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Covenant, Individualism, & Family Reformation

Two weeks ago I wrote a post entitled "Hipsters, Suburbs, and the Demise of the Modern Family" in this post I looked at how the individualized modern family (most clearly displayed in the suburbs) lends its children to the trap of shallow hipsterdom. A portion of that post outlined a criticism of the individualistic nature of the modern family. There I highlighted the architecture of the family household, the fragmented scheduling of the family, and the poor quality of family entertainment as contributing factors to the demise of the family. A good friend of mine commented on the post asking if I would consider writing a post about the opposite type of family. In essence, if the modern, individualized family can be characterized by those things listed above, then what would characterize the lifestyle of a non modern, individualistic family? I thought it was a great idea and this post should be considered my response.

Like almost everything else that is wrong with our current culture, simply changing activities or philosophies will not go very far in helping us. One example that comes to mind is abortion. I hope that in the near future abortion becomes illegal in this nation. However, the roots of abortion are much deeper than this. The root of the abortion problem is not legal (although that is one of the out workings of it). In order to "fix" the abortion problem the culture needs to be changed. In order for the culture to be changed the church has to be changed.

The same can be said of the family. While I would love to see more and more Christian families abandon the individualistic practices of their lives (separate lives under one roof, cookie cutter scheduling, shallow entertainment) and implement more constructive practices (communal living space, simplified schedules, family meals, reading, singing, etc.) I do not think these things would solve the problem we are faced with. To fix the problem of the modern family (individualism) we have to change the culture of the family. In order to change family cultures of individualism we likewise have to change our modern preoccupation of individualism in the church.With this being said, let's get into it all a little bit. But first, the Trinity!

Father, Son, & Holy Ghost

Trinitarian Christianity truly is the solution to the worlds problems. Our world tends to err in one of two directions: the ONE or the MANY (the following ideas are shaped heavily by James Jordan's introduction to The Failure of the American Baptist Culture). Put another way we tend to err toward collectivism (one) or individualism (many). These two errors have presented themselves in many different institutions and in many different ways throughout history. The Triune God is both the ONE and the MANY. As our understanding and implementation of trinitarian theology permeates the world many problems will give way.

One example I could give you would be the example of the different traditions in Christianity. On the one hand you have Roman Catholicism which tends to make the error of collectivism emphasizing the one over the many. On the other hand you have Evangelicalism which tends to make the error of individualism emphasizing the one over the many.

There are also political examples. Communism, Socialism and Marxism (Any "ism) all tend to err by emphasizing the ONE over the many. Conversely, unbridled Libertarianism (as seen in the French Revolution), and anarchism both tend to err by emphasizing the MANY (individuals) over the collective ONE. (BTW: I consider myself a Libertarian in many senses)

In this post I want to focus on how Trinitarian Christianity solves the issues of the family, particularly the individualism (MANY) of the modern family. The Trinitarianism solves both the problems of individualism and collectivism is through the teaching of covenant.

Federal (Covenant) Family

Influential to my thoughts here are the following books: Federal Husband, Reformed is Not Enough,  & Baptism is Not Enough

If the problem with the modern family is (put shortly) individualism (the MANY), and we don't want to over compensate in the direction of ONEness, then what is the solution? In short the solution is covenant. Covenant is the remedy that solves both errors toward individualism and collectivism. A covenant places an individual into a group (both ONE and MANY) and they are bound to the covenant stipulations of that group. Marriage is the perfect covenant example for us here. When a man and a woman are united in marriage they form a new group while not destroying each member. Moreover, the covenant stipulations that a husband and wife are to keep help give direction to both the couple as a group and each member. Marriage, by its nature, is Trinitarian. (As an aside, this is why so called same sex "marriage" is not really a marriage. Their is no "many" becoming "one" in so called same sex "marriage")

Many of the problems of the individualized modern family come from an over-recognition of the individual family member. This over emphasis is to the detriment of the group. Ultimately, as I tried to illustrate in my previous post, this emphasis on the individual also tends to be harmful to the individual. God said that it is not good for man to be alone. In the very nature of the world that God has made man cannot escape covenant relationships. Either you are covenanted to your family by birth or you enter into a new covenant in marriage. In any case covenant relationships are unavoidable. When we attempt to push back against these (either in erring toward collectivism or individualism) both the individual and the group are harmed.

With this being said, it should be clear that the idea of "covenant" is of the utmost importance to the family. Something else that needs to be understood is that covenants are necessarily public, both in their inauguration and practice. Coming into and belonging in a covenant happens by a series of visible and public acts or rights. I want to look at the covenant practices of marriage and the church and apply them to the family in order to give some ideas as to what a non-individualistic family might look like in opposition to the picture I painted of the individualistic family.

The Liturgy of Church, Marriage & Family

As mentioned, family is a covenant. In so being, there are similarities between the family covenant and other covenants. I want to look at the covenant community of the church and examine its liturgical practices and tie them into both marriage and family in order to give contrast between the modern individualistic family and a family being shaped by the word and people of God.

First: Communion

God's covenant people (the church) have always dined together with God. For centuries the communion table has been the place where God communes with his people and they fellowship with one another. Likewise the family is to commune and fellowship with one another for the health of the individual members and the family as a whole.

I noted that one of the issues with the Modern individualistic family is schedule. Many nights members of the family are off in various activities which makes a family meal (communion) impossible. Imagine if you will if the covenant community of the church practiced communion similarly. Imagine if each Sunday the church doors opened, the bulletins were laid on tables in the foyer and the communion elements were set out on the table. Then imagine is members of the church came in as they pleased, read through the liturgy on the bulletin by themselves, and then walked up to the communion table and partook of the elements. Obviously this is not how it is suppose to work. There is a reason while there are service times and one of them is to ensure that everyone knows what time they are getting together to commune with one another.

The modern family lacks occasions of meals enjoyed together as a family. The first remedy to this ill is to have the family dine together as much as possible. Families that dine together grow as individuals and families. Meal times should not be rushed  and should be filled with prayers of thanks, conversation about individuals' lives, and of course a lot of laughter.

The communion table cannot be divorced from the rest of the family life though. The truism is usually true: the family that eats together stays together. However, if everything else is hackneyed yet there is a rule that the family must eat dinner together every night, well, that is like a church that practices communion every week yet the congregation is a wreck. Communion and meals won't fix anything, however, if the idol of individualism is being mortified across the board then family meals will only help family flourishing.

Second: Hearing From God

Another historical practice of the covenant people of God is to hear God's word. One of the glorious things about attending a worship ceremony of a very old church tradition is to hear the Biblical saturation throughout the liturgy. Now, just like the issue of communion above, having a fancy (even Bible soaked) liturgy won't help anything unless the congregation is actually hearing from God. The parallel is also true in the family.

Unfortunately, many evangelical churches no longer practice the public reading of the Word of God. Yes their will be a sermon (or "talk/conversation/whatever) but there is a great neglect in our day of hearing the word read aloud in the church. This trend in the church has leaked over into the family as well. Historically, Christian families practiced something called "family worship". Almost daily, the family gathered under the leadership of the father to hear the reading of the word and to pray as a family.

This activity of reading together as a family (other books as well as the Bible) is very similar to the connection made with communion. Something Douglas Wilson always does a fine job of pointing out is the fact that Christians should be people of "words" because we worship The Word (John 1:1). Family devotions and reading are wonderful opportunities for families to grow together in the same way that the people of God grow under the hearing of God's word both read allowed in the liturgy and preached from the pulpit.

Third: Among the Congregation

Whereas the connection between communion and the family contrasted with the modern family's scheduling and the connection between hearing the Word of God and family devotions contrasted with the modern family's entertainment standards, this practice envelopes both before yet needs to be seen in distinction.

Countless times throughout the psalms David extols the joy he receives and the praise he renders to God in the congregation of the people of Israel. Likewise, in the New Testament, the author of Hebrews laments the trend of the recipients of his letter to no longer meet together regularly. Individualism insists that self-reliance is possible. This is seen in the family in the way that modern homes often allow separate living under one roof. This is seen in the church with low lighting and loud music which creates a personal bubble in which you need not be aware of anyone else in the congregation (the most extreme example is church on TV or on the internet). Families that wish to avoid the death of individualism will do well to be in each others bidness. Just like churches that wish to scorn the plague of individualism will look to turn the lights up and the music down!

Historically, the church has practiced a responsive liturgy. The people hear from God in various ways (reading the Word, sacrament, preaching) and then respond in various ways (singing, confession of faith and sin, communion). Likewise, historically, the family has lived in the same area. The bedrooms and tertiary rooms of the household were small whereas the living and dinning rooms were big. These are the places where the congregation of the family is to spend their time together. The family that desires to scorn individualism does not need to remodel their house necessarily but would do well to spend less time in their bedrooms and more time in the "family" room!


In all honesty, as I started writing this piece I felt very out of my depth. As I conclude I feel very much the same way. I am only newly married and have not yet been blessed with children. I know that the tide of modern individualism is a tough current to swim against; my wife and I struggle against it every day as a family of two adults, how much greater is the struggle with children! Yet I do honestly believe that the connection between the church covenant and the covenants of marriage and family (really the same covenant, only expanding, like the church) should grow and feed off one another. The family that has separated it's practices from the church is in need of redirecting. The problem is that so many modern churches are keen on catering to the individualistic impulses of the masses and market their church programs to suit. This has left the family high and dry. Reformation needs to begin in the church, spread to the family, and take over the culture! To bring is (almost) full circle, this can only happen with a robust embrace of the ramifications of Trinitarian theology!

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