The present state of affairs in the contemporary Western world is highly unnatural. It has rendered people largely out of touch with what they are as human beings—as creatures of God embedded in his creation and intuitively aware of this simple fact. Industrialization and technology have reshaped our day-to-day lives and our expectations in life. And we’re largely oblivious to the changes. Being out of touch with our nature has left us intuitively confused about many things. We’re adrift as a society and searching for the recovery of things we can’t even name.
In the church, we’ve been equally oblivious to the changes. We’ve looked at industry and technology, and we’ve largely declared them neutral and benign by default. Some among us have been keen enough to know that’s not the case. And some are becoming more and more acutely aware of what has happened and why.
What I want to do here is offer a brief sketch about the collapse of traditional households and how that collapse has hollowed out the agency of men and women. About how it has created confusion where it formerly didn’t exist. And I do so regarding the family and the church, though much more could be said.
The Traditional Household
When we hear the word “household”, we typically have the impression of the family and the home. And while that impression is correct, it’s far from a complete definition. The traditional household does involve a family and a home. It involves many generations of family and a place where they live. It also involves a place where they work and the work that is done there. The traditional household is an estate. It’s a place where domestic and economic life are wedded. It’s the site of a family business. It’s the accumulated heritage of generations. The traditional household was the basic unit of agency and dominion in the ancient and medieval world.
Insofar as the traditional household is the culmination of intersecting marriage, family, domesticity, and economics for generations, it’s the natural household. It’s the ordinary state of affairs that God’s created order produced from the beginning by the creation’s inherent design. The natural household is the basic functional unit for taking dominion according to the creation mandate.
Not every husband and wife were fortunate enough to have a household. And not every individual was fortunate enough to be born into the family who had the mastery of their household. Many lived and died as servants of one status or another. Some as the favored domestic servants or laborers for hire. Others as the lowliest of the low, as bondservants. Nonetheless, servants and their families had standing and affiliation with the masters of the households they served.
The Household and the Scriptures
The households we see in the Scriptures are traditional households. They begin with the household of the Patriarch Abraham. This household is the chosen and called out people of God. It comes from the accumulated wealth of the generations prior to Abraham. And even though Abraham and Sarah lack a biological heir for many years, their household is made up of many servants, many families of servants. It’s large enough that Abraham’s household has a small army that is three hundred strong. And God makes his covenant with Abraham and his entire household.
Households continue for two millennia well into the time of the church in the days of the Apostles. Entire households become Christian households on account of the atmosphere of allegiance established by the masters of those households: Cornelius the centurion in Caesaria, Lydia the textile merchant in Thyatira, the prison warden in Philippi, Crispus the synagogue chief in Corinth, Philemon in who’s household the Colossian Christians assembled, and more.
It’s important to bear in mind when the Scriptures exhort how a man should order his household that this isn’t going to apply flatly to every man. Some men have households. Other men are a part of their master’s household. We can’t simply take the exhortations to the heads of households and put them straightforwardly upon every Christian man who’s a husband and father, because a household is more than a family.
Usurpation by the Corporation
I’ve often come to say that we can have households, or we can have corporations. One or the other can be the foundation of our economy and society. Realistically, we can’t have both. They’re both competing for who has agency, headship, and dominion in the world.
With the rise of industrialization, productivity has moved off of the household estate and onto the factory floor. Our economic activities have been outsourced from households to companies. And companies have merged and expanded into corporations. A household is almost entirely a thing of the past with a few vestigial exceptions such as small business owners. And even those businesses have not been free of some measure of influence. The small business owner is the 1.0%. The CEO is the 0.0001%.
Households generally don’t exist in our culture. Again, it’s a mistake to confuse a family with a household. There are lots of families but exceedingly few households. Most of us are employees (i.e. servants) in some corporation’s mega-household. And we enable their agency, headship, and dominion in the world. Admitting this is simply being honest and aware of our situation. This is why most Western working adults don’t feel like we have much agency in our own lives. It’s because we really don’t.
Head of the Household
Man is the head. The man is the head of the woman. And the man of the household is the head of the household. The most common mistake conservative Christians make about male headship is that it’s the direct assertion of the man’s authority. It’s not. It relates to authority. But it’s most directly a statement of the man’s prominence.
The man is the part that sticks out. He naturally has highly visible agency in the world. As the head of the household, he’s the most prominent part of the household protruding into the affairs of public life. He leads the household into the world. He’s outwardly oriented in his agency. He’s the figurehead of the household to the society. He’s the spear tip of the household’s exertions into the world.
But when virtually all men are the servants in the mega-households of corporations, they are not heads. Only in the thinnest remaining sense are they the heads of their families. This is precisely why men feel adrift and stifled in our current culture.
Understanding this reveals the errors and dangers in ultraconservative Christian efforts to reestablish male headship in our culture. It should be obvious from nature that a man simply is the head. He doesn’t have to wrestle the place and power of headship away from the woman. If that kind of struggle is happening, it’s a sign that we’re misperceiving the situation. In truth, most men have almost nothing over which they’re the head. Certainly not over the sort of false expectations being placed upon them in conservative Christian counterculture. It’s overreaching. It’s synthesizing an extreme performative definition of masculinity and unreasonably insisting that every man carry it out to meet the acceptable minimum for godly manhood.
What ends up happening is men trying to operate under this overreach end up turning their “headship” inward upon their families. It ends up turning a man into a tyrant over his own family if he’s not careful and thoughtful.
The alternative distortion is that the man becomes a “servant leader” in such a way that he merely functions as the promoter and enabler of his wife and the expansion of her agency at the expense of his own.
Heart of the Household
When the man is called the head, that does not mean the woman is the tail. That’s foolish. Woman is the heart. The core. The woman is the integrating center of the family and the household. She is the filler and glorifier of what the man has formed and maintained. She is just as intimately involved in the affairs of the household. In the traditional household, she’s a participant in the economic life just as much as the domestic life.
Tearing the traditional household in two by outsourcing productivity to corporations and separating it from domesticity is rending asunder a woman’s place and power. The cruel dilemma of women having to choose between either economic activity or childcare plus housecare is a distinct product of the current world in which we live.
I specifically did not say “housekeeping”. That word is terribly misconstrued in our time. Yes, a woman is to be a housekeeper. But when Titus 2:5 exhorts women to housekeeping (oikourgos), that isn’t simply summed up by cooking the meals, washing the dishes, and cleaning the laundry. It means “household guarding”. That’s estate management.
Consider the parallel passage in 1 Timothy 5:14 about women managing the house. That’s oikodespoteō. The verb form of “master of the household”. Women are admonished to be good and effective “despots” of the estate. They are exercising mastery and authority.
Female agency is divided in two. I don’t get the impression many people realize this. And it’s evident in the misguided attempts by ultraconservative Christians to assert that the woman’s place is in the home in the mistaken sense that her natural sphere of activity is strictly domestic life.
Hands of the Household
We live in a high-mobility industrial capitalist economy where large corporations have supplanted natural households as the agents of dominion in the world. It’s shackling the average husband and wife with a terrible dilemma when it comes to limited choices and ability for income and childcare. It can’t be answered by appeals to the natural dynamics of traditional households. Here, the traditional household is torn asunder. The economic and domestic aspects that once occurred under the same roof and on the same land are now displaced geographically and administratively. Every apparent possible outcome in this scenario still results in the agency of the husband and wife (i.e. their joint ability to exercise dominion in the world in a more ancient and biblical sense) being maimed and crippled in some way.
If most of us thought about ourselves as being analogous to and roughly positioned as the various classes of favored and not-so-favored servants under the dominion of a master of the house in the ancient world, I think we’d understand ourselves better.
I have sympathy for my fellow members of the working-servant class. We aren’t going to get out of this any easier than ancient servants could escape from their servitude.
The Household of God
In each new dust-up over authority, agency, and office in the church (women serving as pastors and teachers, etc.), it strikes me that the root cause of the controversy, confusion, and mutual frustration is analogous to the problems of the contemporary household.
The church is the household of God. And just as the natural household in our culture has been hollowed out, and the agency of men and women has been stifled and maimed, the ecclesial household in our culture has been thinned and drained of agency. We generally don’t realize it. And ultraconservative Christians have made all the same parallel errors in the church as they have in the home in attempted to recover what was lost.
The household of God gains the earthly means of its power by taking up and subsuming natural households for Kingdom purposes. If natural households are a thing of the past, the church as a household is equally so. The church has no real agency in the world. It’s not a public reality to be reckoned with by the culture. The church has been reshaped by market forces for the ends of corporations just as the family has been.
Because the church isn’t a household over households, it has little or no real headship to speak of. There’s almost nothing about the average church that is obviously a prominent male headship function. This is why liturgical sexuality and gendered agency are not readily apparent to a lot of Christians. This is the root cause that needs to be addressed. The restoration of churches as local households of God would essentially automatically correct and clarify matters.
Conservative Christians zealously defending male-only church leadership are promoting something in the church that’s very much like what they defend regarding the husband’s headship in the home. It’s not natural headship. It’s redefined to accommodate cultural estrangement from nature. Male leaders are expressing their agency too much inwardly in the church. They need to lead out. What conservative Christians are trying to reserve as male-only leadership is at least partially the function and the essence of a traditional matriarchy to fill what’s inside the church. Shepherding is outwardly oriented. But that function is stifled in our present situation. We’re tempted to turn inward like arbitrary tyrants, because it’s the easy thing to do, just like with the natural household stripped of agency. Male leadership will be most obvious where its most naturally evident, i.e. a high-stakes defense of the local church against outsiders. The most obvious case of male-only pastoring is to be the most abused and battered bondservant of the whole flock.
Corporations and Revisionist Marriage
The weakening of the traditional household and the outsourcing of much of its power has paved the way for a redefinition of marriage. Life in the natural household reinforces the natural view of marriage. With the establishment of corporations as usurper-households, marriages have adjusted to optimize themselves for the service of the new masters of the households. Read more about Revisionist Marriage here.
Corporations and Revisionist Pastorate
Just as our adjustments to optimal living as wage-slaves in corporatistic consumerism has redefined marriage, we’ve redefined the pastorate and the ministry to the point that it’s gender-neutral upon sight. If we don’t operate with the original vision of the pastor/ minister as the most burdensome, loathsome, dishonorable of callings in some respects as the true slave of the people, it won’t be obvious that this is only something we ought to inflict upon a certain sort of man. Read more about a Revisionist Pastorate here.
Afterthought in the Aftermath
There’s no going backward. There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. But there’s a great deal of mystery and uncertainty about what it will mean to go forward in a way that restores our natural humanity and recovers our agency.