Thomas E. Tyson
The Bible indicates that children are extremely important. Do you remember the time when Jesus overruled his disciples and insisted that the children be brought to him, saying, "The kingdom of God belongs to such as these" (Mark 10:14)? With that statement, Jesus expressed a very important truth found throughout the Old Testament. The people of Israel were required to bring their little ones together so that the Word of God could be heard by the entire nation. Joshua convened an assembly in which even the little ones heard God's Law (Josh. 8:35).
When we talk about children, we must begin by talking about the home, where they are influenced at the earliest stages of their development. We know that the first four years of life are extremely formative in a child's life. A child who has difficult and contradictory experiences during those years will often be scarred for life. That is not to say, of course, that the grace of God cannot overcome those wounds. But it is to acknowledge their existence.
Parents are responsible, among other things, for the spiritual welfare of their children. In fact, God goes so far as to define his election of Abraham in these very terms: "For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him" (Gen. 18:19). Can you grasp the tremendous import of that statement? God's sovereign election of Abraham and his seed is inextricably linked to Abraham's teaching and directing of his children!
Now, to be sure, the home must provide food, clothing, shelter, and emotional support. But if the home does not provide a child with spiritual nurture, it fails that child. The way children should be exposed to the teaching of God is laid out clearly in Deuteronomy 6:69:
These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
Almighty God prescribes the covenant nurture of children in the Christian home. Note seven ways in which covenant nurture is characterized by this foundational text on child rearing:
If God did not command parents to provide for the Christian instruction of their children at home, we might wonder whether this is the wisest course to take. But these words show us that parents are commanded to teach the Bible to the children of the covenant. In Old Testament times, of course, the revelation of God's redemptive work in Christ was limited to the realm of promise and type, but it was there nonetheless. Parents were obligated to talk with their children about the God who had made all things and who promises to be the God of his covenant people, the people upon whom he showers his love and who obey him. In the home, according to Deuteronomy 6, there is to be continual conversation about the things of God.
The reason why the Lord commands that this take place is that covenant children are his. That is what baptism signifies and seals, and that is what spurs Christian parents on in their task of Christian education.
There is a job for the church, yes. The church is called "the pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). Jesus, in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:1820), made it clear that it is the church's task to teach Christian disciples, including children, everything that Jesus commanded. But neither the church nor even the Christian school may take the place of mom and dad, upon whose shoulders this foundational responsibility squarely rests. No parent should think that his or her responsibility for covenant nurture is fulfilled by seeing to it that his or her child is a member of a good church and is enrolled in a good school. That would be a huge mistake, for God says, "Impress them on your children."
This picture persists throughout the Bible. Even as the revelation of God and of his world unfolded, that message was communicated from parents to children. By the time the last page of the Bible was written, the message had assumed astonishing dimensions. It was the message of God's creation of all things, of the salvation of his beloved church through the Lord Jesus Christ, and of a Savior who was coming again to judge all men.
This message has major implications for all of learning, for at its center is the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom are found all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Parents are responsible before God to instruct their children in all the wisdom of God, as they themselves grasp it through their relationship with Jesus. Not the school, in the first place. Certainly not the state. Rather, the homeyou.
"These commandments ... them ... them ... them ... them." Covenant nurture is the communication of truth about God which God himself has first revealed. It is not the communication of any parent's search for truth. It is nurture in the Word of God. For God is the authority, and his Word is the standard. There is one primary textbook for child rearingthe Holy Bible. Not Dr. Spock. Not even Dr. Dobson. You must evaluate all human suggestions in the light of the pure and perfect Word of God. Consequently, you will need to know that Biblefor how can you communicate to your children what you don't know yourself?
I've found it to be true (have you also?) that being responsible to communicate something to a child has a distinct way of forcing one to be truly focused. You can't beat around the bush with a child! You can, of course, but you might be confronted with a blank stare and sometimes a disobedient response. With kids, you've got to boil things down to their essence and get to the point.
Covenant nurture in the words of God, then, will require diligent preparation on parents' part to grasp that revelation themselves. I would say that you dads and moms go to Sunday school not only for yourself, but for your children. That adult class is, among other things, your teachertraining course.
"These commandments are to be upon your hearts." You see, it is not just that you need to understand things if you are to teach your children. Even more fundamentally, you need to internalize God's revelation in order to present a faithful example to your children. You probably teach them more by how you act than by what you say. "Don't do what I do; do what I say" is antieducation. It will surely predispose them against the Lord. All the flowery language in the world, and the most uptodate pedagogical methodology, will not undo the damage done by a parent who shows his child the world's way while preaching the Lord's way (cf. Deut. 4:9).
If parents don't practice what they preach, they will practice something else. And that something else will speak so loudly that it will drown out whatever good words they might speak.
It might appear rather obvious that covenant nurture is training. But the point needs to be made, all the same. Covenant nurture is a forceful enterprise. Note the verb that Moses employs as he communicates to the children of Israel what their responsibility is in this regard: "Impress them on your children." This verb impress in Hebrew means "to sharpen." A related word is the noun tooth. Additionally, the particular form in which the verb appears signifies intensity. Moses commands, in effect: "Sharpen your children on the Word of God." They are the blade, and God's Word is the file. They must give way to itbeing changed and molded by what it prescribes.
Do you want to have sharp kids? (I'm not talking about S.A.T. scores.) Would you like your children to grow up straight and strong, a delight to God and people? Well, here's how to achieve it: apply the file of the Bible to their young lives. Impress God's words upon them early and consistently, and they will be sharpened. Whatever their intellectual capacity may be, their lives will have an edge if they have been worked on early to make them sharp tools for God. Parents, it's your job to see to it that that is done!
"Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up." This is a fascinating insight, isn't it? It pictures parents communicating the truth of God as something that fills their children's environment fully. It is God's word on their lips as they romp in the backyard, travel to Grandma's house, or straighten out a minor infraction. It is laid across the walls of the home like a huge poster. It is burned into their doorposts! That's the kind of religion that children face in a covenant home. It's a good kind of religion, the natural conversation of parents and children. This picture in Deuteronomy 6 is a beautiful one! It is the picture of a fully integrated world.
"Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads." The idea here is not merely one of remembrance (like the proverbial string around the finger) of God's will and ways. It's more one of knowledge leading to life. God is not interested in your children merely being able to recite the Catechism by heart. He is interested in their hearts. And he is interested in their hearts directing their steps aright. Christian education that is solely academic is sterile and unproductive. Moreover, it does not glorify God. Covenant children make God look good when they put their education into practice by believing in the name of the Son of God and doing what he commands.
The covenant nurture of God's little lambs is the most important work done on earthnothing supersedes it! "Bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord" (Eph. 6:4).
Mr. Tyson is the general secretary for the Committee on Christian Education. Reprinted from New Horizons, January 1999.