The Importance Of Family Religion

Last week we examined what is a Christian covenant family is. We saw the importance of family religion and the duty of the covenant head of household to ensure that it is maintained. This is consistently taught in the Scriptures both of the Old and New Testaments (e.g. Gen 18:19; Deut 6:3-9; Josh 4:6-7; Ps 78:5-7; Eph 5:26; 6:4; 1Tim 3:4-5 etc). We also suggested that the decline of Christianity in the present generation has a lot to do with the fact that most professedly Christian families are no longer functioning as genuine, biblical, covenant families; or in other words, Christian fathers are no longer leading their families in worship and instruction. This assertion is not without historical substantiation. The fact is that throughout the history of the Christian church, whenever family religion is emphasised, biblical Christianity flourished; and conversely, whenever family religion is neglected Christianity is impoverished.

In the first 3 centuries, the very early Church Fathers such as Ignatius, the two Clements, Tertullian, etc, all emphasised the biblical role of the father to instruct his wife and children in the Word. This emphasis on family religion continued until the 5th century, where we are reminded by John Chrysostom (A.D. 347-407), that the "house should be a church, and every head of a family a spiritual shepherd." No doubt, one of the key reasons why Christianity managed to stand more or less firm and pure during those formative years, despite many persecutions, was this teaching. Sadly, with the invention of monasteries, celibate clergy, and the banning of translations of the Bible into the common languages of the people, the role of the father as the spiritual leader of household was slowly eroded, and the church was in no time plunged into the darkness of the medieval ages.

By the grace of God, at the time of the Reformation, the Reformers saw the importance of family religion. They not only promoted it vigorously, but being aided by the invention of the printing press were able to distribute Bibles in the common language of the people, together with manuals and catechisms for family instructions. As a result, family religion was revived and biblical Christianity was to flourish again.

In England, this emphasis on family religion was to become the hallmark of Puritanism, so much so, that the Westminster Divines actually took family worship for granted (WCF 21.6), so that while they produced a directory for public worship, they did not write one for family worship. The directory of family worship that we often find printed together with our confession was actually produced and adopted by the general assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1647. In this document, the importance of family worship is deemed so great that a father who fails to lead his family in worship after repeated admonition is to be "suspended and debarred from the Lord’s Supper, as being justly esteemed unworthy to communicate therein till he amend."

In any case, there is no doubt that the English Puritans and so the American Puritans saw that the state of the church in general is directly correlated to the state of family religion in the homes which constitute the church. In 1679, the Synod of New England was convened in Boston in order to supply an answer to an inquiry by the General Court of the Massachusetts Colony as to what were "the evils that have provoked the Lord to bring judgements upon New England"? The Puritan divines who made up the synod responded with 14 reasons, one of which was: "There are many families that do not pray to God constantly, morning and evening, and many more where the Scriptures are not daily read so that the Word of God might dwell richly in them. There are too many houses that are full of ignorance and profaneness and that are not duly examined and for this cause wrath may come upon others round about them as well as upon themselves (Jos 22:20; Jer 5:7; 10:25). Many householders who profess religion, do not cause all that are within their gates to become subject unto good order as they ought (Ex 20:10)." (Cotton Mather, Great Works of Christ in America, 1:48).

It was probably this neglect of family religion that brought about the lull of Christianity just before the Great Awakening (1735-43). George Whitefield suggests this when he preached that "we must forever despair of seeing a primitive spirit of piety revived in the world until we are so happy as to see a revival of primitive family religion." Family religion was similarly emphasised by Jonathan Edwards, who in his "Farewell Sermon," reminded his Northampton congregation, that "family education and order are some of the chief means of grace. If these fail, all other means are likely to prove ineffectual" (Works I.ccvi). Sadly, the emphasis on family religion which came with the revival did not persist for long. This time, a major contributor to the decline, was, surprisingly: Sunday School!

In 1780, the decline of Christianity on both sides of the Pacific was so bad that England’s streets were filled with boys and girls who not only did not know Christ but did not attend church. Robert Raikes, who is famed as the founder of the Sunday School movement attempted to solve the problem by starting Sunday School classes. The children in the streets were invited to attend free classes on reading and writing—on Sundays—provided they first attended church with their teachers. But Sunday School soon evolved into the children’s education arm of most churches. Children were told Bible stories with the help of colourful pictures and catchy songs. But soon, what begun with good intentions became a bane of the church as it became a norm for children of Christian families to attend Sunday Schools; and Sunday Schools concurrently became the excuse for the neglect of religious education in Christian homes as parents began to have the notion that it is the church’s duty to instruct the children. Moreover, the children enjoy the ‘professionally’ conducted classes much more than boring catechising by their fathers. Thus, parents more and more abdicated their responsibility to instruct their children to the ever popular Sunday Schools. Thus, what was designed to ‘church’ children of unbelieving parents became the means erode family religion in Christian homes.

Is not the debilitated state of Christianity today directly due to the neglect of family religion? Ask an average professing Christian today if he knows what family worship is all about, and you are likely to get a blank stare or a quizzical look because he has never so much as heard of the phrase. Worst still, ask someone from a church where family worship is taught, and you are still likely to get sheepish look which says, "I’ve no time for that." Such an answer betrays a compartmentalised Christianity or Sunday Christianity that is no Christianity at all, for Christ says "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me" (Lk 9:23).

The importance of family religion cannot be over-emphasised. I have no doubt at all that we shall at the most be able to increase in numbers—of which will comprise largely of deluded-professors, almost-Christians and hypocrites—unless we begin to restore family religion to our church. In our subsequent articles we shall look at the biblical duty to catechise and the elements of family worship, which is, so central to family religion. But for now, let us take solemn heed to Thomas Manton’s warning: "The devil hath a great spite at the kingdom of Christ, and he knoweth no such compendious way to crush it in the egg, as by the perversion of youth, and supplanting family-duties. He striketh at all those duties which are publick in the assemblies of the saints; but these are too well guarded by the solemn injunctions and dying charge of Jesus Christ, as that he should ever hope totally to subvert and undermine them; but at family duties he striketh with the more success, because the institution is not so solemn, and the practice not so seriously and conscientiously regarded as it should be, and the omission is not so liable to notice and public censure. A family is the seminary of Church and State; and if children be not well principled there, all miscarrieth: a fault in the first concoction is not mended in the second; if youth be bred ill in the family, they prove ill in Church and Commonwealth; there is the first making or marring, and the presage of their future lives to be thence taken, Prov. 20:11" (Epistle to the Reader of the Westminster Standards)