There are many examples in Scripture of people living faithfully in difficult times—dangerous times with life-threatening situations where they stand strong for God and His truth: men like King David (1 Sam. 17:31–51) and the Apostle Paul (Acts 21:7–15).
There are also many modern examples of Christians doing this. I learned recently about a man I had never heard of before, Paul Schneider.1 He was a German who had won an Iron Cross in the First World War and then became the pastor of a Reformed congregation in 1926. By 1933 Hitler and the Nazis had an iron grip on the whole nation, and their oppression touched every area of life, including the church. Pastor Schneider resisted them as they sought to subject the church to state control. He boldly told the German Christians that they were being summoned to battle and needed to give a faithful confession in those difficult times. He denounced the state church, which was called the “German Church,” and exhorted believers to be faithful to Christ the King.
The “Confessing Church” in Germany was a minority group of faithful churches that refused to become part of the “German Church”; but even they backed away from Schneider’s bold stand. Although married with five children, Schneider still refused to compromise God’s truth. Arrested by the SS, he refused to recant or water down what Christ’s truth meant for German believers in the Nazi era. The SS sent him to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he was subjected to terrible torture.
Beaten and humiliated, Pastor Schneider never wavered in his Christian testimony. He refused to show respect to the Nazi anthem when it was played in the prisoners’ assembly (everyone else would remove their caps, but he refused to do so). For this he was beaten severely and placed in solitary confinement. A fellow inmate described Schneider:
Wholly without fear, he bore witness of his Christian faith to the SS. In this frankness, he was probably unique in Germany. He called the devil by his name: murderer, adulterer, unrighteous, monster. Throughout this witness, in which he presented the grace of Christ together with a call to repentance, Schneider was exposed alternately to severe bodily tortures, humiliations and agonies … heavy beatings, dangling up off the floor at the window crossbars … Schneider was utterly tireless, always calling out words of Scripture to other prisoners, especially mornings and evenings at the count for roll call …2
When two prisoners who had escaped were captured and then murdered in their cell block, Schneider called out during the roll call, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I bear witness to the murder of the prisoners”—they silenced him through a new round of severe beatings. He was placed under the oversight of a particularly abusive guard whose abuse reduced him to a walking skeleton. A fellow inmate recorded how amazed he was when he saw Schneider: that this emaciated man was still alive!
Pastor Schneider finally died on July 18, 1939 (World War II only officially began on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland). A telegram to Pastor Schneider’s wife informed her of his death and gave her twenty-four hours to pay a certain sum of money if she wanted to get his body back. She managed to raise the money, and he was buried with honor by his family. A brave Reformed pastor—a lone voice in the wilderness, dying without recognition in a nation that desperately needed to embrace his faith and courage and heed his warnings.
We are moved by such demonstrations of courage and self-sacrifice for God’s truth and Kingdom—and so we should be. However, such examples often make us feel removed from real Kingdom work and significance. We think that it is people like Pastor Schneider and other martyred heroes who are what the Kingdom is about. If only we were making such stands in the context of danger and excitement, then we would be involved in real Kingdom work!
Isn’t that how we often think? But there is something far more integral and important than heroics in the advancing and sustaining of God’s Kingdom. It is possible to have a totally wrong perception of what “real” Kingdom work and effectiveness is like. But to have a wrong perception of what our Christian lives should look like and what our focus should be, is like being sent on an expedition to find the end of the rainbow—an elusive and frustrating journey. To stand for righteousness and the spread of the gospel in dangerous lands and times is good and necessary, and we should honor those who do that, but Scripture shows that vital Kingdom advancement has something much less dramatic at its core.
Central to Kingdom advancement is the family and, more specifically, the father’s attitude toward his family. This is God’s design, and we must embrace the importance of the family and the role of the father in the depths of our hearts. This truth needs to be understood and then consistently worked into everything we do as Christian families.
A caution is necessary before we proceed, for it is possible to undermine either the church or the family by exalting one over the other. I want to make it clear that I have a high regard for God’s instituted church. However, my focus in this article is what the Scriptures have to say about the centrality of the family in God’s Kingdom plan.
God calls Abram in Genesis 12 and promises that in him all the families of the earth would be blessed. We know that the plan is ultimately for multitudes to be involved in the great work of extending God’s rule throughout the world: such large amounts that God compares them to the stars of heaven and sand on the seashore. Massive numbers of people covering the entire globe is the goal, and yet God began with one man and around him built a family. What we learn here is an inescapable principle of how God has ordained His Kingdom to advance—through families reproducing themselves for generations. Reproducing godliness and self-sacrificial Kingdom focus is to be the goal of every Christian family. This is not the only means through which God builds His Kingdom, but it is at the core of Kingdom advancement.
It seems strange that God chose to use what appears to us a very slow process for exercising dominion and advancing the Kingdom. We think He should have used a much quicker method; but this is the wisdom of God, and as Paul says, “[T]he foolishness of God is wiser than men” (1 Cor. 1:25). Our responsibility is to bow our hearts and lives to God’s wisdom and not be led astray by the false “wisdom” of the world.
God clearly reveals the size of the work to Abraham (descendants like the stars in the heavens impacting all nations on the earth) and then shows the means to that end: “For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice, that the LORD may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him” (Gen. 18:19 NKJV). Other translations, like the RSV, NRSV, NASB, and ESV, in the place of known have chosen—I have chosen him unto this end that he might instruct his children and his household. The word known in the New King James Version carries the sense of an intimate relational activity between God and Abraham, which is worked out in Abraham’s other relational responsibilities, i.e., with his children and household. God tells us that He chose (or became intimately acquainted with) Abraham in order that he might instruct his household. The consequence of Abraham instructing his household in righteousness would be God fulfilling everything that He had said to Abraham.
These were God’s ordained steps to fulfilling His end goal. The household is the fundamental integer in the formation of both the church and the state. When the household fails in its God-given focus and responsibilities, the church and the state cannot succeed.3
Everything God told Abraham was not to exalt Abraham, but had everything to do with God being glorified and exalted. God’s plan that untold thousands would walk in the way of Abraham was designed to bring glory to Himself. So God’s own glory is the focus of His plan to have multitudes of people, as the sands on the seashore, walking in righteousness.
God says in Genesis 18:19 (my paraphrase), “I chose Abraham so that he might command his children and household in the ways of righteousness so that they might do righteousness and justice, because this is the way in which I will accomplish all I have said to him.” It is God’s intimate relationship with Abraham that results in Abraham’s intimate relationship with and instruction of his household that will accomplish God’s grand plan. We see that central or integral to it all, on the human level, is the faithfulness of a godly father instructing his children and household. It’s hard not to be stunned by the simplicity of God’s plan and even more stunned by how far the church today, for the most part, ignores this emphasis and formulates “better” plans.
We don’t only read about this with Abraham, but it is the consistent emphasis throughout Scripture. The Biblical model is that families within the family structures are to be central to the outworking of God’s purposes. Key to all of this is fathers teaching and training their children and households for generational faithfulness. Here are some scriptural examples:
“Only take heed to yourself, and diligently keep yourself, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. And teach them to your children and your grandchildren, especially concerning the day you stood before the LORD your God in Horeb, when the LORD said to me, ‘Gather the people to Me, and I will let them hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me all the days they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children’” (Deut. 4:9–10 NKJV).
“And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up” (Deut. 6:6–7 NKJV).
“You shall teach them to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land of which the LORD swore to your fathers to give them, like the days of the heavens above the earth” (Deut. 11:19–21 NKJV).
“And he said to them: ‘Set your hearts on all the words which I testify among you today, which you shall command your children to be careful to observe—all the words of this law’” (Deut. 32:46 NKJV).
“I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old, Which we have heard and known, And our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, Telling to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, And His strength and His wonderful works that He has done. For He established a testimony in Jacob, And appointed a law in Israel, Which He commanded our fathers, That they should make them known to their children; That the generation to come might know them, The children who would be born, That they may arise and declare them to their children, That they may set their hope in God, And not forget the works of God, But keep His commandments” (Ps. 78:2–7 NKJV).
“My son, keep your father’s command, And do not forsake the law of your mother. Bind them continually upon your heart; Tie them around your neck” (Prov. 6:20–21 NKJV).
The importance of fathers instructing their families in godliness is not lacking from the New Testament. For example, Paul says: “[F]athers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4 NKJV). A godly home is inseparable from godly instruction being given in that home. These verses clearly establish the fact that the family is central to God’s design. We haven’t exhausted the references to the family, and you can probably think of a few more verses that haven’t been quoted.
The point made in both Testaments, however, is inescapable, namely, the importance of heads of households instructing their own family members. When this is realized and embraced by parents and children alike, it is a sign from the Lord of true revival. When this fails, judgment will be hanging over that nation or people. That is what Malachi prophesies about in the last book of the Old Testament Scriptures—in fact, in the last few verses of the Old Testament. He says, “Remember the Law of Moses, My servant, Which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel, With the statutes and judgments. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. And he will turn The hearts of the fathers to the children, And the hearts of the children to their fathers, Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse” (Mal. 4:4–6 NKJV).
Some commentators struggle to make sense out of these verses, denying the very obvious meaning because, I believe, they have failed to recognize how central the family is to God’s generational plan for His creation. Such commentators say “fathers” here equals the “patriarchs” or “pious forefathers” and calls for reconciliation between them and the wayward rebellious generation of Jews. Yet what Malachi does is exactly what Moses did in Deuteronomy 5 and 6 (as will be discussed next) and is right in line with Genesis 18:19 (as discussed previously).
We see that in verse 4 Malachi reminds the people of the law of Moses and then shows in very practical terms that the outworking of true religion has its focus upon households. If any people want to avoid judgment, the key is having works of true justification, which are (a) fathers assuming their responsibility before God to train up faithful heirs who will reproduce themselves for generations and (b) children giving their hearts to obey the instructions of their parents. When these things are not in evidence, that people is either on the edge of or directly under God’s judgment. When fathers’ hearts are not turned to their children and when children’s hearts are not turned to their fathers, it is evidence of a pitiful spiritual condition and a warning that judgment is imminent. Dysfunctional families produce dysfunctional churches, and when you have both of these, you also have a disintegrating nation. The family, according to Malachi, is the most fundamental integer in God’s scheme, and thus the fruit of true repentance must begin with the family if there is going to be true revival in the church and the state.
The preparatory work of Elijah4 for the coming of the Messiah, according to Dabney, “was to be prominently a revival of parental fidelity and domestic piety … This revival of domestic piety and parental fidelity to the souls of children, Malachi declares, is necessary to prevent the coming of the Divine Messiah from being a woe, instead of a blessing, to men. This reform alone prevents his coming to ‘smite the land with a curse,’ instead of crowning it with mercies … [The] same reform is the appointed means to ‘make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ God’s way of promoting revival, then, is not to increase the activity of any public and outward means only, but ‘to turn the hearts of the parents to the children.’”5 There is no true revival without this!
Moses used this same pattern in Deuteronomy. The word Deuteronomy means the second giving of the law. This took place after the older generation who had been delivered from Egypt had fallen in the wilderness in accordance with God’s judgment upon them for their unbelief. Now, the next generation was about to enter into the Promised Land and continue with the original plan of conquering and possessing the land. So Moses restated the Ten Commandments and then explained what that would look like in everyday life. Deuteronomy is also a book that focuses upon applying the law of God to daily living. Moses wanted this generation to know what was expected from them if they were going to take possession of the Promised Land. For those taking up the baton from an unfaithful generation, it was vital that they were instructed by Moses on how to succeed.
Having restated the Ten Commandments (Deut. 5), Moses, in chapter 6 of Deuteronomy, says that the key to succeeding in the new land was for them to fear the Lord by doing all His words. He then sums up the whole of God’s law (Deut. 6:4) before beginning his application of what this will mean in everyday terms. It is stunning that the very first practical application from Moses as to what the law means is that God’s people diligently teach the law to their children.
He even takes the time to unpack what he means by diligently rather than leaving it up to them to determine. He says the only way to diligently instruct your children is if you do it all the time—in the whole of your life. He says, “You shall teach [all these laws] diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut. 6:7–9 NKJV). It can’t be made more comprehensive than this. Everything to do with their being, everything in the home, and all of their possessions were to be used in submission to the Lord. It all belongs to God and therefore is to be used for His glory. Parents are to teach this diligently to their children.
When you are careful to notice the context of these words and the preeminent place Moses gives to this responsibility, you cannot but be struck by “the unspeakable importance of this duty,”6 to use Dabney’s words. The very first thing that the Spirit brought to Moses’ mind with respect to applying the glorious law of God is this activity. The most important thing that this new generation was to do, following after a generation that had totally failed in their God-given responsibilities, was for parents to instruct their children in God’s truth. Moses exhorts that if they wanted to succeed in the massive task that the Lord had called them to accomplish, this was the place to focus—upon the raising up of a godly seed. To fail here was to fail totally. Dabney understands the Scripture’s emphasis when he says, “The parent’s influence will be more effectual for good and evil than any or all others that surround the young soul … Pastoral experience teaches us that, as parents perform or neglect their duties, the children usually end in grace or impiety.”7
Moses explained what the preeminent application of God’s law looked like. Malachi understood this same application and gave it the same prominence. This was only following what God had already revealed in His communications with Abraham where the Lord had said that in order to fulfill His grand plan, He chose Abraham to instruct his children after him (Gen. 18:19). The means God has ordained for the realization of His eternal plan is fathers turning their hearts to their children and faithfully instructing their families in the whole of God’s truth. The success of this plan rests in its simplicity and the ease of reproducing itself generation after generation, which is what God intends His faithful servants to do. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our sight!
The plan is clearly spelled out to Abraham; it is spelled out through Moses, and also by Malachi in the last verses of the Old Testament. Then as the New Covenant era opens, the angel Gabriel also puts the emphasis here when he speaks to John the Baptist’s father about John’s ministry. As the Old Testament closes in anticipation of the coming Messiah, this emphasis upon the fathers and their responsibility to their households is brought to the forefront (Mal. 4:6). Then when the New Testament opens and the Messiah’s herald is introduced, this same emphasis is once again brought to the fore (Luke 1:17). You cannot walk away from all these texts and fail to see the emphasis God places upon the family, and we must not be afraid to put the emphasis where the Bible puts it. By God’s grace, we need to see the simplicity and the wonder of God’s plan for us and focus on these things.
A strong resistance to this Biblical emphasis is found in some Reformed circles, which is very strange. The highly respected Reformed scholar R. L. Dabney understood this emphasis very clearly and spoke about it unashamedly. Had some modern teacher emphasizing the importance of fathers and the family uttered what Dabney so forthrightly said, I am sure they would have been taken with more than a pinch of salt and disregarded for being too extreme.
Dabney’s comments come from a context of fathers fulfilling their responsibilities within their own households. He says, “The education of children for God is the most important business done on earth. It is the one business for which the earth exists. To it all politics, all war, all literature, all money-making, ought to be subordinated; and every parent especially ought to feel, every hour of the day, that, next to making his own calling and election sure, this is the end for which he is kept alive by God—this is his task on earth … On the right training of the generation now arising, turns not only the individual salvation of each member in it, not only the religious hope of the age which is approaching, but the fate of all future generations in a large degree. Train up him who is now a boy for Christ, and you not only sanctify that soul, but you set on foot the best earthly agencies to redeem the whole broadening stream of human beings who shall proceed from him.”8
Too many church programs tend to hinder and undermine families rather than help them achieve their God-given purpose. These church programs are more like socialistic economic policies that hinder prosperity and independence rather than assist people toward it. My intention is not to undermine the important role of the church, but to remind us that everyone is to live by every word from God’s mouth and that includes the church.
Both church and state must be careful not to undercut the family’s God-given definition and authority. The church must seek to assist, not usurp, the family’s responsibility. The church undermines the family when she thinks she is more spiritual and thus more able to reach the children for the Lord. Though instructing children about salvation is distinctly religious and spiritual, nevertheless that responsibility rests primarily upon the parents.
To quote Dabney once again: the “supreme end of the family institution is as distinctly religious and spiritual as that of the church itself. Civic legislators speak of the well-ordered family as the integer of which the prosperous commonwealth is formed. But God assigns the family a far higher and holier aim. The Christian family is the constituent integer of the church—the kingdom of redemption. The instrumentalities of the family are chosen and ordained of God as the most efficient of all means of grace—a more truly and efficaciously means of saving grace than all the other ordinances of the church. To family piety are given the best promises of the gospel, under the new, as well as under the old dispensation.”9
As far as reaching and training children for the Lord, the church’s role pales into insignificance when compared to the role God has given to families. That is why it is so serious when fathers have their focus and emphasis on some other area because they undermine the family, the church, and the whole nation. But be assured, God will not hold fathers guiltless if they are distracted from their primary calling and responsibility.
When fathers truly see the scope of their responsibility under God with respect to their children, then their priorities, goals, and endeavors will be brought into line with God’s generational vision. We must not imagine there’s a cookie-cutter model where one shape fits all families. Each father must be convinced by Scripture about the basic principles and goals that are common to all, but then implementing these truths and what that will look like in day-to-day living will vary greatly. Each family must work out the details of their salvation with fear and trembling. This starts with the fathers, however. While it’s important that a father provides his family with proper food, clothing, and shelter, these are really side issues when compared to the magnitude of the responsibility to train and instruct his household in righteousness. However, so many fathers regard these secondary things as the extent of their family responsibilities and practically ignore the fundamental reason for their existence.
The responsibility resting upon fathers is massive, and the time they have been given to accomplish their task is limited. It is vital that each father identifies those things that steal from his limited time to succeed in His God-glorifying responsibilities toward his household. Each father also needs to identify those things in his own life and in the life of his family that undermine what he is trying to accomplish. He has to identify what distracts him and his family from their responsibilities. And he needs to determine how he himself can be better equipped to fulfill his high calling—this is vital.
The father’s goal is to attain maturity or godliness in every aspect of his own life as well as in the lives of those within his household—in all their living and relationships. The father’s example of self-sacrifice for the benefit of others is to be reproduced in the lives of all within his family so that each one might become an effective minister for the Lord. The end focus of the family unit, however, is not to be upon itself, but upon the great dominion task that God has given to His people (Gen. 1:28–29). Thus the father’s responsibility to instruct his household in righteousness includes identifying and developing the individual callings of those under his care and exhorting them to use their God-given abilities to extend God’s rule over every area of life. This will require the father to become self-consciously Biblical in all of his thinking and boldly break out of the comfort zones that have been formed by his traditions—whether church traditions or otherwise. Whatever does not have a distinctively Biblical focus ought to be seen as a hindrance and cast off.
May we, as fathers, commit ourselves to this task by faith, trusting in the Lord’s ordained way and not fear the faces of those who despise the Lord and don’t bow to His Word. It will require great courage and self-sacrifice, but the goal is glorious. May we willingly lay down our lives, not counting the cost, so that future generations, who haven’t even been born yet, might reap the benefits. We are not wasting our lives when we spend them in a way that is consistent with God’s will and design.
The church must help to equip fathers for the work that they have been called to do, but in that equipping, the methods used must not undermine the Biblical emphasis that places the responsibility upon the father to attain maturity so he can bring his family to maturity. The father must be made to feel and carry the weight of this, and the church is there to help him to do just that. This has to become the church’s primary focus as she seeks to equip the saints for the work of the ministry.
Pastor Schneider is a great example of devotion and courage, yet I believe that a father needs the same kind of single-minded devotion to truth, courage, zeal, and self-sacrifice if he is going to implement these things in the life of his family and succeed in the calling God has laid upon him. Godly fathers who have a Biblical family-focus are to be admired at least as much as men like Schneider.
“For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice, that the LORD may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him” (Gen. 18:19 NKJV). I exhort you to believe God.
1. Wayne Johnson, “Paul Schneider, the Martyr of Buchenwald” Leben: a journal of Reformed life, Issue 1, January–March 2005, 7–8, 17. City Seminary of Sacramento, CA, www.cityseminary.org.
2. Ibid., 8.
3. R. L. Dabney taught that “the family is … the integer of which the society is constituted … [And] the visible Church is an organized human society, constituted of Christian families as integers.” Dabney held that believers who opposed infant baptism misunderstood that the most fundamental building block of God’s Kingdom is household units. He said, “These Christians discard the Bible conception of the visible Church, as an organized body whose integers are Christian ‘houses’ and adopt the unscriptural and impracticable theory of a visible Church organized of regenerate individuals” (Systematic Theology [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1985], 794–795).
4. The foretold prophet that Malachi calls “Elijah” we know to be a prophet who would come in the same spirit and power of Elijah. According to Jesus Christ, this was fulfilled by John the Baptist’s coming (Matt. 11:10).
5. R. L. Dabney, “Parental Responsibilities,” Discussions of Robert Lewis Dabney, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), 676–677.
6. Ibid., 677.
7. Ibid., 687.
8. Ibid., 691.
9. Ibid, 692–693.
- Derek Carlsen
Derek Carlsen is a native Zimbabwean and received his theological training through George Whitefield College, Cape Town, South Africa (L.Th. 1992) and Whitefield Theological Seminary, Lakeland, Florida, USA (M.Miss. 1999 and D.Miss. 2001). He’s served as a pastor in Zimbabwe and helped pioneer a Christian school with his wife Elise. His Reason of Hope Ministries in Zimbabwe prints and distributes Christian literature in southern Africa. Derek is the author of three commentaries: Faith and Courage: A Commentary on Acts; That You May Believe: A Commentary on John’s Gospel; and soon to be released, Grace and Law: A Commentary on Galatians. Derek and Elise have been blessed with three children.