Discipleship in the Christian Home: An Historical Perspective
Homeschooling has become a vibrant tradition in American Christianity. In some ways, this represents a radical break from the established routine of enrolling children in schools. In other respects, Christian home discipleship has a long history—and one that need not be seen in opposition to parochial school education. American Lutherans have a particularly strong tradition of parochial education as well as a theological heritage that emphasizes the importance of parents taking an active and primary role in their children’s Christian upbringing.
The following article has been excerpted from the recently published story of how a small, confessional Lutheran church body (today numbering fewer than 20,000 souls) sought to conserve its theological heritage through home discipleship, parochial schools, a Christian liberal arts college, and a theological seminary. The full story can be found in Telling the Next Generation: The Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s Vision for Christian Education, 1918–2011 and Beyond. These lessons from the saints who have gone before us offer much encouragement and guidance for the future.
A Reformation Heritage of Home Discipleship
The Lutheran Reformation of the sixteenth century had a focused theological agenda: to restore the historic Christian proclamation of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, as founded upon Scripture alone. What the Lutheran reformers accomplished, however, included not only theological reform, but also social reform. Specifically, Lutheran theologians renewed a biblical appreciation for marriage and parenthood in an age when the Papacy had presented celibacy as a holier vocation. In doing so, Lutherans also identified the family as the foundational institution for Christian discipleship.
To phrase it simply, the Lutheran Reformation was about going “back to the basics”—back to Scripture, back to salvation in Christ alone, and back to the vocations “commanded by God,” such as “that a husband should labor to support his wife and children and bring them up in the fear of God, [and] that a wife should bear children and care for them” (Augsburg Cconfession XXVI, 10–11). But how could parents teach their children if not only parents, but also the pastors serving them, were ignorant of basic Bible truths? Recognizing the pathetic state of Christian education in his day, Martin Luther prepared his Small Catechism (1529) as a handbook by which parents could instruct their children in the chief parts of the faith. Each section is prefaced with this phrase: “in the plain form in which the head of the family [the Hausvater] shall teach them [e.g., the Ten Commandments, or the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer] to his household.”
Similarly, Luther’s Large Catechism (also prepared in 1529) began with a preface stating that “it is the duty of every head of a household [Hausvater] to examine his children and servants at least once a week and ascertain what they have learned of it [the Catechism]” (Large Catechism, Short Preface, 4). In the section concerning the Lord’s Supper, Luther further added: “let every head of a household remember that it is his duty, by God’s injunction and command, to teach or have taught to his children the things they ought to know” (Large Catechism V, 87). When children learned from teachers other than their parents, such instruction was to be regarded as under the auspices of parenthood. Luther identified the relationship between parents and teachers thus: “Where a father is not able by himself to bring up his child, he calls upon a schoolmaster to teach him.” Hence, the command to “honor your father and mother” includes also a command to honor teachers and civil government, for “out of the authority of parents all other authority is derived and developed” (Large Catechism I, 141). Recognizing the importance of training children in the Christian faith, pastors not only taught the catechism personally to the youth, but also were exhorted to “take pains to urge governing authorities and parents to rule wisely and educate their children” (Small Catechism, Preface, 19, emphasis added).
Lutheran Catechesis in the Twentieth-Century Home
The twentieth-century pastors, teachers, and parents of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS) inherited this sixteenth-century consensus of Lutheran theology, subscribing to the Small and Large Catechisms as included in the Book of Concord. Pastor J. B. Unseth remarked, at the 400th anniversary of Luther’s Small Catechism, that “it is as up to date in 1929 as it was in 1529 . . . and even today there is room for the use of the Catechism in the homes: indeed great need of it, for the benefit of all, both old and young.”
Biblical commands for educating the youth in the home were not regarded as heavy yokes by which a demanding God burdened parents. Rather, Christian parents recognized that the commands positively protect blessings that are imbedded in a divinely established social order in which parents, as God’s chosen agents, provide for their children’s spiritual needs as well as their material needs. As noted throughout the Large Catechism, God attaches promises to His commands, such as the blessing of the Fourth Commandment: “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth” (Ephesians 6:3; Large Catechism I, 133). Similarly, in regard to the Sixth Commandment (which forbids adultery), Luther instructs thus: “Parents and magistrates have the duty of so supervising the youth that they will be brought up to a decency and respect for authority and, when they are grown, will be married honorably in the fear of God. Then God will add His blessing and grace so that men may have joy and happiness in their married life” (Large Catechism I, 218).
Viewed from this perspective, Christian education is not optional, but neither is it coercive. It is a fountain of God’s blessings. As Pastor Unseth remarked in 1929, “Blessed are the parents who in their homes together with their children diligently occupy themselves with the Catechism. . . . They will experience the blessing of the Lord.” These blessings come from God, with parents serving merely as channels. Just as pastors, being called into the public ministry, serve as God’s spokespersons within the congregation, so also fathers and mothers, having the vocation of parenthood, serve as “pastors” and “priests” within their homes.
Lutheran Catechesis in the Congregation
Like the private ministry of parents within the home, the pastor’s public ministry of Word and Sacrament also plays an indispensable role in training children in the Christian faith. Christian discipleship properly belongs to both the home and the church, and for either party to surrender this task imperils children’s souls. At the 1934 synod convention, Pastor P. T. Buszin identified the serious importance of this cooperative responsibility:
Would it not, my friends, be an unfathomably gross breach of trust over against the Lord, who has given children to parents as a heritage and gift, and to the Church by their rebirth in baptism, to turn these beloved and honored little ones of God over—for a long or a short period of time—to caretakers of the species described in the Letter to the Ephesians (4:17-18), ‘walking in the vanity of their mind, having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart,’ or to have such a child trained for hours each day according to an educational program which of necessity and by design is without Christ, having no eternal hope, and without God in the world (cp. Ephesians 2:12), and then endeavoring merely by a slipshod admonition here and there in the home and by some short-time, makeshift arrangement in the Church, to counteract contrary, but well-planned and captivating, habituating influences?
Lutheran pastors during the twentieth century emphasized the irrevocable responsibility of parents to ensure, by their own efforts as well as through assistance obtained from their congregations, that their children receive a proper Christian upbringing. As H. Ingebritson wrote in 1934, “Many homes, it seems, hold the church alone responsible [for nurturing children’s souls]. . . . It is true that the Lord has instituted the office of teaching in the church in order to assist parents in bringing up their children, but He has not thereby removed the responsibility from parents.”
Home Devotions at the “Family Altar”
Home devotions provide one means by which parents may exercise their responsibility in sharing the Gospel with their children. Mrs. Joslyn Moldstad wrote in the preface to her book of family devotions, At Home with Jesus:
Our home is a place of refuge to which we come each evening to be with our family. Every day is bursting with its own frustrations, heartaches, and grief. To be a real refuge, our home must be a place where we run not only for rest and relaxation, but also to hear the word of God. Only through the Bible is there true peace for our souls, knowing our sin is forgiven through Jesus the Savior.
Rather than regarding home devotions as supplements to a congregation’s educational offerings, ELS pastors have seen things the other way around: home devotions play a fundamental role, later to be enhanced by “Sunday school, vacation Bible school, or perhaps a Christian day school.” David Pfeifer, writing for the Lutheran Sentinel, summed it up thus in 1932:
Commands of God in regard to religious instruction are addressed to parents—specifically to the father as the head of the family. Scripture, therefore, regards the home as the really appropriate agency for religious instruction. That, in comparison with all other agencies [church services, catechism class, Sunday school, vacation Bible school], may come nearest to reaching the Biblical standard. It then should be the aim of every Christian pastor to make the homes of his parishioners such agencies and the aim of every Christian parent to make his home such an agency.
Home devotions at the “family altar” also lay the foundation for broader home-based education programs. “Homeschooling” has gained popularity in recent years, largely as a strategy for winning the so-called “culture wars” as to which values system the next generation of Americans will inherit—secular or religious, postmodern or traditional? Homeschooling in its most recent manifestations tends to be associated, religiously, with conservative Reformed and Roman Catholic subcultures and, politically, with the Religious Right. However, a distinctly Lutheran philosophy of homeschooling predates the current political struggles and transcends the contemporary preoccupation with moral reform. Lutherans focus not only on the Law that reveals our sins, but also the Gospel of forgiveness in Christ.
Lutheran home discipleship, as envisioned in the Large Catechism, has an overarching goal: the preparation of young people to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion (V, 87). And so it was, over fifty years ago, that Lutheran Sentinel readers learned that their “Christian homes should again become home-churches, homeschools, where the housefathers were both house-priests and house-teachers, performing the office of the ministry there just as the pastors did in the churches.”
Expectations of the home’s ability to train the youth ran high. “The real schools, where the real lessons of life are learned, are the Christian homes of America,” proclaimed the Lutheran Sentinel in 1959. “There is no training to be had in school or college, or anywhere in the world which can take the place of discipline of the home. Every true Christian home is a university, fully equipped, amply endowed, and able to give the highest education which can be got in this world.”
Cooperation between Parents, Pastors, and School Teachers
Even as ELS pastors extolled the virtues of home education, they also tempered their idealism with realistic expectations. “If parents could do this at home,” wrote O. M. Gullerud in 1932, “that would be the ideal thing. But under our conditions, this, in most cases, is just about impossible.” The Synod’s Board for Education recognized, as early as the 1930s, that some parents are unable, others are unwilling, and still others, though able and willing, nonetheless struggle to find the time to educate their children properly. The Evangelical Lutheran Synod has found it necessary to establish parochial schools to fill these gaps. In the 1970s, the American family seemed woefully inadequate for Christian childrearing as fathers over-committed themselves to work and community organizations, mothers increasingly took employment outside the home, parents divorced, and children took their cues from a revolutionary youth culture, which itself was nurtured in the what Pastor Rodger Dale identified in 1974 as “vulgarity, cursing, violence, and explicit sex” that permeated mass media. The need for Christian schools had become as vital as ever. Nevertheless, those schools were to serve not as replacements for, but rather as extensions of, the parental office, as well as of the congregation’s mission and the pastor’s public ministry. Indeed, one of the congregation’s major tasks was to retrain mothers and fathers for Christian parenthood.
Thus, pastors hoped that Christian education in the ELS would involve the home, the church, and the school in mutual assistance to one another. At times, tensions developed, particularly when the schools in question operated under the state rather than the church. But even parochial schools ran the risk of tempting parents to become complacent or neglectful. Pastors sought repeatedly to strike the proper balance. They did so with a recognition that the future of the family, the church, and the wider society depended upon it. As Pastor Paul Madson said in 1974:
For lasting influence and value to a child’s life there is no substitute for the Christian home. The education which a child receives there, together with the help of its church, ranks first and foremost in all education. Nevertheless, whatever other instruction the young can receive by way of Christian elementary and higher education is invaluable. We believe that the more Christian-orientated education a person can receive, the better it is for that person, for his church, and for his country. So, when we speak of the purpose of instruction with a Christian setting, we have in mind not just that which is learned at mother’s knee, but that which also follows the child out of the home, away from its local church, and into the world at large.
The Holy Spirit is your child’s best educator.
“These commandments that I give you today,” said God to his Old Testament people, “are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). “Fathers, do not exasperate your children,” spoke God to his New Testament people, “instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Parents appropriately respond, “We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord” (Psalm 78:4).
A “Noah’s Ark” theme in the nursery, family devotions at bedtime, table prayers at mealtime—these all are the beginnings of Christian discipleship in the home. Nativity sets during Advent, a birthday cake for Baby Jesus at Christmas, family hymn sings, memory work, discipline informed by Law and Gospel—these home education experiences water the precious seeds that are planted in Holy Baptism. No wonder Martin Luther referred to fathers and mothers as the pastors and priests of their households, for that truly is what Christian parents are.
When you homeschool your children—and all parents are homeschoolers to some degree—be sure that you are bringing them to what Luther called “the schoolhouse of the Holy Spirit,” namely, God’s Word. If you enroll your children in a school, keep in mind that Christian schools uniquely employ God’s Word as a light for your children’s path (Psalm 119:105). Whatever doubts you may have about your own abilities, be confident in the promises God attaches to His Word. Let God’s Word permeate the entire curriculum, so that His promise to Israel may be claimed as our own: “All your sons will be taught by the Lord, and great will be your children’s peace” (Isaiah 54:13).
Dr. Ryan C. MacPherson is the founding president of The Hausvater Project. He lives with his wife Marie and their homeschool children in Mankato, Minnesota, where he teaches American history, history of science, and bioethics at Bethany Lutheran College. For more information, visit www.ryancmacpherson.com.
TAGS: Home Devotions, Homeschooling, Catechesis