Thursday, January 07, 2010

Perspectives on Family Ministry (Part 4)

See Part 3 here.

In chapter 5 of Perspectives on Family Ministry, Paul Renfro argues for "family-integrated ministry." The essay basically consists of a description of a family-integrated model, a biblical case for this model, answers to common questions, and recommendations for transitioning to this form of family ministry.

The essay closes with a section on "family integration and the measurement of success" (76-8). I want to start here, for it is here that Renfro reveals most clearly an important assumption that is a major difference underlying the competing views represented in the book. Renfro states that "biblical standards for success must replace ecclesiological pragmatism." The other contributors to the book would no doubt agree with that statement as it stands, but I think we will see that they understand "biblical standards" and "pragmatism" differently. Of the three perspectives discussed in this book, I think that Renfro comes the closest to actually implementing biblical standards which shape his worldview and flow into his ministry choices.

However, I say "I think" in the previous sentence because Renfro's chapter does not include enough biblical discussion to strongly substantiate the ministry model he describes. We should grant him all due allowance for the format he had to work with, for there is only so much that can be covered in one chapter. Yet I wish he had used a little less space on the descriptions and more on the foundational issues which differentiate his approach from the others. His description is of a finished house, carpeted and full of furniture, whereas his biblical discussion only provides a partial framing. How does he get from a few 2x4s nailed in a certain way (the biblical framing) all the way to the way the furniture is arranged (the finished ministry practices)? The essay doesn't tell us how the Scripture necessitates his particular model, at least in its full-blown order. Since Renfro himself has set the standard as being the Bible and not pragmatism, he needs to give more than a handful of principles in order to live up to his standard. Renfro certainly intends his model to be biblical (and a loud Amen! to that). I suspect that there is much, much more he could expound biblically, but the essay doesn't state it. It is this weakness that allows his opponents plenty of pragmatic wiggle room. He does not force them to deal with a muscular theological construct which cannot be wrestled into current American assumptions.

But let us now turn our attention to the biblical case that Renfro does make. He sets forward three propositions drawn from Scripture: "Fathers were responsible to train their families in God's ways, families worshiped God together, and family integration was normative in communities of faith" (67-8).

Of the first proposition there can be no doubt, and Renfro's critics do not take issue with him on this point. As I suspect we will see later, I question whether Renfro's critics take this biblical truth seriously enough; nevertheless, all are agreed, at least in principle, that this is true.

The second proposition, that families worshiped God together, is also not seriously in dispute. As Donald Whitney says elsewhere, "There is no direct, explicit commandment in Scripture about family worship. The practice of it, however, is implicit throughout the Bible." Since this principle is granted by everyone in the discussion, however, it still does not yet get us to the family-integrated ministry model.

This brings us to the third proposition. Renfro writes that, in the Bible, "children were integrated in the gathered assembly of God's people" (68). He cites Deuteronomy 31:12; Ezra 10:1; Ephesians 6:1-3; and Colossians 3:20 as examples. He also argues, "Never in Scripture do we find an example of systematic age segregation in temple, synagogue, or church." With this proposition we come to a true parting of the ways between family-integration proponents and opponents.

Given the importance of this proposition, I wish that Renfro had developed it more carefully, for all is not as clear and simple in Scripture as he makes it out to be. For example, in the OT only the males were required to appear before the Lord for the three major festivals (Exod 23:17; 34:23; Deut 16:16). It appears that the other members of the households could attend if they wished, but they were not required to do so. It seems to me that this is an example of the concept of covenantal solidarity of the household at work. The males appeared before the Lord because they represented their households when they came to renew their covenant with the Lord. So, should we apply this to the NT assemblies of God's people?

I ask the question in order to raise the crucial issue for the principle that Renfro is relying on. That crucial issue is one's theology of NT assemblies. How do the various OT assemblies inform our practice in the new covenant era? What exactly are we doing, theologically speaking, when we gather each Lord's Day, and how does that inform our practice of age integration? Theologians take various positions on this question, so to gloss over it in order to assert that age integration was normative is at least questionable. Citing a couple texts in which Paul assumes that children would be present is helpful and enlightening, but far from settling all questions.

At HCBC, we consider ourselves family-integrated. So why the criticism? It isn't that I disagree with Renfro's practice. As you will see, I think it is probably stronger than any other model presented in the book. Yet it is healthy for "family-integrated" churches to be well aware of the complexity of the issues involved.

You see, I believe that what is actually in play in the disagreement over the ministry models presented in this book is a bigger vision of the good life. Such an overarching view is never going to be proved by a handful of principles abstracted from the Bible. If this vision is going to be biblical, it must be grounded in a vigorous and wide-ranging theological vision. What that vision entails will, I think, become clearer as we interact with the various viewpoints in the book.

I appreciate Pastor Renfro's efforts in this chapter. It provides a good starting point for discussing family ministry. I would simply urge family-integrated churches to press deeper in the Scriptures. If family-integrated proponents are going to provide a compelling case for their model of ministry, then they are going to need to do a substantial amount of work. I hope they do.

Extra: Here is an interesting post criticizing the subtle narcissism of church segregation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a great resource!