The Christian Family: Some Beginning Reflections

By Dr. John L. Boojamra

It is in the context of concrete discussion of the family as Christian Community that all theory about human relationships and efforts at community are tested in the daily one-to-one contact. It is also in this relationship that our children first gain their ideas of community and the interaction within it. Hence this discussion will deal with the family generally and with the role of the family in the Christian nurture of their children specifically.

Added to the social and cultural difficulties inherent in the subject matter itself is the almost universal complacency of audiences when the subject turns to Christian nurture and the family community. Everyone is in fact prepared to affirm the importance of the family. Everyone, however, is not clear on the reasons for this importance. It has been my experience, for instance, that for many parents, especially those of teenagers, the centrality of the family is interpreted in terms of parental authority over rebellious youngsters. This is reflected in the popularity of the relative conservatism of James Dobson’s Dare to Discipline approach, and the disdain for more “permissive approaches.” Needless to say, this understanding is inadequate to a creative understanding of Christian community life. The discussion of the role of the family as community and Christian nurture must be taken beyond the level of the pious affirmation of its importance or of its description as a power structure.


At the same time that we Christians affirm the absolute centrality of the family to the Christian nurture of children, we are experiencing a general decline of family life (note, I did not say a decline of marriage) and those elements in Western society which have traditionally been supportive to the family. It will no doubt strike a familiar note when I say that the Christian family is under attack. Anyone - politician, child expert, or school board member - can gain a hearing for any hair-brained scheme by just referring to the “restoration” or the “salvation” of the family. “The FAMILY” has become a battle cry for both liberal and conservative.

It is true that the family structure and the very notion of permanent relationships seems to be giving way to a world of rapid social and moral change—sexual promiscuity, free love, easy divorce, communal experimentation, (albeit not as common as in the 1960’s and 1970’s), and in general what can be characterized as “future shock.” The failure of much of family life, the failure of husbands and wives to adequately meet each other’s needs without exploitation, is part and parcel of the failure of the family to provide its younger members with a Christian milieu in which to grow. Both are functions of the much more fundamental failure to agree on a common goal of the family unit and the subsequent failure to direct its efforts and orient its attitudes towards that goal.

More significantly, we have not come to terms as a church with what the family is. Outside of a seminary class, no formal consideration is given to the family and its social, political, and spiritual role. We have, rather, like our laymen, just assumed it is to raise children. This is a conclusion which hardly does justice to the husband/wife relationship as the object of the sacrament or the proper rearing of children in the Orthodox faith.


Into the vacuum of uncertainty a new vision of the American family is being put forward; the image is provided by the media and advertising. The family is less and less defined in Christian terms or for that matter in biological terms, sexual needs seemingly being adequately satisfied outside of traditional family life. The family is defined in commercial terms. American affluence necessarily transforms the family into a consumer of those commodities which the greatest manufacturing system in history produces beyond the level of satisfying basic human needs. This, in fact, is the basis of our prosperity and trillion dollar economy. This is also the basis of the often claimed “necessity” of having a two-income family. Needless to say, this is hardly an elevating view of the family—consuming things it neither needs nor wants. Yet, in spite of all this and the future possibility of test tube babies, embryo transplants, and new patterns of sexual association, we are assured by certain sociologists that the family will survive and individuals will continue to seek out a one-to-one relationship in the traditional marriage structure. The family as we know it will survive as one among an increased number of life-style options. It is because of the increase in these options that a reconsideration of the Christian family is essential.

The role of religion as an agent influencing family life has been waning for many years. In brief, all churches are experiencing the fact that their members in general do not actively live their faith daily. Similarly, there appears to be no demonstrable connection between religious beliefs of the family members and how they live or operate the family on a day to day basis. On a more general level, sociologists have sought in vain for a significant correlation between church membership and ethical conduct. For the purposes of this discussion, the Church exerts less of an influence on the family than does the television on the adults, and the peer group on the children. The family is not seen in Christian sacramental or even sociological categories. It is discussed in its pathologies and dysfunctions.


In the face of this social and religious disruption of the family, we must affirm that the Church has always taken the family seriously and has concerned itself with the quality of family life, seeking to influence it along very distinct lines. These lines are difficult to define clearly as the family, as family, has never been an object of patristic concern. It was always part of something else. Why this is so will, I believe, lead us to a deeper understanding of the nature of the Christian family and its role as the “primary educator.”

First, the emphasis on the family as a social structure is based on the understanding that Christian life grows and is worked out not in a vacuum but in concrete human situations. Second, spiritual and moral life is challenged and fulfilled in interpersonal encounters, in community situations. The family in a very real sense is the primary community. However, like any community, it is subject to the same stresses and forces as any other community. Third, the Church which is itself the type of all communities, understands communal relationships as fundamental to all human life and the quality of communal life as fundamental to the quality of the spiritual and moral growth within that structure.

Now these three points are all interrelated and perhaps say the same thing. The New Testament emphasizes that it is the love of our neighbor which is the pattern of our love for God. St. John (I John 4) writes that if we say we have love for God, but do not love the people with whom we come into contact every day, we are simply liars. Man is man, and Christian man is Christian man when he is in relationship to other men and to God. This two-fold understanding—that is, our relationship to God and to other men—is fundamental to any understanding of Orthodox moral and spiritual development, including the nurture within the family.

If we look at the Church’s history we can see this social concern clearly reflected. It is a belief that life, to use educational jargon, is a “learning situation.” On this basis, with this intuition, the Church has sought to establish and stabilize those situations which are most conducive to Christian growth and the development of Christian personality. The Church throughout her history has tried to change the community of which she was part, not by great revolutions, which by their nature are ambiguous, but by slowly transforming certain aspects of society—marital relationships being just one.


Now let us look at a more limited and formal structure before affirming the same principles for the family. Monasticism will allow us to see this a little more objectively since none of us is directly involved with it. In the Church’s history there have been two types of monasticism: the “loner” or the eremetic variety is probably the earliest, dating from the very first centuries of the Church, and the communal type in which men and women live together in a structured relationship of worship, work, and service. The latter pattern has become the norm in the Orthodox Church. Allowing for the special vocation of the hermit, the Church has canonized the communal monastic life as the type most suitable to the nature of men and to the formation of the Christian life. In a real sense, it is as St. Basil the Great said, “If I live alone, whose feet can I wash?”

The family, like the monastic community, has been endorsed by the Church as a style of life generally conducive to the creation of an environment in which Christian growth can most fruitfully take place. It is again an affirmation that the Christian faith and the Christian life cannot grow, or be lived, or be communicated in a vacuum, because it cannot exist in a vacuum. It is in the family that the child, as it were, will “catch” or learn Christianity as it is actually lived. He will not absorb abstraction, he will absorb life; in a real sense we cannot teach Christianity, we must rather be Christianity. The parents are in Augustine’s conception the sign through which the child begins to form his first ideas of God as good, accepting, and forgiving. In the family the child will hopefully learn forgiveness and love, not because he is told about them but because he sees them and experiences them. He will learn of the essential goodness of sex not from those well-intentioned sex education courses, but from the family where sex as an overall and total relationship between a man and a woman has its natural and authentic home and where it is associated with mutual joy and self-giving in and out of the bed.

The family as a structure is, then, a learning situation and in that sense it serves essentially the same function as the monastic community. The two styles of life are not antithetical. We likewise, must avoid the temptation so prevalent in fundamentalist writings, to see parents as “the perfect models” of Christian virtue. Like all people, parents are sinners and their parenthood exempts them from no human frailties.


What I have attempted to establish to this point is that learning takes place in life and more specifically, Christian learning in broad interpersonal situations. I have consciously avoided the more limited reference to Christian education in the sense of a formal learning situation, teachers, and textbooks.

Unfortunately, the larger definition of life as the learning situation may allow some a sigh of relief as responsibility seems to disappear among the numerous people with whom the child comes in contact. In fact, the description means quite the opposite; it is an effort to take the responsibility out of the hands of the church school and put it where it belongs, with the family and the larger parish community. The community does the educating; the parish, the friends, the family are the real teaching agents.

All of this emphasis on the determining influence of the family must necessarily be conditioned by a sober appraisal of influencing factors outside of the family and the Christian community. This includes, in general, the world outside the control of the home-friends, television, school and the general social milieu. Perhaps we must think more in terms of a type of censorship of experiences, changing the nature of the forces affecting the family and the child, and finally educating the child in such a way so as to more specifically counter these forces. In short, what I am saying is that it is the responsibility of the Christian family to try to shape the environment outside of the home. Happily, in a democracy we yet have this possibility.


For the purposes of our discussion, I would like to refer to the classical study completed in England by a religious education specialist, Ronald Goldman, and published in his book Religious Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence (New York: Seabury Press, 1968). Goldman’s study affirms that the church school does play a role in Christian formation, but only a minimal one. The relationship between church school attendance and growth of “religious insight,” though, it is positive is not significant. His conclusions: few children who attend church school regularly achieve high “religious insights,” and many are not religiously motivated nor do they develop the ability to think with “religious insights.”

As a corollary to this conclusion, Goldman discovered that the determining factor in the development of this ability to think with “religious insights” was the supportive role of the family members, which, for his purposes, was demonstrated by Church attendance. Children, according to Goldman’s findings, do imitate their parents. The same has been demonstrated in studies by the Roman Catholic sociologist, Fr. Andrew Greeley.


We are here discussing specifically the early childhood years, but much of this is applicable to older children. During this period of early childhood, the family performs or should perform certain very distinct functions which can be summarized for our purposes under three categories. First, and perhaps foremost, the family provides a stable environment of security, confidence, and love. All are indispensable, not only to a normal emotional life, but to the normal development of a mature faith-life.

The ability to trust mommy and daddy is directly related to the growth of ability to trust God as essential to a mature spiritual life. Here is where the notion of and the relationship to God as “Our Father” becomes a living possibility. I think many of us are familiar with the aspect of Freud’s understanding of religion and Christianity in which God is reduced to a great “father image.” The Church has always intuited this sort of relationship, but in the reverse; in the family the father is in fact the God-image, as inescapable and uncomfortable as that may be.

Second, the family assists the child’s growth in faith by appropriate reflection on subjects as the occasion arises—a beautiful day, trees, a new baby, the dinner table, animals, etc. We must, of course, be careful to avoid giving the child, especially in the formative years, a mistaken notion of Christianity. Again, referring to Goldman, it is important not to force the child too early into a formal learning situation which will channel his thinking into words and crystallize it into inflexible concepts such as a God with a big white beard sitting on a throne in a place in the sky called heaven, dealing out rewards and punishments. In general, it is true that a child will attempt to simplify anything he cannot understand.

The process of simplification often results in distortion and we are all familiar with the religious malversions which include such confusions as “Harold be thy name,” the three angels that visited Abraham Lincoln in the White House, etc. While these may be very cute, they also are very telling as to what children can handle conceptually in the pre-school years. Unhappily some Christians never overcome these simplifications and the distortions in a real sense lead to a terribly stultified spiritual life.

Third, the family can consciously attempt to create an environment where the child is initiated into certain “religious” activities which carry with them no formal explanation and no attempt is made to have him understand them. Remembering that his understanding is limited, we can reach the child with his normal learning tool—his body and sense. The child can be taught to make the sign of the cross, to recite certain simply worded prayers such as “I love you, Jesus,” “Bless so-and-so,” or “Thank you for this or that.” Little family rituals which are very often some of our most cherished memories of childhood can be created—lighting candles before an icon on Saturday night or on a holiday, family Communion, prayers before meals, common church attendance, and blessing Easter baskets and fruits on Transfiguration.


At this particular age, and perhaps even in a sense right on through most of the church school program, we must attempt to move away from the “word” to the “action.” From this point of view active participation in what can be described as the multimedia Orthodox liturgical activities is a natural. The focus of Orthodox liturgical experience is very often non-verbal and filled with movement, with colors, with lights, and intimacy—all provide the child with a total “sensational” atmosphere which is quite self-evident and in need of no explanation. This perhaps clarifies for us where our emphasis should be placed in our family and parish educational efforts.

Responsibility is distributed within the family community. Many people consider religion and religious instruction as the exclusive responsibility of the mother; it is somehow interpreted as woman’s work. This is a serious error and a mistake for the healthy development not only of the child’s spiritual life, but of his emotional life as well. Very often in the American situation the child sees his father infrequently and comes to rely almost totally on his mother for the satisfaction of emotional and spiritual needs. We must, from a specifically Christian motivation, begin to think in terms of rebalancing or redistribution of familial responsibilities in a more flexible manner. The father’s role in the Christian family and Christian education is a complimentary one and Christian education necessitates a close cooperation between parents in the growth of the child’s faith-life.


It is not, I believe, sentimental to claim that the child, at any age, will learn nothing but cynicism unless he sees the Christian life, which he learns about in the church school, alive and well in his own home. We cannot expect any authentic Christian education without the family. We have realized that church schools and text books, no matter how adequately they conform to the needs of the students and the needs of the material, are by their very nature inadequate to the development of the Christian faith-life in our children.

There can be no better place for Christian maturation for both adults and children than in the Christian family community. This is perhaps especially true in educating our children for a mature relationship of Christian love in establishing a new community. It is here, in the family, that the child will see and learn those elements which make for the foundation of a creative Christian community in marriage, which is indeed, the very image of the relationship of Christ to His Church. (Ephesians 5:32-33)

Dr. John L. Boojamra is Chairman of the Department of Christian Education for the Antiochian Archdiocese and Director of the Orthodox Christian Education Commission. He teaches Christian Education at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.