Stephen D. Doe
A little green brochure caught my eye. It was publicizing a conference for homeschoolers. My wife, Joanie, and I are committed homeschoolers. The conference was also about churches, and I am the pastor of a church.
As I read on, however, I felt that I was entering unfamiliar territory. There were hints that the "traditional church" was no longer a friendly place for homeschooling families. The church, through its Sunday school programs and youth ministries, might be a place where "peer-oriented" or "age-segregated groupings" might undo some of the emphases of homeschooling. There was the suggestion that such churches as those I have known in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church might be unhealthy for homeschooling families.
That brochure did more than catch my eye; it made me think: what if the family and the church aren't allies in the training of children? Should homeschooling families be suspicious of the church? I reviewed in my mind what I believed both as a homeschooling parent and as a pastor.
The Bible says a lot about children and families, as we know. After creating mankind in his image, God commanded Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:27-28). Human families, then, begin at God's command. Yet our human families reflect God and his family. Throughout the Bible, God refers to his people as "family," as sons and daughters. When he redeems his people, they confess him as "Father" (Rom. 8:14-16; cf. John 1:12), and so the church is called God's household (Eph. 2:19; cf. Heb. 2:10-13). Thus, our families and the family of God, the church, would seem to be a "good fit."
Parents have responsibility for training their children. Consider Abraham. He was commanded to keep God's covenant (Gen. 17:9) and to instruct his children to do the same (Gen. 18:19). As Paul puts it, parents are to bring their children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). They are to do this whenever the opportunity presents itself (cf. Deut. 6:4-8, 20-25; cf. 11:19).
Training, however, is also done by the church. In fact, teaching is one of the essential activities of the church (Matt. 28:20). In the Old Testament, Moses commanded all the people-men, women, and children-to gather together to hear the word of the Lord (Deut. 31:12; cf. Neh. 8:2-3; Joel 2:15-17). Today Jesus Christ welcomes children into the covenant and makes a place for them in his kingdom (Matt. 18:1-6; 19:13-15). Teaching is so important that if the church doesn't teach God's people to observe all that Jesus Christ commands, she will lose sight of her calling in this world. The provisions of Christ for his church include giving teachers to the family of God (Eph. 4:11; cf. Acts 13:1; Rom. 12:7; 1 Cor. 12:28-29; 1 Tim. 5:17; 2 Tim. 1:11). The life of the church, a life that includes our families, is to be filled with teaching (Col. 3:16; 2 Tim. 2:2).
Education in the home and education in the church would seem to be natural allies. The goals are the same. Christian parents want their children to grow up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4), knowing the Lord Jesus Christ and living by faith in him. No greater sorrow afflicts a Christian parent's heart than to see a child turning away from the One whom to know is life eternal (John 17:3). This is what the church also strives for, because the goal of church teaching is to produce members who are mature in Christ (Eph. 4:11-16; cf. Matt. 28:19-20). In the home and in the church, the goal is the same: children who grow up to profess and follow Jesus Christ. Parents cannot forego their responsibility to teach their children about the Lord, and nor can the church. Why would some Christians struggle with what God tells both home and church to do-to train covenant children?
The covenant is important both to the family and to the church. The covenant is the relationship that God sovereignly established with his people to save them and make lost sinners his own dear children. So the church looks at herself as being the covenant people of God. For our families within God's covenant family, there is the hope that in the covenant our children are not left out of God's promises or his gracious working.
The baptism of a child means something. It means that God has himself set the sign and seal of his covenant on him, extending in his grace his promise to save those who believe, continually calling on that child to believe in the obedient Son of God who perfectly fulfills the covenant, Jesus Christ. It is because of the covenant promise that parents bring their children to be baptized.
The church sees that it grows and extends itself in the world through the bringing in of families. The jailer at Philippi believed and came into the church, and with him came a family and a household (Acts 16:29-34). The family shouldn't want to do without the church, for the church is where Christ has put the "ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints" (Westminster Confession of Faith, XXV.3). And the church must preach and teach that the promise is to believers and their children, as many as the Lord calls (Acts 2:37-39). Church and parents stand alike finding hope in the covenant.
The church is the place where both reconciliation and division in families can take place. Sometimes loyalty to Christ divides a family. Christians in many countries have experienced that (Matt. 10:34-36; cf. vs. 21). Jesus calls for a devotion to himself that is even greater than that found in families (Luke 14:26). But he also brings about reconciliation in families, as the prophet Malachi predicted (Mal. 4:6; cf. Luke 1:17), restoring relationships within families that sin has broken.
The church ties the family to eternity. There are families that are loving, harmonious, fun, and moral, but are not Christian. Just having a strong sense of family and of family worth is not the same as being Christian; if it were, Mormons, who place a tremendous emphasis on family life, would be Christians.
A strong family needs a connection to the church, for it is the church, as the bride of Christ, which endures into eternity. It is the church, not the family, for which Christ died (Acts 20:28; Eph. 5:23). In eternity, we are the redeemed of the Lord, without the distinctions of age or family connection that are vital to us here. It is the church, through her elders, that exercises spiritual oversight and discipline, administers the Lord's Supper and baptism, and preaches the Word of God. Families need to be part of the family of God, and the church needs to treasure covenant children as an essential part of the church. Both the family and the church work in the lives of children for eternity, when present relationships will give way to the fullness of redemption in Christ.
In light of all these things, how could the family and the church be anything but allies? Timothy grew up in a home where a vital faith in Christ was evident (2 Tim. 1:5; 3:14-15). His nurture in Christ, however, continued through the church as the apostle Paul gave himself to helping Timothy, his true son in the faith (1 Tim. 1:2), mature in Christ. Family and church were allies in Timothy's life.
It is true that, in the church, children will be around other children of a variety of ages, some their own age and some not. They will be around adults, both married and single. They will observe different levels of Christian maturity and immaturity. They will see the church as it really is, marked by weakness and strength, holiness and sin, obedience and disobedience, the church of which we in this life must be a part.
They will benefit from the care of elders who are bound by God to exercise diligent care over the members of the church, both young and old (Acts 20:28; Heb. 13:17). They will see mature Christians (besides their own parents), who, by the grace of God, face temptation, sorrow, sickness, and even death, with trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. What better place for the family could there be than in the church? What better preparation for living could there be than as part of the church, which is the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15)?
And I remembered the words of the psalmist, words to guide families and the church alike:
O my people, hear my teaching;
listen to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in parables,
I will utter hidden things, things from of old
what we have heard and known,
what our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children;
we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord,
his power, and the wonders he has done (Ps. 78:1-4).
Mr. Doe is the pastor of Covenant OPC in Barre, Vt.