Oikos: A Case for Reviving the Household Economy

Article by   January 2012
One of the more effective strategies in converting an Anabaptist to a Pedobaptist is to have him examine the ancient term oikos or "household." It certainly worked in my case. I poured over literature handed to me by kind elders and teachers who not only wanted me to feel at home in a new denomination, but also knew a little nudge might pull me over to the entire creed. I read Jonathan Watt's "The Oikos Formula" in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism and it soon became apparent that baptism was not so much a sign of my personal faith as it was a sign of the Faithful One on my behalf and on behalf of my family. It put the account of the Philippian jailer, Lydia's household, and other family baptisms in an entirely new light.  Once I connected the continuity between New Testament baptism and Old Testament circumcision the light bulb went off, and voila! A Pedobaptist I became.

Very Different from Our Ancestors

My transition to pedobaptistry was remarkably smooth, but the investigation that brought me to it raised new questions. I could not help but think about the kind of life that existed under oikos where the father was master, the mother was a kind of domestic executor, and the children were successors in-training. There might have also been extended family in the household, as well as apprentices, hired labor and servants. It nagged on me. To think that, for thousands of years, the household enterprise was not only a social but an economic unit was both baffling and intellectually stimulating. Perhaps I had not paid attention to my sociology professor (or maybe she had had not dwelt upon it), but up until the seventeenth century most work was carried out at home, not away from it. Men and women, boys and girls, worked together in the same vicinity. Tasks on the farm were determined by tradition, need, and ability best suited to one's sex. The men and boys plowed, hedged, carted, and performed the skilled work associated with the harvest. The women and girls kept house, looked after livestock, went to market, prepared meals, and made butter, cheese, bread, and beer. During harvest everyone was in the field--man and woman, boy and girl. These kinds of arrangements were not only true for the countryside but also the shop. Peter Laslet writes in The World We Have Lost, "Time was when the whole of life went forward in the family, in a circle of loved, familiar faces, known and fondled objects, all to human size. . . . It makes us very different than our ancestors."(1)

My investigation of the term oikos made me wonder if the totality of what we have gained in the last two-hundred years or more is preferable to the totality of what we have lost. On one hand we have much to be thankful for, such as air conditioning, anesthesia, and automobiles. On the other hand we have much to be concerned about, things like atomic bombs, seductive advertising, and easy annulments. What weighed on me was whether personal comfort and higher mobility were a fair trade-off for the erosion of social cohesion. 

Far from being an economic unit, the home today functions more as temporary sleeping quarters and entertainment center for self-actualizing individuals. Studies now show that most married couples consider personal happiness more important than having children. Only a third of American households contain children, and less than a fourth of households consist of a father, mother, and children.(2) While personal happiness might justify a couple's coming together, it just as easily justifies their coming apart. The statistic by now is trite because of its redundancy, but it still remains that half of all American marriages end in divorce, and this is true of evangelical couples as well. 

It's the Economic Stupor

I used to think the demise of the traditional family was due to deep moral decay brought on by secularization. However, I now believe this is only part of the problem. About the same time I was handed The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, another person slipped me a copy of the even more subversive What Are People For? by Wendell Berry. In the essay, "Feminism, the Body, and the Machine," the agrarian author claims we have arrived at a situation in which marriage is no longer viewed as a state of mutual help between two partners.(3) Berry's point is that mutuality becomes a natural and necessary ingredient for a marriage when the home is a place of production and not just consumption. However, modern societies now hold such mutuality in contempt. Berry says, "Men in general were the first to hold it in contempt as they departed from it for the sake of the professional salary or the hourly wage."(4) Women were the second to hold it in contempt as they departed for the same reason. Berry does not wish to take issue with people, men or women, who find it necessary to work outside the home. He merely wants to ask why we should consider this a desirable state of things.

We can no longer remember when life was connected to the home or when communities were living things. An initial exposure to someone like Berry might produce a reaction of denial, a response that acknowledges the benefits of strong families and communities, but denies economics had anything to do with their demise. There are two obstacles that prevent us from seeing what Berry is saying. First, we equate our current economic system with virtue and freedom. Second, we believe the only alternative to our current economic system is socialism or communism. However, both of these assumptions are flawed. 

We rarely entertain the thought that our current economic system might actually produce less virtuous people while at the same time retarding real freedom. The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals has eloquently and faithfully decried the crass consumerist mentality that has wreaked havoc on the evangelical church, but what of the overall effect of this mentality on the culture? What is bad for the goose is also bad for the gander. Consumerism is a materialistic philosophy whereby the common good is reduced to the acquisition of goods and services. Furthermore, it is predicated on unlimited growth--an "expand or die" proposition that will not stop until every resource is sucked out of the earth to the detriment of future generations. If everyone became the type of consumer that exists in America we would need seven times more of the world's finite resources that actually are known to exist to sustain ourselves.(5) The virtues of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, and self-control have little to do with the maintenance of consumerism, yet these virtues have everything to do with healthy families and communities.

Consumerism is of course connected to capitalism, and to some people criticizing any aspect of capitalism is akin to questioning the miracles of the Apostles. Many Christians somehow think capitalism was established by Moses at Mount Sinai, when in fact it did not become a dominant economic system in the West until the nineteenth century. In truth, modern capitalism often manifests itself in the concentration of wealth in powerful monopolies. Ironically, these monopolies have the tendency to squelch free enterprise. This concentration of wealth is also why family farms and independent shops do not flourish in modern capitalist societies. G. K. Chesterton quipped, "Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists." 

Chesterton and his contemporary Hilaire Belloc argued that modern capitalism was an unstable force and in conflict with moral theories of liberty. If pure capitalism reigned people would be constantly unemployed, starving in the streets, and waging rebellion against the captains of industry. One only has to read a Charles Dickens novel to get a picture of unbridled capitalism. By the beginning of the twentieth century, it was recognized that monopolistic capitalism had to be undergirded by government-initiated programs and entitlements to ensure its stability. Thus, big business and big government work in tandem to form what Belloc called the "Servile State," whereby an unfree majority of non-owners work for the pleasure of a free minority of owners. 

Chesterton and Belloc supported a "third way" economic system called "distributism," which should not be confused with socialism or communism, systems which also concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a few. Distributism is an economic philosophy which sees the widest use of private productive property as the most desirable economic system to ensure true liberty and prosperity. An American version of distributism is perceived in Thomas Jefferson's vision of an agrarian society. A Russian version of distributiism is reflected in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "democracy of small places." Adopting a third way economic arrangement does not mean going back to the bleakness of the Middle Ages or that we all again must take up plows. Distribution has more to do with creating a human living environment that is economically decentralized, aesthetically pleasing, and technologically deliberate. Distributism is essentially a humane microcapitalism, a reverting back to community and regional-centered economies. Third way advocates place the family at the heart of society rather than the individual. 
The Weber Thesis Revisited

The topic of household economy would not complete without some discussion of the so-called "Weber Thesis." The sociologist Max Weber was careful to define what he meant by capitalism, something he says had always existed, but in these latter days had become the dominant economic order in the West. Capitalism, he says, is the pursuit of profit by the systematic means of continuous and rational enterprise.(6) Weber believed the organization of a free labor force is what distinguished the old capitalism from the new, and he says modern capitalism would not be possible without two factors: the separation of business from the household and rational book-keeping which kept a focused eye on the bottom line. The Weber Thesis asserts that, in order for capitalism to take hold as a dominant economic force, it must get past religious sentiment which, in the past, had frowned upon systematic wealth accumulation. Elements within Protestantism, specifically the Calvinistic view of vocational calling, provided the religious and psychological sanctions needed to justify rational productive labor.

Weber's method of inquiry, which has been criticized as unscientific, does not permit him to establish a direct cause-effect relationship between Protestantism and capitalism, but neither did he claim as much. Certainly there were other important factors that summoned the spirit of capitalism besides Calvin's view of work. For example, Weber does not mention the role of the printing press as a prototype of mass production. Also, the capitalistic spirit was already present in Venice and Florence in the fourteenth century and in Antwerp in the fifteenth century.(7) Neither does Weber imply that the early Reformers were capitalists themselves. To the contrary, neither Luther nor Calvin endorsed the worldly pursuit of wealth. What Weber is addressing is the ethos of Protestantism and how a particular interpretation of calling helped legitimize free labor just prior to the major democratic movements in North America and Europe.

Luther's teaching on vocation was distinctive because it held that all work, not just the work of the clergy, could be a sacred calling. Calvinism also embraced this view, but had followers who placed a heavier emphasis on the notion that everyone must labor in their calling. This was a subtle difference, but an important one. Whereas Luther's contribution to vocational calling emphasized the role of providence through birth and station, Calvinism came to emphasize productive work and the sin of idleness. Weber says Luther's perspective possessed limited transformational potency because it essentially remained a traditionalist view of calling. One could be born into a poor station in life and remain there and still be found in God's sovereign will. But Paul's admonition that he "who will not work shall not eat" told the Calvinist that idleness was a symptom of a lack of grace. 

Weber points out that, in the medieval world, Paul's words about work carried a softer edge. Aquinas interpreted Paul's admonition as the natural way the individual and the community maintained themselves; it was a principle rather than a strict command.(8) This is not to say the regimented life could not be found in the medieval world, even as a spiritual duty, for it existed inside the monastery. Catholicism kept the alert rational life at bay through the ascetic life of the monk. However, under the Protestant view of vocation the emphasis on activity would, in the end, minimize the notion of place. For Puritans like Richard Baxter, it did not matter if labor was connected to the home or found in the factory, so long as the individual remained busy and productive. Weber notes how Baxter more than once expressed what would become Adam Smith's apotheosis of the division of labor: specialization of occupation can improve production, thus serving the common good, which was not far removed from the good of the greatest possible number. Weber points out that Baxter's utilitarian outlook was consistent with the secular literature promoting capitalism at the time.(9)

Weber levies the familiar arguments against Calvin's doctrine of predestination, which he claims was the most important element within the political and cultural struggles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He considers the doctrine extremely inhumane and suggests that it must have had the effect of producing feelings of unprecedented inner loneliness for the individual.(10) He somehow assumes that Calvinists spent much of their time in a state of despair, unsure from one day to the other if they were one of God's elect. 

A more careful analysis at Calvin's teachings would show that the Reformer held a certain antinomy towards human will and divine sovereignty, that predestination was more of an unresolved puzzle rather than a simple determinism or fatalism. Weber's understanding of Calvinistic soteriology would insist that assurance of salvation came only through objective evidence of good works. He overlooks, however, the more subjective and personal assurances taught by Calvin such as heart-felt faith in a benevolent God and genuine love for the church. His skewed view of the doctrine of predestination forced him to conclude that Calvinists were destined to end up with the same view as Benjamin Franklin; namely, that God helps those who help themselves. Weber overstates his case when he asserts that productive work was, for the Puritan, the "most evident" proof of his salvation.(11)

Weber's misjudgment of the doctrine of predestination (and the foreboding effects he thought it had on the Puritan mind) does not diminish the credibility of his overall thesis--that the Calvinistic view of calling came to play a major role in the ethical justification of free labor. The Weber Thesis, like Calvinism itself, easily reduces to caricature, so that, if exposed to a brief version of it, one might be left thinking the Reformers preached wealth acquisition from their pulpits. In the worst case, Weber's thesis implies that the Reformers would have rejoiced had they seen the consumerism of our own day. Weber candidly admits this was not the case; it was a second generation of Calvinists that were compelled to place their blessing on specialized labor, and it was not until after the religious fervor of Puritanism died out that utilitarian worldliness set in making it permissible for the contemporary capitalist to assert, "Greed is good." 

Keep in mind this little analysis of Weber is coming from a Calvinist, be it one who finds significant value in Roman Catholic social theory (which, by the way, more Calvinists should pay attention to, if not embrace altogether as their own, especially the principles of familialism, subsidiarity, and solidarity). Capitalism probably would have gotten off the ground even without a nod from the Protestant clergy, and so we need not raise our pointed fingers too quickly in the direction of Calvin. The Enlightenment favored innovation and change as much as the Reformation, if not more. Might it also be said that the First Great Awakening, and to a larger degree the Second Great Awakening, convulsed parish and communal life and were themselves conducted in an industrialized and Enlightened spirit of progress?(12) 

Certainly capitalism favored--was made for, in fact--hard working Protestants who loved their families, built communities, and practiced the virtue of self-control. But from America's inception there was this killer gene that would always make wealth accumulation the default value when spiritual and aesthetic values waned. Carl Trueman, Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, summed-up  the trajectory of capitalism like this: "If Weber was right, then the best we can say is (to put it in really broad strokes): (a) Protestantism turbo-charged capitalism; (b) capitalism fuelled consumerism; and (c) consumerism found unnecessary--if not downright inconvenient as hindrances to growth--the values which fuelled (a) and thus slowly but surely eroded them to nothing."(13)
Transform the Culture into What?

Not everyone can or wants to be a farmer or a shop owner, but microcapitalism is predicated on more people being their own boss, even if that means the business is jointly owned and operated by a group of people who have formed a co-op. Jefferson believed that having many productive property owners made democracy more secure because it produced citizens who had a compelling interest to participate. Instead of having a society where wealth and power is concentrated in the hands a few--which only leads to exploitation and alienation--the need of the hour is to encourage more self-reliant enterprises to flourish. This keeps state and corporate power in check and at the same time strengthens families and local communities. 

This is all fairly simple to understand; it is much more difficult to implement. The powers that be are interested in keeping their power, and it will be no easy task to compel them to let go of it. But if we must have an economic system that requires both spouses to work, then we should at least try to keep families and communities together and let the profits go to them. As Allan C. Carlson explains, this is done by initiating incentives toward decentralization and the safe guarding smaller economic entities, the family being primary.(14) According to Carlson the nuts and bolts of a governmental policy that would favor the natural family would include re-introducing "fault" into divorce laws. These laws would view marriage as a full economic partnership, expand income tax exemptions and tax credits for families with children, recognize the societal benefit of large families, protect home education, deconsolidate public schools to single-school districts, loosen laws that restrict home businesses and home schools, end centralizing regulations toward professions like law and medicine (so that they would benefit from other arrangements like apprenticeships), restructure Medicare and Social Security through tax credits that favors childbearing and family-centered elder care, and strengthen parental rights toward children.(15)

I quickly learned in Reformed circles that Christians are supposed to be transforming the culture for Christ. But I soon came to question the telos of the proposition. Transform the culture into what? What would the culture look like if Christians were to transform it? If there is any merit to a transformational aspect of the cultural mandate, then what better task can we set for ourselves than to strengthen our homes, churches, and local communities? This question is not meant to devalue the supreme value of declaring the gospel. And certainly the gospel has transformation import in itself.

I would not want to suggest there is a particular society or economic system better suited for Christianity. The church has thrived in all sorts of societies and under all sorts of economic conditions. I would rather suggest there is a kind of society and a kind of economic system, from a historical perspective, that is more at harmony with the moral theories of liberty, more reflective of the created order, and better suited for the family. Nothing about our participatory democracy should prevent us from working ourselves out of a dysfunctional ordering and moving toward a better one--nay, our system demands it.

Although clear distinctions exist between the Great Commission and the cultural mandate, this does not mean the two realms should never meet. They do, in fact, meet when a local church establishes a Christian school. An attempt to establish parish life around deliberate neighborhoods is a possible area where both gospel and cultural mandates might be brought together--but cautiously.

Andy Crouch has argued that Christians should not just be in the business of condemning culture, and neither should we be copying culture. Instead, we should be creating culture.(16) In Shakespeare's Henry V, the king of England, after subduing France, gently whispers in the ear of his princess bride: "Dear Kate, you and I cannot be confined within the weak list of a country's fashion: we are the makers of manners . . ."

Reviving the household economy is a creative act whereby we make anew.

Arthur W. Hunt III is associate professor of communications at the University of Tennessee at Martin. His articles have appeared in Modern Age, The Christian Research Journal, Explorations in Media Ecology, and the Reformed Presbyterian Witness. He is the author of The Vanishing Word: The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World (Crossway, 2003). He is currently finishing a book titled, Jane, Stop This Crazy Thing! Essays on Surviving Technopolis.


1 Peter Laslet, The World We Have Lost (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1966), 21.

2 See United States Bureau of the Census, "America's Families and Living Arrangements: 2003 Population Characteristics," November 2004, http://www.census.gov/prod/2004pubs/p20-533.pdf  in Janet A. Flammang, The Taste for Civilization: Food, Politics, and Civil Society (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 44.

3 Wendell Berry, "Feminism, the Body, and the Machine," What Are People For? Essays by Wendell Berry (New York: North Point Press, 1990), 178-196.

4 Ibid., 181.

5 See C. Dernbach, "In Focus: WTO and Sustainable Development," published as part of "Foreign Policy In Focus," a joint project of the Interhemispheric Resource Center and the Institute for Policy Studies: www.foreighpolicy-infocus.org in Joseph Pearce, Small is Still Beautiful: Economics as if Families Mattered (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006), 57-58.

6 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958), 17.

7 See "Translator's Preface," in Ibid., 7.

8 See Ibid., 159.

9 Ibid., 161.

10 See Ibid., 104.

11 See Ibid., 172.

12 D. G. Hart makes this point in "Wendell Berry's Unlikely Case for Conservative Christianity," in Mark T. Mitchell and Nathan Schuleter, eds., The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2011), 141-144.

13 Carl Trueman, "Weber again," reformation21 blog post, November 21, 2006, http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2006/11/weber.again.php.

14 See Allan C. Carlson and Paul T. Mero, "A Natural Family Policy," The Natural Family: A Manifesto (Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, 2007), 189-207.

15 Carlson defines the natural family "to be the union of a man and a woman through marriage for the purposes of sharing love and joy, propagating children, providing their moral education, building a vital home economy, offering security in times of trouble, and binding the generations," in ibid., p. 13.

16 Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2008).

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