In Part 1 of this series, I discussed how it is that we may discern whether or not a ministry practice is Biblical. I hope all would agree with me that we may deem a practice to be Biblical not only if it is in keeping with Biblical prescriptions or precedents, while avoiding running afoul of Biblical prohibitions, but that a practice may also be deemed to be Biblical if it is in keeping with the wise and faithful application of Biblical principles. I also pointed out that it is precisely when we are discussing Biblical principles that we can say that age segregated instruction of children by the Church is indeed a Biblical concept, since this practice does, in fact, comport with the wise application of such principles. In setting forth these principles, it seems best to begin with the Biblical teaching about the nature of the Church as a spiritual family and how this relates to the Biblical teaching about the biological family.
A Biblical Perspective on the Church as a Family
First, we need to understand the difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant with respect to one's biological family.
Under the Old Covenant children were included in the covenant community by virtue of the fact that their parents were members of the covenant community. This is, at least in part, what circumcision signified:
NKJ Genesis 17:10-14 This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; 11 and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant. 13 He who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money must be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. 14 And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.
Notice that the children of Abraham and his descendants were considered to be part of the covenant community by virtue of their having been born into this community and their having received the sign of the covenant, namely circumcision. This same idea was carried over into the Mosaic Covenant:
NKJ Leviticus 12:1 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to the children of Israel, saying: 'If a woman has conceived, and borne a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of her customary impurity she shall be unclean. 3 And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.'”
Under the New Covenant, however, one is a member of the New Covenant community – the Church – only by means of regeneration. Since this covenant is foundational for understanding the nature of the Church, it is appropriate first to briefly consider the meaning of the Jeremiah prophecy, in which God promised that He would one day establish a New Covenant with His people, a promise which found its fulfillment in Jesus Christ:
NKJ Jeremiah 31:31-32 Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah -- 32 not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD.
Here the Lord says that the New Covenant will be different than the Old Covenant which the the people of Israel broke, and He implies that the difference will be that it will be an unbreakable covenant. That this is so – and how it is so – becomes clear in the following verses:
NKJ Jeremiah 31:33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
The New Covenant will not be like the old, breakable covenant because God will ensure that those who participate in the New Covenant have the law within their hearts. Indeed, there will be no one who has partaken of the New Covenant who does not have a new heart. Ezekiel put it this way:
NKJ Ezekiel 36:26-27 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.
So, we can have assurance that we will be preserved in covenant faithfulness such that we will never lose the blessings of the New Covenant, and this will come about through the gift of the Holy Spirit and the transformation of our hearts. But there is more:
NKJ Jeremiah 31:34 No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, “Know the LORD,” for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.
There are two New Covenant blessings mentioned here:
First, unlike the Old Covenant, everyone who is a member of the New Covenant community knows the Lord.
Second, unlike the Old Covenant, everyone who is a member of the New Covenant has his sins forgiven.
It is also clear that, when God says that all those who participate in the New Covenant will know Him, He does not just mean that they will know about Him, but rather that they will have a personal relationship with Him as believers who have been forgiven by Him. And thus we understand the great difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant and why the Old Covenant was only temporary. In fact, the author of Hebrews cites this passage from Jeremiah and concludes, “In that He says, 'A new covenant,' He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:13).
So, given that the New Covenant has come (e.g. Matt. 26:28; 2 Cor. 3:5-6) and the Old Covenant has been abrogated (Heb. 8:13), we are not surprised to find in the New Testament that circumcision has been abrogated as well (e.g. Gal. 5:1-6). But the main point here is that only the regenerate, only those who have received the gift of the Holy Spirit, whose sins have been forgiven and who know the Lord, are members of the New Covenant community, which is the Church. No one becomes a member of the spiritual family that is the Church by means of physical birth into a biological family, but only through the spiritual birth that is the work of the Holy Spirit. This leads to my next point.
Second, we need to understand the nature of the Church as a spiritual Family.
The church is not a “family of families,” as the misleading language of some might indicate (as addressed here). In fact, Jesus warns us that New Covenant membership may often destroy biological families. For example:
NKJ Matthew 10:35-37 For I have come to “set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law”; 36 and “a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.” 37 He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.
NKJ Matthew 12:46-50 While He was still talking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brothers stood outside, seeking to speak with Him. 47 Then one said to Him, “Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak with You.” 48 But He answered and said to the one who told Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” 49 And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.”
NKJ Luke 14:26 If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.
Clearly Jesus viewed as His true family those who are of the faith, and He called for a commitment to Himself that required the same understanding of His followers. So, there is a sense in which our Church family has priority even over our biological family. It is a blessed thing indeed when these overlap, with the members of our biological family being also members of our spiritual family, but when they do not, I do not see how we can avoid the implication that we have a loyalty and an obligation to Christ and His Church that supersedes the devotion and loyalty we should have to our biological families.
Thankfully, however, even if we are put in a position in which we must lose our biological family relationships for the sake of Christ, we are promised by Him that we have another family among the faithful. Consider, for example, Jesus' reassuring words to Peter:
NKJ Mark 10:28-30 Then Peter began to say to Him, “See, we have left all and followed You.” 29 So Jesus answered and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, 30 who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time – houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions – and in the age to come, eternal life.”
It is no wonder, then, that the New Testament consistently refers to the church as “the brethren” and that the Apostle Paul likened the church not only to the body of Christ, but also to a family. For example:
NKJ Galatians 6:10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.
NKJ Ephesians 2:19 Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God ….
NKJ Ephesians 3:14-15 For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, 16 that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man ….
Also, when Paul described the qualifications for elders he said that an elder must be “one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?)” (1 Tim. 3:4-5). Because the Church is a spiritual family, one can see who will be most qualified to rule in it by seeing how he rules his own biological family.
This understanding of the church as a spiritual family also helps to explain why Paul tells Timothy, “Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, with all purity” (1 Tim. 5:1-2). In other words, treat others in the body of Christ as though they are family, because, as we have seen, they are family.
In my experience, those who appose the age segregated teaching of children in the churches rarely think deeply enough about the implications of such New Testament teaching. Yet I think it does have some important implications. For example, when we come together as the family of God in Christ Jesus, I see no reason why other spiritual fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers cannot teach my children as I would (so long as they are gifted by God for such a role in the church). Why can’t a woman take some of the children apart, for example, and teach them the things of God, much as a mother in a biological family might do with her children? Shouldn't my believing children be able to be recipients of the gifts God has given to their spiritual family? Are they not every bit as much members of this spiritual family as I am? And, if I have unbelieving children, why wouldn't I want them to meet my spiritual family, hear the Gospel from them, and experience their witness to Christ as I have?
This is a crucial issue with a number of the families I have encountered over the years who claim to be part of the Family Integrated Church Movement (FICM). Not only do they often minimize the role of the church body in the lives of their children, but they also very often minimize any authority the local church may have with regard to their family members as well. Sam Waldron has done a good job addressing this issue in his article entitled The Relation of Church and Family, in which he deals with the relationship of the authority of the local church to that of the family. For example, after listing some “praiseworthy features” of the FICM (and there are several), Dr. Waldron warns:
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 ….
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 ….
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. (Italics mine)
I think Dr. Waldron is correct. Nowhere in the New Testament is the authority over the church given to fathers by virtue of their role as fathers. Authority is given only to a plurality of elders and to the larger local church body in cases of discipline that may require excommunication. The church is not a “family of families”; it is a family in itself, a spiritual family, and devotion to this family in some ways supersedes the obligation to one's biological family. And those who have authority in this family do not have to mediate that authority through the father as the head of the biological family. However, this does not mean that the elders of local churches may simply ignore the God-given authority that fathers have over their families, to which we will now turn our attention.
A Biblical Perspective on the Family
I suppose the first thing we can say about the Biblical teaching on the family for the New Covenant people of God is based upon what we have already seen concerning the Church, namely that the family provides one of the dominant metaphors for describing the nature of the church. This means that biological family relationships, when at their best, are a picture of the church. But there are also some key passages we should consider when discussing the Biblical teaching on the importance of family relationships. For example:
NKJ Genesis 1:27-28 So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28 Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
NKJ Genesis 2:23-24 And Adam said: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” 24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.
Most commentators and theologians would agree that these passages provide the foundational texts regarding the institution of the family. Later in Scripture we find that family relationships were a crucial part of God's plan for Israel and that He placed great significance upon the role of parents in training their children about His ways. For example:
NKJ Deuteronomy 6:1-9 Now this is the commandment, and these are the statutes and judgments which the LORD your God has commanded to teach you, that you may observe them in the land which you are crossing over to possess, 2 that you may fear the LORD your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, you and your son and your grandson, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged. 3 Therefore hear, O Israel, and be careful to observe it, that it may be well with you, and that you may multiply greatly as the LORD God of your fathers has promised you-- “a land flowing with milk and honey.” 4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. 6 And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
NKJ Malachi 2:13-15 And this is the second thing you do: You cover the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping and crying; so He does not regard the offering anymore, nor receive it with goodwill from your hands. 14 Yet you say, “For what reason?” Because the LORD has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, with whom you have dealt treacherously; yet she is your companion and your wife by covenant. 15 But did He not make them one, having a remnant of the Spirit? [Recall Gen. 2:23-24] And why one? He seeks godly offspring. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth.
It is clear from such passages that God expects believing parents to have a role in teaching their children spiritual things. When we turn to the New Testament, we find that this stress on the importance of family relationships, including the importance of believing parents teaching their children, continues. For example, Paul demonstrates the importance of family in a key passage in his epistle to the Ephesians:
NKJ Ephesians 5:25-6:4 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, 26 that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, 27 that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. 28 So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. 30 For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. 31 “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church. 33 Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. 6:1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with promise: 3 “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” 4 And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord. (See also Col. 3:18-21; 1 Pet. 3:1-7.)
Here Paul clearly sees a crucial role for believing parents in the spiritual instruction of their children. As members of the Church they have been given the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) and are responsible to carry it out first of all in their own families. If Christian parents are to raise their children “in the training and admonition of the Lord,” as Paul says, then aren't they called upon to evangelize their unbelieving children and to disciple their believing children? And aren't they called to do so not simply because they are parents who have a biological family but because they are Christian parents who are members of the spiritual family that is the Church of Jesus Christ? Clearly one primary aim of believing parents is to seek to bring their children into the family of God.
Later, in the first epistle to Timothy, Paul also reflects Jesus' concern (cf. Mark 7:9-13) that one should take care of his biological family:
NKJ 1 Timothy 5:3-8 Honor widows who are really widows. 4 But if any widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show piety at home and to repay their parents; for this is good and acceptable before God. 5 Now she who is really a widow, and left alone, trusts in God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day. 6 But she who lives in pleasure is dead while she lives. 7 And these things command, that they may be blameless. 8 But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
Thus it is clear that Christians are still to have a deep and abiding love and concern for the welfare of their biological family members, whether or not they are fellow members of their spiritual family. But to such passages we may also add one cited earlier concerning the qualifications for elders in the Church, namely that an elder must be “one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?)” (1 Tim. 3:4-5). The biological family is so important that – at least in the case of men with families – one may not rule in the Church unless he has first demonstrated the ability to rule his own home in a Christlike manner.
Clearly, then, both the Old and New Testaments view the biological family as extremely important. And clearly the Church must seek to support the unity and strength of the biological family to the extent that this is possible without undermining or ignoring the importance of the spiritual family that is the Church.
However, as important as the biological family continues to be in the New Testament, we must also consider a couple of passages which indicate the temporary nature of family relationships and of priorities that may be more important than having a family. Consider, for example, the following teaching of Jesus:
NKJ Matthew 22:30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven.
Here we see that there will not be the same kind of family relationships in Heaven that we experience now. After all, if marriage is the cornerstone and heart of the family – which it is – and marriage will no longer be applicable in Heaven – and it won't – then surely families as we know them now will not exist. As a matter of fact, this temporary nature of earthly family relationships may provide part of the reasoning for Paul's later encouragement to the Corinthian church:
NKJ 1 Corinthians 7:6-9; 32-35 But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment. 7 For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that. 8 But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; 9 but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion … 32 But I want you to be without care. He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord-- how he may please the Lord. 33 But he who is married cares about the things of the world-- how he may please his wife. 34 There is a difference between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she who is married cares about the things of the world-- how she may please her husband. 35 And this I say for your own profit, not that I may put a leash on you, but for what is proper, and that you may serve the Lord without distraction.
So, as important as the family mandate of Genesis 1:27-28 and Gen. 2:23-24 is, Paul indicates that serving the Lord for the sake of the kingdom is even more important. We might say, then, that as good as marriage and producing a biological family is, devoting oneself to the propagation of the spiritual family that is the Church is even more important. So, even when Paul teaches on marriage and family, he always places the Church on a higher plane, just as Jesus did.
Application of Principles
Having thus briefly surveyed the foundational teaching of Scripture, perhaps we can highlight a few principles concerning the relationship of the Church and the family:
First, the local church should not shift its responsibility to evangelize and edify the saints to the family. The elders of the churches have a responsibility to teach and equip the body that supersedes that which is given to fathers with regard to their families. Although Christian fathers – as heads of their households – have been given a responsibility to evangelize and instruct their families, this must be done in submission to the elders of the church and in cooperation with their overall church family. And it should be done in a way that welcomes the involvement of the larger church family in the lives of their children. In fact, an approach that in effect does the opposite, and leaves one's children with the impression that the biological family is the most important priority in one's life – even more important than the family of God – fails to adequately “bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).
Second, on the other hand, the church family should not seek to overwhelm the biological family such that these relationships are viewed as less important than Scripture teaches. It is a tragedy when a person's commitment to Christ leads to the destruction of family relationships, a tragedy that is sometimes unavoidable (as we have seen above in the teaching of Jesus), and the church should seek to avoid such destruction whenever and wherever possible.
Third, as a part of their God-given task to teach the Church (e.g. Acts 20:17-32; Eph. 4:11-12; 1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-11) and to serve as examples to flock (1 Pet. 5:1-4), elders must model a strong family life and seek to help families learn to live according to Scriptural principles. But they must also stress the priority of one's relationship to Christ and the implications of being members of the spiritual family that is His church.
Thus the church and family must not be pitted against one another. They must work together, as much as is possible, appropriately recognizing their God-given spheres of authority and priority of obligation. And they must avoid succumbing to the false choice that says that either parents are responsible for evangelizing and training their children as believers or that the local church is responsible for evangelizing and training the children in their midst. Clearly God has given a certain authority both to parents and to local churches to perform these tasks, and they must work together to carry them out.
So, is it true that “the church is a family of families” as some have rather badly put it? No, it isn't. The church itself is a family, and it is the most important family to which one can ever belong. Is it true that “families are the building blocks of the Church” as some might suggest? No, it isn't. The church consists of individual believers, and thus it is individual believers who are the building blocks of the church. Although biological family relationships are extremely important, and we should seek to evangelize our family members as well as reach out to families, only those who are children of Abraham by faith are a part of the New Covenant community. Any distortion of these facts leads ultimately to the destruction and not to the building up of the church.
But what does all of this tell us about the specific issue under discussion? In what way do these Biblical principles inform our decision regarding the practice of age segregated instruction of children in the churches? Well, we can assert at the beginning that the complaint in some circles that involving our believing children in age segregated Sunday school classes means that we are somehow undermining or dividing families is simply not true. When we bring our believing children to church and allow them to be instructed by other believers – in addition to, not instead of, our instruction of them – they are not being separated from their family because they are actually with the most important family they could ever belong to, their spiritual family, the family of God. It is really no different than when parents take their children to a large family reunion and allow a trusted uncle or aunt, or perhaps an older cousin, to take a group of children to play on the swings or to do some kind of constructive activity while the adults are catching up with one another. No one I have met would complain in such a case that the children are not with their family, or that the family was being undermined or divided, since the whole point is to introduce the children to their larger family so that they might get to know and appreciate them. The same holds for allowing one's children to take part in an age segregated Sunday school class in the local church. When we allow our children to take part, we are not only introducing them to our spiritual family so that they may get to know them, but we are allowing them to be the recipients of the gifts and blessings God has bestowed on the various members of our church family. We are allowing our unbelieving children to be evangelized by others in the church who may be more gifted than we are, and we are allowing our believing children to be taught by others in our church family who may be even more gifted in teaching spiritual things to our children than we are. As a matter of fact, this is but one way in which we can fulfill our obligation as parents to our children to “bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).
Having said of all of this, however, I do not wish to imply that I think every parent must avail themselves of age segregated education for their children if offered by their local church. I am merely seeking to demonstrate that the practice is indeed a Biblical one, not that it is the only Biblical way to do things.
In conclusion, I would simply assert that the Bible's teaching concerning both the Church and the family under the New Covenant demonstrates that there is no reason at all to assume that age segregated instruction of children is not Biblical. In fact, as I see it, if anything such teaching would lead us to assume the opposite, at least if we want to maintain a Biblically balanced perspective concerning the distinctive roles both of local churches and of believing parents who are members of such churches.
However, we still have further to go in our endeavor to discover whether or not the age segregated education of our children is in keeping with Biblical principles. I have thus far only laid a foundation. I need to build upon that foundation by relating some other important principles found in Scripture. This I will seek to do in my next post on this subject.