Prologue: Protestant Ideals and Historical Realities

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

Prologue: Protestant Ideals and Historical Realities

This book comes from personal experience, my research and teaching, and from lifelong participation in Christian congregations. I am grateful to those congregations for teaching me what I know about membership in the household of God. Much of the "new vision" described in part 3 was learned from members of Diakonia, a congregation where most members are engaged in mutual ministry and in outreach ministries in their community.

Much of what I know about ministry comes from friends who are gifted pastors and from my students. I owe a special thanks to Art Hagy, who read the first draft, and Stanley Hauerwas, who read the last draft of this book. Art told me what I had to say of importance to pastors. Stanley was generous with appreciation and constructive criticism of my practical theology.

Much of what I know about families comes from being a daughter, a wife, and a mother. I am grateful to my daughters who freely discuss issues of their young-adult generation with me. I am deeply grateful to my husband, who enthusiastically supports my ministry.

Some books need a good editor more than others. This is one of them. It has not been easy to write about family idolatry while affirming the importance of family relationships to Christians. In Paul Franklyn and Sally Sharpe I have been blessed with the kind of editorial assistance I needed.

The Theological School

Drew University

Summer 1990


This book is for pastors and Christian educators who wrestle with the difficult issue of how to include people from traditional and nontraditional families in the life of a congregation. My premise is that this is not possible unless those who lead congregations recognize that it is the church -- and not a biological family unit -- that is the first family of all baptized Christians. Since we become Christian as we participate in the life of a congregation, the way church leaders order the life and worship of a congregation is crucial to the spiritual well-being of all members of a congregation.

During the last twenty-five years, church leaders have experienced the impact of a major cultural transition on the life of congregations. A technological revolution and a changing economic order affect both church and family. Most congregations are affected by the changing family, membership loss, shrinking Sunday Schools, failure to retain youth, and a growing number of older members. The impact of a biomedical revolution raises new issues about sexual practices, the nature of conception and childbearing, and the meaning of marriage and parenthood. Even though these changes affect the daily life of all Christians, many pastors seem unable to lead a congregation in theological reflection about ethical issues.

My thesis is that Protestants in the United States are not yet fully aware of the extent to which the changing family affects the life of a congregation because our theologies, ministries, and traditions are influenced by a worldview that coalesced before the Civil War. Many people continue to think about sexuality, family, and church in ways that took shape in the Victorian era, a time of empire.

Confronting the Idolatry of Family challenges those who believe that "decline" in the family is the cause of moral decay in the nation and membership loss in churches. This perpetuates a belief held by pastors and theologians in the Victorian period that "the Christian family" was the building block of civilization without which neither nation nor children would be moral. This implies that the church exists primarily to support the moral fabric of the American democracy. During the Victorian era -- approximately 1830-1913 -- an ultimacy was attributed to the formative power of "the Christian family." Protestants commonly regarded the family as "a little church."

Christianity has had a tendency to become a church of empire since the Constantinian era.1 In 1971, historian Robert T. Handy argued that an American version of a church of empire was coming to an end. He referred to the transition then under way as a "second disestablishment of religion" in America. Handy suggested that since the Victorian period, Protestants had confused a civil religion -- the hope of Christianizing America -- with Christian faith. He pointed out that instead of the church having Christianized civilization, the Protestant churches in America had been domesticated.2

Although few Protestants would still claim that the United States is an "almost Christianized" nation, the Victorian way of thinking about the world, God, and human nature still influences theological discourse. The dualistic, or dichotomous, structure of Victorian thought is most evident in the way modern Protestants approach moral issues. The Victorian way of dividing the world into male and female roles and spheres still influences the way we organize the life of a congregation.

Members in the church today are commonly referred to as "private" or "public," "conservative" or "liberal." The public/private dichotomy refers to assumptions about the role of the Protestant church in American culture. The conservative/liberal dichotomy refers most often to a stance on theological ethics and a way of using the Bible. The tone of disagreement, especially obvious with reference to sexuality, is that of the Victorian era. The Victorians had confidence in their own intellectual and moral righteousness, born of a philosophical assumption that truth is self-evident.

The church members find dialogue difficult because they rarely question their presuppositions about human nature or how truth is known.3 Yet, these things are similar in many ways. Both assume a hierarchy of social values, moral values, and intellectual values that belong to the Protestant impulse associated with an American religion of empire.4 I refer to this impulse as the American Dream.

Scholarly investigation of the differences between Protestant ideals and historical realities seems to have had little impact on the practice of ministry. The belief that America is -- or ought to be -- a Christian nation continues to subtly dominate the way many Protestants think about the life of a congregation. I am suggesting that it is not the mission of Protestant churches to make America Christian, or even to transform American culture. Further, we will not be free from family idolatry -- the effect of attributing ultimacy to "the Christian family" on Protestant spirituality -- unless we are free from illusions about "a Christian America."

The present situation of cultural transition and of perceived decline in churches is an opportunity for reflection about what it means to be Christian in a pluralistic culture. What does it mean to participate in "new life in Christ" for late-twentieth-century Christians? What does it mean to love Jesus Christ more than family?


Confronting the Idolatry of Family is divided into three sections.

Part 1 is an analysis of the origins of current attitudes about church and family.

Part 2 is a discussion of the way values often believed to be "God-given and biblical" are related to the values of the American Dream. Some years ago James Smart observed that one of the reasons the Bible is "strangely silent" in congregations is because pastors are not able to bring a "critical" perspective on Scripture to bear on faith issues.5 With that in mind, I have attempted to address a biblically informed theological reflection to the key issues raised by transition in culture, church, and family.

In recent years there has been much discussion about "faith development" and the role of church and family in the "faith formation" of children and youth. I have concluded that a "Sunday School and Church" approach to Christian education is an inadequate mode of spiritual formation for persons in contemporary culture.

In Part 3, I describe the role of church leaders in planning educational programs that are supportive of members of traditional and nontraditional families, but not dependent on "the Christian home" as the primary agency of Christian spiritual formation.

Every generation can learn faith anew in dialogue with Scripture, tradition, and experience. Although I believe that modern Christians can be instructed by biblical perspectives on church and family, I am not advocating a return to some earlier time when the church may seem to have been more faithful. My conviction is that we cannot be led into God’s future if we are not aware of some of the ways we have been formed by our history.



1. For a similar analysis with primary reference to the Constantinian era see Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989).

2. Robert T. Handy, A Christian America: Protestant Hopes and Historical Realities (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), esp. pp. 214-21.

3. For a helpful discussion of nineteenth-century influences on how we think about "the future of oldline churches" see William McKinney, "Revisioning the Future of Oldline Protestantism," The Christian Century (November 8, 1989): 1014-16.

4. William G McLoughlin, The American Evangelicals: 1800-1900 (New York: Harper 8c Row, 1968), pp. 1-28.1 agree with McLoughlin’s thesis that all forms of nineteenth-century evangelical Christianity are permeated with "the ideas and system of the Scottish Common Sense School." Most contemporary "American" theologies are still influenced by some unexamined philosophical assumptions about how truth is known.

5. James Smart, The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970).