I trust the alternatives spelled out in the title of this editorial do not need to be spelled out in most Reformed churches. But let us take nothing for granted, and be reminded of the significance of our responsibility in catechizing our children.
Very soon, again, elders will be calling parents to send their children to catechism.
From mid-September through the end of April usually, Protestant Reformed Churches conduct the crucially important and formal exercise of catechizing the covenant youth. First in Bible history, then in Reformed doctrine, the ministers indoctrinate (that’s not a dirty word) the children and young people. For thirty weeks the children assemble at the feet of a capable teacher who “causes them to understand” truth. In a formal setting, where the children are impressed with the gravity of the business at hand, the minister declares, really preaches, to the children, “Thus saith the Lord.” Children must attend catechism. The lessons of Scripture must be “constantly imbibed from childhood,” said Calvin. Yes, from childhood. In 1568, in the early years of the Reformation, the Dutch fathers assembled at Wesel and decided that the instruction ought to begin “as soon as their age permits.” But already in 1529, in Basel, Switzerland, the Reformed fathers’ “Reformatory Act” mandated that pastors “would take those between the age of 7 and 14 and gather them together” for catechism. Little children—about whom Jesus Christ said: “Feed my lambs.”
By this work, God is pleased to save the children and preserve the churches.
Elders issue the call to the parents to send their children to catechism. It is a faithful elder who is conscious of his responsibility to issue the call. It would be helpful for elders to make that clear in the bulletin announcement in early September. Something like: “The elders have arranged the new schedule for catechism instruction and call all the parents to have their children come to their lessons.” Although we are thankful for diligent ministers who take the lead in the matter, elders rule the church, and the people are well served when they are reminded of that.
The church teaches, but the parents must send the children. The baptismal vows they take include the promise to see to it that their children are taught the “aforesaid doctrine.” When fathers present their request to the elders for baptism of their children, the consistory will ask about the Christian rearing of the little one—what their commitments are to Christian education, and what their commitments are to catechism instruction. No parent has the right to baptism without a promise to send his child to catechism.
So important is this responsibility that if the parents fail in it, they are subject to discipline. That is, if the parents refuse to send their children to catechism, they will be barred from the Lord’s table, subjected to all the censures of Christ’s church, and eventually declared to be outside of the kingdom of Christ unless they repent.
The church today takes that stand with good precedent.
In that assembly of the Dutch churches at Wesel (1568), the fathers decided: “Everyone who wants to be considered a member of the church shall surely present his children, as soon as their age permits, to be catechized. Those who refuse to do this must beyond doubt come under the discipline of the church.”
Following that tradition, as late as 1888, the Christian Reformed Church ruled that “parents who neglect to send their children to catechism, though they can do so, become subject to discipline.” Clearly, when the churches were strong, the people of God had clear understanding of the non-negotiable requirement of catechism instruction.
I am not aware of any synodical decision of the PRC that declares: “Failure to send children to be catechized must be met with formal church discipline.” But that lack does not indicate that this is not the PRC’s conviction. It only means that no one has challenged this historical tradition.
But the conviction must not be challenged. It must not be challenged by uninformed parents. And we elders have the responsibility to make the calling clear at every opportunity. This making clear of the parents’ duty takes place when parents request baptism for their infants: “You understand that the promises you will make imply a promise to send your children to catechism, even at greatest inconvenience?” Without assent, baptism will not be administered.
This calling must also be made clear when new members join the church. I have always told people who seek membership that joining a church is like getting married—you want no surprises. The wife does not want to learn all the husband’s odd (or sinful) habits after they take their vows. Full disclosure, please. “You believe what about birth-control?!” “You want to do what on Sunday?!” Nor do new members in a church want surprises. The elders may not allow them to be surprised. “You believe what?” “The consistory requires that?” Only after some weeks of visiting with prospective members to cover all the bases do elders approve a motion to grant their request for membership.
When the elders teach prospective members, interview young parents for baptism, or begin admonishing current members for failure, they patiently show the biblical and historical basis for this activity (see my three editorials a year ago in this regard). God appointed one tribe—the Levites—to be teachers of His people. Scattered among the tribes, they took up this high calling to uphold God’s law by teaching it—not only to the adults, but to the children. Jesus Himself, at age 12, was able to give such good testimony to the church leaders of His day, in large part (although certainly not only) because he had been taught as a youth. So, when He gave final instructions to His disciples, He said, as it were, “Feed my sheep, but don’t forget my lambs, my precious little ones.” The covenant perspective of the Lord Jesus helps believers to understand the parental responsibility.
These prospective members, new parents, or lax members, may also learn some church history, and the grand precedent that this “holy custom” (to use Calvin’s expression) has.
But what, we pray, will win their hearts and minds toward catechism is also the great blessing of the practice.
To illustrate that blessing negatively, I would convey to them my own experience of teaching more than a few prospective members (and their children), coming often from Reformed churches. So often they were woefully ignorant of the Reformed faith. Many of them were far more Arminian than Reformed. I would also tell them of a recent defense, an aggressive defense, of conditional election by a neighbor, a member of a Reformed church. Why the ignorance? Why the false teachings? Because they were not indoctrinated in their youth by faithful ministers in catechism class. Why the extreme measure of discipline upon those who fail to send their children to catechism? Because we love them, their children, and the church. The consequences of failure to send their children spells the ruin of their children, and the end of the church as a Reformed church. Because a little leaven leavens the whole lump, and very quickly one family who “gets away with it” turns into half a dozen families, and the elders have lost the ability to call (at least with any “teeth” in the call) anyone.
The Lord is terribly displeased with those who neglect the little ones.
The blessings of catechism may also be shown positively. Look at the church whose youth have been trained from earliest days! See her young men able to defend the faith to their own children, serve as deacons who “hold the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience,” and as elders who are watchmen on the walls of Zion. Observe their young ladies grow up as “cornerstones, polished after the similitude of a palace.” As they become mothers in Israel, they take up the greatest responsibility a woman can have—the full-time calling of instructing their youth. These parents now are able to discern the lies their children may hear, point out to them the beauties and truth in Jesus Christ, and rejoice with “no greater joy” when they behold their children (and grandchildren!) “walk in the truth” which they confessed. These well-trained members understand church government, can recite the church’s confession, sing the church’s songs, and (if the Lord so blesses the instruction) love the Lord Himself who gave her such rich heritage.
What other kind of member does the church desire?
Let the elders see to a solid course of instruction again this year, and a full year of classes. And enough time (certainly more than 45 minutes for larger classes and for the doctrine classes) for the teacher to instruct without being rushed.
Let those who teach devote themselves to the work that has proved to be such a blessing to the church; and remind themselves that a minister’s neglect and failures do as much damage to the church as any individual parent’s.
And let us parents remember the exhortation of Wesel in 1568. Besides the reminder to send their children, the fathers of Wesel said, “exhort the parents of the catechumen…to teach them diligently at home.”