The good father: the family-centered church movement (1)...

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The family-centered church movement can trace some significant part of its beginnings back to my friend Kerry Ptacek at Bethany Collegiate Presbyterian Church outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Kerry and I met when he was working for the Presbyterian Lay Committee, a Philadelphia-based conservative lobbying organization of the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA). The Lay Committee published the Presbyterian Layman and several of its employees—including Kerry—attended Bethany Collegiate Presbyterian Church then pastored by my dear friend, Ben Sheldon.

Kerry and I were talking on the phone one day when he told me he didn't allow his wife to attend Bethany Collegiate's women's Bible study. Knowing the godliness of Ben Sheldon and his wife, Amy; knowing also the orthodoxy of Bethany's history and doctrine; I was shocked and asked Kerry why he'd made this decision?

Kerry responded that Scripture commanded wives to ask their husbands at home...

He was referring to 1 Corinthians 14:34, 35:

The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.

Knowing Kerry was a fairly recent convert to Christian faith, I asked if the women of the church may have done some harm to his wife or marriage; if there had been some emotional slight or alienation that might explain his condemnation of fellowship with other women around reading the Bible and praying together? But as we talked, nothing negative about Bethany came out. It became clear Kerry thought the women's Bible study was a violation of the husband-as-teacher, wife-as-learner relationship. Because Scripture commanded women to "ask their own husbands at home," it was wrong for a wife to be taught by another woman of the church.

A few years later, working in my second call, I ran into this same flawed logic when an ex-InterVarsity staffer who was serving as an elder of that church announced at an elders' meeting that the Apostle Paul's command "let a man examine himself "(1Corinthians 11:28) precluded the elders of a church barring anyone from the Lord's Table. The elder thought he ended the debate when he announced "let a man examine himself!"

Kerry and I were two ships passing in the night because on this matter we were on pilgrimages in opposite directions.

In my first call a couple years earlier, I'd grown concerned over our young women who worked full time and put their children in day care. We'd just left Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary where Mary Lee and I had lived up a floor and across the hall from a couple who were the full-time babysitters of the children of a young physician couple. The doctors were in the envious position of being able to afford having their children in one household where one woman would mother their children each day while their parents worked, and our seminary friends were sweet Christians who did as good a job as any father and mother could hope for their children. But watching our friends and their care for the children, Mary Lee and I only became more convinced that we had made the right decision to free up Mary Lee to spend her life working as a stay-at-home mother. I remember us looking at each other and saying "that's as good as it gets, but it's still no substitute for the children's own mother."

A few years after seminary, then, I had begun to serve a yoked parish of two churches in Wisconsin's rural dairy land and one Lord's Day I chose Titus 2:3-5 as a sermon text:

Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored.

Acknowledging that these commands of Scripture were about as counter-cultural as commands to women could be, I exhorted the mothers to be "workers at home" (NASB); or as the Revised Standard Version puts it, "be domestic."

What followed was the first crisis in my work there in rural Wisconsin. Monday morning the phone started ringing and I heard there were women angry at my sermon. One woman in particular was the center of the concern, so I went out to visit her and her husband in their farmhouse. The husband said little, but his wife was angry and said a lot. She told me she was offended for the mother that lived down the road from them. This woman attended church with her two children, but without her husband. He made no claim to faith and never came. This made it embarrassing for this mother to attend. She was a sweet woman who was competent in her motherhood—that was obvious. So here was a sympathetic character who was a good representative of the hurt I had caused. The farm wife told me I had hurt this woman by saying she shouldn't work, and I needed to go speak to her and apologize.

Of course I hadn't said this woman "shouldn't work," nor that any other woman "shouldn't work." But I won't bother repeating what I had said because it was entirely understandable that people listening to me preach that day came away with the feeling that I was opposed to young mothers working full-time, having other women raise their children. After all, I had said Scripture was clear in calling wives and mothers to make their husband and their home their first priority and that was as radically counter-cultural then as it is still today.

On the other hand, I had not wanted to condemn this young mother for working full-time. I didn't know the circumstances of her life nor the reasons she worked, and any judgment of the rightness or wrongness of her particular life needed more consideration than the mere application of Titus 2's command to "be domestic." No question.

So I asked this young mother if we could talk and she kindly agreed. I told her I was sorry for hurting her feelings with what I had said. She asked why and we were off and running. It didn't take long for me to learn that the farmer's wife was the one who had been offended—not this young working mother. The working mother told me the sermon hadn't offended her. She had appreciated what I had said although it made her sad. She explained that she very much wanted to be home with her children, able to be a full-time mother, but her husband wouldn't let her. He wanted her to earn money, so she worked full-time.

You'll understand one pastoral lesson I took away from that crisis was not to put blind trust in people reporting that I had offended someone else. Taking up someone else's supposed offense in talking to me elicits this response, now: "Please, don't report what others think. You're the one I'm speaking with and I very much care what you think."

But something else: I learned from our conversation that I needed to preach not only that wives and mothers should be taught to love their children, be domestic, and obey their husbands, but also that it was the God-given responsibility of the "older women" of the church to teach these things to the young wives and mothers.

Did you notice that in the Bible text above?

Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored.

Couldn't be clearer, could it? If the godly older women of our church had been teaching the younger wives and mothers to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, to be pure, to be workers at home, to be kind, to be being subject to their husbands; if the godly older women of our church had been teaching the young wives and mothers that their obedience of these Biblical commands would protect Christ's church from being the cause of the Word of God being dishonored in the community; think of how much easier my job would have been!

In the particular case of this young working mother, the godly older women of our church having taught her these things would almost certainly not have meant she could have her heart's desire and become a stay-at-home mother. Another thing she would have been taught was being subject to her husband, and he was the one commanding her to work full-time outside the home. So likely that heartbreak of her life wouldn't have changed, but other things might have. We don't know.

Now then, back to my friend Kerry Ptacek and the family-integrated church movement.

It's true of any church at worship, any group of elders deliberating at their monthly session meeting, and any family worship time around the table after breakfast or dinner: obeying Scripture's commands can itself become an occasion of sin. So too, older women teaching the Bible and exhorting the younger wives and mothers, loving them in Christian fellowship, and praying with them; each of these can be an occasion of sin. Each of these works can be done well or poorly. There can be godly admonition and there can be sinful gossip.

I remember the day Mary Lee came home from the women's Bible study and let out a harrumph, saying, "If I have to sit through one more women's Bible study where the wives complain about their husbands!"

But as I said, women's Bible studies and prayer groups are no worse in being the occasion of sin than anything else the church does. Every act of obedience of God's commands can become the occasion of sin. The father's discipline is often tarnished by his irritation. The elders' discipline is often tarnished by their guilty consciences. The answers a husband gives his wife after church Sunday morning when she asks him a question coming out of the worship service is often tarnished by his Biblical ignorance.

In other words, life in this fallen world is always fallen, and the fallenness we Christians experience in our obedience of God and His Word is never reason for us to stop obeying Him and His Word. Yes, the husband answering his wife's post-worship questions can sin in the way he answers her. So also, the older woman called by God to teach that husband's young wife can sin in the way she teaches her.

But there it is: God has commanded the wife to ask her husband and God has commanded the older women to teach the younger women.


It would be rebellion against the explicit command of God for the older (Titus 2) women to teach the younger women of the church not to ask their husbands at home.

It would also be rebellion against the explicit command of God for the husband to command his young wife not to attend the women's Bible study where the older women of the church teach the younger women of the church.

Sure, there are exceptional circumstances when a wife shouldn't ask her husband and a husband should tell his wife not to attend a woman's Bible study, but enough with the modern morbid habit of sacrificing the normal on the altar of the abnormal!

God commands the older women to teach the younger women of the church, and by direct implication this is also God's command to the younger women of the church to listen to, and obey, the older women of the church when they instruct them. Obviously, then, also to attend their instruction.

My friendship with Kerry continued for some years as he left the Lay Committee and attended, first, Covenant Theological Seminary, then Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Eventually Kerry got his M.Div. and entered the pastorate. While he was a student at Greenville, the seminary published a workbook based upon a teaching series Kerry had done several places. Titled Family Worship: Biblical Basis, Historical Reality, Current Need, there is much in this book that could be very helpful to Christian dads committed to establishing and leading their family in growing in their knowledge of Scripture and doctrine, and spending time each day in family worship.

Sadly, though, the movement Kerry's book helped found is not so much known for its helpfulness to fathers in leading family worship as it is for being one of the foundations of a national movement with has become the source of divisiveness in the church. It must be said that the family-centered church movement has become schismatic.

How schismatic?

Ten years after the publication of Kerry's book, Doug Phillips of Vision Forum called a bunch of his friends to a meeting in order to found a national family-centered church movement. Their meeting was held September 11, 2001—as the Twin Towers were falling—and out of that conference came the movement now calling itself the National Center for Family-Integrated Churches. Doug Phillips is no longer the leader—his Vision Forum's Scott Brown now heads it up.

If you have followed my writing at all, you know I work hard to warn Christians against errors. This means Christians can get irritated or angry because they've been acclimated to flattery being the primary mode of communication they receive from their church officers. Also, we here on Baylyblog believe it's important to focus our warnings on the church instead of the world; and within the church, on that section of the church most similar to our own doctrinal and ecclesiastical commitments.

There are many souls very sympathetic to the family-centered (I prefer that label to "family-integrated" because I think it's more honest) church movement who read this blog. Please don't simply dismiss this warning, telling yourself we don't know you or your house church or how bad the other choices of churches are in your area.

No church is perfect because every church's members, officers, and children are sinners.

Nevertheless, there is no better predictor of sanctification across one's lifetime than a long and steady and humble and submissive and loving relationship with one church, and this is possible only with the regular graceful practices of repentance and forgiveness.

In my experience with this issue, most times, a house church or home church is not a church. It is a family and friends. And except in a few extraordinary cases, the principal thing outsiders will note about your house church or family church or home church after even a short period of observation is the spiritual pride and rebellion that permeate the group—starting at the top.

If you're in a family-centered church, unless your church is abnormal among the family-centered churches, go back to a church you (or maybe your wife) can't control. Yes, their youth group is entertainment. Yes, their children's church is babysitting. Yes, most people in the church have no family worship during the week. But the thing is...

As I said, you (or your wife) can't control them, and this is good.

Very good.

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!