Is your Christian education based upon evolutionary and secular thinking? It is if your church practices the usual age-segregated Sunday school according to a new church movement.
The family-integrated church movement, primarily within the homeschooling community, is a self-conscious challenge to classic Christian nurture. It has already affected some Reformed churches. But what exactly is the movement and how does it measure up to the Word of God and church history?
Many such churches are associated with the National Center for Family Integrated Churches (NCFIC). The NCFIC, among other things, is about “uniting church and home,” inveighing against the typical church’s age-specific, special-interest programs. The hallmark of the organization is the rejection of activities which physically separates children from parents.
Churches interested in associating with this organization must be in “substantial agreement” with the NCFIC confession, a “working document.” As the hodgepodge of churches on the list demonstrate, denominational affiliation is no barrier to enrollment while no church is officially endorsed. Although not a church planting agency, it wants to “encourage new church plants” based upon this model.
The confession includes a laudable rejection of children’s worship services and affirmations of parental responsibility; it also includes some questionable assertions.
The core challenge of the confession is Article XI:
“We affirm that there is no scriptural pattern for comprehensive age segregated discipleship, and that age segregated practices are based on unbiblical, evolutionary and secular thinking which have invaded the church.”
This affirmation uses unqualified language beyond the vague adjective comprehensive. While the confession never uses the words “Sunday school” and the like, the practice and logic is clear: “age segregated practices are based on unbiblical, evolutionary and secular thinking”; modern Sunday schools are age segregated; therefore, they are based on “evolutionary and secular thinking.” This serious charge is echoed through the words of the leaders, their book and their movie.
In his 2006 talk about the history of Sunday schools, the founder and current board member, Mr. Phillips, declares these schools a “modern invention without biblical and historical precedent—period.” He also asserts that today’s church has “an entirely new hierarchy of social groups based on age: . . . dayschools . . . adolescence . . . PMS for women of certain age . . . these are all variations of evolutionary hellish thinking.” Mr. Phillips claims that such special-interest thinking resulted from Greek thinking (youth and efficiency) instead of Hebraic thinking (discipleship and relationships). In fact, the “modern classroom . . . is a distinctly Greek and pagan approach to education”—an approach initiated by the Devil himself.
The 2010 book, A Weed in the Church, written by the president of the NCFIC, Mr. Brown, is an extended treatment of this serious charge. His chapter on the history of age-segregation asserts repeatedly that such methods grew from the roots of secularism and evolution. Similarly, the movie Divided “discovers the shockingly sinister roots of modern, age-segregated church programs….” With fewer nuances than the book and greater rhetorical flourish, the movie apparently condemns any church program not in alignment with its own views.
It is certainly true that age-segregated programs (and special-interest programs in general) have been abused by churches and become crutches for too many families. Too many churches readily regulate the family into niche-market “ministries,” keeping the families busy while teaching them little of God’s Word. And too many families like it that way: there is less responsibility for them and they feel godly. Even so, do such abuses warrant rejection of any type of special interest programs or age-segregation? Are all age-segregated approaches unbiblical, even evolutionary?
Such a serious charge is supported with three main claims: the “desert island test” of the Bible, the evolutionary roots of modern education, and the revival of families.
First there is the novel “desert island test.” Mr. Phillips argues in his Sunday school lecture: “[If all you had was the Bible on a desert island] . . . would you naturally conclude that you should fragment children along age-groups and put them in grade-based classroom . . . would you see a foundation . . . would you see a pattern, would there be any ground, any refuge in God’s Word that leads you to mimic this approach?”
In other words, if the education method cannot be found in the Bible (by command or example), then it is forbidden (cp. Articles II, XI). In contrast, the Reformers stood upon the liberty of the Word of God. For example, Christian liberty allows believers and churches to use note-taking, picture-books, and catechisms. They are neither commanded nor forbidden, yet are perfectly allowable if used correctly.
In fact, as a boy, Jesus was separated (segregated) from His family while under their authority. Furthermore, the temple layout at that time was family segregated: there was a court of the men and a court of the women (and children). The synagogue, regularly attended by Jesus, the Apostles and the early church similarly divided the family.
Next, it is asserted that many methods of education are evolutionary in origin. Yet, historically, children were separated from family, even age-segregated, before the impact of Darwin. During the time of Christ many a young Jewish boy attended age-segregated day schools. New England worship services segregated the women from the men, and the children sat together elsewhere with adult supervision. Catechizing by ministers or elders could include separating children from parents and boys from girls. Larger schools, such as at Calvin’s Geneva, included several grade levels with a typical child in a grade for about a year before testing for the next grade-level.
Lastly, there is the claim of revival. In an interview with Generations Radio, Mr. Phillips asserted:“Home educators, almost by definition, have turned their heart to their children [Mal. 4] . . . So there’s been a revival that’s taking place in the heart of these homeschool families. And this revival works itself out to the local church . . . our prayer: every Christian in the world is in a family integrated church. And there should be nothing but that, but you know what that is going to lead to? That’s going to lead to people homeschooling! . . .”
Three points will demonstrate this as a misguided prayer:
- The Malachi four passage involves the family and the church with the minister (the prophet) as an instrument of revival in the family.
- Luke 1:16ff. interprets “fathers” and “sons” in moral or spiritual terms.
- Why pray for more such churches instead of more Reformed churches?
In summary, even though this confession’s emphasis on family is commendable, its unqualified rejection of age-segregation is biblically unfounded and contrary to historical facts. There is no Biblical “desert island test”; there is no biblical prohibition against properly practiced segregation; and there is no revival that focuses on family-integrated churches.
In today’s climate of Christian darkness, churches and families do not need a new method; what they need is the old message. A 2008 Pew Research Center study notes that fifty-seven percent of confessing Evangelicals believe in other ways to heaven than through Christ. Ignorance about basic Law and Gospel is wide-spread as well.
And in an already fragmented church landscape, an emphasis upon this narrow issue only creates another sub-culture that weakens Christian unity. It also diminishes the role of the church in nurturing the children (Matt. 28:19, 20; Deut. 31:12ff.).
The views documented here are integral to the NCFIC’s very existence. To sign the confession is to publicly associate with these public sentiments. In spite of the leaders’ strong denunciations, it is hopeful that open dialogue can move beyond methods to uniting over the message of the Gospel.
Shawn Mathis is pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church (OPC), Denver, Colorado.