Contemporary Challenges for Religion and the Family from a Protestant Woman’s Point of View

Letha Dawson Scanzoni

Letha Dawson Scanzoni, “Contemporary Challenges for Religion and the Family from a Protestant Woman’s Point of View,” in The Religion and Family Connection: Social Science Perspectives, ed. Darwin L. Thomas (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1988), 125–42.

Letha Dawson Scanzoni was a full-time professional writer when this was published. Her articles have appeared in a wide variety of publications, and she has been a frequent lecturer for conferences, colleges, and theological seminaries.


If we’re going to talk about challenges, we must first understand what we mean by the term. For some people, the first thing that comes to mind is the notion that both religion and family life are in grave danger today. Those concerned individuals are prone to react defensively to preserve a way of life that is being undermined by hostile forces. Those in far-right religious and political movements, for example, equate challenges with perceived assaults or attacks on the institution of the family. Thus, they issue battle calls against amorphous enemies who are given such labels as “secular humanism,” “amoral feminism,” or “godless liberalism,” which they claim are bent on destroying the family and keeping God out of our schools.

Other persons think of challenges with a different set of meanings in mind. Rather than thinking in terms of assaults and battles, they think of challenges as opportunities to deal with questions, solve problems, and confront life’s complexities creatively, wisely, and sensitively. A challenge viewed this way is a summons to a contest in which skills and endurance are put to the test. This meaning of the word challenge was demonstrated in a recent Winter Olympics as outstanding athletes raced down the snow-packed mountain slopes or performed with dazzling talent on ice skates.

I have this second meaning in mind in calling attention to some of the challenges relating to religious and family life today. I’m not thinking so much right now of such challenges as the nuclear war threat, or concerns about pollution, energy, and other environmental issues, or societal problems such as unemployment, the state of the economy, poverty, crime, and so on—all of which certainly do affect and challenge families and call for a religious response as well.

But here I want instead to focus on certain concepts, questions, ideas, and trends that are currently challenging both religious and familial presuppositions. In particular, let us look at five basic issues that need to be grappled with: identity, gender roles, power, autonomy and attachment, and stability, order, and change.


First, in considering the question of identity or definition, we find ourselves asking: “What is religion?” “What is a family?” Answers taken for granted will no longer do. As James Dittes has pointed out, scholars attempting to measure religiosity along a religious-secular dimension have debated “whether the dimension should be conceptualized as primarily a matter of believing or belonging or behavior or beholding” (1969: 67). For many persons today, believing and beholding—in other words, a personal, individualistic, even mystical inner experience with God—may be considered more important than church affiliation or traditionally defined religious behaviors. J. Russell Hale’s tenfold classification of nonchurchgoers showed that many who are outside organized, institutional religion have a privatized faith and may be what Hale calls “crypto-believers, secretly believing without belonging” (1980: 8).

Similarly, many persons consider themselves to be members of a family—even though they do not fit the membership criteria of traditional definitions of the family as an institution. Recently I was asked to serve as consultant for a publisher of religious books, evaluating manuscripts on family-related topics. I noticed a major typo in one. The author wanted to say something about the nuclear family, and the letters n and u were inadvertently reversed in the typing, making it come out “the unclear family.” I thought, “That’s an interesting way to sum up the state of affairs today! Definitions of the family are anything but clear.”

The 1980 White House Conference on Families, through changing its name from a conference on the family, recognized the diversity of families today. Of course, that recognition was surrounded by heated and bitter controversy. Conservatives were interested in promoting and preserving one specific form of family as the ideal—a family composed of a breadwinner father, a nonemployed homemaker/caretaker mother, and children. Even the Census Bureau’s definition of a family as consisting of persons related by blood, marriage, or adoption and residing together wasn’t wholly satisfactory to some conservatives. Why? Because such a definition still recognized single-parent households, persons remarried after divorce, blended families, voluntarily child-free marriages, dual-earner households requiring day care for children, and so on. And even more troubling to traditionalists has been the recognition that some persons who are not related by blood, marriage, or adoption nevertheless consider themselves to be in a chosen and loving relationship with others whom they consider family and with whom they share a sense of responsibility and commitment—for example, a gay male couple or a lesbian couple and any children brought into the relationship, or a cohabitating couple, including elderly widows and widowers who have chosen to live together and retain pensions or other benefits that would be lost by remarriage.

As theologian Rosemary Ruether points out, “conservative rhetoric about the ‘biblical view of the family’ lacks any sense of socioeconomic history of the family over the past three or four thousand years.” For those voicing such rhetoric, Ruether writes, “It is as if the Bible endorses a version of the late Victorian, Anglo-Saxon patriarchal family as the model of family life proposed in the Scriptures.” (1983: 399.)

I agree with her assessment. Conservatives who are fearful of the deterioration of the family need to be reassured that the Bible portrays a much broader idea of the term family than they have assumed. Instead of speaking about families in the more narrow sense of the nuclear family unit, the scriptures speak of households consisting of all persons living together under one roof—whether spouses, parents, children, grandparents, children’s spouses, other relatives, some unrelated persons, and servants, or some combination of these. The psalmist was thinking of such an arrangement when writing Psalm 68:6: “God sets the lonely in families” (New International Version) or “gives the lonely a home to live in” (Today’s English Version).

In addition to family relationships “in nature” and “in law,” to use anthropologist David Schneider’s (1968) terms for biological and legal ties, the Bible recognizes quasi-kin relationships—relationships in which persons choose to be committed to one another in some way analogous to the caring, rights, and responsibilities of close kinship. One example is the story of Jonathan and David, each loving the other “as his own soul” and desirous of forming a bond together that went even beyond death and that included descendants, as the two men pledged. David’s grief over Jonathan’s death illustrates the pain of losing someone who is considered a chosen kin—a grief as deep as or deeper than that experienced at the death of an actual family member. Many years later, King David remembered his pledge to Jonathan and took into his palace the crippled son of Jonathan and his son, Jonathan’s grandson (1 Samuel 18:1–5; 20:14–18, 41–42; 2 Samuel 1:25–26; 2 Samuel 9). Friends can be the functional equivalent of family (Lindsey, 1981).

Another biblical example of persons who pledged a family-like bond to one another is that of Ruth and Naomi. Both women had been widowed, and Ruth determined to go back with Naomi, her mother-in-law, rather than stay among her own people to find a husband. Her pledge of commitment to Naomi is now used in wedding ceremonies.

“Do not urge me to go back and desert you,” Ruth answered. “Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. I swear a solemn oath before the Lord your God; nothing but death shall divide us.” (Ruth 1:16–18, New English Bible.)

I mention these examples because we may be able to take as the bottom line the matter of intentionality, commitment to bonding, or covenant in trying to think through a theology of families that fits with the sociological realities of today’s world.

The challenge of definition means taking into account real lives and loves of real human beings. We are being challenged to deal with relationships—not abstractions. And the questions may produce some cognitive dissonance if we prefer the simplicity of traditional answers. I think of the pastor who told me he had recently performed one of the most beautiful wedding ceremonies of his career. The bride and groom wrote their own vows—after having lived together for eleven years! Were they a family before that time or only after the ceremony? David and Vera Mace (1981) reported on a Quaker conference a few years ago in which the phenomenon of unmarried couples living together was discussed. A decision was made to avoid such terminology as “living in sin” and to consider using the term, “unregistered marriages” for such arrangements. Conference participants referred to similar arrangements years ago when Quaker couples were denied legal marriages; they also discussed what were termed “clandestine marriages,” which were recognized as valid by the Roman Catholic church until the sixteenth-century Council of Trent.

But one could argue that people have the option of legal marriage today, that there must be boundaries in defining families—for reasons of property divisions and inheritance and for issues concerning the legitimacy of children, if nothing else—and that therefore cohabitating couples should enter legal marriage before society can recognize their union as valid. Such an argument still would not cover some situations, such as certain elderly widows and widowers who report that remarriage would mean the loss of pension or other benefits, a situation that was even more problematic before Social Security regulations on the remarriage of widowed persons were changed in 1979-

And there is another category of persons for whom legalized marriage is not an option at present—those homosexual men and women who wish to maintain an ongoing, monogamous same-sex relationship. Some in the cross-denominational gay Christian movement speak of their relationships as “covenantal unions” and have religious ceremonies as a public declaration of their love.

Again, might we not consider whether the concept of covenant could provide a way of meeting challenges in deciding what constitutes a family relationship today? Why should an expanded definition of family, which makes room for many more categories of persons who are longing for closeness, be considered threatening and harmful to family life? The biblical idea of covenant emphasizes a relationship of continuity—a shared history of memories, an ongoing relationship in the present, and an anticipation of a shared future. It emphasizes commitment, not capriciousness. The model is the covenant between God and the people of God and illustrates what the ideal ingredients of a marriage relationship might be. Notice those ideals in the following passage from scripture. As described by the prophet Hosea (2:19–20, Jerusalem Bible), God says,

I will betroth you to myself forever,

betroth you with integrity and justice,

with tenderness and love;

I will betroth you to myself with faithfulness,

and you will come to know Yahweh.

Gender Roles

Moving now from the challenge of defining families, we need to look at a second challenge relating to religion and family life today: the challenge arising from the changing concepts of masculinity and femininity and the whole question of gender roles. Probably no other issue has had such a major impact in contemporary religious circles and families.

In recent years, we’ve been moving from fixed, assigned roles for women and men to a new freedom of individual choice based on interests and abilities without regard to a person’s sex. Because of this, we’re seeing an extreme polarization among Christians today—an ideological clash over the respective purpose and place of women and men.

Some Christians say that God created women and men for different roles from the very beginning and that even to question this assertion is to rebel against God. Other Christians say that both males and females were created in God’s image and identically commissioned to be responsible for both family life and the world at large. In this view, roles are not God-designed or ordained. Rather, over the ages, societies assigned certain attributes and activities to persons with female bodies, and other activities and attributes to persons with male bodies. Thus, “femininity” and “masculinity” we social constructs, which many people find limiting. Mennonite biblical scholar Willard Swartley (1983) speaks of these two opposing interpretations of what the scriptures say as the “hierarchical” view and the “liberationist” view.

Swartley sums up the hierarchical view’s main points in this way: “(1) Women are expected to be subordinate to men—in the home, church, and society. (2) Especially in the home, husbands are to exercise headship over wives, with roles prescribed in accord with this pattern. (3) Within the church, women are restricted from the preaching ministry and from teaching men. Other forms of leadership are to be exercised under the authority and leadership of men.” (Swartley, 1983: 151.)

In contrast, let me read to you the liberationist view of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus:

Evangelical Women’s Caucus, International, is a nonprofit organization of evangelical Christians who believe that the Bible, when properly understood, supports the fundamental equality of the sexes. We find that the Scriptures ask both women and men to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ and enjoin all Christians, female and male, to exercise their gifts in response to God’s call upon their lives.

We see much injustice toward women in our society. The church especially has encouraged men to prideful domination and women to irresponsible passivity. Our purpose, therefore, is to present God’s teaching on female-male equality to the whole body of Christ’s church and to “call both women and men to mutual submission and active discipleship.” (From EWC brochure. Evangelical Women’s Caucus, P.O. Box 209, Hadley, New York 12835.)

On the other side is the ultraconservative organization founded by fundamentalist Beverly LaHaye, called Concerned Women for America, which, she states, is devoted to saving the traditional American family from total destruction by preventing passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (as described in the organization’s 1984 mass mailing).

Some current religious teachings on gender roles have reached incredible extremes—perhaps as part of a backlash against the gains made through the women’s movement. Another conservative writer, for example, suggests that women were created to show men, by their submission to men, what it means to submit to God. She writes:

Each time a baby girl is born, a new incarnate picture of the human soul and of the human race is begun. She will visibly demonstrate the choices each soul, male or female, is permitted to make during a lifetime on this earth. She will grow either to become like the submitted and adorned Bride of Christ or like the harlot of Babylon. Without a beloved, incarnate model of submission and loyalty, the males of the world will not understand how to submit themselves to the mastery of God. (Miles, 1975: 151.)

Other extreme teachings that have had widespread acceptance in Protestant circles, including theological seminaries, may be found in a massive, heavily documented book called Man and Woman in Christ, by Stephen Clark (1980), a Roman Catholic charismatic leader. Clark believes role differences are built into the human race so that men are “more accomplishment-oriented” and women are more “helping-oriented,” suited to a “care-service role” in contrast to the man’s “governor-protector-provider role” (1980: 440–41). At the same time, he warns men not to spend too much time in the company of women and discourages best-friend relationships between a husband and wife. Why? Because spending time with women will make a man “soft” and less manly, according to Clark. It will “feminize” the man. This reasoning surprised me, in view of Clark’s insistence on innate differences between the sexes. Why would he then worry about men’s “catching” femininity by exposure to women? Clark offers his own definition of a “feminized male.” He is a man who behaves in ways “more appropriate to women,” a man who “will place much higher emphasis and attention on how he feels and how other people feel. He will be much more gentle and handle situations in a ‘soft’ way.” (Clark, 1980: 636–49.) (When I reviewed Clark’s book for the Christian Century [11 March 1981: 272], I commented, “In a world of competitiveness, muscle-flexing, violence, and threats of nuclear destruction, God give us more such men!”) Not surprisingly, Clark calls for sex-segregated roles in the home, with men responsible for raising sons and women responsible for raising daughters.

Clark asserts that the Genesis statement that it was not good for the man to be alone did not mean that the man needed a woman for companionship. Rather, what was needed was human society, and that meant a woman was needed if the man was to be able to increase and multiply. “The man needed a wife with whom he could beget children,” asserts Clark. He further comments on the Genesis creation story, saying that “one reason that animals will not do as a partner for man is their inadequacy for reproductive purposes Genesis does not describe woman as a companion to man but as a helper to him.” He states that this phrase “is not a romantic evaluation of woman. Rather, it describes woman as ‘useful’ to man.” (1980: 21–22.)

Clark doesn’t stop there. He goes on to claim that the male is the ideal or representative human being. “It is the man who is called ‘Man’ or ‘Human’ and not the woman,” he writes. He says that what we meet at the end of the creation story is “Human and his wife.” Clark’s 753-page book is subtitled An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences and is taken very seriously in conservative circles as a sophisticated statement of gender-role rigidity, female subordination, and male dominance.

Within mainline Protestantism, gender-role debates have centered more around ordination and church leadership responsibilities, inclusive language in worship service, and discussions about the nature of God as both male and female and neither male nor female—with feminist theology raising new questions about the Motherhood as well as Fatherhood of God and calling for an end to exclusive usage of male pronouns when referring to the Deity.

I have concentrated primarily, however, on some of the teachings currently promoted within conservative Protestant circles because they have spilled over into mainline Protestant churches as well. The influence of such teachings has spread through the “electronic church” evangelists who zealously proclaim their messages to television audiences, through policy decisions promoted by conservative factions within denominations, and through books on family life by conservative authors that can now be found on book racks in drugstores, supermarkets, and department stores everywhere and that often appear to be the only family books conveniently available which claim to provide a Christian emphasis and biblical teachings on family life. Many mainline Protestant churches also show films produced by conservative Protestant groups and hold workshops such as Marabel Morgan’s Total Woman seminars. Protestant Christians, like Catholic Christians, are eager for easily accessible materials that will help them in their marriages and child-rearing responsibilities. Conservative groups may be filling a vacuum that many mainline Protestant groups may have overlooked. Fundamentalists are zealously and aggressively spreading their particular outlooks on family life, based on restrictive interpretations of scripture, and are labeling them “God’s order” or “God’s plan” for marriage and family living.

At the same time, there are those Protestant Christians who integrate scripture, personal experience, and reasoning in such a way that a “theology of personhood” is called for—one that emphasizes the gifts, talents, dignity, and worth of each individual without regard to gender and that encourages both women and men to be all they can possibly be, developing both the instrumental or task-oriented side of life and the expressive or person-oriented side. Realizing that qualities once earmarked either masculine or feminine are really human qualities open to all persons, many deeply religious men and women want an egalitarian marriage relationship and are freely sharing child-rearing without insisting on adherence to inflexible gender roles either for themselves or their children. They see such behaviors as fully consistent with their Christian faith and their understanding of scripture, which they see as teaching justice, compassion, love, and freedom from all that would oppress.

Nevertheless, the loudest voices being heard in today’s society are often those of the conservatives who insist on gender-role segregation and rigid, predetermined behavioral scripts for females and males. Innovation, negotiation, freedom to choose how one wants to pattern one’s own marriage and family life are considered signs of moral decay. If we listen closely to the voices of many religious and political conservatives, we will see they are clamoring for the revival of an ancient idea—which brings us to the third in our list of contemporary challenges for religion and families: the issue of power.


The ancient idea many conservatives would like to see implemented, especially in relationships between the sexes, is the notion that the universe has been arranged hierarchically and to act contrary to that arrangement is to violate nature’s plan or the will of God. I have written about this elsewhere (Scanzoni, 1984) and can only briefly sum up some of these ideas here.

The idea originated not in the Bible but in some of the teachings of Plato and Aristotle and then spread through the Neoplatonists of the third century and their followers. It came to be known as the “scale of nature” or “the great chain of being” (Lovejoy, 1936). The image was that of a great chain stretching from heaven to earth, with everything ever created (from orders of angels to the tiniest particle of matter) having its proper place in the chain. This chain provided a picture of the cosmic order of things, the way the world was arranged. And society was expected to reflect that order.

During the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods, the “great chain of being” was incorporated into Christian thinking as a way of justifying the hierarchical ordering of both church and society. The word hierarchy derives from the Greek hieros (meaning “sacred”) and archos (meaning “leader” or “ruler”). A hierarch was a keeper of sacred things, a sacred leader or ruler. Hierarchy as a societal order was considered a divinely sanctioned system of ranking groups and persons one above another on the basis of ascribed characteristics such as race, the social status into which one was born, and sex. Woman’s place on the chain of being was considered lower than man’s; thus subordination for women was considered natural.

If any creature tried to leave its place on the chain of being, it was considered to be acting “contrary to nature” and in violation of the order of the universe. The system depended upon “a place for everything and everything in its place.” Each part had a natural superior to obey and a natural inferior over which to rule. If a rebellious angel tried to step up to a higher place, correction, punishment, or destruction was called for. The same was true of a husband who stepped down from ruling over his wife. For any part of the chain to leave its place in either direction was to make “the very nature of things its enemy.” (Lewis, 1961: 73–74.)

By the eighteenth century, the model of the great chain of being was being used to justify slavery. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Brion Davis points out in his book The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, the idea of a natural or divinely ordained chain gave legitimation to slavery as illustrative of “a cosmic principle of authority and subordination” and should be considered to have “a necessary place in the ordered structure of being” (1966: 68). The slave had a destiny to fulfill as a “link of nature’s chain.” An ideology of racial inferiority was promoted to defend the practice of enslaving black people, and some supporters of slavery suggested that to say black people were inferior was not degrading to blacks but rather confirmed God’s wise omnipotence in creating such variety along the entire length of the Chain of Being!

Winthrop Jordan, in his book White over Black makes this statement in assessing what was happening during the eighteenth century. “It was no accident,” he writes, “that the Chain of Being should have been most popular at a time when the hierarchical arrangement of society was coming to be challenged” (Jordan, 1968: 228). I would suggest that the same thing is happening today during this time of rapid social change and the questioning of hierarchical patterns in the roles and relationships of men and women.

One example of the revival of the chain of being appears in a curriculum guide for young adults produced by a major Protestant publisher whose church school materials are used by both conservative and mainline Protestant churches. Commenting on gender roles, the widely read evangelical missionary author Elisabeth Elliot (1975) speaks of a design that includes “a hierarchy of beings under God” in which “every creature is assigned its proper position in this scale” and which “glorifies God by being what it is, by living up to God’s original idea.” In this scheme of things, she believes “that women, by creation, have been given a place within the human level that is ancillary to that of men.” She says that women’s “inferior place within the human locus” may be compared to the inferior place occupied by angels in relation to that of archangels and hastens to add that she is thinking of “inferior” in the sense of position, not worth. Such a qualifying statement does little to mitigate the effect of her message: women are subordinate to men, with all the repercussions this has for daily life.

The “chain of being” philosophy is closely linked to another kind of “chain” philosophy currently being propagated in certain Protestant circles. In one version it is called “the Chain of Command” and has been widely promoted by Bill Gothard, whose “Basic Youth Conflicts” seminars are held throughout the United States, often drawing many thousands who pay high fees to attend and obtain materials written by Gothard and unavailable to the general public. Borrowing from the military and from hierarchical models of the corporate world, Gothard believes marriage involves a chain of command in which the husband rules over the wife, who in turn cares for the children under her husband’s leadership. One grotesque illustration in the Gothard materials illustrates the chain of command by depicting a hand (representing God) holding a hammer (representing the husband) which is hitting upon a chisel (representing the wife), which is carving out a diamond in the rough (representing the child).

Other materials speak of the chain of command using such terms as “the divine order” or the “headship principle.” A line of command goes from Christ to the husband to the wife and then to the children, but it is to be understood that the husband is the head and the main authority over both the wife and children. Author Larry Christenson, whose book The Christian Family (1970) has been purchased by many hundreds of thousands of readers, emphasizes that a wife’s authority over her children is derived authority that comes from her husband. “She exercises authority over the children on behalf of and in place of her husband,” Christenson asserts, while at the same time the wife herself “lives under the authority of her husband, and is responsible to him for the way she orders the household and cares for the children.” (1970: 17–18.)

As Letty Cottin Pogrebin points out in her book Family Politics (1983), so much of the conservative rhetoric on families emphasizes control rather than caring. Male supremacy ideology fosters attitudes of ownership toward wives and children. Someone sent me a newspaper clipping a few years ago after I had spoken on male-female equality for a midwestern college lecture series open to the general public. The newspaper had printed a letter to the editor that said, “Letha Scanzoni claims groups like ‘Moral Majority’ could easily become interpreted as the idea of ‘ownership of the wife by the husband.’ I’m sure the husband purchased the marriage license so should be owner. I think very few women would deny they belong to their husbands, and most are pleased with it.”

I’m also reminded of a book entitled Me? Obey Him? that is required reading for engaged couples in many fundamentalist churches. The author, Elizabeth Rice Handford, raises the question of a woman’s responsibility in situations in which she feels that God is leading her directly opposite to a command of her husband. “Who should she obey?” asks Handford. Claiming that the Bible says the woman should ignore her own feelings about God’s will and instead do as her husband says, Handford makes this astonishing declaration: “She is to obey her husband as if he were God Himself. She can be as certain of God’s will, when her husband speaks, as if God has spoken audibly from Heaven!” (1972: 34.)

Many groups that are emphasizing male headship require not only a married woman but also each single woman to have a “head,” too. If she doesn’t have a father or brother or other male relative to give her Christian guidance and protection, a church officer will be assigned to her. No matter how capable she is in her life and career, she is required by certain churches to consult with her male “head” about every decision and is expected to do as he says.

One of the most tragic outcomes of such teachings has been the way they have in some cases fostered and excused family violence. Counselors tell of battered wives who live in constant fear of their husbands’ bullying ways and beatings. Yet, they are afraid to leave them because they have been told by pastors that leaving would be rebellion against God who has told wives to submit to their husbands in all things. Some religious leaders have told wives who have been raped by their husbands that a husband “has a right to do as he pleases with his wife’s body.”

A number of scholars have pointed out the part an ideology of male domination plays in incest (Herman, 1981; Fortune, 1983)- Material available from the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect indicates that some religious fathers have used scripture to justify their power in the household, even power used to obtain sexual favors from their children. In one case, a man actually had a throne set up in his house and forced his three daughters to perform sexual acts with him (Summit and Kryso, 1978: 55). And I know of one religious leader who told parents not to worry if they hit their children so hard that the child was bruised black and blue because Proverbs 20:30 says, “The blueness of a wound cleanseth away evil.”

The Swiss psychoanalyst Alice Miller has written a book entitled For Your Own Good (1983), in which she shows how certain authoritarian child-rearing methods that were used in Germany played a large part in the rise of Nazism and in the unquestioning obedience of the German commandants who headed up the concentration camps and carried out the Holocaust. Miller examined a study of child-rearing manuals published in Germany during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and was appalled by the use of fear and intimidation the manuals encouraged, along with an emphasis on “breaking the child’s will,” which required unquestioning obedience to all authority. Because of an obsessive concern about a child’s “rebellious spirit” when permitted to think for himself or herself, the authors of these manuals advocated the invalidation of a child’s own perceptions and experiences.

The child-rearing methods Miller discusses from the older manuals were often said to be based on Christian principles. Again, it was an authoritarian interpretation of Christianity. But what hit me was the emphasis on breaking a child’s will. I had seen it in many contemporary conservative Christian child-rearing materials, and I remembered that Christenson’s book, which I mentioned earlier in discussing “family order,” drew heavily from an 1854 book for parents that had been published in Germany during the same period Miller examined. “Physical terror and pain” are emphasized as essential ingredients for Christian child-rearing. Both Miller and German theologian Dorothee Soelle (1982) have voiced great concern over the connection of fascism with these child-rearing methods. (Scanzoni, 1983.)

The widespread acceptance among many Protestant Christians of power, force, and domination/subordination ideology as suitable for Christian families is disturbing. Many Christians feels it is time to question the whole idea of a hierarchical ordering of religious and family life. Psychotherapist Anne Wilson Schaef (1981) has shown how male socialization, based on what she calls the “White Male System” or way of constructing reality, sees all relationships in terms of having one person up and the other down. Seeing another person as equal comes with difficulty in this way of thinking. Similarly, Matthew Fox (1979), a Roman Catholic priest and writer, has suggested that Christians move away from what he calls “Jacob’s ladder” thinking, with its emphasis on climbing rungs and standing over others, and instead think of what he calls “Sarah’s circle” thinking—the idea of persons standing in a circle as equals, holding hands, supporting one another—a circle growing ever wider to let more people in (chapter 2). A number of feminists have pointed out that the first example of domination in the history of humankind was that of man over woman. The Genesis account of sin’s entrance into the world contains the prophecy that the woman’s desire would be for her husband but he would “lord it over” her. These Christian feminists suggest that hierarchical relationships between the sexes provide a prototype of all sorts of oppression and abuses of power. Certainly the matter of power abuse is a very real challenge for all of us today and an appropriate topic in our consideration of religion and families.

Time won’t permit a detailed discussion of our two remaining challenges: the autonomy/attachment issue and the matter of stability, order, and change—and Bill D’Antonio has already touched on the autonomy issue a bit, particularly with regard to religion. But I’ll just say a few things about each because they do indeed present challenges for religion and family life.

Autonomy and Attachment

First I’ll discuss the matter of autonomy and attachment. People today seem to be longing for intimacy at the same time that they fear it because they think it will cost them their freedom. We hear about a “fear of commitment” before marriage and feelings of “suffocation” and “entrapment” after marriage—particularly from many in the middle years. Some people want to have their cake and eat it too. A recent article in Ms. magazine quoted a man who described his ideal of a wife. “I want her to need me every minute,” he said, “and I want her to leave me alone.” (Lear, Dec. 1983: 80.) The article was pointing out the emotional rations doled out to middle-aged women because of their marriage to men who have been socialized into traditional gender roles. Many wives are themselves starved for nurturance even though they are all the while freely offering nurturance to their husbands, who often simply take it for granted. At the same time, a wife’s hunger for nurturance and need for assurance of attachment may be experienced by the husband as an unreasonable demand and encroachment on his freedom.

Sometimes, however, it is the wife who wants a greater sense of autonomy just when the husband is reaching a point of needing more attachment. All of us need to have both a sense of being free and of belonging, and keeping them in balance seems to be a problem in many marriages—particularly over the course of time. Sometimes one spouse values autonomy over attachment while the other values attachment over autonomy. What then? Sometimes the attachment side of life can deteriorate into self-abnegation, an engulfing possessiveness, and growth-stunting dependency. Sometimes the desire for autonomy deteriorates into an uncaring selfishness, an unempathic self-centeredness, a couldn’t-care-less insensitivity. The ideal of mterdependence can be elusive if the balance between autonomy and attachment is thrown out of alignment because too much weight is put on either side.

Couples need religious guidance in thinking these matters through and working them out. Yet too often religious teachings on marriage have failed to grapple with such matters, presenting only simplistic guidelines for unimaginative gender-based role behaviors for husbands and wives (“A husband should do this because he’s a husband, and a wife should do that because she’s a wife.”)

Both marital partners need to be shown the religious implications of love. The love described in the love poem of 1 Corinthians 13, Jesus’ description of no greater love than that which lays down its life for one’s friends, and the love of one’s neighbor as oneself—all these biblical passages on love fit well with the description of love given by psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan:

When the satisfaction or the security of another person becomes as significant to one as is one’s own satisfaction or security, then the state of love exists. So far as I know, under no other circumstances is a state of love present, regardless of the popular usage of the word. (Sullivan, 1953: 42–43.)

It is evidently such a definition that the writer of the epistle to the Ephesians had in mind in telling men to love their wives as their own flesh, with an emphasis on nourishing and care. Both spouses need to do this; love shrivels when it is only one-sided. If, as scripture says, God is love, then love needs to be viewed as a religious act and not simply a sentimental feeling. We all have much to learn about loving.

Stability, Order, and Change

Last, both religion and families are facing the challenges of rapid change as well as efforts to resist change for the sake of stability and order. Many of the fears being voiced today are anxieties about order. People want their world to make sense, to fit together, to have some sense of predictability and security. Too rapid changes can be frightening and disorienting, and so persons defensively hold on to the status quo. It feels good and right to them, and they are not about to let it go. People need to see that change needn’t mean border; it can mean a new order worked out together by people who care and who want to find a way for all persons, male or female, to be all they can be and develop their full potential in learning, working, and loving.

What is the role of religion in the midst of so much change? Religion can function primarily in either of two ways. It can serve as a repressive force that legitimizes the status quo, stifles questioning, keeps categories of persons “in their place,” and forces conformity to a family model that fails to deal with today’s realities. Or religion can provide a stimulus and support for individuals and families (however defined), helping them face today’s challenges head-on in a spirit of creative adventure, authenticity, confidence, justice, love, and bold faith unafraid to ask questions and seek new directions. Both religious approaches are at work in contemporary society.


Christenson, L. 1970. The Christian Family. Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship.

Clark, S. B. 1980. Man and Woman in Christ. Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books.

Davis, D. B. 1966. The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Dittes, J. 1969. “Secular Religion: Dilemma of Churches and Researchers.” Review of Religious Research 10 (Winter): 65–81.

Elliot, E. 1975. Commentary on the topic of gender roles in I Am Somebody, curriculum book for “Lifestyle Series,” Sunday School course. Elgin, IL: David C. Cook Pub. Co.

Fortune, M. M. 1983. Sexual Violence. New York: Pilgrim Press.

Fox, M. 1979. A Spirituality Named Compassion. Minneapolis: Winston Press.

Hale, J. 1980. The Unchurched. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Handford, E. R. 1972. Me? Obey Him? Murfreesboro, TN: Sword of the Lord Publishers.

Herman, J. L. 1981. Father-Daughter Incest. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jordan, W. D. 1968. White over Black. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. Penguin Books paperback edition cited.

Lear, F. 1983. “Love Between Grown-Ups.” MS. 12 (December): 80–83.

Lewis, C. S. 1961. A Preface to Paradise Lost. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lindsey, K. 1981. Friends as Family. Boston: Beacon Press.

Lovejoy, A. 0. 1936. The Great Chain of Being. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mace, D., and V. 1981. “What Is Marriage Beyond Living Together? Some Quaker Reactions to Cohabitation.” Family Relations 30: 17–20.

Miles, J. M. 1975. The Feminine Principle. Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, Inc.

Miller, A. 1983. For Your Own Good. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.

Pogrebin, L. C. 1983. Family Politics. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Ruether, R. 1983. “An Unrealized Revolution.” Christianity and Crisis 43: 399–404.

Scanzoni, L. D. 1981. “Human and Mrs. Human.” (Review of Stephen Clark’s Man and Woman in Christ), The Christian Century 98 (March 11): 268–73.

Scanzoni, L. D. 1983. “Beware: Patriarchy is Hazardous to Children.” Daughters of Sarah 9 (6) (November/December): 4–8.

Scanzoni, L. D. 1984. “The Great Chain of Being and the Chain of Command.” In J. Kalven and M. I. Buckley (eds.), Women’s Spirit Bonding. New York: Pilgrim Press.

Schaef, A. W. 1981. Women’s Reality. Minneapolis: Winston Press.

Schneider, D. 1968. American Kinship: A Cultural Account. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Soelle, D. 1982. Beyond Mere Obedience. New York: Pilgrim Press.

Sullivan, H. S. 1953. Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Summit, R., and J. Kryso. 1978. “Sexual Abuse of Children: A Clinical Spectrum.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 48:237–51, as reprinted in Sexual Abuse of Children: Selected Readings (Washington, D.C: National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 1980:51–58).

Swartley, W. M. 1983– Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press.