In the last couple of decades a significant ecclesiastical trend has arisen out of the home-schooling movement which raises significant issues with regard to the relation of the church and the family. The movement I have in mind is associated with Vision Forum, Patriarch Magazine, and represented by the book by Eric Wallace, Uniting Church and Home (Lorton, VA: Solutions for Integrating Church and Home Inc., 1999), and the New Testament Restoration Foundation. The views of this movement are by no means homogeneous, but there is a sufficient commonality to ground a unified critique of their characteristic perspectives.
A. The “Family-based” Church Movement Described
The phrase family-based church occurs again and again in their own descriptions of their views. It seems to me a fair and accurate way, then, to describe their views. The following statements gleaned from the websites defending this view will, I hope, give a clear idea of its perspectives and what it advocates.
The following statements come from www.patriarch.org. The emphasis is mine.
The biblical patriarchs were family leaders. To call men back to patriarchy is, first of all, to call them to be family leaders once again. The nation is a reflection of its communities and churches; a community or a church is a reflection of its families; a family is a reflection of its father. What men do in their homes will shape, for better or worse, every other institution in society.
Patriarch aims specifically 1) to develop Christ-like character and behavior in men; 2) to equip men to direct, protect, and provide for their families; 3) to enable men to lead the church back to its New Testament, family-based patterns; 4) to help men rebuild our nation on its biblical and constitutional foundations “under God”; and 5) to provide men with a biblical view of God and his world.
1. Unity is promoted within family and church, in that the entire body is learning the same thing.
2. The church is simply an extension of the family.
3. The father and family are held accountable for what they have learned.
4. The father receives the responsibility and the blessing of training his own family.
5. Destructive influence is limited when there is no age-segregation.
6. The burdens of children’s church ministries are limited because every father is training his own.
7. Christian character is built in our families, thus producing a product that the world is looking for.
A redefinition of the Christian family has resulted in a redefinition of the Church as well as the entire learning process. May we continue to yield to the Lord’s leading as we pioneer.
Here is what I am excited about. I think the Lord is giving us a wonderful opportunity to marry the insights and strengths of two movements of God’s Spirit: home education and cell churches. Home education has been playing an unparalleled role in renewing the family, calling it back to God’s plan. Cell churches have been playing a similar role in renewing the church. Unfortunately, most home educators have not seen the need to connect their renewed family to a renewed church; and cell churches have not seen that the church must be founded on godly family units. What we need is a return to the family-based church. This is a church that is characterized by 1) a family-like quality in its life and ministry, with an emphasis on relationships and discipleship within a small group of believers (cell church); and 2) an emphasis on building biblical family units where parents disciple their children and fathers learn spiritual leadership at home (home education). Families need the church family; the church needs godly family units. These two institutions are God’s means of spreading his kingdom in the world. It is time they began working together again. I can foresee home educating families gathering together across the nation (and the world) to form churches of the cell church model. It is a natural combination. And it is a model that can be reproduced without limit all over the globe . Call them family churches; call them house churches; call them anything you like. But the family-church combination could be the basis of a thorough renewal and revival. It is time to create new wineskins to hold the new wine that God is pouring out in our day. The family-based church idea may sound new to most modern ears, but to ears attuned to the Word of God it is an old idea whose time has returned.
So church leaders must not only teach Bible doctrine; they must also model biblical ways of living. Imagine a leader who is obese because of gluttony and lack of self-control; he sends his children to the anti-Christian government schools; he teaches the importance of limiting family size; his wife works for another man; his children are not under control; he lives beyond his means on credit; and he has been divorced*but his doctrine is impeccable. Can I remain under the authority of someone who so denies the Bible by his life? Can my family continue to maintain fellowship in a church whose leaders so disregard the clear teachings of God’s Word? A specific area in which many homeschooling families find themselves at odds with their church is the matter of how they are trying to train their children within the context of the church structure. The parents may want their children with them in worship and they do not want them in age-segregated, peer-oriented groupings like Sunday School and youth groups. They have rightly concluded that the course they have chosen is more in keeping with biblical precepts and examples and that the church is simply borrowing failed methods from the world. But the pressure on them to conform to the accepted arrangements is intense; they may be made to feel as if they are being poor parents and uncooperative church members. This failure of the church to teach the principle of parental responsibility for child training and to reinforce it in the church’s programs may well be a reason to leave. The church should be promoting biblical patterns of living, not hindering those who are trying to follow these patterns themselves.
Too often the church apes the state as it confuses and confounds the work of the church with the work of the family. The biblical model is for the church to disciple and equip fathers and families in child discipling and family worship. It used to be a reason for church discipline in Puritan New England if a man did not lead his family in family worship. Now it is often an issue of confrontation if you do not put your children in Sunday School. The disastrous result is that we actually have lone ranger fathers meeting with only their own family and calling it church. It may be that we have to meet only with our wife and children for a transition season, but let us not. be guilty of calling it church. We need to obey God’s command to preserve the unity of the Spirit while trying to help the church see the following:
1. Age segregated children’s ministry will produce the inevitable foolishness, worldliness and immaturity that scripture promises (Proverbs 22:15; 13:20; 14:7; Luke 6:40).
2. It is the father’s responsibility to disciple and educate his children after the model of our heavenly Father’s relationship to the only begotten Son (Deut. 6:6ff; John 5:19-20; Ephesians 6:4).
3. God promises to curse us by forgetting our children if we reject such biblical knowledge (Hosea 4:6).
The following statements come from the New Testament Restoration Foundation [www.ntrf.org]. The emphasis is again mine.
Home-sized and home-based churches (thus, smaller rather than larger fellowships) that are linked together into networks of autonomous house churches (Ro 16:5, 1Co 1:27-29, Col 4:15, Phlm 2). City-wide church activities might include larger rented facilities where evangelism, leadership training, the equipping of the saints, multi-church Bible studies, public worship, etc. occur. However, the regular Lord’s Day meeting of the local church is to be homes.
Church as more of a family than a business. Meeting in homes helps foster community, accountability and intimacy among the members of the body. Further, churches are to be family friendly. The church and the family are to be integrated, not segregated. Age-graded Sunday School and Children’s Church only serves to further divide families. Children belong in church meetings and Bible studies with their parents.
The following statements come from Vision Forum [www.visionforumministries.org]:
Take church structure for training children, for example. Today, the primary method for training Christian young people is the modern Sunday school structure. Huge resources are dedicated to maintaining this structure in almost every church in America. Yet this structure cannot be found anywhere in the Bible. It is not commanded in Scripture. It is not demonstrated in Scripture. Our modern method for training children has no basis in God’s Word.
But there are two activities that are clearly communicated and commanded and demonstrated in Scripture for teaching children God’s Word: Fathers teaching daily (Deuteronomy 6), and able teachers preaching in the church (Ephesians 4). If we look at Scripture alone, we must conclude that God’s way of teaching children is through the engagement of fathers and through the preaching (“kerusso”) of qualified teachers within the context of the church.
Since Scripture speaks clearly on the matter, then it is the responsibility of church leaders to insure that what is clear, what is commanded, and what is demonstrated in Scripture is fulfilled in their ministries.
The bottom line is this: if we are spending our energies on things that divert energy from that which is clearly taught concerning the training of children, then we have misdirected our efforts. We have set aside the commands of God for the traditions and desires of men.
Sadly, many churches have taken it upon themselves to actually persecute families who want their children to worship with them rather than attending “kiddy church,” or who will not participate in the church youth group or Christian School. The debt-burden carried by many local churches and the perceived need to subsidize the debt by bringing in new members through ever-more innovative programs, youth groups, and church schools only makes the matter worse. Parents who object to such activities are deemed troublemakers. The church leadership is tempted to adopt a dictatorial approach which includes squashing anything which questions the methodology for church growth that they learned in seminary.
Equally sad is the fact that many families have responded to the crisis of the local church by simply giving up. The tragic results are nomadic families who flit from church to church, or renegades who refuse to place themselves under the accountability of a local church. Quite popular in recent years is the notion that the Sabbath meeting of the church is made up of Dad, Mom, and children reading the Bible in the family living room. This is non-normative at best and downright heterodox at worst. God requires his people to be under biblical local churches with biblical preaching, biblical church government, biblical ordinances, and biblical discipline.
So how do we bridge the gap between Church and home? Thankfully God’s Word provides us with all the answers we need so that we can be “perfect, thoroughly equipped unto every good work.” These answers presuppose a biblical view of the sufficiency of Scripture which allows us to develop a biblical understanding of church growth, outreach, socialization, ministry, education, authority, loyalty, and much more. It is in pursuit of these answers, and to equip the body of Christ, that Vision Forum Ministries launched the National Center for Family-Integrated Churches under the directorship of Scott Brown.
It is obvious that the normative practice for Israel and the early church was to integrate children into the normal practices of the gatherings of the people. Nowhere do we find a trace of teaching or example of our modern age graded approach to the church.
There is nowhere where the turning away is so vividly illustrated, as in the schedule of the average church, and in the behavior of the average father in his home.
B. The “Family-based” Church Movement Evaluated
1. Praiseworthy Features
It is only just and balanced to note a number of features for which the family-based church movement deserves praise or commendation. First, their emphasis on the church instructing and supporting the family is important and necessary. Second, their emphasis on the intrusive nature of the extensive programs and ministries of some churches is legitimate. Some churches schedule so much activity for youth and families that little or no time is left for family life and godliness. Third, though there is by no means unity or at least clarity on this issue, it is encouraging to see an expressed desire to maintain unity within local churches and not leave a church for small reasons. Fourth, and again though there is by no means unity or at least clarity on this issue, it is encouraging to note in some quarters a rejection of the abandonment of the church by home-schooling families. Fifth, the instincts of this movement are correct in rejecting the idea and practice of “children’s church.” There is no biblical warrant for children’s church or to remove children from the gathering of the church. Whatever children’s church is, it is not the church! A nursery for children who are not yet old enough to be trained not to be disruptive is, of course, unobjectionable and not the same thing at all.
2. Critical Appraisal
All this being said, there are significant philosophical and practical issues raised by this movement that contradict a biblical ecclesiology and infringe on the rights and authority of the church. I want to address these serious ecclesiological issues by means of two questions.
a. Is the church really family-based?
The constant refrain of the quotations cited above is that the church is family-based and should be home-based. While one cannot deny that generally speaking, the strength of a church will often be in exact proportion to the strength of its families, it appears to me that this movement means much more than this by asserting that the church is family-based. It means rather that the church is actually “the extension of the family.” This is not true in any strict sense. It is certainly not true for those who hold the view (all Baptists, for instance) that the church is composed only of regenerate individuals who give credible profession of their faith. In the strict sense families do not belong to churches at all. Individuals on the basis of their personal, credible profession of faith belong to churches. The rights of church membership are not conferred on families or heads of household, but only on individual believers as individual believers. The church is not a collection of families, but a collection of believers. It is not an extension of the family, but a completely different and sovereign institution. The family was instituted at creation and is a creation institution, while the church in its present and final form was instituted after the work of redemption accomplished by Christ and is a redemptive institution. This means that the head of the household in virtue of his being the head of the household has no authority in the church. His rights and liberties as to church membership and as a church member are no different than those of his 20 year old son who lives at home but is also a member of the church. The family-based church idea makes some sense from a paedobaptist and Presbyterian standpoint. They often have held that only heads of households should vote in the church. They have always held that the membership in the church is family-based and composed of families. But family-based churches are a specific contradiction of a Baptist view of the church and make no sense within a Baptist viewpoint.
b. Does the church have a right to teach its members and the children of its members in situations where the entire family is not present?
One of the most frequently mentioned practical applications of the family-based church viewpoint is that age-segregated Sunday Schools are somehow a violation of the integrity of the family. A similar viewpoint is often assumed with regard to instruction of the wife without the presence of her husband or the entire family. Note the condemnation in one of the above quotes of a man who has his wife working for another man. The view that asserts that the church has no right to teach its members without the presence of the entire family (or perhaps its head) represents, I think, a significant infringement of the rights and authority of the church and a fundamental misconception concerning the relation of the various authority spheres appointed by God.
Before I pursue my understanding of the infringement of the church’s rights and authority by this position, a couple of things must be premised. Without question, of course, the church must wisely exercise its authority. It must appoint teachers graced and gifted by the Spirit to teach in its Sunday Schools. It must make sure that such classes are not “peer-oriented,” but carefully disciplined and overseen by their teachers. Without question, as well, the father has a right to choose a church for himself and his children and normally for his wife that satisfies the biblical standards of doctrine and godliness as he understands them. Having made this choice, however, the man has a responsibility to entrust his family to the church’s instruction and to regard the right of the church given it in the Great Commission to instruct its members and the children of its members. This thought brings me, however, to the issue of the infringement of the rights of the church.
At a number of points in the above cited quotations, a significant infringement of the rights and authority of the church becomes manifest.
Christian character is built in our families, thus producing a product that the world is looking for.
A redefinition of the Christian family has resulted in a redefinition of the Church
These two institutions are God’s means of spreading his kingdom in the world. It is time they began working together again.
Statements like this manifest a significant depreciation of the church in favor of the family. They miss the pre-eminence in God’s plan of the church as the agent and context for producing Christian character. They redefine the church on the basis of a new definition of the family. They neglect the centrality of the church in the mission of spreading God’s kingdom in the world and make the family the co-recipient of the Great Commission.
When one appreciates the sphere sovereignty of the church and the distinction between the church and the family vindicated above. Such tendencies appear in their real light. They miss the sovereignty of the church and the distinction between the task of the family and the task of the church. When the church is seen as a distinct and sovereign institution under God, then its right and duty to fulfill the Great Commission in many ways beside the meeting of the church becomes clear. The elders of the church and their appointed delegates have the right to instruct the men, the children, and the women of the church in age-segregated situations. The Great Commission gives the church the right to evangelize and instruct the entire world and so certainly the children and wives of believers. It does not limit this instruction to church services. Only a specific, scriptural prohibition would warrant a man in refusing as a matter of principle to cooperate with the church in such attempts to evangelize and edify all those to whom the church is sent by the Great Commission. No such prohibition exists. In principle the choice to join a church is a choice to subject one’s wife and one’s children to its instruction. This is what church membership means—subjection to the authority of a specific, local church to fulfill its commission with regard to one’s children and one’s wife. In principle refusal to allow this in one’s absence represents a misconception of the nature of the church and her authority.
To sum up the church does not exercise authority over its members through the mediation of heads of household or as families, but as individual believers. Its authority over the women of the church is not exercised, for instance, through the head of the family. Its authority is direct. While children are under the care and authority of the family, parents of children who are members ought to be grateful for and recognize the right of the church to evangelize their children with their consent.Sam Waldron Professor of Systematic Theology at Midwest Center for Theological Studies
The basis for this treatment is information I have gleaned from the websites associated with Vision Forum [www.visionforumministries.org], Patriarch Magazine [www.patriarch.com], the New Testament Restoration Foundation [www.ntrf.org], and a website critical of this movement Patriarchy.org [www.patriarchy.org]. (The last website reveals its point of view in the rest of its subtitle which is, addressing the issues and legalism of patriarchy with the liberating truth of Jesus Christ. Of special interest is the critical and extensive review of Eric Wallace, Uniting Church and Home (Lorton, VA: Solutions for Integrating Church and Home Inc., 1999) by Joe Morecraft III. I accessed these websites in April and May of 206.
I need to note that even Presbyterians who hold the traditional views of Presbyterians on voting and church membership may be critical of the family-based churches concept. Cf. the critical review of Eric Wallace, Uniting Church and Home (Lorton, VA: Solutions for Integrating Church and Home Inc., 1999) by Joe Morecraft III.
I do not believe that a husband has an absolute right to command his wife to attend a given church regardless of her assessment of its doctrine and godliness. The wife as an individual believer has an unqualified duty to attend only a church that does not violate her conscience before her Lord. She should regard her husband’s wishes, but she may not give them pre-eminence before the dictates of her own conscience. She may not abdicate her own personal responsibility to Christ to attend a true church in favor of a blind regard for the choices of husband.
I am not denying the right of a man in an individual case and situation to remove his child from the instruction of a certain class or teacher. I am denying the propriety of an in principle rejection of the church to organize such classes and instruction.
Other helpful links related to this topic:
- A Critique of the Family-Integrated Church Movement
- Jeremiah 31:31-34 Confronts Two Current Errors About Church and Family
- What Should We Think of the Family-Integrated Church Movement?
- The Relation of Church and Family
- Reformed Baptists Address the Family-Integrated Church Movement
- The Church-Integrated Family
- My Introduction to the Family-Integrated Church Movement
- What is the Family-Integrated Church Movement? – Part 1
- The Family-Integrated Church Movement – Part 2
- The Family-Integrated Church Movement – Part 3
- The Family-Integrated Church Movement – Part 4