Relational Ethics

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Humility is one of the Christ’s defining characteristics, which we know from the first three Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew. In these Beatitudes, Jesus focuses on tension within ourselves and honors disciples who live humbly, mourn their fallen state, and embody a spirit of meekness. Such disciples will receive heaven and  earth,  a merism⁠1 meaning everything (Matt 5:3-5). While we normally talk about humility in individualistic terms, the biblical context for humility comes in relationships with our families, churches, and communities.

The Christian Family

In Christ, we honor each individual regardless of status or age as being created in the image of God. The Apostle Paul’s writing is particularly clear on this point. He writes: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) No ethic group is better than any other; no economic class is better than any other; and no gender is better than any other. But Paul goes further in his household codes:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise), that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land. Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Eph 6:1-4)

He is essentially saying that because we are all created in the image of God, no age group is better than any other. Neither a new born nor a senior standing at the gates of heaven is better than one another. Christians are to value life stages equally, honor the stage you are in, and not cling to any particular stage as if it were intrinsically preferred. 

In this sense, Christianity is a holistic faith that values maturity and embraces each stage of life with equal joy. This makes particular sense in a Christian context because our faith is rooted in history. Creation is the beginning and the second coming of Christ will be its end. Knowing the end is in Christ, we can journey through life in Christ meeting the challenges of each stage in life without fear.

Family Function

Consider the problem of raising children. Research by Stinnett and Beam (1999, 10) reports six characteristics of strong families:

  1. Commitment—these families promote each other’s welfare and happiness and value unity.
  2. Appreciation and Affection—strong families care about each other.
  3. Positive Communication—strong families communicate well and spend a lot of time doing it together.
  4. Time Together—Strong families spend a lot of quality time together.
  5. Spiritual Well-being—whether or not they attend religious services, strong families have a sense of a greater good or power in life.
  6. Ability to Cope with Stress and Crisis—strong families see crises as a growth opportunity.

Here we see humility being worked out in a family context. A key point in unifying these different models of behavior as it pertains to raising children is that adults are present and fully attentive to the children. 

The Family as an Emotional Unit

Family systems theory focuses on “the family as an emotional unit” rather than on particular individuals (Gilbert 2006, 3). This focus runs counter to most counseling approaches which assume the clinical model where the individual is treated as autonomous. Problems with their origin outside the individual obviously cannot be solved by treating the individual alone but that is the common practice. Family systems theory is often applied to other emotional units, like offices, churches, and groups, where relationships are intense and span many years.

The emotional unit is sometimes compared to the plumbing system in your house. If the water pressure rises to the breaking point, the leak will show up in the weakest link in the system. For families, the weakest link is usually a child so when parents quarrel continuously, it is often a child that starts acting out (nail biting, bed-wetting, fighting in school, teenage troubles, etc). If the child is sent to a therapist alone, the problem is not resolved, but when the parents stop quarreling, the child often stops acting out (Friedman 1985, 21).

Families matter more than normal (individualistic) intuition suggests. A death in the family may leave one person with chronic migraine headaches; another may develop back pain or experience a heart attack; a third may exhibit psychiatric dysfunction. While pastors and chaplains may not be surprised by this observation, standard medical and counseling training and practices focuses almost exclusively on the individual.

Humility as Emotional Maturity

Humility is not shyness and is not a natural trait—it is a learned trait that often comes with emotional maturity. It can also often healing within emotional units because anxiety is infectious ( Gilbert 2006, 7).

Anxiety transmission is more rapid and intense in tightly “fused” groups where individual are relatively close and unprocessed emotions run wild, so to speak ( Gilbert 2006, 21). Anxiety transmission is less rapid and intense in groups with individuals who are “differentiated” where individuals are able to separate feelings from thinking and emotions are less readily shared (Gilbert 2006, 33). Gilbert’s grandfather, who farms, attempts to be a “calming presence” when he is working with his cattle; otherwise when spooked, cattle will stampede (Gilbert 2006, 22).

Friedman (1985, 27-31) describes differentiation as the capacity to be an “I” while remaining connected. Differentiation increases the shock-absorbing capacity of the system by loosening the integration. The ideal here is to remain engaged in the system but in an non-reactive manner—a non-anxious presence. Great self-differentiation offers the opportunity for the entire system to change by reducing the automatic resistance to change posed by homeostasis (a tendency to resist change).  Family leaders (including pastors in church families) who develop greater self-differentiation can accordingly bring healing in the face of challenges in dysfunctional organizations.

1 Another famous merism is:  “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev 1:8)

References

Friedman, Edwin H. 1985. Generation to Generation:  Family Process in Church and Synagogue.  New York:  Gilford Press.

Gilbert, Roberta M. 2006. The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory:  A New Way of Thinking about the Individual and the Group. Front Royal (VA):  Leading Systems Press.0

Stinnett, Nick and Nancy  Stinnett,  Joe Beam, and Alice Beam (Stinnett and Beam). 1999. Fantastic Families: 6 Proven Steps to Building a Strong Family. New York: Howard Books.

Relational Ethics

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Welcome_NY_2019

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