Question: Regarding the training of covenant children, how do you reconcile the covenant family concept (with the father as the primary teacher) with role of the church?
At the recent children’s ministry conference sponsored by Christian Education and Publications, during the final question and answer period a number of questions went unanswered due to lack of time. I stated that we would answer some of those in the “In Case You’re Asked” section of Equip for Ministry.
Several different people raised the question above. We have addressed this topic in back issues of Equip and in our seminars on reaching the millennial generation. It is a good question that gives us an opportunity to restate and reinforce what we believe is the proper approach to training covenant children. I was recently sent a book for possible review entitled It Takes a Church to Raise A Christian. For years we have been saying it takes a covenant family to raise a covenant child.
Now in saying that, we realize that the covenant people of God include both immediate families and extended families. So when we say it takes a covenant family to raise a covenant child, we mean to communicate both concepts of family. Actually, there is not a good Hebrew word for “family,” so when we hear that term we generally think only of our immediate family. Many of the Scriptures relating to this topic are actually referring to the broader perspective of the people of God.
The PCA Book of Church Order (BOCO) is a good reference to use in answering the question because it is so consistent with Scripture at these points. For example: In chapter two, “The Visible Church Defined,” the BOCO states, “The visible Church [is] before the law, under the law, and now under the Gospel, is one and the same and consists of all those who make profession of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, together with their children.” We further read in chapter six, “Church Members,” “The children of believers are, through the covenant and by right of birth, noncommuning members of the church. Hence, they are entitled to Baptism, and to pastoral oversight, instruction, and government of the church, with a view to their embracing Christ and thus possessing personally all benefits of the covenant.”
In chapter eight, “The Elder,” we read in summary that the elders are responsible for oversight of the flock which means that the local church elders have a responsibility to care for the people, to oversee their teaching, instruction, and training, to know the people including the children. “…They should visit the people at their homes, especially the sick. They should instruct the ignorant, comfort the mourner, nourish and guard the children of the church. 8-3.”
We skip to the questions asked at the time of baptism and see as the parents answer questions posed by the pastor, so the congregation is asked, “Do you as a congregation undertake the responsibility of assisting the parents in the Christian nurture of this child?” [Emphasis added on all BOCO quotes above.]
Because of their Reformed theology, Presbyterians have a particular understanding of the covenant in the broader people sense. For that reason, we have always seen the responsibility for raising covenant children to be with parents and church working in tandem. Of course the immediate responsibility is given to the immediate family but the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments do not think simply of the immediate family.
Actually, as the covenant community of God, our biblical understanding of theology should drive our ministry to children. The church is in a key role of coordinating, facilitating, helping the covenant family know how to follow through with the vow listed above.
We must avoid extremes. There are those parents, and I will assume well-meaning ones, who take their responsibility so seriously that they believe they are the only ones responsible for the nurture of their children. On the other hand, I have encountered parents who by practice would maintain that through Sunday school and children and youth ministries, the church should take care of the spiritual nurture of their children. In reality, God requires that of the entire family.
Just yesterday I met with leaders of our children’s ministries in the PCA. It always amazes and disappoints me to hear that the parents seldom use the fine take-home papers that we (GCP) give to children in Sunday school. What tremendous opportunities they miss in those cases.
I know of churches that have split or splintered over this issue. I hope, however, that we would see the importance of uniting home and church to disciple God’s covenant children. Both the church and home should always remember that our covenant children are first God’s. We are his stewards in raising and nurturing them. We cannot afford to waste time arguing over whose responsibility.
At our recent annual children’s ministry conference (see news section of this issue) we showcased the many resources available to churches regarding children’s ministry. In addition, we also took a further step in our action plan of developing support networks for those in the PCA involved in children’s ministries.