A Constitution for our Commonwealths in Miniature
The family as a resistance cell
Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option, as well as his follow up Live Not By Lies, focuses on the necessary steps Christian believers must take to prepare for the trials that are quickly coming their way. There appear to be dark days ahead in our nation. The number of Christian believers in America declines with every passing year, even if some of the numbers are due to nominal Christians ceasing to identify as Christian in any sense. The impact of all of this has become particularly obvious in the realm of human sexuality where (even in ostensibly evangelical churches) biblical teaching is widely disregarded. Last year Norway passed a law making speech against homosexuality or transsexuality illegal, whether in public or in private, with one- to three- year prison sentences for transgressions. A Finnish Member of Parliament is currently on trial for simply stated the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality. This month Canada has made it illegal to urge someone to repent of homosexual desires. There are many in America advocating for similar laws (whether they will be successful remains to be seen).
The family, Dreher insists, is one of the primary bulwarks against the coming troubles. He calls families “resistance cells” against the attacks of a hostile world.
This call to battle has a long history in the Christian church, stretching back to the early church. As the tradition developed, many theologians appropriated and transformed the classical political tradition of Greece and Rome. Central to their thinking was the idea that the formation of a virtuous state must begin with the individual and the family.
Peter Martyr Vermigli, an Italian Protestant Reformer, provides a good example of this tradition in his posthumously published commentary (1563) on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics:
Among these moral subjects, the first place is surely held by ethics, then economics, and finally politics. I see this order as circular. Through ethics, those who are its students will, one by one, become good men. If they prove upright, they will raise good families; if the families are properly established, they will in turn create good republics. And in good republics, both law and administration will aim at nothing less than each man becoming a good citizen, for they have eyes not only for the body but also for the spirit, and they will take care that citizens live according to virtue.
In this article I will look, not at the idea of the family as a little commonwealth in general (as important as that is), but at the necessity of such commonwealths being properly formed and regulated through the practice of catechizing, which has a long and venerable tradition in Christian churches.
This tradition is of vital importance today. Without a vigorous program of Christian nurture and instruction in our families it will not matter what success is achieved in the broader commonwealth. Many Christians, rightly concerned about the state of society, fail to begin in the very place where they can actually have a significant impact: their own homes. If we cannot get our homes in order what makes us think we will ever be able to get our communities, states, and nations in order? Even more importantly, of course, the eternal well-being of our children is at stake.
The Danish Lutheran theologian Niels Hemmingsen put this “focus on the family” well in his 1562 work On the Law of Nature:
But since man is, as it were, a commonwealth in miniature, the result is that the virtues of the soul by which the soundness of the state of man is preserved should be transferred to the society and dominions of men. For by these four virtues—prudence, temperance, courage, and justice—men’s societies are preserved, that is, their households and polities.
Man is a commonwealth in miniature, as is the family. The reformation of our society must begin at home.
Why we must catechize the resistance
When we consider the intense spiritual and moral challenges our children will face in the coming years, we must turn to the Scriptures as our guide. The Bible calls Christian parents to raise their children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4 ESV; the King James Version of the Bible more famously says “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord”). What does this mean?
First, it means teaching our families the whole counsel of God’s word. That is what is indicated in the word “discipline” or “nurture.” The King James Version’s “nurture” captures the holistic sense of the word, which is not simply about correcting bad behavior. Second, it means to “admonish” our children. This includes instruction, but also includes correction when one goes astray. Taken together, Ephesians 6:4 gives parents a great responsibility: God has entrusted us with the spiritual and intellectual development of our children. We must teach them the Gospel, we must teach them “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), and we must teach them how to think about culture and about all of the influences that will bear down on them in this world. We must be vigilant: our children will be bombarded with ideas that are contrary to God’s word. This will come at them in schools, in the TV shows they watch, in the music they listen to, and in the conversations they have with their friends. They will face a multitude of moral and theological untruths at every turn. It will not be easy to counteract this, but we must. God requires this of parents.
We see this imperative in the Old Testament as well. Deuteronomy 6:7, speaking of the commandments of God, tells parents: “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” Speaking of the things of the Lord must be a constant in our family conversations, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. They must know what is true about God and themselves and they must learn how to evaluate the world accordingly.
Proverbs 22:6 shows us the way: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” God has ordained both the means (training) and the end (not departing) of the salvation, and spiritual protection, of our children.
If we do not teach our children what God requires and forbids, and how to discern which is which, they will be utterly defenseless in a dark world. Our children must be inoculated against all strains of unbelief through a steady exposure to the truths of Scripture. They must see and savor the goodness of Jesus Christ in his word so that, as the hymn says, the “the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.” God gives parents this awesome responsibility.
Christians often debate which kind of schooling is best (public, private, or home-schooling). I won’t settle that debate here, but I can confidently say one thing: in whatever way you choose to provide a general education for your children you still have a responsibility before the Lord to train them in the things of the Lord. If you choose to send them to a public school (or a private one for that matter) you cannot become passive in this. Especially in a public school setting your children are going to be taught much that is contrary to God’s word. It is getting worse every day. Even more significant will be the social pressure your children will face to conform to modern moral views (on sexuality, the family, and many other things). This means that parents must know what their children are being exposed to and must equip them to resist those ideas and social forces. This is not optional. The pressure on our children to conform is immense.
How do we catechize the resistance?
Very practically, how do we “train our children in the way they should go?” There are, perhaps, many ways, but several in particular have stood the test of time. The first one is the simplest: we must read the Scriptures to our children constantly and encourage them to read and prayerfully meditate on them as well. The apostle Peter had this to say about God’s word: “you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). We have no hope apart from a constant diet on the Word. We should also help our children memorize the Word, as we see in Psalm 119:11: “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.”
Another way we can obey our biblical responsibility as parents to train our children in the things of the Lord is by catechizing them. Catechesis goes back to the earliest days of the Christian church (perhaps the earliest catechism, The Didache, dates from the first century). At its most basic, a catechism is simply a summary of the central truths of Scripture. The Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed were, in a way, simple catechisms (although as creeds they had more authority in the early church). Some catechisms in the early church were lengthier, taking the form of treatises, such as those by Cyril of Alexandria, Gregory Nazianzus, and then later in the early church era, by John of Damascus. The practice of catechesis continued on through the medieval period (see, for example, the Catechism of Thomas Aquinas) and flowered in the time of the Protestant Reformation as well. Some of the most famous Protestant Catechisms are Martin Luther’s Large and Small Catechisms, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. Interestingly, many catechisms, from the early church on to the time of the Reformation, are organized according to the same structure, with major sections explaining the Apostles’ Creed, The Ten Commandments, and The Lord’s Prayer. What more important scriptural truths are there than these?
A third way to diligently teach our children the things of the Lord is the practice of family worship. This, too, has a long pedigree in the history of the church (see chapter 2 of this book for more on this). Family worship, like catechesis, is a simple practice. It can be as simple as reading and discussing a section of the Bible, praying together, and singing a hymn. Those are the central elements of worship, biblically speaking, and they are really all that is needed for a brief time of daily family worship.
Some practical suggestions might be helpful here. In our family we approach catechesis as follows (we home-school our children, so this might look somewhat different in different families). In the morning, the school day begins with the Bible being read to our gathered children. Then, they work on a memory verse or two. Finally, they recite the week’s question from the Westminster Shorter Catechism. This takes about twenty minutes (total for four children). Then our kids move on to science, math, literature, and all the rest. On Sunday afternoons we spend time reviewing and discussing a larger number of catechism questions (usually between 5-10). This usually takes about half an hour. Every evening, immediately after dinner, we have a time of family worship which consists of reading from the Bible, briefly discussing the text, praying, and singing a hymn. All-in-all this probably takes about half an hour. If you feel intimidated by the thought of discussing the biblical text each time you have family worship you might find The Family Worship Bible Guide helpful (also available in a cheaper version). It provides a couple of short paragraphs for every chapter of the whole Bible, focusing on concrete applications of the text to the heart. We also have hymnals for each member of the family.
The specific way in which you do any (or all) of this is not the most important thing. Nor is the specific amount of time spent doing it. Some may find it better to do family worship in the morning, some at lunch. Some may find catechism works well during home-schooling class time, some that it is better done in the evening. How much time should you spend in family worship? Keep it short. This is not a full worship service. Do you only have 15 minutes? Then spend 15 minutes together in the Scriptures. Think about the impact 15 minutes a day in God’s word and prayer together will have over the span of a child’s life. Eighteen years of 15 minutes a day is 1642 hours. Maybe you miss some days. Don’t neglect this opportunity simply because you find it difficult to be perfectly consistent. Every little bit helps. Our children will be bombarded in the world with much that is contrary to God’s word. Catechesis and family worship are two ways to fight back. All of this must also be done in the context of loving, consistent discipline of our children. To see just how important (and pervasive) discipline is in the Bible see Deuteronomy 8:5; Job 5:17; Psalm 94:12; Proverbs 3:11-12; 5:7-14, 22-23; 6:20-24; 12:1; 13:24; 15:10; 19:18; 23:13; 25:15; 29:17, 19; Ephesians 6:4; Hebrews 12:3-11.
I sometimes hear it said that things like catechesis and family worship are not required in Scripture. Fair enough. But raising our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord is required. Teaching them diligently, talking to them of God’s word when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise is required. Training up a child in the way he should go is required. If you know of a better way than catechesis and family worship to do these things then do it! But you must not neglect the spiritual nurture of your children. Call this nurture whatever you want, so long as you do it. The eternal welfare of your children depends on it.
A fourth aspect of nurturing our children in the things of the Lord moves us beyond the family to the church. Hebrews 10:25 reminds us that we must not neglect to meet together corporately as God’s people. It is the preaching of the word of God that saves (1 Peter 1:23). It is only when we are gathered together in worship that we are to be strengthened by the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17). Catechesis and family worship are vital, but they must be done in the context of the church. It is the pastors and elders of the church who have been given the responsibility by God to shepherd the souls of God’s people, and they will have to give an account to God for how faithfully they obey him in this (Hebrews 13:17). The fourth/fifth century pastor John Chrysostom rightly preached that “the household is a little church” (Homily 20 on Ephesians), but it is a little church that cannot thrive (or indeed survive) apart from a vital connection to the whole body of Christ, as manifest in a particular congregation. We must center our lives on the church. We must be present and engaged in the worship of the church, morning and evening (if possible!), Sunday after Sunday.
Can God save and bless our children apart from the things I have written about above? Yes. Nonetheless, what has been described above are the normal means God promises to use to for the spiritual good of our children. Can I survive a plane crash? Maybe. But I don’t want to test that theory.
What should we do if we have failed in this area? Maybe we didn’t understand our responsibility as parents until our children were older. Maybe we completely failed in all of this and our children have already left the home. This often leads to crushing guilt and shame. The easy solution is to downplay the requirements of God’s word. If we lower the bar then we need not feel so guilty. But this is a false hope. We must, instead, confess our sinful failures to the Lord. He is “good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon” him (Psalm 86:5). And then, in reliance on his grace, we must strive to obey him faithfully in all that he commands, returning to the overflowing fount of his grace day after day. Grandparents may have unique opportunities that they missed with their own children.
Training our children to think rightly about God, his word, and the world outside has always been necessary. Even so, our world is rapidly becoming more and more hostile to even the most basic of biblical teachings. If we are not vigilant in the spiritual formation of our children, other things we might be tempted to rely on will be of little use. Church youth groups, for example, will be of no benefit if parents abdicate the God-given role they have been assigned in the spiritual nurture of their children. We cannot outsource the obligation God has given us. This is all the more the case with college ministry. I often hear Christians lament the tragedy of children in the church going to college and abandoning the faith while there. If we wait until our children head off to college to attend to their souls it will be too late. The word of God must be their constant companion from birth. If they have not been formed to love God, they will be deformed by the world.
Raising our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord is a staggering responsibility. Who is sufficient for these things? None of us, in ourselves. But God’s grace is sufficient. His power is made perfect in our weakness, which is why we must also be constantly in prayer for our children. Otherwise, all of our labors will be in vain. But in humble reliance on God’s grace we can return again and again to his promise: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).
If we do not begin with ourselves, and with our families, nothing else we seek to do in the world will matter. The battle for the soul of our culture and nation will be lost before it can even begin.
*Image Credit: Wunderstock