Covenant children and the emasculation of the church, with a tribute to my father...
…Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed… For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him. (Genesis 18:18,19)
(Tim) When the Lord entered into a covenant with Abraham, He was pleased for that covenant’s fulfillment to be dependent upon Abraham “command(ing) his children and his household… to keep the way of the Lord….” Still today, it pleases God to use means to accomplish his will, and he has declared the Church should be built up, instructed, and guarded by men—not angels. Where those men are missing or their work is soft and effeminate, the Church has suffered the removal of her vital manhood; she has been emasculated. (n. 1)
When we speak of the emasculation of the church, though, we are not saying she has been robbed of her Bridegroom nor that her adoptive Father has cast her out of his household. Christ is “faithful over God’s house as a son” (Hebrews 3:6 RSV), (n. 2) and we have his promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against her. So then, the Church can never be emasculated in any definitive sense, even though her officers may be characterized by a womanly softness and sentimentality.
Such, though, is the church of our time. About twenty years ago I heard Elisabeth Elliot Gren say, “The problem with the church today is that it’s filled with emasculated men who don’t know how to say ‘no’ to a woman.” At the time, I was floored by Elliot’s audacity, but now I realize she was guilty of understatement. Christian men today have a problem saying “no” to almost anyone—not just women. Preachers, elders, and Sunday school teachers place an overwhelming emphasis on the positive and have an almost insurmountable aversion to the negative.
In the mid-eighties, my father was asked to represent the pro-life side at a campus-wide dialogue on abortion held at the Stupe, Wheaton College’s student union. He began his presentation with the statement, “I am not here to represent the pro-life, but the anti-abortion side of this issue..."
Evangelicals always want to speak positively, but imagine the abolitionist referring to himself as ‘pro-slave.’”
Speaking negatively, saying God’s “no” as well as His “yes,” is almost a definition of faithful eldership, but what was true two decades ago has accelerated to the point that we are surrounded by men called to guard God’s Truth and Bride who have little to no courage—that essentially masculine trait which our Lord points to in describing true shepherds: “…the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” And the false shepherd? “They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ But there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).
Likely the most public example of the effeminacy of the leadership of church officers is in the proclamation of God’s word. Regularly I hear Christian men lament the softness of the preaching they and their wives and children sit under. One of them, a lawyer who serves as a ruling elder in the PCA, put it this way: “Along with the indicative, can’t we please have God’s imperative?” Pastors, though, know the risk of applying the Word of God to the lives of our sheep, so we decline to alter our pulpit ministry in order to address the will and heart, as well as the mind.
Indicative of the balance struck by apostolic preaching is this summary by the Apostle Paul: “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). Whereas “teaching” (didaskontes) is the imparting of knowledge, “admonishing” (nouthetountes) aims for the will and heart. Such heart appeals are noticeably absent from many of our pulpits.
We have excuses: one of us follows the redemptive historical hermeneutic and preaches every verse of Scripture as if it were John 3:16; another is attuned to the feminization of discourse and approaches the pulpit with a deathly fear of making any claim of authority which might cast him as insensitive or arrogant; a third believes grace to be the key doctrine of Scripture and demonstrates impatience with fellow pastors who believe and preach the grace of the law and the lordship of Christ; a fourth tools through poems and humerous anecdotes, all warmly appreciated by the audience; and a fifth sidesteps the matter neatly with the pious claim, “It’s not the preacher’s job to convict—that’s the work of the Holy Spirit.”
Regardless of our high principles aimed to produce an acquittal by our peers, few would say we live in a golden age of preaching. Rather, with increasing frequency believers may be heard characterizing preachers and sermons as “preaching McLite,” or “a nice thought for the week.” In such a climate, consider this warning Martin Luther gave to the men sent out to evaluate parish pastors:
In regard to doctrine we observe especially this defect that, (m)any now talk only about the forgiveness of sins and say little or nothing about repentance. There neither is forgiveness of sins without repentance nor can forgiveness of sins be understood without repentance. It follows that if we preach the forgiveness of sins without repentance that the people imagine that they have already obtained the forgiveness of sins, becoming thereby secure and without compunction of conscience. This would be a greater error and sin than all the errors hitherto prevailing. Surely we need to be concerned lest, as Christ says in Matthew 12 [: 45] the last state becomes worse than the first.
Therefore we have instructed and admonished pastors that it is their duty to preach the whole gospel and not one portion without the other. (n. 3)
Preaching is both content and delivery, though, and the method of delivery employed by pastors today is also deficient.
Some years back, Rob Suggs drew a cartoon showing a mousy pastor behind a large desk, glancing back over his shoulder at a chart on the wall that graphed a severe decline in worship attendance over the past few years. Standing to the side of the chart with a pointer directed towards the downward spiral was another man who said, “I’m no expert in these things, but I do wonder whether it might not help if you didn’t end each sermon with, ‘But then again, what do I know, anyhow?’”
One of the more insidious attacks upon the proclamation of the Gospel in our time is the feminization of discourse permeating our culture, yet this attack which saps preaching of its authority is rarely noticed. What is meant by the “feminization of discourse?”
Soon after Communism’s fall, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was free to return to his beloved homeland. Just prior to his departure, a New Yorker correspondent visited him in his Vermont farmhouse:
Back in the study, I asked Solzhenitsyn about his relations with the West. He knew that things had gone wrong, but had no intention of making any apologies. “Instead of secluding myself here and writing The Big Wheel, I suppose I could have spent time making myself likable to the West,” he said. “The only problem is that I would have had to drop my way of life and my work. And, yes, it is true, when I fought the dragon of Communist power I fought it at the highest pitch of expression. The people in the West were not accustomed to this tone of voice. In the West, one must have a balanced, calm, soft voice; one ought to make sure to doubt oneself, to suggest that one may, of course, be completely wrong. But I didn’t have the time to busy myself with this. This was not my main goal.” (n. 4)
Pastors do busy themselves with this; making ourselves “likable” is close to our heart so we voice our sermons “balanced, calm, and soft.” Although called to be heralds of Christ, we appear to believe we have arrived at a time when the proclamation of the Gospel no longer requires that the faithful messenger resign himself to being “condemned to death…, a spectacle to the world” (1Corinthians 4:9). Yes, we observe our culture’s growing hostility toward God’s Moral Law and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but we reassure ourselves that our United States Constitution still guarantees us free exercise of religion and it’s quite unlikely the moral decadence surrounding us will give birth to suffering and persecution in our own time—particularly if we guard our lips and tactfully orchestrate the occasional strategic retreat required in order to keep the peace. (n. 5)
Meanwhile, the show must go on:
We all know what it is to play warfare in mock battle, that it means to imitate everything just as it is in war. The troops are drawn up, they march into the field, seriousness is evident in every eye, but also courage and enthusiasm, the orderlies rush back and forth intrepidly, the commander’s voice is heard, the signals, the battle cry, the volley of musketry, the thunder of cannon—everything exactly as it is in war, lacking only one thing...the danger.
So also it is with playing Christianity, that is, imitating Christian preaching in such a way that everything, absolutely everything is included in as deceptive a form as possible—only one thing is lacking...the danger. (n. 6)
Thus, congregations expect from their pastor nothing more than a finely tuned and breathtakingly intimate sharing of the journey, with clever illustrations demonstrating that he lives in the real world and is hip to the decadence of their household’s cultural consumption and its resultant ennui. And lest he break the mood, he must avoid any sort of “Thus says the Lord” histrionics—except, that is, in his authoritative proclamation of the sovereignty of God and the grace and eternal security God bestows on his covenant people—we are reformed, after all.
So preachers have allowed themselves to be cast as pleasant companions for the journey—chaplains looking spiffy in our dress whites. And if the concept of manhood still holds some residual attraction, we can always experience that courage vicariously, watching Terminator 3, reading the dashing exploits of Horatio Hornblower, or remembering the glory days of the past through the pen of our own Iain Murray.
The pool of blame widens when we begin to discuss the emasculation of the church in the matter of church discipline. Here even the faithful pastor who sounds crystal clear notes from the pulpit and desires to lead his session to be faithful shepherds will find his hands full as, each month, he faces elders intent upon protecting the congregation from their well-meaning, but overzealous, shepherd. Such elders, resistant to the terrible drain of time and emotional energy intrinsic to faithful shepherding, feel no compunction relegating such dirty work to men they refer to as “our staff.”
Church discipline, then, is quite rare. When the overlooking of a particularly flagrant sin would cause an outcry within the congregation (particularly the women), the session may be led to see the wisdom of rebuke and censure—or even excommunication. Still, this is the exception to the rule; normally, neither teaching nor ruling elders have the heart for discipline and the only goad sufficiently painful to drive them to its use is shame.
But as with soft preaching, those that practice soft pastoral care cloak themselves in principle. Some, for instance, deny that discipline is the third mark of the Church. There are not three, but two marks, they argue—the right preaching of the Word and the right administration of the Sacraments.
Is it possible, though, that the sort of preaching that lacks personal application can be considered “the right preaching of the Word of God?” Richard Baxter answers:
(People) will give you leave to preach against their sins, and to talk as much as you will for godliness in the pulpit, if you will but let them alone afterwards, and be friendly and merry with them when you have done, and talk as they do, and live as they, and be indifferent with them in your conversation. For they take the pulpit to be but a stage; a place where preachers must show themselves, and play their parts; where you have liberty for an hour to say what you (desire); and what you say they regard not, if you show them not, by saying it personally to their faces, that you were in good earnest, and did indeed mean them... (n. 7)
Similarly, is the unrestrained marking of non-covenantal children by the sign of the covenant, and the unrestrained distribution of the Lord’s Supper to souls with no ecclesiastical affiliation requiring their submission to officers of the visible church, in any sense “the right administration of the Sacraments?” No, it’s hard to deny this declaration of the Scots Confession:
The notes of the true Kirk, therefore, we believe, confess, and avow to be: first, the true preaching of the Word of God, in which God has revealed himself to us, as the writings of the prophets and apostles declare; secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus, with which must be associated the Word and promise of God to seal and confirm them in our hearts; and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished. (n. 8)
The absence of a loving application of church discipline to those souls under a session’s care is a betrayal of the Lord who purchased those sheep with his own blood, and it indicates there isn’t much that has changed since, centuries back, Baxter wrote:
Sure I am, if it were well understood how much of the pastoral authority and work consisteth in church guidance, it would be also discerned, that to be against discipline, is near to being against the ministry; and to be against the ministry is near to being absolutely against the Church; and to be against the Church, is near to being absolutely against Christ. Blame not the harshness of the inference, till you can avoid it, and free yourselves from the charge of it before the Lord. (n. 9)
Few, then, would deny this to be the general state of the church today: shepherds are not manly. Rather, panting after success, we refuse to do the work of loving and guarding God’s truth and flock. And while it is true that the most vulgar expressions of the health and wealth gospel are normally outside the reformed theological community, reformed pastors and elders also worship success. Listen to conversations at presbytery or synod meetings and count the seconds that elapse before that all-important question, “What’s your average attendance?” is asked. Read conference speakers’ bios, glance at the handsome faces gracing the inside back flaps of dust jackets, feel the sultry vibes of the latest CCM offerings, and it becomes apparent that the normal business of the church is business—not instruction and discipline.
The orders our Lord left prior to his Ascension were to “make disciples,” “baptizing” and “teaching them,” but simply making consumers appears to be more in line with our priorities. As my father used to say about church leaders, “Everyone’s out to build his own kingdom.”
And if, in one of our more transparent moments, we were asked why pastors avoid preaching repentance and practicing church discipline, we might well sputter, “It’s the numbers, stupid!” The modern pastor is a suave entrepreneur, charged by his denominational expansion board or search committee with meeting certain membership projections, and only a fool would think he could grow a congregation by preaching to unfelt needs or spending valuable session time in admonishment, rebuke, or censure. Furthermore, who’s going to stick around to be disciplined? The very week a member receives a summons to appear before the board of elders, he’ll be out church-shopping.
Covenant Succession and the Discipline of Covenant Children
It’s when we turn to the neglect of the discipline of children of the covenant—particularly those in their teens and early twenties—that an organic connection between the emasculation of the church and the decline of the doctrine of covenant succession begins to emerge. Officers of the church who operate more from fear than faith are unlikely to apply to their children the tools God has ordained as the means for the accomplishment of covenant succession, particularly discipline; and covenant children robbed of this divinely ordained care are unlikely to make a good confession themselves, or to demonstrate courage in their own leadership when their generation takes over the mantle of leadership.
Proverbs frequently warns against partiality in judgment so it should be no surprise that church officers find it difficult to discipline their peers. For this reason the Apostle Paul wrote, concerning the discipline of elders, “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality” (1Timothy 5:21). Add to the temptation to partiality, our culture’s sentimental view of childhood, and it’s not hard to guess that the children of the church—particularly officers’ children—are chronically neglected by those called to guard their souls.
Eli is the quintessential example of the man to whom God has delegated authority for the protection and nurture of his people who is unwilling to use that authority, first, to bring his own sons into subjection. Because of his failure, God declared to Eli, “(You) honor your sons above me” (1Samuel 2:29), and pronounced this judgment: “I am about to judge his house forever for the iniquity which he knew, because his sons brought a curse on themselves and he did not rebuke them” (1Samuel 3:13).
As a loving Father, God shows his own partiality toward his children by disciplining them faithfully. Thus his judgment and discipline begin with his own household, the Church; (n. 10) and within that household, with the leaders and their children. Pastors and elders, though, are slow to believe that following this same pattern with their own children will produce good fruit, so they are hesitant to discipline their children—and tenaciously resistant to allowing others to do so.
When warning younger men of the risks involved in caring for the youth of a church, I remind them of the hornet’s nest of opposition Jonathan Edwards stirred up within his Northampton congregation when he tried to discipline some of the covenant children for their perusal of a midwives manual. True, part of that opposition was the result of the infelicitous method of communication Edwards used to address the problem on a particular Lord’s Day, but there are few pastors, elders, youth leaders, or Sunday school teachers who last long without learning the rule, “Touch my children and you’ve touched me.” The instruction and care of covenant children is hazardous work and there are many pastors and elders who have concluded, conveniently, that the avoidance of this risk is not weakness, but principle.
So, for instance, whether covenant children ought properly to be the subjects of church discipline was one of the questions addressed by the Committee of Revision of the Book of Discipline appointed by the 1857 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Reporting on its work two years later, to the 1859 General Assembly in Indianapolis, the committee’s divergent viewpoints were represented by two of its members, Princeton’s Charles Hodge and Columbia Theological Seminary’s J. H. Thornwell.
Hodge argued that the Church’s baptized children were truly members of the Church by virtue, not of their own confession of faith but the covenant promises of God, and therefore ought rightly to be extended the privileges of membership including, particularly, ecclesiastical discipline. This was not to say these children were known to be regenerate; on the contrary, all involved in the debate agreed that, regardless of baptism, the state of the souls of both adults and children is known only to God. (n. 11) Hodge put it this way:
When, therefore, we assert the church membership of the infants of believing parents, we do not assert their regeneration, or that they are true members of Christ’s body; we only assert that they belong to the class of persons whom we are bound to regard and treat as members of Christ’s Church. This is the only sense in which even adults are members of the Church, so far as men are concerned. (n. 12)
Opposite Hodge, Thornwell believed concerning regeneration that baptized covenant children ought to be considered guilty until proven innocent, writing,
Are they not the slaves of sin and the Devil… Should they not, then, be carefully instructed on the one hand, and on the other be treated according to their true character as slaves? (Until their profession of faith they are) to be dealt with as the Church deals with all the enemies of God. She turns the key upon them and leaves them without. (n. 13)
Thornwell was, then, opposed to the application of ecclesiastical discipline to covenant children.
The debate of the Indianapolis General Assembly led to the matter being recommitted to the Committee of Revision. Reporting back one year later, in 1860, the committee’s work continued to be the center of such a storm of controversy that the question was again recommitted, this time with the addition of six members to the Committee of Revision. Meanwhile, the debate raged in the pages of Presbyterian publications right up to the Civil War, at which time the northern and southern Presbyterian churches went their separate ways.
In 1863 the (northern) Presbyterian Church in the United States of America adopted a revised Book of Discipline adhering to the historic reformed view held by Hodge and others, that baptized but non-communicant children of the covenant were fully members of the Church and properly subject to her instruction and discipline.
For her part, the (southern) Presbyterian Church in the United States took the path of innovation advocated by Thornwell and R. L. Dabney, affirming two distinct categories of church membership and denying children the privilege of ecclesiastical discipline. In the southern church, then, the historic 1736 Book of Discipline’s statement, “Inasmuch as all baptized persons are members of the Church, they are under its care, and subject to its government and discipline,” was changed to reflect Thornwell’s 1859 proposal in which baptized members were no longer “subject to (the Church’s) government and discipline,” but “under (the Church’s) government and training.” And this explanatory note was added: “…only those, however, who have made a profession of faith in Christ are proper subjects of (discipline).” (n. 14)
Indicative of the concern at the heart of this debate was this lament by Princeton’s Samuel Miller:
That baptized children should be treated by the Church and her officers just as other children are treated: that they should receive the seal of a covenant relation to God and his people, and then be left to negligence and sin, without official inspection, and without discipline, precisely as those are left who bear no relation to the Church, is, it must be confessed, altogether inconsistent with the nature and design of the ordinance, and in a high degree unfriendly to the best interests of the Church of God. (n. 15)
In a pair of papers recently published in successive issues of the Westminster Theological Journal, my friend, Vern Poythress, worked to open the eyes of church officers and parents—both credo and paedo baptists—to our inconsistent practice with respect to the children of the Church. He pointed to two seemingly opposite, but sometimes, in practice, interwoven, errors in the shepherding of covenant children, errors he labeled “indifferentism” and “rigorism.” Chiding both sides of the baptism debate for failing to deal with our children as souls with the capacity and spiritual duty to repent, believe, and obey, he wrote:
We ought not to shunt smaller children over into a backwater, merely waiting indifferently until they grow old enough to be like us (but) to treat both adult church members and their children as Christians, with all the love and encouragement, the discipline and rebuke, the hopes and the warnings that we owe to Christians. (n. 16)
But where covenant succession is not understood or believed, parents are inclined to adopt a hands-off posture toward the rearing of their children, waiting for the work of the Holy Spirit through Vacation Bible School, summer camp, youth retreats, or other extraordinary moments—all of which are expected to produce a crisis conversion experience. Then and only then may they consider applying covenant expectations and discipline to that child.
What is it that has led to such a weak understanding and application of the covenant promises of God that our children are being raised bereft of the very discipline and instruction that proves they are legitimate and loved children? If, as Hebrews 12:7,8 says, (n. 17) discipline is one of the principal ways God demonstrates his love to us, how have we come to the point where we believe he no longer finds secondary means necessary, or even useful? Do we expect any negative consequences for our own children or the Church as a result of our refusal to make use of the power of the keys and every lesser, but related, tool God has appointed for their building up and protection?
God has ordained that the children of believers grow up in homes and churches where instruction and discipline are understood to be a key part of their Patrimony and applied faithfully in the belief that it is by such means God fulfills His covenant promises. Still, an objective examination of our behavior leads to the conclusion that many of us think we have found a better way to assure covenant succession than this way ordained by God.
Having grown up in the ecclesiastical wasteland of evangelicalism, Calvin led me to a new view of the Church’s glory: “But because it is now our intention to discuss the visible church, let us learn even from the simple title “mother” how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like angels.” (n. 18) And again, “…the Church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith.” (n. 19)
Herman Witsius makes an equally tender statement of God’s loving care for each of his little ones, likening their baptism to being transferred from their mother’s bosom into the arms of God:
Here certainly appears the extraordinary love of our God, in that as soon as we are born, and just as we come from our mother, he hath commanded us to be solemnly brought from her bosom, as it were, into his own arms, that he should bestow upon us, in the very cradle, the tokens of our dignity and future kingdom… (n. 20)
When, with Calvin, we speak of the children of God being “continually preserved under (the Church’s) care and government;” or, with Witsius, of covenant children being brought “from (their mother’s) bosom…into (God’s) arms,” we are acknowledging the solemn duties of the Church and her officers to those children. Note well that these duties are over and beyond all those God has delegated to the children’s natural sovereigns, their father and mother.
It’s one of the ironies of parts of the home schooling movement that, despite its commitment to recover the biblical obligation of fathers in the home to instruct and train their offspring, these same fathers seem so often to view the household of faith and her fathers (pastors and elders) with disdain. Instead of teaching their wives and children to love the Church, and to honor and respect her leaders, too often the Church is viewed as a threat to the household’s spiritual welfare—or more likely, its self-protective insularity. Those seeking a restoration of biblical patriarchy among the people of God would do well to study the constancy of household language in the New Testament in reference to the Church’s members, officers, and work, and to meditate on the significance of that language for the love we owe Christ’s Bride, and the honor and deference due those whose calling it is to exercise the Father’s authority within His Household (a church’s failures notwithstanding).
But to return to our theme, there is a symbiotic relationship between the decline of the doctrine and practice of covenant succession and the emasculation of the church. As the church’s officers have lost their manhood, doctrinally and practically, they have failed in their covenant duties to the children of the church; and those children, in turn, have shown the fruits of that absence of manly shepherding and leadership.
These pathologies feed off each other. Discipline takes courage, especially the discipline of one’s own children and the children of fellow elders; but the kind of vital male leadership capable of such courage cannot be grown without discipline. Thus the absence of vital male leadership and the absence of discipline feed off one another.
To clarify the big picture, the church has neglected or forgotten God’s promises throughout Scripture to keep His covenant with our children. Consequently, the children of believers have come to be considered outside the covenant even as they grow up within the church. They are denied covenant blessings reserved for church members, including particularly the blessing of church discipline. And, failing to provide her children discipline, the church’s manhood is lost as fathers are disqualified from holding office because their households are not in order. Finally, sons of the Church are not able to take over the shepherding of God’s flock because they have not been raised and disciplined to that end.
But let us also look at the mirror image: Where God’s covenant promises are claimed and acted upon in faith, the children of believers are granted their rightful patrimony—namely, the covenant blessings of instruction and discipline at home and within the body of believers. Further, by instruction and discipline they are trained to love God’s covenant promises and persuaded and enabled to embrace them themselves as the Holy Spirit works in them the graces he promised. Now the fathers of the home and Church have created a true seminary—a seedbed—where sons of the covenant are equipped and prepared to assume the yoke of leadership when, through the congregation, the Holy Spirit extends the call.
Over my lifetime, I’ve noticed a decline in some usages, one of which is the expression “son of the church.” Twenty to thirty years ago, this phrase was commonly used in session and presbytery meetings to refer to a young man who had grown up in the church and was now under care, testing a call to the ministry of the Word and Sacrament. With some pride, he was called a “son of the church,” by which usage it was noted that his church was not failing to raise up shepherds from her midst. And so it has always been the expectation that a vital congregation will raise her sons with an eye to providing for her future wellbeing, calling out from among them those who have been given gifts for the building up of the Church. The healthy church looks to her sons for future leadership but an emasculated church is impotent in this regard.
Faith of Our Fathers Living Still
As I read to the end of Joshua this morning, I was reminded of Joshua’s last words to Israel, just before he died, “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). And thinking on his words, I thought back to my own father. Dad loved his children, but he found it easier to bring discipline to bear on the larger evangelical world through, for instance, his monthly column in Eternity magazine than to discipline his own children. This is not to say we weren’t disciplined; as Dad’s wonderful helpmate, Mud (our family’s pet name for her) filled in many of the gaps left by our father—both those which were the result of his constant travels and those simply the products of his temperament—and I praise God that He gave me a tough mother who fought for my soul, disciplining me through my teenage years.
But as distasteful as he found it, Dad himself also disciplined us. I want to tell of a particular act of discipline which I view as the supreme act of love I ever received from my father, but to fully communicate its significance, I must open my father’s heart to you a little more.
Dad grew up in Philadelphia and New York City. He was urbane and fastidious—a gentleman. Had John Henry Newman been speaking of Dad, he would have had it right: “…it is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain.” (n. 21)
But this aversion to inflicting pain on others—particularly his own family—wasn’t the whole reason Dad avoided disciplining his children. During our childhood, three of my siblings died, at different times: Danny, the third born, of Leukemia when he was five; Johnny, the fifth born, of Cystic Fibrosis when he was two weeks; and then the heartbreaker—my father’s firstborn, his eldest son, died after a Christmas night sledding accident. Joseph Tate Bayly V was a full-ride National Merit Scholar in his sophomore year at Swarthmore College, preparing for the Lord’s service, when it pleased the Lord to call him home. As you might imagine, it was hard for Dad and Mud to recover from that blow—or any of us, for that matter—and after Joe’s death, the heart of our home was missing for a number of years.
Of course, I don’t mean to imply that Dad and Mud stopped loving one another, nor that our home lacked affection between parents and children and husband and wife. But it was clearly hard work, particularly at Christmas. And it’s my own belief that the severity of this blow was one part of my father’s inability fully to invest himself in the rest of his children, particularly his two eldest whose time of greatest emotional need was immediately following this third death. (My two youngest brothers were barely out of the toddler stage at the time, so when they hit the years of greater emotional need, Dad had regained some of his emotional equilibrium.)
Skip ahead, then, a few years. I had graduated from high school and, after a year at Columbia Bible College, I was living at home while holding down a job packing books for a Christian publisher in Wheaton. Although not flagrantly so, I was a covenant-breaker and my presence in the home caused Dad and Mud, as well as my two younger brothers, some degree of turmoil. As usual, though, Mud caught the brunt of it—not Dad; while she tended the home fires, he was out fulfilling his speaking engagements.
Then came the day he showed me the full extent of his love.
It was a Saturday morning and I had been on my way upstairs to my bedroom. Dad stood on the brick floor of the entryway looking up at me, and asked me to stop a moment, he had something he needed to say to me.
“Tim, you are not honoring the Lord and you may no longer live in our house.” (n. 22)
There were no raised voices: just Dad’s plain speaking and my silent acceptance. Packing my bags, I was awed by the weight of Dad’s action—not at all as I bore it, but as my father bore it himself. By then, I was his eldest son and my life was cheap; taking a solo backpacking trip into the San Jacinto Wilderness of eastern California without water, hitch-hiking cross country in cars driven by drug and alcohol addled freaks, driving my own Volkswagen Bug buzzed to the max—I was a fool and remained a living and breathing soul only by God’s mercy.
Most of this Dad knew, but he refused to allow fear to rule his relationship with his son. Or, to put it another way, he chose the fear of God over the fear of the loss of another son’s life, or even his friendship. And for this I am eternally grateful, seeing how pivotal this day was in the work of God in my life ever since.
In fact, this is what sticks in my mind as I carry on the baton of leadership as a husband, father, and pastor. It is this memory of my father’s courage that God has used innumerable times to strengthen me when, sitting in a session meeting, I feel faint of heart and wish to avoid using the tool of discipline God has appointed for the restoration of wayward souls, but also for the protection of His Name and Bride. It is this loving discipline I received as a son that gives me courage when I find myself recoiling from giving a needed rebuke to one of my own children, fearing that he will resent me for it and there will be a breach in our relationship. It is this concrete and painful application of God’s Word by my father to his son that I remember when I find myself inclined to flinch in the application of a sermon text to the lives within my congregation.
When God promised to establish his covenant and to be God to Abraham and his descendants, he said, “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you, throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you” (Genesis 17:7).
How was Abraham to do this?
Enabled by God, he was to “command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18:19). In other words, the means of bringing about what the Lord had promised Abraham was the manly and faithful instruction and application of God’s Word in the lives of his children and his children’s children. God is pleased to carry on the covenant through the faithfulness of men—fathers in the home and Church. (n. 23)
Jesus came to do the work of his Father: “…whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner” (John 5:19). If ever there was a man who ought to have been able to grow into his Father’s work without the necessity of discipline, it was Jesus. Yet we read, “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8).
If pastors and elders understand their duty to assure a succession of leadership in the Church, we will work toward the end of passing on our work to the sons God has blessed us with, loving and disciplining our sons as God loved and disciplined his own Son.
(This post is one chapter from the Canon Press book, To You and Your Children: Examining the Biblical Doctrine of Covenant Succession, and is used by kind permission of the publisher. This post may not be reproduced unless accompanied by this same attribution. To You and Your Children may be purchased here.)
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(NOTE: If it would serve your congregation, David or I would be happy to come and speak to the men of your church on these themes, testifying to God's kindness to us and the work He has done in our own sons, both those God gave us and our wives, but also those God has given us in our church families. E-mail us at tbbayly at gmail dot com.)
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1. Since the Church is the Bride of Christ, it seems counterintuitive to speak of her emasculation. Yet God has been pleased to tie the growth, purity, and protection of His Household to the faithful performance of their duty by male officers. It is those men who are the focus of this chapter.
2. Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture is from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition, (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995).
3. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works; Volume 40; Church and Ministry II; Edited by Conrad Bergendoff; (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1958) “Instructions for the Visitors of Parish Pastors”; pp. 274, 275.
4. The New Yorker, February 14, 1994, p. 74.
5. “...in order to enjoy peace with God, it is necessary for us to wage war with those who treat Him with contempt.” John Calvin on Acts 28:29 in Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, eds. David W. Torrance, Thomas F. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965) 7:314.
6. Soren Kierkegaard, Attack Upon “Christendom” 1854-1855, translated with an introduction by Walter Lowrie, (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1956) p. 258.
7. Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, (Carlisle PA: Banner of Truth, 1974) p. 85.
8. The Scots Confession, Chapter 18.
9. Baxter, p. 111.
10. 1Peter 4:17.
11. “The presumption of election is not founded on their baptism, but their baptism is founded on this presumption; just as the presumption that Jewish children would take Jehovah to be their God was not founded on their circumcision, but their circumcision was founded on that presumption.” As quoted in Lewis Bevins Schenck, The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1940) p. 135.
12. Ibid, pp. 129,130.
13. J. H. Thornwell, “A Few More Words on the Revised Book of Discipline,” in The Southern Presbyterian Review, vol. XIII, no. 1 (1861), Art. 1, p. 6. The Collected Works of J. H. Thornwell, IV, 341 ff. As quoted in Schenck, pp. 94-95. Although not responding to this historical debate, Vern Poythress cogently addressed the same error, recently: “Others may be tempted to rigorism. They view baptized children as members of the church only ‘formally,’ while in practice they think of them as sub-Christian until they reach teenage years and go through the rite of confirmation. In many instances paedobaptists describe confirmation as ‘joining the church’ or ‘becoming a member of the church,’ when in actual fact the people about to be presented in a confirmation ceremony have already joined the church and are already members, for they have been baptized as infants. The thinking that they are not yet members of the church seems to reveal a subtle form of rigorism.” “Indifferentism and Rigorism in the Church: With Implications for Baptizing Small Children,” Westminster Theological Journal 59:1 (1997) pp. 13-29.
14. Schenck, p. 90.
15. Samuel Miller, Infant Baptism Scriptural and Reasonable and Baptism by Sprinkling or Affusion the Most Suitable and Edifying Mode (Philadelphia, 1835) p. 47. As quoted in Schenck, p. 83.
16. Vern Sheridan Poythress, “Linking Small Children with Infants in the Theology of Baptizing,” Westminster Theological Journal, 59:2 (1997): pp. 143-158.
17. “FOR THOSE WHOM THE LORD LOVES HE DISCIPLINES, AND HE SCOURGES EVERY SON WHOM HE RECEIVES. It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons” (Hebrews 12:6-8).
18. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, edited by John T. McNeill and F. Lewis Battles, vol. 20 of the Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 2:1016.
19. Ibid, 2:1012: “You cannot have God for your Father unless you have the church for your Mother” (Cyprian).
20. Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants; as quoted in Schenck, p. 148.
21. John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated (New York: The American Press, 1941) p. 227.
22. “As a father, when he turns out of his house a contumacious son and deprives him of his presence and the testimonies of paternal favor, still not as yet on that account does he wholly disinherit him or divest himself of all fatherly affection towards him; nay, then using this remedy to bring him to repentance, even by this deed exercises his love towards him although not acknowledging it then, will afterwards acknowledge it, when by true conversion he shall have returned into favor with his father.” Turretin, Francis. Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 3 vols. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1994) 3:295.
23. This is not in any way meant to neglect or treat dismissively the godly work of women—for instance, Timothy’s grandmother and mother, Lois and Eunice, and Augustine’s mother, Monica—but only to focus our attention, particularly, on fathers and sons.