some strong theological reasons to defend and support the bonded mother-father team in its various forms. It is striking how the words of Genesis 2:24 that "a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh" recur throughout the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. They are found on the lips of Jesus in Matthew and Mark, in the letter of Paul to the Corinthians and in the pseudoPauline letter to the Ephesians.

Since the traditional family was for decades the dominant form of the nuclear family, the two concepts get confused in people’s minds. A speaker at one of the pre-sessions at the "Families 2000" conference, sponsored by the National Council of Churches, after elaborating the problems of the traditional family, exclaimed at three points: "The nuclear family is dead. Thank God the nuclear family is dead." Knowledgeable members of his audience assumed that he was confusing the nuclear mother-father team with the traditional or modern family. Some of his listeners, however, suspected an even deeper agenda. They suspected that the speaker was radically relativizing the nuclear mother-father team in order to replace it by some, vague model of the church as a new family surrogate. The distinction between the nuclear and traditional family was also blurred in the recent report on human sexuality by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) titled Keeping Body and Soul Together: "Although many Christians in the post-World War II era have a special emotional attachment to the nuclear family, with its employed father, mother at home, and two or more school-aged children, that profile currently fits only 5 percent of North American households." This sentence seems to refer to all nuclear families; it really refers only to traditional families. Even then, this figure is the lowest we have seen quoted by any authority; it’s probably more like 7 or even 9 percent. Actually, nuclear mother-father teams raising children make up about 25 percent of all households. Even this figure is misleading since it excludes older couples who have already raised their children. It also overlooks the large number of dual-income families in which the mother or father stays home during some of the preschool years.

The idea that the family is declining refers to difficulties that families—traditional, nuclear or otherwise—are having in fulfilling their principal tasks, especially in raising children to become healthy and responsible adults. Most everyone knows that the marriage rate is down, while the divorce and abortion rates have increased greatly. Less well known is the extent of out-of-wedlock births, up from 5 percent in 1960 to over 25 percent of all births in 1988. Over half of these were to teens between 15 and 17 years of age. Nor is it widely known that the number of children living with a single parent has grown from 7 percent in 1960 to approximately 25 percent today.

New evidence suggests that divorce, single parenthood and out-of-wedlock births are strongly correlated with one of the greatest social problems of our time— the feminization of poverty. Single mothers and their children make up the new poor of our society. One of every four children under six in the United States lives at or below the poverty line. Half of these children live with single mothers who are themselves poor. Some of these poor single mothers are divorced and some never married. Poor children are less healthy, less involved in school, more likely to drop out of school, more likely to get in trouble with the law, and much more likely to die prematurely. Poverty is often a result of marriages that did not work or did not take place.

Family disintegration imposes other costs on the emotional welfare of children. Although many children adapt to both divorce and living with single parents, life for them is on the whole more difficult. A recent study by the National Center for Health Statistics shows that one in five children under age 18 has a learning, emotional, behavioral or developmental problem that can be traced to the dissolution of the two-parent family. By the time they are teenagers, one in four suffers from one or more of these problems, and among male teenagers the rate is nearly one in three (Chicago Tribune, December 9, 1990). According to researcher Judith Wallerstein, children of divorce display increased behavioral problems during the first two years after the marriage breaks up, and the effects of divorce on children can continue for many years. (See Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee, Second Chances, 1989.)

We believe that these facts suggest a very grave state of affairs. They point to a situation that the mainstream Protestant churches have not wanted to face. For the past 30 years these churches have been timid and inarticulate about the growing family crisis. They have let the family issue fall into the hands of reactionary political and religious forces to the right or radical cultural forces to the left.

Some Protestant leaders are striving to broaden the church’s ministry to include the growing plurality of family forms—to include as coequals with the intact nuclear family all single-parent families, the divorced and remarried, blended families, childless couples, unmarried couples living together, and gay and lesbian couples with or without children. This effort often goes under the same banner of inclusiveness that justifies the church’s outreach to members of different races, classes and ethnic backgrounds. We do not wish to blunt this initiative. The church should do everything it can to minister to all people no matter what their family context, and it must do much to broaden its ministry to the new family forms. We believe, however, that these goals should not obscure the church’s central support for the intact mother-father team dedicated to the task of raising children to take their place in the kingdom of God.

We recommend a limited definition of the primary task of families: raising children. Research shows that none of the alternatives to the intact nuclear family (first marriages) performs this task as well. While families are certainly places of interpersonal intimacy, security, friendship and mutual assistance, many other forms of human association perform these tasks. Only families are responsible for providing the security, stability, financial resources, stimulation and commitment necessary to raise highly dependent human infants to adulthood. Furthermore, families are the primary carriers of the traditions, narratives, values and the initial education necessary to raise children to be conscientious citizens and members in the kingdom.

We’re not suggesting that all married couples should have children. We do recommend that the family concept not spread to include every living arrangement that provides friendship, security or mutual assistance. These arrangements doubtless perform an important function. Sometimes they even provide support—as does the church—for adults, single or married, raising children. But it is confusing to call them families except in a metaphorical sense.

For this reason, we also should be cautious about using the metaphor of family for the church. The church has familylike qualities, but it is not a family. It is as absurd to talk about the church functioning like a superfamily as it is to speak of the state as a family. The church is probably only slightly more successful in raising children than is the state. Both institutions raise children only in emergency situations and only when there is no better alternative. During its plenary sessions the recent conference "Families 2000" came dangerously close to suggesting that in response to family disintegration, individualism and loneliness the church should become the new family surrogate, a warm and accepting replacement for the puny, broken and disappearing nuclear families whose remains are strewn across the social landscape. However, "Families 2000" had little to say about how the church can support the postmodern, dual-income, mother-father team in its task of raising children.

Our point is that on the whole the nuclear mother-father team in intact first marriages does a better job of raising children than do single parents, stepparents or unmarried couples. There are exceptions, of course. We are talking about broad but meaningful averages. (See Mavis Hetherington and Josephine D. Arasteh’s Impact of Divorce, Single Parenting and Stepparenting on Children, 1988.) The intact mother-father team seems more invested in its children and has more success in raising children, measured by children’s mental and physical health and their capacity to handle school, make friends, relate to the opposite sex and have confidence about the future. If the church is interested in helping society raise strong, healthy and self-directed children, the church must help produce as many intact first marriages as possible.

One of us studied for ten months a rapidly growing black Pentecostal church with a powerful family ministry. On the basis of that study, we concluded that special emphasis on the intact family can be formulated in ways that are inclusive of other family forms. The uniting elements must be a genuine concern for families and commitment to do what is best for children.

We believe that the churches can do much to offset the family crisis. The churches and the Christian message can ease the transition from the traditional or modern family to the postmodern family and offer a vision of a new family ethic.

In the postmodern family, both mother and father will likely be employed outside of the home, either full or part time. Since both will earn salaries, wives will be far less dependent financially on their husbands than they were in the modern family. Mothers will spend less time parenting. If children are not to be neglected, fathers and other committed people will need to fill the gap. This is not happening now. Family, child and education experts generally think that our children at all social levels are being neglected. The postmodern family will be more dependent on two incomes. Gender roles will need to be more flexible lest either the husband or the wife (most likely the wife) do a disproportionate amount of the family labor.

Family sociologist William D’Antonio has called for a new love ethic for this postmodern family. A Christian love ethic would arise from a more honest interpretation of the Second Commandment: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." This principle of neighbor love is recognized by both Jesus and Paul as the summary and essence of the entire Jewish law. It is a vantage point from which to interpret other aspects of New Testament ethics, including its ethics for families.

The principle of neighbor love is difficult to interpret. Some understand it as a self-sacrificial love—a mandate to love the other at the cost of sacrificing the self. This extreme self-sacrificial interpretation of neighbor love has often been coupled with those passages in Ephesians, Colossians and I Peter that seem to advise women to submit to the spiritual authority of their husbands. This view of love is used to justify what sociologist Francesca Cancian calls the "duty family." Many fundamentalist Christian groups use this model of Christian love to legitimate male authority, the traditional family and the submission of women. Extreme self-sacrificial models of love also can be manipulated to persuade oppressed people to endure passively, in the name of bearing their crosses, their situation of oppression.

The other extreme in interpreting the principle of neighbor love is what we call the independence or self-actualization model of love. In this view, loving your neighbor as yourself means that if you love yourself first, love of neighbor or spouse follows automatically. This interpretation often holds that love relations should be measured by how they contribute to one’s self-fulfillment. This view of love is very popular both inside and outside of the church. It is the view of love held by what Cancian calls the "independence-type" family, where husband and wife view marriage as a means toward individual fulfillment. Both the sacrificial model and the self-fulfillment model contribute to the decline of families in our society.

We propose a third model of Christian love, one that we believe is consistent with the core of the Christian tradition and can provide a love ethic for the postmodern working family. This model builds on the work of Louis Janssens, Gene Outka, Christine Gudorf and others. It interprets neighbor love through the idea of equal regard. Loving your neighbor or spouse as yourself means loving him or her exactly as much as you love yourself. It means you must take the needs and claims of the spouse as seriously as your own. But this love ethic also means that you are obligated to take your own needs and claims seriously. It includes values from both the independence and the self-sacrificial model of love but avoids their excesses. The equal-regard interpretation of neighbor love fits the needs of the postmodern family faced with a new range of issues around shared authority, more equal financial power, and more nearly equal roles in raising children and meeting each other’s needs in the midst of the 80-hour work week.

Self-sacrifice and the demands of the cross are still required in this love ethic. Sometimes we must love even when circumstances do not permit us to be loved fully in return. But in this love ethic, sacrifice is not an end in itself. Its task is to unleash the energy required to return a marital or human relation to mutuality and equal regard. Sacrifice in this ethic cannot be manipulated to justify perpetual oppression, submission, vulnerability or inequality on the part of either the husband or wife, father or mother. Appeals to self-sacrifice cannot be used to justify physical or mental abuse. In fact, it is precisely the ethic of equal regard which gives a marital partner the right and responsibility to resist abuse. Love as equal regard should also leave the marital couple with an ethic of commitment sufficient to live together, raise children, meet hard times, confront misunderstandings and remain integrated in the relationship.

There are many concrete ways that the churches could teach such a love ethic. The most important focus is youth. Youth ministries, which have declined in the mainline churches, should be revived to help initiate youths into the love ethic of equal regard required for the postmodern family. Many families of church youth are still significantly traditional or modern. It will take explicit work, education, even rites of passage, to prepare the young for mutuality in the postmodern family. Outside of offering this new love ethic in a commanding way, initiating youth—especially boys—into this ethic is the single most important thing that churches can do to address the decline of families. Poet Robert Bly and psychoanalyst Robert Moore have called for new rites of initiation for young males. They have a point. We offer this love ethic to guide that initiation process.

The church should also discuss proposed legislation supporting the postmodern family. Government support for more and better day care will help the two-career family with children. Some experts, however, propose increasing tax exemptions for young children or offering a system of tax credits to help the many families who elect to have one parent stay home with the children during the preschool years. A new political coalition appears to be in the making between conservatives Phyllis Schafly and Gary Bauer and liberal Democratic Representative Pat Schroeder which is designed to advance these very proposals. The recent report from the National Commission on Children achieved unusual bipartisan support for a $1,000-per-child tax credit proposal. The influential Progressive Policy Institute’s report Putting Children First has made a similar proposal but primarily for the poor. Such tax proposals would make a single income more nearly a family income. Although 57 percent of all wives are employed outside the home, it is also true that 33 percent of all mothers stay home full time for a few years with their preschool children before returning to outside employment. Another 13 percent work outside the home only part time during these early childrearing years. Nearly half of postmodern families are traditional for at least a few years during their children’s preschool years. These tax proposals are ways the government can help families without taking over their child-care functions. The church needs to be part of the debate about the relative investments that society should make to day care and tax relief as means of supporting the postmodern family.

There are other radical proposals the churches need to debate. Should society try to cope with the growing epidemic of teenage pregnancies and single parents and with the feminization of poverty by requiring states to list the name of the father on the birth certificate of a child born out of wedlock? And should this father be forced by federal law, possibly through deductions from his paycheck, to support his child until it reaches maturity, regardless of whether or not he ever marries the mother? Should the church support stricter divorce laws or at least a more equitable treatment of women with regard to property settlements and child-care payments?

We cannot fully evaluate such proposals here, but a church supporting families, both modern and postmodern, must at least enter the public debate. The church’s greatest contribution, however, will be in formulating its own vision of love as equal regard in the intimate affairs of the postmodern family.