The economic consequences of changing family structure are beginning to emerge, and as they do, it can be tempting to focus only on the more tangible, perceivable dangers. For example: “How many new babies are needed to keep Entitlements X, Y, and Z sweet and juicy for the rest of us?”
Such concerns are valid, particularly as we observe the lemming-like march of the spending class. But as harsh as the more immediate shocks of family collapse may be, we’d do well to consider the longer view of how we got here and how we might go about shifting things going forward.
As Nick Schulz points out in his latest book, the family serves a deeper, more formative function when it comes to cultivating human and social capital. “The family is the first institution within which we learn about empathy,” Schulz writes. “A healthy, well-functioning family is an extended exercise in self-control” — “the ability to put immediate needs aside for longer-run interests.” Indeed, without a properly grounded citizenry, economic prosperity and social stability will soon be squandered at the altars of blind hedonism and rash consumerism.
Writing over a century prior, Herman Bavinck strikes at something similar, focusing on how the family serves as the best teacher for relating rightly to one another. Society is fundamentally “a complex composite of moral relationships,” Bavinck writes. Whether we form such relationships based on spiritual and moral interests (science, art, charity) or material interests (mining, farming, basic trade), “these always involve people who are in a particular relationship with each other, who respect each other as people, and who are subject to a common law for all their thinking and acting.”
Thus, if the family is central to forming the most basic of human relationships, the family is indispensable in cultivating a flourishing society:
[T]here in the family from the moment we enter the world we get to know all those relationships that we will enter later in society—relationships of freedom and connectedness, independence and dependence, authority and obedience, equality and difference. And we get to know them in the family not in an abstract academic way, not by theoretical instruction, but practically, in and through life itself; all moral relationships are embedded and interwoven in the family, in the bonds of blood, and they are rooted in the origins of human existence. In the family we get to know the secret of life, the secret, namely, that not selfishness but self-denial and self-sacrifice, dedication and love, constitute the rich content of human living.
And from the family we carry those moral relationships into society…The family is the nursery of love and inoculates society with such love. We need that love if there is going to be any reform within society. Not selfishness, not greed, not thirst for domineering, but love is the foundation and the cement of the Christian society. Christianity is not the architect, but the soul of society. One who destroys the family is digging away the moral foundations on which society has been established as a moral institution. But one who exalts the family and outfits leadership with love rather than selfishness, such a person does a work that pleases God. For God is love and love is the law of his kingdom.
Or, as economist Jennifer Roback Morse puts it: ”Love is what holds society together.”
In my review of Schulz’s book, I concluded that “where the culture distorts and dilutes our fundamental commitments to the family, the Spirit can heal, restore, and sustain.” Such restoration (or “reformation”) begins with love, and as Bavinck duly affirms, it doesn’t end with the family.
The church continues to face the challenge of elevating the Christian family as a good for society, even as it is downplayed and distorted from all sides of the culture. As we hold the standard high, let us remember that as persuasive and interconnected as the more tangible economic benefits and consequences may be, love, or lack thereof, sits stubbornly at the root.
Purchase The Christian Family by Herman Bavinck.