In the age of the Internet and Facebook, along with other social media platforms, we as Christians have an opportunity unlike anytime before to discuss and debate our theological differences. In many ways it’s been a positive thing, encouraging us in the study of God’s Word and challenging us in theological truth and defense of our faith. It’s not always a good thing though. It’s easy to lose sight of our purpose and be motivated by the wrong things.
The Theology Gals podcast has started a new series titled “What do they believe?” We often receive questions about theological traditions, what they believe and how they differ from Reformed theology. These episodes will not be debates. The series will primarily focus on explaining each specific theological framework, how it is different from confessional Reformed theology and what we are unified in. I think it’s a good opportunity for us to talk about the why and how of theological discussion and debate.
The Purpose of Debate
While I was arranging the first episode in the series, onLutheranism, with Pastor Brian Thomas, Pastor Brian suggested that we also discuss, “how Christians from differing traditions can, and should, discuss and debate our differences in a generous, kind and honest fashion while recognizing we all belong to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” One thing he said on the episode was, “Remember the point of theological debate is unity”
I don’t think people often think of unity as a reason for discussion of opposing views, especially when it so often seems to cause disunity. I’ve seen some of the most ugly, unkind, ungracious behavior in theological debate, surely not something that looks like unity. Even in our disagreements we must be mindful of what unifies us, particularly on essentials as we are united in Christ. Our discussions should be for the purpose of edification, growth in the faith and knowledge of the Lord through His Word. This is not unity at the expense of truth, but rather a reminder of the foundation of it, our common faith in Christ and the Word of God as our basis for truth.
Ephesians 4:13 says, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.”
John Calvin explains in his commentary on this passage that we will not have perfect unity before glory, but that we should still aspire to it:
“In the unity of the faith. But ought not the unity of the faith to reign among us from the very commencement? It does reign, I acknowledge, among the sons of God, but not so perfectly as to make them come together. Such is the weakness of our nature, that it is enough if every day brings some nearer to others, and all nearer to Christ. The expression, coming together, denotes that closest union to which we still aspire, and which we shall never reach, until this garment of the flesh, which is always accompanied by some remains of ignorance and weakness, shall have been laid aside.”
Calvin is right that such is the weakness of our nature that our unity is not perfect. One way we can aspire to unity is to be mindful of the way we discuss and debate these things and of our purpose. When we discuss our differences, remembering that we agree on the essentials, that we are united in our faith in Christ should encourage us in wisdom in the way we do this, remembering we are all part of the same body, the same holy, catholic and apostolic church.
“Say what you mean, but you don’t have to say it mean.”
One of pastor Brian’s encouragements in theological debate is, “Be respectful and kind. Say what you mean, but you don’t have to say it mean.” Because of strong feelings about our theological views it’s easy to let our emotions play a part in these debates. It can be difficult to accept and make sense of a disagreement with someone who claims the same foundation for an opposing belief, specifically God’s Word. Discussions are far more fruitful when the parties are kind and respectful of one another. If you are mean and attack someone in theological discussion, it puts them on the defensive and they may not really listen to what you’re saying. It can also cause disunity.
“Be clear on both sides and major on the majors. Understand what it is we disagree about.” This is another great encouragement from Pastor Brian’s list on how to debate our differences. I think there are many debates which would be avoided if each side understood what it is they’re disagreeing about. In fact, there are times where the people debating aren’t really as far apart in their views as they assume. Not understanding the opposing view can lead to unnecessary contentious debate, as can making mountains out of molehills on theological topics. When we’re discussing our differences, our vigor should match the size of the hill, especially if it’s one we’re choosing to die on.
Because of our common faith in Christ, we are united together in the Church, the body of Christ. Love for Christ includes love for His Church and the truth of His Word. As believers, we’re called to unity and peace with one another. (See 1 Corinthians 10:10 and Philippians 2:2.) When differences arise on secondary issues we must stand firm, but not neglect the many things we’re exhorted to in our interactions with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Colossians 3:8 tells us that “those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience…” We must remember these things even in our disagreements.
Theology Gals is on the Bible Thumping Wingnut Network with many who hold different theological views from one another. We’re aware of our differences. Ultimately it’s our common faith in Christ which unites us. I have witnessed a great example of brothers discussing differences well for over 25 years on the White Horse Inn radio show. For many of those years, Reformed, Lutheran and Reformed Baptist brothers would discuss a topic focusing on the essentials they agree on, but not neglecting to recognize where they disagree and why. They do this with kindness and respect.
We should discuss our differences out of love, encouraging one another in theological truth through the study of Scripture. There are benefits to discussing our differences when done well. It should challenge us to know what we believe and why, and how to defend it, although not to the point of drawing blood from our brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s easy to focus on our differences and forget that we agree on far more than we disagree on. Hence, we must be mindful of seeking unity in our common faith in Jesus Christ, knowledge of His Word and obedience to it.
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I hear quite often from women who are struggling to find other women who are interested in theology. In some cases women are intimidated by it and in many cases they just aren’t interested. A lot of Christian women don’t understand why theology should be important to them.
If you visit a Christian bookstore, you’ll quickly see the result of women neglecting theology. Most popular resources for women are not grounded in Biblical truth, and many women don’t have the discernment to recognize it. In so much of American Christianity, the emphasis is on “experiencing God” over knowing Him through what He’s revealed about Himself in His Word. This tends to be the primary emphasis of many Christian women and the books they love. Some even think doctrine is a distraction from their experience. That’s exactly what one woman told me upon leaving the Theology Gals Facebook group recently. An emphasis on experience at the expense of truth is just one example of the problems you’ll find in the most popular of these books.
Theology is important for every believer:
“Theology simply means ‘the study of God,’ and doctrine means ‘teaching.’ Since the main message of Scripture is the unfolding mystery of Christ, who reveals his Father and reconciles us to him, theology is a central concern of every believer. It would be odd if we told our spouse or other loved ones that we wanted to spend time with them and experience their fellowship regularly but did not want to know anything about them—their characteristics, accomplishments, personal histories, likes and dislikes, and plans for the future.” – Michael Horton
Here are just a few of the reasons why women should be studying theology:
- To know God As children of God, we should know the One who has saved us, and how He has saved us, the story of redemption. We should know our Lord, who we are to love and worship. How can we love and worship a God we don’t know? In Pilgrim Theology Michael Horton explains, “Many Christians assume that we can just experience God in a personal relationship apart from doctrine, but that’s impossible. You cannot experience God without knowing who he is, what he has done, and who you are in relation to him. Even our most basic Christian experiences and commitments are theological. ‘I just love Jesus,’ some say. But who is Jesus? And why do you love him?”
- For discernment We need to discern those things which are consistent with Scripture and those which are not. We learn discernment through the knowledge of God’s Word. Philippians 1:9-10 says, “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ;…”
- For life Whether it’s parenting, suffering, or a variety of other life issues, God’s Word gives us everything we need for Christian faith and practice. Understanding who God is – His sovereignty, love, grace and other attributes – brings us comfort during suffering. It’s through His Word that we find wisdom for our lives. There are a lot of practical books available for women, but many of those are absent of doctrine and based on unbiblical principles.
- To understand who we are in Christ Many of the resources available for women downplay sin, and therefore don’t emphasize our need for and magnificence of the gospel. Knowing theology is essential in helping us understand the weight of our sin, along with the the amazing grace lavished on us through the gospel. As believers we don’t hear the gospel once and then we’re done. As Rod Rosenbladt says, “The gospel is for Christians too.” I’ve spoken with women who lack understanding of the true gospel, including justification and sanctification. It’s through theology that we know what Christ has done for us. It also points us to the how and why of obedience, along with our standing before God through Christ, even as we continue to struggle with sin.
One reason Theology Gals exists is to encourage women in the study of God’s Word. We want women to understand why theology is important, and also offer resources which may be less intimidating for women who are new to the study and understanding of theology. On our podcast we will be discussing various topics and encouraging further study. Please write to us with any ideas you have on things you would like us to discuss.
Some of our favorite sites for women:
Wise in His Eyes
Narrow Minded Woman
I’ll never forget the day my husband said, “You just can’t do it, not now, not with how sick you are. I think we need to send the kids to school.” I’d been sick for a while and things were only getting worse. I think I’d ended up in the hospital something like fifteen times already that year. It wouldn’t be long before I’d spend a month at the Mayo Clinic in another state. I knew he was right, I was barely able to care for myself, let alone homeschool four children. My children were already falling behind. There may be people who are thinking we could have continued homeschooling if we “really wanted to”. There is nothing you can say to me that I have not already heard from my circle of homeschool parents, or that I myself would have thought about someone in my situation. This was my husband’s decision, and I respected it. My husband is amazing, everything he has done to love and care for me through a horrible illness, while he provided for us and made sure our household ran smoothly. There was a time that I would have also been very judgmental of others in our situation.
We were never going to send our children to public school, not that awful place. Even before our first date, my husband and I talked about homeschooling our children. Brenton announced, “My children will be homeschooled.” This was great with me since I wanted to homeschool my children one day. Those of you who may judge our family now for sending our kids to school, you are probably not thinking anything that I did not also think when I would hear that a Christian was sending their child to that ungodly place we call public school. If there was an award for being a self-righteous, judgmental, homeschooling mom, I would have won first prize. I had no grace for families who weren’t homeschooling. Surely they hadn’t done everything necessary to make it work. I believed every mom could find a way, and if you weren’t homeschooling, then you just hadn’t tried hard enough.
There’s nothing like finding yourself in a situation like we did, which was in many ways humiliating, but also brought other moms and dads our way with their own stories. And what I’ve learned is that there are many wonderful Christians in situations where homeschooling wasn’t the answer. It simply wasn’t possible. I have heard from parents who are single due to divorce or the death of their husband or wife, from parents with a severely ill spouse, and other situations.
Homeschooling has been a good option for many families
In the last 25 years the homeschooling movement has grown quite rapidly, especially in Christian circles. With the decline of public education, many Christian families have looked for educational alternatives for their children and in many cases homeschooling has been the best option available to them. In recent years Christian attitudes towards public education have become more and more negative, and rightly so. In some circles, especially my own, Reformed and Calvinistic, some will go so far as to accuse Christian parents of sin if they send their children to public school. I’ve been a part of multiple conversations where such a view has been expressed. There are parents who find themselves with no other options but public school, who are struggling because of it, especially because they themselves often desire other options, but have none. They are being judged by their brothers and sisters, which adds to their heartache. Often those judging don’t know all of the details of the situation one finds themselves in, and may be making assumptions.
Is public school a sin?
Accusing Christians who send their children to public school of sin concerns me, because while I believe there is often wisdom in choosing alternatives, there are situations where homeschooling isn’t an option. I’m not going to address the arguments at this point about whether it’s a sin, but rather explain why we should be careful with such accusations. If it is a sin to send children to public school, then it would require confrontation with the hope of repentance and ultimately church discipline if the unrepentant sin continued. I know only a few churches, generally small and independent, which are known for their stance on homeschooling, that would take it that far, and yet many are still being accused and condemned on places like social media. Few Reformed churches would consider it a sin or a church discipline matter. When I bring up single parents who find themselves with no other options, or my situation, I’m often told, “That is different, and the judgments aren’t for those parents.” The problem is that it’s either a sin for Christian parents to send their kids to public school or it isn’t. More care should be taken with accusations of sin, especially if it’s not something which would be dealt with in the church the same way as we deal with other unrepentant sin. And even if one isn’t going so far as to accuse sin, the judgments are often quite harsh, much like my own were. What I can still agree with is that there is wisdom in finding other educational alternatives aside from public schooling. Many Christian public school parents would say the same, but feel stuck without any other options.
Public education is rapidly declining
There have recently been bathroom policies being enforced in public schools so that boys can go into the girls restroom if they identify as one, and vice versa. I know some schools are coming up with alternatives, like making a private bathroom available when necessary, and not all schools have such children which are needing to be accommodated. We will continue to see changes in public education which will make us uncomfortable.
Christians have valid concerns regarding public education: non-Christian teachers, curricula which is not from a Biblical perspective, the influence of peers, a science curriculum which teaches against a Creator, sex education which finds homosexuality and sexual immorality acceptable, and an overall non-Christian worldview. Entrusting our children to the ungodly for their education may be a valid concern.
I don’t want to neglect to recognize that public schools can vary, something many parents have pointed out to me. A public school in a small, midwestern town may be quite different than one in an urban area. I spoke with one public school mom who lives in a small town and works at the school her children attend. A lot of the staff are people from her church. Having spoken with many public school parents and teachers from different areas, the vast differences are evident. I understand that all are still run by the state and are not Christian, but the tendency towards broad generalizations is not helpful, nor fair, nor the consistent experience of all of those who have chosen public schools. There are often statistics mentioned by the homeschool crowd which are not representative of each and every individual public school.
Should Church schools be an option?
J. Gresham Machen talked about Christian schools. He said, “I can see little consistency in a type of Christian activity which preaches the gospel on the street corners and at the ends of the earth, but neglects the children of the covenant by abandoning them to a cold and unbelieving secularism.” Many covenant children are being abandoned and left with only public schooling as an option. Even most Christian schools today are full of children from outside the church and promote theology contrary to what most of us are raising our children in. Machen went on to say, “But one of its marked characteristics, in sharp distinction from the secular education of today, is that it exalts the family as a blessed divine institution and treats the scholars in its classes as children of the covenant to be brought up above all things in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” I think the church’s help may be necessary in starting these sorts of schools, as few exist. I think what Machen is referring to is not happening in most Christian schools today, but I believe would happen in church schools. I’d like to see the kind of schools Machen is referring to. How can we provide a good Reformed Christian education which is available to all covenant children? While homeschooling is working for many, there are those who are left out who are ultimately being abandoned to a cold and unbelieving secularism as Machen said.
“Christian education of our covenant children is a moral obligation of Reformed families,” says R. Scott Clark. “I don’t want to hear from any of you about how I’m denigrating Christian education. I’m not. There is no question about the necessity and importance of Christian education of our covenant children. If we are not diligent to see to it that our children receive a Christian education, we will reap the whirlwind. Nevertheless, the local Christian school is not a divine institution and neither are the several dozen other Christian agencies that we often support. The only agency directly instituted by our Lord for the advancement of His kingdom is the agency to which He gave the keys of the kingdom: the visible, institutional church (Matt 16:18; 28:18-20). As important as it is as an aid to the Christian nurture of our children, the local Christian school may not preach the gospel in an official way, it certainly may not administer the sacraments or church discipline. It belongs to the sphere of the family, not the sphere of the church. That’s why we don’t have parochial schools.”
I agree with Dr. Clark that the education of our children belongs in the sphere of the family. The problem is there are few options for Reformed Christians. I think at this point we may need the church’s assistance in providing a good Christian education to all covenant children, especially one that will teach correct theology and exalt the family. We need to talk about how we can make Christian education available to those with no options. I’m not sure how good Reformed Christian schools could be created at this point without the church. At the least, we need to be having conversations about future options for Christian education.
Church schools could be the answer. I am not denying the primary work of the church, preaching of the Word and administering the sacraments, but I still believe the church could assist in helping to offer educational alternatives for its covenant children. After speaking with many and researching, I don’t see a lot of educational options for the children of Reformed Christians. Homeschooling just isn’t the answer for everyone as it leaves so many families out and most Christian schools don’t promote Reformed theology. I’ve also spoken with many homeschooling parents who are struggling to provide an adequate education for their children, especially as they get older, and who would love to see church schools as an option. While many homeschool children are succeeding academically, there is also the problem of educational neglect in some Christian homeschools.
Answering the objections to church schools
I’d like to address some of the initial objections that Christians make to the idea of church schools:
- I attended a Christian school and it was no better than public school.
A church school isn’t a Christian school that is open to anyone who can pay. I’m speaking of parochial schools that would be available only to the children of members of that church. It is staffed by the people in the church. It’s run by the church community.
- Most of our members can’t afford any extra expenses like tuition.
I agree, especially those families who are unable to homeschool. These schools are provided regardless of ability to contribute financially, but we need the help of those in the Church to make it work. There are several different models and there are churches who have them in place already. I have even talked with a couple of very poor churches which have made this happen. There are ways to do it which I will explain in more detail later in this series.
- We’re a small church, we can’t afford it, and we don’t have the space.
The wonderful thing about putting together a church school is you can be flexible. There are different models and inexpensive options which I will be talking about later in this series. Church schools are staffed by members of the church, often moms. I’ve seen a one room schoolhouse model in the basement of a member’s home. It’s possible with the church working together. If moms can homeschool, they can help run a church school. It can even look like many of the homeschool co-ops that homeschoolers are a part of, and where many moms teach.
- Our church already has something in place for those unable to homeschool.
If this is the case, wonderful. I have heard of churches that have put into place ways to assure each of their children are receiving a good Christian education, especially in situations where the parents themselves are unable to homeschool. I have in the past, homeschooled the children of a single mom, and other children whose parents are not able at that point. I don’t think that happens very often though. When I found myself in the same situation, not one person offered assistance, except my mother, and she could only offer so much help. I’m not upset at those in my circles for not offering help. It’s hard enough homeschooling your own children. Regardless of what educational options we come up with, I think it needs to be a joint effort.
My family’s story
You may be wondering what happened with our family since I started this article on a very personal note. All of my children were homeschooled for quite some time before they were sent to school. When we initially enrolled two of them in school, and eventually a third in our local charter school, I received some help with my children still at home from my mother, a retired teacher. I heard from people in our homeschool community about someone who homeschooled through whatever illness, and if they could do it, so could I. I think it’s dangerous and unfair to make comparisons. I won’t get into the details now of the illness which continues to be debilitating. It has been quite life changing, but I can point to God’s grace, even though we had to make some difficult decisions. It’s not an exaggerating when I say that there were times when both my husband and I wondered if I would live through it. During one of my hospital stays, the Dr. Sat by my bed and said, “Do you understand you almost died last night? Do you understand how serious this is, that you could die?” I was clearly aware. That was right before we put the kids in school. We were in survival mode for a while.
Three of my children have attended small charter schools and have done quite well. We’ve had a fairly good experience with the charter schools in our small town. We are especially grateful for the small math/science/technology charter high school only a few miles from our home. They have a great program with our local college. My son who is a junior now hopes to graduate with a year of college under his belt. The school also has home study days. That same son was able to start with Algebra 2 in 9th grade followed by trigonometry, calculus and so on. He’ll graduate with five years of math, which will be beneficial for the things he’s considering studying in college. I don’t doubt that the foundation I helped build in our homeschool has been helpful. I also have to recognize he has received a better high school education than I could have provided at home. My youngest son will be a freshman next year and is on much the same educational track.
My children love learning, which I believe my husband and I have instilled in them. My 11th grader goes to bed early so he can wake at 3:30am to finish up any studying, but especially to have extra time to work on the languages he’s been learning on his own through an online program. He’s gotten quite good at Swedish and is working on two other languages besides the Spanish he’s taking in high school. Each of my children have things they enjoy studying on their own, specific areas of interest which they plan to pursue in some way and I’m quite proud of them. They love learning and have many ambitions. My kids are doing well and I’ve enjoyed the teenage years.
I will be writing more on this topic. We do have a problem, and we need to be talking about it. There are several who are preaching the evils of public education and homeschooling has worked for many as an alternative. But there are more reasons than what I’ve outlined here why I’m unsure if homeschooling is the answer. Let’s start talking about some long term solutions for educating covenant children.
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Bible Dictionary- The Hebrew word translated “gossip” in the Old Testament is defined as “one who reveals secrets, one who goes about as a talebearer or scandal-monger.” A gossiper is a person who has privileged information about people and proceeds to reveal that information to those who have no business knowing it.
Webster’s dictionary gossip- casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.
Gossip is distinguished from sharing information in two ways. What is being shared and why it’s being shared.
Bible dictionary -properly, a slanderer; a false accuser; unjustly criticizing to hurt (malign) and condemn to sever a relationship
in secular Greek means “backbiter,” i.e. an accuser, calumniator (slanderer). 1228 (diábolos) is literally someone who “casts through,” i.e. making charges that bring down (destroy)
Webster’s dictionary – the action or crime of making a false spoken statement damaging to a person’s reputation.
Verses About Gossip and Slander
Proverbs 11:13 Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets; therefore do not associate with a simple babble
Proverbs 10:18 He who conceals hatred has lying lips, And he who spreads slander is a fool
Proverbs 16:28 A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends
Proverbs 11:13 Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered
Ephesians 2:8&9 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
Exodus 23:1 Do not spread false reports. Do not help a guilty person by being a malicious witness.
James 4:11 Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it.
I Timothy 5:13&14 At the same time they also learn to be idle, as they go around from house to house; and not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things not proper to mention. 14 Therefore, I want younger widows to get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach;
Titus 2:2-5 Older men are to be temperate, dignified, sensible, sound in faith, in love, in perseverance. 3 Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, 4 so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, 5 to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored.
Ephesians 4:29 Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.
James 1:26 If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless.
For further reading;
Slander in the Camp by Tim Lane
Godless Gossip by Max Dover
The 5 Gossips You Will Meet by Tim Challies
Resisting Gossip by Tim Challies
How to Shut Down Gossip by Erik Raymond
When I started having children I was going to do everything right as a mom and my children were all going to grow up and live committed Christian lives. That was the plan at least. So many things didn’t turn out the way I planned, but the Lord has used some of those difficult things in my life.
My oldest son Jonathan was an intelligent and determined kid from the time he was quite young. He was an early talker and once he started, he never stopped. He’s almost 21 now and we’re still listening. He always loved to sing the Psalms and hymns. Before he was three he could sing through all verses of his favorite hymn, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. On Sunday evenings when our church would take hymn requests, his hand was the first up. He had many favorites, oftentimes it was whatever hymn we’d been working on in family worship.
As a little kid he loved playing pretend church. He received a children’s microphone and mic stand for his fourth birthday. He would set it up in front of the fireplace and say, “We’re doing church now.” He’d get frustrated with his little brothers when they wouldn’t sit still while he led music and preached a mini sermon. It wasn’t just the playing though; he liked to talk about the Lord and things from Scripture and discuss what he was learning from the children’s catechism.
At four-and-a-half years old he came to me and said, “Mommy, if Jesus paid for all my sins, why did he only die on the cross once?” I tried explaining but he looked at me puzzled and said, “Can you call Pastor now and get the right answer?” He wasn’t satisfied with Pastor’s answer either, declaring it was “too much.” When an OPC Pastor friend was visiting, he gave Jonathan an answer that made sense to him and that he finally understood. These were the sorts of things he was thinking about and trying to understand at an early age.
I was encouraged from the time he was young that he was thinking through things of the Christian faith. During family worship he was excited to learn, loved to ask and answer questions and prayed fervently. He was determined to memorize the Children’s Catechism and had all 145 answers memorized by the time he was six-and-a-half. We sometimes even wondered if he would be a pastor one day. As he got older he became increasingly passionate about the Christian faith. He was unashamed and would talk to anyone who would listen. By middle school he was learning more about apologetics and reading various Christian books. We continued to have these amazing conversations with him about the faith. We were convinced he had truly trusted in Christ.
Then everything changed.
I really can’t tell you exactly when, but sometime in high school he began questioning things. Our family had entered into a difficult season. I became very sick and was in and out of the hospital, and I knew he feared losing me. It changed our lives in many ways. He observed me in excruciating pain and physical misery. We also suffered several losses close together. My children have been to more funerals than some adults. He witnessed the difficult and untimely deaths of several people close to us, both family and friends, including the suicide of a family member. We became well acquainted with the horrors of cancer and other life threatening ailments. He saw the suffering of many and he himself was suffering, as he had begun to struggle with depression and anxiety. And then he revealed something I’d began to suspect. One day he said something to me I’ll never forget. “I can’t believe in a God who allows those who love Him to suffer so much.”
I was crushed. What had I done wrong? Did he not see me trusting Christ in the midst of suffering? Had he not been listening when I shared of my comfort in Christ through this difficult season? What could I do to get him to understand? It’s been a few years since that day, when my mother’s heart broke. The Lord has used this in my life in so many ways and I’ve learned many things.
- The importance of grace in our parenting
Around the time I first found out he was questioning things, I knew it wouldn’t be long, a few short years, before he’d be 18 and possibly out of our home. I asked myself a question: “What is the most important thing I want my children to understand before they leave home?” The gospel was that thing, but how was I going to do that? I’d already been preaching the gospel to him since he was a baby.
It was around that same time that I had a conversation with someone I’d attended church with as a teenager. We had reconnected after many years. I learned he had left the church and so I asked him “why?” He answered, “I was never good enough for my parents. How was I ever going to be good enough for God?”
His answer shocked me because the church he and I attended was excellent about preaching the gospel of justification by faith alone. It made no sense to me how he obviously didn’t understand the gospel at all. I did a lot of research and spoke with several people about it and became convinced that we as parents can help or hurt our children’s understanding of the gospel by our parenting. So often, we are focused more on obedience itself than the “why” of obedience. We excel at preaching the law in our home, but the gospel is often an afterthought. This can be damaging to our children.
I learned from and was encouraged by the stories I’d heard through the years from both Rod and Ted Rosenbladt (father and son). They both have very specific stories of how they understood the gospel and God’s unconditional love for them because of the grace their earthly fathers displayed. Legalism isn’t the answer. All law and no gospel isn’t the answer. Getting your children to obey perfectly apart from the gospel is not the answer.
I’ve noticed whenever I talk about grace in parenting, some people get nervous or uncomfortable because of assumptions that are sometimes made about what it looks like. We had Dr. Scott Keith on the Theology Gals podcast to talk about his book Being Dad: Father as a Picture of God’s Grace. He said something that I believe to be extremely important in this discussion: “Permissiveness is not synonymous with grace.” Parenting in a way that demonstrates the gospel in our home is not some “hyper-grace” or antinomian parenting model. It’s not permissive parenting. While we’ve attempted to demonstrate grace in our home while preaching the gospel to our children, there are still rules and punishment for indiscretions. We preach both the law and the gospel to our children appropriately. But there are also opportunities for demonstrating grace. Dr. Keith’s book tells many of those stories, a couple of which he shared on our podcast. Dr. Keith in his tribute to Dr. Rod Rosenbladt on Being Dad says:
“Though I have always wanted compliant children, I am proud to say that I think I have throttled that sinful desire enough to have raised gracious and kind children instead who know that they are forgiven on account of Christ.”
- Trusting in the Lord for my children’s salvation
I didn’t realize it immediately when my son confessed his unbelief, but sometime later it hit me: I was trusting in myself for my children’s salvation and not in the Lord. I thought I was trusting in the Lord for their salvation, but I really wasn’t. I believed the lie that if I just did everything right, took them to church, taught them the Bible, prayed with them, protected them from the world and so on, that of course they’d trust in Christ and walk with the Lord and never live in rebellion.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do the things I mentioned, we absolutely should train them in the Lord, but we must not forget that salvation is of Him. We must trust in Him for our children’s salvation. When the Lord convicted me of this and through repentance, prayer, and His work in me, I began to trust Him and something amazing happened: the Lord gave me great peace. God’s power is far greater than we often recognize, and there’s great peace and joy in trusting in His work in our children’s lives, and trusting in our Lord’s goodness and sovereignty.
I know that by even writing this and revealing I have a son who doesn’t walk with the Lord that some people may be asking, “I wonder what they did wrong that their son rebelled?” I probably would have thought the same thing once upon a time. And it’s not because I have a son who rebelled that my views have changed. I was wrong to believe that my children’s salvation was a result of the things I did.
Someone asked a question in a large Reformed Facebook group about whether it’s the parents’ fault if a child rebels. Had you asked me 20 years ago, I would have answered the same way most of the other parents of young children did, “Of course.” There was a clear difference between the way young parents commented on that post than parents with older children did. While yes, the Lord can and will use our obedience in training our children in “the way they should go,” those things do not promise they will never rebel. Even if we have a child in rebellion now, it doesn’t mean the Lord isn’t working in their lives to bring them to salvation. I’m grateful we taught our son Scripture, that he memorized the catechism, and understands the gospel. I pray the Lord uses these and will bring him to saving faith in Christ. I find comfort in the sovereignty, wisdom and love of God.
- The idol of obedient children
Our homeschool mom’s group did a study together and we talked about idols women can have: a good marriage, a clean house, and obedient children. Some women objected to the idea that good things could become idols, but they absolutely can.
Michael Horton says:
“We picture idolatry as the worship of something evil. However, most of our idols are good servants, that we have made lords.”
The Heidelberg Catechism on idolatry:
Q. What is idolatry?
A. Idolatry is having or inventing something in which one trusts in place of or alongside of the only true God, who has revealed himself in the Word.
Obedient children was one of my idols. And I was trusting in myself over God to work in my children’s lives to bring them to salvation. I was often more concerned with what other people observed than I was with my children’s hearts. I even gave myself credit and was proud of myself when my children did seek the Lord and live in obedience. When our children do come to saving faith, it is because of the work the Lord has done in their lives. It is He who makes one alive when they were previously dead in their trespasses and sins. Ephesians 2:5
- He’s still my son
One day an old friend of mine asked me in a general way, “How’s Jonathan doing?” I explained that he was doing well, had a good job, a new apartment, was hoping to marry his girlfriend one day. In response she said, “Oh, I thought he didn’t believe in Christ and wasn’t going to church anymore.”
I understand she may have been referring to how he was doing spiritually, but I sensed it was more than that and it brings up something which concerns me. There’s anattitude from some parents when their children rebel, something I’m not sure I can describe well, it’s like they’re being given the message that they just aren’t good enough. The thing is, none of us are good enough, that’s why we need Christ. I think if we give our children this message, we’re neglecting to really give them the message of the gospel.
My son is still friends with several people he grew up with from our homeschool co-op and many of them have left the church. This response from their parents is something that these other kids sense. Jonathan has told me on several occasions that some of these friends will speak poorly of Christians, I think in part because of this attitude, and because of the legalism they grew up in. Jonathan tells me about these conversations he has with his friends who have also left the church. I was a bit surprised when he explained that he tells them, “Not all Christians are like that. My parents aren’t like that.” I think many of them view the heart and theme of Christianity as a list of rules rather than the gospel.
The same things that were important to teach and demonstrate to my son in his teenage years, continue to be important now. Being good enough is not the right response to our non Christian children, the gospel is. Unfortunately in some of our circles, I see lots of law and little gospel. This creates the hopelessness the friend I grew up with felt when he told me, “I could never be good enough for my parents. How will I ever be good enough for God?”
Why would we show less love in our interactions with our own child than we do to our non-Christian neighbor? Of course our relationship with our non-Christian child will have some differences from our relationship with our Christian child. I am grateful however to have a good and close relationship with my son still. I think that, because we’ve maintained that close relationship, he has felt free to continue to ask us questions about Scripture and the Christian faith. I have failed at times though, in my responses to Jonathan, and become defensive when it feels like an attack on my faith. I’m still learning.
The Lord will use this for my good and His glory
I don’t know what the Lord’s plans are for my son, but I can tell you the Lord has already used this experience in my life. I have told those close to me that this has been an exercise in trusting in the Lord. This has been a sort of trial in my life and I’ve experienced some suffering because of it. On the Theology Gals episode on suffering, we talked about some of the reasons laid out in Scripture for suffering, along with the ways the Lord uses our suffering and trials. I’ve witnessed some of those things first hand through this season which has included a difficult illness, the loss of people I love, and my son’s unbelief.
While my heart is still broken by my son’s lack of faith, the Lord has used this to teach me to trust Him and to draw me closer to Himself. It’s easy for us to blame ourselves when our children make bad decisions and fail to walk with the Lord. I’m sure many parents have had occasion to ask themselves, “What did I do wrong?” There isn’t a parent alive who hasn’t had failures in their parenting since we are sinners. The good news is, the gospel isn’t just for our children, it’s for us parents too.
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