Building a Christian Society — Part II
Lord planted in the human heart a hunger for genuine family
by Steve Clark
Social roles are limiting, but they are limiting in the way any structure is limiting. The human skeleton limits the human body in its movement, but it also makes the human body stronger and more versatile than the amoeba. A highway limits the places a car can go, but the observance of that limitation allows the development of a travel network that yields far greater mobility than overland travel at will.
Roles are limiting. Moreover, social roles are more limiting than functional roles because they are more stable, long lasting, and affect almost every area of a person’s life. As with other effective structures, though, the limitations imposed by social roles reap great benefits—in this case, the establishment of a stable and peaceful pattern of social life which allows life to flourish and which provides for the group’s needs. Social roles do not have to be rigid, but they do have to be stable enough and uniform enough to provide a sound basis for personal relationships. Those who object to roles as being limiting do not understand the value of relational social structure in promoting communal life.
Those who reject social roles as inauthentic object that they make an individual conform needlessly to the expectations of others. They force an individual to understand himself in relationship to others, rather than as a “real” person in his own right. They are imposed from outside, alien to the real inner person.
This type of objection is partly a product of the dichotomy which technological society creates between the functional world with its highly structured relationships and the personal world, which ideally is supposed to be unstructured and spontaneous. Most contemporary people have little or no experience of committed relationships within a large, cohesive, structured relational grouping, and they perceive such groupings as a threat to their identity. Another source of this objection to social roles is alienation from all traditional social groupings and relationships, often including the family and the church. This sense of alienation is produced in large part by modern ideologies whose goal is to form an individualized, functionally-efficient technological society.
Social roles may look “inauthentic” from the vantage point of technological society, but those in a genuine communal grouping do not experience them as ship, but is instead produced by relationship.
The common expectations defined by social roles can also be experienced as a great aid to communal life, not as a stifling bondage. Social roles free people from tensions which arise from the constant effort of working or living around differing expectations. Rather than being humanly inauthentic, social roles correspond to a genuine inner hunger in the human race for stable, committed personal relationships.
NOT CREATE OUR OWN ROLES?
In reality, this approach is unworkable. Social roles cannot be successfully improvised or devised anew by every social grouping. To devise a successful set of social roles is a great challenge. Those who attempt to create social roles anew normally make serious “ecological errors,” errors that arise because of the complexity of the system and the difficulty of fully comprehending all the relevant factors. Unfortunately such ecological errors are not discovered quickly. For example, only after a generation has passed can a group discover the damage done by a new theory of child rearing.
Moreover, the task of devising new social roles demands a great deal of creativity and a breadth of wisdom that few people possess and almost no one possesses alone. It is enlightening to see how many primitive and traditional peoples can handle birth, death, and marriage, and all occasions of celebration and mourning in a way which cares for the people’s needs and allows them to express their deepest thoughts and experiences. By contrast, people in technological society are often incapable of handling these occasions in anything more than a perfunctory manner that is traumatic or disappointing for those involved. The social roles and social structure needed for a successful corporate human existence cannot be devised anew by every social grouping.
There are two other major reasons for approaching social roles in a stable and relatively uniform way within a society or a community. First, there is a great advantage, especially in a technological society, in not having to constantly work at developing social roles. People in technological society spend much of their time in situations which call for a high degree of change and often creativity. They need an area of life where they can rest from such effort, confident of stable support and commitment, with a clear understanding of how to behave in relationship to others. If social relationships are turned into as much of a task as work relationships currently are in our society, then much of their purpose and usefulness has been lost.
Second, an isolated family or small group lacks the strength needed to develop a pattern of social roles different from the surrounding society. The family unit in technological society is not a total environment. It cannot single-handedly resist the currents of society which influence its members through the school system, the work site, the neighborhood, friends, and the media. Social roles cannot be left to the discretion and ingenuity of each small societal unit, but must instead be developed and sustained consistently within a larger social grouping.
QUESTION OF DISCRIMINATION
The idea that social roles based on sex differences are discriminatory has been vigorously advanced within the feminist movement. Feminists have consistently attempted to equate racial differences and sex differences, and to say by analogy that making distinctions between people on the basis of sex is the same as making distinctions between people on the basis of race. The term “sexism” has been coined to express this similarity. Feminists have thus been able to capitalize on the widespread social disapproval of racism by portraying distinctions between men and women as “racism” against women.
This equation of race and sex falsely presumes that the two issues are the same in all significant respects. However, racial distinctions occur between social groupings whereas sexual distinctions occur within social groupings. Barring someone from a position solely on the basis of race is discrimination. It is a way of preserving an advantage for one’s own social group. Barring someone from a position because she is a woman might be discrimination, especially in a functionally organized grouping, such as a modern business firm. However, within a relational grouping a sexual distinction may well be a useful and proper attempt to establish an effective social structure through social roles. Such roles need to be ascribed rather than achieved. In relational groupings, where the primary concern is for relationships and not function, the observance of certain distinctions between people on the basis of age and sex rather than competency is not necessarily discrimination. It is a way to maintain and strengthen social roles.
Though many people in modern society object to social roles, such roles play an integral part in the formation of any truly communal lifestyle and in the authentic Christian approach to social structure. Social roles are the backbone of all relational groupings. It is no accident that where social roles are weak, personal relationship is weak. Social roles are an important way of bringing strength to personal relationships. In fact, community disintegrates when a purely functional or informal approach to roles prevails.
The Lord planted in the human heart a hunger for genuine family and community relationships. He intended to satisfy that hunger by sending his Son Jesus to restore his creation and to form those who believe in him into a new people. If God’s full purpose for his people in the 21st century is to be fulfilled, the Christian people must understand and apply the scriptural teaching on community, personal relationships, and social roles.
[Steve Clark is President
of The Sword of the Spirit.
This article is adapted and abridged from his book Man and Woman in
Christ, copyright © 1980 by Stephen B. Clark and published by
Tabor House Books. To see
of this article, go to the May
publishing address: Park Royal Business Centre, 9-17 Park Royal Road, Suite 108, London NW10 7LQ, United Kingdom