Sorting by

Skip to main content

Scripture, Economics, and Family Values

By May 16, 2006 No Comments

The institutions of marriage and family have been badly damaged in the last century. But [one] commonly accepted definition of the problem–that “revolutions,” corrupt values, grand ideas, or different ways of thinking have undermined the family–fails. The error is slight and subtle: this explanation simply has cause and effect reversed. The sexual revolution, rising rates of divorce, promiscuity, and out-of-wedlock births are the results, not the cause, of the breakdown of the family.

Family institutions as we once knew them were based on the economic need of farmers for labor, a need most efficiently met by having many children. In preindustrial societies, families were the original “social safety net”–indeed, there was little other available–providing all of the goods and services needed to live, from food and clothing to health care to support in old age. Often the larger the family the better, as even very young children provided important labor, and the services of older children were indispensable. Over the last two hundred years, however, technological advances eliminated the economic imperative for family. Consequently, while the average American woman in 1800 bore over seven children, by the year 2000 she would bear fewer than two. In many European countries, the number of children born is getting close to one per woman. As the material incentives and constraints that necessitated bearing children have evaporated, the institutions of family, marriage, and traditional sexual morality have all collapsed. The “problem”–the confusion, dissent, unhappiness and bad outcomes for both children and adults–that we witness today encompasses attempts to rebuild a new base to support the love, human connectedness, and concern for each other that we still crave.

This redefined statement of the problem with family today tells us that the moral institutions that we have lost were only loosely based on Christian principles in the first place. People before the divorce and sexual revolutions were not really more virtuous than we are today. Rather, they married, stayed married, and refrained from having sex or children outside of marriage partly because this is what the church taught, but even more so because these virtues were the material requirements of survival under the economic conditions that prevailed then. Understanding how these material requirements shaped the family before the twentieth century and how they have changed to produce a completely different set of sexual patterns in the twentieth and twenty-first is critical to rediscovering, and recovering, the Christian basis for marriage and family.

This understanding will make it apparent that the solution attempted by some conservative groups–reaffirming the gender-role traditionalism of preindustrial family relations–becomes at best a non sequitur in a world in which people have sex and children without a relationship at all. Defining today’s worldwide problems with family, marriage, and sexuality as wives’ failure to submit or fathers’ irresponsibility misses the terrifyingly large scope of these problems, and for some people only makes matters worse. A more accurate problem definition equips Christians to undertake the tough task of sorting the chaff of economic material imperatives from the wheat of the true underlying spiritual principles for marriage and family, and to determine which parts of Christian belief are nonbiblical and culturally relative and which are eternal truths, applicable to every person in every culture at every point in time… .

The Economics of the Fall

The curse on the ground and its consequent production of thorns destroyed [the original Edenic] freedom from worry (Gen. 3:17-19). In a world of thorns, man and woman needed all the knowledge possible to go with their newfound privilege of making decisions. Their harsh new environment required a constant eye to managing scarcity. The questions with which they now struggled were no longer choices among abundant alternatives but more frightening issues like who eats today, my children, my mate, or me?

What is remarkable about Genesis 3 is how accurately it describes the economic and in turn the social, emotional, and spiritual consequences of living in a world in which the ground is cursed. An economic analysis of the effect of scarcity on malefemale behavior predicts exactly the same results as those described in Genesis 3:14-19: masculine drive for power and control, feminine subordination, and a hardening of hearts between them… .

Immediately, and significantly only after God described what would be required in this new world of thorns, the man–now properly called Adam–gave his wife a name separate from his own: “Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living” (Gen. 3:20). This new name, mother of all living, emphasized not the couple’s unity (“Bone of my bone! Flesh of my flesh!” [Gen. 2:23]) but the demands of their new environment. God’s gifts in Genesis 1–dominion over the earth and children–were no longer simple blessings but problematic necessities, and the imperatives of achieving them corrupted sexuality itself. Sexuality would become utilitarian, reproductivity in service of productivity, and put to hard work. For after the fall, what Adam needed from his wife was not their mutual pleasure and companionship but the tool her difference from him gave him in his struggle against the hostile world–her ability to bear children. …


Christian Marriage and Family in the Twenty-first Century

[By contrast to the regime of scarcity,] in that part of the world that underwent the Industrial Revolution, the economic developments of the twentieth century offer even the average person unprecedented wealth, and with it unimaginable freedom.

 Individuals can structure their lives to please themselves: marry or stay single; have children or not, married or single; have sex on whatever terms they can negotiate with the object of their desire; work a lot or a little. For the most part, today’s spiritual and relational problems no longer cluster around the anxieties of the farmer sweating to earn his daily bread. Instead, they resemble those of the rich man sweating to keep what he already has. Jesus’s remark that it is difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven no longer applies to just a tiny percentage of the population. Having everything already (although still craving more), on their own terms and under their own control, why would another kingdom interest people today? From the perspective of worldly wealth, even the eternal life Jesus offers cannot make up for what Jesus asks them to give away. While the wealth and freedom of this age should make Jesus’s teachings come vividly alive for us in ways scarcely possible for our ancestors, they seem to be taking people away from Christ instead. The growing secularization of the developed world today comes less from disbelief in God than from simple disinterest in him.

This is not to detract in any way from the great blessings of wealth and freedom we enjoy. The question is, how will we use them? To build a “one-flesh” love or to serve our individual pleasures? In many ways, these opportunities, riches, entitlements, and rights are the satans of our era–not Satan as a malevolent red devil with horns and a tail, but the satan who tempted the first couple in Eden and Jesus in the wilderness, the satan who knows the hidden self-centered cravings of our heart and offers them to us. How is it that Christians are supposed to behave in this new world?…

Careers: Tending the Garden versus Sorrowful Toil

Surrendering to God not only allows but requires us to return to the abundant life for which he created us. The New Testament clearly states that the redeemed no longer have to worry about material concerns, even if their material condition was slavery. There is a greater security, Jesus, Paul, and the writers of Genesis and the Song of Songs tell us, in God’s design than in worldly wealth and power.

Yet we don’t really live in a garden, and when the bills are due faith does not come easily. We have a practical desire and a responsibility not to live day to day–to have security and enough money already in the bank, to have financial control on our own terms and in our own right. And what about ambition, our desire to achieve? What about the abundance of wealth, power, and prestige newly available to those who are willing to scramble for it? Paul told his readers repeatedly that with God as their patron, there will always be bread. But we aren’t happy with just bread. Sometimes we would rather be Solomon, wary of the terrors of the night in a gold-crusted pavilion (Song of Songs 3:7-8), than our humble selves safely sharing a bed of lilies with our beloved. And Paul also said that if anyone does not wish to work, neither should he eat (2 Thess. 3:10).

The redeemed attitude toward our need to labor in the world might be found in the contrast between the earth creature’s original calling in creation and the work he had to do after the fall. God made the earth creature to have dominion over the earth and to “dress” a garden that gave fruit abundantly, was lushly watered, and bore no weeds or thorns. The earth creature never had to carry water or battle weeds, but worked joyfully with God simply to make paradise ever more beautiful.

After the fall and the curse on the ground, humankind was driven by selfserving ambition and faithless fear. But in Christ, we do not have to sweat it anymore. “So do not worry, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ Or ‘What shall we drink?’ Or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:31-34). Of course, we still live in a world with thorns and we still have to work–often unpleasantly–but when we strive first to honor God, to make his already redeemed creation even more beautiful, our toil is no longer overwhelmed by sorrow. Redemption transforms our urges to create, to produce, to accomplish something, to be surrounded by beauty, into an ambition to make the world a better place. Whether street sweeping or running a major corporation, our efforts can improve the lives of other people and nurture the earth. Productive work becomes an activity that gives value and meaning to life.

Indeed, Paul tells us that God’s patronage and provision oblige us to choose the joyful rather than the anxious life. In Ephesians 5-6, he challenges men to give up their ambitions, privilege, and power and use their energies to serve their slaves as brothers, help their wives become glorious, and raise up faithful and redeemed children. This path may lead to less material wealth, less financial security, and certainly less honor and praise among men–but this is the path that leads to righteousness, love, balance, and joy. Women as well as men crave meaningful work. The need for achievement is, in part, why many women have left the household for paid employment. But children are also a great source of meaning, and most people want both children and careers in their lives. Here is where the conflict comes in: children need a home, and someone to be there with them. This conflict is one of the great family dilemmas today. Resolving it is not a matter of falling back on traditional solutions–there are no traditional solutions that work anymore–but in finding new patterns of approaching our whole life as dressing the garden rather than as painful toil.

Refocusing the Family: Children

…[Economic] theory explains why people do not have as many children as we did in the past, but as my economist friends joke, it can’t explain why we have any at all. Yet in the early twentieth century, the emotional value people placed on children rose faster than their financial value dropped. So perhaps economics can explain our persistence in having children after all: children are no longer tools of production but have instead become items of consumption. Although financially costly, children still offer many rewards: affection, companionship, a playmate, an excuse to buy toys and go to Disneyland, and the joy of seeing them grow, develop, and achieve. Children offer parents an opportunity to see the world again with fresh eyes, to relive childhood joys, and perhaps to make up for childhood disappointment, deprivations, and failures.

Our hopes for our children, however, may include aspirations that fulfill the needs of the parents more than those of the children. We all know, were the child of, or have been the parent who signs up a three-year-old for violin lessons;

  Living redeemed has worldly pay-offs. The more one attends church, the higher one’s level of satisfaction with sex!  who refuses to speak to the child who muffed a play at baseball; who panics when a child’s SAT scores aren’t high enough for Stanford; who pushes tutoring centers, extra homework, and endless practice in music, dance, cheerleading, diving, skating, basketball, math, karate, or art; who pressures a child to study for a high-status profession; who cajoles, berates, or disciplines the child who doesn’t get good grades. It can be hard to tell when these activities are for the child and when they are for the parent… . The richer we are, the more we expect to have high-quality children. From a worldly point of view, high-achieving children are another sign that their parents are high achievers, too.

This is the “sorrowful toil” approach to children, however. In Ephesians 6:1-4, Paul challenges the ancient expectation that children exist to serve their family’s needs. Rather than children owing a debt to parents, Paul teaches that parents, as recipients of God’s wondrous patronage, have an obligation to their children… .Paul asks that rather than use their children to ful- fill their own purposes, fathers use their children’s obedience to nurture them in the “discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Although the definition of high social status differs greatly between the ancient and contemporary worlds, Paul’s warning about not using children to increase our own honor and esteem still applies. We rear Christian children to enhance God’s creation, not to meet our own anxious needs… .

Living Redeemed

Following [biblical teaching] takes us spiritually out of this world and into one in which the smallest family action is tinged with implications of the divine. But in honoring the divine in everyday life, we are freed to trust each other as well. Here is what the divine makes possible: we love without fear; seize more than just a day; safely relinquish our grip on power, control, and fear; and slip the grip that power, control, and fear have on us.

As the disciples complained when Jesus taught that the marital ideal was to become one flesh, this way of living is neither practical nor expedient. Expedient or not, however, living redeemed has worldly pay-offs. As [this book has shown,] couples who put family first are more satisfied with their relationships and their lives than couples who are career focused. Highly committed Christians have a lower rate of divorce. Couples who share power, who take each other’s concerns into account in decision making, have much happier marriages than those who do not. Other research has shown that marriage (as opposed to staying single) leads to greater overall happiness and physical and mental health. Children who are raised by both parents, who do not spend long periods of time in the care of nonfamily members, whose family is religiously involved, or who are religiously active themselves do much better on measures of mental and physical health, have fewer problems with substance abuse and depression, do better in school and complete more years of schooling, are less likely to have a child as an unmarried teen, and are more likely to delay their “sexual debut.” Surprisingly for the contemporary cultural image of the happy, sexually active single, surveys also show that married, religious people are actually the most “sexually active” and have the highest levels of emotional and physical satisfaction from their sex lives. The more one attends church, the higher one’s level of satisfaction with sex!

The attitudes and behaviors encouraged by the Bible are not encouraged by contemporary economic and social trends, and certainly not by popular culture. Living as Christians definitely makes us “fools” in more worldly eyes. But “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:25). If happy marriages, happy children, and happy lives are the goal, following biblical norms leads to great success.

Carrie A. Miles is an organizational psychologist and consultant in Fairfax, Virginia, and a senior research fellow of the Consortium for the Economic Study of Religion at George Mason University.