The direct responsibility of educating children in the Christian faith is given by God, not to Sunday schools, but to parents. In order for this to happen the church’s responsibility to parents, in their distinct and complementary roles, is to teach them all that God requires of them, and all that they must do to bring their children up in the ‘discipline and instruction of the Lord’ (Eph. 6:4).
I suspect that on these matters our attention has been focused on Sunday schools and children’s clubs and not on parental responsibilities and family worship and instruction. There may be good reasons for this. Perhaps the majority of children in our churches come from unbelieving homes (as I did). Some will come from broken homes. Others will be from families where an unbelieving husband tolerates the church attendance of his wife and children but will not allow Christian influences in the home. There certainly is a place for the direct role of the church in educating children. In fact an hour of Sunday school may be all the Christian influence that some children receive in a week.
The church and the Christian home
The church must educate children indirectly by teaching believing parents directly. This includes teaching parents the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). This of course requires that each Christian parent has a genuine, growing spiritual life that shows itself in a humble and teachable spirit. If you are not growing in grace and in knowledge (2 Pet. 3:18), walking in the light (1 John 1:7), loving others sincerely (1 Pet. 1:22), and taking every thought captive in obedience to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5) how will you be able to teach your own children about trusting in and living for Christ?
We will never find encouragement from the world to order our families in ways that please God. Not only is the family openly attacked and being reinvented, but in subtle ways we are led away from what God says in his word about family life. On television and in films children are encouraged to find their security in their peers and not in the home. It is almost taken for granted that education happens outside the home. In Scripture the ultimate responsibility for educating children lies with parents. We are not to hand our children over to a state school, Christian school, or Sunday school in such a way as to let someone else take the ultimate responsibility. We need to be reminded of this.
In the Old Testament we see this principle, of indirectly teaching children by directly teaching parents, at work: ‘these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 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’ (Deut. 6:6-7). Here we see who should teach, what should be taught, and when it should be taught. God’s word is not like a ride at a theme park where height restrictions apply, ‘The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law’ (Deut. 9:29).
No one has a greater influence upon a child than a parent. The great truths of creation, fall, salvation in Christ and new creation, are to be learned at home. This requires commitment, diligence, patience, and prayer.
The church and Christian parents
In Paul’s letters we see again and again how the gospel of grace straightens out misshapen relationships (Eph. 5:22-6:9; Col. 3:18-4:1; Titus 2). Here we find the directives from God, grounded in the gospel, that shape day-to-day living in the home. Parents must be shown, and taught, from the word, what God requires of them. Children too must learn from the word how they must honour, respect, and obey their parents (Ex. 20:12; Eph. 6:1-3).
Ministers should find opportunities to teach from these passages whether or not they are part of the current Sunday series. Not only must there be clear teaching but there should also be, from the elders, encouragement, exhortation, modelling of family life, and where necessary correction. As well as emphasising this in teaching and by pastoral care, there is the vital ministry of older women to younger women in how to bring up children (Titus 2:3-5).
We live in a day when there are excellent resources available for children and families that churches can stock and recommend. John MacArthur’s What the Bible says about parenting and Ted Tripp’s Shepherding a Child’s Heart, are helpful ways in which the wider church can equip parents to educate and raise their children.
The church and children
Public worship and the teaching of God’s word, in the Old Testament and the New, is for all of God’s people. Indeed Moses commands, at the Feast of Booths, to ‘Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God’ (Deut. 31:12-13).
Our task is not to send all the children out during our gathered worship but to teach them that this is for them. This will involve getting them used to sitting still and helping them to understand the songs, reading and sermon. If you have young children draw appropriate cartoons to help them follow the sermon. We should ‘educate them up’ and not dumb the service down for them. If we do the latter we are sending the message that Christianity is something to grow out of and not a message so great that it transcends our highest thoughts. It is also important that families worship together, that children learn what is expected of them by seeing mum and dad listening to God’s word.
When the church teaches children it is vital to show them how the stories of the Bible are part of and make sense in the light of the ‘big story’ of redemptive history. In this way we can educate children to see that the Bible is not a random collection of spiritual and moral lessons but is one book with one message about the kingdom and grace of the one and only Saviour Jesus.
We also need the courage to turn back the clock and to learn the great catechisms. The best education that we can have would be to learn the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Learning by question and answer is found in Exodus 12:26-27, ‘And when your children say to you, “What do you mean by this service?” you shall say, “It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses”’. It is how we all learn, and it is a proven way to store the mind with essential biblical truths.
A husband and father, as the head of the home must lead the way in these matters. Christian families must know what God requires of them and be encouraged and exhorted to do it. All must be done so that the doctrine of God will be adorned, and the word of God not reviled.
Martin Downes is the minister of Christ Church, Deeside.