Part 3: Raising Children Well: Covenant Friendships
Friends Closer than a Brother
The value of baptism depends, first, on a proper understanding of the sacrament; second, the promises contained in baptism must be received by faith and applied as often as possible; and, third, we do not simply believe things to be true, but we also live by faith in a certain community context (i.e., the church). Raising our children well means raising our children well together. In the Presbyterian Church in America’s Book of Church Order there are questions addressed to the parents concerning the baptism of their child, and there is also a question that is asked of the congregation:
“Do you as a congregation undertake the responsibility of assisting the parents in the Christian nurture of this child?”
I’m not sure how seriously people take these vows, but for those who answer “yes” it is an exceedingly solemn vow to assist in the raising of covenant children.
To the degree that parents in the church take baptism seriously, and all that it means for them and their children, we can expect our own children to grow up in a healthy, thriving context for their faith. If parents refuse to take their covenantal responsibilities seriously, we can expect our children to likewise have a cavalier attitude towards the faith. But parents are not meant to be alone in this endeavor.
The need for friendship and community is a significant aspect of our Christian living. We can have “many companions” in an unhealthy manner. Thus we should look for true friendships within the church, the types of friendship where a friend sticks close than a brother (Proverbs 18:24). When Proverbs speaks about friendships, almost always the reference is to non–romantic relationships, generally same–sex friendships.
This reminds me of C.S. Lewis, who wrote: “My happiest hours are spent sitting up to the small hours in someone’s college room talking nonsense, poetry, theology, metaphysics over beer, tea, and pipes. There’s no sound I like better than adult male laughter.” Our children are no different: they love laughter among friends. Like us, they love friendships; but these friendships must be good friendships. When my children want to go to church to see their friends, I do not rebuke them and explain that we go to church simply to worship God. Rather, I hope they are expressing David’s sentiment in Psalm 16,
“As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones,
in whom is all my delight.”
Many parents will drive their child(ren) half an hour for a sports practice or a music lesson, but they may wish to invest more time in helping their children cultivate good friendships within the covenant community. Good friendships should result in earnest counsel (Proverbs 27:9; 15:22). Christian sympathy and empathy are hard to come by; but once we receive such blessings from a brother or sister in the Lord, we are receiving something more valuable than fine jewels. True friends also give trustworthy correction (Proverbs 27:5–6). If you find this hard to accept, then you may not have any real friends. Counsel and correction keep us on the right path (Psalm 141:5). We need this as much when we are 50 as when we are 5. Friends also love during adversity (Proverbs 17:17), such as Jonathan did towards David. Job’s friends did not always act well and sometimes added to Job’s sufferings, but Job still calls them his friends and desired their sympathy (Job 6:14; 19:21).
Our children need godly friends; they may be older or younger; they may be rich or poor; they may be black or white; but, make no mistake, the one who “walks with the wise grows wise” whereas “a companion of fools suffers harm” (Proverbs 13:20; 22:24–25). Our children will certainly be influenced by their friends, but what will that influence be? Consider Joash who acted wisely when he walked with his wise guardian, but after the death of his guardian he became foolish (2 Chronicles 24).
Whatever has been discussed before, whether the value of (improving upon) one’s baptism, or the need for godly friendships, none of this will ultimately help if there is not a robust context for corporate worship whereby these truths are vigorously presented each Lord’s Day.
The worship that the Bible focuses on is both public and corporate. Even in the beginning of redemptive history, the first worship war is public, involving Cain and his brother Abel. In the Psalms there is an accent on corporate worship (Psalm 95:6–7). In the New Testament, nothing changes in terms of the corporate and public nature of worship (Acts 2:42, 46–47).
Christians were not martyred in the early church because they worshiped alone in their hearts; they were martyred because of the public nature of their confession as Christian worshipers. In one of the most terrifying warnings offered anywhere in holy Scripture, the author of Hebrews exhorts his readers to hold fast to their confession and trust in God’s faithfulness toward them (Heb. 10:23). He then proceeds to exhort them “to stir up one another to love and good works” (10:24). But then he warns them not to neglect to meet, “as is the habit of some” (10:25). When the author speaks of “sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth” (10:26), he is addressing professing Christians who have stopped worshiping publicly and corporately. Such can only expect “a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire” (10:27). Corporate worship, ordinarily speaking, is not optional for the Christian. It is therefore not optional for our children if we seek to raise them well.
In short, there’s a sense in which all we desire for our children is for them to remain faithful worshipers in the Church all the days of their life. If we do not take corporate worship seriously, neither will our children; if we do not display joy in attending and participating in worship, neither will our children. But this brings us back full circle (see part 1): if the church isn’t a place of love, then it really isn’t the type of place anyone would wish to be, much less our children.
The Sum of it All
To summarize this series on raising children well, the foundation of the Christian religion is love. Our children must grow up in a context of love, not only from above but from their parents and church community. Their baptism highlights this love, but also continually pushes them to improve on all the gospel realities that are graciously bestowed to them. And this life of improving upon one’s baptism must take place in the local church where covenant friendships can be nurtured, and God can bless them as they worship him in Spirit and in truth.
Raising children well is not easy. But we often make it harder on ourselves than it needs to be.
Mark Jones (Ph.D., Leiden) has been the minister at Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church (PCA), Canada since 2007.