Family Shepherds: Calling and Equipping Men to Lead Their Homes, by Voddie Baucham Jr. (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2011)
In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther’s vision for family discipleship, expressed in the prefaces to his Small and Large Catechisms, was for the head of every household—the Hausvater—to teach the entire family the chief parts of the Christian faith, just as pastors should teach God’s Word to the entire congregation. In fact, Luther at times referred to fathers (and also mothers) as “pastors” or “priests” of the home.
Today, Baptist minister Voddie Baucham Jr. is advancing Luther’s vision of “the family altar,” while also drawing from Reformed theologians, including John Calvin, George Whitefield, Charles Hodge, James W. Alexander, Benjamin Warfield, and Charles Spurgeon. In Family Shepherds: Calling and Equipping Men to Lead Their Homes, Baucham sets before husbands and fathers God’s gracious plan for their spiritual leadership in the home. He provides excellent commentary on Deuteronomy 6, Ephesians 6, and Titus 2, demonstrating important points of agreement between the Lutheran and Reformed traditions. In winsome language, he highlights the Gospel message and encourages men to proclaim it to the family members whom God has entrusted to their spiritual care.
What the Gospel Is, and Is Not
Too often books purporting to be about Christianity fail to hit the nail on the head when it comes to identifying the Gospel itself. Fortunately, Baucham gets the message right. Echoing Luther’s own distinction between Law and Gospel, Baucham chastises contemporary churches for promoting a legalistic “love God, love people” mantra, and he emphatically insists that “the Gospel is the glorious, Christ-centered, cross-centered, grace-centered news of what God has done in Christ Jesus (the last Adam) to redeem man from the fall of his federal head (the first Adam).” The Gospel is not about our works, but about God’s comfort to us: “we don’t ‘live’ the Gospel; we proclaim it” (55). Quoting Luther as “say[ing] it best,” Baucham writes that the “Gospel is and should be nothing else than a discourse or story about Christ,” never focused on our own works.
Rejecting Arminianism (decision theology) and semi-Pelagianism (meeting God halfway with a good will desiring conversion), Baucham emphasizes that “it’s absurd to expect obedience from men who are ‘dead in the trespasses and sins’ (Ephesians 2:1)” (59). Recognizing that sanctification follows after justification, and giving the Holy Spirit credit for working both of these into our hearts, Baucham writes, “Our obedience is produced by God, not by us” (60). Firm on original sin, and just as firm on God’s power to transform lives through the Gospel, Baucham chastises contemporary Christians for soaking up pop psychology into their theology, as if people are born neutral or could learn to make God-pleasing choices on their own. He particularly takes issue with the semi-Pelagianism of popular author Michael Pearl, whose book To Train Up a Child, denies the moral accountability of young children and, in Baucham’s view, “introduces classic behaviorism [i.e., the stimulus-response approach of psychologist B.F. Skinner] as the appropriate response to this moral neutrality.” In reply, Baucham turns to John 15, emphasizing that until we are grafted into Christ, the true vine, we who are the branches “can do nothing” (117).
Lutherans will find little, if anything, objectionable about what Baucham says concerning the Gospel. However, they will sense something missing, something left unmentioned: the Means of Grace. While the Lutheran and Reformed traditions both emphasize Sola Gratia and Sola Fide—salvation by grace alone, through faith alone—Lutherans also emphasize the Word and the Sacraments as the means through which the Holy Spirit distributes the blessings that Christ won for us on the cross. Recall, for example, that three of the six chief parts in Luther’s Small Catechism focus on the Means of Grace: Baptism, Absolution, and Communion. Since Baptists do not recognize with Lutherans the power of God’s Word in baptism to create faith and deliver the forgiveness of sins, Baucham stumbles when reading “by washing of water with the word” in Ephesians 5:26 and writes that “it is difficult to be certain about what precisely this phrase means” (86). Aside from this deficiency and a few others like it, Lutheran readers nonetheless will find much value in Family Shepherds.
Spiritual Shepherds of the Home
From Deuteronomy 6:6–7, Psalm 78:4, and Proverbs 22:6, Baucham establishes the clear Old Testament pattern for family life: fathers were to serve as spiritual heads. Comparing those passages to Ephesians 6:1–4, Colossians 3:20–21, and 1 Timothy 3:4–5, among others, he concludes that “the New Testament makes no effort to introduce a new pattern” (24). Taken as a whole, “the Bible leaves no room for fatherhood that doesn’t take seriously the responsibility of raising children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (25).
Unfortunately, many Christian fathers neglect this responsibility. The culture around them offers alternative priorities—careers, entertainment, and the like. Christian congregations too often displace, rather than reinforce, the role of parents. In many congregations, members are segregated by age to the extent that parents and children do not even attend a common worship service, much less sit together for Bible study. “The Bible is void of any pattern or instruction that would clearly point to the establishment of modern age-segregated ministries,” warns Baucham (63). His own congregation has self-consciously taken a different approach. “We don’t have specialized ministries designed to aim targeted discipleship at every age and/or constituency. … Our focus is on equipping family shepherds” (13).
From Titus 2, Baucham gleans the important insight that pastors have a responsibility to spiritually mentor older men and women, so that those mature Christians can in turn mentor young men and women, who in turn will raise up their children in the Christian faith. Here one discovers the true partnership between church and home: Sunday school and youth group should not replace the parents, but neither should the “home church” movement remove the family from participation in the local congregation; rather, the pastor, the elders of the congregation, and the head of every Christian household work as a team, each within a distinctive vocation.
To be clear, nothing in Baucham’s book would prohibit a pastor or Sunday school teacher from providing direct instruction to children within the congregation; his point is merely that while doing so pastors and teachers within the congregation should aim to support rather than to replace the offices of parents and of “older men and older women”—whether uncles, aunts, and grandparents, or other elders within the congregation. “The church was never intended to be a substitute for healthy family life,” he concludes. “However, it is most assuredly designed to be an aid and a buttress” (178).
The family, meanwhile, should not retreat from congregational participation, but rather engage actively. “Church membership,” writes Baucham, “is the most important aspect of lifestyle evangelism” (147). Even with all his emphasis on home devotions, Baucham never loses sight of the congregation. “Those who are members in good standing of healthy, theologically sound local bodies bear witness to the truths their church upholds” (149). Congregations edify through “preaching, teaching, reading, and singing” (153)—and here the Lutheran reader will insert “through Baptism, Absolution, and Communion.” Echoing Titus 2 once more, Baucham reminds “family shepherds” that “mature men and women” and the “elders” of the congregation provide mentoring and accountability for the husbands and fathers as they lead their homes spiritually. Failure to participate in the life of a local congregation, on the other hand, leads to “loneliness, fear, isolation, and despair” (154).
Restoring the Practice of Home Catechesis
Baucham makes a special effort to assist his readers in re-discovering the value of catechism study, not only within the congregation but also within the home. Quoting Luther once more, Baucham writes, “In the catechism, we have a very exact, direct, and short way to the whole Christian religion” (64). Although Baucham next presents the merits of the Heidelberg Catechism, rather than Luther’s Small Catechism, his general lesson has broad application. The question-and-answer format ought to be memorized verbatim, starting as early as age two, because it provides a framework for organizing the chief teachings of the Bible. The catechism also paves the way for Christian apologetics, for through the catechism Christians become aware of the Bible passages that support orthodox theology and that refute alternative views.
Baucham cites three reasons why catechesis has fallen out of favor. First, the twenty-first-century church succumbed to the idol of professionalism, as if parents could not pass on the faith to their children through home catechesis, but instead had to farm out the work to professionals—pastors, youth ministers, and the like. As noted earlier, Baucham’s solution is “both/and”: fathers in the home, and pastors in the congregation. Second, decision theology (which resonates so strongly with America’s culture of individualism), rejects the rote memorization that is so intrinsic to catechesis and replaces it with personalized expressions, such as, “I gave my life to Christ,” or “I made a decision for Christ.” Baucham warns: “Notice how man-centered, experiential, and unbiblical these phrases are” (70). Finally, catechesis has fallen by the wayside as a result of sloth. “We’re just plain lazy!” In reply, Baucham presents God’s promises to bless families through the ministry of fathers in the home. He also reminds his Reformed readers that the Westminster Confession specifically states that “God is to be worshiped everywhere in spirit and in truth; as in private families daily” (73). In other words, the same pattern found in the Old and New Testament remains appropriate for today.
Moving from theoretical to practical, Baucham outlines an easily “doable” format for family worship: singing, Scripture reading, and prayer. He encourages the singing of “great hymns of the faith” as well as Scripture memory songs. He suggest reading a chapter of the Bible each day, or reading thematically, such by exploring one of the church’s confessions of faith. Finally, Baucham identifies specific groups for whom to pray: each other, those in civil government, those not yet of the faith, and those who lead in the church. In Appendix Two, he provides a sample prayer guide that his congregation updates weekly for use in each member’s household. “But the bottom line,” concludes Buacham, “just do it! … Find a time that will allow you to be consistent and stick to it” (80).
But What If There’s No Man in the Home?
As nice as everything Baucham has said thus far may sound, how will it work if there is no husband or father in the picture? Baucham acknowledges that single mothers and their children face a special challenge. His remedy begins with citations from six Old Testament verses identifying God Himself as the “Father of the fatherless” (173). He also finds verses that judge the Old Testament church for failing to provide for the needs of widows and orphans. In 1 Timothy 5, Paul identifies three levels of support: the nuclear family, the extended family, and the congregation. From this Baucham concludes that “a single mother must recognize that the primary responsibility for shepherding her family lies with her,” but that the extended family and the congregation also owe her the support she needs in this difficult (yet rewarding) task. “Brothers, uncles, and even older sons can and should be a resource for a single mother whenever possible” (175).
The church’s role comes third and last—after the single mother who is her home’s spiritual shepherd, and after the extended family. Baucham warns that many Christians will be “surprised to discover that Paul puts the church last,” since their congregations have been practicing “unbiblical patterns that more closely resemble the work of social welfare agencies than the New Testament church” (176). The church has limited jurisdiction, limited access, and limited resources; it is the nuclear family and the extended family that have the first and second responsibilities to the Christian upbringing of children, with the church providing support to parents and relatives through the mentoring relationships outlined in Titus 2, i.e., from pastor to the older men and women to the younger men and women to their children. “Godly older men and women in the church, plus godly, manly elders, as well as biblically functioning homes all serve together as a tremendous environment and support for the fatherless” (178).
Maintaining the Priority on Marriage, not Parenthood
Single mothers are not the only persons who face challenges when it comes to the “spiritual shepherding” of the home. Even married couples who give every appearance of being devoted to the welfare of their children and who have daily home devotions are themselves at risk of failing to nurture their own relationship as husband and wife, and this failure can have devastating repercussions for their parenting responsibilities as well.
Ironically, American society bears the appearance of being very child-centered—observe the abundance of preschools, schools, after-school activities, summer camps, etc.—and yet children suffer great neglect. How is this so? Simple. God has designed children to be raised by their father and and mother, married to each other. Just as with the rest of life, so also with spiritual matters: “Leading a wife is the foundation upon which a man’s shepherding ministry in the home is built” (83). Baucham asserts that building a healthy marriage—one characterized by the mutual love and respect identified in Ephesians 6—is the most important step fathers and mothers can take to becoming effective parents. Marriage teaches by example what it means to love, to forgive, to remain faithful, to support, to feel secure. Marriage provides these lessons more effectively than any “children’s program” ever could.
Not only do children need to have their lives re-centered to the home, but parents do as well. “Our earthly identity should center much more around our role as family shepherds than around or role on the job” (91). Men must learn to discover a deeper and ultimately more reliable source for self-esteem than success in their careers. Their families should not serve their jobs, but rather their jobs should serve their families. Christian parenting rests upon the foundation of the marital covenant which, being Gospel-centered, takes priority over career ambitions and other matters: “My wife and I entered a covenant relationship designed to bring forth, train, and launch a generation of godly offspring, and that’s going to direct all the rest of my decisions” (92).
To become family shepherds, fathers must spend time with their families in the home. Being home-centered, however, must be carefully distinguished from being child-centered. “Prioritizing children above your marriage is both foolish and dangerous because it sets a precedent that contradicts one of the greatest lessons you’ll ever teach your children—how to be good husbands and wives” (98).
A Discussion Worth Continuing
Baucham identifies the Bible’s emphatic teaching, from both the Old and the New Testament, that God has designed the family for transmitting the Christian faith from one generation to the next. He carefully distinguishes between the responsibilities of parents and pastors, offering practical suggestions for how family shepherds and congregational shepherds can work together rather than usurping each other’s vocation.
How should this look in your congregation? Baucham’s book provides a helpful framework for asking, and beginning to answer, questions that may assist congregations and families in re-evaluating their priorities and, if necessary, revising their practices.
Dr. Ryan C. MacPherson is the founding president of The Hausvater Project. He lives with his wife Marie and their homeschool children in Casper, Wyoming, where he serves as Academic Dean and Professor of History and Philosophy at Luther Classical College. He previously taught American history, history of science, and bioethics at Bethany Lutheran College, 2003–2023. For more information, visit www.ryancmacpherson.com.