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Family Life In Crisis…And Renewal
By Allan C. Carlson Observers of family life in America today see mostly woe. The marriage rate is at a historic low, while the average age of first marriage has climbed to 28 for women and well over 30 for men. Marriage and family law is in shambles. The U.S. fertility rate is also at a historic low, with an average of only 1.65 births per fertile woman, well below the generational replacement level. Among those children that do appear, over forty percent are what we once quaintly called “illegitimate.” One result is a horde of fatherless, unemployable, and unmarriageable young men on the streets or in the cellars. Sterile sexual forms, such as homosexuality and transsexuality, surge ahead. Demands for infanticide now complement aggressive contraception and widely available abortion. What should a Mad Christian do? I suggest that an answer might be found by moving about 2,000 years into the past…. …..Here we find the pagan Roman Empire, a place and a regime marked by great sexual and marital disorders. The family-centered virtues of the Old Republic were long gone. As historian Robin Lane Fox writes, “accepted sexual practice in the…Empire had a range and a variety which it has never attained since.” For example, the practice of “Greek Love”—sexual relations between a man and an adolescent boy—received frequent literary praise. Tatian, an early Christian who resided in Rome, reported that the Romans “consider pederastry to be particularly privileged and try to round up herds of boys like grazing mares.” Adult homosexuality was idealized as well, and often associated with the theater. In the major Imperial cities, male prostitution was common. Evidence exists of transvestite practices in Rome, often with a religious veneer. Female prostitution was widespread and socially approved. The Roman marriage system was a wreck. When pagan marriages did occur, the females involved were commonly quite young; about twenty percent involved child brides of ages eleven or twelve. The men were, on average, nearly twice as old. Adultery was widespread and socially acceptable for men. It was common among the women, as well. The age gap between husbands and wives, the access by the men to prostitutes and slave women, the confinement of Roman wives within their dwellings, and a male culture that celebrated cruelty and violence: alas, these patterns rarely produced happy homes. Not surprisingly, divorce became common. Preborn and infant life faced enormous risks. If approved by the father, abortion was legal and a frequent practice. Illicit abortions by wives seeking to cover up an adultery were also common. Abortion kits—some of which have survived—contained the usual blades, hooks, needles, and spikes; diluted poisons were also used. These procedures actually left many Roman women dead or permanently sterile. Infanticide was more widely practiced. Legal under pater potestas [paternal power], male babies with imperfect form and girls were the usual victims. The killing of baby girls was such a usual practice that for every hundred females in 100 A.D. Rome, there were 131 men; out in the provinces, 140. One Historian reports that even in relatively large Roman families, “more than one daughter was practically never raised.” In short, Imperial Rome featured normalized sexual disorders, marital malfunction, and a deep hostility to new human life. And, as the historian Tacitus lamented at the time, “childlessness prevailed.” It was into this setting of moral darkness and deep hostility to family life and children that the followers of Jesus of Nazareth stepped. Their number was small… still well under 50,000 by 120 A.D. Nonetheless, it soon grew apparent that this Palestinian sect held to startling ideas on sex, marriage, and family: concepts radical in their implications. Its earliest summary appears in The Didache, a remarkable manual on church life and discipline now reliably dated to the late First Christian Century. Using a rhetorical style of Jewish origin labelled the “Two Ways,” the Didache vividly contrasts the path of “Death and Darkness” with the path of “Life and Light.” Focusing on the Second Great Commandment—“Love your neighbor as yourself”—the document features a list of prohibitions that go well beyond the Ten Commandments. Condemnations of theft, murder, and magic appear beside forthright rejections of fornication, adultery, sodomy, infanticide, and abortion. [As an example of its language: “Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion.”] Linked to this was a fresh sanctification of the marriage bond, involving a radical—indeed, an unprecedented—form of sexual equality. Unlike the Romans and every other ancient culture, the new Christians denounced promiscuity among men as well as women. Paul’s exposition in 1 Corinthians 7:2-7 showed a symmetry in marital rights that—in historian Rodney Stark’s words—“was at total variance, not only with pagan culture, but with Jewish culture as well.” In moral and practical terms, this represented the fulfillment of the “one flesh unions” summoned in Genesis, chapters One and Two. Reflecting this new conjugal model, the average age for first marriages rose to eighteen for Christian women, compared to fourteen among the pagans. Where the Roman pagans faced a great shortage of fertile females—due to the infanticide of girl babies and botched abortions—the Christian movement had an abundance of young, fertile women: six of every ten early believers were female. This was a community open to the propagation, protection, and rearing of children. In consequence, more babies were born to Christian couples and more of the children survived to adulthood. Along with conversions (especially among pagan men marrying Christian women), this accounts for the growth in Christian numbers from a negligible figure in 100 A.D. to 32 million by 350 A.D., representing half of the Empire’s population. In summary, during these centuries we find Christian communities subject to frequent persecutions—ranging from the confiscation of property and imprisonment to death in the Arena and other terrible ways—living in fidelity to a radically hopeful marital and sexual ethic. It is one that placed the natural family, not the individual, at the center of an emerging social order. By being faithful to these expectations, especially the hard parts, the early Christians eventually overwhelmed their persecutors…in a way by sheer numbers. Could this happen again? Much depends on the rising up of good pastors and teachers who can—like two thousand years ago-- convey the life-giving excitement and happiness to be found in Christian marriage and family life. Dr Carlson’s books include Godly Seed: American Evangelicals Confront Birth Control, 1873-1973 and The Natural Family: A Manifesto.