May 2007 - Vol. 8

Building a Christian Society — Part I

God’s purpose in Jesus was to create a new humanity in which the image of God is restored and through which God is served

by Steve Clark

God's purpose is to form a new community - the human race
God created the human race to be united in such a way that it could act as a single person. This person, this human, was to be his son, formed in his image and likeness, created to serve as his representative over his visible creation. Men and women alike were to be fully a part of the human race and of the divine sonship. Both were to share the image and likeness of God and both were to share in ruling over creation corporately on God’s behalf. They were created male and female so that the human race, the human community, could increase and fill the earth.

When God sent his Son Jesus to repair the damage from the fall, his intent was to restore the human race to its original purpose by forming a new human race, a new creation, that could live as God’s son, the body of Christ on earth. God’s purpose in Jesus was to create a new humanity in which the image of God is restored and through which God is served. This new humanity consists of men and women who are united in Jesus. God’s purpose is to form a new community—the human race.

The new community has its own way of life which originates in the nature and character of God himself. In particular this way of life involves a special quality of relationship. The New Testament teaching on personal relations does not have an incidental place in the Scripture. It is the very center of God’s purpose in giving the new covenant, in writing his law on human hearts. “Make love your aim” (1 Corinthians 14:1). If the Christian people today are to live as the new community, the new human race, they must begin with the restoration of Christian relationships. Christians must learn how to have loving, committed personal relationships as brothers and sisters in the Lord and how to pattern these relationships so that all the needs for personal support, child rearing, and care of the older members of the body are met effectively.

A network of relationships
The restoration of Christian relationships implies as well a restoration of relational groupings like those found in traditional societies. The social fabric of traditional society consisted almost exclusively of a pattern of interconnected relational groupings: the conjugal family, the extended kin network, the village, the neighborhood, the guild, and other groupings formed on the basis of profession and class. These groupings combined a consideration for personal life with a concern for productive labor and task accomplishment. The special needs of the young, the poor, the infirm, and the elderly were ordinarily cared for within such groupings rather than in large institutions. The early church and, in fact, the Christian people throughout much of its history followed a similar pattern. Evangelism, religious instruction, and charitable service were all integrally tied to the household, the basic communal grouping.

Relationships in modem technological society follow a very different principle. The relational groupings found in traditional society have been greatly weakened and often destroyed. In their place has arisen a pattern of relationships which involves on the one hand functional, limited, contractual, “impersonal” relationships, and on the other informal, non-purposeful, unstable, emotionally based “personal” relationships. The advancing functionalization of social relationships and social groupings leaves many human needs unsatisfied. The old, the young, the sick—all who are not fully competent or capable by the standards of technological society—are left to the care of functionally organized institutions which are largely unable to meet their needs effectively. The functional and emotionally based relationships that characterize a technological society also fail to meet the need for stable community and committed love felt by even the strongest members of society.

The functionalization of society has deeply affected many of the Christian churches. Many modern churches have lost their communal life and have become instead religious organizations. The relationships among members within a particular church often lack commitment and stability. This is not to say that the social life of the Christian people in the twenty-first century should ideally be identical to that of Christians in past centuries. But a functional approach to social life should not govern the overall life of the body of Christ.

Beyond the legal minimum
The New Testament teaching on men’s and women’s roles and authority and subordination presupposes a certain set of relationships between men and women both in the family and the community. It is not enough to merely try to establish the husband as head of the family or to insist that children obey their parents. The entire Christian family relationship must be re-established. There needs to be a restoration of relationships of brotherhood and sisterhood, of a network of families committed together to support and care for one another, of a whole life style based on relational groupings and able to meet the various human needs of individuals within the body.

Christians cannot obey the few clear scriptural directives about order in personal relationships while living in every other respect according to the functional relationships of the modern world and still expect to experience the scriptural directives as an unqualified blessing. In fact, bare submission to legal commands may not even be genuine obedience if it does not also understand and respond to the intention of the command—in this case, to establish order in a particular set of loving committed relationships.

The main focus of the social teaching of the New Testament is on love, not on authority and subordination. Teaching on authority clearly exists. The New Testament Christian community is a community drawn up “in subordination,” and the Christian church followed the same pattern in the first centuries of its existence. Nonetheless the main focus of the New Testament and early church teaching on relationships is not on subordination but on love—on the service of one another modeled on the example of Christ as he laid down his life on the cross. The focus is on creating a body of people who care for and serve one another, who put away resentment and hostility and self-seeking, who are firmly committed to one another. It is this body of people who can effectively appropriate the Christian teaching on order and obedience.

Social roles and functional roles
Social roles are the fundamental elements of the structure of relational groupings. They are the main patterns of stable behavior in these groupings. Though many people in modern society raise various objections to social roles, it is nonetheless true that effective social roles are responsible for much of the strength, depth, and durability of genuine personal relationships.

The term “social role” has several different meanings. Here it refers only to those stable roles which structure personal relationships in relational groupings. They are considerably different from functional roles. A functional role defines a set of activities or tasks that an individual regularly performs within a functional grouping. A functional role can be formulated in terms of a job description, as in the position of assembly line foreman.

But the main purpose of a social role is not to structure a set of activities, but to provide a stable order for relationships involving a broad-ranging personal commitment. For example, the role of father in a family is not defined adequately by the specific tasks he performs— working forty hours per week, paying for needed commodities, driving the family car, coaching a little league baseball team. The tasks that a father performs are expressions of his role as a man in relationship to a wife and a group of children; the tasks do not define the father’s role. The tasks may vary, but the role remains the same.

Almost all functional roles are achieved roles, that is, positions that an individual can assume because he has displayed some ability or accomplished some goal. For example, the position of corporation executive is normally an achieved role because the executive obtains the position by demonstrating his or her competence. On the other hand, most important social roles are ascribed roles, positions that are given and not earned. For example, family roles are normally ascribed; a son is a son regardless of what he has done to obtain the position. Roles associated with age and sex are also ascribed rather than achieved.

The human realities involved in family, reproduction, child rearing, and personal (rather than technical) formation cannot be structured successfully according to achieved functional roles. Age and sex are central concerns in these human realities; any social structure that provides for these realities adequately must rely at least partially on ascribed social roles. A failure to develop effective ascribed social roles causes the breakdown of genuine community and weakens family life.

What makes social roles effective?
To be effective, social roles must have several characteristics. First, they must be stable. Social roles provide the kind of enduring consistency of expectation and relationship that gives an underlying peace and strength to people’s lives. Constant role change reduces the solidity and vitality of communal life. Secondly, social roles must be clear. They must be defined clearly enough so that each individual can understand them and know in various situations what is expected of him or her. An ambiguous social role can be more difficult than no social role at all.

Thirdly, effective social roles must be uniform through a particular culture or communal grouping. To be strong, social roles need the support of a whole cultural grouping. Social roles also supply the larger grouping with a basis on which it can relate together without learning a new way of life. Just as clear parts that all can learn allow the spontaneous performance of a communal dance or song, so a uniform set of social roles provides a group with a way to come together for communal events without the need for lengthy practice sessions.

Fourthly, effective social roles must be flexible. They should be able to accommodate the normal range of human relationships and thus should have a built-in ability to make exceptions or adapt as needed.

Living tradition
Social roles are primarily ideals for personal relationships; they are not merely collections of laws, rules, or instructions. Some imperatives are connected with social roles. Children must obey their parents. Parents must care for and teach their children. But the role of father or mother cannot be reduced to a set of rules or instructions. In fact, social roles are taught more by example than by rules. Knowing five good fathers and watching them relate to their families is more helpful than reading five good books on the principles of fathering. A social role is a way of being in a relationship, a way of being for other people. A social role is more of an ideal of how to relate to others than a set of rules or a set of specifications.

Social roles are ideals, but they are also usually embodied in teaching which the communal grouping regards as authoritative. For Christians, authoritative teaching on social structure is to be found in the Bible, the writings which represent the highest revelation of God’s plan for human life. To downplay these teachings or to dismiss this source of authority not only causes spiritual damage to God’s people, it also severely limits their ability to live out a successful Christian social structure.

These characteristics of effective social roles illustrate the fact that social roles depend upon a living social tradition. A community passes on its way of life, and it is only when a way of life is passed on as “our way of life” that it has the authority to provide the basis for a successful communal life. Of course, a community can start a tradition and it can change its tradition. But a community does not have a way of life until its basic patterns are accepted as “our way” or “the way the Lord gave us” and are passed on with this type of authority. Social roles do not yet exist if one must go to class to learn about them. They should be experienced by people and transmitted by living together. Only then do social roles have the stability, clarity, uniformity and flexibility needed to give peace and solidity to social relationships

[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. The article will be continued next month.]

(c) copyright 2007  The Sword of the Spirit
publishing address: Park Royal Business Centre, 9-17 Park Royal Road, Suite 108, London NW10 7LQ, United Kingdom