Who Should Catechize?
Rev. Steve Schlissel - August 21, 2002
Dear Serious Fathers,
First, I agree with you that catechizing is the responsibility of the father. However, I do not believe that it is required that the father be the actual instructor. The father may employ agents to accomplish his responsibilities. This is simply a fact of life. The daddy must provide food but he does not have to be the cook. He has to provide clothing but he does not have to weave it. He must teach his children a trade, but it need not be his trade– he can see to it that another (or many others) instruct his son. The father may not shirk his responsibilities, but by seeing to it that an agent accomplishes, on his behalf, the fulfillment of his obligations, he is doing his job under God. The responsibilities rest upon the father, but it is not necessary that the father accomplish all without intermediaries.
Second, that being said, there are numerous advantages to the father being the one who actually does the catechizing. Psalm 78 comes to mind. Since we seem to agree on that, there’s no sense in listing these advantages. Thus far: there are obligations which may be fulfilled in a variety of ways but might best be fulfilled in a particular way. What we are dealing with in your situation, therefore, ought to be understood as a conflict about what is best, not about what is required by God. Neither side could prove from Scripture that God requires the task of catechizing to be performed by X or Y (when X is the responsible party and Y is an agent of the responsible party). The important thing is that it gets done and gets done well.
If you follow my thinking so far, you will understand me when I say that the following statement gets it backwards: children ought to be instructed in catechism primarily by the father under the supervision of the consistory. In fact, if a consistory does indeed provide catechetical instruction for covenant youth, the consistory is providing instruction which is actually to be under the supervision of the fathers. The children are not the consistory’s children.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with a father permitting his children to be instructed by others. There is something wrong when others demand that instruction be provided by an agent, as if the agent were the primary, responsible party. Their responsibility in this matter is not original– it is received, bestowed, granted. You and your friend are simply wishing to say, No thank you; there’s no need for your help in this case.
All that being said, though, I do not think it is wise to push the point so as to disrupt the church or, God forbid, cause divisions. It is certainly true that you and your friend cannot be required to send your children to catechism. But I see no reason for you not to send the children to catechism class. This is especially so in a case like yours, where the instructor is a faithful and godly man. In fact, you both can (should) continue to catechize your children yourselves while taking advantage of the supplementary reinforcement of the same doctrine that will be provided by the church. Why not? Why make it into a fight over principles when it is completely unnecessary to do so? Sending them for supplementary instruction is a win-win situation.
The solution to this problem, then, seems very plain to me: you and your friend should write a note explaining your position– catechizing your children is your responsibility, not theirs. While the consistory may require that baptized members of the church be catechized, it cannot require that this be performed only by agents appointed by the consistory. They may require that fathers fulfill their covenant obligation to feed their families, but they cannot require that fathers buy their groceries at a particular market.
However, you should be careful to go on in your note to explain that, with the above now being understood, you are both happy to take advantage of what is being offered to you as members of this particular covenant community, namely, instruction in the faith provided by godly men. (The only problem would be if the teachers contradict the Daddies. I just don’t think that will happen with your particular minister– a very faithful man.)
You should both be as respectful as you are clear in your letter.
Dr. Nelson Kloosterman, Professor at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, replies
to Rev. Schlissel:
by Nelson D. Kloosterman
In the Christian Renewal of 23 October 2000 (vol. 19, no. 4, p. 19), friend and brother Rev. Steve Schlissel addressed, in his column “Good Question,” the important query, “Teaching Catechism: Whose responsibility—Church or Home?” The questioner(s?) explained his desire to catechize his own children, and his consistory’s discomfort with this practice in the context of catechism classes being provided under the consistory’s authority by his congregation’s minister. “We believe,” the questioner concludes, “that children ought to be instructed in catechism primarily by the father under the supervision of the consistory.”
Rev. Schlissel opens his reply by stating this fundamental principle: “First, I agree with you that catechizing children is the responsibility of the father.” This norm he then qualifies with the claim that such a principle does not require that the father be the actual instructor (he may employ others, such as the pastor, to do the teaching). In fact, Rev. Schlissel insists that “[n]either side could prove from Scripture that God requires the task of catechizing to be performed by ‘X’ or ‘Y’ (when ‘X’ is the responsible party and ‘Y’ is an agent of the responsible party).”
The practical outworking of these claims is that any consistory whose pastor catechizes a child of believing parents does so by permission of the child’s father and is accountable to him. Rev. Schlissel puts it this way: “In fact, if a consistory does indeed provide catechetical instruction for covenant youth, the consistory is providing instruction which is actually to be under the supervision of the fathers. The children are not the consistory’s children. . . . Their [the consistory’s] responsibility in this matter is not original-it is received, bestowed, granted.” The implication is that fathers “cannot be required to send [their] children to catechism. . . . While the consistory may require that baptized members of the church be catechized, it cannot require that this be performed only by agents appointed by the consistory.”
All of these claims are illustrated, in good pedagogical fashion, by means of analogies. A father must provide his child food, but need not cook it; he must provide his child clothing, but need not weave it; he must teach his child a trade, but need not be a tradesman himself. Each of these duties may be met through the services of someone else—mother, merchant, or trainer—acting on his behalf. Similarly, a father may fulfill his responsibility to catechize his child through the services of his pastor, who acts on his behalf.
Moreover, it is not the case that the consistory has no authority in the matter. Just as the consistory may require that fathers feed their families, but not that they buy their food at a particular market, so the consistory may require that covenant children be catechized, but not that they be catechized by the minister.
The importance of the issue
The following analysis proceeds from a fraternal spirit interested in a fruitful dialogue that will help clarify the issue for our readers. That issue is the ecclesiastical character of catechesis.
If it can be shown that catechism instruction (which is what “catechesis” means) is the responsibility of the church, then we will need to harness the resources of the family in support of the church’s ministry and labors.
Involved in this discussion, then, is the nature and calling of the church, of the tasks belonging to the ministerial office, of church membership, of the sacraments-not to mention the relationship between church and family.
Where’s the Bible?
Unfortunately, Rev. Schlissel nowhere grounds his opening assertion—that catechizing children is the father’s responsibility—in Scripture. In fact, the Bible seems to have no bearing on this issue at all, since, according to Rev. Schlissel, neither side can prove that the Bible requires either the father or the church to provide the education.
We can agree that there is no particular Bible verse commanding one or the other. Thus, any direct appeal to Scripture is impossible. But throughout history, the church has made an indirect appeal to Scripture testimony to argue that catechizing belongs to the church’s Christ-given calling in the world.
Understandably, we do not find catechesis, in the strict sense of the term, in the Old Testament. There was no church in the sense in which we know it today as the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit. The training of children was, indeed, in the hands of the parents. But from all that we read about the life and activities of the early congregations of Christ’s church, it is undeniable that the communication of “the teaching” (the didache) that we usually call “doctrine” was always carried on in closest relation to the apostolic ministry which was everywhere regarded as authoritative.
The single most important Bible reference that has indirect relevance to this discussion is Matthew 28:19-20, the so-called Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Here the single command to “make disciples”—which command was given to the church (notice carefully to whom Christ is speaking)—is explained by the “-ing” words: the church is to disciple by baptizing and by teaching. And this teaching includes-so the church has always thought-catechizing.
Now, Rev. Schlissel has argued, “We agree that the church has a responsibility for teaching—but our point is that the Bible doesn’t specify who should do the teaching.” If he is correct, then the logic of Matthew 28:19-20 would require us to ask him: Does not the Bible, in this passage, specify who is responsible for baptizing a covenant child? Or may Daddy also baptize his child? Is not the agent whom Christ commands to disciple by baptizing—namely, the church—the same agent He commands to disciple by teaching?
Intermezzo: the URC Church Order
We all know that no set of church polity regulations is either inspired or infallible. But such regulations are binding, by virtue of a shared commitment within a group of churches, a commitment that consists of a voluntary mutual submission.
It is not accidental that the Church Order of the United Reformed Churches (Second Edition, 1997) states the following about catechesis (the relevant statements are in italics):
Article 2: “The duties belonging to the office of the minister of the Word consist of continuing in prayer and in the ministry of the Word, administering the sacraments, catechizing the youth, and assisting the elders in the shepherding and discipline of the congregation.”
Article 14: the elders are to “. . .assist in catechizing the youth, . . . .”
Article 43: “Baptized members who have been instructed in the faith and who have come to the years of understanding shall be encouraged to make public profession of faith in Jesus Christ. . . .”
Part of the reason for these requirements is the Scripture-guided, Spirit-illumined history of the church. Throughout that history, catechesis has consisted of the church’s pedagogical administration of the Word of God to the covenant youth of the church (who are catechumens), the goal of which is training them for ecclesiastically active life. We won’t weary you with the evidence for this claim, drawn from numerous definitions given in the course of Reformed church history by men like T. Hoekstra, K. Dijk, S. Volbeda, and P.Y. De Jong. Historically, the minister of the Word and the elders have been—by virtue of their office, not by permission of fathers—the catechetes (catechism teachers).
Non-familial teaching of children
Rev. Schlissel’s argument seems to be that all responsibility for a child’s teaching belongs to the child’s parents (especially the father), and any teaching of children by non-parents requires parental permission.
This line of thinking has historically served to undergird parent-sponsored Christian day school education. Until recently, most classroom teachers have seen themselves as functioning in loco parentis-in the place of the parents. Parents remain accountable, though they have delegated to trained educators certain tasks (not the responsibility) connected with their child’s nurture. This explains why Christian parents who nowadays engage in home schooling are not thereby “breaking covenant” with the Christian community-or the Christian day school. Such a mode of nurture lies fully within their God-given responsibility.
However, it seems clear that in some instances, a group or entity other than the family provides instruction to children or young people on the basis of that group’s authority. For example, the government licenses (as in: authorizes and supervises) persons to teach our young people how to drive. In some states or provinces, a person cannot obtain a driver’s license without certifying that such training has been completed under the tutelage of an agent authorized by the state. It would be possible, I suppose, for a father to deny his child permission to receive such education, arguing that responsibility for teaching his child rests with the father, and therefore only he or someone he authorizes may do the teaching. However, it does not follow that by sending his child to state-authorized and state-provided driver’s education, a father is thereby admitting that “the child belongs to the state.”
This analogy serves to illustrate that the responsibility for teaching children does not belong exclusively to the parents. In terms of our discussion, catechism instruction is the church’s responsibility, because catechism instruction of covenant children is unique. Unlike the family and the school, the church is a redemptive organization. This means that its origin, powers, and purpose are supernatural—rooting not in creation, but in redemption. Unique to her calling is the cultivation of faith-obedience in response to the gospel. Very significantly, the church—not the home—is the mother of believers. The church—not the home—is the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). Both the Christian home and the Christian school are covenantally conditioned, and therefore are deeply concerned with the child’s spiritual life and its development. But it is especially the calling of the church to deal with the child’s unique relation to God in Christ Jesus. The church in her instruction does not exclude the family or the school, but each complements the other.
God’s lambs from Font to Table
The question we posed earlier is not at all silly. If Rev. Schlissel is correct, then the logic of Matthew 28:19-20 would require us to ask him: Does not the Bible, in this passage, specify who is responsible for baptizing a covenant child? Or may Daddy also baptize his child?
Here is our answer. The sacraments belong not to individuals, not even to parents, but to the church of Jesus Christ. This means that the sacrament of holy baptism is not primarily a family event, but a congregational event. This sacrament is a means of grace for the congregation first of all, and for individual believers and their children as living members of the church. This requires that sacraments be administered in the context of public congregational worship—no daddies baptizing babies in the backyard pool, no youth group leaders distributing bread and juice at youth retreats.
As a ministry of the church, catechizing is nothing less than the extension of the pulpit, the communication of the preached Word in a language and form accessible to children who belong to God in Jesus Christ.
The bell signaling the start of the church’s catechizing ministry rings at the baptismal font. And this ecclesiastical ministry reaches its objective when the classroom door opens for catechumens to join the congregation at the Table.
All of this is true because the gospel of Jesus Christ, the mysteries and promises and warnings of that gospel, belong to the church, not to the family. The apostolic church, not the family, is Christ’s steward appointed to guard and administer this gospel under immediate accountability to the Head of the church, even Jesus Christ Himself (1 Cor. 4:1-5). This gospel, together with the divinely appointed means of administering it (preaching and sacraments), is a deposit entrusted to the custody of Christ’s church in the world.
Catechizing is not at all identical to “religious education” or “Bible training.” Catechizing is confessional formation—the cultivation of faith-obedience within the context of the church of Jesus Christ which is called “the household of God” (1 Tim. 3:15, 1 Pet 4:17) and “the household of the faith” (Gal. 6:10). Most Protestant churches fail to realize this, because most Protestant churches are non-confessional churches. Too few people recognize the essential difference between Sunday school and catechism.
God has certainly assigned to parents the task of bringing their child up “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Surely such upbringing in a covenantal home will be saturated with “religious education” and “Bible training.” But the church’s unique responsibility and ministry in this area involves the confessional nature of what is taught, how it is taught, by whom it is taught, and why it is taught.
Catechizing covenant youth occurs, then, not by permission of Daddy, but by the direct authorization of Jesus Christ Himself!
The church assisted by the home
So we would want to insist that the responsibility for catechizing covenant children rests with the church.
In doing so, we are not at all trying to marginalize fathers (and mothers), but instead wish to enlist them as participants in this biblically authorized ministry of the church. As members of Christ’s church, covenant parents must encourage their minister and elders to be diligent and faithful in catechizing God’s covenant children. Parents need to support and supplement what is going on in the catechism classroom, upholding the authority of the teacher to assign memory work and to require diligent preparation. By clear and timely communication, through periodic conversations and annual family visits, the minister and elders must enlist the help of parents in preparing children for catechism class—by rehearsing memory work, by reading together the catechism explanation, by completing homework assignments associated with the catechism lesson.
Covenant children belong to Christ’s church, and the gospel belongs to Christ’s church. Therefore, those in the church who are commissioned and authorized by Christ to administer the gospel are responsible for bringing these two together, so that covenant children may one day confess and live out “the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.”
Rev. Schlissel replies to Dr. Kloosterman:
I am delighted that our column in Christian Renewal has elicited this stimulating reply from my long time friend and colleague, Dr. Nelson Kloosterman. Allow me to interact with that reply, albeit briefly.
Dr. Kloosterman admits that his view is not readily referenced in Scripture: “We can agree that there is no particular Bible verse commanding one or the other. Thus, any direct appeal to Scripture is impossible. But throughout history, the church has made an indirect appeal to Scripture testimony to argue that catechizing belongs to the church’s Christ-given calling in the world.” Dr. Kloosterman suggests that, absent “verses,” Biblical principles which find expression in widespread church practice are somehow to be equated with the will of the Holy Spirit: “Part of the reason for these requirements [by our Reformed churches] is the Scripture-guided, Spirit-illumined history of the church.”
Is Dr. Kloosterman willing to yield to the “Scripture-guided, Spirit-illumined history of the church” on the question of whether non-ordained church members may perform baptisms? Dr. Kloosterman insists that the charge of Christ in Matthew 28:18-20 restricts baptizing and catechizing to the apostles alone. However, the apostles themselves did not understand Christ’s commission in that way.
In Samaria, it was not an apostle, but Philip who baptized the Ethiopian. And there is no doubt that this, at least, was a Spirit-directed event!
The apostle Paul tells the Corinthians that his name and authority were hardly to be associated with baptism (1 Corinthians 4:14,16). Strange words if the apostolical exclusivity proposed by Dr. Kloosterman were true.
Paul, very significantly, was not baptized by an apostle, but by a common believer (Acts 9).
Strikingly, Peter himself, the man privileged and appointed by Christ to open the gates of the Kingdom at each of its major junctures, does not himself baptize the household of Cornelius. Instead he orders that the six ordinary “brothers” who accompanied him perform the rite (Acts 10:48; 11:12).
Following these clear Biblical examples, “the custom of allowing unordained church members to administer the rite of baptism…has prevailed throughout the centuries” (Simon Kistemaker, Acts, p.344). Notice Dr. Kistemaker’s words again: this custom “has prevailed” throughout most of church history. But now, Dr. Kistemaker says, “In most churches, primarily those of Reformed persuasion, this practice has been discontinued.” And why? Because the Scripture principles have changed? No. Because the “Scripture-guided, Spirit-illumined history of the church” has changed? No. But merely and simply “to promote order and dignity.” This is why “only ordained pastors perform baptisms.
And this is fine with us! It is also our practice. But we do not pretend that it is anything other than a tradition which contributes to a well-ordered church. It is not equivalent to a Divine ordinance, and to seek to make it such brings us close to dangerous waters.
Dr. Kloosterman presents an example: “In some states or provinces, a person cannot obtain a driver’s license without certifying that such training has been completed under the tutelage of an agent authorized by the state.” This serves our point well: the state has gone beyond its properly constituted authority and has begun to display its totalitarian fangs. The state has a legitimate interest in assuring competency in drivers; it has no legitimate interest in ordering how that competency is attained.
And that is precisely what is at issue in this matter of catechizing. I affirm the church’s interest in seeing to it that its members are provided catechetical instruction. I deny that they have authority from God to excommunicate a father for providing this instruction himself. I leave it to the Christian conscience of the reader: does he believe that God will indeed say “Amen” to a church council decision which has handed a Christian father over to Satan because that father insisted the authority to catechize his children has been given to him, the biological and covenant father, by God? To ask the question is to answer it. Yet, if Dr. Kloosterman’s view is correct, church councils may properly excommunicate a father for insisting that catechism is his own job.
It is reasonable to suppose that one reason the practice of ecclesiastical catechesis became widely accepted was uneven literacy among fathers. Once literacy becomes commonplace, fathers ought to be able to resume their God-given role without entering into a power struggle with the church.
Dr. Kloosterman opines, “The single most important Bible reference that has indirect relevance to this discussion is Matthew 28:19-20.” But this is legerdemain. The single most important Bible reference should be one that comes closest to addressing the question on the table, not the one I wish did! The question before us is: To whom has God given the original responsibility to instruct covenant offspring in the holy faith? Fathers or the Church? I answer “Fathers!,” and I see Biblical references that speak directly and explicitly to this very matter: “And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
Dr. Kloosterman says, “Understandably, we do not find catechesis, in the strict sense of the term, in the Old Testament.” This is too neat. And it is misleading. The festal calendar was the catechism of the Old Testament. Time and again, God commands fathers to perform festal functions for the very purpose of provoking questions from their children (See Exodus 12:26; 13:14; Deuteronomy 6, esp. vv. 20-24; see also Psalm 78). The fathers—not the Levites, not the priests—are commanded to give answers to those questions their own children have been prompted by the Lord to ask. In fact, these answers were often formulary answers and hence constitute part of the oldest covenantal catechism we possess!
The tradition of fathers providing catechetical instruction to their children is 3,000 years older than the tradition upon which Dr. Kloosterman relies. It’d be a good thing if the Reformed churches would catch up with this part of their history.