This message titled It Takes a Church: Focused on the Family of God from Albert Mohler was delivered at The Gospel Coalition’s 2019 National Pre-Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. The two-day pre-conference was titled Evangelizing the Next Generation: Gospel Guidance for Parents.
The following is a lightly edited transcript; please check the audio or video before quoting.
I greet you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s wonderful to be here together at TGC19 and at this pre-conference. It’s wonderful on this Lord’s Day evening to gather together and to think as Christians about parenting in a turbulent time. You know, we use that phrase, or we look at this title for the pre-conference and frankly, “turbulent,” if anything, looks to be an understatement.
We’re living in a time of such disequilibrium, such massive social and cultural change, that it’s hard even to take a measure of what it’s like to be in the vortex of all of this. And parents are in a particularly vulnerable position in this vortex.
I was talking to a friend of mine the other day, and he said, “Quite honestly, the smartest thing I ever did was waiting to write a book on parenting until I’d raised my kids.” That’s probably true in any age. But it’s amazing how quickly the situations around us, the context, changes so utterly.
The challenge of being a faithful Christian parent and faithful Christian churches, and raising children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord is certainly present. It’s not to say that as you look at the Bible, there’s ever been really a time when it wasn’t challenging. When I have Christian parents say to me, “I don’t know how in the world we’re supposed to raise children in a time like this,” I say, “Well, how about when you had to take them into Canaan?”
When I have Christian parents say to me, “I don’t know how in the world we’re supposed to raise children in a time like this,” I say, “Well, how about when you had to take them into Canaan?”
The experience of Israel taking its children into Canaan, they were taking them into a land marked by child sacrifice, and a land in which the idolatry was so blatantly sexualized that it would make Hollywood, if this is imaginable, look tame by comparison. Or imagine saying that to Christians in Rome in the 1st century, or in the several centuries that followed. What would it be like to have to send your 15-year-old out into a city where he was going to have to pass cult prostitution and other things just on the way?
Canaan, Rome, Indianapolis, you really can draw something of a straight line. For us, the problem is that we had been lulled into a complacency as Christians, thinking that we were on this holiday from history. We thought we weren’t in Canaan, and we weren’t in Rome; we’re somewhere else. Then all of a sudden, we wake up, and we’re in Canaan. I mean, before Israel took possession of the land, maybe a little bit after too, but we’re definitely in Rome. And we need to think together about what it means to raise children as a church in these times.
It’s assigned to me to speak on, it takes a church within the context of the challenge of parenting. And I have to say right up front, that the greater thing than parenting is grandparenting. And I heard that before, but boy do I know it now. And it’s only because of how important I think this is and this conference in the next few days, that I’m not at home because in one of the cruel turns of timing in my life, my grandchildren were arriving at my house as I left to come here. If anything has changed my perspective on the world over the last several years, it really is being a grandparent. If nothing else, recognizing—even as we see it in a biblical frame—that my concern for time has been lengthened by my grandchildren. I’m passionately, personally concerned, not so much with the world that they will know, but with the church that they will know. The world seems very much outside my control, our control, but the church is our responsibility.
The History of Our Times: A Look Back at Culture and Politics in the 1990s
This title, “It Takes a Church,” of course, it harkens back to 1996, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s book, It Takes a Village, where she went on to say, “It takes a village to raise a child.” It became one of the most controversial books of the 1990s, one of those hallmark events in the cultural controversies of our time.
By the time you get to the mid-1990s in the United States, the cultural and political left and the cultural and political right, had come to almost equal and opposite understandings of the challenge of the family and of raising children. Hillary Clinton at that time represented, not at all the far left, but what we might call the “center-left.” The left and the center-left had to come to the conclusion that modernity had rendered the family vulnerable, and as a result had fractured society. Driven by the many ideological causes to which the left was committed, they believed the only way that the functions of the family could be salvaged was if they were to be taken over largely by the government.
If you look at the book, It Takes a Village, it was largely an argument for an expansive government taking on the responsibilities and authority that had previously been assigned to parents. On the other hand, by the time you get to 1990s, conservatives and liberals have completely different understandings.
On the right, conservativism in the United States had come to the conclusion that the ideological subversion of such realities as feminism, the sexual revolution, expressive individualism, the hyper-sexualized culture, the rise of the therapeutic state, and the expansive powers of government had weakened the family. I should note that I’m speaking as a conservative who is in basic agreement with the conservative assessment, but I see a two-fold temptation for those on the right.
The first problem was that conservatives failed to understand that the rise of this massive consumer dynamic had created a tremendous amount of disequilibrium. [This ideology of the right contained its own elements that subverted the family alongside the ideologies of the left. We only saw the explicit subversion of the family when it] was made official policy, for instance, by the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century, especially in the Soviet Union and in China. And then you had the rise of the modern ideologies of feminism and much of the social revolution. I can remember Gloria Steinem saying that woman needs a man, meaning a husband, like a fish needs a bicycle. Or you could also look at other figures such as Betty Friedan saying that marriage in the family represent a domestic concentration camp. The left had turned its subversion on the family.
The right had a second problem, nostalgia—nostalgia, not so much for the family, well thought out, in its natural form, but for the family as it had existed, especially in the late 19th and early 20th century. This was the conversation about the nuclear family. I can remember as a kid hearing about the nuclear family. I grew up in the nuclear age. Some of the earliest memories of my life were associated with, not so much the Cuban Missile Crisis—I was playing with blocks at that time—but with the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I grew up in Florida surrounded by constant air cover over Florida. I thought I knew what “nuclear” meant. When I heard about the nuclear family, I didn’t think I wanted to be a part of one. But the meaning of “nuclear” was drawn from the idea of a “nucleus.” The understanding was that the family was the nuclear cell at the center of society. A better phrase is “natural family.”
The left turned its ire on the nuclear family, the husband and the wife, the mother and the father, and their children saying that that was repressive. The right held onto it in kind of nostalgic 1950s picture, without understanding that the natural family—unlike the nuclear family—was actually tied to an extensive structure, most importantly, of an extended family, but also a larger community. The family was vulnerable by the time we get to the 1990s.
And thus, “It takes a [village],” said, Hillary Clinton. “No, it doesn’t,” said many others. “It takes a mom and a dad.” The family had become fragile. Millions of children were growing up without both a mother and a father. This was the situation before that picture began to be totally transformed by the revolution in morality, same-sex marriage, and even the reproductive revolution. So here we are, displaced by totalitarian ideology, expressive individualism, and economic disequilibrium. The family is more fragile than ever before. Parenting, in that context, is just a lot more complicated. What about a biblical theology in the midst of this?
A Biblical Theology of Family in Creation
We’re Christ-people. We’re going to look to the Scriptures—not to the spirit of the age, and certainly not to the contemporary controversies—to get our grounding. What about biblical theology? In the orders of creation, as you’re looking for the center of human social life, it begins with, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24) and “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). In the orders of creation, you see marriage, family, and parenting honored.
A Biblical Theology of Family in the Covenant
After creation comes covenant. When the law is given as a part of the covenant, the command is given to “honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Ex. 20:12). First, we tend to read that command as rugged, American individualists. We read it in a way that expects that if we honor that commandment, we get to live long in the land. Remember, this is written to a covenant people, and it’s written to a plural people. If indeed this honor is shown in Israel, then Israel will live long in the land that was promised to them. When you see this very command repeated by Paul in Ephesians 6:3, he reminds that it was the first commandment given with a promise.
Secondly, we also tend to misread it merely as, “Children, obey your parents.” Well, that’s made very clear elsewhere in Scripture. The role of parents, the authority of parents, and the responsibility of parents is to raise children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. “Honor your mother and father” is actually more than just “Obey your parents.” It’s not primarily a commandment given to children. It is a command that Israel would honor mothers and fathers, and that means patrimony and matrimony. The household codes in the Old Testament make this very clear.
Parents are given a weighty responsibility under God’s covenant. Think of Deuteronomy 6. There we see the importance of teaching children the meaning of these laws, statutes, and commands in your rising up and in your sitting down, your going out and your coming in—all the time. The parents are the teachers of our children. We are to ensure that our children are taught the things of God. In an Old Testament, covenantal theology, children are to be raised to be obedient to parents because that is a sign of Israel’s obedience unto the Lord.
Children are to be welcomed as image bearers, according to the orders of creation and are to be welcomed as glad responsibilities, an unmitigated gift by God’s people. Parents are to be honored both by children, yes, but also by God’s covenant people.
A Biblical Theology of Family in Christ
Looking at the New Testament, we see a continuation of those very structures of the orders of creation and of the covenant commands. And we see, for instance, Joseph and Mary being faithful even to those covenant commands, to the law, and to the presentation of Jesus in the Temple.
We find a very conventional picture in the New Testament, except, of course, where it isn’t. It’s not conventional when we are talking about the conception of Jesus. It’s not conventional in many other ways that Jesus honors his mother and father. When Jesus’s parents go looking for him in the Temple, he reminds them that he is about his father’s business. And so looking just to Jesus, we see some disequilibrium.
We see the conventional continued as it will be, by the way, in the household codes of the New Testament. We can look at Ephesians 6 and Titus 2, these marvelous passages that remind us of the responsibility of parents and the responsibility of children. I love the theme in Titus 2. The church is to be made up of young men honoring older men, older men fulfilling their responsibility, and younger men fulfilling their responsibility. The family, all of a sudden emerges where you might not have been looking for it, when we are told that older women are to minister to younger women and younger women are to learn from older women. Amongst the lessons that the older women are to help younger women to know is how to love their husbands and their children (Titus 2:4).
Christians understand that it does take a church. We understand that the family of faith is the only greater allegiance on Earth than the natural family. The Bible certainly honors the natural family. It is the very nucleus of civilization, and parenting within that context is honored magnificently. But the family of faith is held up as an even greater family, in which no one, by God’s grace, is left out of that family.
Jesus himself in his earthly ministry said things such as, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). But he also said, “no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29–30).
A Biblical Theology of Family in the Church
It’s conventional. And it’s so conventional, that the family is taken for granted. The role of parents is taken for granted [by the writers of the New Testament]. It’s brought over by Paul, not only to the Jewish Christians who knew the old covenant and knew how God honored parents, but [Paul also applies this conventional idea of the family] to Gentile converts. The apostle Paul addresses those holiness codes and those family household codes in a way that makes them a sign of where God’s new covenant people are found. We honor the family and parents, not as much as Israel did, but even more than Israel did. There’s a new, ultimate family, however, that is not our earthly family as much as that family is honored, as much as the family is continued and affirmed as Jesus himself did in Matthew 19, even right down to marriage.
“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’” (Matt. 19:4–5).
From there you see the church so quickly continuing the pattern of reproduction multiplication, and filling the earth. And from that perspective you see the responsibility that to Israel is given in Deuteronomy 6. In the New Testament we find parents teaching children and raising them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. But the New Covenant people are required to have New Covenant Christians.
So just in conclusion, I want you to think about just a few things with me.
First, it takes a church to make a Christian. Before [we address the issues of Christian parenting], we don’t believe any real Christianity exists apart from the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. In practical terms, we don’t believe that health can be demonstrated in any Christian life apart from the congregation, apart from the church, apart from the ordinary means of grace, apart from the fellowship of the saints, apart from the operation of a church as Christ’s people, living out faithfulness and obedience to Christ together. We don’t believe that’s possible even for a Christian. It takes a church to make a Christian.
Second, it certainly takes a church to sustain marriage. In a world in which marriage has been so destabilized, it takes a church to sustain marriage. We may be the last place on earth where there is a comprehensive affirmation of marriage as God’s original purpose and plan as affirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19. We shouldn’t underestimate the challenges that come to us in this age, in which it is so difficult to sustain marriage.
Third, it takes a church to assist Christian families to flourish. We see this necessity even from the perspective of sociologists. By the middle of the 20th century, all the historic supports of the family in society began to be removed one by one. This means that parents found their role sometimes redefined by the law. As sociologists Peter and Brigitte Berger said in the middle of the 20th century: At the very least, parents in the last half of the 20th century—and certainly even more so today—find themselves surrounded by a coterie of authorities and experts all telling them how to raise their children. At present, that would include not only all the experts who hold official titles in academia or government but also all the experts in the larger society of entertainment and cultural production telling us exactly how we are to raise our children.
[In contrast to these experts], it takes a church to assist Christian families to flourish. And this is the church in which no one is left out, in which everyone is a part of the family of Christ as represented in that congregation. Thus, no one—even people who are not married—is separated from the marriage culture because of the understanding of God’s purpose in creation. It’s not us versus them. In the rightly ordered church, under the Lordship of Christ by the preaching of God’s Word, Christians are being informed, and no one is being left out. Marriage is being honored, and the marriage bed is undefiled.
In addition, it is a church in which there is a new family made possible and brought into existence only by Christ and the power of the Gospel. It’s a family that will last forever in the church. In a rightly ordered biblical congregation, you are a part of people who are your family and will be for eternity to be joined only by unnumbered others redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.
Fourth, it takes a church to support parents and parenthood. It takes a church made up of older and younger parents [to provide this necessary support]. It takes a church made up of multi-generational believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. Support for parents requires a church to be ordered by the gospel, taught by Scripture, led by the Spirit, and made up of redeemed believers of different ages and as much different as you can have in the sameness of Christ in a congregation, learning together how to be more faithful.
We need the unmarried, the not-yet-married, and the widows and widowers learning how to be faithful and how to make others more faithful. We need younger parents, older parents, grandparents, and about-to-be-parents learning how to be faithful and to help one another be more faithful. As a church with our historic worship and language, we remind ourselves that the next generation in our midst are first of all the children of their parents their children, but they are also our children; we are raising those children together.
In a rightly-functioning church, college students act better because they know they’re being watched by six-year-olds and seven-year-olds. They may have left their little brothers and sisters and cousins when they left home to go to college, but because they are in a godly, rightly ordered church, committed to Christ and taught by Scripture, they are now older brothers and older sisters in a church. They’re also sons and daughters in a church. And so is everyone else who comes into that church. No one in the church is without family.
You know, the Bible makes very clear that faithfulness comes into the equation of teaching, not only to the one taught, but also to the teacher. The teacher learns through teaching, as does the entire church. Older Christians helping younger parents to be more faithful parents are themselves more faithful by helping others to be more faithful. The church rightly ordered begins to call all believers to a life of faithfulness
It takes intense, unbelievable investment to raise children. It takes more energy to raise children than to do almost anything else. We’re living in the midst of a society that is exhausted trying to figure out how to do this on its own terms. But if nowhere else, in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, there should be a picture of what it means to be aiming for eternity while living in this world. The Lord has left us here for a purpose. So as we follow the commands of God, honor the orders of creation, and live as God’s New Covenant people, [we will point others to that divine purpose.] People who want to see what God’s purpose is in this world, getting ready for the world to come, will take note of Christian parents surrounded by the church of Lord Jesus Christ, raising children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
And how we explain that “something” that allows us to purposefully raise up the next generation is important. It turns out that the “something” is the power of Christ. Thus, the church helping parents to be parents by taking responsibility to raise children in the New Covenant church, actually becomes to the world a great question mark that can be answered only by Christ.
This isn’t a responsibility given to the church. It’s a responsibility invested in Christ’s people. It’s a privilege beyond measure and never has it mattered more. In the truest sense, honoring all that’s revealed in God’s Word, it takes a church and it always has. As Jesus said, “Upon this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). And it always will until he comes.
To God’s glory, may it be so. Amen.