A few weeks ago, I walked into a Christian bookstore and informed the clerk that I was interested in buying a King James Bible for table use. There came the most puzzled look over his face. It still makes me smile to recall it. Politely, he replied that he did not understand. I suppose the poor chap envisioned before his mind our family discreetly eating the venerable pages of King James. I quickly put his mind at ease and rephrased the request, a King James Bible for family devotions: good size print, hard cover, a few study helps, and such like. We were glad to find such a Bible.
The experience did leave its impression upon me. It made me think, why do we have devotions about the table at the time we eat? Is this something particularly “Dutch”? I recall those times when I had the privilege of being guest in homes of families that were not Dutch, nor Reformed in church affiliation, and they did not have family devotions as we think of it. At best there was “grace” at the beginning of the meal and that was it. In other homes they had evening devotions in the family room while the entire family was gathered for reading the Bible, discussing it, and having family prayer.
Almost instinctively, my thoughts wandered back to the Bible. Is there any mention of family worship there?
In early Old Testament times we read of this. In Genesis 4:26 mention is made that during the days of Enos, the son of Seth, “then began men to call upon the name of the Lord.” This would have taken place within the sphere of the family, since there was no formal church established. Whether they did this with more than one family is uncertain. In all likelihood it was on an individual basis, much like the sacrifices of Cain and Abel, Genesis 4:3, 4, and of Noah, Genesis 8:20. The sacrifices represented part of their devotional life with God.
There are other references. In Genesis 18: 19 we read of Abraham, “For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment, that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.” Such exhorting of children by Abraham would involve many serious moments of rehearsal of God’s promises and the calling they had to be a peculiar people.
Moses spoke on behalf of God when he said to Israel, “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart; and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes, And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house and on thy gates,” Deut. 6:6-9. What a beautiful picture of the family at worship.
Did not Job do likewise? His sons feasted in their houses and we read, “And it was so, when the days of their feasting were gone about, that Job sent and sanctified them and rose up early in the morning and offered burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, It may be that my sons have sinned and cursed God in their hearts,” Job 1:5. Is that not a father interceding for his children?
Daniel prayed three times a day in Babylon. Mind you, this was not a heathen custom. The King Darius had listened to his princes and made a law that none in the kingdom could ask any petition of any god, save the king. Daniel refused to pray to the king; he prayed to his God! Of this we read, “Now when Daniel knew that the writing was signed he went into his house; and his windows being opened in his chamber toward Jerusalem, he kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he did aforetime,” Dan. 6:10. We can be sure that the aforetime did not only refer to the days prior to the king’s decree, but to the days of his youth. He was trained in daily prayer while he was still at home with his parents.
Turning to the New Testament, we learn that the Bereans searched the Scripture daily. They read God’s Word each day in their homes, more than likely with their children. With this knowledge, they were in a position to judge whether Paul’s preaching was in harmony with the Scriptures.
One other significant passage is found in I Tim. 4:4, 5. “For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer.” This is mentioned in the context of eating. Some leaders commanded the people to abstain from meats which God had created to be received with thanksgiving, verse 3. The emphasis here is this, we are blessed in our eating of food if we are able to do so in the light of the Word of God and prayer.
Probably, family worship about the table at mealtime is “Dutch.” Gladys M. Hunt makes this observation in her book Focus on the Family: “My grandfather was a Dutch immigrant with ten children, and he took seriously his responsibilities for the Word of God in the lives of his children. It was family custom that the Scripture be read at the close of every meal for which the family gathered. He didn’t check out the psychological effect of this on his children; it never occurred to him to stop the practice because the children wiggled. He did it because it was right and he was responsible. Because he obeyed, my father learned to be a faithful Christian father to us and carried out the same pattern. In our home no one thought of leaving the table after any meal until we had read the Scripture. We had food to nourish us physically; then we had food to nourish us spiritually. It was built into life as part of our daily nourishment, like a spiritual dessert,” page 66.
The Reformers, especially Luther and Calvin, placed great emphasis upon the Word of God, its reading and study. They translated the Bible so that it could be in the homes of the people. They spent time in prayer and meditation. Surely, Geneva stands as a noble testimony that Calvin had great interest in the spiritual strength of the home and community as it was brought under the power of the Word of God. Some of this can be seen in the concern that our Calvinistic forefathers in the Netherlands had for the spiritual well-being of the family. Handed down from many generations ago, we have our Church Order. It includes Article 23, part of which states, “The office of the Elders . . . in common with the Minister of the Word . . . before and after the Lord’s Supper, as time and circumstances may demand, for the edification of the churches, to visit the families of the congregation, in order particularly to comfort and instruct the members, and also to exhort others in respect to the Christian religion.” The main thrust here is that the consistory, office bearers in the church, are to be vitally concerned about the well-being of the family. One of the earliest assemblies of the Dutch churches met in the Wezelian Convention, 1568, and ruled that such home visitation be done every week. A later convention, 1586, explained that those visits should include inquiry whether the father, “conduct the duties of godliness in the faithful instruction of their households in the matter of family prayers, (morning and evening prayers) and such like matters.”
In his book, Taking Heed to the Flock, Dr. P.Y. De Jong gives some details as to the emphasis that was placed upon family visiting and more particularly the concern for family worship. He makes reference to the Synod of Glasgow in Scotland, 1708, in which a certain procedure was adopted for “ministerial visitation” to the families of the church. Such visits included this: “After the minister has spoken to the servants and children, he must address himself especially to the master and mistress of the family about their personal obligation to God and their care for the salvation of their souls; their duty to promote the true religion and worship of God in their home, opposing and punishing sin, promoting true godliness, and honor the day of the Lord. Here it is also proper to admonish the fathers to see to it that in the daily family worship the Lord is served in prayer, thanksgiving, and Scripture reading,” page 76.
He also makes reference to “Questions which the Elders of the Church at Utrecht are to ask the members of the congregation at the time of family visitation.” This includes the following: “Whether the head of the family faithfully leads the family in prayer and in teaching them the Word.”
After surveying this history, Dr. De Jong makes his own suggestions on pages 78-82. Among the questions that should be considered, he offers this one: “(5) Is family worship faithfully and profitably conducted? This of course requires ideally that the father leads in audible prayer, reads the Scriptures reverently and if possible comments on the significance of the passage for the family. Likewise the elders should know whether every member of the family, even the younger children who have learned to read, are in possession of a Bible and make diligent use of it for themselves.”
From this consideration, we may conclude that it is Biblical and certainly part of our “Dutch” heritage to have family worship. Generally, our forefathers have connected this with the time of eating the family meal.
Hence, we return to our King James for table use.
It was suggested at our Standard Bearer staff meeting, that there is legitimate concern on the part of many of our people, elders, pastors, and parents that this family worship is suffering.
It is of course difficult to determine to what extent it may be suffering. I suppose that the weakening of family worship takes a definite course. A beautiful and significant heritage can become mere tradition. Family devotions instead of being moments of spiritualworship, degenerate into a pious formality. No family cares to continue a parody of piety, so the whole idea of reading the Bible and praying together at mealtime is abandoned or sorely neglected.
In other cases, however, it may not be so drastic. Family devotions probably fall victim to so many other pressures that seem to prevail. Parents and children know the importance of them, but somehow other things win out.
The Lord willing, we like to analyze a bit what is involved in family worship and consider in our next article some suggestions as to how it can be more effectively conducted.
All of this leads us to the purpose of this new rubric of articles in our Standard Bearer.
We are going to concern ourselves with preparing brief study guides of the books of the Bible. The idea is that they can be used in conjunction with family devotions, to help open up the Scripture, summarize the teachings of the many chapters, and in general help one keep his direction while reading the Bible at the table.
This custom is a worthy heritage.
May we not neglect it nor depart from it.