Category Archives: Christian education

Book Review: The Gathering Storm

The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church, R. Albert Mohler Jr..  Nashville: Nelson Books, 2020.  Hardcover, 223 pages.

Albert Mohler has a well-deserved reputation as one of Christianity’s best culture critics.  He has a daily radio program (The Briefing) with thoughtful worldview analysis.  His blog (AlbertMohler.com) is on my must-read list.  When Mohler speaks or writes on a topic, you can be sure of two things:  1) he’ll be starting with the Bible as his foundation and 2) he’ll be aiming for the glory of God through the advance of the gospel.

He does it in this book on our contemporary cultural challenges too.  Here he’s addressing the overarching problem of secularism.  At the outset, I should say he’s writing as an American for an American audience.  I read it as an ex-pat Canadian living in Australia.  Some of the material in the book may seem irrelevant to people like me — the Appendix, for example, deals with the American Supreme Court and the role it plays in political decision-making.  You may have to stop and think about how that transfers to the Canadian or Australian situation (I think it does).  That said, Mohler does pay attention to developments elsewhere in the world.  He writes about situations in British Columbia, Alberta, France, and elsewhere.

The book contains both description and analysis.  If anyone has been paying attention, a lot of the descriptive material is going to be familiar.  He describes how secularism is a threatening storm in regard to civilization, the church, human life, marriage, family, and gender/sexuality.  Mohler’s analysis of these trends is where I found the real money for value in this book.

Let me share a few points of appreciation that might whet your appetite.

Already in the Introduction, Mohler explains that secular doesn’t mean “irreligious” or “non-religious.”  It means “that Christianity, which forged the moral and spiritual worldview of Western civilization, is being displaced.”  In the first chapter, he elaborates:

Secular, in terms of contemporary sociological and intellectual conversation, refers to the absence of any binding theistic authority or belief.  It is both an ideology, which is known as secularism, and a consequence, which is known as secularization.  The latter is not an ideology; it is a concept and a sociological process whereby societies become less theistic, and in our context that means less Christian in general outlook. (pp.4-5)

Elsewhere in the book he illustrates how secularism and secularization have religious and theological values.

The second chapter is entitled “The Gathering Storm in the Church.”  Mohler notes how the prophets of theological liberalism predicted that churches would need to adapt to the culture in order to survive.  He quotes a Baptist minister and lawyer, Oliver Thomas:  “Churches will continue hemorrhaging members until we face the truth:  being a faithful Christian does not mean accepting everything the Bible teaches” (p.30).  However, the truth is quite the opposite:  “it was actually liberal theology that lead to the evacuation of these churches” (p.19).  Mohler doesn’t discuss this, but I’d note that we heard the same canard from the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands about women in office.  Some from the RCN argued that the church can’t survive and grow while restricting the special offices of the church to men.  I wonder how that’s going for them.  If you look at the Christian Reformed Church in North America, after their decision to allow women in office in 1992, they’ve been on a steady downward trend in membership.  Adapting to the culture is not a recipe for growth.

That same chapter also issues a cry for the need for creeds and confessions.  Says Mohler, “Churches and denominations that have no confession of faith, or have a confession in name only, disarm themselves doctrinally” (p.36).  Quite right!  Historic Christian confessions which faithfully summarize the Bible are indispensable for keeping our doctrinal heads screwed on straight as the storm of secularism starts blowing in.

The chapter on gender and sexuality discusses the infamous Revoice Conference of 2018.  This conference was held to support, encourage and empower “gay, lesbian, same sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.”  This illustrates “the revolution’s demand on the church of Jesus Christ.”  One thing Mohler doesn’t mention is the fact that this conference was hosted by a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America.  In fact, the epicentre of the Revoice controversy has been in the PCA and how the church and its courts respond to it.

One of the troubling things about the Revoice Conference was the idea that a Christian can identify himself/herself in terms of being gay or lesbian, etc.  In other words, you can be a “gay Christian.”  Mohler dissents.  The most significant problem “is the idea that any believer can claim identity with a pattern of sexual attraction that is itself sinful” (p.108).  Some associated with Revoice argue that the attraction itself is not sinful.  Mohler’s response to this is worth a careful read:

The issues here are bigger than sexuality.  As Denny Burk and Rosaria Butterfield rightly explain, we confront here a basic evangelical disagreement with Roman Catholicism.  Ever since the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Roman Catholic Church has insisted that involuntary incentive to sin is not itself sin.  In the most amazing sentence, the Council of Trent declared: “This concupiscence, which the apostle sometimes calls sin, the holy Synod declares that the Catholic Church has never understood it to be called sin.”  Don’t miss the acknowledgement that the doctrine of Trent is contrary to the language of the apostle.  (p.109)

That was new to me; both the connection to Roman Catholicism, and how explicitly the Council of Trent repudiated biblical teaching on this point.

Finally, Mohler has a great chapter on the challenges facing our young people.  Again, the description is good, but the analysis is better.  But best of all is the way Mohler lays out a way to “apply the gospel power in order to engage the storm gathering over the coming generations.”  He argues that Christian parents have to lay hold of three things:

  1. Because it’s where the gospel is preached, church has to be the utmost and highest priority for Christian families.
  2. Christian parents need to both understand the challenge of technology, screen time, and social media and rise to meet that challenge.
  3. Christian parents have to disciple their children through family worship and quality family time.  (pp.140-141)

If I could add one item to this list:  recognizing the need for and value of Christian education.  After all, public education is one of the primary ways secularism seeks to indoctrinate our children.

I first became aware of The Gathering Storm through its promotion online through Mohler’s blog and other sources.  However, what really led me to buy it and read it was a friend and colleague from Canada who was doing a course for Christian school teachers on the biblical worldview and contemporary challenges to it.  I’d say that it is a must-read for Christian educators.  But no less so for parents and far more so for office bearers in Christ’s church.  I do wonder whether the storm is still gathering or whether it is upon us.  Whatever the case may be, none of us can be doing the ostrich thing.  We need to see what’s going on and then also realize that if we’re truly Christians, we have the solid foundation under our feet to weather it — and even see the gospel advance despite it.

 

 

 


Raising Covenant Children

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What difference does it make if the children of believers belong to the covenant of grace?  Chapter four of my book “I will be your God”:  An Easy Introduction to the Covenant of Grace addresses this question.  What follows here is an excerpt:

*******************

These spiritual truths must have an impact on how we concretely raise our children. Let us look at some of the ways. At home, as we talk to our children, we must teach them that they have been given rich gospel promises by our God. We must explain those promises, how beautiful they are, how rich, and how much good news. As soon as they can understand, we begin telling them about their baptism and what it means. From their youngest days, we tell them that baptism means that they have been claimed by God to be his child. We teach them to understand that claim, accept it, believe it, and then live accordingly. In other words, we disciple our children, we shepherd them. We raise them in the ways of the Lord; we raise them to be Christians.

In many churches, they have special youth pastors. So do confessionally Reformed churches like ours. We actually have a whole army of youth pastors in our churches. They are called parents. Parents are the front-line youth pastors in a Reformed church. Parents, your calling is to do what you promised to do at the baptism of your children: “instruct your child in this doctrine, as soon as he or she is able to understand and have him or her instructed therein to the utmost of your power.” Dear reader, if you are a parent, I want to urge you to take that calling seriously. It is your calling first and foremost, not the church through catechism classes or the teachers at the Christian school.  It is your calling to disciple and shepherd the children God has entrusted to you.

Yet, having made that point, no one should think that Christian education is optional for Reformed believers. We find this emphasized in article 58 of our Church Order:

The consistory shall ensure that the parents, to the best of their ability, have their children attend a school where the instruction given is in harmony with the Word of God as the church has summarized it in her confessions.

Here our churches have agreed that consistories shall pay attention to what is happening with the education of our covenant children. The elders have a responsibility to ensure that, as much as possible, the covenant children of each congregation are being taught in a way that not only does not conflict with what the church teaches, but which actually harmonizes with what the church teaches. This article in our Church Order follows article 57 about baptism. There is a good and biblical reason for that. Christian education follows from the covenant status of our children. Let me be clear: that does not begin with the consistory breathing down your neck about it. That begins with you being convinced in your heart as a Christian parent that your child has a special covenant status from which necessarily follows a Christian education. At our Christian schools, your child is educated in a way that fits with their position in the covenant of grace. That is just not going to happen in a public school. While there might be individual Christians teaching within the public system, it is a system dominated by a worldly and anti-Christian philosophy of education from the earliest levels to the highest. We want our children to honour God and acknowledge him in all their ways from their youngest years. Therefore, faithful parents of covenant children will always place enormous value on Christian education and even make great sacrifices to make it happen.

There is another important impact of our children’s place in the covenant and that has to do with the church. As participants in the covenant of grace, we believe that all our children are members of the church of Christ. They are not potential members or “members-in-training.” All our children, even the very youngest, they are all members of our churches. Sometimes there is this mistaken notion that our children become members when they do public profession of faith. This is simply not true. Our children become members when they come into the covenant of grace, which is to say, from the moment they are conceived in their mother’s womb. What happens at public profession of faith is not membership in the church, but a shift from being a non-communicant member to being a communicant member. At public profession of faith, our children take responsibility for their church membership. Yet they have always been members of the church. That is an important point of difference with so many around us. So many Christians today do not look at their children as being members of the church. This is not a theoretical question — it has a practical bearing.

One crucial place the practical bearing comes into play is public worship. If the kids are not members, then they do not really belong in public worship. They do not understand anything anyway; they are not going to get anything out of it. Therefore, instead of meeting with God along with the adults, the kids can and should go to some program designed especially for them. This is what inevitably follows from restricting the covenant and church membership to believers only.

We take a different approach and we always have. Children belong to the church, therefore they belong in public worship as soon as possible. They belong in that covenant meeting between God and his people, because they are part of God’s people. To leave them out would be to say that the call to worship for God’s people does not apply to them. If we are consistent with following through on our covenant theology, that would be unthinkable.

There was that occasion in Mark 10 where the disciples tried to keep those covenant children away from Jesus. The disciples thought that Jesus was way too important for these little kids. Scripture says in Mark 10:14 that when Jesus saw this he became indignant. It infuriated him that his disciples would restrict these little covenant people from having access to him. Then he took these little people in his arms, he hugged them and blessed them. Our Lord Jesus is not here today on earth to hug the little brothers and sisters, but he is still here to bless them too whenever we worship. It would make Jesus indignant for anyone to keep them away. Our covenant children belong in the church and they belong in our worship services. Indeed, still today we can say, “Let the little children come to Jesus, do not hinder them!”

As soon as they are able, we want to see our covenant children meeting with their God. “As soon as they are able” means that there is going to be some variation and we cannot set a hard and fast rule about it. Some children are squirmier than others. I get that — I have kids too. Some kids come into this world naturally more docile and they can sit in church when they are two. Other kids are going to take a little while longer and that is perfectly okay. Yet they all belong there eventually. There are going to be some challenges that come along with that. Sometimes kids learning to come to church are going to make some noise and be a bit restless. The rest of us in the covenant community have to cut parents and kids some slack, be patient, and just rejoice that these kids are there. Let the little children come! They belong with us in God’s presence, all of them. God is present to bless them as well as us.

As parents, there are some things we need to do to make that happen. From as soon as they able to understand, we start teaching them about what church is and what we are doing when we gather for worship. This is part of discipleship. We teach them to be respectful and reverent in church. When they are able to read, we make sure they have a Bible and a Book of Praise. We make sure they start following along and that they are singing with the rest of the congregation. We teach them to do these things from when they are young. We do not tell them it is optional, that you can sing if you feel like it. No, we are all part of God’s covenant people and so we all sing together, young and old, good singers and not-so-good singers. When the collection comes, we have to make sure that our kids are actively participating in that element of our worship too. They can put money in the collection. That is part of worship too, something they can easily do to worship the LORD. Moreover, what about the sermon? Many times, the minister will work the kids into the sermon. Parents of covenant children should follow up on that and make sure their kids understand. God’s Word is for them too. You can often be surprised what kids pick up and we should encourage them to be listening to God’s Word as it is preached. It is for them too, as part of God’s covenant people they are also being addressed.


Reflecting On and Improving Classroom Devotions

Bible-classroom

Last week I was invited to lead a workshop at the 2014 Canadian Reformed Teachers Association convention here in Hamilton.  The topic of my workshop was classroom devotions.  As I was preparing for it, I looked around for what others have written in terms of reflection on it.  There are lots of “classroom devotions” and such materials, but I could find very little on the principles and purpose, etc.  There is a chapter in John Van Dyk’s book Letters to Lisa: Conversations with a Christian Teacher.  There’s also an article in the Spring/Summer 2009 issue of the CRTA magazine Compass.  Aside from that, I didn’t find anything else and that was with the help of some of the faculty at the Covenant Canadian Reformed Teachers College.   By sharing my notes from last week’s workshop, I hope to offer a small contribution to help address this gap in the literature.  You can find it here.  


Book Review: Comforting Hearts, Teaching Minds

9781596384651-Meade-Comforting-hearts-teaching-minds

Comforting Hearts, Teaching Minds:  Family Devotions Based on the Heidelberg Catechism, Starr Meade, Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2013.  Paperback, $16.09, 255 pages.

For many Reformed parents, the catechizing of their children begins and ends with catechism classes taught by the church.  This is despite the fact that the third baptismal question is very clear.  Parents first of all promise that they will instruct their children in the “complete doctrine of salvation” as soon as those children are able to understand.  The catechism teaching done by the church is not meant to replace this parental catechism teaching, but to complement or supplement it.  But how do we implement parental catechism instruction in the home?  That’s where a book like this promises to be very helpful.

The same author wrote a similar book based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Training Hearts, Teaching Minds.   Our family used this book profitably for several years and by the time we were done with it, it was falling apart.  Our experiences with the previous volume led me to have high hopes for this one as a replacement.  After a few months of using it in our family worship, I can report that, overall, it is a worthwhile tool.  However, discernment is needed on some important points.

A week of devotions (Monday-Saturday) is spent on each Lord’s Day of the Catechism.  Occasionally a Lord’s Day will be spread over two weeks.  Each day features a short devotional that can be read in less than five minutes.  The devotionals also include one or more readings from the Bible to show the connection between the Catechism and Scripture.  The devotionals are well-written and often include vivid illustrations.  Most of the teaching given in these devotionals is faithful to the Reformed faith.  While even preschool children can benefit from these devotionals, those benefitting the most will be school age.

Unfortunately, I do have to share two significant criticisms.  I share them in the hope that parents who want to use this book will use it with discernment.  First, parents should be aware that Meade uses the edition of the Heidelberg Catechism adopted by the Christian Reformed Church.  This has a couple of regrettable drawbacks.  First, we want our children to learn the Catechism as adopted by our churches.  This means that parents should keep the Book of Praise at hand and read the Catechism in the Canadian Reformed edition, rather than the text as printed in this book.  The second drawback is more significant.  The CRC edition of the Catechism dropped QA 80 about the Roman Catholic mass.  Meade follows the CRC lead and even states in a footnote, “There has been concern among those who use this catechism that the position of the Roman Catholic Church may not be stated accurately.  Therefore, I have chosen to omit Question 80 altogether” (160).  If Meade had only done some research, she would have discovered that this “concern” was only among some and actually said far more about the CRC than about the Catechism and its portrayal of Rome.  This puts Canadian Reformed parents who use this book in the position of having to teach QA 80 on their own – and they should.

My second criticism has to do with Lord’s Day 27 and infant baptism.  According to the author’s website, she and her husband teach a Sunday School class at a Reformed Baptist church in Arizona.  I would assume that they are also members at this church.  This puts the author in an awkward position when it comes to Lord’s Day 27.  This was not an issue in the previous book on the Westminster Shorter Catechism (which also teaches infant baptism).  It seems to me that the author may have changed her views on this between the two books.  When it comes to Comforting Hearts, Teaching Minds, the author is very brief on infant baptism and does not teach it or defend it.  All she does is note that there are differences amongst Christians on this question and encourages families to discuss where they and their church stand on it.  This is not faithful to the intent of the Catechism.  The Catechism was written to teach the Reformed faith and that faith includes the truth that the children of believers belong to God’s covenant and therefore should receive holy baptism.  This is the whole point of QA 74!  Unfortunately, Meade’s Baptist bias comes out elsewhere in her treatment of the sacraments as well.  For instance, in the Friday devotion on Lord’s Day 25, she writes, “Baptism is a sign used once, when we first come to Christ.”  While baptism certainly is a sign to be used only once, there’s no recognition that it’s to be used when Christ first comes to us – and that could be (and often is) as a little covenant baby.  Reformed parents who use this book will have to be cautious about this and intentional about filling out the gaps in Meade’s approach.

We need more books like this, tools to help us catechize our children as we promised to do.  We need books like this written by men and women who share a wholehearted commitment to the Reformed faith – with no reservations about any points of doctrine.  While I believe this book could be used with profit (and we certainly are profiting in our home), it should only be seen as a stop-gap measure until something better comes along.


Being Subversive

Over the weekend, I finished reading Charlie R. Steen’s A Chronicle of Conflict: Tournai, 1559-1567.  Tournai was the city where the Belgic Confession was penned and where it first became public in 1561.  This book covers the years before and after, though the Belgic Confession is never actually mentioned.  This book is a disappointment in some respects.  The author portrays the Reformed churches and their pastors as revolutionaries.  He seems to adopt the view of the government of this period that Guy de Bres and the other Reformed believers were actually seditious people intent on overthrowing civil order.  In that regard, Steen also makes several crucial errors in fact.  For instance, he argues that de Bres was involved with leading nocturnal psalm-singing in the streets of Tournai (30).  In point of fact, de Bres warned the Reformed believers not to do this.  Moreover, Steen often confuses the rabble that used the Calvinistic label  as a pre-text for their civil disorder with devout Reformed believers who opposed it.  In short, this account of this period in Tournai’s history is not sympathetic to the Reformed churches, nor does it even really present a balanced view of things.  Instead, in some places it seems like Steen has an axe to grind with the Calvinists.  Finally, even though it is a scholarly work, many of the author’s statements are unsubstantiated.  There are end notes, but there could have been many more.

Nevertheless, it is an engaging read and there are some interesting and helpful points to take away from it.  One thing that I was reminded of was that there were at least three main things that the Reformed held to which were considered subversive and seditious by the government in Brussels:

1)  Psalm-singing.  This was mostly because of the obnoxious chanteries, or public psalm-singings that always took place at night in Tournai.  Margaret of Parma eventually made psalm-singing a capital crime.  The psalms (the Word of God!) were considered to be seditious words — it became treasonous to read or sing them.

2)  The deaconate.  When the time seemed right, the consistory of the Reformed church in Tournai began taking collections for the care of the poor.  A deaconate ministry was established.  Margaret of Parma regarded this as a “obvious and pernicious conspiracy.”  The Reformed were seizing privileges and prerogatives that belonged only to the civil magistrates.  Welfare belonged to the state and the church was out of bounds to try and work in this area.

3)  Christian education.  The consistory in Tournai wanted to establish Christian schools for the children of the Reformed church.  This was also regarded as seditious since education belonged to the realm of government.  After Philip II regained control of Tournai in 1567, a law was made which stated that Reformed children had to be sent to Roman Catholic schools.  If they were not, they could be taken away from their parents.

One item that Steen doesn’t mention is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  This was actually the reason why de Bres was hung on May 31, 1567.  He was hung for celebrating the Lord’s Supper against the orders of the civil magistrate.  In fact, the celebration of both sacraments by the Reformed was regarded as seditious.  Babies who were baptized in the Reformed church during its brief time of relative freedom later had to be rebaptized in the Roman Catholic Church.

The three main items mentioned above could still be regarded as subversive, even if they are no longer regarded as seditious.  They are counter-cultural.  The singing of psalms is virtually unheard of in churches today.  Ironically, some of our own Reformed people would be happy to get rid of most of them too.  The deaconate too is a rare institution in Christian churches, though I don’t think the government would complain if our deacons were to do more.  As for Christian education, it is also a niche endeavour for the most part.  As for the civil government, in most Canadian jurisdictions Christian schools are just barely tolerated.