June 2007 - Vol. 9

Building a Christian Society — Part II

The Lord planted in the human heart a hunger for genuine family 
and community relationships

by Steve Clark

To modern people, social roles may seem limiting, inauthentic, and discriminatory. Are they? One of the more frequent objections to social roles in general is the view that social roles are limiting. They prescribe patterns of social behavior without consulting the preferences of the individuals involved and without allowing them the opportunity to take a previously uncharted course.

Social roles are limiting, but they are limiting in the way any structure is limiting. The human skeleton limits the human body in its movement, but it also makes the human body stronger and more versatile than the amoeba. A highway limits the places a car can go, but the observance of that limitation allows the development of a travel network that yields far greater mobility than overland travel at will.

Roles are limiting. Moreover, social roles are more limiting than functional roles because they are more stable, long lasting, and affect almost every area of a person’s life. As with other effective structures, though, the limitations imposed by social roles reap great benefits—in this case, the establishment of a stable and peaceful pattern of social life which allows life to flourish and which provides for the group’s needs. Social roles do not have to be rigid, but they do have to be stable enough and uniform enough to provide a sound basis for personal relationships. Those who object to roles as being limiting do not understand the value of relational social structure in promoting communal life.

Two other objections to social roles in general are often raised. They are similar to the objection that social roles limit the individual. The first rejects social roles as being inauthentic; the second argues that individuals should change their social roles as they see fit.

Those who reject social roles as inauthentic object that they make an individual conform needlessly to the expectations of others. They force an individual to understand himself in relationship to others, rather than as a “real” person in his own right. They are imposed from outside, alien to the real inner person.

This type of objection is partly a product of the dichotomy which technological society creates between the functional world with its highly structured relationships and the personal world, which ideally is supposed to be unstructured and spontaneous. Most contemporary people have little or no experience of committed relationships within a large, cohesive, structured relational grouping, and they perceive such groupings as a threat to their identity. Another source of this objection to social roles is alienation from all traditional social groupings and relationships, often including the family and the church. This sense of alienation is produced in large part by modern ideologies whose goal is to form an individualized, functionally-efficient technological society.

Social roles may look “inauthentic” from the vantage point of technological society, but those in a genuine communal grouping do not experience them as ship, but is instead produced by relationship.

The common expectations defined by social roles can also be experienced as a great aid to communal life, not as a stifling bondage. Social roles free people from tensions which arise from the constant effort of working or living around differing expectations. Rather than being humanly inauthentic, social roles correspond to a genuine inner hunger in the human race for stable, committed personal relationships.

The second objection involves only a partial denial of social roles. This objection is raised by people who understand the need for some form of social roles but who feel that each person or group should create these roles according to their preferences or needs. Such a view betrays the basic individualism inherent in at least what has historically been the “Liberal” approach to technological society. This approach to social life does not aim at establishing communal relationships on a broad scale but at creating a number of small independent groups, each following different principles of social life.

In reality, this approach is unworkable. Social roles cannot be successfully improvised or devised anew by every social grouping. To devise a successful set of social roles is a great challenge. Those who attempt to create social roles anew normally make serious “ecological errors,” errors that arise because of the complexity of the system and the difficulty of fully comprehending all the relevant factors. Unfortunately such ecological errors are not discovered quickly. For example, only after a generation has passed can a group discover the damage done by a new theory of child rearing.

Moreover, the task of devising new social roles demands a great deal of creativity and a breadth of wisdom that few people possess and almost no one possesses alone. It is enlightening to see how many primitive and traditional peoples can handle birth, death, and marriage, and all occasions of celebration and mourning in a way which cares for the people’s needs and allows them to express their deepest thoughts and experiences. By contrast, people in technological society are often incapable of handling these occasions in anything more than a perfunctory manner that is traumatic or disappointing for those involved. The social roles and social structure needed for a successful corporate human existence cannot be devised anew by every social grouping.

There are two other major reasons for approaching social roles in a stable and relatively uniform way within a society or a community. First, there is a great advantage, especially in a technological society, in not having to constantly work at developing social roles. People in technological society spend much of their time in situations which call for a high degree of change and often creativity. They need an area of life where they can rest from such effort, confident of stable support and commitment, with a clear understanding of how to behave in relationship to others. If social relationships are turned into as much of a task as work relationships currently are in our society, then much of their purpose and usefulness has been lost.

Second, an isolated family or small group lacks the strength needed to develop a pattern of social roles different from the surrounding society. The family unit in technological society is not a total environment. It cannot single-handedly resist the currents of society which influence its members through the school system, the work site, the neighborhood, friends, and the media. Social roles cannot be left to the discretion and ingenuity of each small societal unit, but must instead be developed and sustained consistently within a larger social grouping.

In technological society, objections are raised to all types of social roles. Roles built on the parent-child relationship, the teacher-student relationship, the employer-employee relationship, and differences in age and sex are all dismissed or functionalized. Social roles based on differences in sex, in particular, evoke some of the most heated negative responses. Two types of objections to social roles in general arise especially in connection with men’s and women’s roles: that these roles are discriminatory, and that they foster stereotypes.

The idea that social roles based on sex differences are discriminatory has been vigorously advanced within the feminist movement. Feminists have consistently attempted to equate racial differences and sex differences, and to say by analogy that making distinctions between people on the basis of sex is the same as making distinctions between people on the basis of race. The term “sexism” has been coined to express this similarity. Feminists have thus been able to capitalize on the widespread social disapproval of racism by portraying distinctions between men and women as “racism” against women.

This equation of race and sex falsely presumes that the two issues are the same in all significant respects. However, racial distinctions occur between social groupings whereas sexual distinctions occur within social groupings. Barring someone from a position solely on the basis of race is discrimination. It is a way of preserving an advantage for one’s own social group. Barring someone from a position because she is a woman might be discrimination, especially in a functionally organized grouping, such as a modern business firm. However, within a relational grouping a sexual distinction may well be a useful and proper attempt to establish an effective social structure through social roles. Such roles need to be ascribed rather than achieved. In relational groupings, where the primary concern is for relationships and not function, the observance of certain distinctions between people on the basis of age and sex rather than competency is not necessarily discrimination. It is a way to maintain and strengthen social roles.

The second objection often made to social roles based on sex differences is that such roles foster stereotypes. This objection also arises from the equation between race and sex. Stereotypes of different races often lead to discrimination or to the treatment of all members of a race as inferior. To be sure, there are stereotypes of men and women that are harmful and scientifically inaccurate. For example, an idea that women are deficient in intelligence or ability would be both disrespectful and false. The primary differences between men and women do not lie in ability but in their varying responses within personal relationships. However, the idea that women are primarily interested in family life and children should not be considered a stereotype. It strengthens a social role of great importance, and fits with much of the available scientific data. In effect, the attack on stereotypes of women is often an attack on recognizing the genuine differences between men and women and also an attack on the reinforcement of stable social roles.

Though many people in modern society object to social roles, such roles play an integral part in the formation of any truly communal lifestyle and in the authentic Christian approach to social structure. Social roles are the backbone of all relational groupings. It is no accident that where social roles are weak, personal relationship is weak. Social roles are an important way of bringing strength to personal relationships. In fact, community disintegrates when a purely functional or informal approach to roles prevails.

The Lord planted in the human heart a hunger for genuine family and community relationships. He intended to satisfy that hunger by sending his Son Jesus to restore his creation and to form those who believe in him into a new people. If God’s full purpose for his people in the 21st century is to be fulfilled, the Christian people must understand and apply the scriptural teaching on community, personal relationships, and social roles.

[Steve Clark is President of The Sword of the Spirit. This article is adapted and abridged from his book Man and Woman in Christ, copyright © 1980 by Stephen B. Clark and published by Tabor House Books. To see Part I of this article, go to the May 2007 Issue.]

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